A guest piece by Evan Welkin
Shortly after finishing my second year at Guilford College, I set out to understand what brought me there. During the stressful process of deciding which college to attend, I felt a strong but slightly mysterious urge to explore Quakerism in my undergraduate years. Two years later, this same urge led me to buy a motorcycle, learn to ride it, and set out in a spiritual journey up the Eastern seaboard visiting Quaker meetings. While Guilford had excited and even irritated my curiosity about the workings of Quakerism, I knew little about how Quakers were over a large area of the country. I wanted to find out how Quakers worked as a group across a wide area of the country, and if I could learn how to be a leader within that community.
The Transport: Evan Welkin as he came through South Jersey.
The Route: I visited roughly 29 meetings houses and Quaker places of worship on my trip and met with groups from 15 of them. In a couple of instances, I only met with individuals from various meetings. (Click on map for larger image).
The purpose of my trip as outlined by my letter of introduction was:
“…the development of constructive and enriching spiritual dialogue between all branches of the Quaker community. I plan to travel from South to North, speaking with meetings about how (or whether) they feel their regional culture affects their theological beliefs with the intent of gaining a greater understanding of the 'spiritual state' of individual meetings.“
I was very committed to keeping this vision open-ended in order to identify common threads within conversations I would have with Friends. I hoped in the discussions I might identify whether there was some aspect of “regional flavor” to a Quaker meeting in South Carolina versus one in New Jersey, for example. I hoped to identify what these differences might be and somehow look for a common Quaker thread that ran beneath them I could address with all Friends. In addition, I planned to take pictures of meetinghouses along the way to see if what people said about their meetings was at all reflected in their meetinghouse architecture. In all honesty, however, I was most interested in simply gaining a greater understanding of how Quakerism is practiced over a very large area of the US. As a Quaker myself, I wanted to know what it meant to truly own up to and understand this part of my identity and to strengthen my spiritual being and hopefully inspire others.
My initial plans for this project were to purchase a motorcycle, learn to ride it and drive from Key West in Florida to Maine visiting Quakers along the way. I wanted to stay near the coast, if for no other reason than to have some kind of geographical continuity from the Atlantic to ground me along my way. The actual implementation of my plan differed slightly in it’s physical manifestation, but I still found it to be a spiritually and intellectually challenging endeavor. I traveled along the route indicated on the attached map, covering roughly 4,200 miles over the course of the trip. I began in Greensboro, North Carolina and traveled south to St. Petersburg, Florida. From St. Petersburg, I traveled all the way along the Eastern Seaboard more or less to New York City. From there, I returned to the South by way of Greensboro to finish in Nashville Tennessee.
The preparation for my project was significant, most notably in respect to my transportation. Before my decision to take on this project, I had only once ridden a motorcycle, and my hazy memory of the occasion makes me think it was just a brief ride on the back. Purchasing, insuring, licensing and learning how to drive a motorcycle was a very involved undertaking that required a considerable amount of commitment to overcoming my fear. The process helped me become mentally prepared for the trip, though, by testing my physical self so greatly. In addition, I wrote to over 50 Quaker meetings all along the East coast introducing myself and asking them to consider meeting with me. As meetings responded, I gave them an idea of when I might be in their area and we set up tentative visiting dates. The purpose of the trip as outlined in that letter changed over the course of my project, but I will return to that. In addition to these two most time-consuming aspects of my project, there were quite a number of other smaller details to be taken care of that are inherent to any major travel. Purchasing gear, tuning up and preparing my motorcycle for long distance touring, discussing details with my home meeting about the trip, etc. were some of the other tasks to be completed. For the most part, I did all of this alone. While I had Max Carter to help with some of the preliminary envisioning and last minute contact possibilities, I took on most everything myself. My home meeting was far away and could practically offer very little in terms of coordinating efforts from that distance. I was not sure how to prepare for the trip spiritually but left with an open heart and a strong commitment to be as open as possible.
I was presented with quite a number of challenges on my trip, and it appeared that those obstacles came either in the form of spiritual or practical trials along my way. Some of my practical challenges were the theft of my camera early in the trip, the matter of food and lodging and the sheer effort of traveling over very great distances day after day. The camera was significant loss because it made the process of gathering pictures for presentation much more difficult. I had to rely on the poor quality and much slower processing of a disposable camera for most of my trip. In general, I had a sense of who I would stay with city by city along my route, but it was difficult to not know any of these people in advance beyond letters and to rely on them so much for their generosity. I realize that this demanded quite a degree of flexibility both on my part and theirs; this, like my stolen camera, helped me learn to adapt and try to be as gracious as possible. The physical strain and mental alertness I needed to travel long distances was very taxing, resulting in my decision to not go as far as I had originally planned.
A practical issue that did affect the outcome of my project was which meetings ended up responding to my letter of introduction. I only received any word back from about half of the meetings I wrote to. Of those, I was disappointed that despite the fact I wrote to a large number of Quakers both programmed and unprogrammed, I received a much smaller number of responses from programmed meetings and of those I did, a number ‘disappeared’ after the initial contact. This may have been entirely by chance, but none the less I found my experiences with programmed Friends to be disproportionately enriching for their being so few and I regretted their brevity. Therefore, most of my observations were among unprogrammed Friends and I shy away from making comparisons between “unprogrammed” and “programmed” Friends in this report because I simply didn’t feel like I met with enough unprogrammed Friends to tell.
In addition, the internal challenge all these practical challenges brought on made it difficult to remain spiritually centered. Constant spiritual discussion left me struggling to be lighthearted. I can’t tell if this made my later disheartenment with group conversations greater or whether the discussions themselves disheartened me. As time went on though, my frustrations with the dynamics I witnessed in meetings right from the beginning of my trip onwards increasingly affected my openness. I relied more and more on a regimented conversation format, limiting opportunities for spontaneity of spirit. By the end I felt like a slightly strange gentleman who rises every week at about the same time in meeting for worship with a message that seems unfortunately similar to the same thing he said the week before.
With the goal of creating “enriching spiritual dialogue” so prominently placed as my goal for this trip, I spent a significant amount of time figuring out what this meant and how it might be achieved. If I were able to create this dialogue on my trip, I somehow felt that this would be immediately beneficial to both Quakers and Quaker institutions by creating a greater sense of vitality and unity within them. I began to realize how subjective unity and vitality are. A distinction I failed to recognize in my idealized conception was the difference between unity of individuals, such as a good conversation between myself and a host, and unity of meetings, such as a group meeting and sharing conversation. As time went on, I began to become frustrated in group discussions and to try to “argue” my interpretation of unity and vitality in much the same way I saw other Friends doing. I had hoped Friends themselves would suggest points of unity within Quakerism, but often I just heard folks talk about what they believed in to the exclusion of other beliefs. For instance, I asked many meetings what they might do as a group if someone rose in meeting and brought a very evangelical Christian message to worship. While at first many spoke about “trying to accept that message” as equal to any other, it seemed that in essence many felt threatened by the question and that I should ask it at all. It seemed that few meetings had any established process of “eldering” or holding individuals accountable for the group. I am certainly not evangelical nor am I sure I am Christian, but I somehow felt accused of being both in these conversations and therefore felt less welcome. There were several points on my trip where I struggled to find any hope Quakers could be lead to unite amongst each other, and it was the distinction between individuals and groups that made all the difference.
Observing group dynamics and looking for continuity or unity within Friends Meetings as a whole along my journey was very hard for me. There were several notable exceptions, but as I finished my trip I found myself terribly disheartened in general by much of the group behavior I witnessed within the meetings I visited. In meetings were I felt most successful and useful the members appeared not only to care deeply about each other and the vitality of their individual meetings, but were strong enough to work outside their own communities to engage corporately in the wider body of Quakerism and the world at large. They had clear ways of holding individuals accountable to the group as a whole and did so. I did not feel I found this sense in many of the meetings I visited though, however briefly, and could not tell how beneficial my visit might be to them. I was surprised to be so disheartened after seeing folks so quickly, but often it appeared very obviously in group conversations full of Friends interrupting or contradicting each other or from side comments I heard from individuals later.
I struggle to write these words because I felt cared for and looked after by folks from all the meetings I visited, but I still could not help but feel sad when visiting meetings who steadily lost members, struggled to take care of basic business or suffered from internal feuds. Many meetings in Florida were in the process of building new meetinghouses, and while the common cause of such a large order of business seemed to bring them together, many Friends in these meetings expressed concern that it was only a temporary fix. In fairness, many of the meetings I visited along the way were in fact worship groups and not fully meetings, but rather than this being a stepping stone to a more established order, it seemed that many of these worship groups struggled to keep the few members they had and seemed to not feel terribly connected as a group.
What appeared to be the main causes of this disunity, however, was the unfortunate fact that it seems many Friends are Quaker for selfish reasons. I’m sorry to say it, but that was my impression of why so many meeting groups struggle to find an effective group process. In many of the meetings I visited it appeared that Friends not only expected complete acceptance of their personal spiritual path, but also their political, ideological and cultural ones as well. Like in the case of the evangelical message question, it appeared that an evangelical person was not simply threatening to individuals in their spiritual beliefs, but also in their inferred political leanings and culture. This seemed to show me that the meeting was not actually for embracing people in a group atmosphere as advertised but more a cultural, ideological and political support group for like-minded individuals. “Quakers couldn’t be Republican. I can’t stand Republicans” . This is where the realm of the individual butted up against the corporate in my eyes.
The beauty of silent worship, as many Friends agreed, was it’s ability to speak to so many different Friend’s conditions while still being such a crucially group-centered act. In the early days of Quakerism, it appeared that this act of worship was a cornerstone for the connection that could be felt between individuals in a group setting in business meeting, community dinners or the world at large. From what I saw on my trip, the gratification and fulfillment of the individual appears more and more accentuated as Quakerism progresses rather than fulfillment of the whole meeting. When faced with a confusing or chaotic business process, for instance, it seems in many cases that every person wants to revert to the way THEY make decisions best as the ideal way for the group. I would hasten to add that I did not even attend one business meeting along my trip, and that my concern for the issue of business specifically comes from many, many direct comments from individuals frustrated by their group’s business meetings. I saw on my own that many Friends have so many different interests and such completely busy lives outside meeting, it appears the most they can do to attended worship.
So perhaps the paradox of the individual and group within a universal spirit is what Quakerism can benefit from exploring today. I found my attention so often turned to the great folks I found along my way who spoke directly to my condition. I met so many incredibly interesting, thought-provoking, eccentric, kind and inspired people on my trip, I cannot help but be awed and impressed. I certainly found a kind of unity between them and myself. While I cannot be sure my actions benefited Friend meetings in totality, I know that my conversations with Friends were both inspiring to me and the people I found along the way. I believe I brightened some folks’ days and gave them a chance to tell their stories. The faith required to get on the road each day, not knowing where I would end up by nightfall was awesome and it stretched me considerably in a way that I think Friends appreciated. I am sure that I will continue to be in contact with Friends I met along the way and will continue to think about these issues with them.
In terms of this trip as a foundation for Quaker leadership, I must say I was a put at a bit of a loss at what that might mean. Someone mentioned it might be like “herding cats.” One leadership role I did see often, which worried me, was that of the “überQuakers,” as we at Guilford like to call them. It appeared that in many instances, I ended up staying with the members of meetings who were the “movers and shakers” of their meetings for their dogged dedication to the meeting as a whole. Sadly, in many instances these folks seemed to bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the affairs of their meetings, spiritually, logistically and energetically. They did not resent this role, but it appeared to me that they were rarely consciously chosen for that ministry by the group but instead had the position thrust upon them. These folks were complimented by an unfortunately large segment of Friends, often pleading busy schedules, who appeared to be unable to commit to the meeting beyond the catharsis of meeting for worship. Part of witnessing this left me questioning my commitment to Quakerism by the end of my trip. If this is how Quakerism works, why should I even bother developing ‘leadership’ to become an “überQuaker”? While it may not have burnt out those who I stayed with along the way, why would I purposely stick my neck out for the benefit of the group as a whole when it seems that few others are actually interested in anyone but themselves at the end of the day? It is not that I begrudge selflessness by any means, but Quakerism cannot survive on the selflessness of some and dependence of many. Or at least it should not in my eyes.
Perhaps what worries me is that with the amount of time and effort I put into this trip, I am already falling into the “überQuaker” mindset. “Well, if things aren’t going right I’ll just have to do something myself and decide how they can be fixed.” This is my great fear. This is not the thinking of a vital, post-authoritarian religious society. I imagine a vital Quaker community that is full of folks with various commitments, but all with a shared desire not only to come to worship together but to do business together, reach out and make sacrifices to bring in new members and actively take on projects as a meeting that all can agree are the Spirit’s will. I would like to see a much greater sense of group intentionality, but I know that is not something one individual can force. I have learned that I have a great deal of personal growth to go through before I am ready to contribute as I would like to the Quaker community. I think in many ways this trip made me feel more inexperienced and apprehensive with Quakerism but I strive for that place of faith and confidence. I am beginning a book about my experiences on this trip, in addition to creating a digital presentation featuring the meetinghouse pictures I took.
I wish I could say I knew this trip was God’s will, but the rhetoric with which many people have invoked God’s name in my life has blurred the lines between spiritual surrender and egotistical manipulation. As one particularly astute Friend put it “As with so much else in life, implementing our intentions should allow for the possibility of being self conceited.” Much of what I found along my trip reflected struggles within others about the will of God in their lives, some of which started early in Friend’s lives and some that only began when they took Quakerism as their own. Ironically, it appears that the difference I was looking for in geographic distribution was actually surprisingly absent over such a large area. All the Friends I talked to were in some way struggling with the issue of how they fit into the larger group, a community of the Spirit and of Quaker business. As I sought to find parallels in my conversations with Friends, I was constantly reminded of the push and pull of the individual will versus the will of the whole. In many Friends eyes, this struggle is fundamentally a dance between the individual and answering to the Spirit that is within us all.
Some Queries I made up for myself along my trip were:
- How do I remain secure and non-threatened in my own faith to be open to others?
- What are my blindnesses or biases from my Quaker roots?
- What is selflessness and is it ideal?
- How do I know what is my will and what is the will of God?