Emily Provance

By Emily Provance

I THINK OF WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11, as the beginning. For me, two things happened that day.

First, I received a barrage of communications: emails, phone calls, text messages, social media contacts. “Who has a plan? What’s the Center for Disease Control (CDC) saying? Are other Friends cancelling worship? Are other Friends staying home?”

And second, I had to figure something out: where was I, as a traveling minister, going to go?

I sent an email to my support committee. HELP. Two of them were on the phone ten minutes later. Together, we discerned two things.

First, the barrage of communications stemmed, in part, from uncertainty. Friends aren’t accustomed to making decisions quickly and alone. Our normal is to take our time, to gather information, to worship with others. It’s hard to just decide, especially something significant like cancelling physical gatherings. We don’t want to be reactionary, but in this case, haste was necessary. If I cancelled my own travel, and if I said so publicly, I could lift the decision-burden from the organizers of events I’d been planning, and others might feel safer about canceling things because they weren’t first. So I wrote in my weekly message, and I published on social media, that I was stopping for awhile, “traveling differently.”

And second, I needed a place to stay. I called Powell House retreat center, in my home yearly meeting. “Can I come?” They said yes. God bless Powell House.

Traveling ministry matters in such as time as this. Those of us who have traveled know everybody—that is, not individually, but put together, we do. And we know one another. Across yearly meeting borders, national borders, theological borders. We’re connected by personal relationships and social media. In the first month, I was working fourteen-hour days, which was fine, because I had the energy to do it. Together, Friends figured everything out, and we figured it out because we knew each other, and we knew who’d have the answers to what.

  • How to worship when we can’t assemble in person.
  • How to provide long-term pastoral care.
  • How to grieve.
  • How to care for parents and children.
  • How to reach out to our communities.
  • How to raise money.
  • How to clerk a business meeting online.
  • How Friends were doing around the world.
  • How to shift budgets.
  • How to stay in touch.

I cannot remember another time when I have seen Friends work so quickly, for the benefit of so many, and so well in alignment with their spiritual gifts. As one Friend started saying at the end of every message, #goteam!

Crisis adrenaline lasted longer than I thought, but it didn’t last forever. Thirty days in, the resources were in place. And I felt stuck. It was April, and then it was May, and every day was cloudy and rainy and sleety and snowy and cold and exactly the same.

Every morning, I woke with the sunrise. I worked. I answered emails. I wrote. I prepared for workshops. I started to feel the need for days off, and I took some. Well, half-days. I started re-reading the Bible.

I think maybe the second month got hard for lots of us. After all, Noah was cooped up for forty days and nights, but we hit day forty-one, and it kept on raining. My home meeting lost a Friend to Covid-19. We started to hear a lot about Zoom fatigue. The pandemic wasn’t new anymore, and yet, it hadn’t gone away. It was with us, and with us, and with us, and with us. I heard from Friends about irrational anger, unexplained tears. I experienced these.
Everything was cancelled. All the Quaker camps. The summer gatherings. Vacations. Festivals. Much of what marks the cycle of a year. It’s not a matter of cancelling a single event; it’s interrupting a generations-long chain of reliable, comforting predictability.

Online, as we worked together, Friends argued about little things, things that were real and that mattered—but that we would’ve rushed right past a month earlier, united by crisis.

I really didn’t like the second month.

By my count, today is Day 71. (Those of us who are counting all started on different days, but seventy-something is probably the right ballpark.) It’s sunny and warm for the fifth day in a row. Thank you, thank you, finally, God.

I think I’ve made the shift from pausing to living. I’m not a fan of how things are, but this is life, and I can be present for it. Bike rides. Barbecues. The basketball hoop in the front yard. I do feel very lucky to have these things. Still—I miss the road. I miss travel so much.

Every weekday morning, I facilitate a family devotional for kids and parents and grandparents across the country. I started that in the very first week. We’ve formed a community, and that’s a lovely thing.

I write thank you notes to donors. (I’m on the board of a Quaker organization.) I like that opportunity to focus on gratitude, but it frightens me, too, because I know how many Quaker organizations are struggling financially. And I know that for some Friends in some places, it’s not organizational finances they’re worried about but literally having enough to eat.

For Powell House, I’m coordinating virtual workshops. And I’m hanging out with Little Guy, who’s a stuffed cat with a big imagination. He’s my social media mascot for now. Playfulness is a ministry, too.

And of course, there’s always emails. So many emails.

The struggle for Friends generally now is lots of messy decisions to make. Shutting down was one thing; it wasn’t easy, but the options were clear—keep going, meet virtually, or stop meeting completely. But now, we’re trying to navigate our summers (which are going to be weird) while we figure out how and when to reopen (without clear government guidance in many parts of the world) and grieve what we’ve lost (from lives to jobs to independence to a sense of security) and hold onto what we’ve gained (new skills, a willingness to experiment).

My prayer is that we can find a way to be as together in the messiness as we were in the initial crisis. In other words, #goteam.