Spark, January 2012
15 Rutherford Place
New York, NY 10003
|New York Yearly Meeting News|
|The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)||January 2012|
|Editor, Paul Busby|
- Quaker Writers & Writing
- Friendly Reports from the Occupy Movements
- Where We Are Most Alive
- March Spark: There is No “Other”
- Communications Director Sought for NYYM
- What Would Bayard Rustin Be Doing Today?
- Around Our Yearly Meeting
- Upcoming PoHo Events
Quaker Writers & Writing
Rick Jackofsky, Conscience Bay Meeting
Though Quakerism emphasizes a nonverbal approach to worship, we Friends have had our share of great writers. From novelists to bloggers to journalists and of course the poets who somehow manage to put into words that which cannot be said.
Close to my heart I fold each lovely thing
The sweet day yields; and, not disconsolate,
With the calm patience of the woods I wait
For leaf and blossom when God gives us Spring!
– From John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “A Day”
In this issue of Spark we have asked Friends to share their thoughts on how reading Quaker literature, or the act of writing down one’s own thoughts, can enhance a spiritual life or be a spiritual experience in and of itself. Thanks to all who contributed their words.
Learning What I Mean
Jim Atwell, Butternuts Meeting
I’m old and forget things, and so I can’t tell you just which great poet said it. The quote’s sometimes attributed to Frost, sometimes to Auden. Whoever-it-was had done a public reading and was answering questions after it. A bright, excited kid asked, “Sir, when you sit down to write a poem, do you pretty much know what it’s going to be?”
Whoever-it-was had surely heard that question a thousand times before, and he answered it gently and with poetic concision:
“How do I know what I mean till I see what I say?”
Hurray! With quiet brilliance, he not only answered the bright kid, but summarized the whole creative process. And in dactylic tetrameter, to boot!
We search daily for meaning when, trying to crack into an idea, we think it through—we talk to ourselves about it.
Most of us don’t do the thinking in organized, grammatical sentences or in sequenced paragraphs. (Such people scare me.) Nope. For most of us, thinking is as poet John Ciardi imaged it: We’re in the middle of a huge, dark expanse, maybe a basketball arena, and in total blackness. We’re trying to figure out where we are by lighting a succession of paper matches.
We ignite and raise a tiny flame, squint around, then—Ow! We mutter something apt and strike another feeble light. Maybe we gradually get a cumulative sense of where we are.
Or we run out of matches. Or patience.
Our thinking process is easier, more organized, when we capture the bits of thought as they develop, on paper or on a glowing screen. Then we can both order and edit thought as it occurs. We can contradict ourselves, sometimes out loud:
“No, that’s not it! That’s not what I mean!” And we scratch out a phrase or a sentence or, these days, shift or replace it on the screen with godlike ease. (What a blessing to an aging brain is a laptop!) While wrapping meaning in sounds and (a step further) in written symbols, we have a whole range of resources that needn’t be tapped by the guy composing the front matter for the phone book.
The creative writer, at least after a first draft, opens the whole linguistic toolbox and consciously works with shaping sound, shaping sentence rhythm, adding imagery and figures of speech and all sorts of wordplay. (And play it is!)
The creative writer draws on all language’s assets to communicate through sound because she or he is out to share, not only information, but a sense of experience.
In unpracticed hands, drawing on all language’s resources can produce a mess, a train wreck. We read and shudder at “purple prose,” so loaded with polysyllables and rococo ornamentation that what meaning is in it is squashed flat. But in skilled hands, the assets can indeed offer us felt experience, especially in the condensed, compressed language of poetry.
I’m no poet. But I’ve written and had published reams of prose—newspaper columns, magazine articles, books. And as a Quaker Christian grinding out prose, I’ve become aware of how this intimate, highly personal process of writing has echoed and enriched my life of shared silent worship.
For I have to be alone to write; if not physically alone, then at least drawn within myself, into a private, silent darkness where I can listen to myself think. (I’m doing that right now, in the quiet of an otherwise empty house, since my Anne is out fighting the good fight, at an evening anti-fracking meeting.)
The light is dim in the room and largely comes from the laptop’s screen. And words, forming in my mind, are filing like parading ants across the screen. I edit, shift phrases, cull extra words (as I just did); and on the screen an ordered wholeness finally presents itself back to me.
Sometimes it’s rubbish. But then, that’s what the “Delete” key is for.
I’m getting better at writing, not only because I practice it, but because of another kind of exercise. Daily I go into that same darkness with only the intention of sharing it with the One Who is always there, even on those other times when, inside, I’m lost in word-smithing.
But when I go inside, leaving the wordsmith outside the figurative door, I can be alone in that Presence. And never more so than when, in company with other Friends, we raise that silence from within us and gather it around us.
In that richest and most nourishing of silences, we listen together for the Spirit to speak; not in oracular words, but through our own thoughts and prayers. And the Spirit does, sometime in the special intensity we called “a gathered meeting.”
What a blessing, friends, to have a ministry of writing so complemented by our mode of worship. For worship makes me much at home in the silent darkness. And then, when I do compose in there, it’s always with half a sense of Someone looking over my shoulder.
Gosh, I wish I were a poet! Then I could command language enough to give you a sense of that experience. But I’m a prosaic type, and am meant to be.
Never mind. The experience is there for all of us. Just go inside.
My Journey with Thomas Kelly: Seeking the Light Within
Peter Lang, Chatham-Summit Meeting
Somewhere I read that books come into our hands when we are ready for them. This was certainly the case for me when a friend loaned me his copy of Thomas Kelly’s spiritual classic, A Testament of Devotion. I was 22 years old and had just begun my career as a guide dog instructor at the famous Seeing Eye school in Morristown, NJ. My supervisor and friend Daniel Boeke, who grew up in a Quaker family in Holland, loaned me Kelly’s book in 1966. Little did I know that this generous act would have such a resounding effect on my life.
Have you ever had the experience of reading something—a book, an article, or a journal—that made you know deep down in your being that those words were real and true to you? Thomas Kelly, with A Testament of Devotion, spoke to me. He touched my heart, he awakened my soul, and he changed my life forever. I remember experiencing a strong sense of inspiration from the very first page, which reads, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.” Then, when I turned to page 2 and read more, I knew that something was stirring within me. “You who read these words already know this inner Life and Light. For by the very Light within you is your recognition given.” Although I did not recognize it at the time, in retrospect it is clear to me that I had experienced a spiritual awakening. For this life-changing experience I am deeply grateful to my “friend of the soul,” Thomas Kelly.
From childhood I had been raised in a traditional church in which I was fairly comfortable but not very inspired. After completing my reading of A Testament of Devotion, I was inspired to find a Quaker meeting and learn more about the Quaker faith. I attended my first Quaker meeting with my wife, Jane, at the Summit Friends Meeting later in 1966. At that time Summit Meeting did not have a meetinghouse and the Friends met in the basement of the local YWCA. I had practiced prayer and meditation in my previous religion, but for me, there was nothing like the power of the Presence that I have experienced in the silence of meeting for worship throughout the years. Even after my first meeting for worship, I knew that I had found my new spiritual home.
|“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.…”|
Throughout the years, as our three children were growing up and my career at the Seeing Eye advanced to a managerial position, my Quaker faith, as inspired by Thomas Kelly, has always been my guiding light. Yes, there were often times when I would wander off my spiritual path with the excuse of being too busy for prayer and worship, and Kelly’s words would bring me back: “There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs, but deep within behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship, and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”
For me, A Testament of Devotion has become an old friend that is worn around the edges, as I would return to it time and time again for a renewal of faith and guidance. Kelly’s writings, which consist of a series of devotional essays that were published posthumously in 1941, were often a source of inspiration for my vocal ministry during meeting for worship. I would sometime find his message of the Light coming to me in the silence and opening my spiritual consciousness to a deeper level. One of my spiritual mentors at meeting, Mary Alice Benson, encouraged me to visit other Quaker meetings and share this ministry. Unfortunately, I did not hear this “call” myself until after Mary Alice died in July 2007. After her memorial service in October, another dear Friend came up and spoke to me with almost the exact words of encouragement that I had heard from Mary Alice. I was stunned by this experience—it was if I had heard Mary Alice’s voice again. I knew then that I could no longer resist this leading of sharing Thomas Kelly’s message with other Friends.
With the love and support of my devoted clearness committee, I developed a program that would allow me to share my witness to the Light, as inspired by Thomas Kelly. I am also deeply grateful to Chatham-Summit Meeting for blessing me with a travel minute that enabled me to begin this amazing journey in February 2009. The title of the program is: “My Journey with Thomas Kelly: Seeking the Light Within.” The program is based on the first chapter of A Testament of Devotion, “The Light Within.” During the presentation I share my experiences as a Quaker and how the writings of Thomas Kelly have opened up a whole new life to me.
During the past three years I have had the privilege of presenting my Thomas Kelly Program to 24 Quaker Meetings in New York Yearly Meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and the Atlanta Friends Meeting. Usually someone from Chatham-Summit Meeting will travel with me and “hold me in the Light” during the program. It truly has been a joy to meet many new F/friends, to worship together, and to share my witness to the Light. It is always a surprise to me how many Friends are familiar with Thomas Kelly’s writings and, on the other hand, how many have never heard of him. I believe that it is my mission to keep Thomas Kelly’s message alive as I continue on this journey that began with my very first reading of A Testament of Devotion.
“It is a great message which is given to us—good news indeed—that the Light overcomes the darkness. But to give the message we must also be the message!” (Thomas Kelly, Children of the Light)
The Written Word & the Light Within
Rick Jackofsky, Conscience Bay Monthly Meeting
The most ancient forms of written languages were pictures and pictographs. From cave paintings to hieroglyphics and cuneiform, these images represented scenes from the natural world in which these early peoples lived. The development of our phonetic alphabet, beginning with the Proto-Sinaitic scripts of the Semitic-speaking people of the Sinai and later refined by others including the Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Greeks, reflected a much more ethnocentric world view. Words and letters took on a life of their own, no longer imitating nature, but now able to convey abstract thoughts and ideas. David Abram, in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, suggests that the widespread use of a phonetic alphabet, and the accompanying rise of literacy, may have contributed to modern humans’ disconnect with God, gods, and the natural world. The development of a language based on letters rather than images forever changed the way we think and altered the way we perceive the world around us. Now, in a new age of instant and ubiquitous forms of digital communication, we find ourselves once again changing the way we process information and we may very well be witnessing yet another shift in human consciousness. As we embrace these new technologies we need to be mindful of the difference between the outer world of knowledge and information and the inner world of wisdom and truth. In Plato’s Phaedrus he describes a scene where Socrates tells the story of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, offering the gift of literacy to King Thamus. Thamus’s response was thanks, but no thanks: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves but by means of external marks.”
The written word has been paramount in the development and proliferation of the Abrahamic religions. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all the product of literate societies, and each ascribes great weight to its sacred texts. The invention of the printing press quickened the dissemination of written information, including these religious texts, and by the 17th century new English translations of the Bible were widely available in the then-high-tech medium of printed books. This new and easy access to the teachings of Jesus led directly to George Fox’s radical interpretation of the Scriptures and the rise of the Religious Society of Friends. Though Fox and other seekers of his time were inspired by the printed Scriptures, they implored Friends not to worship the written word but to worship the Light within, seeking continuing revelation through the direct connection to God available to all. This emphasis on mystical and spiritual experience, rather than creed and dogma, is exactly what attracted me to Quakerism. As Quakers we are able to embrace a meditative and mystical spiritual life without surrendering our ties to Christianity and the literate culture of western civilization; a culture that provides us with thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. Still; we must remember not to let the written word, printed word, or digitized word implant forgetfulness upon our souls.
To Be Helpful
J. Brent Bill, West Newton Friends Meeting (Western YM)
I often say that while growing up in Columbus, Ohio I could be found in one of two places—Highland Avenue Friends Church or the Hilltonia Branch of the Columbus Public Library. Both were places of books. The meetinghouse was filled with Bibles, primarily, books of faith and practice, Quaker classics, missionary tales, hymnals—a book around every corner, it seemed. And the library! What a treasure trove—photo books, histories, fiction, humor. I was a juvenile version of Henry Bemis in the “Time Enough at Last” Twilight Zone episode. Too many books, too little time.
Amidst all those books I fell in love with words and discovered the power of words to help shape a life—to introduce new thoughts, to take the reader on a trip across the world or into her heart, to entertain, and to shape a spiritual life.
That, of course, was not a discovery unique to me. While we Quakers are a small sect, we know the power of words and we know how to write to express our hearts and souls. In doing so, we have produced some of the most important literature of the last 350 years. Included among these writings are classics of devotional literature such as the journals of George Fox and John Woolman, the letters of Margaret Fell, works by William Penn and Thomas Kelly, and fiction by Jessamyn West and Haven Kimmel. Our influence in print has far exceeded our numbers.
We Quakers started out writing. In the first 50 years of our movement, 650 Friends (including 82 women) published more than 3,100 titles. Those early Friends were obeying George Fox’s encouragement to “Let all nations hear the word by sound or writing. Spare no place, spare not tongue nor pen, but be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the Truth.…” They spoke and wrote and called themselves “Publishers of Truth.”
|When I write, my soul opens, my thoughts unfold, and I place them before God as an offering that I hope will be acceptable in God’s sight.|
Today’s Quakers continue that publishing heritage. Though we don’t presume to call ourselves “Publishers of Truth” (at least I don’t) or produce such polemical works as George Fox’s Great Mistery of the Great Whore Unfolded, today’s Quaker writers are maintaining two Quaker testimonies—the first, a belief in continuing revelation from God and the second, doing ministry quietly without calling attention to either themselves or their faith.
Now, I have to admit, my publishers probably wish I did call a bit more attention to myself so as to sell more books. But selling lots of books is not the main reason I write.
I write because I want to be helpful.
Throughout my life, as I’ve alluded, books have been my constant companion. The words therein have helped me in all sorts of situations—social, spiritual, silly. And while I have often seen (and still see) other writers as very deep and wise, I know that I am not. So I write as a fellow pilgrim of the spiritual life and hope to share an encouraging thought or two along the way. I write to comfort, promote living a life of appreciation for the holy ordinary that surrounds us, and push the expansion of God’s love and life in this world. It is my hope that through my words, God’s Light becomes visible—even as a glimmer—in this world that often seems filled with darkness.
I also write to feed my soul. My writing time is a prayer time. I am not a very good prayer. I don’t pray the hours as some Christians do, I have a hard time making my way around a prayer book, and my extemporaneous prayers tend to fall along one of two lines—“Thanks!” or “Help!” But when I write, my soul opens, my thoughts unfold, and I place them before God as an offering that I hope will be acceptable in God’s sight. The words that form on my computer screen come from the depths of my soul and experience. They express my deepest, longest, direst fears, and most fervent hopes. Most of them, of course, do not ever become public in an article, blog, or book. But as I pray this way, I begin to see words and thoughts that might be helpful to others. Then I can begin to craft them into some sort of work that might ease another’s burden, lift her spirit, enlighten his mind, and encourage them on their journey.
I am grateful to those Friends whose words have done those things for me—Fox, Fell, Penn, Caroline Stephen, Daisy Newman, Paul Anderson, Phil Gulley, Scott Russell Sanders, Haven Kimmel, John Punshon, Eileen Flanagan, and so many more. They have blessed me with their writing and sharing. It is my prayer that my writing might similarly be a blessing to others.
I know it is to me.
J. Brent Bill is a Quaker author, minister, and photographer who lives in rural Indiana. Among his books are Imagination and Spirit: An Anthology of Contemporary Quaker Writing; Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality; and the recently released Awaken Your Senses: Exercises in Exploring the Wonder of God.
Herb Lape, Westbury Meeting
Wrestling with the faith witness of others, past and present, is central to my faith. I believe our lives are exciting adventures. But as with any there is the difficulty of avoiding dangers and finding the right path to the destination. While we have an Inward Guide to direct us, we, as very fallible human beings, need help in discerning the true Inward Teacher, from all the other short-sighted human voices of desire, ideological and cultural prejudice, etc. that can disguise themselves as “angels of Light.” I have come to see Scripture and other recognized spiritual classics, including our own, as a critical “Cloud of Witnesses” to help in this important discernment process. The Quaker poet Whittier put this best when he wrote, “Breathe through the heats of our desire, thy coolness and thy balm. Let sense be numb, let flesh retire, breathe through the earthquake, wind, and fire, thy still small voice of calm.”
In my life, I have come to see that humans are storytellers. We live our lives according to grand narratives that excite our imaginations and give structure to our actions to reach a goal. When I was a kid, I grew up believing the traditional biblical narrative as interpreted through my Catholic mother and the wider culture. In high school, I was excited by an Enlightenment story and began to see religion as superstition created by the powerful to keep humanity in chains. It was responsible for most of the world’s problems—racism, the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, sexism, and sexual hang-ups, to name a few. I now believed that the world operated exclusively according to natural laws that could be known by reason to inform action to build a better world. As a high school senior I remember saying amen to this statement by Thomas Paine: “My mind is my church!” What high school senior couldn’t get excited by that!
In college, this rationalism seemed very limiting and dry. In the late ‘60s Romanticism permeated the spirit of the times. My best worship experiences came from extended hiking trips with a copy of Thoreau’s Walden in my backpack. If there was a statement of my theological beliefs, it was captured in this stanza from a Wordsworth poem:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
This new faith narrative, however, proved unsatisfying. First, it was profoundly lonely—just me and the God of Nature. Second, this God and his prophets, like Thoreau, although very good at tearing down traditional beliefs (“Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that sludge which covers the globe...till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality...”), were largely silent on positive direction about how I should live my life. The temptation, of course, was to believe that the natural equaled the good, and what’s more natural than those human passions that religion has tried to channel or even suppress?
This exclusively inward faith was just not working in my life. I needed some community that attempted to help me discern the true Spirit from selfish impulse. Quakers seemed an easy and obvious match. Their emphasis on a personal relationship with a living spiritual force and their commitment to doing peace and justice seemed very in tune with my leadings of the time. The vision of the Peaceable Kingdom excited me then and still does. So I joined, but while I was getting support for social witness to remake the world, I was not getting much help on the matters of personal responsibility that continued to plague me.
Disappointed in modern witnesses that seemed to be dominated by modern versions of Thoreau and Paine, I turned to that “cloud of witnesses” from the past and began voraciously reading the Bible and Quaker journals. The Journals (journeys) of George Fox and John Woolman were particularly helpful. Like early Friends, I began to see my own life in the context of the biblical narrative. I was born good but humanly weak, and yes, this weakness tempted me to ascribe divine inspiration to human voices of passion or cultural prejudice. How did I know this? It was painfully obvious from the negative fruit that came from obeying these leadings. My new Friends helped me see that I was a sinner, and this I now knew experientially.
I began to trust them on matters that I had not yet experienced personally. It took me a long time, but I eventually accepted their testimony about Jesus Christ. I now said amen to Fox, “And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy....and this I knew experimentally.” The story was simply too elegant and the witnesses too worthy of emulation to resist. These Quaker Journals were just too full of Life and Adventure and their witness seemed to be producing better fruit in my life—joy, forgiveness, justice, courage, self-control.
So I give tremendous thanks to the “Cloud of Witnesses” who have traveled this journey before and pointed out some of the dangers and more importantly witnessed to the Guide who wants to lead us to an abundant life.
Reading Led Me to Friends
Wells Tipley, Conscience Bay Meeting
While contemplating the issue’s theme of Quaker writing, the importance of my experience as a reader of Quaker writing occurred to me. Reading was a big part of how I came to know Quakers and eventually became a Quaker myself.
I became interested in Quakers toward the end of 2008. As a result of a number of converging events, I began reading things on the Internet about Friends. I was intrigued, and browsing the Web allowed me to answer my curiosity. My early entries into reading Quaker writing included pages on New York Yearly Meeting’s Web site, Conscience Bay Monthly Meeting’s archived newsletters, and relevant articles from Wikipedia.
The experience of reading the words on these Web sites was my first real contact with Quakers and their ideas. What I had read caused me to investigate further. Even before attending my first Quaker meeting, my interest was sufficient to seek out and read Quakers in America by Thomas D. Hamm, as well as most of New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. Before committing to the act of attending a meeting I wanted to read things that Friends—past and present—had written about what Quakers practiced and believed.
At some point I came across “Letter from the Elders Gathered at Balby” from 1656: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.”
Reading these words softened me to the things I’d been reading. The idea of Quaker texts being guides—but not rules—appealed to my temperament. And the idea that the essential truth of something couldn’t be communicated solely through the written word rang true to me. My initial understanding of the passage sparked further investigation.
Eventually, simply reading Quaker writings didn’t satisfy my curiosity. I read up as much as I could about what a Quaker meeting might be like, and I attended my first meeting at Conscience Bay in the spring of 2010. My first visit coincided with their hosting of Long Island Quarterly Meeting. Arriving early, I witnessed the last few minutes of business before settling in for silence. Afterward, I met and spoke to Quakers from across Long Island. I asked a few questions about Quakers and answered some about how I’d come to find the meeting. I went home with a few pamphlets to read, but now I also brought experiential knowledge to apply to what I read.
I continued to read Quaker writings and began attending meeting regularly. Now, instead of purchasing books, I was able to check them out of the meeting’s library. I often used the hour of silence each week to reflect on the things I’d been reading. My understanding of what I was reading was enriched by discussing the ideas in friendly conversation with people at meeting.
After some months as an attender at Conscience Bay my experience as a reader of Quaker writing deepened further. A member of meeting presented our group with a 4-page printout outlining his discernment of a particular idea concerning Friends. The tract was discussed among Friends and eventually another member clarified his own thoughts on the matter by penning a response, which he printed out and distributed at meeting.
Reading the documents provided me with a subject for contemplation during silence. They also inspired a series of planned discussions among Friends. These sessions helped me to further uncover and verbalize my own understanding of the topic. Eventually, I wrote down my own thoughts on the subject and shared it with the two authors.
The event was a formative one. In a very concrete way it demonstrated how the actual act of reading was only part of the experience. Internal contemplation and external action were required for a fuller exploration of the measure of truth being communicated in the documents.
Early in 2011 my experience widened when I volunteered to help work in a group charged with creating a new welcome pamphlet for our meeting. Working on the pamphlet with Friends allowed me to act on many of the things I’d been reading and discussing. Abstract concepts like “corporate decisionmaking” and “unity” became actions filled with spirit.
In May of 2011 I decided to seek membership in the Religious Society of Friends. I carefully read and reread the section on membership in Faith and Practice. It said, “An applicant for membership should address a letter to the monthly meeting, stating the reasons for wishing to join the Religious Society of Friends and indicating the extent of unity with its principles and testimonies.” I felt a deep inward certainty about membership, but struggled with drafting my application letter.
I envisioned writing a document that carefully summed up my reasons for wishing to join that clearly outlined the extent of my unity with Quaker principles. I tried writing this letter a few different times before finally seeking advice from Friends. After a few helpful conversations I realized why I was struggling. I was trying to draft a letter that represented the totality of my entry into membership—which, of course, couldn’t be achieved.
The letter I eventually submitted was only a few sentences long, a simple affirmation of my intention to become a member of the meeting. What I came to understand was that my application letter was just part of the process. It was preceded by careful personal consideration and followed by a rich clearness committee process. The words themselves were meaningful only in that context.
I’ve come to learn for myself, through my varied experiences as a reader of Quaker writing, that the spirit of these texts are fulfilled most fully when informed by inward contemplation and outward fellowship.
I Am Troy Davis
Elizabeth Gordon, Binghamton Meeting
I was moved to contemplate the life and death of Troy Anthony Davis by the perception, in worship, that his death was a righteous death that could help end death as a penalty, and as such was a Christ-like death. The witness and leadership of his sister Martina Davis-Correia helped me experience the words “I Am Troy Davis” not just as an effective rallying cry and compelling moral and political stance, but as a sacred invitation to experience his reality through a medium whose attenuation has more to do with the continuing use of state murder as a penalty than has any weakness in logic or reason.
That medium I speak of is the imagination. If most or even many Americans could really imagine Troy Davis’s experience of injustice, separation from loved ones, torture, and cold state-inflicted death, we would not long tolerate the death penalty, nor the racism that led to his conviction in the first place.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W. H. Auden in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: “It survives in the valley of its happening where executives would never want to tamper … It survives, a way of happening, a mouth.”
My poem “I Am Troy Davis” is one mouth in a crowd of millions, for though “they put [his] voice on lockdown [no Mumia for Georgia], it’s crossed oceans now, getting work done in languages” that Troy himself didn’t speak. My hope in writing and sharing it is not that it makes anything happen—the evidence, values, and logic already exist aplenty to end the death penalty—but that it makes people imagine they are this young man, in the wrong place at the wrong time, this innocent man lying strapped down and defenseless with his last thoughts, and his lasting light.
Troy’s sister Martina died on December 1, ten weeks after his execution and a decade after a breast cancer diagnosis. I dedicate this effort to her.
“I Am Troy Davis” is a performance-style poem better seen than read (and it’s also too long for Spark). You may view it online at http://bit.ly/wRQ9dV. Please e-mail if you’d like me to send you the text (walk33 [at] gmail.com).
Appreciating Rufus Jones & Howard Brinton
Dorothy S. Richards, Albany Meeting
The question presented is, “Do certain Quaker writers appeal to you, and why?”
There are two Quaker writers who, from the beginning of my association with the Friends, have “spoken to my condition.” The first is Rufus Jones. However, not until I pondered this query was I able to pinpoint the reason why. The answer is that when first reading his writing I realized with delight that we shared a mystical nature. I don’t believe that Rufus Jones ever defined himself as a mystic, but he most assuredly was, and I believe, if somewhat hesitantly, that I share that nature as well. Through his and other writers’ books on the subject, I have become acquainted with many mystics of all religions and philosophies, East and West, throughout the ages. However, Rufus Jones, being not only a mystic but also a man sharing my love of the Quaker faith, is someone I can always turn to for inspiration, validation, and insight. Certainly there are other Quaker mystics who are renowned and revered but there is a bond of a definite quality between this Friend and myself that cannot be denied.
|photo by Rick Jackofsky|
The pleasure derived from his writing never fades for me. There is a special place reserved on my library shelves for his books and pamphlets—works, happily collected through the years. Jones was a prolific writer who lives even today as a teacher, writer, activist, innovator, and historian extraordinaire! For me, holding his inspiring phrases in my hands, I never fail to hear his welcome invitation to accompany him as he walks with God on a mission of love and instruction.
Rufus Jones was I believe a practical mystic in the same way that the English Quaker scientist Arthur Stanley Eddington was. In every aspect these men were able to carry on their professional lives in the most scientific and professional manner, whether working in the university or the laboratory, at the same time living in the spiritual world with their gifts constantly nourished by an inner grace and faith. Jones’s writings are always fresh and exciting. Speaking with clarity and restrained passion, he challenges readers intellectually and at the same time nourishes them spiritually. The result is a skillful balance that goes to the heart of this beloved teacher’s success.
A trip to South China, Maine, the birthplace and boyhood home of Rufus Jones, is a dream I keep alive. I suspect that such a remote and rugged area of New England would have influenced such an introspective teacher and leader. Certainly, he is a product of his Quaker faith, family, community, and innate personality. I believe that present-day seekers can benefit from Rufus Jones’s ability to reach the very essence of spirituality.
Another Quaker writer who continues to be a favorite and whom I enthusiastically recommend is Howard Brinton. His Friends for 350 Years recounts the history and beliefs of the Society of Friends since George Fox started the Quaker movement. Brinton’s narrative balances the spiritual and practical aspects of Quaker history through the centuries in a style and prose that make the reader eager to learn more. There is not even a hint of the hagiographer in the text. Though it is a thorough history including a description of Quaker faith and practice, a good portion of Friends for 350 Years is given over to Quaker intimacy with “the Light within” and its experiential power in worship and in life. This emphasis is implicit in my choice of favorite writers.
The introspection required to answer a query naming my favorite Quaker writers, Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton, revealed the underlying similarity in their writings. I believe it is precisely the mystical aspect of the Quaker faith, woven into the literature of these giants, that has enlightened religious seekers past and present. I hope my appreciation will entice others to revisit their work and in so doing find renewed fervor, appreciation, and joy in their own spiritual lives.
Friendly Reports from the Occupy Movements
|Signs in Cold Spring, NY|
|photo by Paul Busby|
Revelations from the Streets
Vonn New, Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting
It’s 1:00 a.m. and I’m sitting on a bench in downtown Poughkeepsie, waiting for the police to show up to make good on the eviction notice that Occupy Poughkeepsie received from the city administrator earlier in the day. Wrapped in a blanket but shivering anyway, I alternate between holding the 80 or so occupiers still in Hulme Park in prayer, checking out what’s going on on the corner of Market & Church St., and offering words of love and support to my friends.
|Vonn New (Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting) and Anne Pomeroy (New Paltz Meeting) at Occupy Poughkeepsie|
|photo courtesy of Vonn New|
My friends—these are people I’ve never seen in a meetinghouse and frankly, I’m surprised I even know them at all—teenagers and young adults who attend the local community college and work at nearby gas stations or fast food joints, homeless immigrants, people who struggle with serious addiction problems, people who live in the “projects,” one guy who seems to channel the ghost of John Brown in a way that worries me, and even a retired, middle-class Republican. As a group, we’re a very scruffy-looking bunch. I’ve known these folks for six weeks or less, but already we are connected in a bond of love and common caring. We know we will stand with each other and when one falls we all fall. We’ve worked together and struggled over disagreements. We’ve shared food, music, dance, and conversation about global and local problems. We’ve carried each other’s cardboard signs. We’ve learned to see beyond our stereotypes to recognize each other’s gifts. We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving dinner as a big extended family. We’ve even prayed together.
Getting involved in the Occupy movement is dangerous, but the real danger is not pepper spray, getting arrested, or being struck by a baton. The real danger is falling in love. Love has filled my heart, and where there was cynicism, I have found concern. Where there was despair, I have found the leadings of Spirit.
This is dangerous because it has led me to learn some hard lessons about what it really means to “stand and live in that which takes away the occasion of war” while living in this empire we call the United States of America. Lessons such as:
Baby shampoo is for pepper spray. Maalox is for teargas.
Write the names of attorneys on my body in case I get separated from my cellphone and write them large in case I get separated from my glasses.
Meetings for worship held outdoors, a few feet from a busy highway with whoever is present and willing, hold a special, precious power.
Prayer can be done on one’s feet in the middle of chaos.
It’s impossible to control everything that happens. Sometimes people will say and do things I wish they wouldn’t—and that’s ok.
Shivering on the bench at 1:00 a.m., I talk the guy who reminds me of John Brown into taking off his teargas mask and showing his face. I have no idea what is going to happen next. Will the police remember their oath to protect and serve? Will my friends hold our discipline of nonviolence and put it into action if faced with fear and anger of police action? Will I? In this moment, I come face-to-face with the reality that in spite of our best intentions, we imperfect humans may very well fall short and that in God’s infinite love, we are already forgiven.
Vonn New has written more about Occupy Poughkeepsie in her blog at http://ministryofsoup.blogspot.com. An interview with her about the Occupy movement can be viewed at http://asiam.fm/node/411. Occupy Poughkeepsie was evicted from its encampment one week after the events in this article.
|Vonn New (right, Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting) and Donna Barrett (Hudson Meeting) perform as the Quaker Bellydance Peace Team at Occupy Poughkeepsie|
|photo courtesy of Vonn New|
Antiracism at OWS
Jeffrey Hitchcock, Rahway & Plainfield Meeting
Three weeks after Occupy Wall Street (OWS) started, I actively began to participate in the New York City effort. Mainstream media make OWS appear willing to shamelessly tear apart society while everyday people are simply trying their best to hold things together in their homes and their communities. This image of the protesters does not fit the on-the-ground reality I have witnessed.
The protesters adhere to nonviolence. My participation has not taken me to the centers of power. OWS is very large, with several dozen working groups, some numbering hundreds of people. Large-scale protests comprise thousands at a time. From the closely involved periphery, however, I have not witnessed a single act of violence, or even heard any discussion of violence as a tactic, unless, of course, you believe civil disobedience is a violent act. Some do, but by that standard, Dr. King was a dangerous criminal.
I wonder at the complacency of people who remain uninvolved. People in OWS clearly see, and are unwilling to accept, a greed-driven, predatory economy that is decimating the middle class and mocking the American dream. Simple figures tell a lot. The 400 richest individual Americans own more than the 150,000,000 Americans who form the bottom half of our economy. Almost half our country is now classified as low income. Economic disparities continue to grow. They are not God-given. They have been designed into our society by humans over the last 30 years.
The protesters have a passion for fairness, justice, democracy, community, transparency, servant leadership, and focused, fully informed action directed toward change. Some have fulltime jobs. Many don’t.
I work with OWS Antiracism Allies, a group of mostly white people bringing a racial-justice perspective into OWS. Their names are Shira, Greg, Jen, Allison, Kimber, Tammy, Jill, Kate, Bob, Meg, and many more. We meet twice weekly. Members also attend other events and working groups. We’re all tired to the point of burnout. We meet in public spaces, often at 60 Wall Street, a large indoor lobby where every day activists huddle in several working groups engaged in seemingly nonstop discussion and planning. Groups are open. Anyone can join. Facilitation rotates among members, as does note taking. Meeting notes are detailed, and shared widely. Discussion is respectful. Decisions are made by consensus. This is the working culture of OWS.
Despite the substantial presence of women in the circles I’m working in, OWS is a movement started and led by young, idealistic, middle-class white American men. They got many things right. OWS is fiercely democratic, transparent, collective, without a formal leadership hierarchy, and willing to challenge business as usual. The slogan, “We are the 99%,” is genius.
There never has been a movement of the 99%, however. And the OWS founders could not completely transcend their roots. Racism, sexism, classism exist in the 99%, and they exist in OWS. Hence the work my colleagues are doing in collaboration with the People of Color working group. But OWS is open and ready to examine itself in a way that most organizations are not, so the work bears fruit. There is hope for transformation here, for bringing neglected values back to society.
Sue Tannehill, Buffalo Meeting
In the past few months, I have visited Occupy Buffalo, participated in an interfaith service, and currently serve on an interfaith committee developing support systems to assist the Occupiers during a Buffalo winter.
The Occupiers remind me of the early Christians in the book of Acts—living with and for one another in an attempt to create the society they wish to see. Here are brief glimpses into what I mean about living what they believe:
A woman in a Talking Circle spent her turn yelling, weeping, and swearing about all kinds of things that were upsetting to her, calling people names, rambling from hydro-fracking to young urban lawyers. She was listened to with the same respect as the man who spoke of how meaningful Occupy was for him and wept as he vowed to “be there” for anyone who needed him.
A man with PTSD from Occupy participated in a joint meeting between clergy wanting to help and Occupiers. Each time he lost his temper at the table and left the room, someone would walk out after him to talk him down and bring him back to the group.
I watched facilitators develop a proposal to streamline the working groups. The conversation was thoughtful, considerate, and productive, despite the presence of a man who wanted to draw what he was trying to say and was struggling with understanding the nature of the meeting. Again, respect and polite redirection were used to allow the man to feel a part of the group.
This kind of work is exhausting, but like Quaker practice, it means everyone can participate. What do Friends have to offer? Here are some thoughts:
Patience. We have a 350-year history of people spending their lives on issues they do not live to see resolved. Elizabeth Cady Stanton never voted in a national election. John Woolman never saw the end of slavery. Yet their lives were not in vain. We know about patience and waiting for the way to open.
Making decisions in a leaderless organization.
Written minutes read out to the group and approved
Asking people to speak only once to an issue
Issues are bigger than any one person but the truth (or pieces of it) can come from anyone.
There is often a third way that will lead to consensus.
Nonviolence. Awareness of how the “isms” are a form of violence
Being willing to die for something, but not to kill for it
Listening carefully and with respect.
Outward show of inner conviction.Living in the world, but not of it.
Earlier I asked, “What do Friends offer?” but we can also receive, by being with these brave people who are living the way they wish the world worked. Their labors are exhausting and exciting and have much to teach us.
The Occupy movement is a universal cry for justice filtered through specific communities struggling. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” If God is love, then the work we do is God’s work—whether we are learning or teaching, serving or being served.
NRC Declaration Supports Occupy Buffalo
Sue Tannehill, Buffalo Meeting
At their October Board meeting, the Board of Governors of the Network of Religious Communities approved a minute in support of the nonviolent protests and presence of the Occupy Buffalo folk in Niagara Square. The meeting was held at the Orchard Park meetinghouse. There was lively discussion, followed by unanimous approval—very Quakerly! Here is the declaration:
We the people of faith communities throughout Western New York support the nonviolent spirit of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Buffalo in seeking economic justice.
Our spiritual traditions are clear: the impoverishment of the many for the benefit of the few destroys us all.
So together we affirm the golden rule: do to others as you would have them do unto you. We ask all Americans to join us in this prayer, that once again our country might be the fulfillment of hopes and dreams for all who reach its shores.
Where We Are Most Alive
Gabi Savory Bailey, Young Adult field secretary
You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can decide how you’re going to live now.
It is a busy, hectic time right now. Jon, Maddie, and I are in the process of buying a house. I have thought about where I want to live, to commit my time and resources, to call home. Often, when I walk into a house I can tell right away if it was kept lovingly or if it was neglected. Some houses have unmade beds, and clothes all over. Some have a strange odor. Some are full to the gills with all manner of stuff, and I know what it would take to get it ready for a new owner. Many were simply nowhere near ready for me to move in, and would take a lot of work for me before I could feel at home. Some are in tip-top shape, clean, open, neat, appealing, and ready to go. When I think about my future in a home, all I have to base that future on is the present condition. I do not want to do mental acrobatics to imagine how I might fit into it. I want to have a vision of how I can be in it now. The future is the present.
|drawing by Lucy Sikes|
I hear a lot about the Future of Quakerism, how it is dying. How we will cease to be. They ask me how to attract more young people and families. In order to have a vibrant future, we have to have a vibrant present. I know that I am not moved to want to be part of something that is dying. If you said upon meeting me, “Oh I am so glad you are here, because we are dying.” I would turn and flee. I do not want to be a part of something dying, I want to be a part of something alive. I want to be of use. When I joined my present meeting over 10 years ago, I was told how they were thriving. There were so many families, and so much work happening in the meeting. I thought, “That is where I want to be. They are growing.” I know that there are meetings in this Yearly Meeting that are in a place of contraction right now. And this is hard to hear when some are experiencing so much loss. I wonder if, even among dwindling numbers, we can ask ourselves, “Where are we most alive?”
From what little I know and understand of George Fox and his Friends, they were concerned with the Spirit now—with their experiences in the present. That is what got them all riled up. They answered to the hungers and needs and conditions of the people in the present, cared for each other’s families when they were in jail. Without concern for age or gender, Friends expected to be changed by the experience of the Spirit. They were passionate, and engaging, and sometimes off-putting, and people wanted to be a part of it. They held each other accountable to their leadings, no matter how hard. And the movement grew, exploded. There was a fire. They were naming gifts left and right, and using them. They were not worried about what we would be doing here at Fall Sessions, more than 350 years later. They were feeling the fire of God in the present. See, when they talked to people, they shared how God was moving in them, and others felt that resonate with them, and they saw there was a great movement, and they wanted to join and be a part of it. They were focused on a living God. As I speak with Friends, I hear their concern for the tradition they love, the worship and fellowship they hold dear. They want to see it continue for others to also find the sweet richness they have. I think that in so wishing for a vibrant future we forget that we are called to be here, present to God. Now.
In my travels I have met many Young Adult Friends. And the news is good. Really good. There is Spirit moving. Do you know who is in your community? How do you encourage, engage, befriend, appreciate, and be present with those already there? There are Young Adult Friends—many—who are not in the meetings solely for other YAF, but so that they can be a part of a vital, spirit-filled place. I think that is the case for any age. I think that we easily believe that we need large groups of Young Adult Friends, and that will draw more. I encourage you to think in terms of quality versus quantity. What is the quality of the worship? The interactions? Are we ready? Healthy? Appealing? Do we draw out, name, and encourage the gifts in each other? Do we feed each other what we need to be happy and full? Do we serve each other and God as we are led?
I want to speak to another important concern. Over the past several months I have heard over and over, the hunger, the deep hunger, of families with young children. These are families that are already in our midst. There are many who are yearning for support, for prayers, for a community that embraces them and their children, no matter how squirmy and messy. Some yearn to be held accountable to their leadings despite all the other pressures of time and family life. I hear how hard it is to parent in a way consistent with Quaker beliefs. With support we can encourage the ministry and leadings that grace our meetings. And if they are fed, they stay, even if their kids protest. Better yet, if the kids feel seen and embraced, and have their gifts acknowledged, they bring their parents. Here is a population that is in our meetings now. I have met them. It may be hard for them to get to meeting, especially if they are coming from a distance, or to come to committee meetings or evening activities. They may need help. They may need support and accountability even if they appear to have it all together. I also know that if they do not get fed, and if the kids are not embraced, then they leave. Here is our golden opportunity to really see if our house is ready, if we are healthy and open. I am not even saying getting new families. I encourage you to go to your directories and find the families there, or those who have stopped coming, and reach out to them. If your meeting has young families, and if you nurture and support them through what are likely some of their most challenging days, they will stay. And they will talk to other families that come in. I know that my dream for my daughter is that she be a part of a community of faith where her unique gifts are seen and fostered by the community, and that she is seen as a person in her own right. If, as a young adult parent, I know that my child is valued and supported for who she is, I want to stay. Never underestimate the gifts of those kids. After all, it was often the children who kept meetings going while all the early Friends got themselves thrown in jail. If not for the gifts of those youth in those particular moments and trying times, we would not be sitting here worried about the future of Quakerism.
Communications Director Sought for NYYM
New York Yearly Meeting is seeking a part-time (.7 to .8 FTE) communications director who will manage and oversee all communications including Spark, InfoShare, the Yearbook, and the Handbook, maintain the Web site, manage “new media,” and work with the Communications Committee. Successful candidates must have a technical knowledge of desktop publishing software, and digital media, and be proficient at both copyediting and Web site construction. Must have a strong understanding of Quaker testimonies and practices and worship regularly with a NYYM monthly meeting. Full job description, qualifications, and application procedure are available at http://bit.ly/yzci3V. Interested candidates should send their résumé to Menzelbarbara014 [at] gmail.com. Résumés will begin to be reviewed by the search committee immediately and continue until the position is filled.
What Would Bayard Rustin Be Doing Today?
Elizabeth Gordon & Helen Garay Toppins
for the Black Concerns Committee
2012 is the centennial of Bayard Rustin’s birthday. We invite your meeting to join us in commemorating the life and reinvigorating the vision of a renowned former member of New York Yearly Meeting.
Rustin was an early civil rights activist. He brought Gandhi’s philosophy to the American civil rights movement and was a primary influence in shaping the young Martin Luther King Jr.’s very active form of nonviolent protest. Rustin’s life still speaks to us today, as evidenced by recent books, including I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters, by Michael Long, to be published in March 2012. The book opens with his April 15, 1942, letter to 15th Street Meeting elaborating on his interpretation of the peace testimony.
To facilitate your meeting’s acknowledgement of the Rustin centennial, the NYYM Black Concerns Committee is posting a brief biography of Bayard, a press release for I Must Resist, and a reading/resource list for your meeting’s discussion groups and First Day school activities.
- Sponsor an author book event with Michael Long. To arrange for such an event contact Stacey Lewis at: stacey [at] citylights.com.
- Attend an author’s tour event. One is being held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Wednesday, March 21, at 7 p.m. and another at 15th Street Meeting Thursday, March 15, at 7 p.m.
- Buy copies of I Must Resist for meeting, public, school, and college libraries. Ask these libraries to display a Rustin exhibit during the centennial.
- Form a discussion group to study I Must Resist.
- Bring the story and strategies of Rustin to your local Occupy group
- Hold a viewing of the documentary Brother Outsider (more info at http://rustin.org/)
- Celebrate the Rustin centennial as you are led.
- Ask yourself and others: What would Bayard Rustin be doing today?
Upcoming PoHo Events
|3–5||Creativity and Spirituality|
|10–12||Me, My Partner, & the Divine|
|17–19||AVP Advanced Conflict Resolution Workshop|
|2–4||Cooking & Baking from the Cooks’ Book|
|2–4||Jewish and Quaker|
|16–18||Conflict & Intimacy|
|23–25||Non-Theism among Friends|
|March 30–April 2 Awakening the Dreamer|
Helen Werner, to Brooklyn from Poughkeepsie
Joseph Condon, member of Rahway-Plainfield, January 2, 2012.
Robert Ganier Dettmer, member of Purchase, August 27, 2011.
Sterling Olmsted, sojourning member of Schenectady, November 6, 2011
William Rooks, member of Rahway-Plainfield, September 10, 2011.
Vaughan McLellan Tornow-Coffee, on November 12, 2011, to Molly and David Tornow-Coffee, members of Buffalo.