Getting Back in the swing


By Ian A. Stewart

For John LeDell, being initiated into Freemasonry was a long time coming. As in decades long. Ever since he was a teenager, LeDell, now 45, wanted to join the fraternity that his grandfather had belonged to. He’d met with several lodges before, but never found a perfect fit. Finally, in 2018, he approached Redlands Lodge No. 300 and was invited in. By March 2020—nearly 30 years after he first considered joining—he was scheduled to receive his first degree in Freemasonry.

As it turned out, he’d have to wait a little longer. After a 16-month delay, LeDell and two other candidates, Alexander Nichols and Richard Fajardo, were among the first new initiates to join the fraternity post-COVID shutdown. As in-person degrees and events have returned, they’ve provided a (metaphorical) shot in the arm for California lodges. As of July 2020, about 75 percent of lodges surveyed said they’d held at least one in-person meeting or event; about 30 percent had hosted degree ceremonies.

That means it’s shaping up to be a busy fall. “We’ve got a huge backlog of people who were supposed to be initiated before COVID,” says District No. 810 inspector Thad Coffing, whose region includes Redlands No. 300, where LeDell was one of eight prospects waiting out the shutdown. Coffing’s home lodge, Phoenix Rising No. 178, had five degrees planned, including several Master Mason degrees.

Besides the busy calendar, the return to lodge has posed several questions for Coffing and others: Would members who’d grown accustomed to staying home suddenly be willing to drive across town for stated meetings, degree rehearsals, and other events? Would the lodge once again lose touch with its far-flung members, who during the shutdown were been able to participate through Zoom meetings? It’s still too early to say, but the initial returns are positive. “Our lodge had 17 people show up for our first practice,” Coffing says. “That shows people are really excited.”

Still, returning to normal hasn’t necessarily been smooth for everyone. Some groups have been slow to reopen, either as a precaution or for other reasons. For instance, six lodges in San Diego that meet in the Scottish Rite Center have been shut out as the building recovers from flooding caused by a burst pipe. “I know we’ve got entered apprentices champing at the bit,” says Assistant Grand Lecturer John Crago, whose division includes San Diego. “I’ve spoken with my inspectors, and we all said if we have a lodge that needs help [hosting a degree], we can get the whole district involved. That’s not unusual for us anyway.”

Perhaps a bigger issue has been an accumulation of rust. “The practices have been pretty rough,” Jeff Yates, an inspector at large for Division VII, says with a chuckle. “There’s a rhythm to Masonic ritual that you have to get into. In many cases, we’ve lost the rhythm and the habit of belonging.”

That, Yates says, should return with time. What remains to be seen is which aspects of our pandemic-altered lives continue on under the new paradigm. Lodge leaders have pointed out that virtual meetings were a blessing, and something they’d like to continue, strategically. Carlos Diez, a district inspector in Orange County, held a hybrid version  of his Officer’s School of Instruction this summer and had similar turnouts both live and online. “I’d love to do more of that whenever I can,” he says.

For all the changes and the stops and starts, the overriding feeling for LeDell, anyway, is one of relief. “I’ve waited a long time, but it was worth it,” he says of his initiation. “It was an amazing, life-changing experience. Now I’m just trying to soak it all up and learn everything I can.”

Tommy Witzel, 18, is met by his grandfather, Thomas Witzel, Jr., and father, Colin Witzel, after completing his entered apprentice degree at Irvine Valley Lodge No. 671 on July 27.

Russ Hennings/Moonbeam Studios

More from this issue: