Spiritual self-understanding as pretext to organizational renewal

Brent Bill is con­tin­u­ing his “Mod­est Pro­pos­al” series on Quak­er “revi­tal­iza­tion” on his blog Holy Ordi­nary. Today’s install­ment (part sev­en) is great but I’m not sure where it leaves us. He starts by talk­ing about how some Quak­er body’s books of dis­ci­plines (“Faith and Prac­tice”) are becom­ing more legal­is­tic as they pick up ideas from oth­er reli­gious bod­ies. He then chal­lenges year­ly meet­ings and oth­er Friends bod­ies to a “seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of their pur­pose and pro­grams” in which they ask a series of ques­tions about their purpose.

I agree with a lot of his obser­va­tion. But at the same time I’m not sure what a seri­ous exam­i­na­tion would look like or would pro­duce. In recent years my own year­ly meet­ing has devel­oped a kind of cir­ca­di­an rhythm of con­stant reor­ga­ni­za­tion, tin­ker­ing with orga­ni­za­tion­al charts, leg­isla­tive process­es design to speed up deci­sions, and chang­ing times and fre­quen­cies of events hop­ing to attract new peo­ple. And yet, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when I went to sit in on a meet­ing of the gov­ern­ing body, I was the third or fourth youngest per­son in a room of about 75 Friends. It was pret­ty much the same group of peo­ple who were doing it ten years and mul­ti­ple reforms ago, only now they are ten years old­er. We actu­al­ly ripped through busi­ness so we can spend an hour naval-gazing about the pur­pose of this par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ing body and I can report it wasn’t the breath of fresh air that we might have hoped for.

A big part of the prob­lem is we’ve for­got­ten why we’re doing all this. We’ve split the faith from the prac­tice – and I don’t mean Chris­t­ian vs non-Christian, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle that is the Quak­er under­stand­ing of gospel order, a world view that is dis­tinct from that of oth­er Chris­t­ian denom­i­na­tions. Lloyd Lee Wil­son calls it the “Quak­er gestalt” in Essays on the Quak­er Vision of Gospel Order. When a spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion has an inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy, and the process and the­ol­o­gy rein­force each oth­er. Archi­tec­ture and demeanor, cul­tur­al and busi­ness val­ues fit togeth­er. It’s nev­er per­fect, of course, and main­tain­ing the con­sis­ten­cy against new influ­ences and chang­ing cir­cum­stances is often the source of unnec­es­sary pet­ty squab­bling. But even some­thing as innocu­ous as a meetinghouse’s bench arrange­ments can tell you a lot about a group’s the­ol­o­gy and its bal­ance towards author­i­ty and individualism.

It’s our under­stand­ing of our faith and our con­cept of body-of-Christ com­mu­ni­ty which under­girds our insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. When we don’t have a good grasp of it, we do things mere­ly because “we’re sup­posed to” and the process feels dry and spirit-less. We defend par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions as nec­es­sary because they’re cod­i­fied in our books of doc­trine and lose our abil­i­ty to pos­i­tive­ly explain their exis­tence, at which point frus­trat­ed mem­bers will call for their aban­don­ment as unnec­es­sary bag­gage from a bygone age.

As an exam­ple, about sev­en years ago my quar­ter­ly meet­ing went through a naval-gazing process. I tried to be involved, as did my then-Quaker wife Julie. We asked a lot of big ques­tions but oth­ers on the vision­ing com­mit­tee just want­ed to ask small ques­tions. When Julie and I asked about divine guid­ance at ses­sions, for exam­ple, one fel­low con­de­scend­ing­ly explained that if we spent all our time ask­ing what God want­ed we’d nev­er get any­thing done. We real­ly didn’t know what to say to that, espe­cial­ly as it seemed the con­sen­sus of oth­ers in the group. One thing they were com­plain­ing about was that it was always the same few peo­ple doing any­thing but after a few rounds of those meet­ings, we ran scream­ing away (my wife right out of the RSoF altogether).

Re-visioning isn’t just decon­struct­ing insti­tu­tions we don’t under­stand or tin­ker­ing with some new process to fix the old process that doesn’t work. If you’ve got a group of peo­ple active­ly lis­ten­ing to the guid­ance of the Inward Christ then any process or struc­ture prob­a­bly can be made to work (though some will facil­i­tate dis­cern­ment bet­ter). Our books of “Faith and Prac­tice” were nev­er meant to be inerrant Bibles. At their core, they’re our “wiki” of best prac­tices for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty dis­cern­ment – tips earned through the suc­cess­es and fail­ures of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. I think if we under­stand our spir­i­tu­al roots bet­ter we’ll find our musty old Quak­er insti­tu­tions actu­al­ly still have impor­tant roles to play. But how do we get there? I like Brent’s ques­tions but I’m not sure you can just start with them. Any­one want to share sto­ries of spir­i­tu­al deep­en­ing in their meet­ings or faith com­mu­ni­ties and how that fed into a renewed appre­ci­a­tion of Quak­er bod­ies and process?

Dusting off the Elders of Balby

One of the blue­prints for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty is the “Epis­tle from the Elders at Bal­by” writ­ten in 1656 at the very infan­cy of the Friends move­ment by a gath­er­ing of lead­ers from York­shire and North Mid­lands, England.

It’s the pre­cur­sor to Faith and Prac­tice, as it out­lines the rela­tion­ship between indi­vid­u­als and the meet­ing. If remem­bered at all today, it’s for its post­script, a para­phrase of 2 Corinthi­ans that warns read­ers not to treat this as a form to wor­ship and to remain liv­ing in the light which is pure and holy. That post­script now starts off most lib­er­al Quak­er books of Faith and Practice. 

But the Epis­tle itself is well worth dust­ing off. It address­es wor­ship, min­istry, mar­riage, and how to deal in meek­ness and love with those walk­ing “dis­or­der­ly.” It talks of how to sup­port fam­i­lies and take care of mem­bers who were impris­oned or in need. Some of it’s lan­guage is a lit­tle stilt­ed and there’s some talk of the role of ser­vants that most mod­ern Friend would object to. But over­all, it’s a remark­ably lucid, prac­ti­cal and rel­e­vant doc­u­ment. It’s also short: just over two pages.

One of the things I hear again and again from Friends is the desire for a deep­er com­mu­ni­ty of faith. Younger Friends are espe­cial­ly drawn toward the so-called “New Monas­tic” move­ment of tight com­mu­nal liv­ing. The Bal­by Epis­tle is a glimpse into how an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion of Friends addressed some of these same concerns.

ONLINE EDITIONS OF THE EPISTLE AT BALBY:
Quak­er Her­itage Press: qhpress​.org/​t​e​x​t​s​/​b​a​l​b​y​.​h​tml
Street Cor­ner Soci­ety: strecor​soc​.org/​d​o​c​s​/​b​a​l​b​y​.​h​tml
Wik­isource: en​.wik​isource​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​e​_​E​p​i​s​t​l​e​_​f​r​o​m​_​t​h​e​_​E​l​d​e​r​s​_​a​t​_​B​a​l​b​y​,​_​1​656

DISCUSSIONS:
Brook­lyn Quak­er post & dis­cus­sion (2005): brook​lyn​quak​er​.blogspot​.com/​2​0​0​5​/​0​3​/​e​l​d​e​r​s​-​a​t​-​b​a​l​b​y​.​h​tml

Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

A few weeks ago a newslet­ter brought writ­ten reports about the lat­est round of con­flict at a local meet­ing that’s been fight­ing for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit under­whelmed by the accounts of the newest con­flict res­o­lu­tion attempts. The medi­a­tors seemed more wor­ried about alien­at­ing a few long-term dis­rup­tive char­ac­ters than about pre­serv­ing the spir­i­tu­al vital­i­ty of the meet­ing. It’s a phe­nom­e­na I’ve seen in a lot of Quak­er meetings. 

Call it the FDR Prin­ci­ple after Franklin D Roo­sevelt, who sup­pos­ed­ly defend­ed his sup­port of one of Nicaragua’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors by say­ing “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casu­al his­to­ri­ans of Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ry will know this only led to fifty years of wars with rever­ber­a­tions across the world with the Iran/Contra scan­dal. The FDR Prin­ci­ple didn’t make for good U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and, if I may, I’d sug­gest it doesn’t make for good Quak­er pol­i­cy either. Any dis­cus­sion board mod­er­a­tor or pop­u­lar blog­ger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integri­ty you need to know when to cut a dis­rup­tive trouble-maker off – polite­ly and suc­cint­ly, but also firm­ly. If you don’t, the peo­ple there to actu­al­ly dis­cuss your issues – the peo­ple you want – will leave.

I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Con­flict in Meet­ing came through Live­jour­nal this past First Day. The poster, jan­drewm, wrote in part:

Yet my recog­ni­tion of all that doesn’t negate the painful feel­ings that arise when hos­til­i­ty enters the meet­ing room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spo­ken.  After a few months of reg­u­lar atten­dance at my meet­ing, I came close to aban­don­ing this “exper­i­ment” with Quak­erism because some Friends were so con­sis­tent­ly ran­corous, divi­sive, dis­rup­tive.  I had to ask myself: “Do I need this neg­a­tiv­i­ty in my life right now?”

I com­ment­ed about the need to take the tes­ti­monies seriously:

I’ve been in that sit­u­a­tion. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on fla­grant­ly dis­rup­tive behav­ior. I wish I could buy the “it even­tu­al­ly sorts out” argu­ment but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meet­ings where all the sane peo­ple are dri­ven out, leav­ing the dis­rup­tive folks and arm­chair ther­a­pists. It’s a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship, per­haps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spir­i­tu­al community.

The unpop­u­lar solu­tion is for us to take our tes­ti­monies seri­ous­ly. And I mean those more spe­cif­ic tes­ti­monies buried deep in copies in Faith & Prac­tice that act as a kind of col­lec­tive wis­dom for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty life. Tes­ti­monies against detrac­tion and for right­ly ordered deci­sion mak­ing, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meet­ing they should be coun­seled; if they con­tin­ue to dis­rupt then their decision-making input should be dis­re­gard­ed. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quak­er process of dis­own­ing (which allowed con­tin­ued atten­dance at wor­ship and life in the com­mu­ni­ty but stopped busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion). Lim­it­ing input like this makes sense to me.

The trou­ble that if your meet­ing is in this kind of spi­ral there might not be much you can do by your­self. Peo­ple take some sort of weird com­fort in these pre­dictable fights and if you start talk­ing tes­ti­monies you might become very unpop­u­lar very quick­ly. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the bick­er­ing isn’t help­ful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Dis­tanc­ing your­self for a time might be help­ful. Get­ting involved in oth­er Quak­er venues. It’s a shame. Month­ly meet­ing is sup­posed to be the cen­ter of our Quak­er spir­i­tu­al life. But some­times it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these cir­cum­stances. I cer­tain­ly under­stand the val­ue and need for the Quak­er tes­ti­monies bet­ter sim­ply because I’ve seen the prob­lems meet­ings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any eas­i­er for you.

But all of this begs an awk­ward ques­tion: are we real­ly build­ing Christ’s king­dom by drop­ping out? It’s an age-old ten­sion between puri­ty and par­tic­i­pa­tion at all costs. Tim­o­thy asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion of me in a com­ment to my last post. Before we answer, we should rec­og­nize that there are indeed many peo­ple who have “aban­doned” their “Quak­er exper­i­ment” because we’re not liv­ing up to our own ideals. 

Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than oth­ers. It some­times seems like an email cor­re­spon­dence with the “Quak­er Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get mes­sages from seek­ers new­ly con­vinced of Quak­er prin­ci­ples but unable to con­nect local­ly because of the diver­gent prac­tices or juve­nile behav­ior of their local Friends meet­ing or church. A typ­i­cal email last week asked me why the plain Quak­ers weren’t evan­gel­i­cal and why evan­gel­i­cal Quak­ers weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive and asked “Is there a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing, Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spir­it Led, Charis­mat­ic fam­i­ly?” (Any­one want to sug­gest their local meet­ing?)

We should be more wor­ried about the peo­ple of integri­ty we’re los­ing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embed­ded in some of our meet­ings. If some­one is con­sis­tent­ly dis­rup­tive, is clear­ly break­ing spe­cif­ic Quak­er tes­ti­monies we’ve lumped under com­mu­ni­ty and intergri­ty, and stub­born­ly immune to any coun­cil then read them out of busi­ness meet­ing. If the peo­ple you want in your meet­ing are leav­ing because of the peo­ple you real­ly don’t want, then it’s time to do some­thing. Our Quak­er tool­box pro­vides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tra­di­tion gives us access to hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, both mis­takes and suc­cess­es, and can be a more use­ful guide than con­tem­po­rary pop psy­chol­o­gy or plain old head-burying.

Not all meet­ings have these prob­lems. But enough do that we’re los­ing peo­ple. And the dynam­ics get more acute when there’s a vision­ary project on the table and/or some­one younger is at the cen­ter of them. While our meet­ings sort out their issues, the inter­net is pro­vid­ing one type of sup­port lifeline.

Blog­ger jan­drewm was able to seek advice and con­so­la­tion on Live­jour­nal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion” series of posts are now lurk­ing away on my Face­book friends list. Maybe we can stop the full depar­ture of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engag­ing their local meet­ing. They can be read­ing and dis­cussing tes­ti­monies (“detrac­tion” is a won­der­ful place to start) so they can spot and explain behav­ior. We can use the web to coör­di­nate work­shops, online dis­cus­sions, local meet-ups, new work­ship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thou­sands of miles away can help give us clar­i­ty and strength.

I think (I hope) we’re help­ing to forge a group of Friends with a clear under­stand­ing of the work to be done and the tech­niques of Quak­er dis­cern­ment. It’s no won­der that Quak­er bod­ies some­times fail to live up to their ideals: the jour­nals of  olde tyme Quak­er min­is­ters are full of dis­ap­point­ing sto­ries and Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is rich with tales of the road­blocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to  cen­ter in the Lord when our meet­ings become too polit­i­cal or dis­func­tion­al (I think I should start look­ing hard­er at Anabap­tist non-resistance the­o­ry). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through what­ev­er comes we need to trust that any test­ing and heart­break has a pur­pose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suf­fer­ing will be pro­duc­tive to His pur­pose if we can keep low and lis­ten­ing for follow-up instructions.

Twenty First Century traveling ministry: of uberQuakers, selfish Friends and the search for unity

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.

July 26th, 2005: Clarence and Lilly Pickett Fund project report

The Transport: Evan Welkin as he came through South Jersey.

Traveling by many horses

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).

evanmap

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?

Avoiding Plain Dress Designer Clothing

A guest piece by “David,” orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on the Plain and Mod­est Dress Yahoo Group.

From: “mquadd” <mquadd@y…>
Date: Wed Jul 21, 2004
Sub­ject: Intro­duc­tion and questions

Hi. My name is David and I attend but am not a mem­ber of the Friends Meet­ing here. I was actu­al­ly raised as an Epis­co­palian although I had sev­er­al uncles who were birth-right Quak­ers. I grew up (for my first 10 years) in Chester Coun­ty, PA which tra­di­tion­al­ly was an area with a high con­cen­tra­tion of Quak­ers. I would expect that this is no longer true as the area has become quite sub­ur­ban with a big influx of new res­i­dents. Nonethe­less, I grew up attend­ing meet­ing now and then with rel­a­tives at var­i­ous meet­ings in Chester Coun­ty and north­ern Dele­ware. That was in the 1960s and was a time when some peo­ple, most­ly old­er peo­ple (peo­ple most like­ly born in the 1800s mean­ing these peo­ple were in their 70s or 80s in the 1960s), still used plain talk. Even in the 1960s, in a fair­ly rur­al area, this was more of an except­ing than the rule and was lim­it­ed to the old­est mem­bers of the meet­ing and nev­er used out­side the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty. Those who used plain talk nev­er used it out­side of the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty – home, Friends, and meet­ing. As far as I know, they nev­er used this type of talk for busi­ness or rela­tions or out­side the community.

At age 10 we moved to Lan­cast­er Coun­ty. At that time, many Mem­monites who now no longer dress plain or wear cov­er­ings did still did both of these. I went to school with many Men­non­ite kids. In addi­tion I became friends with sev­er­al Old Order Amish fam­i­lies (and one Beachy fam­i­ly) with whom I am still friends. That was 35 years ago, I have wit­nessed the plain tes­ti­mo­ny weak­en in each of these groups includ­ing the Old Order Amish. I actu­al­ly spent much of my child­hood and teenage years hang­ing out with one patic­u­lar Old Order Amish fam­i­ly as way to escape the insan­i­ty of hav­ing drug addict­ed and alco­holic par­ents. In their very sim­ple and unstat­ed Chris­tian­i­ty, they were very will­ing to pro­vide food, shel­ter, and love to a very con­fused boy (me).

Any­way, the Lan­cast­er Con­fer­ence Men­non­ites (now part of the largest Men­non­ite group) seem to be total­ly main­stream. Per­haps there are some who still fol­low the for­mer order. The Beachy Amish now dress like con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ites and less and less like Amish. Final­ly, I was watched the Amish allow lots of mod­ern changes in their dis­ci­pline although their basic cloth­ing is pret­ty much unchanged but sun glass­es are now allowed and many Amish girls and women pluck their eye­brows – both not allowed in the 1970s. By the way, in the late 1960s they had already adopt­ed cotton-poly blends for both cloth­ing and quilts!

The rea­son for that, per­haps odd, bio­graph­i­cal sketch is to give some back­ground on my expo­sure to plain groups and, more impor­tant­ly, plain thought. I have toyed with the idea of plain dress­ing although I can’t give a clear rea­son why I feel this. Is it a call­ing or am I just crazy? I do know that the sta­bil­i­ty I found in that Amish house in the 1970s most like­ly had a giant influ­ence on me (a hap­py Amish fam­i­ly where I had fun vs. liv­ing in a fam­i­ly that was in the self-distruct mode due to addic­tion). I also I have clear mem­o­ries of hav­ing Quak­er teach­ers in ele­ment­ly school and van­i­ty and world­li­ness was a bad thing. It was dur­ing the height of the Viet Nam war, so there was this odd hippy-Quaker thing going on with some of my teach­ers. I am sure some of you who were around the RSF in the 1960s can relate. So here I am still toy­ing with these ideas and still attempt­ing to define my own reli­gious feel­ings at the mid­dle of my life (I am 45).

Here are a few things I do know that apply to me. First, I feel very at odds with our soci­ety that focus­es on the most superf­i­cal things. Our soci­ety spends BILLIONS on make-up, hair dye, plas­tic surgery, breast inplants, push-up bras, design­er clothes (that are no dif­fer­ent that basic clothes except the label and might even be of low­er qual­i­ty).… Peo­ple are judged on the these issues. Char­ac­ter and moral­i­ty (a loaded term that seems to have been high­jacked by the rightwing and ultraconservatives)seems to be sec­ondary to these very super­fi­cial things. What we tell our­selves and our chil­dren is that we are not ade­quate as we are. We have to change our body and then drape it was over­ly priced clothes to count. The out­side is more impor­tant that the inside. This is sick. It is dis­truc­tive. It is a sin.

Beyond that, my feel­ings about plain dress­ing get less clear. Is a uni­form what I am seek­ing? Those groups who were very uni­form cloth­ing tend to be insu­lar and often attact as much atten­tion to them­selves as a bel­ly shirt and design­er jeans! If you doubt this, go to Lan­cast­er Coun­ty and attempt to dri­ve on Rt. 340. The attrac­tion that the plain peo­ple attract in that area rivals any movie star or rock con­cert. Lan­cast­er gets lit­er­al­ly mil­lions of tourists each year. So is that type of uni­form dress­ing that is quite dis­tinct serv­ing a good pur­pose? I am not sure but am just offer­ing a ques­tion rather than a judge­ment. Oth­er groups that dress quite plain such as ultra-orthodox Jews are not so much a tourist attrac­tion but clear­ly are insu­lar and seper­ate from the larg­er soci­ety. Many peo­ple view this as being “stand off-ish” which I hope is nobody’s goal. I have heard peo­ple apply this type of judge­ment to plain chris­t­ian groups also.

So, I would be very inter­est­ed in hear­ing what dri­ves oth­ers to dress plain? If you are a Quak­er, what has been the reac­tion at your meet­ing? I once met a plain dress­ing Quak­er who said that he had received more neg­a­tive than pos­i­tive reac­tions when vis­it­ing oth­er meet­ings. Are there any meet­ings where all or most mem­bers dress plain? In my child­hood expe­ri­ences, there was no plain dress­ing in any Quak­er meet­ings in Chester Coun­ty or in Dele­ware. I have not even run into any­one who uses plain lan­guage for over 30 years except that one plain dress­ing man. Clear­ly, I know no Quak­ers who have been raised with the idea of plain dress­ing or plain lan­guage includ­ing some of my cousins who are world­ly to say the least. What makes plain. I know of “black bumper Men­non­ites” who dri­ve a black bumper Mer­cedes. Is that plain? Why is a Vol­vo often con­sid­ered ok but a BMW is bad? They both cost $40K. Often I see this type of think­ing in those who claim to fol­low a less than world­ly life style. I think there is always a risk of falling into the mind­set of some labels being good and oth­ers being bad. Once a par­tic­u­lar brand, say a type of hat or type of jeans, is thought to be the prop­er “plain uni­form” does that not become the designed cloth­ing of the plain dressers? I am not sure. What I find is that once you jump into this top­ic, it becomes com­pli­cat­ed and that is not the point.

One final ques­tion, what ben­e­fits do you recieve from plain dressing?
Thanks. David

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?