It’s the 21st century, and we Quakers are still doing it, traveling in pairs great distances to nurture small and isolated Friends meetings. In our very early days the Valiant Sixty were sent out two by two, the way Jesus sent out his disciples to spread the word. After widespread disuse, the practice is making a comeback. Friends General Conference has built its Traveling Ministries Program using this practice. Such journeys are still prompted by the same leadings, and its travelers are still shown the way by the same Guide. This form of ministry is as valuable an endeavor today as it was in the 1600s, and for the same reasons. But today, rather than spending weeks on horseback, we fly across the country in part of a day. Our dress and speech may also have changed, but nothing else about such journeying seems that much different.
When I got my invitation to travel in the ministry with Nancy Middleton, I knew the decision would have to come from a spiritual process. I was told the journey would be to South Central Yearly Meeting in October 2000, taking up about three weeks of my time—without pay. I prayed pretty hard on this for five days straight. From the beginning I had my list of excuses: I can’t afford to lose that income, I don’t have a suitcase, I’m not worthy, I might get a nosebleed on the airplane.
The written description of the role I was invited into, that of elder and spiritual companion, included phrases like this: minister to the minister; model prayerful attentiveness; hold the meetings in the Light; help the minister with discernment; give insights into what might be helpful in responding to Spirit’s unfolding; be a midwife, helping to birth the ministry; be a gofer for the physical arrangements.
Nancy’s role as minister was not about vocal ministry—that is everyone’s responsibility. Hers would be to make presentations on topics that meetings had previously requested, such as preparation for worship, discerning God’s will in our daily lives, and the qualities of a vital meeting. She would also facilitate worship-sharing sessions. This ministry is not about telling others how to do Quakerism. It’s about being present for them, listening, affirming, making resources available, worshiping with them, and helping them get in touch with the Truth within themselves. We’d be a team of two, Nancy and I, on a playing field that stretched across two states.
Holding the invitation deep within, I prayerfully walked my way through the steps of discernment and labored over clearness. I waited expectantly. On day six the answer came through, clearly. I then drew thick pencil lines through three weeks of my client appointment book. Next I requested a minute of travel for religious service from Salem (N.J.) Meeting and began worrying about a suitcase. And about this time I fell into a place of prayer-without-ceasing as the holiness of the assignment settled over me like a mantle. I began my spiritual preparation on the spot. Packing could wait. It would have to—I had nothing to pack into.
October was warm in Arkansas and even warmer in Oklahoma. I was prepared for anything. As gestures of support, Friends had lent me luggage, a camera, books, ear plugs. One Friend had even sent me a check to cover a small portion of the income I would lose. Many encounters in the South were new to me: eating grits and okra, having to drive hours to get to the next meeting, sleeping with a cat, hearing slow speech, worshiping in university and church social rooms, living out of that suitcase. And yet, underneath it all, everything seemed familiar.
I’m guessing that Arkansas/Oklahoma Quarter could be 275 years younger than my quarterly meeting. Its meetings are very small, the members of one being so distantly scattered that they gather only once a month, from 10 to 5, in someone’s home. None have meetinghouses, one is buying a residential building, and the one FUM, pastored meeting we visited, in the Osage Nation, had bought a little frame, steepled church 25 years ago. There are two members in the quarter who were born Quakers, all the rest, of course, having been convinced, and there seems to be no distinction between members and attenders. Their yearly meeting pushes into five states and boasts a membership of 500 (as opposed to nearly 12,000 in mine). I’m told that 300 attend its residential annual sessions (over Easter weekend at a camp) even though participation requires a 15-hour drive for those on the periphery.
South Central Yearly Meeting paid our airfare and incidental expenses. Our ground transportation, meals, and housing were supplied by the meetings we visited: six monthly meetings, one preparative meeting, and one worship group. One of our overnight hosts, not yet met and not back from travel, had trustingly left us a house key under the doormat with a note telling us to "rummage in the refrigerator for breakfast." We were lovingly passed from one meeting to the next over 900 miles of roadway.
Into the second day of our journey I realized I was up against some challenges. Because of my recent years as a rather cloistered contemplative, I struggled with chatter that felt intrusive. The remedy was to integrate this into the whole and consider it a means of establishing rapport. Additionally, my role of attending to Nancy’s physical needs seemed usurped by her enviable foresight and organizational skills and by the wizardry of the clerk of the quarter who had already done the planning. I figured I needed to feel useless in this role in order to experience the fullness of my elder role. Lastly, I was dealing with
the frustration of feeling underutilized—holding the ministry in the Light and grounding us in Spirit were as natural to me as breathing, and my lesson here was to feel comfortable in a primary role that required being rather than doing. And yet, somehow I felt incomplete.
Nancy and I ironed out wrinkles during our daily discernment and processing sessions. We decided to soften the edges of our well-defined roles, creating overlaps and spaces for honoring leadings. I crossed the threshold into that place of feeling complete when Friends began seeking individual counsel for painful issues of a personal nature that hindered their ability to be fully present for their meeting. It was then that I reached the fullness of my service. I commend those courageous individuals who privately confided in us with very tender issues.
Michael Wajda of the FGC staff calls this kitchen table ministry. It’s clear to me that we cannot separate the challenges of our personal lives from our involvement with our faith community, no matter how hard we try. They are both products of our spirituality, and one informs and influences the other. Nor should we discriminate by holding back our gifts. I found that the bothersome wrinkle of my feeling underutilized and therefore incomplete was nothing more than my having been separated from my call to pastoral care. My Traveling Ministries Program observances, coupled with experience as a member of Overseers in my meeting, embolden me to state that every meeting has within it those who are in need of such care.
So it was that Nancy and I took these wrinkles and smoothed them into a flowing, enveloping coverlet, one that had been designed by FGC and pieced together by Arkansas/Oklahoma Quarter. Having initially been discomfited by these rough spots, they soon became my opportunities to adapt, adjust, extend, and thus become more fully available to the ministry and to Spirit. They were the journey’s gift to me. The Traveling Ministries Program is in its infancy. Whatever coverlet each future ministry creates will be different from ours, but I am certain of one thing. The size, shape, pattern, and color of that coverlet will be perfect for the needs of those being blanketed so long as the edges remain soft, the patterns flexible, the colors fluid, and its crafters yielding to Guidance.
Nancy and I were allotted three afternoons of free time. It was then that we stepped out to taste the flavor of our surroundings. We were warned that, as strangers, any native might ask us the region’s two most prominent questions: "Who do you belong to?" and "Have you been saved?"
Our host meetings were gracious, attentive, and appreciative. We worshiped and worship shared daily, as though every day were the Sabbath. We bonded as we bantered over covered dishes and kitchen sinks. Discussions with small groups and individuals, usually in homes, were both planned and spontaneous. Two larger meetings combined for a weekend retreat where we prepared our meals, sang and swapped mentor stories around a bonfire, did a walking meditation as part of a larger exercise on forgiveness and reconciliation, grappled with any number of topics, and witnessed how authentic friendships are made. No matter where we were or what we were doing, we sat at the feet of the Teacher. I sensed a yearning among us all to stay open, to go higher and deeper, to be teachable.
There can be no way of fully fathoming the value of the Traveling Ministries Program unless someone ministers or elders his or her way through it and until a meeting is on the receiving end of it. But one can imagine it. Not until my experience of Arkansas/Oklahoma Quarter with its small and isolated meetings—some very, very young—could I begin to truly appreciate the treasures I have been taking for granted in my own 325-year-old meeting. The needs surrounding the growing pains within the quarter we visited are needs of all meetings, no matter how large or how rooted: to recognize diversity, inclusiveness, and effective Quaker process; to realize gathered meetings for worship, Spirit-led corporate service, and adequate youth education; to have each member feel loved and valued; to discern God’s will; to live the benefits of reaching beyond and reaching within. What the meetings in that quarter can teach us here in my region are the disciplines of commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice; the highs of a fresh and ongoing search for Truth; the freedom of being unencumbered by excess property and rigid traditions; the strength of being able to move forward gracefully in spite of limitations. There is much we can learn from each other, and so we must do it.
Nancy and I returned from our journey filled with the promise of tomorrow. Way had opened for us. We had walked in a sacred space for 18 days, caught up in the wider vision of a Religious Society of Friends energized by the simple act of Quakers reaching across the miles to touch each other, knowing that this connection intensifies the Light that illuminates our path.