Virtual Reality: NC Freemason Style

06.02.2020

By Mason Editor Beth Grace

Keep calm and carry on used to be just a fun slogan on posters and T-shirts.

These days, it’s a marching order for the whole world.

Since mid-March, the world has grown smaller, measured in square feet – from the home office to the kitchen to the living room and back. Lodges have gone dark, meetings were cancelled, and annual fundraisers (and the fun that goes with them) postponed or called off altogether.

The Masonic community has taken a hit, along with the rest of the world. But it stands strong.

The future is uncertain in many ways, but in the ways that count, says Grand Master Shaun Bradshaw – it’s not so different.

“Our Craft has been around a very long time. It has weathered all types of concerns and issues and problems,” he says. “These are not the final days, just echoes of a pandemic.

“We have a strong brotherhood and we will continue. In some ways, we’ll be stronger for it.”

GM Bradshaw and the Grand Line officers have faced a reality no one has faced since 1918, when the Spanish Flu shut the world down. Unprecedented issues have put Grand Lodge leadership in a hard position: trying to predict an uncertain future with little historic precedent on which to rely. The average age of today’s brother is in his early 60s, so the Craft is potentially more vulnerable to the virus.

“The decisions I’ve made, I’ve made not for today but for the future,” GM Bradshaw says. In March, he ordered lodges closed in accordance with the state of North Carolina’s self-isolation policies

“I’m trying to strike a careful balance, and frankly, I can’t predict the future and the potential need for a lodge to meet, so I felt like I had to give them the ability to meet if they needed to, to conclude it’s a possibility with some restrictions.”

On March 16, GM Bradshaw alerted lodges that the state had issued guidelines covering face-to-face meetings, and he reminded lodges that under the Code, they could not meet without a quorum. He asked brothers to check on each other and determine if anyone within the Craft needed help. A few days later, as the spread of the virus rose and the state increased its guidelines for closures, he cancelled the remainder of his District Meetings.

On April 29, he released a deeply researched, four-part opinion on whether lodges could meet virtually. He concluded that lodges could, with proper notification to all members in advance, hold a stated communication virtually if they have dispensation from the Grand Master, but must use approved technology rules offered by the NC Grand Lodge Tech Committee. Lodge must open ritualistically; opening lodge symbolically or by proclamation was prohibited. Recording meetings also was prohibited. Lodges also were not permitted to examine candidates or conduct a secret ballot.

On May 13, the Grand Master offered a phased-in approach to resuming Masonic contact. He wrote that Masters could, at their discretion, allow up to 10 officers of the Lodge to meet in person (with proper distancing) at the lodge for ritual practice, and allowed coaches and candidates to meet in lodges for in-person coaching. No business was allowed to occur in lodges during this time and stringent disinfection after all meet-ups within lodges were required.

He also urged Masters to ensure that their lodges have adequate disinfectant, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer available and that all surfaces members may come into contact with are regularly disinfected prior to and following any gathering in the lodge. The Master should take an inventory of the number of pairs of white gloves they have available, as some members may wish to wear gloves once meetings are permitted to resume. Wearing masks is highly recommended, he said. Brethren are encouraged to wear them at all activities.

As for the months to come, “I will follow a phased approach similar to what the governor has laid out. Sometime after the governor permits us to move to Phase II — when that happens — I’ll make the judgment on when to permit business meetings again. But I don’t anticipate any degree work for quite a while – distancing can’t be maintained in those cases.”

When Phase III comes, it likely will return the state to business as usual. If there is a capacity limit within that state order, Masons will comply with that.

“Once we are completely reopened — I’m hoping late summer — we’ll target five areas I was not able to get to for completing my district meetings: Wilmington, Charlotte, Lenoir, Asheville and finish at Stokesdale Lodge. We may hold that at the Greensboro temple if we need extra capacity.

“My message will be a little different than it was earlier this year,” he said with a chuckle. “Things are a lot different now.

Meanwhile, care was being taken to secure the health and safety of our charitable homes – the Masonic Home for Children at Oxford and WhiteStone: A Masonic and Eastern Star Community in Greensboro. Both closed to the public in March. Because of those efforts, coupled with strict new policies for disinfection, food service and general care of those who live in the homes, not one case of COVID-19 had been reported in either population as of presstime.

Board members of both homes have not let the pandemic stop progress. Both boards in May held their quarterly meetings online and got their work done well, and in record time.

At MHCO, the kids and their caretakers were in good shape. Some who had left campus before the shutdown and returned went into isolation cottages for 14 days after their return. Staff and care workers were in good spirits and working hard to maintain a healthy habitat for all. Adjustments have been made campus-wide. Food supplies were plenty.

The fate of the home’s annual Homecoming in October was up in the air at presstime. Organizers will make a final decision in August. In the meantime, the pool was scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend. As a private pool, it was not subject to state shutdown regulations.

At WhiteStone, restrictions on visitors helped keep the virus out. All residents and staff were wearing masks outside of their apartments.

Staff was also working with residents who might be feeling depressed or saddened by quarantine fatigue. Staff and a task force of residents were working hard to help keep the mood light, with pop-up concerts in the parking lots, greetings from a friend in a T-Rex costume waving happily to all, and a chance for residents to write messages for Facebook to be shared with friends and family outside.

“WhiteStone will take a slow and calculated approach to reporting and easing restrictions based on data and info that comes from health officials, to make sure we’re doing it at the right time and not posing added risk,” Administrator Mark Lewis said. “We want to make sure COVID-19 stays out of our campus. We were among the first to close and we want to be among the last to open.”

The North Carolina Masonic Foundation board, working with the charities, maintained a close eye on investments, weathering a raucous market in the early days of the shutdown and protecting assets. By May, investments were recovering nicely, said NCMF Chief Development Officer Jeff Hensley. The public Campaign for WhiteStone, suspended during the isolation, is expected to resume in early Fall.

As brothers dealt with the pandemic at home and at work, lodges opted to step back from their own planned fundraisers for the charities. Brother Charles Barrett, chair of the Commission on Subordinate Lodges Special Activities, said some 30 fundraisers were cancelled statewide. About a third had been rescheduled for later this year.

The big question for later this year will be where and how Annual Communication operates.

“Even if all the restrictions are lifted, I suspect a fair number of our brethren will not want to be present with 1,200 people in a very warm hotel ballroom,” Bradshaw said. “So we’re looking at everything right now.”

Cancelling the annual meeting is not an option at this stage, he said. Brothers need their chance to vote for their next Grand Master. He said in any case, he has made it clear he will step aside to allow Deputy Grand Master David Wicker to begin his year as Grand Master on schedule.

Even when the virus becomes a thing of the past, he said, consideration will have to be given to the lessons learned and the need to update the Code to cover future virtual meetings and other rules that would have seemed unthinkable before the pandemic.

Not all news from the Craft is about hardship. The Grand Master in his first communication asked lodges to keep tabs on current members and seek out those who haven’t been in lodge in a while, and the widows of brothers. It has worked well in many areas.

“But we have learned you have to call a few times. The first time you call an elderly brother, he’s not quite sure you are on the up and up. Call back a time or two, and you have made a friend,” Bradshaw says. “We are re-engaging them and they feel part of the lodge again.”

Masonic education has grown and morphed to meet new needs. Numerous virtual education sessions have been offered via the Grand Lodge Facebook page and shared via MORI. Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams and other services have become part of the Masonic team as never before.

The Grand Lodge office has reopened with limited access.

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