FUM’s e-news is featuring stories about how Friends are innovating at digital speeds to adapt to the threats of a global pandemic. Friends are going online to join virtual meetings for worship, meetings for business, camping and youth programs, pastors’ support groups, prayer groups, fundraisers, and webinars. And for the first time this year, many FUM Yearly Meetings and Associations held their annual sessions online. Friends from New York, New England, Western, Wilmington, Jamaica, Cuba, Friends Church of North Carolina and the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends responded to our invitation to share their experiences.
Using various social media and video conferencing platforms, several groups limited their annual sessions to only their business meetings. Others provided a hybrid model of online and in-person activities. Others found creative ways to have their entire Yearly Meeting sessions online. These sessions included virtual worship gatherings, plenary sessions, Bible studies, workshops, Young Friends and Young Adult programs, recording services, memorial services, along with their meetings for business. New York Yearly Meeting, which usually packs everything into seven days, decided to take 14 days for their 325th annual gathering, limiting each Zoom session to 90 minutes. New England Yearly Meeting reported 700 attendees, from 0 to 90 years of age.
Here are some of the experiences and important lessons shared by Friends:
Tech elders and Zoom gurus are the new heroines and heroes among Friends—While several Friends reported frustrating technical challenges, Friends noted tech support teams and tech training played a significant role in making their sessions a success. New York Yearly Meeting encouraged registrants to participate in a Zoom orientation before joining the meetings. The orientation offered simple Quakerly guidelines for online meetings, instructed folks how to raise their hands, how to mute their microphones, etc. Tech teams were available to help Friends access meetings, assist with audio and video difficulties, and monitor live chats. The Fellowship of Friends reported making effective use of Zoom Breakout Rooms. The tech crew of Wilmington Yearly Meeting quickly blocked a Zoombomber who attempted to disrupt their final gathering. The Friends Church of North Carolina stated that having all reports and action items posted on their website and asking Friends to read the documents before each session was a big help in making their business meetings work.
If you host it, Friends will come—Nearly all Yearly Meetings stated that they had first-time attendees join their meetings or Friends who attended who could not have joined in-person. A Friend from North Carolina wrote, “I could not have gone to annual sessions if it had been in-person only. The hybrid event went very smoothly. As a member who participated online, I felt included.” Jamaica Yearly Meeting installed MiFi units at each of their churches, allowing more of their members to participate in their sessions.
Miles didn’t matter—The virtual world made it possible for the global community of Friends to share in new ways. Friends from Cuba Yearly Meeting actively participated in New England Yearly Meeting. A Cuban Friend writes, “I had the pleasure of participating in the meeting, while it was a challenge; it was a gift. I thank the translators who shared with me every day.” FUM staff from Belize spoke during the Missions Celebration of Western Yearly Meeting. Jeffery Dudiak, a member of Canadian Yearly Meeting, was the keynote speaker at Jamaica Yearly Meeting.
Digital discernment—A significant aspect of Friends meetings is centering in the awareness of the Divine presence and following God’s guidance. Friends were surprised how spiritually enriching their online gatherings were. Western Yearly Meeting Friends shared about the deepening ministry of Colin Saxton and Deborah Suess. Wilmington and New England Yearly Meetings talked about the significant discernment work they did to respond to racism. Most Friends noted they were surprised how well it went.
Friends miss 3D gatherings—The virtual sessions met the needs of Friends for this moment. However, Friends lament not being together in-person. They miss the conversations and fellowships that happen over mealtimes, they miss handshakes and hugs, and they miss ice cream with Friends, which is a universal Yearly Meeting tradition.
Projecting to when the pandemic is no longer a threat, Friends pondered whether their Yearly Meeting will ever find a way back to their old annual sessions’ traditions. Friends who shared their experiences, also seemed to share the assumption that some parts of the online option are here to stay. One Friend wrote, “It was like we all knew we wanted to save a place for remote participation in the future. I’m thankful for that.”
Time will tell if virtual annual sessions are here to stay, but Friends are adapting and discovering new ways to have meaningful gatherings, include more members, and do worshipful work. This is a good thing!