Listening in Tongues

by Beth Kelly
Brooklyn Meeting


In late December, 2022, I hosted a “Meeting for Worship with Singing” for the Young Adult Friends community in New York Yearly Meeting. I solicited song suggestions from the YAF community. ”They don’t have to be Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice songs….We will share the songs of our hearts.” 


Offering these songs was ministry, Friends. The songs of our hearts distill the leadings of their writers and live in our personal interpretations. When we share them, we introduce the feelings and words into the lives of other folks, who interpret them through the lens of their experiences. 


It’s not that different from other forms of vocal ministry. And in this Meeting for Worship with singing, the songs felt really different from one another! There was unbridled joy, contemplation, honoring of the earth and the life cycle, Jesus-talk, and reinterpretation of “what’s really important” in a relationship with God and the world. These song-messages didn’t hang together easily; they showed how our Young Adult community is grounded together and differently. 


In NYYM’s community of young adults, Friends speak about “listening in tongues.” Often, Friends new to the term will ask us to explain it. I respond: “Friends have a rich diversity of spiritual, religious, and meaning-making experiences. When we speak of ‘listening in tongues,’ we allow Friends to speak with their authentic voices and look for the seed in their words that can blossom in the ground of our community.” 


The practice is vital, not just for young adult Friends, but generally in NYYM. Over the summer, I heard both non-theist YAF’s and Christian YAF’s express a sense of alienation, of not “fitting in with Quakers.” And at Fall Sessions there were concerns from both non-theist and theist Friends that their beliefs weren’t being represented in a particular minute. It was difficult to witness—this common feeling of “if it’s not worded to include my spiritual or non-spiritual grounding, then it is not from all of us.” Though Friends were in unity with the substance of the minute, the committee bringing it was asked to redraft it with attention to Friends’ common spiritual ground. 


Wrangling together shared language is one of the gifts and difficulties of being part of a “unity meeting” (a meeting that is intentionally inclusive of two or more branches of the Religious Society of Friends—usually liberal/FGC Friends and orthodox/FUM Friends). However, in the words of Maya Angelou, “we are more alike, my friends,/than we are unalike.” 


I believe God/the Bigness/Spirit/our consciences speak to us in words we understand—and that we can only use the words we understand to try to communicate with others. Sometimes this means the words/actions/images won’t be familiar to everyone who encounters them, or won’t have the exact same meaning. Like a published book or exhibited painting, once our reflections and ministry are offered, they are not ours alone to interpret. The way the seed takes root and blossoms may be surprising to the person who found it and planted it—the descendents of the seed may take on new characteristics when it encounters new soil or its flower cross-pollinates. 


But the cross-pollinated plant is often stronger. Our community and its work in the world are stronger for its inclusion of a variety of languages and belief-soils. We can sing different songs and be strengthened by learning each other’s songs, even/especially when they feel foreign. We can have different soils that nurture our seeds and appreciate how other soils are also rich. We can love each other in unity that doesn’t require uniformity. 


We have among us Christian Quakers, Jewish Quakers, Buddhist Quakers, Quaker Pagans. Evangelicals and non-theists. Friends who feel grounded in something that has no name or is only known as “That which is Eternal.” 


Among all of us comes the question, “But what canst thou say?” We answer it in our own words, authentic to what Light shows us. 


We interpret together and separately. We listen as best we can. We have the opportunity to explore what we’ve learned in different languages and show the world (and yes, New York Yearly Meeting) what love can do.