Strengthening Interfaith Connections Locally

My experiences visiting and living abroad have been a major influence on what I hope, as a Quaker, to emphasize in my life in the United States. Serendipitously, in this current phase of life, I am making between four and six trips abroad each year as a Friend but not for Friends. The world outside the United States still has a huge influence on me, just as it did during the six years I lived with my physician husband in Turkey. In Turkey at that time, in 1957-62 and again 1970-71, it was, as it is today, against the law for any faith, including Islam, to proselytize. We were based in a remote area of eastern Turkey working in a 50-bed hospital with the Congregational Church in a mission of understanding and service to Muslims.

When traveling abroad, I find I am compelled to go beyond talk; I must live my Quaker faith for it to be recognized at all. My membership in the Religious Society of Friends has fueled my desire to act as a bridge of understanding and acceptance between Quakerism and persons of other faiths and persuasions. I aspire to live a faith clearly enough to make others recognize the similarities between their faith and mine. In Turkey, I was called to relate to Muslims. As I come and go in the United States today, I feel called to live and manifest a likeness and affinity for others across faith boundaries.

What does it mean to feel called to be a bridge? One person has only so much energy and time to manifest a faith in action. Thomas Kelly reminded us long ago that we cannot die on every cross; we must consciously choose where to put our efforts. I have never believed that I should withdraw from the world to express my faith. Rather, I believe, like William Penn, that my faith should excite my endeavors to mend the world. Still, I know that I cannot actively mend the world without the sustenance and discernment of the Inner Light, the voice my Quaker faith implores me to seek and follow. Specifically, this means I choose to use my energy associating with and supporting other persons and movements who try to live out the Quaker Testimonies of Peace, Community, Equality, and Simplicity. It matters not whether these persons are members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Christian, or of any other faith.

I have felt called to be active with the Interfaith Council in my community rather than the wider circle of Friends within my yearly meeting with whom I might enjoyably spend time. This means I do not feel called to represent my meeting on steering committees and other Quaker activities that further us as an institution, though I recognize they are important. I feel Quakers organized primarily for service (the American Friends Service Committee) and lobbying and legislation (Friends Committee on National Legislation) are more important for me to work with at present because they focus out into the world on Quaker testimonies rather than among ourselves. When I work in and with the non-Quaker world I see that Quakers are not the only persons living out these testimonies. For me, when it comes to a choice between activities that further the institutional aspects of Quakerism or the more ecumenical connecting links of all the world’s religions, I will always choose the ecumenical connections.

I’m not suggesting that all Quakers should give up working to further the institutional and organizational needs of the Religious Society of Friends. However, as a Religious Society, I hope that we can lighten our loyalties to ourselves and be more willing to accept and respect each other’s efforts in seeking partnerships with the rest of the world. One of the new movements that excites my endeavors to mend the world is Rabbi Michael Lerner’s Network of Spiritual Progressives. He says that our world is replete with new and not-so-new movements meant to express the universalism of thought and compassion we believe the world so desperately needs. As Quakers, I believe we are called to consciously choose a way to communicate that universalism.

My own meeting, Agate Passage Meeting on Bainbridge Island, Washington, is an example. Three years ago, we became a full-fledged meeting after more than 20 years as a worship group. At the same time, we lost six of our most active members from death, moves, and personal changes; our average attendance currently hovers around 17 persons. When it came to appointing yearly meeting representatives for steering committees and other planning committees, we had a difficult time finding anyone in our small group ready to take on those responsibilities to the wider circle of Friends. Our worship, however, continued to be deep and rich.

In the autumn of 2005, our clerk received a challenge from Rabbi Lerner. He was organizing an event to celebrate the fact that both the Jewish High Holy Days and Ramadan for Muslims were going to happen simultaneously along with Mohandas Gandhi’s and St. Francis’ birthdays. Individuals in the meeting became excited as we joined with a Jewish group and the local Interfaith Council to plan an event in which we would share our Sacred Seasons. The most difficult aspect of the plan was to locate a Muslim group in our area who wanted to join with us at the event. After much arranging and planning, we mounted a gathering in which we learned a great deal about all of our faiths and rituals. The Jewish Holy Days were particularly enthusiastically shared, and other faiths were eager to listen. The Muslim group appeared at the very last minute before the time came to break their fast and explained their Ramadan rituals. We all left the event energized by the commonality we had found and hoped to continue practicing.

When our small meeting was urged to recruit for diversity, we recognized that the people of color closest to us and most likely to be open to a relationship with us were a tribe of Native Americans. We asked several of our attenders who lived closest to them to join a neighbor’s support organization for the tribe. Since then, our contacts with them have grown and been satisfying. We have also mounted a six-week "Quakerism 101" course and invited informed Friends from nearby meetings to help us learn about ourselves. We surely want to honor our Quaker roots.

Our calling as a meeting has thus been strongly influenced by the needs of the entire local interfaith community. And at the heart of our meeting, our worship continues rich and deep to support these activities.

Judith Brown

Judith Brown, a member and currently the clerk of Agate Passage Meeting in Bainbridge Island, Wash., is Friends Journal's poetry editor.