Building the Beloved Community

Atlanta Friends Meeting began as such a diverse group of people that one of the first attenders commented, "It seemed the only thing we had in common was a desire not to be preached at." Having been a part of this meeting since 1978, and having visited many other monthly and yearly meetings, I have often reflected on our diversity and wondered what holds us together. What keeps us struggling with our conflicts and differences? Why do we call ourselves members, attenders, or Friends? I believe what holds us here is a real commitment to see that of God in each person, and to work toward the kind of peaceful and just community we all yearn to be a member of. We share a deep hunger for community. It also seems that, at worst, what keeps us together is our willingness to avoid conflicts, pretend differences don’t exist, stay away from those who annoy or trouble us, and just be nice. We come to enjoy the silence, and sometimes the messages, then leave operating on one of my mother’s favorite rules, "If you can’t say something nice, just don’t say anything."

What does it take for us to be in and to build the beloved community that was the dream of early Friends and is still my hope? As I’ve wrestled with this question, I’ve identified some of the ingredients that I need. I long for a place where we can all speak honestly about who we are and what we need, where we have realistic expectations of ourselves and of others, where we cherish our differences even as we submit to corporate discernment. Above all, I want a spiritual community that helps me live in the Spirit.

In a recent discussion, we talked about what we want as individuals from this religious community, and what our vision is for this Friends meeting. It was a wonderfully deep and rich sharing that included ways that the meeting has not met the needs of some people. I realized later that I could not remember any other discussion in my 26 years in meeting about such a fundamental and valuable question. I hope that’s because they’ve occurred and I’ve just missed them. How can we expect to build a spiritual community if our conversations stay only on safe topics like favorite movies or restaurants? As Scott Peck reminds us in his book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, we all need a "safe place for personal disarmament." We need the kind of time and space where we can share our most important dreams for ourselves and for a better world without fear of being ridiculed, rejected, or politically incorrect.

During the same discussion, I also realized that some of us come to meeting with an idealized view of Friends, expecting that the beliefs espoused for more than 300 years would create meeting communities of perfect harmony and fairness. Even after attending for more than ten years, I confessed that I did not ask for membership because I believed that I needed to achieve some personal level of perfection or at least better daily practice of the beliefs before I could "fit in" or qualify for the title "Friend." Like me, others also held back from full participation and membership in meeting for fear of not qualifying or being good enough. In contrast, some held back because they believed that the meeting was not good enough. The expectations of our own personal perfection or of the perfect community are equally unrealistic and present major barriers to the creation of community. We need to accept our flaws and our shadow sides, realizing that while we espouse beliefs and work toward a peaceful and just community, we do not yet have the ability to create and maintain such a place.

If we communicate honestly and deeply about our needs for this religious community, differences will emerge. Parker Palmer writes, "In a true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as the place where the person who you least want to live with always lives!" Differences of belief, language, culture, and practice have always been defining characteristics of Friends’ meetings. It was a willingness to struggle together with differences, and to submit these concerns to a process of corporate discernment, that helped meetings grow strong and held early Ranters in check.

Ranterism is the belief that an individual can and should act on anything that the Spirit leads one to do. Among many other excesses, such a belief led James Nayler in 1656 to ride through the streets of Bristol recreating the procession on Palm Sunday, casting himself in the role of Christ. The sense of unity that we seek in our meetings for business rests on a commitment to submit our individual leadings to the wisdom of the group as we seek God’s guidance.

Why should we risk saying where we are, how we are led, and encouraging others, especially those with whom we disagree, to do the same? It is because the process of listening, understanding, and appreciating differences, though often painfully hard work, is essential to the life of a vital meeting that wants to become more than a collection of individuals who meet weekly in the same place. At its best, it is "learning to fight gracefully," as M. Scott Peck advised, in a way that builds community rather than destroying it.

During a meeting for worship, someone with a beautiful voice sang into the silence the hymn, "We are One in the Spirit." I was deeply moved because it was an affirmation of the profoundly gathered worship we were experiencing at the moment, as well as a witness to what Friends have always believed. In the kind of beloved community that we hope to build, we are each connected as spokes of a wheel to a spiritual center, and by reaching out to connect with that of God in each other we create the strong outer rim that presses us to the center. I also sometimes picture our meeting as a giant quilt in which we offer the bits and scraps of who we are. Working together, we form patterns—beautiful designs that are stronger and more unique because of their spiritual binding. The backing for the whole is the Spirit among us, and we see how the differences of color and design create the beauty of the whole.

When we say what we need, have realistic expectations of others and ourselves, embrace our differences, and live in the Spirit, we have some of the building blocks for the beloved community. Together, I believe that we can find all of them, and we can begin to discover what love can do.

Mary Ann Downey

Mary Ann Downey is a member and former clerk of Atlanta Friends (Ga.) Meeting and leads retreats for meetings on Building Community.