Together-Together: That’s How We Nurture Each Other

When I asked my 14-year-old daughter, "What is a functioning Quaker adult?" she looked at me quizzically and responded, "I dunno." I tried a different tack: "Who do you know who’s a functioning Quaker adult?" Immediately she named two couples in our meeting, and then added a third sometime later.

Adult that I am, I began analyzing why she had chosen these six Friends. All are very different in personality and style, yet they all have certain things in common: an intensity of being, a generosity of spirit, humor, kindness, depth, and strength. They are people whose presence you want to be in. You feel challenged there, but safe and supported too.

My daughter liked my list. "What qualities made you pick these folks?" I then asked. She hesitated, then answered, "You’ve already said it. I can’t say it as flowingly or as eloquently." I regretted not asking her first, but I coaxed her to try anyway. She thought about it for a few moments then wrote out her list: a loving questioning of everything, compassion, empathy, they don’t just stand on the fence, they actively work for a better world, they’re humble. It was my turn to pause and think, "Wow!"

I begin this way for three reasons. One, it reminds us that we need to reflect on what we are aiming for—what a functioning Quaker adult ought to be. Two, it demonstrates one of the most important ways that we get there—we ask our children important questions and listen to their answers. Three, we pause—we leave space. We are careful that our desire to share does not close down our children’s voices.

My husband and I work with hundreds of young people 4th grade and up. For the past six years we have been leading weekend groups of 20 to 80 youth. Our themes vary. Our activities vary. The needs of the group and individuals are diverse and changing. Yet we have found that every young person wants two things: to be loved, and to be listened to. And those wants don’t disappear when we enter adulthood. So for whatever we do to nurture our youth, these two pieces, loving and listening, must be prerequisites.

We have also learned that our youth need to be appreciated. They need to be counted on. They need structured time in which they are challenged with new ideas and where they interact with a wider circle of people. They also need unstructured time to hang out with new friends and old. They need help naming and expressing their encounters with the spiritual dimension of life. And they need role models, people who inspire them. If we provide these things, we will help them grow into productive, loving adults—maybe even Quaker ones.

Community is how we do it. We need to spend a lot of time together—not in-the-same-building-together, but together-together. Pot lucks, picnics, and social justice activities are good unstructured venues for being with one another. Young Friends often need special invitations and enthusiastic reminders that the date of the event is approaching. They may need to be picked up or dropped off. Encouraging them to invite friends may increase their comfort level and it’s a great form of outreach.

Intergenerational sessions provide the structure and space for people, young and old, to be present for one another. Bonds form, growth happens, and joy is nearly always a by-product. Sessions should begin in a single-layer circle where everyone can see and be seen by everyone else. (Of course, the littlest members of the group are allowed to wander about. I consider it a gift of grace to suddenly find a tiny hand on my knee and two big eyes staring up at me.) A name whip, where each person shares his or her name and gives a short answer to a question, allows each person a chance to be heard and gives a glimpse into the lives of everyone else present. This is a very simple exercise, which gives very big results.

There is a tremendous amount of variety about what can happen next. Sometimes we explore a topic together. Breaking into small groups allows for more time for each person to speak. We try to do these in a worship-sharing format where people speak from their experience and don’t challenge what others have said. This opens up space for younger and quieter Friends to feel safe sharing. It’s also great practice for meeting for worship for business and for receiving and giving messages in meeting for worship. It’s important for adults especially to be disciplined and to refrain from going on and on.

Remember to pause, give space, and allow our children to find the words to express their experience.

Too much talk is draining, so we generously sprinkle the sessions with games. Those that are more silly than competitive and get people to mix with each other are the best. Adventures in Peace Making by William Kreidler and Lisa Furlong is a great source of such games. We also use several from The New Games Book, More New Games, and Play Fair (this last one is a book of non-competitive games by Matt Weinstein and Joel Goodman). Games, done right, break down barriers and open up hearts. They help us to touch, share emotions together, and get to know each other in a different way. They are an important part of intergenerational work and shouldn’t be skipped for more "meaningful" activities.

As a closing, we often do an affirmation activity. There are many different formats, but in each one individuals share the inner qualities that they admire in one or more people in the group. There is joy and power in discovering and naming the gifts in others. It is beautiful to watch people unfold and open as they hear their gifts recognized.

Other structured activities that have drawn our meeting together include intergenerational workshops. Several inspired ideas have come out of our meeting’s First-day School Committee. One year a group of youths and adults in our meeting met for First-day school in November and December and made a comfort quilt to be passed around to people in need of some loving thoughts. The quilt has been to several homes since its completion. It is a wonderful, tangible sign of our connection to and love for one another.

Another group of youth and adults met to create a "Journey Book." They generated a list of what they would like to know about one another. Questions included:

  • Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
  • When did you start attending Quaker meeting? Why?
  • Why do you attend meeting now?
  • What is your favorite thing to do?
  • What is your favorite childhood memory?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • What do you believe about God?
  • What do you do when you worship?
  • Have you had any mystical or spiritual experiences?
  • What is the scariest thing that ever happened to you when you were standing up for what you believed in?

The group then interviewed people of all ages in our meeting and put the interviews together in a binder. The binder has traveled through the meeting allowing us to know more about each other.

Recently, in First-day classes, we’ve been scheduling monthly fishbowl exercises focusing on Quaker testimonies. This is a wonderful exercise in listening. These activities allow our young Friends to come up with engaging and challenging questions. Here is a sampling:

  • Do you feel like you live your life with integrity?
  • Do you feel you had integrity as a kid?
  • What are some things you have faith in?
  • Do you ever have doubts? What are they?
  • Are discoveries in faith an act of will or should it just happen?
  • What’s the difference between a message and a thought?

In one version of the fishbowl we divide into two groups: older Friends (adults) and younger Friends. The young Friends make a large circle while the adults sit clustered in the middle. The outside circle doesn’t get to say anything while the list of questions is given to someone in the inner circle who reads one. The inner circle then discusses the question among themselves. When that group has completed the list of questions (or when half the time is up), the groups switch places and roles. A variation of this is to have a group of four to six chairs in the middle and everyone else in the silent outer circle. When someone has something to share, he or she taps a person in the middle and takes that place in the discussion. Again, adults need to be disciplined and not join in the conversation when they are sitting in the outer circle. When truly silent and fully listening, wonderful insights can be garnered.

We have spent much time on the community piece of our faith tradition, because for many of us, this is where our search for a spiritual home begins. Yet the mystical piece is just as important. Our faith is experiential: it can’t easily be taught; it has to be experienced and practiced. I think we do a disservice to our children by sending them off during worship and expecting them to pick up how to do it in 15-minute snatches at the beginning or end of meeting. Just as we spend time with our children in discussions, games, projects, picnics, and potlucks, we need to worship with them.

This past New Year’s, more than 60 of us gathered in a large, sloppy circle for closing worship. We hadn’t planned for babysitters or a First-day program, so we were all together from ages 2 on up to 80. Some of us were in chairs; others were sitting on pillows on the floor. In the center was a pile of cushions and a bunch of plastic building pieces. Our youngest members played earnestly but quietly in the center. Our slightly older ones eyed us beseechingly and after a nod of the head they too entered the center and interacted in a respectful, intentional (and fairly quiet) manner with the youngest and their toys. The rest of us worshiped. Messages were shared. Silence enveloped us. We were gathered. I found myself thinking, "What an incredibly precious gift to give to our kids: a safe space to play quietly, ringed by love and covered with the Holy Spirit."

We help our youth experience our faith by:

  • sharing our own spiritual experiences and practices with them
  • adjusting our worship space to accommodate quiet playthings and comfortable places to sit or lie
  • adjusting our expectations of worship to allow for the wanderings among us of the littlest, to allow for the occasional, "I’m using that!" or "Hi baby!" "Hi Daddy!"
  • expecting our elementary school kids to be reflective and quiet (though maybe not still) for as long as they can and allowing them to come and go as they need to

We nurture our children and each other by being fully present and listening to one another in discussions, workshops, gatherings, and worship. This is how we grow Quakers, young and old. This is how we change the world for the better.

Chris DeRoller

Chris DeRoller is a member of Old Chatham (N.Y.) Meeting. She and her husband, Mike Clark, are the youth directors for Powell House, the conference and retreat center for New York Yearly Meeting.