Behind the Scenes at the Gathering

Friends General Conference holds a Gathering of Friends every summer somewhere, on a college campus. Quakers of all sorts and ages come from across North America and elsewhere to attend a week of workshops, to worship indoors and outdoors in groups large and small, to play with other children, to hear from speakers, and to sing, dance, talk, create, browse in the bookstore or art gallery, and find unplanned moments of grace—and to eat! In July 2004, the Gathering was held at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which had been the site of the Gathering once before, ten years prior.

As the 2004 Gathering prepared to go to UMass, there had been some trepidation. Many Friends recalled the ghosts of the 1994 Gathering there: the heat, the humidity, and the rainstorm that cooled—but swamped—the Campus Center, with water rushing in through the doors on the second/ground level, then cascading down the escalators to the auditorium! The 1994 Gathering was an infamous one. The largest of the modern (that is, post-Cape May) Gatherings, its record temperatures and dramatic end-of-week flood are still the stuff of legend.

By the time the cloudburst started on Monday evening just before Kevin Bales’s plenary talk this year, most Gathering attenders had become accustomed to the pleasant weather and friendly university staff. But rain it did that evening. As we watched the water seep under the doors of the Lincoln Campus Center near the FGC Gathering Info Desk, a sense of déjà vu flooded our collective memories. Why had we come back?

After ten years of Gatherings mostly in the Midwest and the southeast (two in Michigan, two in Virginia, and one each in Ontario, Wisconsin, Illinois, western New York, and Johnstown, Pa.), it was time to go back to New England. And after four years of looking at campuses from Orono, Maine (in January, no less) to southern Connecticut, we determined UMass to be the only place that could meet most of the needs of the Gathering and was available the week of July 4. So we began to plan.

FGC staff and members of FGC’s Long Range Conference Planning Committee’s Site Selection subcommittee were repeatedly assured by University staff that a new drainage system at the Campus Center all but guaranteed there would be no repeat of the splash party of the previous decade. In fact, this year the seeping water never got more than a foot or two inside the building, and despite our fears, hip boots were not needed. Staff, committee members, and volunteers were able to share some laughter—and Tuesday morning, we presented the UMass conference director with a personal floatation device, hastily customized for the occasion by a creative Junior Gathering staffer.

The balance of the week saw occasional showers and still moderate summer temperatures. And we were reminded yet again that weather, the most uncontrollable variable of any Gathering site, affects attender satisfaction almost as much as food quality.

As an innovation this year, to tie in with the theme "Simple Lives, Radiant Faith," the Gathering Committee decided to offer a series of afternoon conversations, each with a different "radiant Friend." Choosing just ten Friends, who represented the diversity we strive for in the Religious Society of Friends, for the two slots each afternoon was a fun, if daunting, task. Initially planned for an intimate space for about 30 people, it quickly became clear that many more than that wanted to be a part of this rich sharing.

Attenders heard the stories of Quaker lives—how George Lakey and his team jumped overboard to get medical supplies into Hanoi, how Frances Crowe erected a tower in her backyard to broadcast San Francisco radio host Amy Goodman, how Juanita Nelson went to jail in her bathrobe, how Mark Helpsmeet got his name. And here is an approximate quotation from young adult Friend presenter Andrew Esser-Haines: "When I was 12, I wasn’t interested in being a leader. I just complained about those in charge. When I was 13, I saw the light and realized I couldn’t just complain, so I got up there."

Comments on the Gathering evaluations urged that we find a way to continue these less formal opportunities to hear from one another.
On Tuesday evening we learned that our Thursday night plenary speaker was unwell and would not be able to come to the Gathering. Brief panic ensued among the Gathering clerks and staff, who considered giving everyone a night off, knowing that Friends could fill the space with personal interactions. Then we hit upon "Spontaneous Radiance": attenders were given a second opportunity to offer interest groups. Contra dancing, folk dancing, and a movie were offered at an earlier time, to the delight of Friends who have never been night owls and thus not around for these post-9-p.m. activities. While many were understandably disappointed not to be able to hear Renita Weems, a significant number of Friends noted how much they enjoyed the last-minute substitute program.

Evaluation responses revealed that along with disappointment and even anger about the cancellation of the Sweat Lodge (due to strenuous objections from a Massachusetts Native Tribal Council), there was sincere appreciation for the listening session held on Monday afternoon.

Many Friends may not realize all that goes on in the background to have a Gathering for 1,635 Quakers—this year ranging in age from eight months to 90 years. But many added their thanks on the evaluation forms and on cards and letters to the staff of four and the over 75 volunteer Gathering Committee members. Add to that more than 300 work-grant participants who led workshops, coordinated events, and made Junior Gathering such a joy for children. Even
as participants thanked them, these volunteers thanked us for the opportunity to serve.

While we were still holding final registration in the UMass auditorium, planning was already well underway for the upcoming 2005 Gathering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. A Tech conference staffer attended the first three days of the Gathering, and was part of discussions with Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns about the impact of new Virginia laws. Later during the week, the fledgling 2006 Gathering Committee started organizing Friends for the first-ever Gathering west of the Rockies—to be held near Tacoma, Washington.

And my own highlight: my three-year-old nephew, Oscar, attended the Gathering for the first time. I highly recommend that all staff and key volunteers get their own toddler. Along with the obvious advantage of unlimited, extravagant hugs, one automatically gets to go to the front of the lunch line and may be forced to take an early evening break to give a bath. And some (close) Friends saw a very different side of the conference coordinator when they found that she is, quite literally, a pushover and, where certain little boys are concerned, can be walked all over.

Liz Perch

Liz Perch, Friends General Conference's conference coordinator, is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.