Tom Quijada-Discavage and (at back) Luis Garibay of the diocesan staff helps to test the setup in the Great Hall of St. Paul’s Commons for the first-ever virtual Diocesan Convention. Photo: John Taylor

With the Diocese of Los Angeles’s Nov. 14 – 15 virtual 125th annual meeting just a few weeks away, St. Paul’s Commons in Echo Park is beginning to look and feel a lot like convention.

Typically, this would be the time convention coordinator Samantha Wylie would be packing registration and other materials into “huge gondola-like” shelves on wheels, she says. St. Paul’s Commons Building Superintendent Luis Garibay would wrap them in plastic and load them onto a truck in preparation for transport to the Riverside Convention Center.

Instead, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are arranging tables, tinkering with microphones, checking headsets, cameras, live feed capability and planning dry runs to test equipment for the upcoming Facebook and YouTube livestreamed event.

The Great Hall resembles the convention center dais, where Bishop Diocesan John Harvey Taylor, Bishop Suffragan Diane M. Jardine Bruce and Canon to the Ordinary Melissa McCarthy would be seated. Creation of an altar space for the Sunday, Nov. 15 diocesan-wide Eucharist is underway. Seating is being assembled for the chancellors, judge of elections and diocesan and other support staff.

“We want to preserve some of that feeling of convention and connect to what we’ve done in the past,” Wylie said.

The task of shrinking the “Servants of the Spirit”-themed gathering into five-hour Zoom sessions — with breaks — has fallen largely to Wylie and Canon Steve Nishibayashi, Secretary of Convention, with support from diocesan staff.

“My first thought was to streamline the agenda, so we can hit all the points we need to hit, and can recess by 3 p.m. on Saturday,” Wylie said.

Nishibayashi and Wylie began “from the ground up, considering what business has to be done and how to do it without burning people out with Zoom fatigue,” she added.

The efforts have “forced us, in a creative way, to expand our horizons,” Nishibayashi said. “Given the virtual format, more people are able to participate in convention as interested congregations and individuals. On balance, for lack of a better term, I think this is an evangelistic tool that we can take advantage of in a positive way.”

Next came the huge task of translating convention’s moving parts — credentialing lay and clergy delegates, bishops’ addresses, morning, noonday and evening prayers, passing the Parkers, youth participation, clergy spouses and partners presence, voting resolutions, approving a budget, visits to the exhibit hall, meals together, music, workshops — into a virtual experience.

“We’ve never done a convention like this before. We never thought we’d do a convention like this and, just in case anybody’s freaked out, the spirit of the risen Christ is alive in this process,” Bishop Diocesan John Harvey Taylor told diocesan staff at a recent pre-convention planning Zoom meeting.

Convention “might not be perfect, there might be some glitches, but we’ve already gotten underway,” Taylor said. “More than 150 people have already participated in the life of convention, through deanery assemblies, with more coming up.

All proceedings will be simultaneously interpreted in Spanish, according to Nishibayashi and Wylie.

Samantha Wylie, convention coordinator, oversees all aspects of the annual meeting, and is working to make the transition from an in-person to a virtual meeting. Photo: John Taylor

Registration, logistics, credentialing delegates

According to the convention schedule, registration will begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14.

Appropriately registered and credentialed delegates will receive an email link prior to the proceedings. They will be invited to log in at about 9:15 a.m.

About 100 of the diocese’s 129 congregations have submitted the appropriate information to credential delegates, according to Wylie.

Each church office will receive a Zoom link in case they are hosting delegates on their site, she added.

On Nov. 14, along with the Rev. Tom Quijada-Discavage, diocesan interim for formation and transition ministry, Wylie will be updating lay and clergy registrations and credentials via Zoom. It typically involves “changing who is the voting delegate versus the alternates and those kinds of things, for people who didn’t get their paperwork in in time,” Quijada-Discavage told The Episcopal News.

“Or it involves clergy who forgot to submit their annual report and show up and want to know why they don’t have a voting paddle.”

Worship, music and youth

By now, Marge Cooley, director, and the diocesan altar guild members would be polishing silver, ordering gluten-free wafers for about a thousand people, checking frontals, examining purificators and vestments, and packing up candles and crosses for the trip to Riverside, where convention was held last year.

Instead, because of pandemic precautions, altar guild members are missing the joy of that preparation and eagerly awaiting the day when “we might be able to be able to be of service again,” said Cooley. “And when called back will do it joyfully, with excitement to be back.”

Convention liturgies will consist of three prerecorded Saturday multilingual segments – Morning, Noon and Closing prayer – each including prayers, music and intergenerational reflections on Matthews’s parable of the talents, which is the Gospel appointed for Sunday, according to the Rev. Canon Susan Russell, diocesan canon for engagement across difference.

Morning Prayer, slated to begin about 9:30 a.m., was considered a way to engage youth, according to Gabriel Vazquez-Reyes, diocesan youth coordinator.

“We are inviting students from all over the diocese to lead convention worship, to offer opening and closing prayers, and to do a reflection,” he said.

A 10 a.m. Sunday worship service will feature Taylor along with guest preacher the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation. (See related story here.) The service will offer an opportunity for not only convention delegates but congregations around the diocese to gather for a virtual liturgy that will include a new diocesan choir anthem recorded for the event, Russell said.

There also will be a virtual equivalent of taking a collection during worship to assist worthy causes. This year, funds collected electronically will benefit the bishop’s One Body, One Spirit Covid-19 Emergency Appeal.

The appeal has raised about $200,000 and has aided 14 churches, mostly with upgrading technology to achieve online worship capability and helping to cover expenses for congregations whose members have borne the brunt of COVID-related layoffs. A fourth round of grants will be made in October.

Melissa McCarthy, Canon to the Ordinary, works with the convention team to ensure a smoothly run meeting. Photo: John Taylor

Call to order, housekeeping details, convention business

Delegates who have seat, voice and vote will need a smartphone, tablet, laptop or web-connected device to join in convention business and vote electronically, Wylie said. All delegates must have a unique email address. Visitors, exhibitors, “seat-only” delegates and friends across the Southland may join via Facebook or You Tube.

The printed convention booklet will be replaced by a virtual binder, to be available online.

Convention business, to be conducted on Saturday, Nov. 14, will include election of diocesan officers; consideration of an amendment to conform canons to the diocesan constitution (see related story here); the treasurer’s report; approval of the 2021 diocesan budget; and prerecorded addresses by the bishops.

McCarthy will monitor communications, to ensure delegates have an opportunity to speak during convention, Nishibayashi said.

Bishop Bruce said it will be the first convention in 11 years “when I’m not sitting at the dais.” Delegates will hear her address after the 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. lunch break.

Bruce said she will participate via Zoom from her Irvine home, because she will be self-quarantining in preparation for a Thanksgiving holiday visit from her 20-month-old grandson.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Bishop Taylor was kind enough to allow me the latitude to Zoom from home to be with family on the holiday.”

Although she will miss being able to hug people, she said, “I’ll be watching on the Zoom to see some of the faces that I sometimes only get to see at convention, unless I have a visitation at their particular congregation.”

Quirky evangelism, movable convention parts

Plans are also underway for a special Zoom gathering for clergy spouses and partners, as well as a virtual exhibit hall, which is already posted and continues to expand, Wylie said.

She added: “It’s a shame everyone can’t come to the exhibit hall and do their shopping. Yet, we are hoping it will still be a source of connection with people.”

Nishibayashi acknowledged that the virtual convention, no matter how efficient, cannot compensate for lack of human contact, “whether hand on shoulder or hug — it’s a loss,” he said. “On the other hand, we have the ability to embrace a thousand people. It’s a kind of quirky evangelism, making convention accessible to many more.

He added, “We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Unsure about navigating convention? You can practice!

Delegates who aren’t sure what to expect will have an opportunity for a practice convention to be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday Nov. 7. The event will include a test run at using the electronic voting system, Wylie said. The Zoom link for participation will be emailed directly to delegates and congregations.

Several additional online forums will be provided for discussing aspects of the convention.

  • The Rev. Canon Kelli Grace Kurtz will offer a discussion of the proposed canonical change affecting representation for non-traditional worshipping communities on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 5 p.m. To register, click here. Text of the proposed change is here.
  • Zoom sessions offering information about the 2021 Mission Share Fund budget are scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 11 at 5 p.m. with Canon Andy Tomat, treasurer, and the Rev. Michele Racusin, chief financial officer. To register, click here.
  • Nishibayashi and Wylie began Oct. 19 to offer weekly 6:30 p.m. question-and-answer sessions on Mondays. Log-in is here.

All in all, it’s an unusual year, but the challenges are being met. “This is exciting,” Wylie said. “I’m feeling really positive about this.”

For more information, visit the diocesan convention website here.