The chapel was virtually empty, yet still there was a sense of gathering.
Groton School held its first virtual chapel service on Monday, March 30, drawing the community together for a familiar daily ritual—in an unfamiliar format. Nearly five hundred households tuned in, from all over the U.S. and from Austria, Bermuda, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.
The chapel service served as a welcome back from spring vacation as well as a welcome to online learning, which commences this week. Headmaster Temba Maqubela was the chapel speaker, as he always is after a vacation.
Mr. Maqubela immediately acknowledged the emotion wrapped up in the service, with COVID-19 concerns limiting travel and social interaction around the globe. “Even though some of you are usually sleepy or jetlagged after a vacation, I miss seeing your involuntary nods caused by drowsiness, mixed with fresh faces of those who are eager and raring to go. I am not happy without those faces of Zebras lighting up this Chapel.”
But he went on, optimistically, “Imagination is a wonderful thing. I can visualize the faces of the seniors sitting there in their senior section, along with a few others who have reluctantly joined because they came in late to Chapel.”
Only five people were actually in St. John's Chapel for the service, practicing social distancing: the headmaster and Mrs. Maqubela; Associate Head Andy Anderson P'15, '17, '20, who opened the service with a prayer; Lucy Anderson ’20, who did a reading; and organist Daniel Moriarty.
Mr. Maqubela urged equilibrium as virtual learning begins. “Today, I ask you to prepare to receive lessons from your inspiring teachers, and as you do so, keep an open mind that we are all in uncharted territory—learners, if you will.”
He also mentioned four pillars, of which he often speaks, that are foundational to a Groton education:
“Scholarship: This week, we begin with classes in earnest. This pillar undergirds and informs the primacy of the academic program and will give you agency in future endeavors.
Service: Our scholarship is in service to our neighbors in need, our communities, and to the greater good of our shared humanity.
Globalism: Acknowledging the challenges faced by those on the West Coast who must start classes at the crack of dawn and those in the Far East who have to stay up until midnight, we are called upon to accommodate your peers who are in different geographical time zones.
Spirituality: whether it is in silence or song, praise or prayer, this sacred space serves as a reminder of how we seek spirituality in times of need.”
The virtual chapel service included a recorded organ prelude and postlude, a live opening prayer and reading, a recording of the school hymn (with lyrics for at-home singing), and Mr. Maqubela’s live talk.
The virtual weekday service brought together students and faculty in an atmosphere that felt different yet the same. “Because I knew that there were people all across the world tuned in, it didn’t feel like speaking to an empty room,” said Associate Head of School Andy Anderson. “As Temba said, ‘imagination is powerful,’ and I really did feel like we had a gathering.”
Julia Trowbridge ’22 watched from Maine. “It no doubt felt kind of weird,” she said, “but I was talking to friends before and after, so it felt oddly normal at the same time.” Cara Chang '20, watching from upstate New York, found the talk reassuring. "It was oddly calming to see and hear the headmaster speak live in Chapel, albeit from home," she said.
When Lucy gave the reading, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, she said it felt like rehearsing a chapel talk because the room was empty—“it definitely was a little bizarre.” Yet whenever she looked into the camera, her outlook shifted. “As I was reading I was thinking, ‘Oh wow, my classmates, my teachers, everyone is watching.'” After her reading, friends began sending her photos of herself on their home TV screens.
The pause for Groton’s chapel service reached people at various points in their days, a reminder of the global nature of Groton School. At the end of his talk, Mr. Maqubela concluded, “Mindful of our geographical time zones, to you beloved Zebras: Good morning, good afternoon, and good night!”Watch Groton's March 30 virtual chapel service.