Recently, I found myself hosting online gatherings for an Australia-wide community I belong to – on and off. I say “found myself” because it’s not something I planned as future career direction, and yet, here I am, quite happily developing a host persona. This takes some work, unless you are one of those few people who are photogenic and can radiate relaxed good will under pressure of of 100 participants who have not yet discovered the mute button on Zoom. As someone who once lost a place in a very competitive internship because of my clear, examining glance (so I’m told) which they thought would upset the clients, this is more hard work than you might imagine.
Strange times, indeed, for someone who only relatively recently came out of a seven-year writing retreat called My Doctoral Thesis, a time of great self-containment and little community engagement. I only even spoke to about 2 people a week. And yet, here I am extolling the virtues of community building on virtual platforms. And by a quirk of fate, the first one was advertised with the name of the registration file, HeartsOnline, not the name of the event. But the name fitted so well, that Hearts Online has stuck and become the title theme for all subsequent events.
The first event, With All The Forces Of Our Hearts, took place on Easter Sunday, April 12. Conceived as a response in conjunction with our general secretary to the members and friends of this community concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. It combined an Easter festival with an Autumnal theme; a call to be more courageous and resilient in the face of an unknown and distressing future.
And the purpose was to provide some sort of guide to how we can strengthen ourselves and our community while being awake to the potentiality for our doing something positive for the world at this most challenging time. Perhaps more so than our physical bodies, our hearts and minds are experiencing strains beyond what many of us have had before. As one of the North American Christian Community priests said recently, it seems that this virus is trying to find a way into our minds. So, how can we manage to be free of fear and quiet in our minds?
I found four key speakers willing to tackle Zoom and address this theme from their own unique perspectives. A well-known psychologist who works with community trauma, a priest, the ASinA general secretary and a community leader who had been leading meditation studies for many years. It was all very trial and error and the breakout rooms went a bit a-wry. But it was a success! Over 100 people signed up, almost a quarter of our community, and I received much positive and critical feedback in the following few days. (Apologies to those who were locked out by the participant limit – I’d forgotten that many people like to wait til 5 minutes before committing themselves to events). Considering this is a community that is notoriously conservative in some ways, and many are quite openly sceptical about digital technology, I consider the level of engagement, whether they approved or not of me and the medium, was a promising start to what I hope is a new digital future for this society.
Post-gathering – I prefer ‘gathering’ to ‘meeting’, with its bureaucratic connotations – I edited the Zoom recording and uploaded it to YouTube (to an unlisted account only accessible to the community at this point.) and created a community noticeboard on Padlet for related resources. People have been a bit slow to add to the noticeboard, but its a new thing for this community to interact in the digital sphere, so I expect it will take time to build. Hopefully it does. Our American counterparts have had great success with this sort of community interaction, but they are more naturally outgoing and inclusive by nature than Australians, and less shy about sharing their experiences.
Zoom and its counterparts are becoming part of everyday life through this virus. The challenge is to try to warm the cold, fill the emptiness of virtual space and reach out across it with goodwill. So please, turn on your video so we can all see your smiling face!