Sometimes I feel as though I lived during the period of Quietism in Quaker history. I attended what may be a unique meeting for worship among Friends, the one at Guilford College, from which I graduated in May as a Quaker Leadership Scholar. Our attendees were regularly 90 percent under age 25. The big difference between these worship sessions and the more intergenerational ones in which I have participated, either at my home meeting in Philadelphia or other places, was that the unprogrammed meeting for worship at Guilford would go for months, sometimes semesters, without anyone feeling moved by the Spirit to share a message. Meeting was more like meditation, with the exception of meeting for business. There was some attempt by the leaders of the Scholars program to deal with this issue, but it raised questions: Was the Spirit lacking among our group of young Friends? Did God not have a purpose for us? There were times when I wondered how much we, as a group, could access God. I found what might be the beginning of answers when I attended the Young Adult Friends Conference organized by Friends General Conference, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and Pendle Hill, February 16-18 in Burlington, New Jersey.
The conference in Burlington snuck up on me, and I got my registration in at the last minute. It wasn’t until I looked at the guest list that I sensed how exciting the gathering was going to be. I’d been involved in Philadelphia’s Young Friends program while in high school, and it became a deep, important part of who I was spiritually. Like many Young Friends, however, leaving for college caused me to lose touch with a large number of the people with whom I had built spiritual community. Looking at the attendee list, it appeared that many of my old spiritual companions would be attending this gathering, and it would be a time to renew old friendships and find fellowship with other young Friends from across the country.
"Renewal" is the best word I can think of to describe the gathering as a whole. Over 100 young people from many geographical locations and Friends traditions came together for the weekend. We worshiped together corporately and in small groups, wrestled with our diversity as a spiritual community, discussed social action as influenced by the Quaker testimonies, and tried to discern what our role as Young Adult Friends was in the Religious Society and the world at large. I remember vividly several events that pointed to a larger hand behind the work of those gathered in New Jersey.
After an eight-hour drive with three other young Friends from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, I joined about 70 or so other Friends for opening sessions in the theater on the second floor of the Burlington conference center. As we gathered, Betsy Blake, another Greensboro-based Friend, called us all into a moment of silence to pray for those who were still on the road or in the air. I can’t speak for every Friend in that room, but when we all fell into silence for the first time, I felt something powerful. I’m one who rarely feels moved to speak during worship, but there are occasional moments when I feel touched by a worship experience, and this was one of them. A discernable, palpable power possessed the room. We were gathered in purpose with one another, and I felt the Spirit move through us.
It was eye-opening to compare this experience with the one immediately following it. Friends sat down and introduced themselves, saying why they came to the gathering. For many, a primary reason for attending was a desire to reconnect with Quaker life—the term "fell off the bandwagon" was used in describing Quaker practice more than once. Throughout the weekend, particularly during worship and discussion about who we were as Friends, there was a sense that we as younger Quakers lacked a certain amount of identity, and that we felt disconnected from the larger Religious Society.
Overall, I think that this gathering was a good place for that reconnecting. It’s a testament to the skill of the conference organizers that I wanted to attend every workshop in the formal Saturday afternoon program: on writing as ministry, diversity among Friends, listening to leadings, and more. There were moving instances outside the structured program, too. I especially recall a single important moment of fellowship Saturday evening when, after the structured workshops, several Friends gathered around dinner to discuss the now-defunct Young Adult Friends of North America (YFNA).
I’d heard about YFNA from my friend Nathan Sebens, whose parents were active in it during its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s. Nathan and other Friends have spoken movingly about how YFNA brought together Friends from all across the country, from different theological perspectives, and called them to do important spiritual and political work together. YFNA eventually dissolved, largely due to the fact that opposition to the Vietnam War drove many of its activities, and the war ended. We Friends in Burlington discussed whether the time was ripe to re-form an organization like YFNA. Our sense was that YFNA was indeed a needed institution, one that could provide fellowship and spiritual direction for many Young Friends from across the country. We also talked about the possibility of including Young Friends from Canada and Mexico. We acknowledged that this would add a layer of complexity, but would be worthwhile nonetheless.
Someone brought up the idea that it might be helpful for a new movement among Young Friends to find a unifying issue to work on together, as opposition to the Vietnam War had been before. This idea immediately caught our imagination. Numerous ideas were suggested, and soon a political discussion took over. Which issue had the most resonance to unite people across different theological and political lines, to give young Friends a unique, needed voice today?
It was clear to us that these answers would not be found that night around the dinner table in Burlington. But I sensed that we would find the right answers, and that we would be led to them as a Young Friends community "as way opens." I felt that the energy gathered in Burlington came from more than just those who were there, and that we were gathered for a purpose.
I think that purpose is one of renewal. It’s no secret in our Religious Society, across geographical and theological lines, that we’re struggling to attract and maintain the interest of young people. That’s not because Friends don’t have something to offer young people. The concept of continuing revelation that is central to Friends holds a deep resonance for those of us who have grown up in a world where it seems most people have stopped listening for the word of God. Friends across theological and political lines also emphasize service in a way that remains attractive to young people. I sense deeply that God knows young people need and want what Friends have to offer; the question then becomes, what can our Religious Society do to build itself among young people?
This discussion needs to include several different issues, namely how young people can be integrated into the Religious Society, and how it can support and nurture its young people as they find their way in the wider world. These two questions are separate, but closely related. I believe there are several institutional and local measures that Friends at large, and monthly meetings in particular, can take to draw in young people as well as to help us find our place in the wider world.
I’ll start with a relatively minor suggestion, based on my experiences in college. As I wrote earlier, unprogrammed meeting for worship was always well-attended at Guilford. That worship was at 5:00 pm—or 5:30 on Friday afternoons. Let’s face it: young people like to sleep in, later on Sundays than worship is scheduled. Meetings need to add a worship oriented towards the schedules of young people.
My relationship with Friends involves far more than weekly worship. It has involved nurturing my spiritual gifts and guidance in discerning my place in the world. Friends, nationally and regionally, can do much to help guide young people and nurture them. A good example is the Pickett Fund for the Development of Quaker Leadership. Named in honor of Clarence Pickett, an early leader of American Friends Service Committee, this fund supports service projects of young people who show promising leadership potential. I received support from the fund during my sophomore year of college, and the project I did helped provide invaluable direction for where I am now. The Religious Society of Friends needs to provide more than just spiritual experiences and fellowship. It needs to provide a moral compass to guide activities and provide direction in our life work.
Older Friends can provide guidance and experience to season and temper the leadings and callings of younger Friends. Young Friends depend on this to find their place in the Religious Society and the wider world. Ultimately, Young Friends’ place among Friends and their role in the wider world are intertwined. In finding our role in the world, younger Friends will also find their place among the Quaker community. This has been true for me personally.
Quakerism has provided me not just with spiritual experiences, but with a sense of purpose. I felt a sense of purpose among the young Friends gathered in Burlington, but I also sensed a group of young people looking for purpose. I can’t shake the feeling that it came from somewhere other than our own minds—that it was written on our hearts. We have a collective truth to speak to the world. Friends have much to offer the world, and much to offer young people; and young people have much to offer Friends as well. This might not always be apparent; in New Jersey, I certainly heard a lot of questioning about where we fit. I feel that the conference in Burlington was a turning point for young people within Quakerism in the United States and Canada—we know there’s a place for us, a role we have in the world, and we’re working to open the way forward for ourselves and our faith.