Thursday, March 21, 2013

Finding a Place

I have read and re-read the wonderful Friends Journal article by Emma Churchman, Quakers Are Way Cooler Than You Think. She names various dimensions of disconnect that Young Friends (teenage through 30s) feel toward Quaker institutions.  She counsels:

"Be willing to transform. The structure of monthly and yearly meetings doesn’t work for a lot of younger Friends. Many young adult Friends identify with a yearly meeting rather than a monthly meeting. Other YAFs identify themselves as Quaker without membership in a monthly or yearly meeting at all. These young people are unable to commit to a monthly meeting primarily because they move so frequently, or because they attend school far away from the meeting in which they grew up. They struggle with membership in a religious society that requires them to remain in one place. Often, they also are unable to fulfill the financial requirements of membership.
Are you willing to help this age group consider what membership could look like outside of the typical structure of monthly or yearly meetings? What could it look like for them to retain their membership in Friends General Conference, say, or Friends United Meeting instead of a specific monthly meeting? What if we revitalized a national Young Adult Friends Meeting that housed membership for young adults in transition between the meetings they grew up in and their next home meetings? What are we willing to do, as a religious society or at least as a specific branch of Quakerism, to embrace these young people in new ways?"
This hits home in a number of ways for me. Canadian Quakers are in the middle of a discussion on exactly this sort of question, flowing from a proposal from Canadian Young Friends Yearly Meeting, to allow membership in Yearly Meeting, Half-Yearly Meeting, or other groups.

My intellect, heart, and spirit have been pulled in all sorts of directions.

I honour the voices of young people who are very clear about how the established membership processes are incompatible with their lives, and also are Quaker in the depth of their being. And the Quaker structures which might help- such as clearness committees to assist with the big life decisions and upheavals - may be inaccessible.

I am clear in my mind that God does not care one whit about membership structures and administravia- as things themselves- aside from how they shape our lives to be more faithful and loving.

And lastly in my experience I have found that it is exceedingly difficult for a virtual group, meeting in person once or twice a year, to act like a Monthly Meeting between these gatherings- to do the discernment necessary to support decisions, to provide proper accountability between Friends, to nurture the vitality of Spirit that makes the difference between an ongoing spiritual path and a wonderful intention that falls by the wayside, causing spiritual damage rather than growth.

Some of my story: I formally applied for membership less than a year before moving out-of-state (Ithaca, NY to Boston, then to Kitchener, Ontario) and I then felt very clear that I wasn't a member of any of the meetings I was sojourning in. I knew I was in Boston for a short time; I didn't feel "right" in any of the many meeting options; partly because they weren't Ithaca's Meeting. I felt in transition- even after settling in Kitchener with the expectation of living here for the long term. And neither was I a fully participating member of where I held my membership: visiting Ithaca a few times a year, emailing with Friends when inspiration struck, receiving the wonderful hand-written notes on the monthly newsletters... I missed Ithaca Meeting more than I could say, but it wasn't really my home any more.

I also had a strong connection with Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. Sitting on the "front porch" of our email list, which has the most Quakerly vibe of any email list I can imagine. Meeting twice a year, in February for a mid-winter gathering, and at FGC Gathering each summer, which brought out immense Spiritual interconnectedness during the week or weekend we were together. These wonderful souls helped keep me Quaker when I otherwise felt spiritually dead, showed me what the Blessed Community looks and feels like, and otherwise acted as superb role-models and elders (of all ages). I've watched discernment at work over the years, as our Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business considered how to live up to God's charge for us. I've watched how we fail, and sometimes fail gracefully (what one dear friend calls "a ministry of public imperfection"). I've felt wonderfully well-used, serving on committees that met during gatherings. And I've once or twice I've requested short-term clearness committees for helping my discernment.

I imagine many readers know exactly where I'm coming from- those with strong connection to Yearly Meeting, or their regional Meeting. If you have this connection, and don't have a strong connection to a Monthly Meeting, this can feel like the only game in town. Made all the sweeter for its brevity and intensity.

I've also served on a number of FLGBTQC committees that felt a call to do work between gatherings. The ones that felt successful required firm clerking, phone conference-calls, intentionally avoiding discernment over email, and making the necessary time in my schedule to actually do the work, rather than how it naturally (magically?) "falls together" at gatherings. ...And the unsuccessful committees expected magic to happen between gatherings, without enough hard work: we were unable to talk on the phone, lacked strong cohesion or purpose, or we over-committed what individuals could each accomplish by ourselves. To me, this felt like a huge disappointment- letting down a leading, letting down each other, letting down God. And anticipating the next gathering would lead me to some bit of anxiety- what was I going to say yes to, what should I say no to? How in the world can one be faithful under these conditions? 

And then... I gradually became closer to Kitchener Meeting. Five years ago I became involved with the Quaker Quest outreach project. Among other things, I became open to the possibility I might have a leading toward ministry. I really needed a clearness committee, and to be held to accountability, and a plan for living more solidly in the Spirit rather than the rather wide pendulum-swings between utter spiritual disconnect on the one hand, and deep, deep community while at FGC or FLGBTQC gatherings on the other.

Two years ago, I gave an after-Meeting presentation to Kitchener Meeting on my spiritual journey. I spoke about how important Ithaca Meeting had been for my spiritual development. A week afterward, I spoke in worship at FLGBTQC midwinter gathering.  On Fox's statement that there are a great people to be gathered, I said was certain that he hadn't meant "a great people to be gathered once or twice a year." Even as I was speaking to a room full of widely-flung cherished Friends whom I seldom saw more frequently than twice a year; some who felt complete disconnect with any local Meeting.  I spoke of the importance of the local Meeting on one's spiritual condition, and that we were to make our Meetings into the homes for our spiritual selves. Even (and especially) if it took a lot of work.

At that moment, I knew I was going to apply to transfer membership to Kitchener, despite the questions I still had about the Meeting and my fit in it.

Now, in 2013, I have what feels like an incredible luxury- a local community who is helping me grow in Spirit, helping hold me accountable, and providing a counter-balance against the various pressures of life which threaten spiritual burnout (including the risk of saying "yes" to too many wonderful Quaker service opportunities).

I have had the luxury of learning Quaker process and history from an inter-generational community that includes people who have been Quaker for twice as long as I've been alive. This has been grounding for me, and I believe practicing my Quaker faith in an inter-generational community is an important part of learning about our faith. I have particularly been blessed by discovering Quakers in Ithaca- who embraced me and then my same-sex partner when we got together. I know many young Friends have had the opposite experience, being ignored or discounted concerning parts of their life that are not open to debate (such as gender pronouns).

I have, at times past, felt very clear that "my Quaker community" isn't a Monthly Meeting. And having that spread-out community has often been a great support to me, except when it felt too sketchy, too optional. Or on the other hand: when I have said yes to supporting somebody else between gatherings, and the structure (email/chat, lacking cohesion, not doing the work) meant we let them down.

I have, at times, felt like the concept of membership is proforma. And other times I've felt that membership is a recognition of a relationship that was already present, something beshert, a pairing made by God.

So I'm left with the question: despite distance, upheavals and pace of life, how can we make and keep the strong connections which are necessary to being members one of another? What are we willing to do as a religious society?

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