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The Power of Unison: What Zoom Can Never Replace

Even after a year of constantly adapting to life in the pandemic, I never saw this part coming.

I mean, we all knew that returning to “normal” was going to be its own kind of challenge. What I didn’t expect was that we’d need to be reminded of some of the things we’ve lost – and why it’s so important to get them back.

Like just about everyone else, I’ve developed a rhythm of regular Zoom calls over the past year with friends, family, and professional contacts – connecting with some of them much more frequently and easily than I ever did in person. And while there are benefits to that kind of remote connection, there are also real costs - which may not be as obvious.

I’m not talking about the usual gripes about Zoom fatigue, tech glitches and invasion of personal space. The cost I’m talking about is something less tangible, but far more important.

I serve on my church’s vestry – essentially the church board. And like most boards, we’ve been meeting virtually during the pandemic. What makes the vestry different from most nonprofit boards, though, is that there is also a spiritual component alongside the everyday housekeeping. As one member said, “It takes a lot of Episcopalians to change a light bulb, and you’ve got to pray a few times along the way.”

So after a couple of hours of parliamentary procedure and budget review, the vestry meetings conclude with Compline – the night time prayer that ends the day. It’s a call and response format, with much of the prayer intended to be recited by the entire congregation in unison.

Over Zoom, it turns out, this kind of prayer can be tough. The varying internet delays, plus the software trying to figure out who’s supposed to be talking, leads to an experience that is… less than awe-inspiring. Most of the usual cues are missing, so it’s hard to line up your pace with anyone else. You end up with a lot of, “And also with ALSO WITH with you AND ALSO WITHalsowithyou.”

Most people would point out that it’s better than nothing, and they’re certainly right. I’m also pretty sure that God gives special dispensation for prayers over Zoom. But there’s some beauty missing, and we can forget how much that matters – until we’re lucky enough to experience it again.

This past Tuesday night, St. Matthew’s Episcopal held its first in-person vestry meeting since early last year – before I was even elected to the group. We conducted all the regular business in the narthex (the lobby) before moving into the sanctuary for Compline.

As the presider began, I braced myself for the cacophony I’d come to expect during the virtual meetings. But when the time came for the entire group to speak, the sound that came out took my breath away.

The voices were in perfect unison.

For a minute, I couldn’t continue, and I struggled to figure out why it was so emotional. Then I realized it was because this is what we’ve all experienced in every part of our lives for the past year.

Online meetings were necessary, and they got the job done. But they will never be a substitute for true human connection. You can communicate virtually, but you cannot speak with one voice.

There’s a great deal of discussion these days about some workers never returning to the office, and about some gatherings staying virtual forever. Maybe some of that is good. If remote communication makes it possible for someone to live the life they’ve dreamed, we can’t dismiss that.

But I also hope that we’ll never again forget the power of sharing the same space. And whether it’s in a work setting, with friends, or with people who share their beliefs, I hope everyone gets to experience something like I did that night: A group of people who could see, hear and connect with each other - to raise their voices in unison, and create something beautiful together.


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