Spark, May 2010
15 Rutherford Place
New York, NY 10003
|New York Yearly Meeting News|
|The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)||May 2010|
|Editor, Paul Busby|
What Is Membership?
Barbara Menzel, New Brunswick Meeting
Membership in the Society of Friends involves commitment and responsibility on both the individual and meeting levels. NYYM Faith and Practice says, “Friends accept into active membership those whose declarations and ways of life manifest such unity with Friends’ views and practices that they may be expected to enter fully into religious fellowship with the meeting.” The interpretation of what constitutes “unity with Friends’ views and practices” is defined on a local level and varies within our Yearly Meeting.
Each meeting struggles to define what constitutes active participation in the religious fellowship of the meeting. Is it frequent attendance at meeting for worship? Attendance at meeting for business? Is a financial contribution to support the meeting a necessary part of membership? What about participation in the mission of the Society of Friends, both locally and regionally?
New Brunswick Meeting has been engaged for the past year in an ongoing discussion about the nature of membership in a local meeting. Our discussions began around the issue of recognizing children as members of the meeting. How do we relate to Friends at a distance or Friends who are no longer active in the life of the meeting? At what age should we expect children to make their own decision about membership in the meeting?
This issue of Spark seeks to explore membership in all its facets. There are articles about the definition of membership as well as the relationship between membership and ministry. I hope that these articles provoke a deeper exploration of membership in the Society of Friends and contribute to the growth of our religious fellowship.
Poetry Saved My Life
Michael Rhynes, Auburn Prison Preparative Meeting
This Ain’t No Philosophy
“Subconsciously I’ve always struggled against consciously committing suicide. In the deep, darkest depth of night when there’s only you and a naked prison cell squatting between yourself and self-oblivion, poetry saved my life. Locked in the psych ward of Attica state prison, God was confined to The Hole. Salvation was to be had by prostituting oneself on the altar of mind-bending medication. In the sickness of my rage, torment, and sense of abandonment, a soul with no layer of topsoil to protect me from the ravaging of self-hatred, poetry saved my life. Someone whom you would label an inmate introduced me to poetry. I was not introduced to the poems of the so-called Great White Poets of the Twentieth Century, but to the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar. The lesson I’ve gleaned is this: an inmate can’t save a life; another human being can.
“Poetry is about resistance—like a flower resists the winds of a hurricane, trying not to be uprooted. The revolution will not take place in the catacombed halls of academia but in the urban streets of our souls. Let us take our imagination back by picking up our writing implements, declaring that we poets will no longer serve as slaves to publishing houses or English professors. No longer will we pay unscrupulous manuscript pimps to see or hear our own words. In the beginning there was the Word—and it was free. The Poetess commanded, ‘Let there be light by which my children can compose.’
“Before there were publishing houses, books, or commerce, we recited our poetry in the amphitheatre of the heart. We must stop worshipping at the feet of fame, that false idol. We must stop groveling for Honorable Mentions.”
Editor's Note: The paragraphs above are the Preface to Guerillas in the Mist, and Other Poems by Michael Rhynes, edited by Patricia Roth Schwartz and published by Olive Trees Publishing. Michael is a Quaker poet and a member of the Auburn Prison Preparative Meeting, formerly incarcerated in Attica. Patricia is a poet, fiction writer, playwright, and teacher who founded the Monday Night Poetry Workshop in Auburn in 2001 and has facilitated it weekly ever since.
Here is one of Michael’s poems, “Blue Mondays.”
How will I endure
For information about the Auburn Correction Facility Poetry Workshop and their publications, contact Patricia Roth Schwartz, fireflypoet [at] sage-thyme.com, or 1212 Birdsey Rd., Waterloo, NY 13165.
Fourth Thursday Worship Experiment
Paddy Lane, Butternuts Meeting
Since August the Butternuts Friends Meeting has been trying a new once-a-month midweek meeting with an eye to engaging the larger community. We have purposely planned a shorter-than-usual worship time, with a clearly designated time for “afterthoughts” following the worship, so that newcomers may come to understand how we worship and to share a little about what the experience is like, but are still able to get to other evening commitments.
So far, we are finding the experience to be quite an adventure in faith and even transforming for us. We hold this midweek meeting on the fourth Thursday of the month, since once a month is all we felt able to clearly commit to. At the urging of our host minister at the Presbyterian church where we now meet, we set the time at 5:15 p.m. so that those leaving work would have time to come to our meeting. Forty-five minutes of worship is followed by 15 minutes of afterthoughts. We are committed to formally ending promptly at 6:15 so that people can get home to their family dinner or their evening meetings. Folks are of course welcome to stay and chat if they like.
We did a few things to help invite people in and make them welcome. First of all, we used explanations of Quaker worship that are readily available on the internet to craft a very small pamphlet (half-page, printed both sides and folded) with an explanation of what happens in a meeting for worship. Our contact information is on the back. We placed announcements in the local paper and an e-mail announcement on a local clergy distribution list. Then we waited to see what would happen.
What a surprising outcome! First of all, it has helped pull our two small worship groups together. We normally see each other only on the first Sunday of the month. But people really like the idea of all of us worshiping together, and they are very pleased with our new, much more accessible and user-friendly location. Members of the meeting have been actively inviting others they know in the community to join us. Our contacts among clergy have brought us participation by not only the minister of our host church but also the rector of the local Episcopal church, as well as a Catholic deacon from another town. One member who can rarely make it on Sundays really appreciates this chance to worship. Another member who we have not seen for years has found a way to join us several times. Attendance has ranged from 8 to 14. Even in bitterly cold weather, with less than ideal driving conditions, people have come. At one meeting, the central heating of the church malfunctioned, and we met in our coats, but no one wanted to leave.
The experience is different each time. Since there have always been at least two newcomers, as organizer of the worship, I begin each session with a brief welcome and a short explanation of what is about to happen. At our first session, someone started our worship by reading the poem that appears on the front of our welcoming pamphlet. It is a beautifully crafted reflection that helps to settle the mind and remind us all of our purpose together. Sometimes the silence has been quite profound. People have shared in song and in chants as well as spoken messages. Sometimes the message is a Christian prayer, other times a personal reflection of the heart. Occasionally I have felt anxious about someone rambling on and on, but I am refining my introductory remarks to encourage people to keep messages focused. We have even placed a little donation basket to invite people to help pay for the cost of the room ($25/session), and that has been helpful.
I encourage others to try this and let us all know the outcome. If you would like to do something like this, it is well worth taking a good deal of time to plan it. We wanted to assure success, so we did a survey of our meeting to see how many could definitely commit to come regularly and also to find out what evening of the week would be best. We set five as the threshold number of people for a serious commitment. If the group is too tiny, it discourages people, and it is hard to overcome discouragement and poor attendance once they set in. I also send out notices to the paper each month as well as to the local clergy e-mail list. In addition I send an e-mail reminder each month to our meeting and to those who have left their contact information with us. At the end of each midweek meeting, I encourage new people to sign our guest book and also to leave their e-mail and phone number. This is also helpful in case inclement weather prevents us from getting to the church to open it. In that way it is possible to notify everyone.
We are happy to share the wording of our introductory pamphlet, if others would like to use it.
To help pay for the extra $25/month, we’ve asked if members of the meeting would like to make extra donations in support of this undertaking. Some have contributed. I make an appeal every six months at our business meeting. So far we’re doing okay, but we have not had sufficient experience to know if this is self-sustaining. The meeting has committed to covering the cost of expenses that individuals are not able to cover.
Of one thing I am certain: no matter what happens in our fourth-Thursday sessions together, the Spirit is at work.
For more information: grodlane [at] frontiernet.net or 607-263-5817.
Time, Talent, and Treasure
Steven Ross, Shrewsbury Meeting
A basic definition of membership in a group could consist simply in the members’ having one or more shared characteristics.
But when we talk about membership, we also tend to embrace other elements as part of our concept. Frequently it is the member’s choice that makes him or her a group member. Almost as frequently, it is the group’s choice to admit him or her.
Membership has also tended to involve some form of participation in the group’s activities, as well as the support the member brings to the group and the benefits he or she is likely to receive from it. A member’s identification by and with the group is generally also perceived to have a role.
What claim a group and its members will have on each other’s time, resources, attention, and goodwill can vary widely. In the context in which most of us currently live, most of these claims are understood as voluntary or contractual.
In a culture that has tended to emphasize self-determination, the voluntary nature of membership is likely to be emphasized. This represents not only the choice to be or not be a member, but also the degree to which a group’s expectations might be said to interfere with or compromise the individual autonomy of a member.
Of course, not everyone fully embraces individualism as a value system, and many are looking for a kind of membership that to them more resembles being part of a community than just participating in the work of an organization.
Even among people who accept an individualist ethic, there seems to be a strong sense of wanting to belong. Charities, advocacy groups, and political parties will often offer the designation of “member” to individuals who contribute financially, and they frequently provide public recognition of that membership where the contribution reaches a certain level. Often, this is all that’s involved.
Other examples are a step further removed from what many of us would like to think of as the operational meaning of membership. One of these is the idea of being a “cardmember” by virtue of holding a particular credit card. Similar examples can be found among automobile road-service plans, travel and hospitality services, book, magazine, and music subscriptions, and retail sales. These tend to hollow out what we understand when we hear the term member.
But in a way that’s not too different, many people come to an organization or community looking at membership in a “transactional” way, not too far removed from understanding their role as that of a consumer. What do I bring to the situation; what do I (or at least what does someone) take out of it? Is the arrangement a given, or is it something I can negotiate? What other choices are there?
For the moment, it is probably less important to judge whether such an approach is right or wrong than to examine how it might be affecting us.
Most people who join our meetings and other organizations seem to do it in good faith and with goodwill, and for the most part these characteristics are sustained throughout the experience. We are comfortable with the idea that some measure of our “time, talent, and treasure” is expected, and even with the idea that the group’s or the organization’s decisions affecting its activities in pursuit of its purposes are binding on the group. We accept a certain measure of discipline regarding how we go about making these decisions and how we carry them out.
Where we may begin to get stuck is in looking at the boundaries of the group’s authority and what kinds of discipline it can require or instill.
The boundary of what we see as the meeting’s business could in part be constrained by what it believes it can persuade members to accept. But at the same time, it could also be expanded by what members say, or are willing to say, that they want and need from the meeting.
While it might not be timely to think in terms of returning to the kinds of detailed oversight of personal and family life that meetings may have provided (or imposed) in the past, it could be valuable to think of our membership not only in terms of our support for and our participation in the meeting, but in terms of how we can invite the meeting to “participate” in each of us.
We can, for example, consider bringing more of our questions about vocational decisions, family and personal relationships, matters of faith, belief, or spiritual experience, artistic or civic endeavors, and even personal care to the meeting. Or we can simply become more open to receiving ministry and other advice on these kinds of questions, even if we’ve not overtly requested it.
Receiving the meeting’s care, counsel, or oversight could become as much a part of membership as contributing our time, effort, and resources to the meeting.
To do this, we will have to both respect others’ boundaries and at the same time reexamine the location of our own. Self-discipline will be important if we choose to move in this direction.
An alternative concept of membership that could facilitate moving in this direction is the one by which we identify our hands, feet, and other aspects of our physical bodies as members. Their identities come from being integral, functioning parts of an organic whole, not simply from having one or more shared characteristics. This metaphor is the one most often used by Jesus and his interpreters to convey what it means to be a member.
It will probably be to our advantage to look to this concept more closely than we have in examining what it is we’re called to understand about membership.
My Journey to Membership
Claire E. Kissil, Chatham-Summit Meeting
I have been a Protestant church member since age nine. Peer pressure prodded that nine-year-old to answer the altar call, but nevertheless the idea of membership in a faith community is almost a part of my DNA. As I grew older and began to think for myself, I realized that there were doctrines and dogma of the Baptist Church that I could no longer embrace. Therefore, when my Jewish husband and I began to cast around for a faith community, I was pleased to begin to attend a Quaker meeting.
I well remember the first morning we walked into worship with Summit Friends at the Summit YMCA; I literally wept because of the strong sense that I had finally come home.
We became regular attenders and began to experience and learn about the various aspects, traditions, and practices of modern-day Quakerism. We made close friends and began to learn their stories. Friends gathered around in support when our son was born with a serious genetic illness. In fact we were becoming part of the extended Summit Quaker family. Slowly as I learned and experienced this Quaker faith, I began to feel I needed to go further, so it was, seven years after that first Quaker meeting, that I began to explore the idea of actual membership.
I longed to be able to say unequivocally, “I am a Quaker.” I wanted to be able to serve on committees that directly affect the life of the meeting, and I wanted to commit to this extended family that had become so much a part of our lives. I spent one whole night writing and honing the words to my letter of application. I felt the need to get the wording exactly right so that everyone, including myself, would understand the depth of my commitment.
Now 40 years later, I have no regrets. Unlike the Baptist Church that offered strict doctrine and beliefs that I had to follow, Quakerism offers a path for me to use for spiritual growth, strength, and renewal. Continuing revelation ever encourages me to go further and deeper into my spiritual journey.
In addition, I have been able to serve the meeting as its clerk and to serve on almost every existing committee. The Quaker way of searching for individual gifts for service is a refreshing practice, and I am finally learning to trust my gifts rather than listen to the “should’s” that clamor away in my head. Someone said that membership is like a marriage commitment. There are ups and downs, hard places and amazing joys, but always a safe and secure environment for developing a spiritual journey that is tailored to my special needs and gifts.
Membership and Ministry
John P. Menzel, New Brunswick Meeting
When someone requests membership in a Friends meeting there should be an understanding about commitment to the collective and individual ministries of the meeting. The individual assumes a responsibility for caring for and ministering to other members, and the collective membership assumes the same for individual members of the meeting. Ministry beyond the meeting is a shared responsibility.
It is too easy to forget that we are called to love one another when struggling with different views and concerns over a meeting budget or a proposed building program. But this is where it begins. When we sit silently in worship, where do our thoughts go wandering? Are we aware of our fellow worshippers and the burdens they often bear? Do members and attenders trust enough to share their concerns with a clearness committee, Ministry and Counsel, or even their assembled fellow worshippers? We are a faith community, and our foundation rests on the trust we have in each other, in our message, and in ourselves. It is important to be continually nurturing and ministering to each other, encouraging spiritual growth, sharing concerns, seeking understanding and knowledge.
Individual meetings may have different approaches for ministering to young Friends. It is important for them to be under the care of a meeting, as Young Friends, until they are ready to make their own decisions regarding membership. This connection may prove to have lasting meaning for them and provide an important spiritual bond with the meeting. Our responsibility should go well beyond finding a safe place for them while the adults worship. A meaningful relationship with a meeting will help in shaping their values and their perception of the world.
Every meeting has its inactive members, and how to relate to them often becomes a serious matter of disagreement. There are those who wish to remove them from membership and others who, for various reasons, are hesitant to do so. Again, it is important to focus on the meeting’s ministry to those who are no longer active in the fellowship. Do we know what changes have taken place in their lives? Did some incident precipitate their withdrawal from the meeting? Do they have needs that can be met by the meeting?
There are so many possible reasons for a lack of involvement, and it is certainly easier to paint them all with one brush stroke. Inactive members should be approached tenderly and insistently. They should be made aware of the meeting’s concern for them. Sometimes, however, when there is clearly no avenue whereby the member wishes or cares to take an active part in the meeting, steps might eventually be taken to sever the relationship. Nonetheless, it should be the responsibility and desire of the meeting to reach out to inactive members and minister to them in an effort to welcome them back into the community.
Members at a distance are those who are far enough away that active contact with the meeting is not possible. Should these members be encouraged to remain in membership or to resign or transfer? This is not a simple question. If their present location is near other gatherings of Friends, they should be encouraged to transfer their membership. But what if there are no opportunities for Quaker fellowship in their present location and they wish to continue their ties with the meeting they consider their spiritual home?
The meeting should consider creative ways to minister to members at a distance. One way is communication through mail or e-mail, newsletters, and even a dynamic Web site or other Web-based tools that share news about the meeting. And do not overlook visitation. Perhaps, occasionally active members could visit the members at a distance, worship with them, and bring to them the spirit of the meeting.
The growth of a meeting needs to be both spiritual and material. The collective ministry should involve members and attenders of all ages, at home and at a distance, and should be a multifaceted experience. A continual focus on the importance of membership in a meeting can give rise to a ministry that will enrich the spiritual and social bonds between Friends.
Growing Up Quaker
Jennie Fischer, New Brunswick Meeting
New Brunswick Friends at one time recorded children as members at birth. However, in 1996, our meeting decided to end recording birthright and child memberships, so that when our children grew up, they could themselves opt whether to become Quakers. Recently, we have been reexamining this decision after being presented with a member’s request to record his baby as a birthright member.
As part of this reevaluation, we have been asking our former child members how growing up as members of our Quaker community has affected their lives. We have been humbled and inspired by their answers. Following are excerpts from some of the responses we received.
“All human beings have a deep need to belong to a group and to feel valued as a member of that group. It is within the context of the group that one’s individual identity emerges.…For me birthright membership in the Religious Society of Friends has been very important because it has given me a spiritual starting place. It has helped me to develop the values which I have carried throughout my life. It has facilitated a relationship with the Divine which is the foundation of all that I do, and it has provided the center from which I have gone forth into the world and to which I have returned again and again.”
“I do feel that being a birthright Quaker has given me a sense of bone-deep connection to the Quaker religion and to other Quakers in my family.…I understand the desire not to impose a religion on a child.…But I think that feeling part of a religion helps shape one’s identity.…Even though I now consider myself a Unitarian, I’m glad I was raised Quaker.…If I were living in New Brunswick Meeting [area now] I’d urge the meeting to remove the ban on birthright membership and add instead, a coming-of-age ritual wherein the child studies other religions and is given the chance to publicly recommit to Quakerism.”
“I…am in favor of birthright membership in the Society of Friends.…It gave me a baseline from which to form a spiritual identity. It’s possible that people who are not birthright Quakers might feel that it’s kind of an exclusive club. I think Quakers can sometimes be a little snobby that way, which is of course, not very Quakerly.”
“I believe being a…child member did not have any meaning for me. But the strong Christian influence of my [Quaker] mother and grandparents instilled in me basic Christian values. I believe it is the parents’ responsibility to initiate their children in some faith so that children can learn that there is life outside their own, and that each has a duty to render good deeds in order to make the world a better place.…As a child matures…he is free to leave the meeting and return at a later time if he is so inclined.”
One former child member fondly remembers attending First Day school and learning about Quakerism, Christianity, and Eastern faiths and putting on holiday programs for the residents of the nearby McCutchen Friends Home. He feels this Quaker background directly influenced the direction his life was to take. His commitment to peace and social service evolved under the care of New Brunswick Meeting.
“From my personal life I know how important childhood experiences are and how they can influence the direction an individual takes on their life path. Though I did not remain a Quaker as I grew up, I have remained a Christian, and those earlier Quaker ideals have shaped my life choices, as well as my preferences for worship. I have always held firmly to the belief that within me, is the Light of Christ, and that my life should be a beacon in the darkness.…I seek the Peace that I find in quiet meditation and prayer.… I…am the president of my own company, which provides care for seniors in their homes or where anyone needs assistance. My goal is to bring joy to their faces.…The feeling of being a welcomed and important part of a community, and the desire to retain that in all my relationships, as well as in my company, was definitely instilled in me…from being a part of the meeting.”
“Being a Quaker.…taught me many important lessons in life. It helped me…to respect all people for who they are.…The meetings themselves were silent prayer, and then standing when the Spirit moved you to speak. I thought that must be neat to feel the Spirit move you. I could not wait to grow up and feel the Spirit.…. I learnt about compassion by [their] service…rendered to others, especially through UNICEF at Halloween. I became politically aware by the protests…and peaceful struggles they had to try to correct wrongs they saw in society.…[But] as I grew up, the nagging feeling that I still needed to be baptized haunted me…I finally found…the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.…part of their service is silent prayer as the sacrament is passed.… I feel my up bringing as a Quaker has formed me into who I am. I am never afraid to stand up for what I believe.…”
“I find that I really rely on so many of my lessons and experiences from growing up Quaker. I think that being part of New Brunswick Meeting was one of the most influential and shaping part of my life.…And now, when things become chaotic, I can quiet myself and remember those lessons and meditate and find peace for myself.…I enjoy reading the [New Brunswick Meeting] newsletter and the articles in Spark. I’ve saved the Spark edition on leadership and have read it many times.”
“In First Day school, we learned to ‘turn the other cheek’ and not engage in fighting.…[In public school] I soon discovered that being a pacifist actually invited aggression from other boys…I became a punching bag for bullies.… Members of the Society of Friends fled England to establish a Quaker colony in Pennsylvania.…But [here in America] they did not suffer [all the] consequences because others stood up and protected them from the bullying nations.…Ironically, because of my Quaker upbringing, I felt a need to pay for our freedom to worship as we choose. I became a soldier in the US army....This is not to say this is the right path for everyone. Each of us must let our ‘inner light’ guide us.”
“I have intermittently attended Friends meeting in various places I’ve lived but am not [now] a member of any meeting. As a child I never understood what was supposed to happen in meeting, and how you knew what to say.…I still like sitting quietly and opening myself and have done meditation throughout most of my life.…I do think that growing up in the Friends was a good fit for my personality, and I will always think of myself as a Friend.”
“I think my primary memory of the New Brunswick Meeting is of feeling part of a community of ‘good people.’ Compared with other people’s recollections of their childhood religious training, mine was of the light and wholesome, whole-grain food for my soul rather than censure and stricture.…I think Quakerism and particularly the small, eclectic, and egalitarian New Brunswick Meeting gave me grounding in the working of consensus and peaceful resolution that has stayed with me.”
Growing up in our meeting has been a formative experience for many of our children. It hasn’t necessarily caused them to remain Quakers, but it has provided a meaningful community and has been a vital part of their growing up, helping them to form lifelong values. Among these former child members, there are diverse opinions on whether children should be recognized as birthright or child members. Perhaps the best way to decide this question should be up to the members of each monthly meeting, for there may not be any single right answer.
Longtime Attending Nonmembers
John Cooley, Central Finger Lakes Meeting
I once knew a person active in another monthly meeting who was a conscientious nonmember. She didn’t feel that membership in any organization should be a criterion for being active and doing good, I think. So she bristled a bit when Yearly Meeting committee members wanted her to help them with roles that they realized required membership (by our own standards). She didn’t even want to be considered “co-opted,” since that seemed to buy into a concept and system she didn’t honor.
I have also known several faithful participants in monthly meetings who postponed or declined the opportunity to become members, despite others’ urgings, over many years. Some members felt they were certainly no “better” or more truly Quaker than the attender, and it frustrated them, or even made the members feel that the nonmembers were acting better, “more humble” than they! One of the most faithful monthly meeting participants I remember used to say he couldn’t imagine applying for membership because he didn’t feel he was good enough “yet.” I think it is more common for nonjoiners to feel that they just aren’t sure or aren’t ready in some other way.
These examples do give us something to think about. We believe we should treat all people as equals, that all are equal in God’s sight. We readily admit that membership in a church is not a ticket to heaven or the proof of righteousness. Yet many of us seem to like the sense that there is a recognizable indicator of belonging to an earthly family of “faith community” members—that it is a way of “standing up and being counted” with others.
I think there is more than enough room for both categories—members and nonmember attenders. I honor fellow members who have decided to consider with others and register their connection with a particular twig on a particular branch of a tree that is not the entire forest. And I equally honor the fellow attenders (who are sometimes more numerous in meetings for worship or committees than members) who do not feel ready or don’t even “believe in” membership. It is harder for me to accept the corollary that we should exclude from particular offices or duties those who have not become members. But I accept it as part of the frailty and “practicality” of this very human institution, the Religious Society of Friends. I won’t urge an attender to become a member because of technicalities, or because I have chosen myself to be a member. But I will welcome the application of an attender to sit with some others in the monthly meeting to consider becoming a member, and will stand by them in the same way I try to stand with anyone who asks for or practices the regular fellowship of worship and other community functions.
Reflections on a Spiritual Journey.
Louis Curth, Saranac Lake Meeting
I have never been able to make up my mind whether it was a blessing or a curse to grow up unchurched. It was just the way it was.
During the 1940s, the south shore of Long Island, where I grew up, was full of patches of woods and seemingly endless stretches of cattails with small streams meandering down to mingle with ocean bays and inlets. Unlike today’s children with their multi-tasking electronic life styles, our childhoods seemed rooted in simplicity. We spent much of our free time playing outdoors with very little parental interference – provided we got home for supper on time. In the evenings after cleanup chores, I suppose there was a kind of harmony as family gathered around and listened to the radio together. I don’t recall family conversations about religion very often. My parents were nominal Christians and were content to leave it at that although, once in a while, my father would read strange sounding text to us from his King James Bible. Finally, as a teenager, I began to discover that churches had youth groups where one might meet girls. The youthful worship services were a minor distraction at these social occasions.
From such questionable motivation came a growing realization on my part that there were a lot of different churches. Then I discovered that there were evangelists like Billy Graham and Oral Roberts who would come from time to time to preach, teach and exhort people to become born again and accept Jesus. It was all very confusing to me. Should I attend a church like I saw other people do? How would I know which one to go to? The answer seemed to be to go to different churches and see what they did. My adolescent spiritual journey had led me to become a seeker of a religious identity. It was a process which would continue inconclusively for many years.
My first exposure to the Religious Society of Friends began after college when I started working at the Lake Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. There I learned that a Quaker family had opened the Mountain House soon after the Civil War and their descendants still continued to operate it. For the first time in my life, I began to meet people who were practicing members of something called The Religious Society of Friends. In some ways their conduct seemed different, perhaps even a bit peculiar, yet they were very principled in their dealings and I respected them. I became interested in the silent meeting for worship held each Sunday when family members, guests and employees could join together in silence for unprogrammed worship. In retrospect, I guess I never quite got over my experience at Mohonk although it would be many more years before I acted upon it.
That time came in the mid 1980s when my wife and two children and I moved to Lake Placid. One day, while attending the local Lutheran church, I happened to mention to the pastor that I was interested in the Quakers. He replied that he knew some Quakers in the Saranac Lake area and that he would be glad to arrange for us to meet. Not long after, we were introduced and soon found ourselves gathering together for silent worship. As time passed, others came to join us and our meeting grew. Under the care of Adirondack Friends in South Glens Falls, our informal group finally evolved into the Saranac Lake Monthly Meeting of Friends, where I was happy to be counted as one of the founding members. Over the next several years my knowledge grew and my appreciation for Quaker values deepened. I found that centuries of Quaker faith and practice are still a treasure of comfort and inspiration. The wisdom of many speaks to me and all Quakers in plain and practical ways that help us see the light of Jesus Christ as he challenges us “to love one another”
The time came when my job took me away from the Adirondacks and my fellow Quakers there. But, the memories of those days and those wonderful people remain with me wherever I go. My long spiritual journey took a circuitous route, but eventually I found my way to simplicity, harmony, community and peace with those who wait upon the lord in silence and anticipation each First Day. It is the custom of worship for those people who call themselves Quakers and I am one of them.
On Attending Meeting
Scott Slocum, Buffalo Meeting
I am 25 years old, and have been attending meetings for worship at Buffalo Meeting for about two years. I was invited to attend, as though by Providence and very graciously, and I continue to be invited, in the same way, to move forward from where I presently stand and into a life grander and more rich.
However, for no reason I can actually defend, I often find these invitations hard to accept. Before attending Buffalo Meeting for the first time, a long series of coincidences, for years, labored to point me in the right direction, and then after all that, I still needed to actually go.
I was aware that I was interested in attending. Initially, I knew only that I was vaguely frustrated with traditional religious services. I couldn’t say what it was I was angry about not finding, until a very young girl—at the time, a new acquaintance—happened to mention to me that she was a Quaker and that when Quakers get together, they sit silently until God moves them to speak. Anyone attending might stand and speak—this especially impressed me. She’d even once felt so moved but had been too nervous to actually stand. (I’ve since come to know exactly how she felt.) I was impressed with both the practice she described and the message she’d intended to deliver (which she confided in me)—it seemed that what I’d been looking for had found me.
As might be expected by now, it was also by accident that I found Buffalo Meeting—searching Google Maps for something else entirely. I was delighted. I told a friend of mine about it—how, “Who’d’ve thought, there’s a Buffalo meeting of Quakers,” how they have this wild practice, and how it would really be something to go see what it’s like. Obliging friends that I have, I was dared—which I have to admit was exactly what I needed.
The biggest surprise came when I realized there was no reason not to go. The meetinghouse happens to sit 30 minutes down a bus line that starts at the corner of my street. This bus only runs once every hour and a half, but leaves at 9:55—a time for which there is no real excuse not to be up—and, as it happens, arrives five minutes before worship begins. If that weren’t enough, five minutes after everyone’s typically left, another bus comes by to take me home.
And so finally, I began to attend, and consequently this effect redoubled itself. The subjects and careers that Buffalo Friends have pursued seem tailor-made to my interests. Cooking, music, education, philosophy, biology, journalism, art, urban planning, community organizing, political activism—these are just the disciplines I’ve found to be represented so far, and I don’t even know everyone that well yet.
In short, the Buffalo Friends are affable, accomplished, and very interesting, but my interest in them is not going satisfy itself. Already, I’ve been lent more books than I’ve read, and have far more ideas for collaboration than—at my present state of organization—I can hope to act on.
This is extremely hard to face. But nevertheless, I think that the situation I’m in is a credit to Buffalo Meeting. Oftentimes, sin seems pleasant and virtue hard, but not in this case. Here, I suffer for my laziness, and find hope only in the possibility of diligence. I suspect that such an accomplishment would be enviable to any religious establishment.
With or without a community, one is always called upward. But even so little as I have answered, it might have taken me much longer without friends to dare me.
Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
The article by Peter Phillips, “Friends, Money, and Class” in the November issue of Spark, raises some serious issues as well as disturbing questions. No one would dispute the fact that many historic Quakers have been successful businessmen with strong social consciences. I’ve been associated with Friends for well over fifty years and have never heard any criticism of these distinguished entrepreneurs. One could easily point to current examples of success, wealth, and conscience that seem equally admirable – Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, for example, despite the fact that they aren’t Quakers.
I agree with Mr. Phillips that our testimony is primarily spiritual and not political. And engaging in political favoritism is clearly dangerous. However, I must say that over the years I’ve heard plenty of criticism of both parties on the part of Friends. An elderly Quaker with whom I was closely associated for many years once told me that he felt the atom bombing of Hiroshima under Truman was “an act of terrorism.” Other Quakers were equally critical of Bill Clinton for his moral lapses. Conversely I have heard high praise for Eisenhower and for Reagan for their efforts at negotiations toward ending the Cold War.
Ideally, I suppose we should be more critical of policies rather than personalities. However, there seems to be good historical precedent for both. Indeed, the prophetic element in Quakerism owes a great deal to Old Testament roots. One recalls Nathan confronting King David after the Bathsheba affair; or Amos speaking strongly against abuses of the poor in the king’s own chapel and being rebuked by one of the priests before being stoned to death. Jeremiah even puns on the name of King Zedekiah, whose name comes from a root word meaning “righteous,” to show that the ruler was anything but. Also we know from Fox’s Journal that he spoke bluntly to Oliver Cromwell and later wrote a critical epistle to Charles II. I feel it would be a great mistake to sacrifice the prophetic strain in Quakerism in favor of mere decorum.
During the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the churches carefully refrained from criticizing Hitler because they thought that the political realm should be wholly separate from the spiritual – to their great regret at a later time. Thus only a few clergy spoke out against the persecution of Jews. Should we remain silent in the face of blatant unrighteousness or policies that run counter to our historic testimonies?
Certainly we don’t want anyone to be subjected to slanderous rhetoric, and should deplore personal attacks on public figures. Peter Phillips mentions a birthright Quaker who was justly offended by such language aimed at George Bush. One can only hope the same gentleman is equally disturbed at some of the near pathological hatred directed at the current president. As for our former Vice President: Would someone like George Fox have respected or admired a person who promoted an unnecessary war and who still insists on the torture of other human beings?
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Juan Alduey—Fifteenth Street
Raelynne Jeanne Griffin, born on April 4, 2010, to Melissa Pronto, member of Adirondack, and Josh Griffin.
Jim Brown to Saratoga from Quaker Town (PYM)
Gail Alesi, member of Brooklyn, March 6, 2010