When I took a position as Program Secretary of the Wider Quaker Fellowship (WQF) in 1998, I was only somewhat familiar with its workings. I had no idea of the impact the WQF has had on its readers’ spiritual lives over the years.
The Fellowship began in 1936, a brainchild of Rufus M. Jones, who had become aware of increasing interest and sympathy on the part of non-Friends in the Quaker testimonies and way of life. In the aftermath of a world war and in the midst of the Depression, he hoped to begin a movement that would "draw into closer spiritual relations kindred spirits around the world." In the letter of invitation he expressed his vision this way:
The Society of Friends desires not only to call all who bear the name of Friends to a fresh consecration, but also to reach out to those who are kindred in spirit with Friends, who have similar ideals and aspirations and who in heart and life are "friends of the Friends," and to invite such persons to come into closer fellowship in order that through mutual cooperation we may all become more effective organs of the Divine Spirit in the world, and meet the needs of our time.
We are far from wishing to draw anyone away from the established connection which he [sic] may have with a religious communion, but we are aware that there are persons who, without leaving their own church and without coming into full membership, would like to share in this spiritual movement and, through that sharing, to be in closer fellowship with those who call themselves Friends. They could thus share more intimately in the world-wide work of relief.
The Wider Quaker Fellowship began as a program of the American Friends Fellowship Council in 1936. In 1954, the AFFC merged with the (then) American Section of FWCC, and WQF has been a program of the (now) Section of the Americas ever since. It sends an assortment of small pamphlets to its list of readers, twice a year in English and once a year in Spanish, accompanied by a letter from the clerk and occasional comments that Fellows wish to share with others.
Participation in WQF has waxed and waned over the decades, ranging from about 550 in its first three years to a high of around 4,000, to its current enrollment of about 1,600. Our Fellows (no longer referred to as "members") live all over the world, though by far the majority are in the United States. Individuals have enrolled for a variety of reasons. Some are inquirers considering membership in the Religious Society of Friends; others are, as Rufus Jones suggested, non-Quakers who feel a spiritual connection. Some are Friends in isolated circumstances who maintain a link by receiving the mailings, and many are active Friends who simply wish to add a dimension to their spiritual lives. A few Fellows are incarcerated.
When I began as the part-time WQF program secretary I was struck by the willingness of interested individuals to share details about their personal spiritual searches with total strangers as they requested to be placed on the mailing list. That level of trust touched me. Although correspondence between the clerk, staff, and Fellows has become more limited by time constraints over the years, I greatly appreciate the folks who drop us a note with feedback on our work and the materials we send out.
The program is constantly changing as clerks, staff, and committee members come and go. As communication between Quaker groups improves, we have been able to come closer to fulfilling our stated goal of "lifting up the voices of Friends of different countries, languages, and Quaker traditions," adding more writings by Friends from the Two-Thirds World. This means, de facto, that we publish more explicitly Christian materials than in the past, but we try to maintain an overall balance between the viewpoints we present. Quakerism is more diverse than many people—Friends and non-Quakers alike—realize, and we encourage our Fellows to be open to the Spirit behind the words on the page, even if those words seem strange to them.
WQF depends on its participants and a few other concerned donors for its funding, but it does not charge a set subscription fee. We try to view budget constraints as opportunities to look for new ways to do things. Over 300 of our Fellows now receive notice by e-mail when a mailing is released, and they can access the materials online from the WQF page of the Section of the Americas’ website at http://www.fwccamericas.org/about_us/programs/wqf.shtml. We can post more materials on the website than we can publish in print, and we are starting to post previously published materials as well. Those interested can also use the website to sign up.
The WQF Committee recently reconfirmed that our mission is to reach out to both Friends and non-Friends and to present as wide a picture of the Religious Society of Friends as possible. We are excited about making greater use of the Internet, as well as improving our printed materials, to make our ministry more widely available, interactive, and attractive to a new generation.
Many of the writings that cross my desk—including the ones we do not publish—are thoughtful and inspiring. My years on staff with WQF continue to provide me with spiritual nourishment.