It takes me about 14 hours to get home from college. A mix of trains, cars, airplanes, and airports, the trip always gives me time to explore my thoughts. A chance to watch people, a chance to reconcile current events and the world I live in, a chance to reflect on all the people I am leaving or coming back to, or a chance to ponder what it means to go to school in Pennsylvania, work summers in Colorado, but still to consider Alaska my home. My trip home always gives me a chance to reflect on and consider my spiritual journey as a college-age Young Adult Friend (YAF).
Two years ago I moved from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Philadelphia’s Main Line to attend Haverford College. The regional and materialistic differences between these two places were immediately obvious: I went from a community where cars are repaired with duct tape to a place where luxury cars are the norm and most people don’t even have duct tape. However, it was the less obvious differences in the spiritual community that had a more drastic effect on my life. I went from my spiritual home, Chena Ridge Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the community that surrounds it, to a new and unfamiliar community. I went from a quiet meeting to an extremely talkative one. I went from having elders, who looked out for me even when I wasn’t at meeting, to having no one. In a very short period of time I went from being connected to a spiritual community to being totally disconnected spiritually.
This disconnect was not something that came with my transition to college. I couldn’t have asked for a smoother move. I didn’t become disconnected from my family, my friends, or even my home meeting. I was disconnected from the immediate spiritual community around me. I got very discouraged, and as this happened I became further disconnected from my own spiritual center. We joke at Haverford about living in the "Haverbubble," where your life is so focused on school that everything else seems to fly by. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon at college, but for me the Haverbubble took its toll. Getting up early on Sunday morning lost its priority. Taking time to center lost its priority. I was finding "that of good" in those around me, but not finding "that of God." Sophomore slump was no joke!
Similar to finding that odd sock, years later, that the sock monster stole and put behind the washer, a year and a half after starting college I began to find spiritual connections again at Camp Onas. And just as having a pair of socks opens new opportunities not available to odd socks, finding just a few connections brought new opportunities, opened my eyes, and awakened my heart. I was extremely lucky to be selected to participate in a Youth Consultation facilitated by the Ad Hoc Youth Ministries Discernment Committee of Friends General Conference (FGC) in March 2005. (Since then, it has become the Youth Ministries Committee.) I went into the weekend at Camp Onas with no idea what to expect. I left the weekend overwhelmed, excited, and less lost. (Forget relaxation: If you ever need a spiritual and energy boost, find a group of people ranging in age, in hometown, in background, and all willing to share.) The weekend was an overwhelmingly powerful experience that is almost impossible to put into words to friends, and just as hard to express it to Friends. Never have I been part of a group so willing to share aspects of their lives that made them vulnerable, so willing to say what needed to be said, and so willing to come together so cohesively to achieve one goal. I quaked at the power and energy of this group.
The goal of the Youth Consultation was to explore the needs of young people in the Quaker community and find ways to fulfill those needs. I felt I represented college-age YAFs, those coming from isolated meetings, and Young Friends (YFs—high school age Friends) and YAFs (18-35) who would like, but have not yet been able, to get involved with FGC. (The only time I attended an FGC Gathering was at Carlton College. I was two feet high and more interested in the grass and bugs than in the workshops, the worship, or the Gathering going on around me.) I do not represent everyone in these categories but I brought my story, as did each of the YAFs and YFs at the consultation, and we each had a very different story. We each brought a different perspective and a different journey.
I was not the only one who felt disconnected from one’s immediate spiritual community, and not the only one having trouble feeling at home in a new meeting. YAFs in particular often reside in a state of coming and going, a state of transience. Membership in this state comes as one realizes the disconnect stemming from leaving one home in order to find the place where we belong—a new home. A struggle to reconcile the home we grew up in and the homes we create, a home that is both physical and spiritual. I have only started this journey, but the consultation introduced me to others further along in their journeys, people who are still struggling to find where they belong, and the connections to a spiritual community that accompany it. Our journeys may take many years, require many moves, and involve many people, but the rewards of the journey are equally as valuable as the end result.
So what do we do? How do we make this state of transience less a state of disconnect? How do we turn the spiritual disconnect into connections? There were a lot of ideas thrown out at the consultation and some even implemented. But no matter what the topic under discussion, the theme of making connections was ever present: finding ways to create stability in transience. Our ideas came in two broad categories, intragenerational connections and intergenerational ones.
I am fortunate to come from a very active meeting. Though Alaska Friends Conference is small, it is constantly in motion. While I was growing up there were not many YFs in the state and no structured program for us at Yearly Meeting Gatherings. The first couple of Gatherings I attended we just hung out with each other, but this was the best structure we could have had. We became very close and created our own programs. We shared a deep longing to connect with others our own age. We longed to connect with others who were at similar places in their spiritual journeys. We sought that next layer of intensity and intimacy that "Friendship" entails in order to support each other and to be supported ourselves.
Our group of Alaskan YFs wasn’t unique in the desire to make connections. I think it is human nature to reach out and relate with others, and no one grows out of it. In my experience it is in times of exploration and discovery that I have most needed and wanted to make connections. I see this as the common thread that brings adults back to yearly meeting and to FGC Gatherings, though it is not voiced as such. For adults, the emphasis is on workshops, on meeting for business, on worship, and on the exploration and discovery that gatherings may bring. There is perhaps less emphasis on making connections with people. For YFs and YAFs the emphasis on making connections with people may be most important. The exploration and discovery is already there, in our lives and our gatherings, but connecting with Friends to support that spiritual exploration and discovery is our focus.
One proposal brought forward at the Consultation was to create more frequent local, regional, and national YF and YAF gatherings, as well as for funding to support travel to such gatherings.
One major contribution to my spiritual disconnect at Haverford was not having elders whom I knew in my new meeting. I have been lucky to have some very special elders in Alaska who have supported and guided me a great deal. I truly missed them while attending meeting at college. It never occurred to me that this connection was a two-way street until some of the older participants in the Consultation expressed how much YFs and YAFs have impacted their lives. Prior to this I couldn’t put my finger on why going to meeting with 18- to 22-year-olds at school just didn’t feel right, why it didn’t feel like a home. It was the intergenerational contact, having older Friends and young children in meeting, that made meeting complete for me. Intragenerational contact is important, but there is also a need for balance.
Many ideas were generated at the consultation to help increase intergenerational connections. One idea was intergenerational gatherings and workshops focused on increasing intergenerational connections, communication, and community. Such workshops and gatherings could help open the whole Quaker community to the ideas and spirit of young people, and help find a place for youngering (eldering from younger Friends) as well as eldering. Following the example of New England YAFs, some Consultation participants set up intergenerational "spiritual buddies": pairs of Friends in which eldering/youngering is a natural part of the relationship, as pen pals stay in touch about what is going on in their lives and spiritual journeys. We also brainstormed ways college-town meetings could enrich themselves by increasing connections with YAFs, such as host families who would "adopt" a student and help introduce him or her to the area and meeting, or open houses where the whole community would come out to meet and welcome new students and those interested in Quakerism. All of these and many more are just simple first steps toward becoming truly intergenerational communities. If I’d had an adopted family or host grandparents in my college meeting, someone familiar who could help me establish spiritual connections in the community, I probably wouldn’t have become as disconnected as I did.
All in all, my journey would not be complete without my sidetrack, and the experience was definitely worth it as I appreciate my spirituality much more. My faith is now something that I have discovered within myself rather than something I simply grew up with. But I had the benefit of experiencing the Youth Consultation. For others, the possibility of YF and YAF gatherings and of intergenerational contacts in new meetings could help lessen the disconnect and make a world of difference.
We YFs and YAFs have many gifts to bring to the Quaker community. We bring fresh ideas and interesting views. We are a part of the wider community that can’t be forgotten! We are the future! We need support in our spiritual journeys, but we can also give back and provide support. It can be hard on both sides as we come and go; but if bridges can be built, the travel will be priceless and eternal.