Most Worshipful Grand Master Gary S. Kaufman's message in The Freemason Magazine, September - November issue.
I want to congratulate you. As Masons, we learn to adapt and make the best of a difficult situation. Certainly, you can be proud that this is exactly what the members of this Craft have done. You are resilient and take on challenges with a positive outlook.
We are about 6 months into COVID-19 and let us look at where we are. In March, lodges were closed to all Masonic activities. Within weeks, Zoom meetings were taking place with the sound of the gavel. This evolved into opening bibles, setting lights, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance in many cases. General business of the lodge was completed, and lodge attendance was tallied. The Zoom meeting had a positive consequence not realized at first. Brothers who no longer lived in the area found their way to Zoom lodge meetings. Brothers from all over the world (literally) were attending for the first time in a long time. Several lodges had annuals and officers were installed by Zoom, as well. Our Semi-public installation was modified for Zoom. Roger Williams Lodge and St. Johns Lodge Providence were installed as close to the 'in-person' event as possible.
In May this jurisdiction had its first Zoom Annual Communication. Well over 100 brethren attended the installation ceremony from both in and out of the jurisdiction.
As of June 1, we were able to meet in lodge, albeit with restrictions and limited attendance. The Governor's COVID-19 guidelines were adopted for use at all lodges including, temperature wellness for all people entering the lodge, a series of health questions related to COVID-19, and the use of masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing. Only a couple of lodges decided to meet in person in June. July came and we were allowed additional numbers in lodges. As of this writing, the numbers allowed to social gather within a building was reduced from 25 to 15. The Grand Council and I discussed adopting language of 'venue of assembly' for our lodge buildings. Using 'venue of assembly' as a description of our buildings and the work performed within being ritual based, allows for additional numbers of Masons in a lodge, for the purpose of communications and degree work. Unfortunately, any social gathering within the building is limited to 15.
The future brings more questions about COVID-19, including whether there will be a resurgence this fall - when will Rhode Island move to Phase 4 - and what will the balance of the masonic year bring. I have heard that a vaccine is close at hand, however, it may take between 12 to 18 months to inoculate the public. If there is a resurgence of the disease this fall, new or additional restrictions are sure to follow, further disrupting our fraternity and this Masonic year.
With so much uncertainty about if and when we will be able to resume 'normal' activities, and the real possibility of a resurgence of the virus in the fall, I am very concerned for the well-being of our lodges and members of the lodges in our jurisdiction. Many of our masters and officers have not had a true "in-lodge" experience to learn the core fundamentals of their position and duties through the performance of the general opening and closing of a lodge, the degree work, and lectures. As the fall begins our busy annual season, the installed officers may not be able to convene lodge in person for its members for an unknown period. More especially, the Master may miss out on implementing the plans he made for his year. He may miss that important degree work as Senior Warden and now faces missing degree work as Master. As such, all officers and masters are being deprived of the learning and experience of their position for which they waited and worked for over the years.
We need to persevere during this challenging period and make choices which preserve the well-being of our brethren while honoring the need and desire to participate in lodge with a sense of shared purpose for the continuity and betterment of the Craft for the long term. Each officer should be allowed the opportunity to gain knowledge and experience of his position, performing degree work, planning and implement social events, and gaining the needed experience of that position which is a foundation for the next officer's position. We need to be mindful of the effects of the COVID-19 experience on all officers and the brethren which may be long-lasting. With the officers missing these learning and experiential opportunities, and in the case of a Master, not performing required degree work, their chances of advancing into other positions in Grand Lodge or concordant bodies is diminished.
As such, I am proposing to all Masters and officers to consider undertaking an additional year in your current or incoming positions in hopes that a second year will be less about COVID-19 and more about having the chance to gain the necessary skills and experience of the office and the ability to implement and complete your plans and degrees. I make this recommendation recognizing that this crisis may last for well over a year, and we need to be flexible in our mode of operation, informed by our commitment to authentic ways of interpretation of our rituals and constitutions.
There has been talk within the Craft for Grand Lodge to make a statement on the civil unrest in the country and within Rhode Island. The Grand Master of Prince Hall Masons, M∴W∴Clarence Snead and I met and had an open, meaningful conversation about the current situation and a mutual commitment to keep the lines of communication open. That being said, amid this crisis, our purpose and mission remain steadfast:
The strength of modern Freemasonry is that it welcomes men of all religious, racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds into its worldwide brotherhood. The opportunities for camaraderie, fellowship, and service offered by our Craft help us better understand each other and build a foundation for trust where there is no place for the intolerance and injustice that we have seen displayed in the past few months.
As the Masonic Grand Lodge of Rhode Island, we support the rights of people to publicly and peacefully express their opinions, voice their concerns, and join them in condemning the violence that has motivated them to action. As a brotherhood we believe that truth, honesty, and fair dealing are the cornerstones of respect and dignity within our communities and throughout the world. We will always work toward that end.
Freemasonry teaches us to regard the whole human species as one family. During this uncertain time of pandemic and social unrest, charity in thought, word, and action toward all people can and will make a positive difference in the lives of others and ourselves. Using this as a course of action, we can make the world a better place.
As Freemasons, we should always remember the obligations we took and follow the principles we have been taught. This would be the perfect time to revisit these lessons and each of us be an example for the world around us to follow.
Gary S. Kaufman
M∴W∴ Grand Master