Are We More Than Our Demographics?

One of the things that is intrigu­ing me lately is the nature of Quaker debate.  There are half a dozen seemingly-perennial polit­i­cal issues around which Friends in my cir­cles have very strong opin­ions (these include abor­tion, nuclear power, and the role of Friends in the trou­bles of Israel/Palestine) . We often jus­tify our posi­tions with appeals to our Quaker faith, but I won­der how often our opin­ions could be more accu­rately pre­dicted by our demo­graphic pro­file?

How many of your polit­i­cal posi­tions and social atti­tudes could be accu­rately guessed by a savvy demog­ra­pher who knew your date of birth,  postal code,  edu­ca­tion and fam­ily income? I’d guess each of us are far more pre­dictable than we’d like to think.If true,  then what role does our reli­gious life actu­ally play?

Reli­gious beliefs are also a demo­graphic cat­e­gory,  granted, but if they only con­firm posi­tions that could be just as actu­ally pre­dicted by non-spiritual data, then doesn’t that imply that we’ve sim­ply found (or remained in) a reli­gious com­mu­nity that con­firms our pre-existing biases? Have we cre­ated a faith in our own image? And if true, is it really fair to jus­tify our­selves based on appeals to Quaker val­ues?

The “polit­i­cal” Quaker writ­ings I’m find­ing most inter­est­ing (because they’re least pre­dictable) are the ones that stop to ask how Quaker dis­cern­ment fits into the debate. Dis­cern­ment: one could eas­ily argue that Quaker open­ings and tools around it are one of our great­est gifts to human spir­i­tu­al­ity.  When we build a wor­ship com­mu­nity based on strict adher­ence to the imme­di­ate prompt­ing of the Holy Spirit, the first ques­tion becomes fig­ur­ing out what is of-God and what is not.  Is James Nayler, rid­ing Jesus-like into Bris­tol, a prophet or a nut?

When we go deep into the ques­tions,  we may find that the answers are less impor­tant than the care we take to reach them.  Wait­ing for one another,  hold­ing one another’s hand in love despite dif­fer­ences of opin­ion, can be more impor­tant than being the right-answer early adopter. How do you step back from easy answers to the thorny ques­tions? How do you poll your­self and that-of-God in your­self to open your eyes and ears for the poten­tial of sur­prise?

Gladwell and strong tie social media networks

A lot of peo­ple, include Jeanne Burns over on Quak­erquaker, are talk­ing about Mal­colm Gladwell’s lat­est New Yorker arti­cle, “Small Change: Why the Rev­o­lu­tion Will Not Be Tweeted”.

Mal­colm Gladwell’s modus operandi is to make out­ra­geously counter-intuitive claims that peo­ple will talk about enough that they’ll buy his boss’s mag­a­zine, books and bobble-head like­nesses. I find him lik­able and divert­ing but don’t take his claims very seri­ously. He’s a lot like Wired Magazine’s Chris Ander­son, his some­times spar­ring part­ner, which isn’t sur­pris­ing as they work for the same mag­a­zine empire, Conde Nast Pub­li­ca­tions.

In his arti­cle, Glad­well takes a lot of pot­shots at social media. It’s easy to do. He picks Clay Shirky, another New York “Big Idea” guy as his rhetor­i­cal straw­man now, claim­ing Shirky’s book “Here Comes Every­body” is the “bible of social-media move­ment.” Read­ing Glad­well, you kind of wish he’d get out of the echo box of circle-jerk New York Big Talk­ers (just get­ting out of the Conde Nast building’s cafe­te­ria would be a good start).

Gladwell’s cer­tainly right in that most of what passes for activism on Twit­ter and Face­book is ridicu­lous. Click­ing a “Like” but­ton or chang­ing your pro­file image green doesn’t do much. He makes an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “weak ties” (Face­book “friends” who aren’t friends; Twit­ter cam­paigns that are risk-free) and “strong ties.” He cites the Civil Rights move­ment as a strong-tie phe­nom­e­non: the peo­ple who put them­selves on the line tended to be those with close friends also putting them­selves on the line.

What Glad­well misses is strong-tie orga­niz­ing going on in social media. A lot of what’s hap­pen­ing over on Quak­erQuaker is pretty strong-tie – it’s trans­lat­ing to work­shops, arti­cles, and is just one of a num­ber of impor­tant net­works that are form­ing. Peo­ple are find­ing each other and mak­ing real con­nec­tions that spill out into the real world. It’s not that online orga­nizes cre­ates real world changes, or even the reverse. Instead, under the right cir­cum­stances they can feed into each other, with each com­po­nent mag­ni­fy­ing the other’s reach.

One exam­ple of non-hierarchical involved social media is how Quaker blog­gers came together to explain Tom Fox’s motives after his kid­nap­ping. It didn’t have any effect on the kid­nap­pers, obvi­ously, but we did reach a lot of peo­ple who were curi­ous why a Friend might choose such a per­son­ally dan­ger­ous form of Chris­tian wit­ness. This was all done by inter-related groups of peo­ple with no bud­get and no orga­ni­za­tional chart. But these things don’t have to be quite so life-and-death.

A more recent exam­ple I’ve been able to see up close is the way my wife’s church has orga­nized against dioce­san attempts to shut it down: a core group of lead­ers have emerged; they share power, divide up roles and have been wag­ing an orga­nized cam­paign for about 2.5 years now. One ele­ment of this work has been the Savest​marys​.org blog. The website’s only impor­tant because it’s been part of a real-world social net­work but it’s had an influ­ence that’s gone far beyond the hand­ful of peo­ple who write for it. One of the more sur­pris­ing audi­ences have been the many staff at the Dioce­san head­quar­ters who visit every day – a small group has taken over quite a bit of men­tal space over there!

It’s been inter­est­ing for me to com­pare Quak­erQuaker with an ear­lier peace project of mine, Non​vi​o​lence​.org, which ran for thir­teen years start­ing in 1995. In many ways it was the big­ger site: a larger audi­ence, with a wider base of inter­est. It was a pop­u­lar site, with many vis­its and a fairly active bul­letin board for much of it’s life. But it didn’t spawn work­shop or con­fer­ences. There’s no “move­ment” asso­ci­ated with it. Dona­tions were min­i­mal and I never felt the sup­port struc­ture that I have now with my Quaker work.

Non​vi​o​lence​.org was a good idea, but it was a “weak tie” net­work. QuakerQuaker’s net­work is stronger for two rea­sons that I can iden­tify. The obvi­ous one is that it’s built atop the orga­niz­ing iden­tity of a social group (Friends). But it also speaks more directly to its par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing them to share their lives and offer­ing real-world oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­ac­tion. So much of my blog­ging on Non​vi​o​lence​.org was Big Idea thoughts pieces about the sit­u­a­tion in Bosnia – that just doesn’t provide the same kind of imme­di­ate per­sonal entre.

Mal­colm Glad­well min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship struc­ture of activist orga­ni­za­tions, where lead­er­ship and power is in con­stant flux. He like­wise min­i­mizes the lead­er­ship of social media net­works. Yes, any­one can pub­lish but we all have dif­fer­ent lev­els of vis­i­bil­ity and influ­ence and there is a fil­ter­ing effect. I have twenty-five years of orga­nized activism under my belt and fif­teen years of online orga­niz­ing and while the tech­nol­ogy is very dif­fer­ent, a lot of the social dynam­ics are remark­ably sim­i­lar.

Glad­well is an hired employee in one of the largest media com­pa­nies in the world. It’s a very struc­tured life: he’s got edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, copy­ed­i­tors, proof­read­ers. He’s a cog in a com­pany with $5 bil­lion in annual rev­enue. It’s not really sur­pris­ing that he doesn’t have much direct expe­ri­ence with effec­tive social net­works. It’s hard to see how social media is com­ple­ment­ing real world grass­roots net­works from the 40th floor of a mid-town Man­hat­tan sky­scraper.

Related Read­ing:

Do it yourself and don’t get stuck

NMCF Pendle HillThis week­end was the long-prepared New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends week­end at Pendle Hill, co-led by myself and Wess Daniels, with very help­ful elder­ship from Ash­ley W. As I posted after­wards on Face­book, “I feel we served the Lord faith­fully, nav­i­gat­ing the hopes and fears of the mem­bers of the church who gath­ered into this short-lived com­mu­nity. Not the con­ver­sa­tion we expected, but the con­ver­sa­tion we were given, which is enough (always) and for which we feel grat­i­tude.” 

Wess and I have often described Con­ver­gent Friends as a do-it-yourself cul­ture. But this week­end I real­ized that there’s some­thing more to it. There’s what you might call a “don’t get stuck” ethos. 
On Sat­ur­day after­noon, the con­ver­sa­tion turned to what our local monthly and yearly meet­ings aren’t doing well. This is a pretty stan­dard phase of any Quaker gath­er­ing think­ing about renewal. We had asked for “signs of life” and “what does New Monas­ti­cism and Con­ver­gent Friends look like at meet­ings” but this quickly became talk of spir­i­tual sick­ness and meet­ings that seem­ingly want to die. Fine enough, these exist and a half-session feel­ing sorry for our­selves might be cathar­tic, but I’m not sure the work­shop ever fully got out of this funk. Pendle Hill was also host­ing a “Griev­ing” work­shop this week­end and I wanted to ask if all of the par­tic­i­pants were sure they were in the right build­ing.
Part of the shift of that amor­phous group we’ve been call­ing “Con­ver­gent” is not get­ting stuck. We use the offi­cial struc­tures when they’re in place and healthy and help­ful. When they’re not we find infor­mal ways to fill in the gaps. This has been hap­pen­ing for a long time in quasi-official net­works, but the internet’s accel­er­ated the process by let­ting us find and com­mu­ni­cate with min­i­mal cost or orga­ni­za­tion. Most of us are work­ing offi­cial and ad hoc tech­niques for spir­i­tual nur­ture, over­sight and pas­toral care.
My guess is that this infor­mal boot­strap­ping will feed back into for­mal process as time goes on. But more impor­tantly, we’re learn­ing and spread­ing a cul­ture of spir­i­tual friend­ship and sup­port that is flex­i­ble and spirit-led and not process-dependent. Praise God!

Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

A few weeks ago a newslet­ter brought writ­ten reports about the lat­est round of con­flict at a local meet­ing that’s been fight­ing for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit under­whelmed by the accounts of the newest con­flict res­o­lu­tion attempts. The medi­a­tors seemed more wor­ried about alien­at­ing a few long-term dis­rup­tive char­ac­ters than about pre­serv­ing the spir­i­tual vital­ity of the meet­ing. It’s a phe­nom­ena I’ve seen in a lot of Quaker meet­ings.

Call it the FDR Prin­ci­ple after Franklin D Roo­sevelt, who sup­pos­edly defended his sup­port of one of Nicaragua’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors by say­ing “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casual his­to­ri­ans of Latin Amer­i­can his­tory will know this only led to fifty years of wars with rever­ber­a­tions across the world with the Iran/Contra scan­dal. The FDR Prin­ci­ple didn’t make for good U.S. for­eign pol­icy and, if I may, I’d sug­gest it doesn’t make for good Quaker pol­icy either. Any dis­cus­sion board mod­er­a­tor or pop­u­lar blog­ger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integrity you need to know when to cut a dis­rup­tive trouble-maker off – politely and suc­cintly, but also firmly. If you don’t, the peo­ple there to actu­ally dis­cuss your issues – the peo­ple you want – will leave.

I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Con­flict in Meet­ing came through Live­jour­nal this past First Day. The poster, jan­drewm, wrote in part:

Yet my recog­ni­tion of all that doesn’t negate the painful feel­ings that arise when hos­til­ity enters the meet­ing room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spo­ken.  After a few months of reg­u­lar atten­dance at my meet­ing, I came close to aban­don­ing this “exper­i­ment” with Quak­erism because some Friends were so con­sis­tently ran­corous, divi­sive, dis­rup­tive.  I had to ask myself: “Do I need this neg­a­tiv­ity in my life right now?”

I com­mented about the need to take the tes­ti­monies seri­ously:

I’ve been in that sit­u­a­tion. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on fla­grantly dis­rup­tive behav­ior. I wish I could buy the “it even­tu­ally sorts out” argu­ment but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meet­ings where all the sane peo­ple are dri­ven out, leav­ing the dis­rup­tive folks and arm­chair ther­a­pists. It’s a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship, per­haps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spir­i­tual com­mu­nity.

The unpop­u­lar solu­tion is for us to take our tes­ti­monies seri­ously. And I mean those more speci­fic tes­ti­monies buried deep in copies in Faith & Prac­tice that act as a kind of col­lec­tive wis­dom for Quaker com­mu­nity life. Tes­ti­monies against detrac­tion and for rightly ordered deci­sion mak­ing, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meet­ing they should be coun­seled; if they con­tinue to dis­rupt then their decision-making input should be dis­re­garded. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quaker process of dis­own­ing (which allowed con­tin­ued atten­dance at wor­ship and life in the com­mu­nity but stopped busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion). Lim­it­ing input like this makes sense to me.

The trou­ble that if your meet­ing is in this kind of spi­ral there might not be much you can do by your­self. Peo­ple take some sort of weird com­fort in these pre­dictable fights and if you start talk­ing tes­ti­monies you might become very unpop­u­lar very quickly. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the bick­er­ing isn’t help­ful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Dis­tanc­ing your­self for a time might be help­ful. Get­ting involved in other Quaker venues. It’s a shame. Monthly meet­ing is sup­posed to be the cen­ter of our Quaker spir­i­tual life. But some­times it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these cir­cum­stances. I cer­tainly under­stand the value and need for the Quaker tes­ti­monies bet­ter sim­ply because I’ve seen the prob­lems meet­ings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any eas­ier for you.

But all of this begs an awk­ward ques­tion: are we really build­ing Christ’s king­dom by drop­ping out? It’s an age-old ten­sion between purity and par­tic­i­pa­tion at all costs. Tim­o­thy asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion of me in a com­ment to my last post. Before we answer, we should rec­og­nize that there are indeed many peo­ple who have “aban­doned” their “Quaker exper­i­ment” because we’re not liv­ing up to our own ide­als.

Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than oth­ers. It some­times seems like an email cor­re­spon­dence with the “Quaker Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get mes­sages from seek­ers newly con­vinced of Quaker prin­ci­ples but unable to con­nect locally because of the diver­gent prac­tices or juve­nile behav­ior of their local Friends meet­ing or church. A typ­i­cal email last week asked me why the plain Quak­ers weren’t evan­gel­i­cal and why evan­gel­i­cal Quak­ers weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive and asked “Is there a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing,
Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spirit Led, Charis­matic
fam­ily?” (Any­one want to sug­gest their local meet­ing?)

We should be more wor­ried about the peo­ple of integrity we’re los­ing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embed­ded in some of our meet­ings. If some­one is con­sis­tently dis­rup­tive, is clearly break­ing speci­fic Quaker tes­ti­monies we’ve lumped under com­mu­nity and intergrity, and stub­bornly immune to any coun­cil then read them out of busi­ness meet­ing. If the peo­ple you want in your meet­ing are leav­ing because of the peo­ple you really don’t want, then it’s time to do some­thing. Our Quaker tool­box pro­vides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tra­di­tion gives us access to hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, both mis­takes and suc­cesses, and can be a more use­ful guide than con­tem­po­rary pop psy­chol­ogy or plain old head-burying.

Not all meet­ings have these prob­lems. But enough do that we’re los­ing peo­ple. And the dynam­ics get more acute when there’s a vision­ary project on the table and/or some­one younger is at the cen­ter of them. While our meet­ings sort out their issues, the inter­net is pro­vid­ing one type of sup­port life­line.

Blog­ger jan­drewm was able to seek advice and con­so­la­tion on Live­jour­nal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quaker Gen­er­a­tion” series of posts are now lurk­ing away on my Face­book friends list. Maybe we can stop the full depar­ture of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engag­ing their local meet­ing. They can be read­ing and dis­cussing tes­ti­monies (“detrac­tion” is a won­der­ful place to start) so they can spot and explain behav­ior. We can use the web to coör­di­nate work­shops, online dis­cus­sions, local meet-ups, new work­ship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thou­sands of miles away can help give us clar­ity and strength.

I think (I hope) we’re help­ing to forge a group of Friends with a clear under­stand­ing of the work to be done and the tech­niques of Quaker dis­cern­ment. It’s no won­der that Quaker bod­ies some­times fail to live up to their ide­als: the jour­nals of  olde tyme Quaker min­is­ters are full of dis­ap­point­ing sto­ries and Chris­tian tra­di­tion is rich with tales of the road­blocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to  cen­ter in the Lord when our meet­ings become too polit­i­cal or dis­func­tional (I think I should start look­ing harder at Anabap­tist non-resistance the­ory). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through what­ever comes we need to trust that any test­ing and heart­break has a pur­pose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suf­fer­ing will be pro­duc­tive to His pur­pose if we can keep low and lis­ten­ing for follow-up instruc­tions.

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 coör­di­nated 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!


Steady Footsteps

Blog by an Amer­i­can cou­ple liv­ing in Viet­nam and advo­cat­ing for greater motor­bike safety. The tech­ni­cal aspects are pretty straight-forward but the neat part about it was watch­ing the client learn about blog­ging and online photo
shar­ing as we worked on the site: I intro­duced her to Fli­crk, Picasa
and Gmail! She took to it like a fish to water and the site is full of great
pho­tos taken by her hus­band David. Read more about their
work doing phys­i­cal ther­apy in Viet­nam and their posts about life in Da Nang.
. Tech­nol­ogy: Mov­able Type, Flickr. Visit Site.

Reading John Woolman 3: The Isolated Saint

Read­ing John Wool­man: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 (miss­ing)

It’s said that John Wool­man re-wrote his Jour­nal three times in an effort to excise it of as many “I” ref­er­ences as pos­si­ble. As David Sox writes in Johh Wool­man Quin­tes­sen­tial Quaker, “only on lim­ited occa­sion do we glimpse Wool­man as a son, a father and a hus­band.” Wool­man wouldn’t have been a very good blog­ger. Quot­ing myself from my intro­duc­tion to Quaker blogs:

blogs give us a unique way of shar­ing our lives — how our Quak­erism inter­sects with the day-to-day deci­sions that make up faith­ful liv­ing. Quaker blogs give us a chance to get to know like-minded Friends that are sep­a­rated by geog­ra­phy or arti­fi­cial the­o­log­i­cal bound­aries and they give us a way of talk­ing to and with the insti­tu­tions that make up our faith com­mu­nity.

I’ve read many great Wool­man sto­ries over the years and as I read the Jour­nal I eagerly antic­i­pated read­ing the orig­i­nal account. It’s that same excite­ment I get when walk­ing the streets of an iconic land­scape for the first time: walk­ing through Lon­don, say, know­ing that Big Ben is right around the next cor­ner. But Wool­man kept let­ting me down.

One of the AWOL sto­ries is his arrival in Lon­don. The Journal’s account:

On the 8th of Sixth Month, 1772, we landed at Lon­don, and I went straight­way to the Yearly Meet­ing of min­is­ters and elders, which had been gath­ered, I sup­pose, about half an hour. In this meet­ing my mind was humbly con­trite.

But set the scene. He had just spent five weeks cross­ing the Atlantic in steer­age among the pigs (he doesn’t actu­ally spec­ify his non-human bunk­mates). He famously went out of his way to wear clothes that show dirt because they show dirt. He went straight­away: no record of a bath or change of clothes. Sto­ries abound about his recep­tion, and while are some of dubi­ous origin, there are first hand accounts of his being shunned by the British min­is­ters and elders. The best and most dubi­ous story is the theme of another post.

I trust that Wool­man was hon­estly aim­ing for meek­ness when he omit­ted the most inter­est­ing sto­ries of his life. But with­out the con­text of a lived life he becomes an ahis­tor­i­cal fig­ure, an icon of good­ness divorced from the minu­tiae of the daily grind. Two hun­dred and thirty years of Quaker hagiog­ra­phy and latter-day appeals to Woolman’s author­ity have turned the tai­lor of Mount Holly into the oth­er­worldly Quaker saint but the process started at John’s hands him­self.

Were his strug­gles merely inte­rior? When I look to my own min­istry, I find the call to dis­cern­ment to be the clear­est part of the work. I need to work to be ever more recep­tive to even the most unex­pected prompt­ing from the Inward Christ and I need to con­stantly prac­tice humil­ity, love and for­give­ness. But the prac­ti­cal lim­i­ta­tions are harder. For years respectibil­ity was an issue; rel­a­tive poverty con­tin­ues to be one. It is ask­ing a lot of my wife to leave respon­si­bil­ity for our two small boys for even a long week­end.

How did Wool­man bal­ance fam­ily life and min­istry? What did wife Sarah think? And just what was his role in the sea-change that was the the “Ref­orm­ation of Amer­i­can Quak­erism” (to use Jack Marietta’s phrase) that forever altered Amer­i­can Friends’ rela­tion­ship with the world and set the stage for the schisms of the next cen­tury.

We also lose the con­text of Woolman’s com­pa­tri­ots. Some are named as trav­el­ing com­pan­ions but the col­or­ful char­ac­ters go unmen­tioned. What did he think of the street-theater antics of Ben­jamin Lay, the Abbie Hoff­man of Philadel­phia Quak­ers. The most widely-told tale is of Lay walk­ing into Philadel­phia Yearly Meet­ing ses­sions, open­ing up a cloak to reveal mil­i­tary uni­form under­neath, and declar­ing that slave-made prod­ucts were prod­ucts of war, plunged a sword into a hollowed-out Bible full of pig’s blood, splat­ter­ing Friends sit­ting nearby.

What role did Wool­man play in the larger anti-slavery awak­en­ing hap­pen­ing at the time? It’s hard to tell just read­ing his Jour­nal. How can we find ways to repli­cate his kind of faith­ful­ness and wit­ness today? Again, his Jour­nal doesn’t give much clue.

Read­ing John Wool­man Series

  • Part One: “The Pub­lic Life of a Pri­vate Man”
  • Part Two: “The Last Safe Quaker
  • Part Three: The Iso­lated Saint (this page)
  • Part Four: I Really Do Like Wool­man!

Picked up today in the Philadel­phia Yearly Meet­ing Library:

PYM Librar­ian Rita Var­ley reminded me today they mail books any­where in the US for a mod­est fee and a $50/year sub­scrip­tion. It’s a great deal and a great ser­vice, espe­cially for iso­lated Friends. The PYM cat­a­log is online too!

Visiting a Quaker School

I had an inter­est­ing oppor­tu­nity last Thurs­day. I skipped work to be talk with two Quak­erism classes at Philadelphia’s William Penn Char­ter School (thanks for the invite Michael and Thomas!). I was asked to talk about Quaker blogs, of all things. Sim­ple, right? Well, on the pre­vi­ous Tues­day I hap­pened upon this pas­sage from Brian Drayton’s new book, On Liv­ing with a Con­cern for Gospel Min­istry:

I think that your work will have the great­est good effect if you wait to find whether and where the springs of love and divine life con­nect with this open­ing before you appear in the work. This is even true when you have had an invi­ta­tion to come and speak on a topic to a work­shop or some other forum. It is wise to be sus­pi­cious of what is very easy, draws on your prac­ticed strengths and accom­plish­ments, and can be treated as an every­day trans­ac­tion. (p. 149).

Good advice. Of course the role of min­istry is even more com­pli­cated in that I wasn’t address­ing a Quaker audi­ence: like the major­ity of Friends schools, few Penn Char­ter stu­dents actu­ally are Quaker. I’m a pub­lic school kid, but it from the out­side it seems like Friends schools stress the ethos of Quak­erism (“here’s Penn Charter’s state­ment”). Again Dray­ton helped me think beyond nor­mal ideas of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing and out­reach when he talked about “pub­lic meet­ings”:

We are also called, I feel to invite oth­ers to share Christ directly, not pri­mar­ily in order to intro­duce them to Quak­erism and bring them into our meet­ings, but to encour­age them to turn to the light and fol­low it” (p. 147).

What I shared with the stu­dents was some of the ways my inter­ac­tion with the Spirit and my faith com­mu­nity shapes my life. When we keep it real, this is a pro­foundly uni­ver­sal­ist and wel­com­ing mes­sage.

I talked about the per­sonal aspect of blog­ging: in my opin­ion we’re at our best when we weave our the­ol­ogy with with per­sonal sto­ries and tes­ti­monies of speci­fic spir­i­tual expe­ri­ences. The stu­dents reminded me that this is also real world lesson: their great­est excite­ment and ques­tion­ing came when we started talk­ing about my father (I used to tell the story of my com­pletely messed-up child­hood fam­ily life a lot but have been out of the habit lately as it’s receded into the past). The stu­dents really wanted to under­stand not just my story but how it’s shaped my Quak­erism and influ­enced my com­ing to Friends. They asked some hard ques­tions and I was stuck hav­ing to give them hard answers (in that they were non-sentimental). When we share of our­selves, we present a wit­ness that can reach out to oth­ers.

Later on, one of the teach­ers pro­jected my blogroll on a screen and asked me about the peo­ple on it. I started telling sto­ries, relat­ing cool blog posts that had stuck out in my mind. Wow: this is a pretty amaz­ing group, with diver­sity of ages and Quak­erism. Review­ing the list really reminded me of the amaz­ing com­mu­nity that’s come together over the last few years.

One inter­est­ing lit­tle snip­pet for the Quaker cul­tural his­to­ri­ans out there: Penn Char­ter was the Gur­neyite school back in the day. When I got Michael’s email I was ini­tially sur­prised they even had classes on Quak­erism as it’s often thought of as one of the least Quaker of the Philadelphia-area Quaker schools. But think­ing on it, it made per­fect sense: the Gur­neyites loved edu­ca­tion; they brought Sun­day School (sorry, First Day School) into Quak­erism, along with Bible study and higher edu­ca­tion. Of course the school that bears their legacy would teach Quak­erism. Inter­est­ingly enough, the his­tor­i­cal Ortho­dox school down the road aways recently approached Penn Char­ter ask­ing about their Quaker classes; in true Wilbu­rite fash­ion, they’ve never both­ered try­ing to teach Quak­erism. The offi­cial Philadel­phia Quaker story is that branches were all fixed up nice and tidy back in 1955 but scratch the sur­face just about any­where and you’ll find Nine­teenth Cen­tury atti­tudes still shap­ing our insti­tu­tional cul­ture. It’s pretty fas­ci­nat­ing really.

Two Years of the Quaker Ranter and Quaker Blogs

An amaz­ing thing has hap­pened in the last two years: we’ve got Friends from the cor­ners of Quak­erism shar­ing our sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences, our frus­tra­tions and dreams through Quaker blogs. Dis­en­chanted Friends who have longed for deeper con­ver­sa­tion and con­so­la­tion when things are hard at their local meet­ing have built a net­work of Friends who under­stand. When our gen­er­a­tion is set­tling down to write our mem­oirs — our Quaker jour­nals — a lot of us will have to have at least one chap­ter about becom­ing involved in the Quaker blog­ging com­mu­nity.

My per­sonal site before and after it became “Quaker Ranter.”

When I signed off on my last post, I promised I would con­tinue with some­thing on “blogs, min­istry and lib­eral Quaker out­reach.” Here’s the first of the follow-ups.

As I set­tle in to my sec­ond week at my new (and newly-defined) jobs at FGC, I won­der if I be here with­out help of the Quaker Ranter? I started this blog two sum­mers ago. It was a time when I felt like I might be headed toward mem­ber­ship in the lost Quaker gen­er­a­tion that was the focus of one of my ear­li­est posts. There were a lot of dead-ends in my life. A cou­ple of appli­ca­tions for more seri­ous, respon­si­ble employ­ment with Friends had recently gone nowhere. Life at my monthly meet­ing was odd (we’ll keep it at that). I felt I was com­ing into a deeper expe­ri­en­tial knowl­edge of my Quak­erism and per­haps inch­ing toward more overt min­istry but there was no out­let, no sense of how this inward trans­for­ma­tion might fit into any sort of out­ward social form or forum.

Every­where I looked I saw Friends short­com­ing them­selves and our reli­gious soci­ety with a don’t-rock-the-boat timid­ity that wasn’t serv­ing God’s pur­pose for us. I saw pre­cious lit­tle prophetic min­istry. I knew of few Friends who were ask­ing chal­leng­ing ques­tions about our wor­ship life. Our lan­guage about God was becom­ing ever more coded and ster­il­ized. Most of the twenty-somethings I knew gen­er­ally approached Quak­erism pri­mar­ily as a series of cul­tural norms with only dif­fer­ent stan­dards from one yearly meet­ing to another (and one Quaker branch to another, I sus­pect) .
With all this as back­drop, I started the Quaker Ranter with a nothing-left-to-lose men­tal­ity. I was ner­vous about push­ing bound­aries and about broach­ing things pub­licly that most Friends only say in hushed tones of two or three on meet­ing­house steps. I was also dou­bly ner­vous about being a Quaker employee talk­ing about this stuff (liveli­hood and all that!). The few Quaker blogs that were out there were gen­er­ally blogs by Quak­ers but about any­thing but Quak­erism, pol­i­tics being the most com­mon topic.

Now sure, a lot of this hasn’t changed over these few years. But one thing has: we now have a vibrant com­mu­nity of Quaker blog­gers. We’ve got folks from the cor­ners of Quak­erism get­ting to know one another and hash out not just our sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences, but our frus­tra­tions and dreams. It’s so cool. There’s some­thing hap­pen­ing in all this! Dis­en­chanted Friends who have longed for deeper con­ver­sa­tion and con­so­la­tion when things are hard at their local meet­ing are find­ing Friends who under­stand.

Through the blog and the com­mu­nity that formed around it I’ve found a voice. I’m evolv­ing, cer­tainly, through read­ing, life, blog con­ver­sa­tions and most impor­tantly (I hope!) the act­ing of the Holy Spirit on my ever-resistant ego. But because of my blog I’m some­one who now feels com­fort­able talk­ing about what it means to be a Quaker in a pub­lic set­ting. It almost seems quaint to think back to the early blog con­ver­sa­tions about whether we can call this a kind of min­istry. When we’re all set­tling down to write our mem­oirs — our Quaker jour­nals — a lot of us will have to have at least one chap­ter about becom­ing involved in the Quaker blog­ging com­mu­nity. In Howard Brinton’s Quaker Jour­nals he enu­mer­ated the steps toward growth in the min­istry that most of the writ­ers seemed to go through; I sus­pect the jour­nals of our gen­er­a­tion will add self-published elec­tronic media to it’s list of clas­sic steps.

When I started Quaker Ranter I did have to won­der if this might be a quick­est way to get fired. Not to cast asper­sions on the powers-that-be at FGC but the web is full of cau­tion­ary tales of peo­ple being canned because of too-public blogs. My only con­so­la­tion was the sense that no one that mat­tered really read the thing. But as it became more promi­nent a curi­ous phe­nom­e­non hap­pened: even Quaker staff and über-insiders seemed to be relat­ing to this con­ver­sa­tion and wanted a place to com­plain and dream about Quak­erism. My per­sonal rep­u­ta­tion has cer­tainly gone up because of this site, directly and indi­rectly because of the blog. This brings with it the snares of pop­u­lar praise (itself a well-worn theme in Quaker jour­nals) but it also made it more likely I would be con­sid­ered for my new out­reach job. It’s funny how life works.
Okay, that’s enough for a post. I’ll have to keep out­reach till next time. But bear with me: it’s about form too and how form con­tributes to min­istry.

PS: Talk­ing of two years of Quaker blog­ging… My “Non​vi​o​lence​.org turns ten years old this Thurs­day!! I thought about mak­ing a big deal about it but alas there’s so lit­tle time.

Plain Quaker Nurse-In

I recently read a New York Times arti­cle on the resurg­ing phe­nom­e­non of nurse-ins, designed to high­light the lack of laws giv­ing moth­ers the right to nurse in pub­lic. Lit­tle did I real­ize a plain dress­ing Quaker near Grand Rapids Michi­gan was at the cen­ter of its nurse-in! From the local (link-unfriendly) news­pa­per:

As a Quaker woman, Jen­nifer Seif lives a mod­est and sim­ple life. Breast­feed­ing is nat­u­ral to her, and she has nursed her chil­dren while in the gro­cery store, the doctor’s office and dur­ing Quaker meet­ings with­out a prob­lem. So the Grand Rapids woman was shocked and embar­rassed in April when Kent County Clerk Mary Beth Hollinrake approached her while she was breast­feed­ing her infant son, Micah…“It’s shock­ing to me that any­one would be offended.” The mother of three said she was wear­ing a cape dress — a gar­ment designed for dis­creet nurs­ing…

I learned about this through the blog of Jenn and her hus­band Scott. Here’s Jenn’s post on the inci­dent. For those won­der­ing about their local pro­tec­tion, the La Leche League has a fab­u­lous state-by-state list­ing of the nurs­ing laws.