Selling Quakerism to The Kids

A few weeks ago I got a bulk email from a promi­nent sixty-something Friend, who wrote that a pro­grammed New Age prac­tice pop­u­lar in our branch of Quak­erism over the last few years has been a “cru­cial spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence for a great many of the best of our young adult Friends to whom [Lib­er­al Friends] must look for its future” and that they rep­re­sent­ed the “ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of ded­i­cat­ed young adult Friends.” Real­ly? I thought I’d share a sam­pling of emails and posts I’ve got­ten over just the last cou­ple of days.

Aman­da, a twen­ty year old New York City Friend with a pow­er­ful gift of min­istry, wrote about “how teens are form­ing their own wor­ship groups and young adults are start­ing a mid-week wor­ship at Fif­teenth Street Meeting”:
bq. We are going to orga­nize a young friend’s meet­ing for Weds nights, with old­er sea­soned friends attend­ing and being open for ques­tions after­wards… A vis­it­ing friend from anoth­er meet­ing said that they had just dis­cov­ered that that the teenagers in her meet­ing were not attend­ing the First Day meet­ing but were qui­et­ly arrang­ing and hold­ing their own meet­ings — and she was shocked at how “hard­core” and faith­ful they were. “I think we are too ‘tame’ for them.” she said. Anoth­er young friend, also in his ear­ly twen­ties, who was in atten­dence and myself acknowl­edged that we too have a desire for some­thing deep­er, and for the tra­di­tions and fire of the first Friends. Aman­da wrote “Buy­ing my Per­son­al­i­ty in a Store”:
James Chang, a con­vinced Friend who attends col­lege in Philadel­phia, found the Quak­er Ranter site and wrote about it on a young adult dis­cus­sion board, saying:
bq. we have degen­er­at­ed into a timid com­pa­ny of refined peo­ple who are too nice to tell the world that it is cov­ered by a sea of dark­ness (as opposed to those valiant men and women who would strip them­selves and walk naked in mar­kets, telling the aston­ished crowds how they must repent and turn to their Inward Teacher.) Any­how, I have to con­fess that I became a Friend because George Fox has tru­ly spo­ken to my con­di­tions in his Jour­nal… Are we turn­ing our backs at these just and good peo­ple? Are we going to become dry trees like the “pro­fes­sors” and priests in white sur­plice and black cas­sock next door to my Meet­ing and with­er away? James has a great blog called “Just Curious”:
A thirty-something seek­er in New York State sent me a pri­vate email:
bq. I want to thank you for your arti­cles on the BLOG Quak­er Ranter. I am an Ordained Dea­con in the Epis­co­pal (Angli­can) church. Before my ordi­na­tion, part of my spir­i­tu­al jour­ney includ­ed atten­dance at a num­ber of Friends meet­ings. I still con­sid­er myself a “Clos­et Friend” and have strug­gled with a for­mal return to Quak­erism. Part of my reluc­tance to return to the fold was the per­va­sive PC, lib­er­al­ism of most Friends meet­ing… After read­ing some of the arti­cles on your BLOG, I now have hope.
And final­ly, two com­ments left on the site from the devel­op­er of the pro­grammed rit­u­al that I was told rep­re­sents the future of Quak­erism. He appar­ent­ly dis­cov­ered Google this week and “called me a racist with small ideas”:/martink/archives/000396.php#c4649. I respect him for hav­ing put togeth­er one of the few youth min­istries pro­grams in lib­er­al Quak­erism, though I don’t think we need to aban­don unpro­grammed wor­ship to keep the kids’ atten­tion or that his work­shop is an appro­pri­ate form of Quak­er reli­gious education.
Who exact­ly is the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion? Why are all the younger Friends I hear from real­ly excit­ed by ideas of Quak­er renew­al but so many old­er Friends mak­ing excus­es why the kids need a car­ni­val show to pay atten­tion? Why are we so shocked that twenty-something Friends are “hard­core and faith­ful” and inter­est­ed in get­ting deep with their Quak­erism? I get new emails from excit­ed, com­mit­ted new twen­ty Friends every week – new­ly con­vinced Friends who I can tell you are a core part of the real ris­ing gen­er­a­tion and our real hope for the future. So why are they so invisible?
Some­times the daugh­ters and sons of Quak­ers want spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences that Quak­erism can’t offer them. That’s okay. We can give them a kiss on the cheek, wish them well and keep the front door unlocked for them to come back and vis­it. But why can’t we see that the many of the “best of our young adult Friends” are strangers come to our front door because of the pow­er­ful Light pour­ing out through the win­dows of our faith. These seek­ers are ascend­ing the front stoop because of who we are and what we believe and how we prac­tice our love for one anoth­er. They come to us want­i­ng to learn our ways. The spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence they seek is the pow­er of the liv­ing Spir­it, that same Spir­it that taught Fox, Fell, Bar­clay, Fry, Penn, Mott, Jones, Kel­ly, Brin­ton and thou­sands of Friends, Chris­tians and humans through­out time.
The age of the apos­tles is now. Christ has risen and speaks to our hearts. It is up to us to be fish­ers of souls, open to the new broth­ers and sis­ters of the Spir­it. We can speak the expe­ri­ence of 350 years of Quak­er tes­ti­mo­ny, a future that is built from the rock of the past. The Great Peo­ple are still wait­ing to be gath­ered. Will we turn them away because we can only see the yawns of our sons and daugh­ters? And wouldn’t some of those same sons and daugh­ters be brought back into the fold in if they heard about and expe­ri­enced the pow­er we’ve known?

  • Aman­da

    I think one of the first steps to heal­ing our Quak­er prac­tice and mov­ing on to some­thing more pow­er­ful and ful­fill­ing and true is to try not to make this just anoth­er “us vs. them” sit­u­a­tion. The old­er gen­er­a­tions have that of God in them as pow­er­ful­ly as the most firey and hard­core young Friends — I think it’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty to appeal to that.
    I know they are as hun­gry as we are — I see the wor­ry and strain on the faces of the sev­er­al dozen over-fifties in our meet­ing when they dis­cuss the frac­tious­ness and small­ness and tale-bearing that they see grow­ing, and the weird New York Times or Chick­en Soup for the Soul min­istry we receive over and over which seems to have noth­ing to do with the Light.
    Even if they go on elder­ing a more prophet­ic or (gasp) Chris­t­ian min­istry in meet­ing, and even if they do it in a crusty way, are we going to let that sti­fle us? I think it does both “us” and “them” a ter­ri­ble dis­ser­vice. If an “over 50” approach­es us in a less that Friend­ly man­ner, the bur­den is on us to lov­ing­ly and joy­ful­ly respond with the Truth that we’ve seen. It may be my youth­ful ide­al­isim, but it seems to me that the old Friends might find them­selves relieved and refreshed, (once they’re fin­ished being star­tled and annoyed,) to find fresh, lov­ing young shoul­ders wait­ing to receive the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the lives of their Meetings.

  • Julie Hei­land

    Hi Aman­da,
    I don’t think that Mar­tin was mak­ing this out as an “us-them” thing. I spent about eleven years among lib­er­al Quak­ers in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try (pre­dom­i­nant­ly in South Jer­sey) and can attest to the fact that there ARE some SERIOUS gen­er­a­tional prob­lems that are alive and well. It is my opin­ion that just because some­one points out ageist big­otry, this does not mean that they WANT to draw a line in the sand. I think often it means the line has already been drawn. Again, this is my expe­ri­ence and my opin­ion – you may have your own. It is also my opin­ion that as younger peo­ple (I’m 28) we have so often been told by old­er gen­er­a­tions – par­tic­u­lar­ly the Boomers – that we should make nice and stop being “divi­sive”. In my case, whether I was angry or not, I was not infre­quent­ly per­ceived as such, and among lib­er­al Friends anger is prac­ti­cal­ly syn­ony­mous with vio­lence. (Julie rolls her eyes.) My sense of things is that often the var­i­ous “make nice” direc­tives to younger, less pow­er­ful Friends come pack­aged in passive-aggressive ways and we must care­ful­ly unwrap these “pack­ages” in order to find out what’s real­ly going on. Usu­al­ly there’s a tremen­dous fear of con­flict (read: don’t rock the boat – our “com­mu­ni­ty” is too del­i­cate and can­not with­stand too much ques­tion­ing), among oth­er things. So, in the light of my own expe­ri­ence of con­de­scend­ing com­ments, I will not say to you, “You just wait – you’ll see what I mean when you’re a lit­tle old­er.” (Snick­er snick­er.) Yuck. But I will thank you for your advice to be patient and lov­ing, and advise you to be care­ful whose “elder­ing” you choose to take to heart.

  • Hi Aman­da, thanks for the advice, you’re right of course that it shouldn’t be us vs. them. I do wor­ry that I’ve been dis­ap­point­ed so many times that I’ll grow too cyn­i­cal to see when the sit­u­a­tion might have changed. I’ve met plen­ty of Friends who are busy rais­ing the ral­ly­ing call of decades-old debates, so busy fight­ing old wars that they’ve failed to notice the issue has been more or less resolved.
    But I also some­times feel like Char­lie Brown. You know how Lucy always holds the foot­ball for him to kick and then always pulls it away at the last moment? Good old Chuck knows it will hap­pen again but he lets him­self be con­joled into trust­ing one more time. And one more time he goes fly­ing through the air to crash on his back.
    I spend quite a bit of ener­gy try­ing to con­vince insti­tu­tion­al Quak­ers that peo­ple like you exist. Even pre­sent­ed with phys­i­cal evi­dence many Quak­er lead­ers con­tin­ue to soft­pedal Quak­erism and sell youth min­istry short. I’ll be glad when I see an authen­tic shar­ing of respon­si­bil­i­ty across gen­er­a­tional lines. Maybe things are start­ing to shift. But I haven’t seen sub­stan­tial changes yet. And I can’t stop wor­ry­ing when we’ll next go hurtling through the air.

  • Aman­da

    Hi guys -
    I didn’t mean that I thought Mar­tin was mak­ing an us-them state­ment at all. I’m sor­ry if I came across that way! I meant to re-affirm a truth that I know all three of us have at heart,becuase I know how quick­ly devi­sive­ness can spring up, and I know from per­son­al expe­ri­ence how eas­i­ly I can allow my (jus­ti­fied!) frus­tra­tions about “the oth­er gen­er­a­tion” cloud an impor­tant issue. The very fact that old­er friends can be so touchy and so quick to sniff out the least bit of resent­ment and dis­miss it as anger and divi­sive­ness leads me to believe that we need to be very strict in exam­in­ing our­selves for pride and about respond­ing with what may seem like an absurd amount of under­stand­ing, tol­er­ance and compassion.
    I see that old­er Quak­ers have a ter­ri­ble fear of conflict- what makes them so afraid? I feel as if the some of the answers to these prob­lem might lie in dis­cov­er­ing the roots of those fears and find­ing way to lay them to rest. The oth­er answers lie in being fear­less in our chal­lenges of con­ven­tion. If they’ve already drawn the line in the sand, then we need to keep rub­bing it out.
    I know that I haven’t even begun the strug­gle — and that you two, and oth­ers, have been butting your head against the walls for years. I feel pro­found­ly dri­ven to take advan­tage of the fact that I’m not dis­cour­aged — yet — most­ly because I know it is bound to hap­pen eventually.
    I know the changes may be slow and hard won — and I want to thank you both for all that I know you’ve done for the cause of a true and vital Quak­er faith.
    If I tend to speechi­fy a bit, it is more direct­ed at these teens and early-twenty some­things that I hear every­one mourn­ing, and not at peo­ple like Mar­tin at all. If we real­ly so unsat­is­fied, then we need to take some respon­si­bil­i­ty to change it and not just grum­ble. Mar­tin has done this — sol­dier­ing on, writ­ing his web­sites, teach­ing, inspir­ing who-knows how many peo­ple like myself to at least begin to THINK about these issues. Julie has begun that yahoo group for peo­ple of faith look­ing to redis­cov­er some of the joys of sim­plic­i­ty and plain­ness and who-knows what oth­er ser­vices in the name of faith. The ques­tion is, what am I going to do? What are the rest of us going to do?
    I’m not sure yet, but I know it’s got to be done with love and ten­der­ness, along with stub­bor­ness and fire. In my brief expe­ri­ence, it seems that Quak­ers have the poten­tial to unite these two oppo­sites in a tru­ly remark­able way.
    And Mar­tin — Thee is a good man, Char­lie Brown.

  • Melyn­da Huskey

    Some­thing that real­ly jumped out at me (and not in a pleas­ant way) in the piece you quot­ed, Mar­tin, was the notion that “a great many” of our future lead­ers are to be found among the small slice of young Quak­ers who are able to trav­el reg­u­lar­ly to FGC gath­er­ings and who choose to attend sweat lodges while there. There’s a provin­cial­i­ty about those assump­tions that pinch­es me. I’d like to think that poor or geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­tant or oth­er­wise occu­pied young peo­ple who may already be weighty Friends might have a chance of ris­ing to ser­vice in our Soci­ety with­out that par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence. I’d like to think that we don’t yet know who will be raised up to lead us, and that the Spir­it may descend unex­pect­ed­ly on someone(s) who will amaze us all…

  • Hi Melyn­da: East Coast Quak­ers provin­cial? Huh. Sure­ly you jest?!?
    (Yes, that’s an iron­ic “huh,” Friends.)
    That small slice of vis­i­bil­i­ty is often even small­er than the geog­ra­phy would indi­cate. Most younger Friends who I see lift­ed up for lead­er­ship are the chil­dren of involved Friends. On one gov­ern­ing com­mit­tee I know of, just about all the under-35 rep­re­sen­ta­tives have a par­ent on the board. This cul­tur­al nepo­tism isn’t lim­it­ed to just one or two orga­ni­za­tions and it’s not just an old Quak­er fam­i­ly kind of thing. Pick­ing someone’s kid is easy, they come with pre­made cre­den­tials. It’s tied up with our con­tem­po­rary unease at even nam­ing min­istries. I’ve talked about a lot of this over at my “Emer­gent Church”:/quaker/emerging_church.php piece, where I look at what we need to work on to be real­ly to wel­come the great peo­ple still to be gathered.

  • I’m an “old­er Quak­er” who has no fear of conflict.
    While there are many roads to God, remem­ber that George Fox read the Bible, not the Gita; and that it isn’t George Fox who “speaks to your con­di­tion,” it is God who does that.
    So you may enjoy your sweat lodges and east­ern mys­ti­cism and the joy­ful hubris of youth that will lead us all to a rebirth and yad­da yad­da yad­da, and I will not be the one to call down anoth­er Friend’s con­cern be it too “lib­er­al” or too “con­ser­v­a­tive” — that would be improper…
    But what I have wit­nessed is that peo­ple amongst the Friends who move out of the Chris­t­ian gestalt don’t last. We would love to have them last, but they burn out because they don’t share the same found­ings that Quak­erism is based on.
    To say that you are look­ing for “that of God in every­one,” it helps to actu­al­ly believe in God.
    And I have no fear of stat­ing it. Con­sid­er this minor­i­ty voice mere­ly “speak­ing truth to pow­er” then. Smiles to you.

  • Rock on, RW.

  • I’m glad to have found this arti­cle, as well as the comment-stream. I grew up in Ver­mont, attend­ing Meet­ing until about age nine, and now I’m liv­ing in Port­land, Ore­gon, and attend­ing with the mys­tics and the hip­pies (grin­ning). Here’s a twenty-six – year – old who is get­ting involved in the life of the Meet­ing and feel­ing wel­come in the process. It helps, per­haps, that I under­stand that there is no author­i­ty but God to tell me not to.
    I think that a key part of any “lack of min­istry” in any group is the fun­da­men­tal human timid­i­ty on the sub­ject of which Nel­son Man­dela quot­ed Mar­i­anne Williamson (“Our Deep­est Fear”). But I’m not going to talk about the non-existence of some­thing that seems to me to exist.
    Here in Port­land, those of us who are between the ages of 18 and 35, those of us who still feel young — and the sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers of that whole group — have been get­ting togeth­er dur­ing social hour each week, hav­ing month­ly potlucks, and talk­ing about how we might be of ser­vice to the Meet­ing. There has been par­tic­u­lar inter­est in serv­ing the next batch of up-and-coming Friends, those in their teenage years, as they dis­cov­er adult­hood. Maybe this is us becom­ing the elders.
    It is heart­en­ing to know that we are not alone in doing so, and that there are Friends like you out there grow­ing elder with me. I’m be curi­ous to hear more about what, in par­tic­u­lar, oth­er young(ish) Friends are doing to age them­selves well.