From concern to action in a few short months

rooftop3A grow­ing list of sto­ries is sug­gest­ing that black church­es in the South are being tar­get­ed for arson once again (although one of the more pub­li­cized cas­es seems to be lightning-related). This was a big con­cern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quak­er pro­gram stepped up to give Friends the chance to trav­el to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Jour­nal edi­to­r­i­al:

Some­times a news arti­cle touch­es the heart and moves peo­ple to reach out to one anoth­er in unex­pect­ed ways. So it was this win­ter when the Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black church­es in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Con­fer, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Wash­ing­ton Quak­er Work­camps, saw the arti­cle, he decid­ed to do some­thing about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two col­leagues accept­ed an invi­ta­tion to trav­el to west­ern Alaba­ma and see the fire dam­age for them­selves. They were warm­ly received by the pas­tors and con­gre­ga­tions of the three Greene Coun­ty church­es. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.

I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right tem­plate to fol­low this time, but it’s a great sto­ry because it shows the impor­tance of hav­ing a strong grass­roots Quak­er ecosys­tem. I don’t believe the Wash­ing­ton Quak­er Work­camps were ever a par­tic­u­lar­ly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been run­ning for ten years and had built up cred­i­bil­i­ty, a fol­low­ing, and the abil­i­ty to cross cul­tur­al lines in the name of ser­vice. The small­er orga­ni­za­tion­al size meant that a news­pa­per arti­cle could prompt a flur­ry of phone calls and vis­its and a fully-realized pro­gram oppor­tu­ni­ty in a remark­ably short amount of time.

A first-hand account of the work­camps by Kim Roberts was pub­lished lat­er than year, Rebuild­ing Church­es in Rur­al Alaba­ma: One Volunteer’s Expe­ri­ence. The D.C.-based work­camp pro­gram con­tin­ues in mod­i­fied form to this day as the William Penn Quak­er Work­camps.

Update: anoth­er pic­ture from 1996 Alaba­ma, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old pho­to books. She’s sec­ond from the left at the bot­tom, part of the longer-stay con­tin­gent that Roberts mentions.

WQW

Places like St Mary’s

I’m writ­ing this from the back of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, a small church built in the 1920s in the small cross­roads town of Mala­ga New Jer­sey. It was closed this past Novem­ber, sup­pos­ed­ly because of a bro­ken boil­er but real­ly because the Dio­cese of Cam­den is try­ing to sell off its small­er church­es – or any church with prime real estate along a high­way. It was reopened with­out per­mis­sion by parish­ioners in ear­ly Jan­u­ary, while we were still in the hos­pi­tal with baby num­ber three, a.k.a. Gregory.

We’ve spent a lot of time here since then. It’s a 24 hour vig­il and has been and will con­tin­ue to be. In Boston there are vig­ils that have been going sev­en years. I try to imag­ine Gre­go­ry as a sev­en year old, hav­ing spent his child­hood grow­ing up here in this lit­tle church. It’s not an impos­si­ble scenario.

I also spend a lot of time talk­ing with the faith­ful Catholics who have come here to pro­tect the church. It’s a cacoph­o­ny of voic­es right now – con­ver­sa­tions about the church, sure, but that’s only one of the many top­ics that come up. Peo­ple are shar­ing their lives – sto­ries about grow­ing up, about peo­ple that are know, about cur­rent events… It’s a real com­mu­ni­ty. We’ve been attend­ing this church for years but it’s now that I’m real­ly get­ting to know everyone.

I some­times pon­der how I, the self-dubbed “Quak­er Ranter,” got involved in all of this. Through my wife, of course – she grew up Catholic, became a Friend for eleven years and then “returned to the Church” a few years after our mar­riage. But there’s more than that, rea­sons why I spend my own time here. Part is my love of the small and quirky. St Mary’s parish­ioners are stand­ing up for the kind of church­es where peo­ple know each oth­er. In an era where menial tasks are hired out, the actu­al mem­bers of St. Marys tend the church’s rosary gar­den and clean its base­ment and toi­lets. They spend time in the church beyond the hour of mass, doing things like pray­ing the rosary or adoration.

The powers-that-be that want St Mary’s closed so bad­ly want a large inper­son­al church with lots of pro­fes­sion­al­ized ser­vices and a least-common-denominator faith where peo­ple come, go and donate their mon­ey to a dio­cese that’s run like a busi­ness. But that’s not St. Mary’s. There’s his­to­ry here. This is a hub of a town, an ancient cross­roads, but the bish­op wants big church­es in the splurge of sub­ur­ban sprawl. Even we Friends need places like St Mary’s in the world.

Conferences and videos

Church­es Retool Mis­sion Trips — wash​ing​ton​post​.com

A grow­ing body of research ques­tions the val­ue of the trips abroad, which are sup­posed to bring hope and Chris­tian­i­ty to the needy of the world, while offer­ing Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pants an oppor­tu­ni­ty to work in dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties, devel­op rela­tion­ships and charge up their faith. Crit­ics scorn­ful­ly call such trips “reli­gious tourism” under­tak­en by “vaca­tion­ar­ies.”

My brand of reli­gious don’t do this kind of mis­sion work but we are more and more enchant­ed with long-distance con­fer­ences. We now address every issue with a con­fer­ence but do we ask any “research ques­tions” about their effec­tive­ness? The web is a great tool to extend the con­fer­ence out­ward and yet, despite all the con­tent that could be eas­i­ly port­ed to the web, most con­fer­ences, con­sul­ta­tions and gath­er­ings bare­ly exist online. 

I know that real life has it’s own val­ue – I was hap­py to have a vis­it from indi­vid­ual trav­el­er Mic­ah Bales this week­end, a Friend with a great tal­ent for the good ques­tion that stays with you long after his bus departs. I just wish I saw more media com­ing out of these big events, more ways to boot­strap the vol­umes of con­tent pro­duced at these events into some­thing we can use for outreach. 

If anec­do­tal evi­dence is an indi­ca­tion, most of the peo­ple who have come to Friends in the last half-decade first encoun­tered us on Beliefnet, a for-profit dot-com with no con­nec­tion to any Friends body. It’s def­i­n­i­tions of “Lib­er­al Quak­ers” and “Ortho­dox Quak­ers” have become more impor­tant (de fac­to) than all of our books of Faith and Prac­tice. Beliefnet, Wikipedia and a site called Reli­gious Tol­er­ance have become the defin­ers of our faith to mil­lions of seek­ers. Noth­ing we’re doing comes close to Beliefnet.

And this is part fo the rea­son I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed by a Youtube video that was made this week­end. It’s an intro­duc­tion to “lib­er­al Quak­ers” by some­one who’s nev­er been to Quak­er wor­ship. While this might sound pre­sump­tu­ous, the real crime is that hers is the only Amer­i­can lib­er­al Quak­er intro­duc­tion on Youtube. What the hell are we doing, Friends? I’ve been cor­re­spond­ing with the Youtu­ber. She’s 22, a spir­i­tu­al seek­er who cob­bled togeth­er a spir­i­tu­al­i­ty after fol­low­ing a cou­ple of dead-end spir­i­tu­al paths. She came across the Beliefnet quiz, came out a “lib­er­al Quak­er” and start­ed look­ing for real world Friends. She tried the meet­ing in her home town but it looked desert­ed (!) and so start­ed an email cor­re­spon­dence with a Friend she found on anoth­er meeting’s web­site. She did the Youtube video because she couldn’t find any Amer­i­can intro­duc­tions and want­ed to give back, espe­cial­ly to younger seek­ers that might not respond to a British Youtube series. Yes her video is awk­ward and a lit­tle sketchy on some points of lib­er­al Quak­er the­ol­o­gy, but it’s hon­est and doesn’t con­tain any view­points you won’t hear around most meetinghouses.

PS: Since writ­ing this I’ve come across the first video from the just-concluded FGC Gath­er­ing. I don’t know if it’ll help with out­reach but it is real­ly fun­ny. Thanks Skip, I feel like I was there! 

Reach up high, clear off the dust, time to get started

It’s been a fas­ci­nat­ing edu­ca­tion learn­ing about insti­tu­tion­al Catholi­cism these past few weeks. I won’t reveal how and what I know, but I think I have a good pic­ture of the cul­ture inside the bishop’s inner cir­cle and I’m pret­ty sure I under­stand his long-term agen­da. The cur­rent lightening-fast clo­sure of sixty-some church­es is the first step of an ambi­tious plan; man­u­fac­tured priest short­ages and soon-to-be over­crowd­ed church­es will be used to jus­ti­fy even more rad­i­cal changes. In about twen­ty years time, the 125 church­es that exist today will have been sold off. What’s left of a half mil­lion faith­ful will be herd­ed into a dozen or so mega-churches, with the­ol­o­gy bor­rowed from gener­ic lib­er­al­ism, style from feel-good evan­gel­i­cal­ism, and orga­ni­za­tion from con­sul­tant culture.

When dioce­san offi­cials come by to read this blog (and they do now), they will smile at that last sen­tence and nod their heads approv­ing­ly. The con­spir­a­cy is real.

But I don’t want to talk about Catholi­cism again. Let’s talk Quak­ers instead, why not? I should be in some meet­ing for wor­ship right now any­way. Julie left Friends and returned to the faith of her upbring­ing after eleven years with us because she want­ed a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty that shared a basic faith and that wasn’t afraid to talk about that faith as a cor­po­rate “we.” It seems that Catholi­cism won’t be able to offer that in a few years. Will she run then run off to the East­ern Ortho­dox church? For that mat­ter should I be run­ning off to the Men­non­ites? See though, the prob­lem is that the same issues will face us wher­ev­er we try to go. It’s mod­ernism, baby. No focused and authen­tic faith seems to be safe from the Forces of the Bland. Lord help us.

We can blog the ques­tions of course. Why would some­one who dis­likes Catholic cul­ture and wants to dis­man­tle its infra­struc­ture become a priest and a career bureau­crat? For that mat­ter why do so many peo­ple want to call them­selves Quak­ers when they can’t stand basic Quak­er the­ol­o­gy? If I want­ed lots of com­ments I could go on blah-blah-blah, but ulti­mate­ly the ques­tion is futile and beyond my figuring.

Anoth­er piece to this issue came in some ques­tions Wess Daniels sent around to me and a few oth­ers this past week in prepa­ra­tion for his upcom­ing pre­sen­ta­tion at Wood­brooke. He asked about how a par­tic­u­lar Quak­er insti­tu­tion did or did not rep­re­sent or might or might not be able to con­tain the so-called “Con­ver­gent” Friends move­ment. I don’t want to bust on any­one so I won’t name the orga­ni­za­tion. Let’s just say that like pret­ty much all Quak­er bureau­cra­cies it’s inward-focused, shal­low in its pub­lic state­ments, slow to take ini­tia­tive and more or less irrel­e­vant to any cam­paign to gath­er a great peo­ple. A more suc­cess­ful Quak­er bureau­cra­cy I could name seems to be doing well in fundrais­ing but is doing less and less with more and more staff and seems more inter­est­ed in donor-focused hype than long-term pro­gram implementation.

One ene­my of the faith is bureau­cra­cy. Real lead­er­ship has been replaced by con­sul­tants and fundrais­ers. Finan­cial and staffing crises – real and cre­at­ed – are used to jus­ti­fy a water­ing down of the mes­sage. Pro­grams are dri­ven by donor mon­ey rather than clear need and when real work might require con­tro­ver­sy, it’s tabled for the façade of feel-goodism. Quak­er read­ers who think I’m talk­ing about Quak­ers: no I’m talk­ing about Catholics. Catholic read­ers who think I’m talk­ing about Catholics: no, I’m talk­ing about Quak­ers. My point is that these forces are tear­ing down reli­gios­i­ty all over. Some cheer this devel­op­ment on. I think it’s evil at work, the Tempter using our leader’s desires for posi­tion and respect and our the desires of our laity’s (for lack of a bet­ter word) to trust and think the best of its leaders.

So where does that leave us? I’m tired of think­ing that maybe if I try one more Quak­er meet­ing I’ll find the com­mu­ni­ty where I can prac­tice and deep­en my faith as a Chris­t­ian Friend. I’m stumped. That first batch of Friends knew this feel­ing: Fox and the Pen­ing­tons and all the rest talked about iso­la­tion and about reli­gious pro­fes­sion­als who were in it for the career. I know from the blo­gos­phere and from count­less one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions that there are a lot of us – a lot – who either drift away or stay in meet­ings out of a sense of guilt.

So what would a spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty for these out­sider Friends look like? If we had real vision rather than donor vision, what would our struc­tures look like? If we let the gener­ic church­es go off to out-compete one oth­er to see who can be the bland­est, what would be left for the rest of us to do?

20080608-xcjchpscnwekhsh85kg2hr7nbf.previewI guess this last para­graph is the new revised mis­sion state­ment for the Quak­er part of this blog. Okay kids, get a step stool, go to your meet­ing library, reach up high, clear away the dust and pull out vol­ume one of “A por­trai­ture of Quak­erism: Tak­en from a view of the edu­ca­tion and dis­ci­pline, social man­ners, civ­il and polit­i­cal econ­o­my, reli­gious prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter, of the Soci­ety of Friends” by Thomas Clark­son. Yes the 1806 ver­sion, stop the grum­bling. Get out the ribbed pack­ing tape and put its cov­er back togeth­er – this isn’t the frig­ging Library of Con­gress and we’re actu­al­ly going to read this thing. Don’t even waste your time check­ing it out in the meeting’s log­book: no one’s pulled it down off the shelf in fifty years and no one’s going to miss it now. Real­ly stuck?, okay Google’s got it too. Class will start shortly.

Looking at North American Friends and theological hotspots

Over on Friends Jour­nal site, some recent stats on Friends most­ly in the US and Cana­da. Writ­ten by Mar­garet Fras­er, the head of FWCC, a group that tries to unite the dif­fer­ent bod­ies of Friends, it’s a bit of cold water for most of us. Offi­cial num­bers are down in most places despite what­ev­er offi­cial opti­mism might exist. Favorite line: “Per­haps those who leave are noticed less.” I’m sure P.R. hacks in var­i­ous Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions are burn­ing the mid­night oil writ­ing response let­ters to the edi­tor spin­ning the num­bers to say things are look­ing up.

She points to a sad decline both in year­ly meet­ings affil­i­at­ed with Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing and in those affil­i­at­ed with Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence. A curios­i­ty is that this decline is not seen in three of the four year­ly meet­ings that are dual affil­i­at­ed. These blend­ed year­ly meet­ings are going through var­i­ous degrees of iden­ti­ty cri­sis and hand-wringing over their sta­tus and yet their own mem­ber­ship num­bers are strong. Could it be that seri­ous the­o­log­i­cal wrestling and com­pli­cat­ed spir­i­tu­al iden­ti­ties cre­ate health­i­er reli­gious bod­ies than mono­cul­tur­al groupings?

The big news is in the south: “His­pan­ic Friends Church­es” in Mex­i­co and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca are boom­ing, with spillover in el Norte as work­ers move north to get jobs. There’s sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle inter­ac­tion between these newly-arrived Spanish-speaking Friends and the the old Main Line Quak­er estab­lish­ment (maybe not sur­pris­ing real­ly, but still sad). I’ll leave you with a chal­lenge Mar­garet gives readers:

One ques­tion that often puz­zles me is why so many His­pan­ic Friends
con­gre­ga­tions are meet­ing in church­es belong­ing to oth­er denominations.
I would love to see estab­lished Friends meet­ings with their own
prop­er­ty shar­ing space with His­pan­ic Friends. It would be an
oppor­tu­ni­ty to share growth and chal­lenges together.

Quaker Emergent Church Planting

Over on the Evangelical side of Friends is "Simple Churches":www.simplechurches.net, a movement of "organic" church planting. It's a project of Harold and Wendy Behr, recorded by Northwest Yearly Meeting and now working with Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. The core values are ones I could certainly sign off on: Leadership over Location, Ministry over Money, Converts over Christians, Disciples over Decisions, People over Property, Spirit over Self, His Kingdom over Ours. I particularly like their site's disclaimer:
bq. As your peruse the links from this site please recognize that the Truth reflected in essays are often written with a "prophetic edge", that is sharp, non compromising and sometimes radical perspective. We believe Truth can be received without "cursing the darkness" and encourage you to reflect upon finding the "candle" to light, personally, as you apply what you hear the Lord speaking to you. In Body life, often the most powerful opponent of the "best" is the "good".
They're leading a conference next month in Richmond, Indiana, with members of Friends United Meeting. How tempting is this?


h3. See also:
* "Emergent Church Movement: The Younger Evangelicals and Quaker Renewal":/Quaker/emerging_church.php