Forging the Ties that Bind: Supporting Quaker Youth

I have often wondered why I alone of my three siblings am still active in Quaker circles. We all attended meeting each week as children; we all went to Quaker schools for most of the way through 8th grade (my sister also attended a Quaker high school); and our parents are active in our Quaker meeting and in the broader world of Quaker education, spirituality, and organizational life. Despite these commonalities, neither of my siblings remains active in Quaker circles. Although there were also times when I drifted away from regular Quaker practice, I kept returning. Why?

Welcoming Matters

I moved away to boarding school when I was 16. No longer under my parents’ immediate supervision, it would have been easy for me to sleep in on Sunday mornings and skip meeting for worship. Yet I walked the two miles or so to meeting each week because of the sense of grounding I left with and, perhaps more importantly, because of the connection I developed with one young couple who cultivated a Young Friends group among the few of us that were in the meeting. It was the effort Becky and Paul put into developing and maintaining a relationship with me—and the relationship I had with the other high school student in the meeting (although she was a few years younger than I and living with her parents)—that kept me going each week. I still have fond memories of a weekend retreat they organized with us. Although there were just two or three of us, a couple of other Young Friends came from three or four hours away, and a few others came from the next city over. We cleaned sweet potatoes, had worship and discussion, and slept on the meetinghouse floor. Through it all, I remember the love and care Becky and Paul gave us—they treated each of us as if we were the most important people in the world. Whenever they engaged in conversation with us they really listened, and we discussed things that mattered. One of those Young Friends has recently reentered my life through the delightfully small world of Quakerism; she too has special memories of that weekend.

However, it was not just the nascent youth group that kept me engaged. One week a greeter I had just met learned that I needed a ride to the airport to attend a college interview; she offered her services on the spot. Another Friend came and spoke, upon my invitation, to the small War Resister’s League group at my school. I appreciated that although I was "only" a high schooler, there without parents, and away for all school holidays, Friends in the meeting made me feel welcome and important.

I almost drifted away from Quakerism during college. It was hard to get to meeting in the morning after I was on Resident Advisor duty until 2 or 3 am, and there weren’t others my age at the local meeting. Although there was one couple, friends of my parents, who reached out to me and talked with me on the weeks we were both in attendance, I never got to know anyone else in the meeting. No one went out of their way to make me feel welcome in the same way as the meeting I attended while at boarding school. As a result I did not feel the same desire (or sense of "obligation" in the positive sense) to attend, so I contributed equally to my sense of disconnect.

Teaching at the Ramallah Friends School right after college brought me back to regular Quaker worship. Part of my job included supporting the local meeting and, since they met in the building where my apartment was, I had no excuse not to attend. But I wanted to attend because the meeting was my support community; it was the place where I could restore my soul after a rough week of classes. Although our meetings were often composed of only two or three or, if we were lucky, as many as ten, the worship was deep and revitalizing. Yet it wasn’t just this proximate community that strengthened my relationship with the Religious Society of Friends; it was also Friends from the meeting where I was a member who wrote to me, sent me packages, and held me in the Light. Without these two communities of emotional, spiritual, and physical support, I do not know whether I would have survived those two years or if I would have remained active with the Religious Society of Friends.

Returning to the U.S. after a year in Jordan (where there was no Quaker meeting and Sundays were the first day of the work week), I missed meeting and was anxious to find a worship community again. But I felt lost in a large sea of faces, and after several weeks of hanging around after meeting and having only one person ever talk to me, I started to leave as soon as meeting ended. Then came the September 11, 2001, attacks and Washington, D.C. went into shock. I went to meeting seeking space to listen, healing silence, and companions in worship. Instead I found a crowded room full of hurt, confused people who, rather than heeding the "still small voice" within, shared their personal pain, grief, and anger in political terms. When a second week’s meeting for "worship" lacked any silence whatsoever and messages once again were more political than spiritual, I stopped attending meeting. Between the lack of welcome, the absence of grounded space for worship, and my heavy graduate course load, I felt I had better ways of using my time.

Forging Bonds

I did not return to meeting for several months. When I did, it was partly because I had not yet found a community of belonging and wanted to feel more settled in my new city. My mother repeatedly insisted that I try the meeting’s Young Adult Friends (YAF) group. So I joined the YAF listserv, partly to humor her, and partly to be able to tell her (finally!) that I had done so when she asked again. It took several months before I actually went to an event advertised on the listserv, a worship-sharing group that was re-forming after a period of dormancy. I thought I would be able to connect to people on a different level if the gathering was spiritual rather than merely social; I was thirsty for deep, "real" relationships. In this group of a dozen or so YAFs I found what I had not found in the larger meeting, and so I made sure to keep my Friday evenings free to attend these gatherings. After attending a couple of worship sharings, I began to recognize people at meeting on Sundays, and as I gradually grew more involved in YAF I became more and more comfortable within the larger meeting. Finally, I had people to talk to after the rise of meeting. And, better yet, I met my husband that first night, which has a whole other set of implications for my continued involvement in the Religious Society of Friends. Not only do we share a religious faith and practice—as well as a supportive faith community—but we do not have to deliberate over whose religious services we will attend each weekend. We motivate each other to attend meeting and have each other for moral support as we venture out to meet new people and get to know the workings of ever wider Quaker circles.

Despite my increased involvement in YAF and the relationship with the man who is now my husband, my attendance at meeting would likely have continued to ebb and flow if it were not for certain (sometimes older, sometimes not) seasoned Friends who got me onto committees and the board of William Penn House. It was my active participation in the life and operations of the local Quaker community that finally changed my relationship to it. Before I knew it I was very involved in the meeting (I even became clerk of a committee), and suddenly that sea of faces was full of people I knew well. When a dear Friend approached my husband and me about the possibility of putting our names forward to the Nominating Committee of our yearly meeting for service on Friends General Conference’s Central Committee, we were excited to extend our circles of involvement even wider. The condition we placed on such service, however, was that we could do it together. Too often our Quaker commitments were time-intensive and resulted in many afternoons or evenings apart. We wanted to have an opportunity to serve together and have it be a spiritual practice that we shared, especially as a newly married couple still learning our way together. It has been one of the best decisions we have made.

Practical Matters

From a practical standpoint, I have been lucky geographically. There has usually been a Quaker meeting close to my home. My sister, in contrast, has none within a reasonable distance. I have further been blessed by having found spiritual (and social) friendships both within my peer group and with chronologically older Friends; both have been vital to my continued association with the Religious Society of Friends. I remember that having Jeff, a member of my Quaker youth group, send me a supportive look in the halls of our predominantly pro-war high school each day gave me strength to carry on in my minority disapproval of Operation Desert Storm. This shared bond not only helped me through the school day, but it also made me want to continue spending my Sunday afternoons at the meetinghouse. A community of peers, though, lucky as I was to have it, would not have been enough to keep me active in the meeting as my older friends graduated and went off to college; and in any case, many in the group came only to youth group and not to meeting for worship. Rather, my bond to the meeting as a faith community was nurtured and sustained by older Friends, such as my First-day school teacher or members of our first Friendly Eights group, who cared about me and my spiritual journey. These Friends took me out to a welcoming dinner when I applied for membership after a long period of discernment, connected with me about playing the same musical instrument, sent me care packages of my favorite teas in the midst of a cold and lonely Ramallah winter, and held me so strongly in the Light at various points in my life that at times I could almost feel the warmth. Too many Young Friends or YAFs have found themselves the sole member of their age group, with little support structure for youth groups or weekend retreats. Many others have reported feeling invisible to older Friends within their meetings, at least in the sense of having more to discuss than school. I am lucky that this has not generally been my own experience within Quakerism.

Looking Ahead

Six months ago we moved 11 hours away from the meeting where we met, got married, and got super-involved. It was hard to leave our community of Friends and to start in a new meeting from scratch. No one, with a few exceptions, knew who we were or that we were committed Friends with significant leadership experience in our previous meeting. After hanging around after meeting for several weeks and not finding people to talk to during the coffee drinking time, I began to just go home afterwards, especially as it was a 45 minute to an hour drive. With a new job and a long drive to meeting, it had become much harder to join a committee or attend outside activities. But then those of us who were in our 20s and 30s began talking, wanting to build a YAF community as a place to start relationship-building. Although I only knew one or two of the other YAFs when we issued an open invitation, the desire for community was strong enough that folks drove all the way out to our house for an afternoon and evening of fellowship. It was great; I finally got to know a few additional people in the meeting, and even though I do not see those people each week, I feel a deeper sense of connection than I did before. After all, knowing eight people is better than knowing two.

In December, four months after moving to our new home, we had our first child. The change in our status at meeting was sudden and startling. I did not anticipate the amount of attention we received with a new baby in tow. All sorts of people began to come up and talk to us, ask if we were new, and wonder where we were from. We have begun to meet other couples with young children and have been welcomed in a way I had not been welcomed in years. Spending time in the nursery, I have been able to engage in one-on-one conversations with the weekly volunteers and thereby learn more about individual members than one does during meeting for worship. While I am excited to finally begin to connect with people in the meeting—and hope it continues—I also feel a bit frustrated that I did not receive the same attention without my son.

I often wonder what my son’s experience with Quakerism will be. Will there be an active First-day school group as he gets older, or will he be one of only two or three kids his age? Will he have older mentors in the meeting who care about him deeply and listen to his needs, concerns, and spiritual struggles? How will he fare as a high schooler or when he goes away to college? Will there be Friends to reach out to him, make him feel welcome, and help show that Quakerism is relevant, vibrant, and spiritually refreshing? Will he always be as welcome as he is now? Will I? I sure hope so.

Maia Carter Hallward

Maia Carter Hallward is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and attends Atlanta Meeting in Decatur, Ga. She teaches International Affairs at Kennesaw State University. She is assistant clerk of Friends General Conference's Youth Ministries Committee.