Robert Johnson had a problem.
We stood in the basement of the historic Libertyville Masonic Temple on that sticky July morning, watching the representatives from the village and the fire department descend upon the building, and slowly perspiring into our masks. That the COVID-19 pandemic had, in only a few months, transformed the way we interact with the world is a topic which has been well covered elsewhere, and all of us reading this in 2020 are doubtless well aware of. The men with their tape measures and clipboards were here now to measure out the temple space, examine its 1930’s-era entrances and exits, and give us a ruling if it could be safely used within pandemic regulations to accommodate the crowds of people projected to arrive here in just under two months.
In a year that had already seen the cancellation of countless events, Masonic and otherwise, and seen many events and meetings transition to virtual formats, this virtual shift might be the most sensible logistic choice for the inaugural 2020 Masonic Con Chicago. This is what I was thinking that humid July morning. In fact, I’m pretty sure I told RJ as much. How would an enclosed building space be used to comfortably support hundreds of guests? Could it? What would need to be lost or compromised in doing so? Would this add up to a less than ideal experience or a technical nightmare?
A Chicago-based Masonic Convention had been being tossed around for several years at this point. In fact, in 2017 a dear Brother and I had been making plans to host one. However, our own lack of experience and connections, not to mention the usual cavalcade of life events and other distractions, meant that our efforts physically amounted to little more than a Facebook page and a domain name. When RJ begun discussing the idea in early 2019, I felt that if ever there was a chance for this event to manifest, it would be now.
RJ had spent months reaching out to his connections, pouring over logistics, drawing from his experiences at other national Masonic Conventions, and assembling a truly awesome crowd of speakers and vendors to make the 2020 Masonic Con Chicago a truly classy and memorable event. All of this planning, all of this work, and the success of this venture now hung in the balance as the pandemic turned the world upside down.
Knowing more than I did, tapped into the Masonic zeitgeist, RJ made the bold decision to retain a physical event as part of the 2020 Chicago Masonic Con. He would also include a virtual option so those uncomfortable with or unable to travel into the event in person could still experience the speakers remotely. Doing so meant a huge shift in planning and preparations, and was by no means the easy thing to do. The building would have to be sanctioned off to enforce social distancing protocols, everything would need to be deep cleaned and sanitized, and a battalion of computers, cameras, projectors, and microphones would now need to be regimented and run along with the existing in-house technical needs.
Opening night of the convention, Friday September 18, came at last. RJ, his wife Cori, and their boys had spent hours the previous days deep cleaning and preparing Libertyville Temple, and marshaling vendors and arriving guests as the they came. The level of exhaustion which he must have been experiencing at this point, before the event had even officially begun, must have been immense; but it wasn’t apparent in how RJ greeted the guests and began the social hour before the dinner. That night’s meal, a catered buffet-style Italian smorgasbord held in the civic center across from the temple, was accompanied by toasts and speeches, and something else much more difficult to quantify. Here was a room of Masons (and a few significant others) from all over the country, dressed in their finery, spaced out around tables in a large room, clumsily pulling masks to the side to take a sip of wine or bite of dinner, and swapping stories of life in 2020 alongside philosophical discussion. The cutlery may have been synthetic plastic, but the atmosphere was warm and real. It was not the typical “Masonic Banquet”, but it was something more. An electric current seemed to ramp up and hang in the air, as grown men excitedly whispered about the weekend to come. Perhaps it was a shared feeling of doing something we all knew the conventional wisdom of the moment warned against, but like giddy school boys about to push a stranger’s doorbell and run, we couldn’t have been more excited.
Following dinner and walking back to Libertyville Temple to close up for the night, I distinctly recall Steve Harrison’s motor home shoehorned into the temple parking lot. Its electrical generator idling away like a slumbering dragon, which with great anticipation would wake in just a few short hours.
The educators and their presentations were top class, and a more auspicious program you would be hard-pressed to assemble. Respected giants including Bryan Simmons, Joe Martinez, Alex Powers, Dago Rodrigues, Scott Dueball, Steve Harrison and Jon Ruark blew minds like they were cheap electrical fuses in your Father’s beater Toyota. Those physically in attendance, while masked, were clearly engaged, and they asked questions, real and thoughtful questions, after each presentation. So well organized was the virtual group of attendees that they were also able to submit questions in real-time and engage in the conversation as well.
Saturday wrapped up with a panel discussion on organizing conventions run by Brothers who had been there themselves, grappling with the logistics of such an event, and have gone on to organize successful national events. The panel went for well over an hour and was chock full of excellent experiential tidbits and Obi-Wan Kenobi like guidance. It was a memorable way to end the day, and while we were tired, we were also inspired.
Sunday morning kicked off in spectacular form with a presentation by Maribel Martinez, whose thoughtful and eloquent presentation on the symbolism of the rainbow set an unbelievably high bar for the presenters to come. Jason Richards, Tim Hogan, and Chris Hodapp rose spectacularly to the challenge, and as the Sunday presentations finished, RJ took to the mic. I’ll let this excerpt from his closing remarks speak for themselves:
“Freemasonry is exactly what you make it. I don’t mean that you get out of it what you put into it. I mean that if you want Education, you need to be willing to be educated. You need to put skin in the game, you need to do the work. … If you want Education, you put it on. You move. You read your education, you put on your PowerPoint and when grown men cry about it for whatever reason or you evoke a passionate discourse--at least you’ve separated the wheat from the chaff, that is--to separate the valuable, from the worthless. You’ll know where you stand.”
RJ, Cori, and your boys: I know where you stand.
To my knowledge, Masonic Con Chicago was the largest national (and international) gathering of Freemasons since the pandemic hit the United States in March. Over 75 people attended the Con in person, with another 92 attending virtually. Attendees represented 35 jurisdictions nationally, as well as two Canadian provinces. There were nearly 10 vendors and sponsors present on site, as well as food service. I spent a wonderful weekend in the company of people who I knew well, met some new people, became acquainted with some people I had only previously connected with on social media or knew from their work, and broke ground on new relationships I am excited to see bloom and develop. I know I am not alone in this experience.
All of this was accomplished with an incredible amount of care and respect for best practices during a pandemic. I would be lying if I said that the event was not affected and altered by all the safety precautions, and had to shift in format from what was originally conceived. But the fact that it went on and was awesome WITH precautions is a mighty bell-weather for what Masonry during the pandemic can be. What was demonstrated is that value isn’t found through packing a lodge room, shoveling food into our mouths around a packed table off of china plates with silver cutlery, imbibing and smoking, and all the other external trappings we turn to in order to “improve” our Craft experiences. Value here, it turns out, is that most conspiratorial human practice of taking a leap into something unknown and discovering more than one ever imagined. We’ve known this all along, or at least, we’ve professed to it since we first knocked on a lodge hall door wearing absurd pajamas. This is initiation, and at Masonic Con Chicago, it was an initiation into something electric many of us had unknowingly shelved in some capacity of distancing to accommodate the pandemic: love.
RWB Spencer Hamann is a luthier and musicologist working in northern Illinois. He is an avid woodworker and artificer and enjoys antique restorations and custom commissions. Curatorship and adding value are core to his personal philosophies. Spencer was Raised in 2013 and served Libertyville Lodge No. 492 as Worshipful Master from 2017-2018. He is the Senior Warden of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183, and serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois as their Grand Representative to Wisconsin, District Education officer for the 1st NE District, and is a Certified Lodge Instructor (CLI). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org