Extension Cords Companion Community: presence at a distance

By Darleen Pryds, affiliate

If we were looking for just one word to describe the FSPA community, it would likely be “presence.” We share a love and devotion of the Eucharist and adoration. Through these spiritual practices, we acknowledge Christ’s presence and experience the presence of each other.

As an affiliate, I’ve experienced something special about our shared spirituality in the last several years: it’s possible to be present to others who share this spirituality even at a distance.

Long before the pandemic was compelling sisters, companion communities and affiliates to meet virtually on a regular basis, a group of lay affiliates was already teleconferencing regularly, forging a path of connections, faith and friendship — all with perseverance — while trying out various remote communication platforms. The FSPA Virtual Companion Community began several years ago to help connect affiliates who live far away from each other. Mary Ellen Dunford was a founding member of the group. When asked if she were naturally tech-savvy, Mary Ellen responded, “No! I am willing to learn and try new technology, but it stresses me out!” It is now about four years later and, despite that stress, she remains one of the rotating facilitators of the meetings.

There’s no denying that sometimes technology has caused potentially stressful situations in our gatherings. I remember hearing, during the first few months I attended, phrases that included “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” “Who’s singing?" "I wonder whose voice that is.” “That reverb is loud! Is someone’s cell phone near the computer? Just put it aside!” “Whoops, did we lose someone? Whose line just dropped?” “I wonder if Darrin can help with this?” For a while, it seemed that each month we experienced various technological challenges, but we worked through them by experimenting with different teleconferencing programs until we found one that worked for us. We learned to laugh at our foibles. Yes, solving the tech problems helped, but the connection we developed ran deeper.

In time, these connections were strong enough that FSPA Virtual Companion Community didn’t quite suffice as our group name. One member, Lavina Taylor, who has been an affiliate since 2018, considered other names including “The Gabriela’s” after the angel Gabriel, or “Esperanza” for hope (likely for the hope we all cultivated each month that the tech connection would work!). Lavina slept on it, and in a dream she came upon the name that has stuck — “The Extension Cords!”

The name has stayed with us largely due to the bonds we have built that extend across great distances and include different personalities, life experiences and viewpoints. We’re also connected through a shared commitment: to show up and “plug in.”
We are a group that fluctuates in numbers and members, but for about a year now, we have held steady at about 10 to 12 members. We log in through a computer or call in by telephone once a month for meetings that last an hour. We live in three different time zones and seven states, and the group consists of mostly women with one brave man in our midst. Our average age is about 65. None of us ever expected that we’d be part of a virtual faith-sharing group or, that, meeting only virtually, we would cultivate bonds of friendship and faith.

Most of us Extension Cords have only encountered each other in person briefly at affiliation gatherings or during A Revolution of Goodness in 2018. The first time I saw another Extension Cord member was the moment I processed into Mary of the Angels Chapel to make my affiliate commitment. I remember walking with others I had just met and at the same time realizing, “Oh, there’s an old friend!” It was Mary Ellen, an affiliate of more than 20 years who considers the FSPA community her family. Even though I hadn't met her yet she was standing there, smiling warmly, my good friend.

Even without personal contact on a regular basis, we share our faith and our respective ministries of drumming, teaching, volunteering in food pantries, practicing intercessory prayer, knitting caps for people without homes, hospice caregiving, parish work, immigrant advocacy and care. In short, presence. These respective ministries come forward in our meetings when we discuss topics ranging from white privilege and racism to the environment and care for the earth; Christmas traditions; intentions for A Revolution of Goodness' provocative movements to what it means to be Franciscan, specifically as lay affiliates of FSPA.

But it’s clear that our virtual gatherings each month are more than having “a meeting.” When asked what she gets out of belonging to the Extension Cords, Lavina, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, said, “I get a sense of belonging to a group that is diversified yet has common values and aspirations. I feel accepted and safe to ‘be me’ and yet have the opportunity to grow and deepen my understanding of issues.”

Through the years, we have celebrated graduations, anniversaries, birthdays and even minor achievements like logging into a meeting successfully. We have also journeyed with each other through life’s challenges such as critical surgeries, family health emergencies and deaths. What does this journeying together mean to us? Affiliate Sharon Laitinen, who lives near Sacramento, California, shared, “When my husband was declining in health, we were unable to attend affiliate retreats and other events unless they were live-streamed or recorded. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am again unable to travel. So, I am very grateful for my virtual affiliates who are present to each other through the mediums of Zoom, email and phone calls. I enjoy attending the monthly Zoom meetings because of the healing presence of each person and our shared Franciscan response to lived reality. I especially like the fact that we are giving and receiving energy from all the places that our group represents, including California, Arizona, Montana, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan. This group is such a blessing!” 

For other members, Extension Cords allows for a path to stay connected. Affiliate Mary Flowers, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, notes, “I no longer drive and do not regularly get to a parish. Both the computer and phone enable ongoing connections with others on the spiritual journey. It is meaningful to listen to folks express their personal and faith journeys.” Other members live in areas in which they feel isolated from like-minded people on the Franciscan spiritual path. Affiliate Sandra McKee, who lives in Montana, confided, “I was feeling pretty discouraged and it was my connections with the FSPA friends that kept me connected to affiliation. Then I heard about the Extension Cords. I was so excited! I think I have been ‘meeting’ with the group for less than a year, but I have so enjoyed the feeling of connection. We (FSPA and affiliates) have a special charism of respect for nature, hospitality, ecospirituality, Franciscan values and sense of community, which resonates with my deepest beliefs. I feel at home with this group.”

It’s clear that Extension Cords members feel the meetings are more than monthly social gatherings. Affiliates Charlotte Willenborg and Tim Sullivan note that the group “is a way to keep learning and growing in our faith. We feel we have a responsibility to participate in affiliation, and this is how we can do it.”

These years of presence at a distance have prepared us for these challenging days of the pandemic. As affiliate Sue Lund says, “COVID-19 isolation has made being homebound even more difficult. I’ve had no human contact because Meals on Wheels leaves deliveries outside my apartment door now. Extension Cords met last night. I realized afterward that they had pulled me back to ‘God is with us’ and that the Franciscan charism can still be shared in the world. Perhaps the affiliate future will be virtual contact. The success of our group shows that it is possible.”

The success that Sue refers to is really based on our shared commitment to be present to each other. In that presence, we evolve and grow in faith both individually and as a community. Over the last six months or so, I’ve noticed a new tradition developing in our midst. By the end of our meetings, whatever we have shared or discussed, someone feels inspired to call to mind a song. Our Extension Cord play list includes “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” by the Carpenters, “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds and “For Good” by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. So, I thought I’d end with a new addition from the Rolling Stones, especially in these days of shelter-in-place during COVID times.

If there is one thing we have learned over the years, by virtually meeting once a month, we get what we need.

Extension Cords’ Best Practices: 1.	Turn your microphone to mute when you’re not speaking. This limits extraneous noise.  2.	Log on early so you’re ready to go at the appointed start time. If you’re running late, please join in! You’re always welcome! 3.	If there are technical glitches, breathe deeply and know that it’s not the end of the world. 4.	Understand that this is not a telephone call with just one person. Practice a pause before speaking for a second time during the sharing/discussion. Chances are that others want a chance to speak but haven’t had a chance yet. 5.	Having a designated facilitator keeps discussions on track and helps open the conversation to everyone. 6.	Set time limits for meetings so that participants know the commitment involved. 7.	Designate a note keeper for each meeting who will share a summary of the conversation (including resources mentioned). This helps people remember the conversation, informs those who missed the meeting and allows participants to go deeper into study and reflection.

Also in June Presence:
A common thread: environmental justice, current ministries and a pandemic
COVID-19: ‘will we ever know how many have succumbed to this virus?’
Sisters take to the air to invite discernment with FSPA
Refreshed website offers visitors new opportunities
Presence Briefs June 2020

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