Eds: Please note that while Gabe writes about an in-person worship that occurred on March 8, many meetings have since opted to hold online meeting for worship, in keeping with the recommendation to avoid physical gatherings of more than 10 people. You can read more about that here: “Quaker Meetings Respond to Coronavirus” (published March 13, updated daily).
The second Sunday in March was a most unusual meeting for worship at Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia. With a dangerous virus called COVID-19 spreading worldwide, concern and anxiety were building as people sought to understand and take precautions to cope with the epidemic and carry on, both in their everyday lives and in their care of communities like workplaces, schools, and religious congregations. Several of us in leadership roles had corresponded via email about how public health recommendations applied to us. With some regret, we had decided to ask our meeting’s Friends to adopt a no-hugs, no-handshakes policy to avoid the transmission of germs. That is a big ask in a Quaker meeting where the handshake and greeting at the rise of meeting is as close to a sacrament as we come!
To top it all off, on that Sunday after the clocks ticked forward for daylight saving time, it was cold, and the heat wasn’t working properly in our old building. If ever there were a time when it would have helped to huddle together for warmth, this would have been it, but alas, the “social distancing” precautions we were taking precluded it. Before he headed off to First-day school, my ten-year-old son helped carry firewood into our meetinghouse, and members stoked a fire and cuddled up in coats in our social room, which is smaller and quicker to heat up than our customary meeting space. I was stationed out front as a greeter, tasked with reminding folks as they arrived that there would be friendly elbow bumps, Namaste bows, and jazz hands, but no handshakes or hugs. A grim but accepting understanding passed between these familiar faces and mine.
To my surprise, a young woman I knew from the neighborhood arrived with a friend who had recently begun attending our meeting regularly. It was her first time at a Quaker meeting, and she’d just come from a trail run and wasn’t dressed to sit still for an hour in a cold room. I wondered, what would this newcomer’s experience be like on this most unusual of Quaker meeting-days? Luckily, her friend had a woolen blanket in her car and after my elevator speech about the theological basis of our worship and what she should expect, she headed in. When I filed in a few minutes later after our last visitors had arrived, I settled into the most wonderful worship I have experienced in a long time. The fire crackled and gave off warmth. Each of the 30 or 40 people gathered sat at a not-cozy but not-standoffish distance from one another. The sense of a “covered meeting” came over us: a remarkable shared recognition of how much we need to both receive and give support and love to each other in times that seem very much out of our control. The newcomer was the first to rise and give ministry, and it was but the first of several powerful messages shared that morning. At worship’s rise, we followed our new protocol and did not shake hands; this did not stop our longing to connect and our souls’ appreciation for what we were experiencing together from bursting forth and circulating among us like an enveloping aura. This, I thought, this is why we’re here, and it’s what we need right now.
One of the few constants in the universe is change. The cosmos tends toward entropy and disorder, and we humans do all we can to exercise agency, to create order, to recognize beauty and justice. Like other people, Quakers have created institutions—churches, NGOs, and schools, for example—to fulfill shared social and practical needs and to enjoy the stability that comes with having something to hold onto in a changing world. But like my meeting moving to elbow bumps and jazz hands, every institution must change if it is to exist in harmony with, and not in opposition to, the objective reality of the world. We are lucky to have each other to share in the difficult times and in the joyful times, fellow travelers on this earth, building—always rebuilding—the blessed community.
I am lucky to have you.
This article was originally published online on March 18, 2020.