Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style

There’s that famous scene in the 1968 movie “Plan­et of the Apes” when our astro­naut pro­tag­o­nist Charl­ton Hes­ton real­izes that the space­ship that brought him to the land where apes rule didn’t trav­el in space but in time. He’s escap­ing the pri­mate theoc­ra­cy, head­ing north along the coast, when he rounds a cor­ner to see the charred ruin remains of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty lying in the sand. He falls to his knees and screams out “YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP!” He real­izes that it was his own peo­ple who had destroyed every­thing they loved with their inat­ten­tion and pettiness.

Yes­ter­day my old friend Chris Park­er post­ed a com­ment to “The Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion” essay where he won­dered if “the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty has lost its vital­i­ty” (scroll down to third entry). I first met Chris at a 1997 con­fer­ence in Burling­ton NJ for “Quak­er Vol­un­teer Ser­vice, Train­ing, & Wit­ness”. I had been excit­ed by the prospect of a group of peo­ple deep­en­ing and explor­ing the roots of Quak­er wit­ness and wasn’t dis­ap­point­ed with the con­ver­sa­tions and new friend­ships. Chris a recent MDiv from the Earl­ham School of Reli­gion now now work­ing at the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee; he left the con­fer­ence pas­sion­ate about help­ing to cre­ate some­thing new. While work­ing with AFSC, he start­ed pulling togeth­er a nation­al Quak­er net­work of vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties. This was a min­istry, pure and sim­ple, from one of the more active, vision­ary and hard­work­ing twenty-something Friends I’ve known. But frus­tra­tions mount­ed, sup­port evap­o­rat­ed. As I remem­ber even his month­ly meet­ing couldn’t uni­fy around sup­port­ing this min­istry. The project even­tu­al­ly fell apart as our email cor­re­spon­dence grew sketchy.

A month or so ago I got an email from Chris with his new address, a yoga retreat cen­ter in New Eng­land. I respond­ed back with per­son­al news but also with regrets that Quak­erism had appar­ent­ly lost him. Part of his com­ments from yesterday:

Well, I’m one of these thir­ty some­things that has drift­ed away. I’m sure each of us has our own sto­ry. I did try to help orga­nize, but that turned out to be a bit­ter and unsuc­cess­ful expe­ri­ence. A long sto­ry for anoth­er time. But the spir­it flows in many direc­tions and if the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty has lost it’s vital­i­ty or doesn’t work for some peo­ple, there are oth­er places there. Hold­ing on too tight­ly to Quak­erism is to hold on to a human creation.

I am now liv­ing and work­ing at Kri­palu yoga cen­ter, a place that many call a spir­i­tu­al home. We have 60,000 peo­ple on our mail­ing list, of whom about 68% have come here as a guest. There are about 30,000 unpro­grammed Quakers.

He’s right of course: Kri­palu undoubt­ed­ly touch­es more spir­i­tu­al lives than unpro­grammed Quak­erism. But the real les­son is that Kri­palu knows what a gem they have in Chris: they’ve giv­en him the kind of respon­si­bil­i­ties and encour­age­ment that Quak­ers didn’t.

Chris was one of those involved Friends I had hoped to grow old with. I had imag­ined us run­ning into each oth­er in half a dozen com­mit­tees over the next fifty years. We could have gone on back­pack­ing trips togeth­er, invit­ed each oth­er to our kids’ wed­dings, had catch-up lunch­es at Quak­er con­fer­ences, con­soled each oth­er through grief, thought about how to “trans­mit our faith” to the next gen­er­a­tion of Friends. Chris Park­er was worth more to Quak­erism than any num­ber of out­reach ini­tia­tives or peace net­works. Chris was the real deal: a com­mit­ted, impas­sioned Friend. And now he’s one of Quakerism’s scarred and rust­ed stat­ues, trib­utes to what could have been.

He put his sto­ry up on a web­site way back when. I’m just going to exten­sive­ly quote it here:

I feel an urgency about this project because it has come to me that Quak­ers are about to be need­ed by the larg­er cul­ture. Under­neath the ills we face as a nation is a spir­i­tu­al prob­lem of vio­lence and dom­i­nance over oth­er peo­ple and life. Friends have a tra­di­tion that presents an alter­na­tive. The essen­tial gem of Quak­erism is the knowl­edge that each per­son is part of the divine, that we need to treat every­body as equal and sacred. While I am com­fort­able with more wit­ness than Friends usu­al­ly muster, I do believe that faith is more eas­i­ly caught than taught. Ser­vice has been an expe­ri­ence where many are exposed to Quak­ers, with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inspire and bring transformations.

But the Soci­ety of Friends is not in great shape. Friends are unfo­cused and tired. Often young adult Friends are miss­ing. I have lis­tened jeal­ous­ly to an ear-lier gen­er­a­tion tell how AFSC work­camps formed them and taught them how to be lead­ers. While Quak­erism is very good for seek­ers, my gen­er­a­tion seems to need an expe­ri­ence giv­en to them, which is a dif­fer­ent ener­gy. My friends from Brethren Vol­un­teer Ser­vice were inspired and equipped for a life of com­mit­ment they prob­a­bly wouldn’t have oth­er­wise choosen.

My inspi­ra­tions have assem­bled slow­ly over the last six years. I went to Earl­ham School of Reli­gion to pre­pare to be of ser­vice. There I was inspired by friends who had par­tic­i­pat­ed in Breth­ern Vol­un­teer Ser­vice. At the same time I worked as Assis­tant Direc­tor of a peer coun­sel­ing pro­gram where I watched the teens blos­som and trans­form when trust­ed with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to help oth­ers and have a real impact.

Can Quak­erism sur­vive if we can’t keep Friends like this?