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In the last month, so many things that once seemed impossible have suddenly become imaginable. That’s certainly true for Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends.
Up until March, my Quaker meeting in Philadelphia, like many around the world, would have said firmly: “No photography in meetings for worship. Not even during your wedding.” But on March 15, 2020, we held our first worship meeting for via Zoom, with everyone participating via webcam. Since then, thousands of Quaker meetings have been held on Zoom and other video conferencing platforms.
We have found it to be a sacred space together. Whether in our meetinghouse or on my couch, I have the same experience of settling my body and opening my mind; of feeling the divine love gathering us together; and waiting for the movement of the Holy Spirit to direct my words, my actions, my decisions.
For Quakers, the location is not an important element of our worship. In the last 25 years, I have been to Quaker meetings on the beach, on a bus, on classroom floors, and in the lobby of a health clinic.
Quakers in Philadelphia, and around the world, worship in different ways, with widely ranging amounts of prepared content. But the opportunity to be together is always precious. To see each other’s faces, and hear each other’s voices as we seek divine guidance, has now been made possible for many via the internet.
We are wrestling with how to make this accessible for Friends who don’t have smartphones, laptops or internet service at home, either for financial or for ethical reasons. Some people have not been able to attend, and this is one of the sad consequences of the stay-at-home order. Meeting online is not a perfect solution, but neither was meeting in person.
People who have basic internet connectivity, and Friends who were previously isolated for health reasons, are now able to participate in worship. Friends who had moved away are coming back to visit. People who once didn’t have time for worship are showing up on Sunday mornings. The opportunity to visit with long-lost friends, or to visit Quaker meetings in faraway places, just got much easier. New people are finding their way to our meetings via Facebook and Instagram.
Pendle Hill, the retreat center just outside Philadelphia, is closed to conferences and guests during Governor Tom Wolf’s stay at home order, which was recently extended until May 8. But the resident Friends are still hosting a daily meeting for worship. For 90 years, there has been worship in the Barn, with whoever was on campus. They met for half-an-hour every morning at 8:30 with long-time residents, as well as with teachers at Pendle Hill and even people who are just curious. This is still occurring, even during the quarantine.
And new groups are meeting. Over the course of one day, I was able to join three online events (I’m kind of a fanatic for this stuff, but this was extraordinary even for me): my home meeting here in Philadelphia at 10:30 am; a 1:30pm with Friends in Chico, California; and then at 7:30pm, a Friend from the Iglesia de los Amigos in Indianapolis hosted a gathering for Spanish-speaking Friends, which was joined by folks in El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and Bolivia, as well as California, Nevada, New York and Pennsylvania.
It’s so encouraging to be able to meet face-to-face, even if it’s virtually, with a wider family of Friends. Twice, I’ve joined global Quaker meetings, hearing news from Friends in Tanzania, Jamaica, Palestine, and the U.S. On Wednesday mornings, I get up at 6 a.m. to join worship with the world executive committee of the organization I work for – with Friends from Britain and Kenya and Australia. We never used to do that, as we would have said we didn’t have time. But it is strengthening me to take time for the silent reflection on the privileges in my life, and to listen for how God is calling me to act in the world.
We are learning how to protect our space, from internet hackers and profanity-laced Zoom-bombers. But our meetings have always been open to the public, so we have some experience in welcoming newcomers and managing the occasional disruptive behavior.
It is a comfort to hear Friends’ voices and see their faces, especially for people who are quarantined alone.
We have an opportunity to share our joys and concerns. A new grandchild, far away. Rolling out the sewing machine for the first time in years. Despair, hope, worries for people we know and people we don’t know who are suffering right now.
One of my favorite online pandemic memes was from a religious satire site: “Breaking News: God ignores quarantine advice. Decides to be everywhere anyway.” Really, God is so close, even when we are far from our human contacts. This is comforting to me.
Quakers, like many Christians, believe that the Holy Spirit is always with us, accessible to all. One of the early insights of the Quaker movement came from George Fox, alone on an English hillside in 1647: “And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”
Meetinghouse or not, webcam or not. As a human being, knowing I am not alone is a comforting thing. Reassuring people that they are not alone is a core reason for the existence of religious communities. I can hardly believe how quickly Quakers have adapted to worshiping in the age of COVID-19. Our hearts can still leap for joy, even online!
Robin Mohr attends Green Street Friends Meeting in the Germantown neighborhood and works for the Friends World Committee for Consultation, the international association of Quaker meetings and churches.