Gifts of Eldering

I had planned this year to take a break from FGC Gathering. Polly, my partner of 27 years, couldn’t come with me this summer, and I was just stepping down from four years as presiding clerk of my large and complex monthly meeting. I leafed through the Gathering’s advance program in March when it arrived, then set it down; I was conscious of a stack of novels to stay home for, a wave of post-clerking weariness and introversion. Then I heard—not quite whispering in my ear—Call Melody. I listened for more. Call Melody, the not-voice said again. Offer to be her elder. My friend Melody Brazo was leading a Gathering workshop on white privilege and racism. Surely she had an elder by now, I thought. I’d never served in such a role. And I most definitely didn’t want to go to Gathering.

After a few days the nudge came again: Call Melody—this time eliciting a whine that even I knew was unattractive: Why would I want to pray for others while they did work I needed to do myself? While they bonded with each other and went deep, while they grew close? And—this is not a thought I’m proud of—as clerk of my meeting I had done enough praying for people. I was tired of it.

Call Melody.

Finally, hoping Melody would put me at rest by having had an elder lined up for months already, I e-mailed her (e-mail seemed more noncommittal than phoning). Melody responded immediately, ecstatic. She’d asked five people, and none could come to River Falls to be her elder. She had been regretfully preparing to lead the workshop without one on site. My offer was a prayer answered. Having offered (even by e-mail), I felt I had no choice but to tell her I’d come.

I began two months of an odd double life, spiritually speaking. Diligently I began to pray daily for Melody’s faithfulness and her planning, and for the ten or so Friends about to converge on a single, small classroom amid the River Falls grasses, each on their own journey with white privilege and racism. I interviewed some Friends about eldering: Where did they sit? Did they ever speak? Did they feel out of the action? Melody and I walked and talked, and she wrote afterwards, "Thanks for listening faithfully to your leading." Secretly, however, I fantasized about becoming the sixth person on Melody’s list of those who couldn’t serve. Up to the day Gathering began, I longed to stay home. A sore throat? Great! Maybe I won’t be able to go.

I did go. I love Melody and deeply respect her leading to do this work. As a white woman, it is crucial for me to learn everything I can about white privilege. Also, some of my beloveds in Friends for LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer) Concerns had expressed delight that I was coming. Finally, I didn’t want to back out on them or Melody. And I’m mystical enough to suspect that Spirit had a reason for me to be in River Falls.

In the classroom the first full morning of the workshop, I sat outside the circle of ten desks in a spot Melody and I had chosen so that she could see me. For three hours I prayed—sometimes deeply, sometimes shallowly—for Melody’s faithfulness, and for the participants to find their hearts opening to the work, to each other, to Spirit. One friend I’d called for eldering advice had suggested weaving a thread of light around each participant and back to Melody. I failed to have such vivid images. At my best I sat receptively, feeling the spirit in the group rise and fall. At noon, Melody was feeling spent from the spiritual effort even after a successful morning; I walked her to the dining hall and through the long lines and sat with her at lunch. During the afternoon and each afternoon afterwards—in the Gathering-wide worship Friends for LGBTQ Concerns held each day, in FLGBTQC meetings for worship for business, in a meeting for racial healing—in all that worship, I found the people in the workshop coming into my heart. Late in the evening Melody and I debriefed and she talked through her plans for the next day’s workshop. She thanked me. I thanked her, too, but knew that my service was still diligence more than inspiration.

On the second morning the participants broke into pairs to examine the role white privilege might have played in their family’s fortunes, including, for biracial participants with a white parent, the impact of that parent’s whiteness. I heard the sound in the room lift by a few decibels, signaling the rise of their eagerness and engagement. The workshop was taking off! I was delighted, yet at the same time I realized that the better the workshop went—in a sense, the more effective my prayer was—the more bonded the group would feel, and the more outside the circle I might find myself. With relief I noticed that my joy for them and for Melody outweighed, though just barely, my grade-school exclusion anxieties.

Over the week I noted how Melody let the exercises, readings, and conversations do their work, rather than jumping in with the many insights and observations she could have offered. She explained to me that she believes people in workshops experience transformation only to the extent that they themselves find the insights. So I watched her practice restraint and trust. Gradually I felt the men and women in the circle open an unfamiliar third eye and begin to notice the impact of their whiteness. When Melody invited the group into the closing worship each day, suggesting that it could be a time to let any new realizations settle quietly and deeply, she reminded us all how worship can be a resource for difficult spiritual work.

Did the workshop go better because I was praying? There’s no way to know except by faith. A few of the workshop participants regularly thanked me as they left the room; others avoided meeting my eyes. (This business of praying for and being prayed for is quite intimate, I think.) One participant who found it difficult to return on the second day because of a tense interaction the day before said that the way the workshop was being grounded spiritually helped her return. On the fourth day I was led to speak in the group, to ask if we might pray for another member of the circle who had been upset the previous day and hadn’t shown up for the workshop. The group fell into silence and for those moments we all prayed together.

Over the week, three unexpected gifts came to me. On Wednesday afternoon, feeling the classic midweek swoop of tiredness and ferment, I wandered over to the student center and settled into a soft chair on a balcony overlooking the main hall. (One chair over, a man napped profoundly with his computer at his feet.) Watching Friends below me move comfortably about—greeting, chatting, heading for the bookstore—I felt hollow, disconnected, full of unnamed longing. Then a familiar impulse swept through me: Go check your e-mail. I managed to resist hunting up a free computer terminal; I knew that this Wednesday afternoon dip was an integral part of the Gathering experience, but the familiarity of the impulse gripped me. I’d been in worship and prayer so much already that week—all morning, and much of every afternoon—that the impulse stood out clearly against the backdrop of inner silence, clearly enough to deliver its message. "I’m addicted to e-mail," I said out loud, though not waking my neighbor. How often in my life at home do I use e-mail to distract myself from this fertile emptiness! I promised (myself, Spirit) to use e-mail differently.

A second gift came in the workshop’s final worship. Melody invited me to pull my desk into the circle for this, and asked that we reflect on what we were taking home with us. One by one the Friends spoke of gratitude, new awareness, and next steps. I realized that I was entirely glad, by now, that I’d come to River Falls, and that I’d been able to serve the group in the small ways I had. Then a message flooded me: All week when I’d thought I was praying for Melody and the group, I had been praying for myself, too. For faithfulness as a person privileged by white skin and affluence. For humility, accountability, and an open heart. For compassion toward others and myself. For a next step.

A third gift came Friday afternoon as I settled into a memorial meeting for Michael Baldwin, a young man I’d known and loved through Friends for LGBTQ Concerns. I held Michael and his beloved spouse Uriel in my heart, and felt (as is so often the case in a memorial worship) all the feelings of loss and sadness I’d kept at bay until I could reach this loving circle where F/friends were helping each other remember, celebrate, and grieve. As this worship did its necessary work in my heart, I was shocked to realize that I nearly hadn’t come to Gathering at all. How would I have grieved Michael’s death without this very circle?

Spirit did have reasons for me to go to River Falls. In responding to the nudge to call Melody—resisting, whining, gradually opening—I gave myself a chance to learn what they were. I can’t promise I’ll be more willing next time (being so flawed, so human), but I do hope to feel the nudge.

Wendy C. Sanford

Wendy C. Sanford, a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.), is a writer, editor, and longtime co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Her thanks go to Melody Brazo and Polly Attwood for their leadership and support.