The COVID-19 pandemic has made it imperative for people to avoid gathering in groups, and despite the hubris of a few arrogant and ignorant clerics, most churches, choirs, schools, businesses, organizations, clubs, and other groups are wisely heeding the science-based guidelines to impede the spread of the virus.
Atheist groups are no different, rapidly adapting to this constraint by having virtual meetings using video teleconferencing services.
The group I lead, the Santa Clarita Atheists and Freethinkers is, I think, a typical example. We were accustomed to holding monthly meetings at our local public library, where 25 to 30 of us would gather in a spacious conference room. We realized early on in this crisis that continuing physical meetings would pose an unacceptable risk, and several days later the libraries concurred with our decision by closing all their branches.
Our group is fortunate to have a few members who are technologically savvy, so we immediately updated our email list and set up a Zoom account. It works on desktop computers, laptops, iPads, and smart phones. We started having practice video conferences with just a few members at a time, so that those who aren’t as adept at this medium (including myself) could get used to the way it works and used to the etiquette necessary to have productive and satisfying meetings.
Then, using our Facebook and Meetup pages, emails, and phone messages, we called everyone to our first official online meeting. Eleven of us attended, and although that is far less than our usual 25 to 30, it was more participants that I had expected for the first attempt with a modality that is unfamiliar to most of us.
As a psychotherapist, I’m aware of how important face-to-face contact with friends is for people’s emotional well-being, but I was struck by how very good it felt to me to see ten smiling and laughing faces, people whom I care about, worry about, and admire. Text communication can exchange information, but to preserve the cohesiveness and camaraderie of a group requires emotional bonds, and those require seeing each other’s smiles, smirks, frowns, nods, and all the other intricate sensory cues in gesture and voice that are beyond just the words.
The first item on my agenda was I wanted us to hear from each person one at a time, telling us how they are faring amidst the upheaval of the shelter-at-home restrictions. Did anyone have 1) any material needs, 2) any social needs, and 3) any emotional needs that some of us might be able to provide?
Before we started, I asked for a group agreement that everyone would give everyone else permission, and give themselves permission to dispense with the widespread unfortunate American habit of being too proud or too embarrassed to ask for help. We’re supposed to be the rational ones, the realists, so let’s cut out the childish pretending how self-sufficient we are, and let it be known what we really need. I was happy to see everyone readily nodding in agreement.
Each participant shared their three aspects of well-being, needs were identified, solutions were proposed, plans were made, and problems were solved. As the leader, I was gratified to see that the group’s cohesiveness and camaraderie was not just preserved, it was strengthened. I am continuously impressed by my friends’ caring, thoughtfulness, and selflessness.
We were also able to attend to some of our usual business, and we brainstormed how to “pass the hat” for donations electronically instead of physically at future online meetings. It’s important to us that we can continue to serve the needs of our community, such as making lunches for the many homeless people in our valley, and that requires pooling small voluntary contributions of money.
Crises that impose restrictions often reveal unforeseen opportunities. One example in this case is that videoconferencing can make it much easier for members of one group to visit other group’s meetings. Before the pandemic started, I attended a conference of atheist group leaders from all over southern California. Just getting there included a four-hour drive and a weekend stay at a lovely but costly conference retreat. We all agreed that we had much to benefit from more “cross-pollination” of our respective groups, and that we must somehow find ways to visit each other’s groups despite the discouraging distances. Suddenly, that problem has been solved for us by a natural disaster. At video meetings, we can welcome guests and colleagues from anywhere in the world, not just our part of our state.
I hope that all of you, my friends and allies, are staying safe, staying healthy, and staying positive. Look for the unforeseen opportunities that may be hidden in your various predicaments. Reach out and build new friendships and alliances that you had not even thought of before. Let us emerge from this storm stronger and more unified than before. Let reason and rational thinking not just survive, let them thrive, blossom, and prevail.
(Image via Shutterstock)