There’s that famous scene in the 1968 movie “Planet of the Apes” when our astronaut protagonist Charlton Heston realizes that the spaceship that brought him to the land where apes rule didn’t travel in space but in time. He’s escaping the primate theocracy, heading north along the coast, when he rounds a corner to see the charred ruin remains of the Statue of Liberty lying in the sand. He falls to his knees and screams out “YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP!” He realizes that it was his own people who had destroyed everything they loved with their inattention and pettiness.
Yesterday my old friend Chris Parker posted a comment to “The Lost Quaker Generation” essay where he wondered if “the Quaker community has lost its vitality” (scroll down to third entry). I first met Chris at a 1997 conference in Burlington NJ for “Quaker Volunteer Service, Training, & Witness”. I had been excited by the prospect of a group of people deepening and exploring the roots of Quaker witness and wasn’t disappointed with the conversations and new friendships. Chris a recent MDiv from the Earlham School of Religion now now working at the American Friends Service Committee; he left the conference passionate about helping to create something new. While working with AFSC, he started pulling together a national Quaker network of volunteer opportunities. This was a ministry, pure and simple, from one of the more active, visionary and hardworking twenty-something Friends I’ve known. But frustrations mounted, support evaporated. As I remember even his monthly meeting couldn’t unify around supporting this ministry. The project eventually fell apart as our email correspondence grew sketchy.
A month or so ago I got an email from Chris with his new address, a yoga retreat center in New England. I responded back with personal news but also with regrets that Quakerism had apparently lost him. Part of his comments from yesterday:
Well, I’m one of these thirty somethings that has drifted away. I’m sure each of us has our own story. I did try to help organize, but that turned out to be a bitter and unsuccessful experience. A long story for another time. But the spirit flows in many directions and if the Quaker community has lost it’s vitality or doesn’t work for some people, there are other places there. Holding on too tightly to Quakerism is to hold on to a human creation.
I am now living and working at Kripalu yoga center, a place that many call a spiritual home. We have 60,000 people on our mailing list, of whom about 68% have come here as a guest. There are about 30,000 unprogrammed Quakers.
He’s right of course: Kripalu undoubtedly touches more spiritual lives than unprogrammed Quakerism. But the real lesson is that Kripalu knows what a gem they have in Chris: they’ve given him the kind of responsibilities and encouragement that Quakers didn’t.
Chris was one of those involved Friends I had hoped to grow old with. I had imagined us running into each other in half a dozen committees over the next fifty years. We could have gone on backpacking trips together, invited each other to our kids’ weddings, had catch-up lunches at Quaker conferences, consoled each other through grief, thought about how to “transmit our faith” to the next generation of Friends. Chris Parker was worth more to Quakerism than any number of outreach initiatives or peace networks. Chris was the real deal: a committed, impassioned Friend. And now he’s one of Quakerism’s scarred and rusted statues, tributes to what could have been.
He put his story up on a website way back when. I’m just going to extensively quote it here:
I feel an urgency about this project because it has come to me that Quakers are about to be needed by the larger culture. Underneath the ills we face as a nation is a spiritual problem of violence and dominance over other people and life. Friends have a tradition that presents an alternative. The essential gem of Quakerism is the knowledge that each person is part of the divine, that we need to treat everybody as equal and sacred. While I am comfortable with more witness than Friends usually muster, I do believe that faith is more easily caught than taught. Service has been an experience where many are exposed to Quakers, with the opportunity to inspire and bring transformations.
But the Society of Friends is not in great shape. Friends are unfocused and tired. Often young adult Friends are missing. I have listened jealously to an ear-lier generation tell how AFSC workcamps formed them and taught them how to be leaders. While Quakerism is very good for seekers, my generation seems to need an experience given to them, which is a different energy. My friends from Brethren Volunteer Service were inspired and equipped for a life of commitment they probably wouldn’t have otherwise choosen.
My inspirations have assembled slowly over the last six years. I went to Earlham School of Religion to prepare to be of service. There I was inspired by friends who had participated in Brethern Volunteer Service. At the same time I worked as Assistant Director of a peer counseling program where I watched the teens blossom and transform when trusted with the opportunity to help others and have a real impact.
Can Quakerism survive if we can’t keep Friends like this?