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Monday, January 20, 2020
If the world thinks you're dead, beat on the coffin lid
We've turned the Airstream eastward at last and are headed back home from California. By sheer accident, we happened to be passing through the curious little wide spot in the Arizona highway called Quartzsite just in time for what is billed as the largest recreational vehicle event in the world. For fifty weeks out of the year, Quartzsite is an outpost in the desert with a handful of gas stations and fast food eateries, a grocery store, three or four trailer service companies, several trailer parks, and surrounded by hundreds of square miles of rugged, empty land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. But for ten days in January, this tiny burb is invaded by (depending upon whom you ask) anywhere from 250,000 to two MILLION happy campers for a massive recreational vehicle and rock collector's swap meet and trade show. Easily tens of thousands of trailers, RVs and ATV's dot the landscape and clog every street, and the parking and campsites are quite literally anywhere you can pull off the road.
What does this have to do with Freemasonry? That's easy.
Whenever I go out into informal places and events like this one, I usually wear a square and compass symbol around my neck and often on a hat. All of my vehicles feature a large Masonic decal on their rear windows. Almost since I first joined 20 years ago, I've worn a jacket in cold weather with a square and compass you could spot from low-Earth orbit.
Let's just say I'm not subtle. I make no apologies that I'm a proud and shameless shill for this fraternity.
I've now spent two days wandering around the hundreds of vendor stalls and tents in Quartzsite, and I can honestly say that, had I had a stack of Arizona petitions, I could have signed up enough new candidates and existing Masons on the spot to charter a new lodge. Probably more. Numerous people saw the familiar square and compass and stopped me to chat about their grandfather's membership, or the lodge that used to be in their town, or joke about our 'world domination plans,' or - most important - ask about membership.
Consider this: the Quartzsite RV show draws heavily upon the very demographic that is historically most likely to join a Masonic lodge: the average petitioning age of Masons has been men between 39-50 almost consistently for two centuries now. The bulk of men wandering this show appeared to be between 40-70, mostly married, decidedly middle class, and with a fair amount of spare time and disposable income on their hands (many were full-time RVers driving VERY expensive rigs). I'm just guessing based on the products in the booths, bumper stickers on cars and rigs, and jewelry worn by attendees that the majority espoused a stronger than average religious faith. All of this is based on surface judgements or conversations I had with scores of people, so they are nothing but generalizations. But I think those observations are still sound ones.
So my question is, why is it that American Masons seem reticent to do something as logical as set up a booth or table at this sort of massive event to tell the public who and what the Freemasons are, to remind them we're very much alive and well, and that we're open to admitting new members?
I'm not picking on Arizona. And it's especially hard here because there are (to the best of my research) precisely NO surviving Masonic lodges in western Arizona along Interstate 10 until you get almost all the way to Phoenix. With no lodge presence really anywhere near the area (Lake Havasu and Yuma are closest, and both are more than 45 minutes away), there's no one locally to keep up any sense of urgency to be seen out here. I'm just saying this is a wasted opportunity.
Since I'm talking about public outreach, consider this one. A UGLE lodge that is located in a university town in England sets up a booth every year at the school's welcome fair for incoming freshmen. Certainly a fine idea, given that a greater percentage of the population today has less and less awareness of just who and what Freemasons are. What better place to spread the word in a tasteful and informative manner than set up an information booth at a college?
But obviously the cultural attitude on college campi these days is more pockmarked with potential social outrage landmines than ever before. All-male fraternal groups are under assault all over the U.S. and Britain as being neanderthal bastions of male superiority or the patriarchy or. . . something. Setting up a booth at a college promoting a group like the Masons is like waving a red cape at an enraged, four-footed pot roast in a bullfighting arena.
Interestingly, UGLE has a very pragmatic view about female Freemasonry. They don’t plug their ears and pretend they don’t exist. Between modern anti-discrimination laws in the U.K. and the EU alike, it helps inoculate the fraternity if they can cheerfully say, “Lady Masons? Of course, here’s their address and whom to speak with. May we call you a taxi?”
So, this is where the UGLE's pragmatic approach to female Freemasonry comes in. The English brethren at this particular university have teamed up for several years now with the lady Masons of the Order of Women Freemasons in co-sponsoring their Masonry booth.
Don't everybody start yawping all at once with their "Wimmin can't be Masons!' yawps.
(With all of the men and women I spoke to in Arizona this weekend, no one even mentioned an objection to our proudly male-only fraternity. I think most people really don't have a complaint about it in the real world, and many Masons feel needlessly apologetic about it.)
But I digress.
I idly wondered on my drive back to our campsite if Arizona has the ability to create a lodge under dispensation for the sole purpose of maybe holding a single outdoor lodge meeting in the desert for all sojourning Masons attending Quartzsite each year. Or if lodges could band together to set up a large tent for visiting Masons on the grounds of the RV show. Or if there are enough Masons in western Arizona interested in flapjackery to set up a breakfast tent as both a fundraiser and outreach program. Maybe get some of the Shrine Temples involved. This show is so huge that ALL Arizona Masons should be thinking about this. In fact, there's an argument to be made that it's TOO huge for a booth or a table to make an impact - two dozen Masons wearing tee shirts proclaiming "Ask Me About The Freemasons" might yield better results.
The ultimate point is that grand lodges and local lodges stand by year after year and watch our membership shrink with no long-range planning and ZERO long-range commitment to reaching out to reacquaint the public about our 300+ year-old fraternity. Publicity is not a dirty word, and is frankly more important than at any time in our modern history. We will never take our place again as the preeminent leaders of our communities if we sit idly by as succeeding generations lose their direct family connections to our traditions and collectively forget about us. It's up to us reverse that depressing trend.
How many articles, studies and surveys must we read that reinforce the message that Americans are lonelier, more solitary, more isolated, more friendless than at any time in recorded history before we realize that we as Masons have just what society needs at this moment in time?
Again, not to pick on Arizona - I just happen to be here right now. Every state has its own massive public events like state and county fairs, heritage days, period reenactment events, chautauquas, craft fairs, Renaissance fairs, car shows, holiday parades, and countless others. Masons need to be represented at every single one of them.