God’s digital table and welcome in a time of much Zooming for the Church

I wrote this letter to my meeting, but it’s for anybody for whom it might be helpful.  Zoom is both a great gift – and yet another way to create exclusion.  It’s our choice to be attentive.

Dear Friends,

In the past week, I’ve had the gift (and hard work?) of assisting the congregation of the First Parish United Church with holding their first virtual Annual Meeting in the history of the church. For those who don’t know – an “Annual Meeting” is similar to our “Yearly Meeting” – it is a time where folks gather to do the business of the church, budget for the year, approve nominations, hear reports, etc.  They also vote – so this Quaker had to learn how that works!  Running lots of zoom tutorials, and working individually to answer questions taught me some things that seem relevant to mention in terms of our Zoom experiments of late. 

In addition, in the past few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations in which Fresh Pond attenders of our worship noted my participation – everything from “I wish I could see your face, and not just an avatar (picture) of you, or “you were there last week” when I was not present at all.  My answers to those questions might be helpful for everyone.

Digital Access to meetings (and other things of course) is not standard.  You do not have access just because you have internet, or a computer.

For the past months (the whole time we have been meeting online except for the past few days), I have been using a Chromebook.  Even with the latest updates – it tells me I have “high CPU usage affecting the quality of the meeting” – most importantly, it seizes up and I cannot see anyone or hear messages until I turn off my camera and let zoom catch up.  Sometimes it completely disconnects me from the call.  This is unique to chromebooks, but varies via brand.  It happens every 17 minutes or so on mine!  SO the only way for me to participate on that device is without showing my screen.

Easiest solution for me (and many people) is an app on my phone.  There also – I am unable to see more than 4 people on my screen at a time (I can swipe).  I cannot raise my hand for meeting for business to get the clerk’s attention.  I can use some of the chat and other functions – but they are in different places than the rest of folks, and sometimes respond differently.  MOST people (statistically) access the internet via phone.  Many do not even own a laptop or desktop. That is the default device in many churches (of demographics different than ours) for access.

I am generally spending about 5-6 hours a day minimum on zoom.  Zoom fatigue is a real concern.  So again, simply listening on my phone app, with my screen shut off and muted, is the best option for my mental health (and let’s face it that’s what I need worship for in part!).

In addition – I guess we allow folks to call into our meeting on a landline?  That’s a toll call in many places.  Westport Meeting has instituted a policy that their members who call in by landline phone can submit their phone bills for reimbursement.   In one case, a Friend had just given up because it was an expensive toll call, and she had no tech device to help her (or no people to visit and help during covid – that’s hard!).  She had been “missing” from meeting for two months.  This is a HUGE drawback of zoom – and they have no incentive to pay for landline connections for their online digital platform – they want to push folks to digital.

My greatest learning experience of joy has been finally getting my 80 year old mom online. I bought her a chromebook and shipped to her, and had to teach her in calls over her land line how to set it up.  I had to teach her the what moving her fingers on a touchpad felt like.  What i meant by “cursor”. At times I had to make comparisons to typewriters of her youth.  What’s a typewriter?  hmmm.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle I have encountered in helping folks learn more about these devices is our own ability to choose the narrative of “I can’t, it’s hard, this is uncomfortable”.  I have a great advantage in having had years of encouraging beginner musicians who sounded “terrible” when they started. Of course!  Sometimes parents would tell me they couldn;t believe how patient I was with all the squeaks and honks.  I told them “I only hear potential”. Maybe I need to practice that more with adults – and my mom when she honks and squeaks about her frustrations with her chromebook.  By the way – she’s now online, watching her church services on youtube, emailing with a gmail account, reading the papers and ordering library books online.  The first time she logged on to a zoom call and saw our family staring back she cried.  TOTALLY WORTH IT.  And it took probably 30 hours of calls.

So.. this week I finally purchased a new Macbook (expensive).  Last evening at M&W I could actually see everyone!  AND that might not happen in worship – I’m still pretty zoomed out, and sitting on my porch with my phone on my chest listening for you and God seems the best path of digital participation. But, it was a huge reminder for me in my struggle to gain access to worship how we all can continue to be vigilant about asking the questions about who is not at the table, and would they like to participate and how to we make it the right size for everyone – which is different for everyone.  Even a digital table.

Hope some of this is helpful.  Thank you to all in our Meeting who are reacting every week to this zoom experiment on behalf of our community.

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