Friends speak of living in faithfulness to God, of letting our outward lives be wholly patterned by obedience to the indwelling Spirit. For a time this led early Quakers to live in ways that broke through the assumptions of the wider culture. They spoke of "colonies of Heaven," groups of people who had stopped living by the standards of the society around them and begun to live in the come and coming Kingdom.
Friends still carry a great concern for justice, mercy, and a Spirit-led life, but too often we share in the wider culture’s assumptions about what is necessary and possible, especially in economic matters. We allow ourselves to live in alienation from or opposition to the Life within us because we do not believe that it is possible to do otherwise. We do not even see the choices we are making; we accept them as givens in the world. We pray or march or work for peace, and we pay taxes that support war. We speak of reliance on the Spirit, and we pursue financial security. We try to reach out to our neighbors in their need, and we continue to support an economy that relies on debt for its growth and on poverty to provide workers for the jobs nobody wants to do. Guilt about these things is stifling rather than transforming. The knowledge that there are real choices to be made can be both challenging and freeing. I have come to this knowledge experientially.
I grew up in a family that could afford to buy whatever was necessary and to buy some things just for pleasure. My mother made it possible for me to learn at home instead of going to school. This was good for me in many ways. One unintended gift was the early realization that what other children (and their parents) took as an unalterable fact of life was really a choice. In my teens I decided that I should study economics and get the big picture before I had money of my own to manage. I read through a hefty economics textbook and a large number of other books considering the effect of the global economy on humans and the Earth. I learned something about the conditions under which people grew the food I ate and made the clothes I wore, and decided to seek alternatives.
As I searched, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable in the Protestant church I was then attending. People there were put off by my questions, and urged me to concentrate more on normal activities such as shopping and dating. In the course of our studies my family read John Woolman’s Journal and essays, and we were all impressed by the courage, faithfulness, and gentleness with which he spoke and lived his truth. I kept returning to his outcry in A Plea for the Poor, "Oh, that we who declare against wars and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the Light and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses and the garments in which we array ourselves and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions." We decided that we had to meet some Quakers, if they were still around.
We found Portland (Maine) Meeting and knew ourselves at home. For my first few meetings I enjoyed a deep sense of peace. Then I began to be uncomfortable in a new way. Instead of objecting to what the people around me said and feeling trapped, I was made painfully aware of the things in my life that prevented me from following the Spirit, such as self-aggrandizement and the wish to avoid difficult truth. Friends in the meeting supported me by their listening, presence, and example as I tried to face these difficulties. And I found more queries. In "Becoming a Friend to the Creation" I came on the unattributed query, "Do I, in all my proceedings, keep to that use of things which is in accordance with universal righteousness?" I knew that my answer was still No, and that was uncomfortable; but it was freeing to realize that such a question could be asked. I decided it was time to start working my way into what I felt led to do.
I was used to doing volunteer work with my family and gardening organically, so I decided that I’d start volunteering on organic farms and see where that led. I went to the regional headquarters of the Heifer Project, a hunger relief organization, and worked on their demonstration farm. I met other volunteers and heard several variations on "I love this work, it seems right to me, this is what I really find worth doing—but I have to get a paying job soon, because I have student loans to pay off. Maybe afterward I can come back and do something like this." I wondered about that. I had talked with others who exchanged satisfying low-paid work for less satisfying jobs with better benefits, and who felt unable to go back to living with less.
I had already decided that college was a choice, not a requirement. I looked again at the assumptions involved in choosing a career. I knew many people who had interesting jobs but had no time to walk in the woods, to read books outside their area of specialization, or to know their neighbors. And I knew more who desperately tried to juggle the different things that mattered to them and always felt that they were falling behind. I realized that I was called to a life that integrated work, worship, outreach, and fellowship instead of keeping them in separate compartments and trying to find time for all of them. My mother and brother were working on similar questions and ready to explore alternatives. When we talked to other people about the call we heard, we were often told, "That’s nice, that’s lovely; but you can’t do that in the real world." We didn’t know whether we could or not. We decided to start trying.
For a while the search was confusing and discouraging, and I was not sure that there was a way forward. I wondered if I had been hopelessly unrealistic. I kept returning to the story of the Israelites following Moses out of Egypt—leaving their slavery, leaving their leeks and onions, leaving the life and the world they knew, and following the God Who Is into an unknown land. They were glad to be free—but afraid of hunger, and they were angry with Moses and with God. Food and water were given each day as needed—but they wanted to have the food to which they were accustomed, to see ahead, to have enough food stored up for the next days and weeks, and to be in control. Still, after all their grumbling and rebelling and doubting, they were finally led into the land to which they had been called. I thought, too, of the journey of Friends in this country who felt called to leave slaveholding, which must have meant a total departure from the life they knew and the security they assumed they had.
Friends in our meeting supported our search, and we kept writing letters and asking questions. Finally we found St. Francis Farm, a small community of prayer, service, and simple living in the Catholic Worker tradition. After our first visit, the amount and complexity of the work and the lack of an obvious security system seemed daunting, but in the silence I felt called to be here. We spent a summer living into this place and discerning the call, and in the fall of 2001 we loaded the car with what we needed and wanted from home and came back to stay.
We are trying to model a Spirit-based alternative to consumer culture. We do as much of our own work as we can—growing food organically to eat and share, cutting firewood to heat the building, etc. We don’t have salaries. We live by gifts given and received. People give us the money we need to keep the place open and the tools we need for our work; they also give us children’s clothes, art materials, bicycles, and other things to pass on to our neighbors. The support that comes to us allows us to be present here, to listen to the people who come to us, and to provide practical help when we can. We mentor troubled children, take in injured migrant workers, do errands and yard work for elders, build wheelchair ramps and repair homes, and otherwise try to pass on the gift that has been given to us.
This life has made me more aware of the price others pay for our comfort. It is one thing to read about the long working hours and unsafe conditions to which migrant workers are subjected; it is another to have men come with hernias, missing fingers, lungs full of dust, tired and afraid and homesick. It is one thing to object in general to consumer culture and the influence of advertising; it is another to work with families who can’t afford decent food and shelter, and who are convinced that they will be stupid, unattractive, and worthless if they can’t buy the gadgets that are being sold on TV. It is one thing to think abstractly about the ethics of interest and the debt-based economy, and another to listen to people who are hopelessly indebted and see no way out.
Our lives are still full of contradictions. When migrant workers are hurt at commercial farms nearby they come here to heal. We buy groceries to help feed them and wonder who was hurt in the growing of that food. We try to teach people about peace, and we buy gasoline. We talk of relying on God, and we buy insurance. We try to live outside the boxes, and we have organized as a nonprofit corporation (I couldn’t see another viable choice—but was there one?); and every year we have to explain ourselves inside the very confining boxes provided by the IRS.
I am also aware of the grace and abundance that surround us, even when our first impression is one of scarcity. We started taking vegetables to the people in the subsidized housing complex in town. Neither we nor the social-service agencies in the area knew how to meet the overwhelming needs there. We decided that at least we could bring them tomatoes and cucumbers and stop to listen. We are beginning to see the strength and community alongside the poverty and violence, and to help some of the tenants there to affirm and build on these strengths.
Miguel stayed with us for three months, recuperating from a hernia and looking for work. He was the first migrant worker to come to us, and we were apprehensive at first; but his presence was a gift. He had enough English to communicate with us, and he taught us enough Spanish so that we could communicate with the next non-Anglophone who came. He worked with us as much as we would let him while he was healing, and he taught my brother a lot about carpentry and construction. His singing and his encouraging words kept our spirits up when we were tired and discouraged. He also found something he needed here. He said before leaving that he had decided to go home to Puerto Rico and stay there with his family if he could; he would buy goats and plant a garden, so they could be fed even when he was out of work, and they could learn to live with fewer things so that he could have time to teach and play with his children.
We are still trying to live into faithfulness ourselves, and we seek to encourage our neighbors and guests on their own journeys. We also hope that the Religious Society of Friends may reconsider the promises of financial security, as it has already considered the promises of military security. The pursuit of both kinds of security often involves sacrificing conscience, freedom, and other things that we hold dear. And making these sacrifices doesn’t really ensure economic security, any more than the preparation for war ensures physical safety. Jobs disappear and investments lose their value as a result of fluctuations in global financial markets. As our environment is degraded and as oil grows scarcer, it may be harder to get access to the basic goods we need, whether or not we have money to buy them.
I have heard "trust in God" used to justify carelessness, impulsivity, and self-indulgence. I know the importance of tempering our impulses with sound judgment. I also know that nothing we do can keep us safe as we usually understand safety. I believe that, as finite beings, we are wholly insecure. Our lives are profoundly affected by forces beyond our control, and eventually we die. I also believe—amid many doubts and fears and reservations—that the Light, the Spirit, is and endures, and we can immerse ourselves in it, and so enter into Life. I am journeying now with another query (from Martha Manglesdorf, quoted in Catherine Whitmire’s book Plain Living): What would I do if I were not afraid?