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.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing