What do you love about your Quaker space?

We’re extend­ing the dead­line for the August issue on Quak­er Spaces. We’ve got  some real­ly inter­est arti­cles com­ing in – espe­cial­ly geeky things in archi­tec­ture and the the­ol­o­gy of our clas­sic meetinghouses.

So far our prospec­tive pieces are  weight­ed toward East Coast and clas­sic meet­ing­house archi­tec­ture. I’d love to see pieces on non-traditional wor­ship spaces. I know there new­ly purpose-built meet­ing­hous­es, adap­ta­tions of pre-existing struc­tures, and new takes on the Quak­er impulse to not be churchy. And wor­ship is where we’re gath­ered, not nec­es­sar­i­ly where we’re mort­gaged: tell us about your the rent­ed library room, the chairs set up on the beach, the room in the prison wor­ship group…

Sub­mis­sion guide­lines are at friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​ons. The new dead­line is Mon­day, May 16. My last post about this issue is here.

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.

Max Carter talk on introducing the Bible to younger Friends

Max Carter gave the Bible Asso­ci­a­tion of Friends this past week­end at Moorestown (NJ) Friends Meet­ing. Max is a long-time edu­ca­tor and cur­rent­ly heads the Quak­er Lead­er­ship Schol­ars Pro­gram at Guil­ford Col­lege, a pro­gram that has pro­duced a num­ber of active twenty-something Friends in recent years. The Bible Asso­ci­a­tion is one of those great Philadel­phia relics that some­how sur­vived a cou­ple of cen­turies of upheavals and still plugs along with a mis­sion more-or-less craft­ed at it’s found­ing in the ear­ly 1800s: it dis­trib­utes free Bibles to Friends, Friends schools and any First Day School class that might answer their inquiries.

Max’s pro­gram at Guil­ford is one of the recip­i­ents of the Bible Association’s efforts and he began by jok­ing that his sole qual­i­fi­ca­tion for speak­ing at their annu­al meet­ing was that he was one of their more active customers. 

Many of the stu­dents going through Max’s pro­gram grew up in the big­ger East Coast year­ly meet­ings. In these set­tings, being an involved Quak­er teen means reg­u­lar­ly going to camps like Catoctin and Onas, doing the FGC Gath­er­ing every year and hav­ing a par­ent on an impor­tant year­ly meet­ing com­mit­tee. “Quak­er” is a spe­cif­ic group of friends and a set of guide­lines about how to live in this sub­cul­ture. Know­ing the rules to Wink and being able to craft a sug­ges­tive ques­tion for Great Wind Blows is more impor­tant than even rudi­men­ta­ry Bible lit­er­a­cy, let alone Barclay’s Cat­e­chism. The knowl­edge of George Fox rarely extends much past the song (“with his shag­gy shag­gy locks”). So there’s a real cul­ture shock when they show up in Max’s class and he hands them a Bible. “I’ve nev­er touched one of these before” and “Why do we have to use this?” are non-uncommon responses. 

None of this sur­prised me, of course. I’ve led high school work­shops at Gath­er­ing and for year­ly meet­ing teens. Great kids, all of them, but most of them have been real­ly short­changed in the con­text of their faith. The Guil­ford pro­gram is a good intro­duc­tion (“we grad­u­ate more Quak­ers than we bring in” was how Max put it) but do we real­ly want them to wait so long? And to have so rel­a­tive­ly few get this chance. Where’s the bal­ance between let­ting them choose for them­selves and giv­ing them the infor­ma­tion on which to make a choice?

There was a sort of built-in irony to the scene. Most of the thirty-five or so atten­dees at the Moorestown talk were half-a-century old­er than the stu­dents Max was pro­fil­ing. I pret­ty safe to say I was the youngest per­son there. It doesn’t seem healthy to have such sep­a­rat­ed worlds. 

Con­ver­gent Friends

Max did talk for a few min­utes about Con­ver­gent Friends. I think we’ve shak­en hands a few times but he didn’t rec­og­nize me so it was a rare fly-on-wall oppor­tu­ni­ty to see first­hand how we’re described. It was pos­i­tive (we “bear watch­ing!”) but there were a few minor mis-perceptions. The most wor­ri­some is that we’re a group of young adult Friends. At 42, I’ve grad­u­at­ed from even the most expan­sive def­i­n­i­tion of YAF and so have many of the oth­er Con­ver­gent Friends (on a Face­book thread LizOpp made the mis­take of list­ed all of the old­er Con­ver­gent Friends and touched off a lit­tle mock out­rage – I’m going to steer clear of that mis­take!). After the talk one attendee (a New Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship reg­u­lar) came up and said that she had been think­ing of going to the “New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” work­shop C Wess Daniels and I are co-leading next May but had second-thoughts hear­ing that CF’s were young adults. “That’s the first I’ve heard that” she said; “me too!” I replied and encour­aged her to come. We def­i­nite­ly need to con­tin­ue to talk about how C.F. rep­re­sents an atti­tude and includes many who were doing the work long before Robin Mohr’s Octo­ber 2006 Friends Jour­nal arti­cle brought it to wider attention.

Tech­niques for Teach­ing the Bible and Quakerism

The most use­ful part of Max’s talk was the end, where he shared what he thought were lessons of the Quak­er Lead­er­ship Schol­ars Pro­gram. He

  • Demys­ti­fy the Bible: a great per­cent­age of incom­ing stu­dents to the QLSP had nev­er touched it so it seemed foreign;
  • Make it fun: he has a newslet­ter col­umn called “Con­cor­dance Capers” that digs into the deriva­tion of pop cul­ture ref­er­ences of Bib­li­cal phras­es; he often shows Mon­ty Python’s “The Life of Bri­an” at the end of the class.
  • Make it rel­e­vant: Give inter­est­ed stu­dents the tools and guid­ance to start read­ing it.
  • Show the geneal­o­gy: Start with the parts that are most obvi­ous­ly Quak­er: John and the inner Light, the Ser­mon on the Mount, etc.
  • Con­tem­po­rary exam­ples: Link to con­tem­po­rary groups that are liv­ing a rad­i­cal Chris­t­ian wit­ness today. This past semes­ter they talked about the New Monas­tic move­ment, for exam­ple and they’ve pro­filed the Sim­ple Way and Atlanta’s Open Door.
  • The Bible as human con­di­tion: how is the Bible a sto­ry that we can be a part of, an inspi­ra­tion rather than a lit­er­al­ist authority.

Ran­dom Thoughts:

A cou­ple of thoughts have been churn­ing through my head since the talk: one is how to scale this up. How could we have more of this kind of work hap­pen­ing at the local year­ly meet­ing lev­el and start with younger Friends: mid­dle school or high school­ers? And what about bring­ing con­vinced Friends on board? Most QLSP stu­dents are born Quak­er and come from prominent-enough fam­i­lies to get meet­ing let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion to enter the pro­gram. Grad­u­ates of the QLSP are fun­neled into var­i­ous Quak­er posi­tions these days, leav­ing out con­vinced Friends (like me and like most of the cen­tral Con­ver­gent Friends fig­ures). I talked about this divide a lot back in the 1990s when I was try­ing to pull togeth­er the mostly-convinced Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meet­ing young adult com­mu­ni­ty with the mostly-birthright offi­cial year­ly meet­ing YAF group. I was con­vinced then and am even more con­vinced now that no renew­al will hap­pen unless we can get these com­ple­men­tary per­spec­tives and ener­gies work­ing together.

PS: Due to a con­flict between Feed­burn­er and Dis­qus, some of com­ments are here (Wess and Lizopp), here (Robin M) and here (Chris M). I think I’ve fixed it so that this odd spread won’t hap­pen again.


PPS: Max emailed on 2/10/10 to say that many QLSPers are first gen­er­a­tion or con­vinced them­selves. He says that quite a few came to Guil­ford as non-Quakers (“think­ing we had “gone the way of the T-Rex”) and came in by con­vince­ment. Cool!

Flashbacks: Aging Youth, Vanity Googling, War Fatigue

I occa­sion­al­ly go back to my blog­ging archives to pick out inter­est­ing arti­cles from one, five and ten years ago.

ONE YEAR AGO: The Not-Quite-So Young Quakers

It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool
new move­ment I had been read­ing about. It would have been Jor­dan Coop­er’s blog that turned me onto Robert E Web­ber’s The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals, a look at gen­er­a­tional shifts among Amer­i­can Evan­gel­i­cals. In ret­ro­spect, it’s fair to say that the Quak­erQuak­er com­mu­ni­ty gath­ered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first read­ing it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talk­ing about it).

And yet? All of this is still a small demo­graph­ic scat­tered all around. If I want­ed to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull ses­sion about the future of Friends at some local cof­feeshop this after­noon, I can’t think of any­one even vague­ly local who I could call up. I’m real­ly sad to say we’re still large­ly on our own. Accord­ing to actu­ar­i­al tables, I’ve recent­ly crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still ref­er­enc­ing gen­er­a­tional change. How I wish I could hon­est­ly say that I could get involved with any com­mit­tee in my year­ly meet­ing and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and Younger Quak­ers”. Some­one recent­ly sent me an email thread between mem­bers of an out­reach com­mit­tee for anoth­er large East Coast year­ly meet­ing and they were debat­ing whether the inter­net was an appro­pri­ate place to do out­reach work – in 2008?!?

Pub­lished 9/14/2008.

FIVE YEARS AGO: Van­i­ty Googling of Causes

A poster to an obscure dis­cus­sion board recent­ly described typ­ing a par­tic­u­lar search phrase into Google and find­ing noth­ing but bad infor­ma­tion. Repro­duc­ing the search I deter­mined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actu­al­ly quite accu­rate. I’ve been hear­ing an increas­ing num­ber of sto­ries like this. “Cause Googling,” a vari­a­tion on “van­i­ty googling,” is sud­den­ly becom­ing quite pop­u­lar. But the inter­est­ing thing is that these new searchers don’t actu­al­ly seem curi­ous about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?

Pub­lished 10/2/2004 in The Quak­er Ranter.

TEN’ISH YEARS AGO: War Time Again
This piece is about the NATO bomb­ing cam­paign in Ser­bia (Wikipedia). It’s strange to see I was feel­ing war fatigue even before 9/11 and the “real” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

There’s a great dan­ger in all this. A dan­ger to the soul of Amer­i­ca. This is the fourth coun­try the U.S. has gone to war against in the last six months. War is becom­ing rou­tine. It is sand­wiched between the soap operas and the sit­coms, between the traf­fic and weath­er reports. Intense cruise mis­sile bom­bard­ments are car­ried out but have no effect on the psy­che or even imag­i­na­tion of the U.S. citizens.

It’s as if war itself has become anoth­er con­sumer good. Anoth­er event to be pack­aged for com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion. Giv­en a theme song. We’re at war with a coun­try we don’t know over a region we don’t real­ly care about. I’m not be face­tious, I’m sim­ply stat­ing a fact. The Unit­ed States can and should play an active peace­mak­ing role in the region, but only after we’ve done our home­work and have basic knowl­edge of the play­ers and sit­u­a­tion. Iso­la­tion­ism is dan­ger­ous, yes, but not near­ly as dan­ger­ous as the emerg­ing cul­ture of these dilet­tante made-for-TV wars.

Pub­lished March 25, 1999, Non​vi​o​lence​.org

The Not-Quite-So Young Quakers

It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool new move­ment I had been read­ing about. It would have been Jor­dan Coop­er’s blog that turned me onto Robert E Web­ber’s The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals, a look at gen­er­a­tional shifts among Amer­i­can Evan­gel­i­cals. I found it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­ori­ent­ing and shock­ing that I actu­al­ly iden­ti­fied with most of the trends Web­ber out­lined. Here I was, still a young’ish Friend attend­ing one of the most lib­er­al Friends meet­ings in the coun­try (Cen­tral Philadel­phia) and work­ing for the very orga­ni­za­tion whose ini­tials (FGC) are inter­na­tion­al short­hand for hippy-dippy lib­er­al Quak­erism, yet I was nod­ding my head and laugh­ing out loud at just about every­thing Web­ber said. Although he most like­ly nev­er walked into a meet­ing­house, he clear­ly explained the gen­er­a­tional dynam­ics run­ning through Quak­er cul­ture and I fin­ished the book with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why so much of our youth orga­niz­ing and out­reach was floun­der­ing on issues of tokenism and feel-good-ism.

My post, orig­i­nal­ly titled  “The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and the Younger Quak­ers,”  (here it is in its orig­i­nal con­text) start­ed off as a book review but quick­ly became a Quak­er vision man­i­festo. The sec­tion heads alone ticked off the work to be done:

  • A re-examination of our roots, as Chris­tians and as Friends
  • A desire to grow
  • A more personally-involved, time-consuming commitment
  • A renew­al of dis­ci­pline and oversight
  • A con­fronta­tion of our eth­nic and cul­tur­al bigotries

When I wrote this, there wasn’t much you could call Quak­er blog­ging (Lynn Gazis-Sachs was an excep­tion), and when I googled vari­a­tions on “quak­ers” and “emerg­ing church” noth­ing much came up. It’s not sur­pris­ing that there wasn’t much of an ini­tial response.

It took about two years for the post to find its audi­ence and respons­es start­ed com­ing from both lib­er­al and evan­gel­i­cal Quak­er cir­cles. In ret­ro­spect, it’s fair to say that the Quak­erQuak­er com­mu­ni­ty gath­ered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first read­ing it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talk­ing about it). Five years after I postd it, we have a cadre of blog­gers and read­ers who reg­u­lar­ly gath­er around the Quak­erQuak­er water cool­er to talk about Quak­er vision. We’re get­ting pieces pub­lished in all the major Quak­er pub­li­ca­tions, we’re asked to lead wor­ships and we’ve got a catchy name in “Con­ver­gent Friends.”

And yet?

All of this is still a small demo­graph­ic scat­tered all around. If I want­ed to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull ses­sion about the future of Friends at some local cof­feeshop this after­noon, I can’t think of any­one even vague­ly local who I could call up. A few years ago I start­ed com­mut­ing pret­ty reg­u­lar­ly to a meet­ing that did a good job at the Christian/Friends-awareness/roots stuff but not the discipline/oversight or desire-to-grow end of things. I’ve drift­ed away the last few months because I real­ized I didn’t have any per­son­al friends there and it was most­ly an hour-drive, hour-worship, hour-drive back home kind of experience.

My main cadre five years ago were fel­low staffers at FGC. A few years ago FGC com­mis­sioned sur­veys indi­cat­ed that poten­tial donors would respond favor­ably to talk about youth, out­reach and race stereo­typ­ing and even though these were some of the con­cerns I had been awk­ward­ly rais­ing for years, it was very clear I wasn’t wel­come in quickly-changing staff struc­ture and I found myself out of a job. The most excit­ing out­reach pro­grams I had worked on was a data­base that would col­lect the names and address­es of iso­lat­ed Friends, but It was qui­et­ly dropped a few months after I left. The new muchly-hyped $100,000 pro­gram for out­reach has this for its seek­ers page and fol­lows the typ­i­cal FGC pat­tern, which is to sprin­kle a few rotat­ing tokens in with a retreat cen­ter full of poten­tial donors to talk about Impor­tant Top­ics. (For those who care, I would have con­tin­ued build­ing the iso­lat­ed Friends data­base, mapped it for hot spots and coor­di­nat­ed with the youth min­istry com­mit­tee to send teams for extend­ed stays to help plant wor­ship groups. How cool would that be? Anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty lost.)

So where do we go?

I’m real­ly sad to say we’re still large­ly on our own. Accord­ing to actu­ar­i­al tables, I’ve recent­ly crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still ref­er­enc­ing gen­er­a­tional change.

How I wish I could hon­est­ly say that I could get involved with any com­mit­tee in my year­ly meet­ing and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and Younger Quak­ers.” Some­one recent­ly sent me an email thread between mem­bers of an out­reach com­mit­tee for anoth­er large East Coast year­ly meet­ing and they were debat­ing whether the inter­net was an appro­pri­ate place to do out­reach work – in 2008?!? Britain Year­ly Meet­ing has a beau­ti­ful­ly pro­duced new out­reach web­site but I don’t see one con­vinced young Friend pro­filed and it’s post-faith empha­sis is down­right depress­ing (an involved youngish Amer­i­can Friend looked at it and remind­ed me that despite occa­sion­al atten­tion, smart young seek­ers seri­ous about Quak­erism aren’t anyone’s tar­get audi­ence, here in the US or appar­ent­ly in Britain).

A num­ber of inter­est­ing “Cov­er­gent” mind­ed Friends have an insider/outsider rela­tion­ship with insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism. Inde­pen­dent wor­ship groups pop­ping up and more are being talked about (I won’t blow your cov­er guys!). I’ve seen Friends try to be more offi­cial­ly involved and it’s not always good: a bunch of younger Quak­er blog­gers have dis­ap­peared after get­ting named onto Impor­tant Com­mit­tees, their online pres­ence reduced to inside jokes on Face­book with their oth­er newly-insider pals.

What do we need to do:

  • We need to be pub­lic figures;
  • We need to reach real peo­ple and con­nect ourselves;
  • We need to stress the whole pack­age: Quak­er roots, out­reach, per­son­al involve­ment and not let our­selves get too dis­tract­ed by hyped projects that only promise one piece of the puzzle.

Here’s my to-do list:

  • CONVERGENT OCTOBER: Wess Daniels has talked about every­one doing some out­reach and net­work­ing around the “con­ver­gent” theme next month. I’ll try to arrange some Philly area meet-up and talk about some prac­ti­cal orga­niz­ing issues on my blog.
  • LOCAL MEETUPS: I still think that FGC’s iso­lat­ed Friends reg­istry was one of its bet­ter ideas. Screw them, we’ll start one our­selves. I com­mit to mak­ing one. Email me if you’re interested;
  • LOCAL FRIENDS: I com­mit to find­ing half a dozen seri­ous Quak­er bud­dies in the dri­vable area to ground myself enough to be able to tip my toe back into the insti­tu­tion­al mias­ma when led (thanks to Mic­ah B who stressed some of this in a recent visit).
  • PUBLIC FIGURES: I’ve let my blog dete­ri­o­rate into too much of a “life stream,” all the pic­tures and twit­ter mes­sages all clog­ging up the more Quak­er mate­r­i­al. You’ll notice it’s been redesigned. The right bar has the “life stream” stuff, which can be bet­tered viewed and com­ment­ed on on my Tum­bler page, Tum­bld Rants. I’ll try to keep the main blog (and its RSS feed) more seri­ous­ly minded.

I want to stress that I don’t want any­one to quit their meet­ing or any­thing. I’m just find­ing myself that I need a lot more than business-as-usual. I need peo­ple I can call lower-case friends, I need per­son­al account­abil­i­ty, I need peo­ple will­ing to real­ly look at what we need to do to be respon­sive to God’s call. Some day maybe there will be an estab­lished local meet­ing some­where where I can find all of that. Until then we need to build up our networks.

Like a lot of my big idea vision essays, I see this one doesn’t talk much about God. Let me stress that com­ing under His direc­tion is what this is all about. Meet­ings don’t exist for us. They facil­i­ate our work in becom­ing a peo­ple of God. Most of the inward-focused work that make up most of Quak­er work is self-defeating. Jesus didn’t do much work in the tem­ple and didn’t spend much time at the rab­bi con­ven­tions. He was out on the street, hang­ing out with the “bad” ele­ments, shar­ing the good news one per­son at a time. We have to find ways to sup­port one anoth­er in a new wave of ground­ed evan­ge­lism. Let’s see where we can all get in the next five years!

Twenty First Century traveling ministry: of uberQuakers, selfish Friends and the search for unity

A guest piece by Evan Welkin

Shortly after finishing my second year at Guilford College, I set out to understand what brought me there. During the stressful process of deciding which college to attend, I felt a strong but slightly mysterious urge to explore Quakerism in my undergraduate years. Two years later, this same urge led me to buy a motorcycle, learn to ride it, and set out in a spiritual journey up the Eastern seaboard visiting Quaker meetings. While Guilford had excited and even irritated my curiosity about the workings of Quakerism, I knew little about how Quakers were over a large area of the country. I wanted to find out how Quakers worked as a group across a wide area of the country, and if I could learn how to be a leader within that community.

July 26th, 2005: Clarence and Lilly Pickett Fund project report

The Transport: Evan Welkin as he came through South Jersey.

Traveling by many horses

The Route: I visited roughly 29 meetings houses and Quaker places of worship on my trip and met with groups from 15 of them. In a couple of instances, I only met with individuals from various meetings. (Click on map for larger image).

evanmap

The purpose of my trip as outlined by my letter of introduction was:

“…the development of constructive and enriching spiritual dialogue between all branches of the Quaker community. I plan to travel from South to North, speaking with meetings about how (or whether) they feel their regional culture affects their theological beliefs with the intent of gaining a greater understanding of the 'spiritual state' of individual meetings.“

I was very committed to keeping this vision open-ended in order to identify common threads within conversations I would have with Friends. I hoped in the discussions I might identify whether there was some aspect of “regional flavor” to a Quaker meeting in South Carolina versus one in New Jersey, for example. I hoped to identify what these differences might be and somehow look for a common Quaker thread that ran beneath them I could address with all Friends. In addition, I planned to take pictures of meetinghouses along the way to see if what people said about their meetings was at all reflected in their meetinghouse architecture. In all honesty, however, I was most interested in simply gaining a greater understanding of how Quakerism is practiced over a very large area of the US. As a Quaker myself, I wanted to know what it meant to truly own up to and understand this part of my identity and to strengthen my spiritual being and hopefully inspire others.

My initial plans for this project were to purchase a motorcycle, learn to ride it and drive from Key West in Florida to Maine visiting Quakers along the way. I wanted to stay near the coast, if for no other reason than to have some kind of geographical continuity from the Atlantic to ground me along my way. The actual implementation of my plan differed slightly in it’s physical manifestation, but I still found it to be a spiritually and intellectually challenging endeavor. I traveled along the route indicated on the attached map, covering roughly 4,200 miles over the course of the trip. I began in Greensboro, North Carolina and traveled south to St. Petersburg, Florida. From St. Petersburg, I traveled all the way along the Eastern Seaboard more or less to New York City. From there, I returned to the South by way of Greensboro to finish in Nashville Tennessee.

The preparation for my project was significant, most notably in respect to my transportation. Before my decision to take on this project, I had only once ridden a motorcycle, and my hazy memory of the occasion makes me think it was just a brief ride on the back. Purchasing, insuring, licensing and learning how to drive a motorcycle was a very involved undertaking that required a considerable amount of commitment to overcoming my fear. The process helped me become mentally prepared for the trip, though, by testing my physical self so greatly. In addition, I wrote to over 50 Quaker meetings all along the East coast introducing myself and asking them to consider meeting with me. As meetings responded, I gave them an idea of when I might be in their area and we set up tentative visiting dates. The purpose of the trip as outlined in that letter changed over the course of my project, but I will return to that. In addition to these two most time-consuming aspects of my project, there were quite a number of other smaller details to be taken care of that are inherent to any major travel. Purchasing gear, tuning up and preparing my motorcycle for long distance touring, discussing details with my home meeting about the trip, etc. were some of the other tasks to be completed. For the most part, I did all of this alone. While I had Max Carter to help with some of the preliminary envisioning and last minute contact possibilities, I took on most everything myself. My home meeting was far away and could practically offer very little in terms of coordinating efforts from that distance. I was not sure how to prepare for the trip spiritually but left with an open heart and a strong commitment to be as open as possible.
I was presented with quite a number of challenges on my trip, and it appeared that those obstacles came either in the form of spiritual or practical trials along my way. Some of my practical challenges were the theft of my camera early in the trip, the matter of food and lodging and the sheer effort of traveling over very great distances day after day. The camera was significant loss because it made the process of gathering pictures for presentation much more difficult. I had to rely on the poor quality and much slower processing of a disposable camera for most of my trip. In general, I had a sense of who I would stay with city by city along my route, but it was difficult to not know any of these people in advance beyond letters and to rely on them so much for their generosity. I realize that this demanded quite a degree of flexibility both on my part and theirs; this, like my stolen camera, helped me learn to adapt and try to be as gracious as possible. The physical strain and mental alertness I needed to travel long distances was very taxing, resulting in my decision to not go as far as I had originally planned.

A practical issue that did affect the outcome of my project was which meetings ended up responding to my letter of introduction. I only received any word back from about half of the meetings I wrote to. Of those, I was disappointed that despite the fact I wrote to a large number of Quakers both programmed and unprogrammed, I received a much smaller number of responses from programmed meetings and of those I did, a number ‘disappeared’ after the initial contact. This may have been entirely by chance, but none the less I found my experiences with programmed Friends to be disproportionately enriching for their being so few and I regretted their brevity. Therefore, most of my observations were among unprogrammed Friends and I shy away from making comparisons between “unprogrammed” and “programmed” Friends in this report because I simply didn’t feel like I met with enough unprogrammed Friends to tell.

In addition, the internal challenge all these practical challenges brought on made it difficult to remain spiritually centered. Constant spiritual discussion left me struggling to be lighthearted. I can’t tell if this made my later disheartenment with group conversations greater or whether the discussions themselves disheartened me. As time went on though, my frustrations with the dynamics I witnessed in meetings right from the beginning of my trip onwards increasingly affected my openness. I relied more and more on a regimented conversation format, limiting opportunities for spontaneity of spirit. By the end I felt like a slightly strange gentleman who rises every week at about the same time in meeting for worship with a message that seems unfortunately similar to the same thing he said the week before.

With the goal of creating “enriching spiritual dialogue” so prominently placed as my goal for this trip, I spent a significant amount of time figuring out what this meant and how it might be achieved. If I were able to create this dialogue on my trip, I somehow felt that this would be immediately beneficial to both Quakers and Quaker institutions by creating a greater sense of vitality and unity within them. I began to realize how subjective unity and vitality are. A distinction I failed to recognize in my idealized conception was the difference between unity of individuals, such as a good conversation between myself and a host, and unity of meetings, such as a group meeting and sharing conversation. As time went on, I began to become frustrated in group discussions and to try to “argue” my interpretation of unity and vitality in much the same way I saw other Friends doing. I had hoped Friends themselves would suggest points of unity within Quakerism, but often I just heard folks talk about what they believed in to the exclusion of other beliefs. For instance, I asked many meetings what they might do as a group if someone rose in meeting and brought a very evangelical Christian message to worship. While at first many spoke about “trying to accept that message” as equal to any other, it seemed that in essence many felt threatened by the question and that I should ask it at all. It seemed that few meetings had any established process of “eldering” or holding individuals accountable for the group. I am certainly not evangelical nor am I sure I am Christian, but I somehow felt accused of being both in these conversations and therefore felt less welcome. There were several points on my trip where I struggled to find any hope Quakers could be lead to unite amongst each other, and it was the distinction between individuals and groups that made all the difference.

Observing group dynamics and looking for continuity or unity within Friends Meetings as a whole along my journey was very hard for me. There were several notable exceptions, but as I finished my trip I found myself terribly disheartened in general by much of the group behavior I witnessed within the meetings I visited. In meetings were I felt most successful and useful the members appeared not only to care deeply about each other and the vitality of their individual meetings, but were strong enough to work outside their own communities to engage corporately in the wider body of Quakerism and the world at large. They had clear ways of holding individuals accountable to the group as a whole and did so. I did not feel I found this sense in many of the meetings I visited though, however briefly, and could not tell how beneficial my visit might be to them. I was surprised to be so disheartened after seeing folks so quickly, but often it appeared very obviously in group conversations full of Friends interrupting or contradicting each other or from side comments I heard from individuals later.

I struggle to write these words because I felt cared for and looked after by folks from all the meetings I visited, but I still could not help but feel sad when visiting meetings who steadily lost members, struggled to take care of basic business or suffered from internal feuds. Many meetings in Florida were in the process of building new meetinghouses, and while the common cause of such a large order of business seemed to bring them together, many Friends in these meetings expressed concern that it was only a temporary fix. In fairness, many of the meetings I visited along the way were in fact worship groups and not fully meetings, but rather than this being a stepping stone to a more established order, it seemed that many of these worship groups struggled to keep the few members they had and seemed to not feel terribly connected as a group.

What appeared to be the main causes of this disunity, however, was the unfortunate fact that it seems many Friends are Quaker for selfish reasons. I’m sorry to say it, but that was my impression of why so many meeting groups struggle to find an effective group process. In many of the meetings I visited it appeared that Friends not only expected complete acceptance of their personal spiritual path, but also their political, ideological and cultural ones as well. Like in the case of the evangelical message question, it appeared that an evangelical person was not simply threatening to individuals in their spiritual beliefs, but also in their inferred political leanings and culture. This seemed to show me that the meeting was not actually for embracing people in a group atmosphere as advertised but more a cultural, ideological and political support group for like-minded individuals. “Quakers couldn’t be Republican. I can’t stand Republicans” . This is where the realm of the individual butted up against the corporate in my eyes.

The beauty of silent worship, as many Friends agreed, was it’s ability to speak to so many different Friend’s conditions while still being such a crucially group-centered act. In the early days of Quakerism, it appeared that this act of worship was a cornerstone for the connection that could be felt between individuals in a group setting in business meeting, community dinners or the world at large. From what I saw on my trip, the gratification and fulfillment of the individual appears more and more accentuated as Quakerism progresses rather than fulfillment of the whole meeting. When faced with a confusing or chaotic business process, for instance, it seems in many cases that every person wants to revert to the way THEY make decisions best as the ideal way for the group. I would hasten to add that I did not even attend one business meeting along my trip, and that my concern for the issue of business specifically comes from many, many direct comments from individuals frustrated by their group’s business meetings. I saw on my own that many Friends have so many different interests and such completely busy lives outside meeting, it appears the most they can do to attended worship.

So perhaps the paradox of the individual and group within a universal spirit is what Quakerism can benefit from exploring today. I found my attention so often turned to the great folks I found along my way who spoke directly to my condition. I met so many incredibly interesting, thought-provoking, eccentric, kind and inspired people on my trip, I cannot help but be awed and impressed. I certainly found a kind of unity between them and myself. While I cannot be sure my actions benefited Friend meetings in totality, I know that my conversations with Friends were both inspiring to me and the people I found along the way. I believe I brightened some folks’ days and gave them a chance to tell their stories. The faith required to get on the road each day, not knowing where I would end up by nightfall was awesome and it stretched me considerably in a way that I think Friends appreciated. I am sure that I will continue to be in contact with Friends I met along the way and will continue to think about these issues with them.

In terms of this trip as a foundation for Quaker leadership, I must say I was a put at a bit of a loss at what that might mean. Someone mentioned it might be like “herding cats.” One leadership role I did see often, which worried me, was that of the “überQuakers,” as we at Guilford like to call them. It appeared that in many instances, I ended up staying with the members of meetings who were the “movers and shakers” of their meetings for their dogged dedication to the meeting as a whole. Sadly, in many instances these folks seemed to bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the affairs of their meetings, spiritually, logistically and energetically. They did not resent this role, but it appeared to me that they were rarely consciously chosen for that ministry by the group but instead had the position thrust upon them. These folks were complimented by an unfortunately large segment of Friends, often pleading busy schedules, who appeared to be unable to commit to the meeting beyond the catharsis of meeting for worship. Part of witnessing this left me questioning my commitment to Quakerism by the end of my trip. If this is how Quakerism works, why should I even bother developing ‘leadership’ to become an “überQuaker”? While it may not have burnt out those who I stayed with along the way, why would I purposely stick my neck out for the benefit of the group as a whole when it seems that few others are actually interested in anyone but themselves at the end of the day? It is not that I begrudge selflessness by any means, but Quakerism cannot survive on the selflessness of some and dependence of many. Or at least it should not in my eyes.

Perhaps what worries me is that with the amount of time and effort I put into this trip, I am already falling into the “überQuaker” mindset. “Well, if things aren’t going right I’ll just have to do something myself and decide how they can be fixed.” This is my great fear. This is not the thinking of a vital, post-authoritarian religious society. I imagine a vital Quaker community that is full of folks with various commitments, but all with a shared desire not only to come to worship together but to do business together, reach out and make sacrifices to bring in new members and actively take on projects as a meeting that all can agree are the Spirit’s will. I would like to see a much greater sense of group intentionality, but I know that is not something one individual can force. I have learned that I have a great deal of personal growth to go through before I am ready to contribute as I would like to the Quaker community. I think in many ways this trip made me feel more inexperienced and apprehensive with Quakerism but I strive for that place of faith and confidence. I am beginning a book about my experiences on this trip, in addition to creating a digital presentation featuring the meetinghouse pictures I took.

I wish I could say I knew this trip was God’s will, but the rhetoric with which many people have invoked God’s name in my life has blurred the lines between spiritual surrender and egotistical manipulation. As one particularly astute Friend put it “As with so much else in life, implementing our intentions should allow for the possibility of being self conceited.” Much of what I found along my trip reflected struggles within others about the will of God in their lives, some of which started early in Friend’s lives and some that only began when they took Quakerism as their own. Ironically, it appears that the difference I was looking for in geographic distribution was actually surprisingly absent over such a large area. All the Friends I talked to were in some way struggling with the issue of how they fit into the larger group, a community of the Spirit and of Quaker business. As I sought to find parallels in my conversations with Friends, I was constantly reminded of the push and pull of the individual will versus the will of the whole. In many Friends eyes, this struggle is fundamentally a dance between the individual and answering to the Spirit that is within us all.

Some Queries I made up for myself along my trip were:

  • How do I remain secure and non-threatened in my own faith to be open to others?
  • What are my blindnesses or biases from my Quaker roots?
  • What is selflessness and is it ideal?
  • How do I know what is my will and what is the will of God?