When I arrived at West Richmond (Ind.) Meeting on Sunday, we were asked not to shake hands before or after worship, citing the term social distancing. It felt uneasy for this to be the first message I received coming into worship, but it was an important one given the vulnerability of people in the meeting who would suffer if they got COVID-19. Social distancing refers to behaviors that are meant to stop or slow the spread of a contagious disease by limiting interactions.
At the end of worship, we demonstrated alternatives to the traditional end-of-worship handshake. Unfortunately for me, when the pastor used one of these new greetings (using the back of the hand to greet instead of the front), I didn’t even process it and ended up walking right past him. My brain was going to have to adjust to this new way of engaging with the world.
Worshiping as a Community in the Time of COVID-19
Even though I live in Richmond, Indiana, I still receive emails from Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.)’s email listserv from when I used to attend there. Debby Churchman, a longtime member of the meeting, sent a message asking for assistance in setting up a Zoom remote video conferencing. This would allow those who were sick or nervous attending a large group to participate in worship.
Meetings still holding physical worship should encourage hand washing and move away from handshaking and touching. Alternatives to handshaking include elbow bumping, using the backs of hands to touch, or simply nodding or waving. Friends Meeting of Washington’s Hospitality Committee has been tasked with making sure hospitality volunteers use gloves when handling food and wiping down surfaces. Friends in the United States are not the only ones taking extra precautions when it comes to spreading the COVID-19. Simon Belengu, the general superintendent of Chevaywa Yearly Meeting in western Kenya, told me that the yearly meeting is using every gathering to teach members good health practices to prevent the spread.
Some meetings that are experiencing COVID-19 in their immediate community are moving their worship to video streaming services like Zoom. North Seattle (Wash.) Friends Church had their first online video worship on Sunday, March 8. I spoke with its pastor, Lorraine Watson, about their experience. She encouraged Friends to log in early in order to work through any technology problems that might arise. When one member had difficulty logging on, the others used the waiting time to share how they were doing and check in with one another.
Lorraine had advice to share with Friends who are considering the online method worship. She recommended that one person handle the administrative work of setting up the conferencing software and another to act as a facilitator of worship. She also recommended that meetings planning to move to online worship in the near future include in-person training about using Zoom and other technologies. It can be difficult to troubleshoot problems over the phone; figuring out what apps need to be downloaded and teaching one another how to access them will save time and stress. North Seattle Friends Church decided to not advertise their Zoom link in order to keep the community intimate during this vulnerable moment; this may be a decision other meetings may consider.
Friends meetings and churches are not the only Quaker communities reconsidering in-person gatherings. Numerous yearly meetings have canceled or moved interim gatherings and half yearly meetings to online conferencing. Friends Committee on National Legislation made the decision to move their Spring Lobby Weekend to a virtual gathering. Jim Cason, the associate executive secretary of Strategic Advocacy, said:
It was hard to come to the decision to move Spring Lobby Weekend online. When we started calling around the country, we realized that we didn’t want to have people from 40 states come and bring the virus back with them to other people.
If you don’t have sick leave or if you don’t have healthcare to take care of yourself when you’re sick or if your child’s best meal of the day is from a school that is shutting down because of this crisis, those are the conversations that we should be focusing on. If we are working to introduce young people to Quaker practice, it is more than an advocacy practice: it is an aspect of faith in all aspects of your life, and caring about community is part of that practice.
Caring About Community
We are gifted as a community to have Friends who have experience “being the church online.” Kathleen Wooten, a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used that phrase for her list of online resources for remote worship. It includes articles from other Friends, including a piece by Ashley Wilcox with 5 tips for online pastoral care and a piece from Emily Provance on Online Quaker Clerking. New England Yearly Meeting offered some questions for worship sharing for small groups that decide to meet together to check in. Friends General Conference has also included a link to resources for Friends communities who are looking for guidance in navigating COVID-19.
Friends meetings are also using structures that already exist. Debby Churchman reports that Friends Meeting of Washington is using its meeting directory to create zip-code specific Google Groups so that members can know “who their Quaker neighbors are.” Its Aid Committee has started making a list of people available to deliver groceries and pick up medications. North Seattle Friends Church has switched its email listserv to reply-all and asked recipients to respond with how they are doing, hoping this will let Friends who are close to one another provide aid.
Making Decisions Based on Our Values
COVID-19 has been affecting the economy. People are struggling financially with decisions to cancel conferences or limit hours of operation at workplaces. Debby said she and others at Friends Meeting of Washington are reflecting on the stewardship testimony to be good stewards of their community, developing policies to ensure staff should be paid during a quarantine.
Adelphi (Md.) Meeting made a similar realization. They sent out an email to attendees reminding them of the meeting’s Aid Fund for temporary assistance. Many meetings have such a fund for attenders experiencing emergencies.
Finding Hope in a Time of a Crisis
Over the course of researching and writing this article, I have connected with Friends who are thinking creatively about how to love and support their communities. When I told Kenya’s Simon Belengu how grateful I was for his correspondence he said, “That’s what God can do. Joining strangers who are far apart in a strong spiritual fellowship.” Friends have a history of finding creative solutions to the problems we are facing. In this time that encourages isolation, let us find a new way to connect with one another and with our communities.
Because this is such a fast-developing situation, we’re adding resources as we find them and organizing the list by date.
- Interview: The 2020 FGC Gathering Goes Online
- Good News Associates: Spiritual Facilitation Online
- Woodbrooke: A Quaker’s guide to online worship and meetings (PDF). See also Woodbrooke’s extensive schedule of online meeting for worship (6 times per week)
- Britain YM: Advice for Quaker Meeting’s
- Western Friend: Quaker Worship and Fellowship Online
- FCNL: Responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic
- Philadelphia YM: Safety Resources from Meetings Related to Covid-19
- Philadelphia YM: Pastoral Care for our Community during the COVID-19 Outbreak
- Kathleen Wooten: Being the Church Online
- Ashley Wilcox: 5 Tips for Online Pastoral Care
- New England YM: Coronavirus Prevention and Care in Quaker Meetings
- Baltimore YM: COVID-19 Statement
- Friends General Conference: Coronavirus Prevention – Your Quaker Community & FGC Events