This week's Friends Journal feature is my interview with Joyce Ajlouny, who is leaving her role as head of the Ramallah Friends School to become the next general secretary for American Friends Service Committee.
I interviewed her by phone from my back porch on a snowy day and very much enjoyed conversation. I’m fascinated by the challenges of an organization like AFSC—one that has to balance strong roots in a religious tradition while largely working outside of it. How do you balancing the conflicting identities? It’s not unlike the challenge of a Friends school like Ramallah's.
I was also particularly moved by the genuine enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about engaging in honest conversations with people with whom we have strong disagreements. In this polarized age, it’s tempting to try to stay in the safety our bubbles. Joyce seems to thrive stepping out of that comfort zone:
I think we’ve learned from this last U.S. election that we need to listen more. This can often be a challenge for people who are very passionate about the positions they take. Sometimes the passion is so overwhelming that it sort of overrides that willingness to listen to other narratives. This is something that we really need to work much harder on. Truth is always incomplete. We always have to look for other truths. We need to break through some of these boundaries that we’ve put around ourselves and seek a wider spectrum of perspectives.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:
I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?
Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.
What the terms don't mean
The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.
Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.
Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).
In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.
A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).
All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.
I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.
The meanings of the terms
Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.
But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).
Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.
The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.
But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.
Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.
Thanks to James for the question!
Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.
2015 looks like it’s shaping up to be the year that online cloud photo services all take a giant leapt forward. Just in the last few months alone, I’ve gone and dug up my ten-plus year photo archive from a rarely accessed backup drive (some 72 GB of files) and uploaded it to three different photo services.
First it was Dropbox, whose Carousel app promised to change everything. For $10/month, I can have all of the digitized photos I’ve ever taken all together. It changed how I access past events. Back in the day I might have taken 20 pictures and posted 2 to Flickr. The other 18 were for all intents inaccessible to me — on the backup drive that sits in a dusty drawer in my desk. Now I could look up some event on my public Flickr, remember the date, then head to Dropbox/Carousel to look through everything I took that day — all on my phone. Sometimes I’d even share the whole roll from that event to folks who were there.
But this was a two-step process. Flickr itself had boosted its storage space last year but it wasn’t until recently that they revealed a new Camera Roll and uploader that made this all work more seamlessly. So all my photos again went up there. Now I didn’t have to juggle between two apps.
Last week, Google finally (finally!) broke its photos from Google+ and the remnants of Picasa to give them their own home. It’s even more fabulous than Flickr and Dropbox, in that its search is so good as to feel like magic. People, places, and image subjects all can be accessed with the search speed that Google is known for. And this service is free and uploads old videos.
I’m constantly surprised how just how emotionally powerful an old photo or video can be (I waxed lyrically about this in Nostalgia Comes Early, written just before our last family vacation). This weekend I found a short clip from 2003 of my wife carrying our newborn in a backpack and citing how many times he had woken us up the night before. At the end she joked that she could guilt trip him in years to come by showing this video to him. Now the clip is something I can find, load, and play in a few seconds right from my ever-present phone.
So what I’ve noticed is this quick access to unshared photos is changing the nature of my cellphone photo-taking. I’m taking pictures that I never intend to share but that give me an establishing shot for a particular event: signs, driveway entrances, maps. Now that I have unlimited storage and a camera always within reach, I can use it as a quick log of even the most quotidian life events (MG Siegler recently wrote about The Power of the Screenshot, which is another way that quick and ubiquitous photo access is changing how and what we save.) With GPS coordinates and precise times, it’s especially useful. But the most profound effect is not the activity logging, but still the emotions release unlocking all-but-lost memories: remembering long-ago day trips and visits with old friends.
How did a sandbar halfway between New Jersey and Delaware become the property of one state and not the other?
The British royal government was notoriously sloppy in its awarding of land grants in its colonies. There’s a lot of boundary ambiguity and overlapping claims. With American independence, the task for refereeing fell to the new federal government.
The specific problem of Pea Patch was as young as the nation itself. According to testimony recorded in the 1837 records of the U.S. Senate, Pea Patch was formed around the time of the American Revolution when a ship loaded with peas reportedly sunk there (smells of a tall tale to me but I’ll let it stand). Alluvial deposits formed a sandbank around the wreck and it eventually coalesced into a full-fledged island.
When claims overlap on an island in the middle of a boundary river, it’s typical to look at two measures: the first and most obvious is to see if it’s closer to one side’s riverbank. The other is to look at shipping channels and use this as a de facto boundary. According the the Senate testimony, Pea Patch Island is both closer to New Jersey and on the New Jersey side of the early nineteenth-century shipping channel.
There’s also human factors to consider: according to testimony in the Congressional Record the island was generally considered a part of N.J.‘s Salem County through the early nineteenth century. In 1813, New Jersey resident Henry Gale bought Pea Patch Island and began developing fisheries on it. New Jersey formally minuted the island as his property, confirming the land deeds and giving it to his “heirs and assigns for ever [sic].”
State ownership of Pea Patch would seem to be a pretty straight-forward decision then: geographically New Jersey’s, culturally a part of Salem County, and owned by a South Jersey businessperson.
Unfortunately for Gale, the federal government thought it was a good strategic location for a new fort. They offered him $30,000 but he didn’t think it was a fair price. They didn’t want to negotiate and so made a side deal with the State of Delaware. They decided the state boundary line should be drawn to the east of the island to make it a part of Delaware. The state declared Henry Gale a squatter and gave full ownership of the island to the U.S. War Department. Gale was forcibly evicted, his buildings demolished, his fishery business ruined. It doesn’t take a conspiracist to imagine that the Congressional Delaware delegation got something nice for their participation in this ruse.
(Later on, continuing boundary disputes between the two states led to the truly-bizarre geographic oddity that is the 12-Mile Circle. Anything built off the New Jersey coast into the Delaware River is Delaware’s. This still regularly sparks lawsuits between the states. If you could get behind the scenes I imagine you could set a whole Boardwalk-Empire-like show in the Delaware land grant office.)
A century and a half later the crumbling ruins of Fort Delaware would come under the administration of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. The DNERC folks do a great job running Fort Delaware. When reading up on this I was surprised to find Henry Gale’s name. My wife’s family has Salem County Gales so Henry is at least some sort of distant cousin of my kids. I think Delaware should give us a special toot on the ferry horn every time they land back on the soil of their ancestral home.
My father-in-law died in January. These are few pictures I put together while Julie was still at the family home with the close relatives. Thanks to our friends for sharing a bit of our life by reading this one. He’s missed.
A look at Friends testimonies and the difficulties of being a fair-trade pacifist in our hyper-connected world today. I think George Fox and the early Friends were faced with similar challenges and that our guide can be the same as theirs.
A number of new services are trying to update the culture of blogging. This post looked at comments; a subsequent one considered how we might reorganize our blogs into more of a structured Wiki.
This year saw a lot of hang wringing by mainstream journalists on the anniversary of the Iraq War. I didn’t have much patience and looked at how dissenting voices were regularly locked out of debate ten years ago – and are still locked out with the talk that “all of us” were wrong then.
Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God. What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation?