The use of technology and the human function of worshipping the divine are generally not terms that naturally dovetail together. Add in the practice of Quaker meeting for worship, in which Friends come together in silence…sometimes for more than an hour…waiting upon the Spirit to move someone to rise up and speak, makes the idea of needing electronic assistance of any kind seem even more peculiar.
But this is the modern age of making our places of worship as accessible as possible, from mobility ramps to the installation of audio loop systems that allow folks with hearing impairments the ability to better hear what is being said, preached or sung during religious services within many places worship. Our Quaker meeting had, at the time this story took place, recently made repairs to our own audio loop system. And because I was serving on the property committee I was eager to make sure that our upgraded system was up and running when our meeting for worship began. So even though my hearing was fine, I grabbed a headset and hand-held controller and took my seat alongside everyone else.
In other denominations worshippers would expect the service to contain speaking and singing from the onset, so they might slide their headset on, adjust the volume to meet their particular hearing needs and settle into worship. But this was an unprogrammed Friends meeting for worship, where silence would dominate usually for the first twenty minutes or so before anyone felt a leading to speak, so it was not uncommon for Friends who would benefit by using headsets to slip them on and forget about them, or set the units on their laps until they were needed.
On this particular day worship began like any other Sunday. Regulars and visitors arrived, took their seats and the time-honored practice of waiting upon the Spirit had begun. Ten minutes into our service a woman visiting for the first time, who was sitting directly across the room from me and who was wearing a headset, began looking from side to side and over her shoulder as if looking for whoever was speaking. With a decisively puzzled look on her face she began tapping the headset as if trying to adjust whatever it was she was hearing. Another Friend, Frankie, known in our meeting as a no-nonsense elder, was also sitting nearby and uses a headset, soon noticed the visiting woman looking about and figured someone must have begun speaking so she slipped her headset on intending to listen as well.
Because I’m not hearing impaired, and wasn’t hearing anything, I figured the visiting person sitting across from me was following a fly or was just acting peculiar and that might be the reason she was moving her head and scanning the room as if looking for someone. Another minute passed and then Frankie, now with her headset on, began to noticeably grin and then started to chuckle outright. Soon another Friend, two rows behind Frankie, see’s the commotion and puts his headset on too and before you know it they’re both grinning and laughing out loud. Meanwhile, the poor visiting person across from me is now turning her whole body about, visibly impacted and looking terribly confused, because she’s now hearing Quakers laughing and whispering along with a distinctive voice she still cannot see.
After a minute or so things settled down again. And then a Friend, who was not wearing a hearing assistive device, rose and spoke out of the silence about the pitfalls of preparing for war, calling upon Friends and people everywhere not to subscribe to the notion that war under any circumstances was justifiable whatsoever. I thought, being a Friends meeting, that there was nothing unusual about that message and I soon began to settle deeper into worship. At the time, however, none of us could know that this Friends message would travel and reach others beyond the walls of our little meetinghouse.
All of a sudden the woman across from me started looking everywhere again. I glanced over at Frankie, and noticed that she was now desperately trying to maintain her composure. But this time Frankie and I made eye contact and she motioned for me to put on my headset. As soon as I did so I immediately realized what was happening.
I heard a voice all right, a man’s voice, and he was certainly not in the room. It was the voice of the Catholic priest, who by now was preaching his homily at the Catholic church, a stone’s throw across the road from our meetinghouse. We, Quakers sitting in our little meetinghouse, if we listened with headsets, could hear the entire Mass, including their gospel readings, choir selections, and of course the random coughing’s and shuffling about by folks in their congregation.
And it would be two days before I learned something else, too. When our Friend rose to speak out of the silence about our peace testimony and witness against war, he not only gave his message to Friends, but to all the Catholics next door through their speakers throughout their church!
The miss-feed, as we would later learn, works both ways when electronic receivers and microphones are not turned on in sequential order. Receivers when turned on automatically search for and lock onto the first mic signal it receives, whether Catholic or Quaker! Thus our note to self: Turn the microphones on first, then the receivers.
But I do believe that this was possibly the first time ever that a priest’s homily and a Friends message got delivered in meeting for worship and Mass at the same time!