Sunday, June 30, 2013

Quaker Spring, part 1: My People?


I'm just back from my first time attending Quaker Spring.  Their website explains what they do much better than I can; it's basically an annual gathering of Friends with very little agenda other than the intention to listen to God together, and to listen to each other as well. I went with high hopes.  I didn't altogether find what I was looking for.  I think I found something better.  
My next two posts will be about some of the specific and unexpected things that I found--intense and opening conversations about issues of privilege and about the connection between the spiritual journey and mental illness and healing.  This one is about part of what I went looking for: I wanted to figure out whether I was still a Quaker. 
Twelve years ago the Quaker Meeting in Portland, ME helped me and my family to discern our way to this Catholic Worker farm ten hours away.  Since then I have not been part of a Quaker Meeting, not for lack of trying. At first my family and I met monthly with some other Friends engaged in work to which we felt led by the Spirit.  We'd spend the morning together in waiting worship and discussion of our struggles to be faithful, eat together, talk and laugh and sing and occasionally cry.  Then one participant died, others moved away, and the group disbanded.  My subsequent attempts to form connections with other Quaker groups led to the statement that voluntary poverty/downward mobility is not a Quakerly practice, or to concerns about my lack of a college education, or to vaguer statements about how different my lifestyle is from that of most Friends and how hard that makes it for them to be in relationship with me.  I haven't known what to make of this; I haven't been able to get the people who hold these concerns to discuss them with me.
My family and I still gather for waiting worship for half an hour a day, an hour on Sundays, along with assorted guests who might be silently saying the rosary or reading the Bible or the Book of Mormon or one of Rabbi Kushner's books.  We still try to make big-picture decisions by corporate discernment after the manner of Friends.  I still  read Sandra Cronk, Parker Palmer, Thomas Kelly, John Woolman.  We still tell many guests from other backgrounds about Quakerism.  But I have felt increasingly uncertain about my place in the Quaker community.   I miss the accountability that a larger group can offer.  I feel clear about the work I'm called to do.  I know I need guidance and correction, and would love support, in doing that work rightly.  I find it discouraging to be told that the work is not worth doing, or is too scary or strange for Friends to engage.  
I have also missed worshiping with a wider community; that hunger led me to start worshiping with a local Christian nondenominational church a few months ago.  I fit better there in terms of class.  My fellow parishioners don't find it odd that I didn't go to college or that I work with my hands, receive Medicaid, and live as much as may be by gifts given and received rather than by cash exchange.  They talk fairly openly about their struggles, the help they need and the help they offer.  They don't necessarily share my taste in reading or music as much as many fellow Quakers do.  They don't entirely share my theology or politics either. And I miss long periods of corporate silence (we have short ones) and shared leadership of worship and discussion.  But this church, like my much-missed Meeting in Portland, expects and supports daily personal spiritual practice and a faith that permeates all the daily choices we make.  I was grateful for their fellowship, and conscious of what I still missed.  I think I went to Quaker Spring hoping either to be shown clearly that I no longer fit in the community of Friends, or to form some kind of connection that would be a Quaker anchor for me.  Instead of either I found a reminder of how the Kingdom of God can work.
We worked together rather than paying a lot to have our work done for us.  Event organizers asked for a freewill offering of whatever we felt we could afford rather than a set fee, and gave a very affordable suggested range.  We helped prepare meals and did our own dishes and housecleaning.  I think this built community among us.  I know it felt more right to me than being waited on by people whom Friends, in spite of our concerns for love and justice, sometimes treat as invisible or not fully human.  
We also talked about the hard issues we wrestled with--faithfulness community, accountability, privilege, prejudice, mental health--, in informal conversation and in worship and in organized discussions.  We weren't all led to the same work or wrestling with the same specific questions, but we shared the struggle to listen well and act faithfully.  We prayed for each other, vocally and silently.  We kept plenty of spaces and times in which to be quiet and to listen for what God had to say to us.
Part of what I heard was that I had been asking the wrong questions: Who are my people? Where do I belong? Where am I accepted? What practices can I accept?  The people gathered with me were fairly diverse in class and conviction and calling.  Some talked about the difficulty of connecting with people who weren't college-educated or professional (though I think they managed fairly well with me…)  But as we drew closer to the center, focusing on our experience of God and  our attempts to live faithfully, it became very clear that we were neighbors in God.  As such we were able to help and hear, challenge and bless each other.  I felt stretched, grounded and loved by the others gathered there, and I think I was able to provide some stretching, grounding and loving for other people.  And that, as I have known for some time intellectually and am beginning to know on a deeper level, is what matters.
That, and the other thing that's even more essential and hard to name.  By their examples, their prayers, their inner wrestling, their shared presence in the silence, my fellow Quaker Spring participants made it easier for me to open myself a little more fully to God.
I hope I may be able to keep in touch with some of the people I met last week.  Whether or not that happens, I will try to keep remembering how to listen to and with our guests at the farm and the folks at the local church and whoever else God puts in my way. I will try to remember to stop pining for My People and to keep my focus on living as part of the people of God. I will try to offer and accept help freely, be open about my struggles, keep spaces in which I and my neighbors and guests can listen for the still small voice.  This isn't a new insight, but it seems to be moving a little deeper into my life.  In the words of another QS participant--the best answer I have yet heard to the formulaic "How are you?"--I am blessed and thankful. 

19 comments:

Kathleen K-G said...

Thank you for this essay, Joanna! I really appreciated my conversations with you over the week. Your essay puts into words the feel of that time together much better than I've had time to do. I certainly felt blessed by God's grace and a special opening to receiving God's love as visited upon me by those present at Quaker Spring.

Michael said...

I've been asking similar questions about my relationship with Quaker meetings and sensing a similar shift, as you said, "I will try to remember to stop pining for My People and to keep my focus on living as part of the people of God." I wonder if many of us in the Society of Friends, and beyond, are called to a similar re-orientation. I sometimes imagine what that Society would look like with a similar orientation, partly anchored in worship with family and friends and engaged with other faith communities in our neighborhoods. My sense is that God is asking many of us to let go of the form Friends Meetings have had and open up to new forms God is shaping. Your post strengthens this sense and increases my curiosity. Thank you.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you both.

Kathleen, I also appreciated our conversations and your thoughtfulness and openness.

Michael, I;d be very interested in hearing more about how you envision the 'new forms God is shaping" or the process of figuring out what those forms might be.

Micah Bales said...

Joanna,

I was sorry that you and I never had the opportunity to really sit down and connect at Quaker Spring, but I'm very grateful for this blog post. I, too, have struggled a lot with who "my people" is - and, in fact, I was struggling with this very question at Quaker Spring this year.

The clearest conclusion that I have come to so far is that God really wants me to be focusing on the people right around me - in my neighborhood and in my city - rather than putting too much focus on gatherings of like-minded people from all over.

I'm a pretty task-oriented person, and I want to get things right. Yet, I'm sensing that God is calling me to embrace human relationships rather than fixating on "getting things done" (or, at least, getting them done according to my own expectations).

Despite what I just said, I do hope that you and I have more opportunity to connect in the future. I appreciate your witnessing life very much.

Marcelle Martin said...

Hi Joanna, I went to Quaker Spring last year, for the first time, but did not go this year. I now live in Indiana. I believe I met you several years ago when you spoke at the FGC Gathering. I'm glad to read your reflections on your experience of Quaker Spring, and I agree, it's better to be among companions in whose company we open more fully to God than to know the answers to questions about who are my people. For myself, the answer to that question keeps expanding. Still, among Quakers (both from the past and in the present), I have found most closely the communal approach to God and faithful living that seems most true to me. I've been writing about that on my blog, A Whole Heart at www.awholeheart.com

Joanna Hoyt said...

Micah, thank you for commenting, and thank you very much for helping to guide and contain Quaker Spring. I have some idea of how hard it can be to provide enough structure to keep such a group together and leave enough open space for the Spirit to blow through.

I hear you about being called to focus where you are. That seems also to be what I need to do. I also sometimes find help and encouragement in corresponding with people working on faithfulness in different local communities; is occasional correspondence an thing you have time and inclination for?

Joanna Hoyt said...

Marcelle, I believe I remember you from FGC: are you, or were you, part of the Evergreen worshiping community? Thank you for writing, and thanks for the link to your blog. I think it's one I'll want to go back to for a reminder of some very helpful questions and practices. I wish I had local Friends with whom to share these, but for now that is not what is given,

Judy said...

Thank you for sharing your experience so thoughtfully, Joanna. No more words come to me at the moment - wanting to give yours space to sink in, but wanted to send on the gratitude at least. Blessings!

Peter Bishop said...

Good to connect with you at Quaker Spring, and wonderful to see you blogging again.

I will say again what (I think) I said that weekend: You are one of the Christians whose faithfulness and whose prayerful life serves to inspire and strengthen my own, completely non-Christian relationship with the Divine.

Blessed be.

Micah Bales said...

Thanks, Joanna. I'd welcome correspondence. My username at gmail is micahbales.

I just wrote a blog post sort of following up on, or inspired by, yours. I'd love to hear your thoughts:

http://www.lambswar.com/who-are-my-people/

Micah Bales said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lu Harper said...

Thanks, Joanna, this will prove immediately helpful tonight in a clearness committee! it was lovely sharing QS with thee!

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thanks, Lu; and thanks for the ride and the chance to reflect together.

Thanks, Peter, for your words of encouragement here, and your challenging and deepening questions and stories at the Gathering and on your blog, and your willingness to listen in tongues. And I enjoyed watching you reading the Tao (I think that's what it was?) during Bible study, and wondering what confluences or dissonances might be coming up. I've read it many times and found some clarities that hadn't come to me from anywhere else, and some messages that I had heard in my own tradition but grown deaf to through overfamiliarity.

Unknown said...

Dear Joanna, I'm appreciative of what you are sharing. You describe people at a nearby church who "talk fairly openly about their struggles, the help they need and the help they offer.. ." this being a church that "expects and supports daily personal spiritual practice and a faith that permeates all the daily choices we make." In my experience, some corners of the Quaker world have those qualities, and some don't. When I find such a corner, I am explicit about God as the focus of everything (my starting point, always), and when people join in that starting point the worship and fellowship grow deeper. Beyond that, questions about specifics (intentionality in building relationships) are subject to daily discernment in prayer. This works well for me. Sounds like you and I have a lot in common. I might add that I experience a special joy with other Christians, but my sense of community is not limited to Christians, because of who God is. Helene Pollock, Philadelphia, PA

randyvo said...

Thank you, Friend Joanna, for your words. Your experiences in many
ways speak my mind. I wonder sometimes why God has called me to this odd little Society of Friends. We certainly make what seems to be more than our share of errors, not the least of which is spiritual pride. It can be challenging, confusing, and disillusioning, and it can seem sometimes like we must be hearing the calling wrong! But then there are times, and Quaker Spring was clearly one of those times for me, when we are shown what can happen when people gather with open hearts to listen deeply to the stirrings of the Spirit. We find that God does not send us away empty. And I too came away with the profound feeling that I am
blessed and thankful, and the hope that “I am blessed and thankful” will be my grateful prayer for the all the days that follow.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Helene, thank you. What you write about the basis of fellowship, and the process of working with that, speaks strongly to me. More about that by email, tomorrow if not today.

Randy, thanks for your encouraging words here, your vocal prayer in worship at QS and your stories and suggestions about reaching out to other people struggling with mental health issues, I just realized, checking my email, that you'd left the same comment earlier anonymously and it didn't show up on the blog... I need to figure out why that is and make it easier for people to comment. Sorry; I'm still not very tech-savvy.

Cat C-B said...

Joanna, it was wonderful to reconnect with you at QuakerSpring, even for the short time I got to attend.

I'm struck by the notion that any group of Quakers would distance themselves from your work, which seems to me so glowingly, self-evidently filled with Spirit. I know, you are finding yourself called away from asking who "your people" are. And I know, obviously, that it's not the label "Quaker" that brings us closer to that Spirit...

But yours is among the voices that I most treasure among Friends--because I can feel your faithfulness as an almost tangible thing, like rain or sunlight. I suppose my sadness at the thought of you not always finding the support you need among Quakers is really my own longing to hold you up in some way in the work that you do, to help in some way.

There's prayer, of course. I will remember you when I do. And I will be very, very glad to be together with you again, whenever that happens.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you, Cat. It was good to reconnect with you. I've been pondering your words about class and self-destructive behavior and what one person has the right to say to another. And thanks for your encouragement here--though your words seem to me to describe the person I hope to grow into more than the one I am as yet. And thanks for your example and your openness. Both help a great deal.

lisa said...

feeling blessed that I found your writing. "I will try to remember to stop pining for My People and to keep my focus on living as part of the people of God." this is advice that resonates so deeply with my situation. may you continue to find joy in your encounters with everybody. may you continue to meet God everywhere you turn.