What I have appreciated most about Friends is the way they have welcomed me into their Religious Society, both in New York State where I now live, and in Maine where I grew up. My family began attending Portland Meeting when I was 12, and I was glad to be in a place where the adults didn’t seem to think it too abnormal when I attended meeting for worship and meeting for business. In the Methodist church we had previously attended, adults didn’t seem to expect adolescents to be interested in church; they expected we would spend our time in malls with people of our own age. I was homeschooled, and meeting seemed similar to homeschooling: not having a minister was like not having a teacher, and both tended to be open-ended rather than having a predetermined plan. During the next two summers I attended Friends Camp in central Maine. I enjoyed the beauty of the camp, China Lake, and the people with whom I became acquainted. I found a great deal of value in 45 minutes of silence in a field every day at sunset, and in the way conflicts were resolved and decisions made with a modified form of Quaker business practice.
Around that time I began attending Adult Religious Education at Portland Friends, which had joined with the teen group to study Earth care and Friends involvement with nature, and I found those sessions to be thought-provoking. Twice annually the meeting had a day when Friends worked together on upkeep of house and grounds, and I found that many of the best conversations I took part in were on those days. Working together offered time for longer conversations than were possible after meeting, and there was more time to stop and think before speaking.
In Portland Meeting I was especially grateful for the opportunity to spend time with one older Friend who I came to know initially from talking with him after meeting. I started doing yard work at his house, and he would come and pick me up as I lived quite a distance away. The length of the trip gave us time to talk about a wide variety of things, and I always found what he said to be well worth pondering. I learned a great deal about practical matters also, as the work I did with him branched out to home and small engine repair. He knew how to do a great many things but needed help with them, and I did not have much experience but could do things if he told me how. I also remember several other elders in that meeting: in particular, one a retired doctor with whom we carpooled, and one with whom I had conversations about books we were reading.
When I was 15, my family moved to St. Francis Farm, a Catholic Worker community in upstate New York. When we had been at the farm for about six months, Portland Friends asked my sister and me to serve as speakers at a quarterly meeting session on how Friends were currently trying to live out the Peace Testimony. I found that experience valuable, because it made me think carefully about the choices I made. Once my family had our feet under us at the farm we began attending Syracuse Meeting. When I became involved with removing a wall to make the meeting room larger, I got to know some Friends better: the family I stayed with, the man from the house committee who was in charge of the project, and the retired social worker who had done a great variety of things and told fascinating stories of his life as we worked.
As my 18th birthday approached, Friends were very helpful when I began to think about draft registration, and I met with a clearness committee which included people who had been in military and alternative service in World War II or involved with draft counseling during the Vietnam War.
When I was 16, I attended the youth program at New England Yearly Meeting and enjoyed seeing some of the people I had met at Friends Camp, participating in small group gatherings, and volunteering for a day at a nature center. I found the worship and business with the teen group somewhat insubstantial, and I would have liked the opportunity to attend those sessions with the rest of the yearly meeting. I would also have liked to go to the morning Bible half-hours, which some longtime NEYM attendees had told me were very good.
The following summer we attended New York Yearly Meeting sessions. My own inclination to attend adult sessions was reinforced when a Friend around my own age from Syracuse Meeting told me that she had not been comfortable with parts of the culture of those gatherings and did not think I would be either. When I tried to register for the adult program at the start of sessions, some people tried to convince me to attend the youth program, but in the end they accepted my choice. During the week some adults related to me just as they would to anyone else they did not know, but others who saw me at business sessions or talking with older Friends seemed concerned at the presence of a teen and asked me if I wanted to be with those of my own age. One went so far as to tell me he was concerned that I was somehow maladjusted.
I got the impression from some that they would have preferred me to be elsewhere, and that they expected all people my age to have the interests and values of the popular U.S. teen culture. For me the highlight of that yearly meeting was worship sharing in a small group each morning. I met wonderful people, talked with some of them afterward, and met others through those conversations. One who could have been my grandfather even invited me to sail with him on the lake one day when it wasn’t raining. I have since come to know many of them better through our regional meeting, and some more intimately since we began participating in a group that meets periodically for extended worship. I became involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project through some of these connections, which has been a very enriching experience, especially now that I am old enough to participate in AVP workshops inside prisons.
I have heard the view expressed by teens and sometimes by their leaders that Friends should do more "fun" things with their youth. I have participated in several youth programs of various sorts with Friends, and I found that gatherings that primarily focused on fun left me feeling that I hadn’t found centering and spiritual experience. In my opinion there are many places devoted to fun, but groups devoted to religious experience are less common.
Here at St. Francis Farm a part of our mission is to host retreat groups, which are primarily composed of high school and college students who spend time ranging from a day to a week with us. Hosting groups has helped me to see how the group experience is different for a participant than for a leader. The students join us for our half hour of silence each morning and participate in the work and life of the farm. Some participants have at first found the silence frightening or boring, but over the course of the week have come to value it. A few have even written to us to say they tried to follow that practice in their own lives. Groups help us with the farmwork—gardening, construction and repairs, and food preparation. They also go with us to sites in the area to work with children and to do yard work and home repair for elders. Some group members do not like the work and do as little as they can, but others tell us that if they had stayed home they would have just watched TV, and that they found our work much more meaningful.
Childcare is often provided during meeting for worship, and in my limited experience it seems that often it is the teens who are least involved in the regular life of the meeting who volunteer to help with childcare. This is very kind of them, but I wonder if it makes the experience of the children less of being part of a meeting and more of doing something fun while their parents are busy. It seems to me that a similar pattern is present at times in the activities planned for the youth groups at large Quaker gatherings. My experiences suggest that some young Friends are not seeking more fun, but instead more substance and the option to be included as a part of the larger Friends community rather than being segregated by age.