FGC's Conference Coordinator Lori Sinitzky describes what it was like to transform the FGC Gathering, a beloved annual conference for Friends of all ages and backgrounds, from an in-person event to a virtual experience, and what we learned in the process. This article originally appeared in FGC's Vital Friends eNewsletter. Read the full newsletter here.
On March 5, 2020 I was filled with anticipation and joy at starting my new job as the incoming Conference Coordinator at Friends General Conference. After waiting on a long TSA line with other impatient travelers, some wearing masks, I boarded an early morning plane at Philadelphia International Airport for Radford, VA feeling vaguely concerned about the novel coronavirus now making news on the West Coast. Before I left home, I assured my kids that the virus was mostly in places far away from us and we likely wouldn’t be affected. But I’ve been to JFK International Airport and my experience of the crowds of people from all over the world in that small space was subconsciously informing me that realistically, COVID-19 was coming to New York and then inevitably to Philadelphia, where I live and work for FGC.
Over the next few days, FGC's Conference Coordinator Ruth Reber, Gathering Workshops Committee Clerk Karen Snare, and I toured the Radford University campus, making decisions about what workshops would work best in which rooms. As the days passed and news about the virus became more concerning, it became clear that the virus was going to impact the FGC Gathering, which was due to take place at the end of June. Nobody wanted to say it out loud but we were all wondering: would we have to postpone the Gathering, or even cancel it?
The trip home from Virginia was very different. Flights were being canceled. There was a sense of dread and panic in the small Roanoke–Blacksburg Regional Airport. Once on the plane, I noticed people were wiping down their seats and trays as they settled into their seats. More folks were wearing surgical masks or bandanas over their faces. I couldn’t find hand sanitizer in stock anywhere.
Back in Philadelphia, FGC staff and volunteers were meeting and having lengthy discussions about whether or not we should close the Philadelphia office and what we should do about the Gathering. The Gathering is a deeply loved tradition. Canceling it seemed both necessary and wrong. Isolated Friends would be more isolated. We needed each other, especially now. But the majority of Gathering attendees over recent years are people over 61, a group known to be very vulnerable to the virus.
The difficult options before us were to cancel, postpone to a later date, or hold the Gathering online. Going online seemed the safest from a health perspective. But Friends 61 and over, whose health might be most threatened by the virus, were also the most likely to be turned off by an online Gathering. And yet, perhaps going online would remove barriers like travel and cost for some Friends.
There was both spoken and unspoken consensus that "It Can’t be Done." Many Friends expressed the opinion that the feeling of an in-person cannot be replicated online. Why try? Some said they were feeling exhausted from the stresses of the pandemic and the hours they were suddenly spending on Zoom. Many Friends felt that spiritual community cannot be achieved online. A defining characteristic of our faith is the belief in an immediate and personal experience with the Divine. How does that experience happen through a computer? On the other hand, some meetings were already offering Meeting for Worship in an online format. Many Quakers were beginning to become familiar with the technologies.
Over the next 12 weeks, new virtual Gathering committees and subcommittees were formed, and the Virtual Gathering as a phenomenon was threshed out among us. Some of the myriad questions we considered were:
- What is the purpose of holding a Gathering in the face of a pandemic and anti-Black racism and police violence?
- Which platform/s should we use?
- How can we serve youth and their families who’ve been quarantined while learning and working online for months?
- How can we be inclusive of all Friends?
- What can we do about Friends with limited or non-existent internet access?
- What about Friends so skeptical of the technology that they don’t want to attend?
- What will we charge?
- How do we make up the huge deficit created by canceling the in-person Gathering?
- What does an online workshop look like?
- What volunteer roles are necessary to make this happen?
- How will we train workshop leaders to use online tools?
- How do we provide fair and equal access across seven time-zones?
- Will the possible failure on an online Gathering damage the reputation of “The FGC Gathering?”
- Do we really need 27 Zoom accounts?
- What are the security concerns?
We weighed all these considerations with discernment and moved toward being together in a new form, born out of necessity.
In faith, the Gathering staff and volunteers trained-up in new technologies. We read articles about organizing online events and leading online programs. We attended sessions with other Quakers, trying to figure out how to stay connected. We created a pay-as-led registration system in the hope that we could remove the cost barrier for Friends. We invited workshop leaders to rebuild their workshops in an online format. We reached out to Friends who, in plenary sessions, could speak to our current condition. In 12 weeks, we reimagined the Gathering as we knew it, and created a completely online Virtual Gathering.
Opening worship Sunday night was joyful and grounding. We cheered through Roll Call, chanted together, and settled into waiting worship as one community. A notable unexpected surprise was the impromptu greetings at the rise of worship. As Friends prepared to “leave the meeting” they saw Friends they hadn’t seen in a long time. The sweetest expressions of joy, gratitude, and friendship were shared as the array of rectangular boxes grew smaller. Nobody wanted to end that call or the connection we felt so deeply even online.
During the day on Monday June 29th, it became clear that despite our fears, we did not lose the Gathering to the pandemic. We had a bit of a bumpy start with technical issues. Some Friends had trouble finding the links to the Bible Half-Hour, workshops, or other events they registered for. But the Info Desk, another beloved Gathering institution, came through even in its virtual form, providing Zoom links and instructions, and being a Friendly presence for folks joining us in this experiment.
Amanda Kemp and her family led us through acknowledgements of the pain we were all carrying and healing prayers on Monday night. A diverse panel of Friends had a meaningful discussion about moving through these days of pandemic, racism, resistance, activism, and hope. Together we explored anti-racism through song with Philadelphia-based band City Love on Wednesday night, and Valarie Kaur moved hundreds of us through a deeply inspiring guided meditation on Thursday.
Throughout the week, Friends used technology to engage with each other. They attended Pre-Gathering Retreats and affinity groups where they found safe, joyful spaces and community. They participated in workshops and afternoon presentations, listened to stories, made art together, laughed together, and worshipped together. We missed singing and dancing together. But we learned, “that it is indeed possible to share a spiritual experience sitting in front of a computer with people thousands of miles away,” as Michelle Bellows stated. Donna Rodriguez told us, “I looked forward to each day and wasn't disappointed.” Friends like Larry Taylor found comfort in the Virtual Gathering, “knowing that for six evenings, I was joining hundreds of other Friends in a shared experience.” Many friends were surprised at the sense of community. Deborah Warot noted, “(I got) to form a genuine bond and 'online friendship’ with the Friends in my workshop. It is a joy and blessing to interact with other Friends, learning how we are all different and being reassured that we are still all the same.“
The Gathering staff invested many hours between the second week of March and the first week of July. So did many faithful volunteers who contributed their knowledge and support to make this Gathering happen. Instead of driving golf carts, Friends Zoom-hosted worship, workshops, and hangout rooms. It was a lot of change in a short time for us Friends. It was stressful at times. Personally, it was a strange way to start a new job. But the spiritual rewards of connection across the miles was especially sweet in this unprecedented time. It truly was a Gathering like no other.