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.