Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style

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?

The Lost Quaker Generation

The other day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a thirty-something Quaker very involved in nation-wide pacifist organizing. I had lost touch with him after he entered a federal jail for participating in a Plowshares action but he’s been out for a few years and is now living in Philly.

We talked about a lot of stuff over lunch, some of it just movement gossip. But we also talked about spirituality. He has left the Society of Friends and has become re-involved in his parents’ religious traditions. It didn’t sound like this decision had to do with any new religious revelation that involved a shift of theology. He simply became frustrated at the lack of Quaker seriousness.

It’s a different kind of frustration than the one I feel but I wonder if it’s not all connected. He was drawn to Friends because of their mysticism and their passion for nonviolent social change. It was this combination that has helped power his social action witness over the years. It would seem like his serious, faithful work would be just what Friends would like to see in their thirty-something members but alas, it’s not so. He didn’t feel supported in his Plowshares action by his Meeting.

He concluded that the Friends in his Meeting didn’t think the Peace Testimony could actually inspire us to be so bold. He said two of his Quaker heroes were John Woolman and Mary Dyer but realized that the passion of witness that drove them wasn’t appreciated by today’s peace and social concerns committees. The radical mysticism that is supposed to drive Friends’ practice and actions have been replaced by a blandness that felt threatened by someone who could choose to spend years in jail for his witness.

I can relate to his disappointment. I worry about what kinds of actions are being done in the name of the Peace Testimony, which has lost most of its historic meaning and power among contemporary Friends. It’s invoked most often now by secularized, safe committees that use a rationalist approach to their decision-making, meant to appeal to others (including non-Friends) based solely on the merits of the arguments. NPR activism, you might say. Religion isn’t brought up, except in the rather weak formulations that Friends are “a community of faith” or believe there is “that of God in everyone” (whatever these phrases mean). That we are led to act based on instructions from the Holy Spirit directly is too off the deep end for many Friends, yet the peace testimony is fundamentally a testimony to our faith in God’s power over humanity, our surrender to the will of Christ entering our hearts with instructions which demand our obedience.

But back to my friend, the ex-Friend. I feel like he’s just another eroded-away grain of sand in the delta of Quaker decline. He’s yet another Friend that Quakerism can’t afford to loose, but which Quakerism has lost. No one’s mourning the fact that he’s lost, no one has barely noticed. Knowing Friends, the few that have noticed have probably not spent any time reaching out to him to ask why or see if things could change and they probably defend their inaction with self-congratulatory pap about how Friends don’t proselytize and look how liberal we are that we say nothing when Friends leave.

God!, this is terrible. I know of DOZENS of friends in my generation who have drifted away from or decisively left the Society of Friends because it wasn’t fulfilling its promise or its hype. No one in leadership positions in Quakerism is talking about this lost generation. I know of very few thirty-something Friends who are involved nowadays and very very few of them are the kind of passionate, mystical, obedient-to-the-Spirit servants that Quakerism needs to bring some life back into it. A whole generation is lost–my fellow thirty-somethings–and now I see the passionate twenty-somethings I know starting to leave. Yet this exodus is one-by-one and goes largely unremarked and unnoticed (but then I’ve already posted about this: It will be in decline our entire live).


Update 10/05

I feel like I should add an addendum to all this. As I’ve spoken with more Friends of all generations, I’ve noticed that the attention to younger Friends is cyclical. There’s a thirty-year cycle of snubbing younger Friends (by which I mean Friends under 40). Back in the 1970s, all twenty-year-old with a pulse could get recognition and support from Quaker meetings and I know a lot of Friends of that generation who were given tremendous opportunities despite little experience. A decade later the doors had started to close but a hard-working faithful Friend in their early twenties could still be recognized. By the time my generation came along, you could be a whirlwind of great ideas and energy and still be shut out of all opportunities to serve the Religious Society of Friends.

The good news is that I think things are starting to change. There’s still a long way to go but a thaw is upon us. In some ways this is inevitable: much of the current leadership of Quaker institutions is retiring and I think they’re starting to realize it. There are problems, most notably tokenism–almost all of the younger Friends being lifted up now are the sons & daughters of prominent “committee Friends.” The biggest problem is that a few dozen years of lax religious education and “roll your own Quakerism” means that many of the members of the younger generation can’t even be considered spiritual Quakers. Our Meetinghouses are seen as a place to meet other cool, progressive young hipsters, while spirituality is sought from other sources. We’re going to be spending decades untangling all this and we’re not going to have the seasoned Friends of my generation to help bridge the gaps.

Related Reading

  • After my friend Chris posted below I wrote a follow-up essay, Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style.
  • Many older Friends hope that a resurgence of the peace movement might come along and bring younger Friends in. In Peace and Twenty-Somethings I look at the generational strains in the peace movement.
  • Beckey Phipps conducted a series of interviews that touched on many of these issues and published it in FGConnections. FGC Religious Education: Lessons for the 21st Century asks many of the right questions. My favorite line: “It is the most amazing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quaker] leadership programs–they’ve disappeared.”

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