Quakers acting badly

Friends don’t have a particularly good track record with regards to controversy. There’s no reason we need to pretend to be talking historically. We’ve had two major yearly meetings break up in this summer (meet Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Fellowship of Friends), with at least one more “at bat” for some future long hot summer.

Controversies flare up in many places. Friend Sa’ed Atshan just broke his media silence to talk about the cancelation of his talk at Friends’ Central School in February and the subsequent walk-outs, firings, and litigations. The controversy around Avis Wanda McClinton’s disownment by Upper Dublin Meeting continues to incense large numbers of Philadelphia Friends, with fuel to the fire coming from the role that the Undoing Racism Group does or doesn’t have in the yearly meeting structure. Last year a majority of Friends of color boycotted public events at the FGC Gathering over frustration at the site selection process and the underlying issues extend to other Quaker venues.

The most-commented recent article in Friends Journal is “It Breaks My Heart” by Kate Pruitt from the online June/July issue. Many readers related to her sense of alienation and loss. Two comments that hit me the hardest were:

Not all Friends are found in Quaker Meetings. You’re better off without your meeting.

Gone now is the hope… of finding community among Quakers. To be frank, why bother? There’s plenty of brokenness right where I am.

And I get enough “Why I’m leaving Friends” manifestos in my email inbox every month that I could turn it into a regular Friends Journal column.

It seems to me that are a number of underlying issues that tie these controversies together. What do we do when a group of Friends starts acting in a manner that seems contrary to our understanding of Quaker testimonies and practices? How do we balance love and judgement when conflict arises among us? When do we break out of Quaker niceness? Maybe even more challenging, how do we maintain our integrity and accountability when controversy breaks us into camps willing to engage in exaggeration? And just what do we say when the outside public only gets half the story or thinks that one side is speaking for all Friends?

So this is a plug for submissions for December's Friends Journal.  The theme is “Conflict and Controversy" and the submission deadline is September 9. We’re not looking for blow-by-blow accounts of being mistreated, and we’re not terribly interested (this time) in manifestos about Quaker cultural norms. I'm less interested in specific issues than I am the meta of discernment: How do individuals or small groups of Friends move forward in the heat of controversy. What do we do when the easy solutions have failed? How do we decide when it's time to break out of Quaker niceness to lay down some truth—or time to kick the dust off your sandals and move along?

Predictions on the ‘new evangelical’ movement

Read­ers over on Quak​erQuak​er​.org will know I’ve been inter­est­ed in the tem­pest sur­round­ing evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor Rob Bell. A pop­u­lar min­is­ter for the Youtube gen­er­a­tion, con­tro­ver­sy over his new book has revealed some deep fis­sures among younger Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians. I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed by this since 2003, when I start­ed real­iz­ing I had a lot of com­mon­al­i­ties with main­stream Chris­t­ian blog­gers who I would have nat­u­ral­ly dis­missed out of hand. When they wrote about the authen­tic­i­ty of wor­ship, decision-making in the church and the need to walk the talk and also to walk the line between truth and com­pas­sion, they spoke to my con­cerns (most of my read­ing since then has been blogs, pre-twentieth cen­tu­ry Quak­er writ­ings and the Bible).

Today Jaime John­son tweet­ed out a link to a new piece by Rachel Held Evans called “The Future of Evan­gel­i­cal­ism.” She does a nice job pars­ing out the dif­fer­ences between the two camps squar­ing off over Rob Bell. On the one side is a cen­tral­ized move­ment of neo-Calvinists she calls Young, Rest­less, Reformed after a 2006 Chris­tian­i­ty Today arti­cle. I have lit­tle to no inter­est in this crowd except for mild aca­d­e­m­ic curios­i­ty. But the oth­er side is what she’s dub­bing “the new evangelicals”:

The sec­ond group — some­times referred to as “the new evan­gel­i­cals” or “emerg­ing evan­gel­i­cals” or “the evan­gel­i­cal left” is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less orga­nized than the first, but con­tin­ues to grow at a grass­roots lev­el. As Paul Markhan wrote in an excel­lent essay about the phe­nom­e­non, young peo­ple who iden­ti­fy with this move­ment have grown weary of evangelicalism’s alle­giance to Repub­li­can pol­i­tics, are inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing social reform and social jus­tice, believe that the gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and are eager to be a part of inclu­sive, diverse, and authen­tic Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties. “Their broad­en­ing sense of social respon­si­bil­i­ty is push­ing them to rethink many of the fun­da­men­tal the­o­log­i­cal pre­sup­po­si­tions char­ac­ter­is­tic of their evan­gel­i­cal tra­di­tions,” Markham noted.

This is the group that intrigues me. There’s a lot of cross-over here with some of what I’m see­ing with Quak­ers. In an ide­al world, the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends would open its arms to this new wave of seek­ers, espe­cial­ly as they hit the lim­its of denom­i­na­tion­al tol­er­ance. But in real­i­ty, many of the East Coast meet­ings I’m most famil­iar with wouldn’t know what to do with this crowd. In Philly if you’re inter­est­ed in this con­ver­sa­tion you go to Cir­cle of Hope (pre­vi­ous posts), not any of the estab­lished Quak­er meetings.

Evans makes some edu­cat­ed guess­es about the future of the “new evan­gel­i­cal” move­ment. She thinks there will be more dis­cus­sion about the role of the Bible, though I would say it’s more dis­cus­sion fo the var­i­ous Chris­t­ian inter­pre­ta­tions of it. She also fore­sees a loos­en­ing of labels and denom­i­na­tion­al affil­i­a­tions. I’m see­ing some of this hap­pen­ing among Friends, though it’s almost com­plete­ly on the indi­vid­ual lev­el, at least here on the East Coast. It will be inter­est­ing to see how this shakes out over the next few years and whether it will bypass, engage with or siphon off the Soci­ety of Friends. In the mean­time, Evans’ post and the links she embeds in it are well worth exploring.

Celebrating nuclear terror with amnesia and techno-lust

The Smith­son­ian Muse­um in Wash­ing­ton has “reassem­bled the eno­la Gay, the plane that dropped the atom­ic bomb on the Japan­ese city of Hiroshi­ma in 1945”:www.nytimes.com/2003/08/19/national/19MUSe.html. Try­ing to avoid the con­tro­ver­sy that accom­pa­nied a 1995 exhi­bi­tion, the cur­rent muse­um direc­tor says this exhib­it will:
bq. “focus on the tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments, because we are a tech­no­log­i­cal muse­um… This plane was the largest and most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced air­plane for its time.”
This con­tin­ues the moral blind­ness that cre­at­ed the blood­i­est cen­tu­ry in human his­to­ry. Instead of look­ing at how pol­i­tics, war and tech­nol­o­gy inter­sect­ed in an event that instant­ly killed 80,000 peo­ple, we shine up the met­al and blab­ber on about tech­nol­o­gy. The bombing’s death count far over­shad­ows the 3,000 deaths at the World Trade Cen­ter two years ago. If the sight of the tow­ers col­laps­ing is a hor­ror we can nev­er for­get or min­i­mize, then so too is Hiroshima’s mush­room cloud.
The only way mil­i­tarism and nation­al­ism sur­vives is by abstract­ing war and ignor­ing the very real death, blood and tragedy. The Japan­ese peo­ple caught up in their country’s lust for war were vic­tims as soon as the fight­ing start­ed. Their par­tic­i­pat­ing in their country’s war was a result of pro­pa­gan­da and nation­al­is­tic fer­vor, the same mix that led so many Amer­i­cans to sup­port the war in Iraq.
The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of peo­ple killed on August 8, 1945 were peo­ple who nev­er fired a gun. They were sim­ply try­ing to stay alive in a world full of human-made ter­ror. They were ordi­nary peo­ple who watched as their country’s lead­ers plot­ted and warred. Most were afraid to say no to war, to unite with paci­fists around the world, or to denounce mil­i­tarism wher­ev­er it exist­ed and with what­ev­er excuse it gave for its horror.
The roots of World War II were oil and ter­ror: Japan­ese lead­ers attacked its neigh­bors to gain con­trol of the indus­tri­al resources the home islands didn’t have. Amer­i­can lead­ers (indus­tri­al and polit­i­cal) had waged war against Hawaii and the Philip­pines for con­trol of Pacif­ic ship­ping lanes. The plot­ting for war start­ed long before Pearl Har­bor and involved the lead­ers in both coun­tries. In a very real way, the war in Iraq is just the lat­est chap­ter in the century-long war over oil.
But his­to­ry, truth and moral­i­ty will all be stripped out of the Smithsonian’s new exhib­it, as spokes­peo­ple for the Amer­i­can Legion and Air Force have declared:
bq. “As long as the eno­la Gay is pre­sent­ed in the light that it was used — to end the war and save lives — that’s fine.”
bq. “We are sat­is­fied that it is in his­tor­i­cal con­text this time and does not make com­ments about U.S. aggres­sion in the Pacific.”
No, school­child­ren vis­it­ing Wash­ing­ton won’t learn the truth about the bomb­ing. Anoth­er gen­er­a­tion will be spoon-fed pro­pa­gan­da about its country’s great­ness and good­ness. Anoth­er gen­er­a­tion will not pause to con­sid­er its country’s old sins and trag­ic mis­takes. A typ­i­cal blog entry about the Smith­son­ian exhib­it that claims “no sin­gle plane did more to save lives in World War II”:http://www.hobbsonline.blogspot.com/2003_08_01_hobbsonline_archive.html#106130896137661056 . Abstract death and claim right­eous­ness to your coun­try, keep mil­i­tarism going and keep peace­ful peo­ple from unit­ing across nation­al boundaries.

Visioning the Future of Young Adult Friends (1997)

This is a vision­ing essay I wrote in March of 1997, for Friends Insti­tute (FI), the Philadelphia-area Young Adult Friends (YAF, rough­ly 18 – 35 year olds) group I was very involved with at the time. I repost it now because many of these same issues con­tin­u­al­ly come up in Quak­er groups. See the bot­tom for the sto­ry on this essay, includ­ing the con­tro­ver­sy it kicked up.

I think the YAF/FI chal­lenges can be rough­ly divid­ed into three cat­e­gories. They are intro­duced in the next para­graph, then elab­o­rat­ed on in turn. They are:

  • *Account­abil­i­ty*. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and group process with­in YAF/FI has nev­er been very good. We can change that, revi­tal­iz­ing the role of Busi­ness Meet­ing as set­ter of the vision and forum for sub­com­mit­tee feed­back and pol­i­cy setting.
  • *Out­reach*. Who Do We Serve? YAF/FI has done no out­reach to newly-convinced Friends and the plan­ning of events has shown an insen­si­tiv­i­ty to the needs of this group.
  • *Activ­i­ties*. We’ve had a lot of con­fer­ences with mediocre pro­grams that have lit­tle spir­i­tu­al or Quak­er focus. We can set year­ly themes as a group in advance, giv­ing Steer­ing Com­mit­tee guid­ance for par­tic­u­lar programs.

ACCOUNTABILITY:

PYM/FI has not been an orga­ni­za­tion with good com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, group process or account­abil­i­ty. Busi­ness meet­ings have been thought of as a nec­es­sary and begrudged task where half the par­tic­i­pants fall asleep.

Busi­ness Meet­ings should have clear, advance agen­da. The YAF clerk should call for agen­da items by email two weeks before the meet­ing (phon­ing promi­nent mem­bers who don’t have access to email), and send out a draft agen­da the week before. Basic agen­da items should include vari­a­tion on the fol­low­ing (my facil­i­ta­tion expe­ri­ence comes from Quaker-inspired but not Quak­er process, so some of these tasks might need to be turned into Quakerese):

  • silent wor­ship;
  • agen­da review;
  • reports from all sub­com­mit­tees (treasurer’s report, steer­ing com­mit­tee report, dis­tri­b­u­tion com­mit­tee report, email/web report);
  • two sub­stan­tive issues;
  • set­ting next date;
  • eval­u­a­tion of meeting;

All reports should be writ­ten (ide­al­ly dis­trib­uted by email before­hand and with a dozen copies at the meet­ing) and should include activ­i­ty, fis­cal activ­i­ty, pol­i­cy ques­tions need­ing busi­ness meet­ing input, approval of future tasks. Every deci­sion should have spe­cif­ic peo­ple as liaisons for follow-up, and part of the next Busi­ness Meet­ing should be review­ing progress on these tasks.

OUTREACH: WHO DO WE SERVE?

I have a very large con­cern that the offi­cial YAF/FI orga­ni­za­tion does not do exten­sive out­reach and that it hasn’t always been sen­si­tive to the needs of all YAFs.

As a con­vinced Friend who first ven­tured forth to a Quak­er Meet­ing at age 20, I spent years look­ing for YAFs and not find­ing them. The only out­reach that YAF/FI does is to grad­u­at­ing Young Friends (the high school pro­gram). Our out­reach to new­ly con­vince Friends has been nonexistent.

Oth­er under­rep­re­sent­ed YAFs: the Cen­tral Phi­la. MM group, thirty-something YAFs, YAFs of col­or, les/bi/gay YAFs (our Pres­i­dent Day’s gath­er­ing con­flicts with the pop­u­lar mid-winter FLGC gath­er­ing, an unfor­tu­nate mes­sage we’re send­ing), YAFs with children.

Some of the out­reach chal­lenges for YAF/FI include:

  • Cliquish­ness. Many plugged-in YAFs know each oth­er from high school days and it can be intim­i­dat­ing to jump into such a group. There’s also a reluc­tance to review assump­tions brought down from the Young Friends (high school) program;
  • The poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion in YAF/FI keeps many dis­en­fran­chised YAFs from hav­ing a forum in which to express their con­cerns and needs. We can reach out to under-represented YAFs and ask them what a age-fellowship could pro­vide them;
  • Single-type events: the week­end gath­er­ings keep away many YAFs with respon­si­bil­i­ty. The tenor of YAF/FI events often keeps away the more mature YAFs. I doubt one type of event could sat­is­fy all types of YAFs. We should be open to sup­port the lead­er­ship of dis­en­fran­chised YAFs by pro­vid­ing them the mon­ey, resources and insti­tu­tion­al sup­port to address their com­mu­ni­ties’ need (keep­ing in mind YAF events should be open to all).

ACTIVITIES

YAF events have had their prob­lems. The­mat­i­cal­ly, they usu­al­ly have not had Quak­er themes, they have not been geared toward spir­i­tu­al growth (usu­al­ly First Day’s Meet­ing for Wor­ship is the only spir­i­tu­al com­po­nent). They have fol­lowed the pat­terns of Young Friends events (3 day gath­er­ings), even though this for­mat excludes many (most?) YAFs.

We could eas­i­ly have more of a mix of events. Some could be the tra­di­tion­al week­end events, some could be day events, like the suc­cess­ful apple-picking expe­di­tion and Swarth­more gath­er­ing a few years ago orga­nized by Friends Center-employed YAFs.

As far as I’ve known, there has nev­er been any Busi­ness Meet­ing brain­storm­ing for themes, and each event has been orga­nized in an ad hoc man­ner by a small group of peo­ple with­out feed­back from the gen­er­al YAF pop­u­la­tion. This is part­ly a result of the need for con­fer­ence orga­niz­ers to have a con­fer­ence planned long in advance.

I pro­pose that we set Year-Long Themes, a process that some groups employ to inter­est­ing effect. In the fall, there could be a Busi­ness Meet­ing to decide the next cal­en­dar year’s theme; Steer­ing Com­mit­tee could then orga­nize all of the pro­gram­mat­ic events around this top­ic. This would give large YAF input into the selec­tion process and also pro­vide an inter­est­ing uni­ty to top­ics. Each top­ic should be broad enough to allow for an inter­est­ing mix of pro­grams and each top­ic should have a spe­cif­ic Quak­er focus. One ped­a­gog­i­cal moti­va­tion behind these events should be to intro­duce and rein­force Friends’ his­to­ry and culture.

Themes that I’d love to see:

  • Spir­i­tu­al and his­tor­i­cal roots of Quak­erism. (Bec­ca Grunko, Mar­garet Hope Bacon, Peg­gy Mor­sheck might be good resource peo­ple). Events could include a look at the fiery birth of Quak­erism and an his­tor­i­cal explo­ration of Friends Insti­tute itself (found­ed in the 1880s, FI played a role in uni­fy­ing the Hicksite/Orthodox schism in PYM and pro­vid­ed key assis­tance to the ear­ly AFSC; Gen­nyfer Dav­en­port is hot on the trail of this history!).
  • Quak­ers in the world. a look at vol­un­teerism, and wit­ness and min­istry. An obvi­ous event would be to par­tic­i­pate in a week- or weekend-long PYM workcamp.
  • Neat Quak­er fig­ures (maybe even neat PYM fig­ures!). Con­fer­ences that look at the his­to­ry of folks like John Wool­man, William Penn, Lucre­tia Mott, per­haps cur­rent fig­ures like the Willoughby’s.
  • Quak­er Lifestyle and the Tes­ti­monies. Egads, we could read Faith and Prac­tice! For those of you who haven’t, it’s real­ly an inter­est­ing book. Not all events should be the­mat­ic, of course. The ear­ly Decem­ber Christ­mas gath­er­ing doesn’t need to be; nei­ther does some of the day long events (i.e., the apple-picking expe­di­tion was a fun theme in itelf!).

This essay writ­ten Third Month 21, 1997 by Mar­tin Kelley


 

The Sto­ry of this essay (writ­ten fall of 2003)

I wrote for Friends Insti­tute, the Philadelphia-area young adult Friends group, back in March of 1997. I was very involved with the group at the time, serv­ing for­mal­ly as trea­sur­er and web­mas­ter and infor­mal­ly as the de-facto out­reach coör­di­na­tor. We had a vision­ing retreat com­ing up in a few months and I wrote this as a strengths / weak­ness­es / oppor­tu­ni­ties piece to get the ideas rolling. I thought we had some work to do around the issues of cliquish­ness, and I also thought we could become more thought­ful and spiritually-focused but I tried to find a sen­si­tive way to talk about this issues.

I got a lot of reac­tions to this essay. Some peo­ple real­ly real­ly loved it, espe­cial­ly those out­side the Philadel­phia insid­ers group: “Thanks for the insight­ful analy­sis! You real­ly did a won­der­ful job of objec­tive­ly explain­ing the frus­tra­tions that some PYM YAF’s (myself includ­ed) have with FI” and “I was so inspired by your essay ‘YAF vision for future’ that we are hop­ing bring it for­ward and cir­cu­late it here in among Aus­tralian YAF.”

But some of the insid­ers felt chal­lenged. One didn’t even like me talk­ing about cliques: “I think that as a group we have all been aware for some time of the prob­lems plagu­ing Friends Insti­tute… I don’t like the word clique because it makes me think of an exclu­sion­ary snob­bish group of peo­ple that looks down on oth­ers.” (of course this was my point).

As if to prove my analy­sis cor­rect, the insid­ers imme­di­ate­ly start­ed talk­ing amongst them­selves. With­in two weeks of email­ing this essay, both of my for­mal posi­tions in the orga­ni­za­tion were being chal­lenged. One insid­er wrote a request to the year­ly meet­ing to set up a com­pet­ing Friends Insti­tute web­site; oth­ers start­ed won­der­ing aloud whether it prop­er for an atten­der to be Friends Insti­tute trea­sur­er. No one ever ques­tioned my ded­i­ca­tion, hon­esty and good work. I was more active­ly involved in Quak­erism and my meet­ing than most of the birthright mem­bers who par­tic­i­pat­ed in FI, and I was the most con­sci­en­tious trea­sur­er and web­mas­ter the group ever had. My essay had obvi­ous­ly hit a nerve and the wag­ons were cir­cling in against the out­sider threat. Real­iz­ing just how ingrained these issues were and to what extent the insid­ers would go to pro­tect their pow­er, I even­tu­al­ly left Friends Insti­tute to focus again on my month­ly meeting’s thriv­ing twenty- and thirty-something scene.

The essay con­tin­ued to have a life of its own. The May 1997 vision­ing retreat focused on noth­ing at all and sub­se­quent busi­ness meet­ings dropped to a hand­ful of peo­ple. But the issues of the high-school focus, cliquish­ness, and unfriend­li­ness to new­com­ers came to the fore­front again a few months lat­er, after some sex­u­al assaults took place in the young adult com­mu­ni­ty. A con­fer­ence on “sex­u­al bound­aries” pro­duced an epis­tle that hit some of the same top­ics as my vision­ing essay:

We iden­ti­fied a num­ber of habits and issues in our young adult com­mu­ni­ty that tend to bring up dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. For exam­ple, some of our sex­u­al bound­aries car­ry over from our expe­ri­ence as high-school aged Young Friends… New­com­ers become “fresh meat” for peo­ple who come to gath­er­ings look­ing to find quick con­nec­tions… Peo­ple get lost espe­cial­ly when we have larg­er gath­er­ings, and we don’t watch out for each other.

Friends Insti­tute drift­ed for a few years. By the sum­mer of 2000, a con­vince Friend became clerk and tried to revive the group. She found my essay and emailed me: “I’ve been look­ing over the FI archives and am impressed by your con­tri­bu­tion. Do you have any advice, sug­ges­tions, or time to become active again in FI?” Sad to say this attempt to revive Friends Insti­tute also had a lot of problems.

I repost this essay here in 2003 part­ly to have a ongo­ing record of my Quak­er writ­ings here on my web­site. But I sus­pect these same issues con­tin­ue in var­i­ous young adult friends groups. Per­haps some­one else can see this essay and be inspired, but a warn­ing that I’ve seen these dynam­ics in many dif­fer­ent young adult friends groups and seri­ous­ly won­der whether reform or revival is impossible.
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