Together we make a profound difference

Lighting the Way

Even in a year of unprecedented challenges, Freemasonry continued to show a path forward for its members and their communities. 

By Ian A. Stewart

The following is part of the Masons of California 2021 Fraternity Report. Download the entire report as a PDF here, or view all stories here.

The past year was, undoubtedly, one of profound change. As people, businesses, and organizations around the globe began to envision a post-COVID world, questions were asked across all sectors about what a return to communal life might look like. What aspects of our lives would snap back, magically, to resemble the world we left in March 2020? Which parts would be forever altered by COVID-19? And could those changes be not just reactive, but proactive? How might we emerge from the pandemic with better, stronger, more resilient systems in place? 

Clearly, the answers to those questions are still being written. But as California Masons turn the page on another year, some valuable insight is already coming into focus. “The game has changed,” says Mark Nielsen, a district inspector for the San Diego area, former Grand Lodge officer, and master of Murrieta No. 869. “The past two years have forced us to look at everything we do.” 

And that, he says, is a good thing. In a year that saw the resumption of in-person lodge events, it was that precisely that kind of introspection that lodge leaders say has positioned the fraternity for success in the future. 

Stirring Back to Life

Starting in May 2021, California lodges were once again permitted to resume in-person meetings, with several health precautions in place. That broke a streak of 15 months during which the state’s Masonic lodges essentially went dark, the longest such pause in California history. For many lodges, the return was a cause for celebration and a chance to get back to the activities that have always meant so much to their members. “It felt good,” says Marcial Gullem Jr., lodge master of Modesto No. 206, one of the first lodges to regroup. “I was waiting a long time for this day.” 

As of July, about three-quarters of lodges surveyed were back to hosting at least some in-person events. (Others delayed their return to lodge until a quorum could meet.) By December, nearly two-thirds of all lodges had held at least one degree conferral—and in many cases, several of them. (A third of lodges said they’d hosted at least four degrees since summer 2021.) At lodges like Redlands No. 300, sizeable backlogs of prospects had built up during the pandemic. Once they were able to resume meeting, it meant confronting a crush of demand. Says Thad Coffing, a district inspector in San Bernardino County, “There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement for coming back.” 

That demand is reflected in the membership numbers. From July 1 through the end of 2021 (approximately the time lodges resumed holding degrees), 647 new Masons were initiated into the fraternity; another 350 were passed to Fellow Crafts; and 279 were raised as Master Masons. At the close of the fraternal year, overall membership stood at 42,037—down about 2,500 people since the beginning of the pandemic. However, as lodges rebound and continue to field applications, meet with prospects, and hold degree ceremonies, that decline is expected to stabilize. At that point, leaders say membership should more closely match the fraternity’s pre-COVID trajectory, which had been on track for year-over-year membership growth. That hasn’t happened since 1964, but is suddenly within reach. 

Beyond simply conferring degrees, the resumption of in-person meetings allowed other cherished Masonic events to return, most notably the Annual Communication. Sporting face masks and color-coded wristbands to indicate their comfort level for physical contact, 1,004 Masons and their family members came together at the California Masonic Memorial Temple in October to vote on legislation and witness Jeffery M. Wilkins be installed as the 172nd Grand Master of Masons in California. 

Rewriting the Calendar

It was at that Annual Communication that one of the most significant changes to California Masonry in recent history was agreed to. Thanks to newly passed legislation, lodges are now permitted to hold stated meetings less frequently than the traditional monthly schedule, though no fewer than four times per year. 

That doesn’t point to any lessening of Masonry happening in the state, though. Quite the opposite: The lodges most in favor of such a move envision a more lively and densely packed calendar of events centered around can’t-miss (though less frequent) meetings. It’s the nuts-and-bolts business sessions, many of which are easy to replicate online and add little to the average member’s experience, that are being thinned out. Says Nielsen, whose Novus Veteris Lodge No. 864 is among those transitioning to quarterly meetings, “We now have an opportunity to ask questions like, do we need a planning session? Or a brothers’ night or a family night?” By de-emphasizing monthly business sessions, the lodge “has a greater opportunity to define who we are and what we want to spend our time doing.” 

Says Jordan Yelinek, the assistant grand secretary and Grand Lodge director of member services and lodge development, “We firmly believe that lodges know their needs best. For some, meeting each month is not best.” 

At Templum Rosae No. 863, another lodge moving to a quarterly schedule, the 2022 calendar is packed. During each of the four months when they’ll host their quarterly meetings, which include all degree conferrals, the lodge will also host weekly ritual practices. The times between those months will still include all the lodges’ existing prospects’ nights, dinners, and other lodge events. As one member says, “Business meetings will still happen, but it isn’t business as usual.” 

Members of Modesto No. 206 celebrate their first in-person meeting, in May 2021.

Asking Big Questions

Far from just representing a procedural change, the newly permitted meeting cadence reflects a new approach to Masonry in California—and one born of some serious COVID-era soul-searching. Time away from the lodge allowed fraternity leaders to consider which parts of the membership experience were most important, and which could be done without. “It’s about understanding what’s important to the modern Mason,” Nielsen says. 

The pandemic saw California lodges spring to life like never before. From running clothing drives to performing outreach to widows, the elderly, and those in need, California’s Masonic lodges demonstrated their commitment to the highest ideals of brotherhood and relief. Rather than go dormant, California lodges used the shutdown to show what Masonry in action looks like and to identify the ways that Freemasonry is relevant to today’s—and tomorrow’s—world. 

Now, as more lodges reopen and begin to plot their future, those tenets of brotherhood and leadership are serving as a rallying cry for the fraternity at large. Grand Master Wilkins, upon taking office, has declared his theme for the year “crafting leadership,” with an emphasis on Masonic lodges building and supporting community and civic leaders within their ranks. Some of those efforts have already started, with new approaches being adopted by many Grand Lodge committees. The California Masonic Foundation, too, has renewed its focus on community leadership through efforts including the Public Education Advisory Committee and philanthropic campaigns like Masons4Mitts, which is helping raise a new generation of fraternity leaders. “We want members to know that if they have that fire and that drive, we want them to get involved,” says Carlos Diez, a member of Solomon’s Staircase No. 357, district inspector, and member of the Grand Lodge Leadership Committee. 

The benefits of supporting leaders within the fraternity are numerous, Diez says, and in line with the priorities outlined in the 2025 Fraternity Plan. By encouraging people of different backgrounds into leadership positions and helping them thrive in those roles, the organization can make good on its commitment to promoting diversity and harmony, one of the plan’s central themes, and gain from their perspective. Emphasizing leadership also helps the fraternity expand its reach beyond the lodge doors, another pillar of the 2025 Plan, by putting members into contact with decision-makers in their community. Those kinds of partnerships, evident in campaigns like the annual Public Schools Month celebrations, build public awareness of the fraternity’s values, the final key to the 2025 plan. 

The past two years have affected us all. And California’s lodges have changed and adapted to the times. No matter what, though, Masonry will continue to be a force for good in the lives of its members and its communities. As Nielsen says, “The how of Masonry has changed—how we look at it and how we do it—but the why will never change.”

Read More From the 2021 Fraternity Report

Jeffery Wilkins, of Mosaic Lodge No. 218 in Livermore, takes the gavel as Grand Master of Masons in California.