Quaker Meetings Respond to Coronavirus

© Martin Kelley


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.

Quaker Resources

Because this is such a fast-developing situation, we’re adding resources as we find them and organizing the list by date.

Mar 27:

Mar 24:

Mar 19:

Mar 16:

Mar 14:

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Mar 12:

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Mar 10:

Mar 5:

Katie Breslin

Katie Breslin is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and is currently sojourning at West Richmond (Ind.) Meeting. She is a first-year student at Earlham School of Religion. Before moving to Richmond, Katie was the Young Adult Program Manager at Friends Committee on National Legislation. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @katiebreslin.

7 thoughts on “Quaker Meetings Respond to Coronavirus

  1. Marvelous article. You will probably get a flurry of email about how you could possibly have a pastor! But nicely done. I work for a major performing arts company in Chicago, and we have just cancelled our most important artistic series in a decade or more. It’s a painful season. (I”m a member at West Richmond, though have long lived in other places.)

    Simon Belengu is a friend and former student of mine…

    And Adelphi is where I first attended Friends Meeting, though you might dive back into the text and delete the extraneous -a at the end.

    Anyway, nicely done!

  2. This is indeed a sad state of affairs, and a serious challenge to the integrity of the Friends’ movement which rests on social interaction as well as personal engagement with the world.
    But it also exposes a longstanding issue plaguing Friends of all stripes. “Social distancing” is surely a contradiction of all our testimonies. Like other Christian-derived organizations, Friends have have rested their faith, both spiritual and communal upon clasping each others’ hands, which in itself is a symbolic compromise away from the ‘kiss of peace’.
    I find this distressing not simply because it distances Friends from one another, but also because it leads is further from the essential inter-personal nature of our beliefs. As Margaret Fell once proclaimed after hearing a Church of England preacher church, “We are liars! Liars! We have taken the words of Scripture and know nothing of them in our hearts.”
    Yes, our present predicament calls for extraordinary measures, and Ashley’s comment on the need to cope with such extraordinary measures is vital for the health and well-being of our communities. But it is also a reminder of the temporary nature of our compromises. They have been instituted to remind us of the eternal and unchanging power of out faith. Friends, if we need to be in the world as we find it now let us take care not to assimilated by it for all time.

  3. No touching in the Time of the Virus. Think about it. The back of the hand and fingers are what you use to wipe your nose when no tissues are handy. Even if you haven’t just sneezed. Often you’re hardly aware you’re even doing it. So that rules out the fist bump. Next to go is the elbow bump. We’re instructed to cough and sneeze into our inner elbow. Clearly, your outer elbow is in range. As are your chest and shoulder. So there go the chest and shoulder bumps. What’s left? The foot shake where you tapping each other’s shoes? Not recommended for those whose balance is challenged. Acknowledgments without touching include bows (Japanese or British), the Namaste hands clasped in prayer at the chest gesture with a slight nod. There’s also the finger point and the wink. You see it when celebrities and stars first come out on stage and point to acknowledge people they know in the audience while the crowds clap. It’s possible to do on a much diminished scale. Around here, churches, gyms, classes are all cancelling or going on line. Great creativity is required.

  4. I love how this is bringing us all together online. I can’t wait to meet new Quaker friends. The world is so much smaller with the internet! Sorry it took covid to do this, but I know we will all begin to rethink how we use our resources, who we vote into government, how we interact with others, and how we utilize technology to better our experience and save the planet!

    I created a garden today with my compost. It is true, the best things in life are free.

  5. Lovely read…strengthening the old adage “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”
    Our Toledo Broadmead Group did their first Zoom meeting via Internet on Sunday morning.
    It was wonderful!

    —-peace profound— Jules in Ohio

  6. As a Dean of Students in a state University and a member of the Covid-19 virus committee, we have put in place all the interventions that may contribute to reduction in the spread of corona virus. These includes and not limited to regular washing of hands in designated points, sanitization, no shaking of hands, cancellation of lectures and group activities, avoiding congested places, and observation of balanced diet. Similar measures have been put in place in my church i.e. Township Friends Church. Members have been sensitized adequately about covid-19, signs, and dangers. All precautions have been taken to avoid contracting.

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