YM2020 – About Community
K Woodhouse, New South Wales Regional Meeting
The cover page of the printed version of the June issue of The Australian Friend (AF) shows a photo of a sole penguin with the caption “Isolation.” Blessedly, the content of that issue does not paint such a lonely picture. Indeed, the second article, “Growing community among Friends during a pandemic,” reports on a wide range of activities, both online and offline, that workshop participants had engaged in or could engage in to deepen and nurture their communities during these times.
It may be that the year 2020, in which the term “self-isolation” has become ubiquitous, has brought to the forefront the value of community. Community is one of our Quaker testimonies; is it the one we think least about in ordinary circumstances?
Since the June issue, Australia Yearly Meeting (AYM) has held its Yearly Meeting (YM); online by necessity for the first time. The AF editorial team asked us to share what we gained and what we missed.
There have already been reports on YM2020 in Regional Meeting newsletters (July and August 2020) and the AYM Secretary’s newsletter (July 2020) and there are other reports elsewhere in this AF issue. The YM2020 Planning Committee report also includes some of the feedback they have received. So, this article is not a comprehensive overview of YM, but a few select comments from my own perspective and those of a few F/friends.
For me, community was the theme that kept bubbling to the surface during the course of YM. I seemed to be constantly nudged to ponder its meaning, role and value in my life and amongst Quakers. The fact that YM was online and participants were physically dispersed across vast distances, perhaps perversely seemed to enhance rather than diminish my understanding of community.
I had attended part of YM2018 so had that experience to compare this online version with. Although I only made a small handful of “new Friends” at the in-person YM, this may have helped me to feel that I was amongst friends at this online YM. Because the timetabling at the online YM was so tight with only a few parallel sessions possible, opportunities for meeting people were constrained by the timetable and very brief. I valued them all the more and did find that I made some new Friends here too – a “gain”. The planners had intended to allow space in the timetable for participants to request extra “meetings” be spontaneously arranged. That was a nice idea. However, most participants were well aware how exhausting the planning and running of this ground-breaking YM was and, as far as I know, only one extra meeting was timetabled, and that was in a slot made vacant by a cancelled meeting. I did make use of the website’s “Find a Friend” tool to look up email addresses and send a few emails to Friends I’d spotted on the screen at YM – obviously not the same as bumping into them at an in-person YM – a “miss”. This miss is acknowledged in the Planning Committee’s report, which recommends timetabling more social meeting opportunities at the next YM (see below).
A huge gain for me with online meetings is increased accessibility. At in-person meetings, the acoustics of our old meeting houses are usually not good and I frequently find it hard to distinguish words above the noise. Over Zoom, the video signal is variable e.g. dependant on local bandwidth, speakers etc. however, on the whole, I find the Zoom audio is excellent. Others e.g. Heather Saville (NSWRM Newsletter) and Mary Pollard, also found this to be the case.
Some questions of community arising around YM
- One of the stated aims of the YM Planning Committee was to build community. To further this aim, they timetabled various opportunities for socialising informally e.g. the afternoon “Cuppa Friendship,” and “Coffee Time” and the evening “Convivial Hour.” These initiatives were a “gain,” and seen as an important element in nurturing online communities. Following their success at YM, Wahroonga LM has begun to think about trialling one or more of these types of social online get-togethers to complement the Zoom meeting for worship and other online activities it currently runs. YM2020 has already inspired another initiative. Following the LGBTIQ Share and Tell, an online meeting for worship has been established for this community and its allies. It will be on fourth Sundays starting 23 August.
- In the State of the Society Address 2020 Evan Gallagher observed that the demographic of the Quaker community does not reflect the diversity of the wider community in which it is based. Evan asked “Where are the missing Quakers?” and questioned whether it might be possible to broaden the Quaker demographic if we added to our prevailing vehicles of outreach e.g. to make more use of various social media platforms.
- On the question of broadening the Quaker demographic, a Share and Tell session on Online Meetings for Worship threw up some points of note. Peter Hillery has been involved in hosting an Online Meeting for Worship for four years. It is now well established with a regular community of Friends attending, and has of September 2020 been accepted by NSW RM as a Recognised Meeting under its care. Peter comments that it attracts enquirers for whom it is often their first experience of a Quaker meeting, it attracts a younger demographic (is this because it they are more familiar and comfortable with online platforms?) and, interestingly, it attracts a larger proportion of males than a typical Quaker meeting. I wonder if this is generally true of online meetings around the world. During this Share and Tell, participants considered how to build a spiritual community in the context of an online meeting. The following were thought to be helpful in this regard:
- Some Friends already knowing each other
- An elder as well as a host for each Meeting
- Meetings of less than about 25 so that the faces fit on to one screen
- At YM, a younger demographic participated in the daily “Music Time” sessions at 3 pm as well as the All-Age meeting for worship. Sarah Davies, parent of 5 and 8 year olds commented that she and the kids enjoyed all the “Music Time” sessions (which included live or recorded singing by professionals or amateurs and didgeridoo-playing) as they were lively, engaging, friendly, participatory, well presented, and at just the right time in the afternoon (also conveniently timetabled to follow the daily Children’s Program.) The all-age worship led by Melinda Wenner-Bradley, a story-teller from Philadelphia, was a highlight for many, including Sarah’s children. It was aimed at under-12s and told the story of the mustard seed. Contributions from young and old alike freely flowed verbally or via the Zoom chat. Incidentally, Sarah commented that she found it hard to attend any YM sessions without the kids as they were on school holidays, and when she wasn’t with them at “Music Time” or other child-friendly sessions, she was with them doing non-YM things or, in the evenings, putting them to bed.
Some YM statistics
According to the YM2020 Planning committee report, about 300 people registered in total, including children and JYFs (Junior Young Friends); up to 10 were overseas Friends. About 200 people attended the Backhouse Lecture – the best attended session. About 100 -150 Friends attended some of the other main sessions: meetings for worship for business, plenaries and “The State of the Society.”
Postscript – Why Zoom?
Other video conferencing platforms are available. They each have their detractors. So, why have we landed on Zoom? Lisa Wriley comments that following YM2017 in Adelaide, she volunteered to help set up an Australia-wide AYM Children and JYFs Committee. Zoom, then only a few years old, had earlier that year established a sales, marketing and technical support centre in Australia. It offered 45 min free video conferencing for a limited number of people, and so the new Children and JYFs committee decided to give it a try. They stuck with it. Over the last few years Zoom has proved useful to many Quakers to undertake their committee work without having to physically travel to meetings. A level of Zoom expertise had built up across AYM, which was freely shared in Zoom training prior to YM, Zoom help at YM, and at least one Zoom tech person for every YM session. Many YM participants had no or little prior experience with Zoom; we thank our Zoom experts.
To Wies Schuiringa who had me stay at her place for the YM week (COVID-19 local health advice including advisory physical distancing of 1.5m was complied with). Wies supplied quite good Wi-Fi most of the time (occasional “unstable internet” drop-outs), in-person catch-ups over cuppas between sessions, and respite, free of distractions enabling me to focus on YM. Thank you, Wies.