The world is a different place from what it was at the beginning of the year. We planned our lives without knowing that we would face a global pandemic of COVID-19. As we hear reports on the news about deaths and illness, many of us wait in fear that members of our community are next. Best practices in what to do to stay healthy during COVID-19 changed rapidly, from avoiding shaking hands to shutting down schools, workplaces, and meetinghouses. With the risk of social isolation looming, Friends meetings had to decide: Should we worship online?
Friends are not known for making quick decisions, and COVID-19 doesn’t always yield for a Spirit-led process. In a time when many feel afraid and alone, the decision to move quickly to online worship felt necessary. Many Friends have decided to use a service called Zoom, which is a video conferencing software that allows users to connect with one another. Zoom started the year with 10 million users and now has over 200 million.
Learning from Tech-savvy Friends
While COVID-19 has forced many Friends meetings onto Zoom and other Internet-based technologies, there are Friends in our community who have been preaching the gospel of connectedness through digital means for many years. In 2016, Kathleen Wooten, the social media manager for New England Yearly Meeting, and Mackenzie Morgan of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting saw the need for an online space for Friends serving the communications and outreach needs for their meetings and churches and started a Facebook group called “Quaker Communications & Outreach.” This group has become a central place for communicating best practices for using Zoom to host worship, business meetings, and other Quaker events. There has been an increase in membership and activity in response to COVID-19. The page is filled with regular updates from Friends around the world on such topics as online privacy concerns and avoiding Zoom burnout.
While some Friends meetings are embracing technology for the first time, others are putting a pre-existing strong technology infrastructure to use. Quaker Communicators & Outreach was how I got connected to Karli Wheeler of Santa Fe (N.M.) Meeting, who has been working for years to build a better technology infrastructure for the meeting. Karli has served the meeting in multiple capacities, from resident caretaker to recording clerk. Each role gave her a new perspective on how to make the meeting more technology literate. Slowly the meeting started to build out a technology infrastructure, and Friends learned how to use their meeting’s Google Drive, a product by Google that allows multiple users to collaborate on various documents. Now in the era of COVID-19, meeting for worship, meeting for business, and First-day school are all virtual. To make sure members are informed about the changes to an online format, Karli and a meeting technology team put the directory into a shared Google spreadsheet. Members of the team called Friends they had contact information for to check in and to make sure they were able to access worship online. For example, an older Friend felt isolated by social distancing and asked to call into First-day school just to hear the voices of children. The technology team made it a priority to teach Friends the technology so that Zoom responsibilities would not fall on one person. Now, more Friends in the meeting are comfortable with Zoom and other technologies.
New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) is no stranger to experiments with online worship. Buffalo (N.Y.) Meeting has been hosting a mid-week worship, which has received visitors from all over the East Coast. Steve Mohlke, the general secretary of NYYM, used Zoom before COVID-19 and is now part of an effort to tutor and train Friends in the yearly meeting on using it for their communities. Talking to Steve is like talking to a Zoom artist. Steve has a strong understanding of the limitations of the technology and has started to experiment with using Zoom to fit the needs of Friends. Steve has also been the administrator for multiple Friends meetings who were new to the technology:
In normal times I do visit meetings across New York Yearly Meeting. This does serve as a function of that role. It is true that it ends up being in more of a supportive role. It is just really important to me that people meet and not give up. I just don’t want the meetings to give up on worship. For smaller meetings that haven’t tried Zoom or don’t have the experience, it’s important to remove the barriers to be in community together.
Michael O’Connor, the clerk for France Yearly Meeting, has also found himself in a Zoom administrator role. Before COVID-19, many meetings met only once a month or every few months due to the small size of their memberships. Now, using the France Yearly Meeting Zoom account, Friends in France can worship online every week nationally, with the first weekend of each month reserved for smaller region-specific groups. Michael shared that during one of these smaller Zoom meetings of Friends in Nantes, two Friends from Lille attended who did not know each other. After worship, one of them informed the other that they host a small worship in their home close by. Worship ended with two Friends in the same city making plans to connect after COVID-19. A Zoom meeting for another part of the country also brought together two Friends living in the same city. Michael noticed that Friends he had not seen in worship for months were suddenly coming back to worship. They were joined by isolated Friends who were no longer close to a meeting they could attend. Michael shared, “This is temporary, but we may continue to offer online worship because there’s obviously a need for it.”
Worship Opportunities Beyond Friends Meetings
Pendle Hill, a Quaker study and conference center in Wallingford, Pa., has moved its daily morning worship online. Walter Hjelt Sullivan has been serving as their volunteer Zoom administrator during this period. Walter estimated about 140 people attend the worship on weekdays and about 100 to 120 on Saturdays and Sundays. The in-person Pendle Hill worship was one of the first places I heard a musical message. When I asked if Friends also sang during the online worship, Walter replied, “We hardly have a day that there isn’t a song.”
On a recent Saturday morning, I decided to attend Pendle Hill’s daily worship. Sitting at my computer with my eyes closed, out of the silence I heard a former coworker from Friends Committee on National Legislation share a song. I felt in my gut how much I missed worshiping with her. Near the end of open worship, a Friend started to sing “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. My screen was suddenly full of Friends on mute crying and singing along. In that moment, even though I was sitting by myself at my computer, I knew I was not alone. I was among Friends.