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 coör­di­nat­ing 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?