Courage and Compassion

It is a joy and a challenge, but also often a frustration, to prepare issues of Friends Journal months in advance of their publication date. In times such as these, when current events are moving quickly, and the need for a thoughtful Quaker response that speaks to the present is great, it is especially frustrating to know that at least some of our content may become dated or irrelevant by the time it is being mailed. One way we choose to address this dilemma is to lift up themes that we hope will speak to the times, themes that we hope will give encouragement and pause for reflection.

As I encounter the articles in this issue, one theme in particular stands out for me: the courage needed for the often very lonely path of bearing witness to one’s deepest experience of truth—and how frequently and variously we Friends have chosen this challenging course for ourselves over the centuries.

In his address to the American Friends Service Committee public gathering early last November, "AFSC and the Terrorist War" (p. 6), J. William Frost reminded Friends that in these days of war on terrorism we can anticipate that many of our peacetime fellow travelers will no longer stand with us in our witness (as often has been the case in the past)—that, indeed, historically even many individual Friends have found themselves troubled by our corporate positions, as was the case during both world wars. I am aware that some Friends today are experiencing such misgivings. This grappling with personal conscience and bearing witness is one of the most challenging—and profound—aspects of our tradition, and it has the potential to help us learn, and relearn, the value of careful listening and respect for individual differences. It also can move us along corporately in our understanding of ourselves and others—and of that to which Spirit is calling us.

In "Learning from Sarah Douglass" (p. 17), Margaret Bacon writes about the 19th century painful struggle of Sarah Mapps Douglass and her mother, Grace Douglass, to bear racial prejudice from members of the Friends meetings they regularly attended. "The hardest lesson my Heavenly Father ever set me to learn," said Grace Douglass, "was to love Friends; and in anguish of spirit I have often queried; why the Lord should require me to go among a people who despise me on account of my complexion; but I have seen that it is designed to humble me, and to teach me the lesson, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for them who despitefully use you.’" This observation is a humbling reminder to us that, for some individuals, even attendance at Friends meetings can be a spiritual trial and a form of personal witness.

When Petra Doan submitted her article "Gender, Integrity, and Spirituality: A Personal Journey" (p. 14), I was particularly struck by the courage it took to be so open about her gender transition, by her willingness to share the spiritual aspects of this experience, and her sense that to do so might provide a witness that would ease the condition of others like herself. I was struck, too, that a clearness committee from her monthly meeting and a Quaker support group, Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, helped her through the long and difficult process of claiming her integrity.

In our meetings for worship with a concern for business and our clearness committees, we have access to powerful means of clarifying and testing our leadings. We Friends are fortunate in being able to avail ourselves of the collective wisdom and spiritual insight of our community. Whether we are wrestling with an individual matter, a family or community issue, or a national or international concern, the Quaker process of discernment can help to make the way clear. Such processes are never easy, and often require acts of courage—the courage to share our uncertainty with others, and to hope and trust that our vulnerability will be greeted with respect, compassion, and tenderness.