Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, September 12, 2021, by David Coletta, Three Rivers Meeting
Good morning, Friends.
I want to thank you for inviting me to bring the message this morning. Just to say a little about where I’m bringing it from… I live in Boston, but I happen to be in Hanover, New Hampshire this weekend, so that’s where I’m physically Zooming in from. Back when you invited me a couple of months ago, it seemed like maybe by now it would be safe to come visit you in person to give the message, but it didn’t turn out that way. And this is only the second time I have ever brought a prepared message to a Quaker meeting. The first time was a couple of months ago, as one of the hosts of Three Rivers, where we bring a prepared message each time. As you heard in the introduction, Three Rivers is a worship experiment that has been meeting online under the care of Fresh Pond Monthly Meeting since the beginning of the pandemic. Before it was Three Rivers, it was a project called “Quaker Dinner Church” started by Kristina Keefe-Perry. As a worship experiment, we are not even formally a worship group, although we are hoping to gain formal status as a preparative meeting under the care of Fresh Pond some time in the next year or so. Anyway, I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring a message a second time.
There’s someone here at this meeting today who is responsible for the “Zoom” aspect of worship, and sometimes that person is called the “tech host”. I think maybe you call it “Zoom support” here? I’d like to take a moment now and invite us all to hold that person or people in prayer as they work to support us.
Thank you, Friends. A little later on I’ll say more about why that bit of prayer is important to me.
But first I want to share about my personal journey of the last 18 months or so – how I came to this work. At the beginning of 2020 I finished a career in software engineering. For quite some time before that, I had been aiming at February 2020 as the time to wrap up my software career and start something new. My work had been focused for a long time on technology, and I wanted to transition into doing work that was more about connecting with people. I really didn’t know what the work was going to be, but only a few weeks after I quit my job, I found out. There was this Sunday in March 2020 when we went to our local meetings in person, not realizing that it was going to be the last time for a while. And then the very next Sunday many of our meetings held worship online via Zoom for the first time. It wasn’t yet obvious to me what my work was going to look like, but what struck me then was how many folks were going to need tech help in order to do the basic things that were necessary in order to join Zoom worship: besides getting Zoom to work, it suddenly became important to manage all these Zoom links somehow! So I made a website where people could sign up for free one-on-one tech help, and I spent some time every day helping people figure this stuff out. This turned out to be excellent preparation: it was obvious, it was sorely needed, and it was challenging for me. I was used to having complete command and facility with technology, and this work required me to develop compassion and understanding for what it felt like not to be in command.
Back to Friends Meetings. It quickly became clear that it was one thing to hold meeting for worship over Zoom, and quite another to hold meeting for business. I studied how Beacon Hill Friends Meeting and Friends Meeting at Cambridge were experimenting with the features in Zoom like “raise hand”, and noticed how some of our business practices were being modified in small ways to accommodate the needs of the clerks’ table and of the body in an online setting. I found opportunities to try being the “tech host” for worship and business, and helped write some of the guidelines we were using. I joined these new things called “tech teams” at Beacon Hill and Cambridge, who met every week or two to identify tech hosts for events, teach each other how to use the tech, and generally huddle for warmth and mutual support. It was and is challenging work.
By now it was early June and I could see we were going to need this same work to happen at Yearly Meeting sessions, which were going to have to be online if they were to happen at all. I approached the Yearly Meeting staff and offered to recruit and lead a team of volunteers who would do the tech hosting work for the business meetings and plenary events of Yearly Meeting sessions. We only had about eight weeks to prepare, and these were eight of the scariest weeks of my life. I had seen business meeting work over Zoom at the monthly meeting level, but I had never seen it work with hundreds of people present. A great blessing for us was that New York Yearly Meeting was a couple of weeks ahead of us all summer long in their preparations, so I reached out to my friend Jennifer Swann who was helping New York Yearly Meeting figure out their sessions tech, and the two of us worked together to bring those learnings to New England. At the same time, amidst all that fear, there was a still small voice at the center of it all telling me that I was in the right place, doing the right work at the right time, that I had been preparing for that work my whole life, and that everything would be okay. That everything already was okay.
This is probably a good point to explain why praying for the tech host is important to me. When the tech for a Zoom meeting is going well, it’s invisible. Everything just works. And this is like so much of the infrastructure in our world that we take for granted: we mostly only think about electricity when the power goes out, right? But the tech team is doing all sorts of little things, quietly, invisibly, to make sure that everything just works. Being on the tech team can feel a lot like being on the backstage crew of a theater production! But that’s not what we’re doing in our meetings for worship and business: it’s not a show, it’s a living, breathing witness to the promptings of the Spirit. So we don’t judge our meetings by how well the clerk hits their cues, or whether the finance committee report starts and ends on time. When we pray for the tech team, it’s a chance to let go of our expectations that the show follow the script.
After 2020 sessions I was hungry for more of this work. So in the fall, I went on to recruit and lead the tech team for FCNL’s Annual Meeting, and in the spring of 2021 for the FWCC Section of the Americas meeting, and then this summer for our recently concluded 2021 Yearly Meeting sessions. I learned more and more at each of these conferences about the work and how to lead it. My first priority was not to put on a glitch-free show, but to create a fulfilling opportunity for service for the people on the tech teams. That meant providing training and practice sessions, it meant not asking any one person to do more than they were capable of, and it meant putting structures in place by which we could support each other. The work can be really scary! Press the wrong button and end the meeting by mistake? That happens! And it feels terrible! And yet it somehow has to be possible to move past these mistakes with the understanding that God is inviting us to be faithful — not perfect! What makes that moving-past possible is being present to each other, over the physical distance, praying for and supporting each other, literally whispering messages of support — and reminders of upcoming cues — in each others’ ears. So another thing that is mostly invisible to you when you go to a big Zoom event is that we members of the tech team are connected to each other in additional ways beyond Zoom, via invisible threads of technology. And these connections somehow manage to restore a great deal of the intimacy of being together in person, for us on the tech team to be sure, and maybe for everyone else too.
So with all that in mind, now I want to talk about a stark contrast that I have been experiencing this year. It’s a contrast between the richness and sense of great abundance that I feel on these tech teams at big Quaker events, versus the burnout and sense of scarcity that I hear about when I meet with Friends’ meetings who are trying to discern the way forward with online and hybrid worship. And it’s different for different sized meetings. Some of our smaller meetings never went on Zoom at all: they kept meeting on each others’ porches, or they met each by themselves in their own homes at the appointed time. Some of our bigger meetings formed tech teams and created that same sense of mutual support that I described. And our medium-sized meetings struggled. I heard stories of meetings where there were just one or two people doing all the tech hosting, and they were tired and burned out. And this was just from holding online-only worship. When they heard that holding hybrid worship was even more work, it was as if I was describing a trip to another planet.
Friends, we are tired. The work of holding our communities together when we can’t be together in person is hard work. We are tired from not being able to come together for our Yearly Meeting sessions, tired from being afraid for our health and safety when we perform the basic functions of daily life, and so, so tired of the uncertainty. It can feel like we are wandering in the desert sometimes. And you know we have lost folks along the way. Friends for whom online worship just doesn’t work. Friends whose passing cannot be commemorated in person. And our young Friends, for whom Zoom church and Zoom retreats on top of Zoom school is just more Zoom than anyone should be asked to endure, let alone kids. When we are this tired, we yearn for things to go back to normal. That’s legit, right? Please just let us all come back to our meeting houses together and sit next to each other and sing together and shake each others’ hands and feel safe and connected. Let’s take a moment now and hold that yearning in our hearts, breathe into it, and acknowledge that it’s a totally valid thing to want.
One of the things I had to learn the hard way during the pandemic is that there are at least a couple of different ways that Friends respond under these circumstances, in the ways that we care for our meetings for worship. One is what I’ll call “holding”. It’s about calming, being careful and predictable, about protecting meeting for worship, and resisting change. The other way some folks respond is what I’ll call “experimenting”. It’s about changing, learning, about embracing chaos, about making lots of mistakes, and figuring out new things that work. Both of these kinds of care are needed! As you might guess, my response was mostly about experimenting, and I came up against a lot of resistance to that in the week-in, week-out meetings for worship of a local meeting. I had to accept that I was going to have to create my own opportunities to experiment, and as it turned out, the large events with big tech teams were the perfect place, because that abundance of energy and creativity and connection that came with such a big tech team created the safety within which to experiment. That experimentation was and is a big part of what sustains me through this time. But I want to caution you: every meeting needs both kinds of care, holding and experimenting. If your meeting tends to lean in the direction of holding, don’t forget to embrace and support those among you who want to experiment and learn. And if, like Three Rivers, your meeting is all about experimenting, remember those folks who come each time looking for something that feels familiar.
I want to share with you the vision that has been breaking through for me, just here and there a little, of what’s around the corner for us. One of the things we have been learning about online and hybrid worship is that it’s an opportunity to create accessible space for those Friends we were leaving out in the “before times.” People who couldn’t come to the meetinghouse because of health or distance or ability now can join online. People who could come, but couldn’t hear, now can read closed captions. And these are just a couple of the many ways that our meetings have become, and have the potential to become, more accessible.
When I think about and speak about hybrid worship, I try to resist the idea that it’s centered in the physical meetinghouse, with a few remote participants. Instead I talk about it as an online meeting in which some of the “Zoom squares” have groups instead of individuals in them. One of those groups might be the folks at the meetinghouse. Some of those groups might be families at home. By my definition this meeting today is a hybrid meeting for worship. Maybe that was already your picture of hybrid worship! If it wasn’t, try it on for size.
I feel like one of the effects of the pandemic has been to atomize us into soap bubbles! Early on during the pandemic we tried to stay in the smallest bubble we could. Later on some of the bubbles popped as things got safer. Maybe now we are trying to find smaller bubbles again. It’s like some of the bubbles are popping and joining together, and other new ones are forming. But imagine that we start to actually get good at this. Good at holding meeting for worship with bubbles of all sizes, and at adapting the sizes of our bubbles as the needs of the pandemic dictate. Who’s to say where it stops? If we can hold hybrid worship in one meeting with lots of different sized bubbles, could we join two meetings together in hybrid worship? How about a whole quarter? or a yearly meeting? What does this mean for the idea of your “local Friends Meeting”? What does it even mean to be a “Friend at a distance” any more? And what does it mean for the burnout and exhaustion that many meetings are experiencing? Maybe it’s okay to let the meeting down the road do the online hosting, and just show up? Maybe each meeting doesn’t have to do it all on their own? Maybe it’s okay to let down some of the boundaries that separate us?
By the way, if you find hope and inspiration in this vision, I recommend reading Emily Provance’s piece called “Fruit Basket Upset and the Eighth Continent”, published in March 2021. I’m indebted to her for some of these ideas, and I share her sense of hope.
I want to close with a poem that I first heard at Three Rivers. It’s called “The Way It Is,” by William Stafford, and best as I can tell it was first published in 1998 in his collection of the same name. For me this poem touches on what it feels like to be doing this particular work in this moment.
The Way It Is, by William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.