Leap of faith

St. Michael’s Cathedral has sat in the heart of downtown Toronto since 1848, making it the city’s oldest Catholic church. To me it has always seemed less an established institution than a sort of depot for the itinerant faithful.

According to my priest, only five per cent of those who

attend St. Mike’s live anywhere near the building. The rest are college students, tourists or other visitors to the city. There is something very touching about attending a service there, where so many strangers gather under one roof to share a common belief system. Now a maverick clergyman wants to bring that experience online, using a technology that many businesspeople have given up on.

Earlier this week Chris Jukes, a part-time reverend with the Church of the Messiah in Calgary, launched a company called Faith to Faith-Face to Face, which will offer a Web site where people from around the world can meet for prayer, bible study or services. He’s using videoconferencing software from Vancouver-based Eyeball chat and charging a monthly membership fee of $9.95.

Jukes intrigued me because not only is he going after a niche market, but he is trying to reverse a centuries-old trend. While the pornography industry has long been known as the earliest adopter of new technologies, he says religious groups drag their feet. That leaves the pious with limited options and potentially strands them in areas they would rather avoid.

“”As I looked into the CUSeeMe and other public or secular networks, I just felt you couldn’t really use those, because we have lots of men in the congregation who may have come from histories where there have been struggles with pornography,”” he told me when I called him Wednesday morning. “”Even some of the language and things. I really felt that there needed to be somewhere where people could come where it was a little bit safe, a little bit of people with like minds.””

Notwithstanding the demand created by travel-shy companies following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, videoconferencing has had limited success in the market so far. There is a cost issue, of course, but I also think it may have something to do with a certain squeamishness people have about seeing themselves broadcast. Jukes says the sense of community among Christians will have the opposite effect.

“”There is a sense of deeper closeness, that we’re all brothers and sisters in the family on God, so that if you click on to someone in Africa or whatever, it’s great to see their face, to see their smile, to in a sense, connect with their countenance.””

Faith to Faith-Face to Face faces myriad challenges, particularly its non-denominational stance. Jukes, for example, is a pastor within the Communication of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. These are called “”convergence churches”” which meld elements of the Anglican church, for instance, with Pentecostal. In my experience, many religious groups remain factional and removed from one another. We can’t even achieve convergence in our data networks; it will be hard to do it in our congregations.

There is, nonetheless, something inspiring about a business startup that embraces diversity while going after such a specialized audience. It is also encouraging that entrepreneurs are still trying to find ways to drive videoconferencing into the mainstream. Will this attempt work? I can’t rule it out completely. But then, I believe in miracles.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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