In order to hear another’s perspective, one must be an open channel: to the other person’s needs, expressions, to your own, and to the great comfort and direction of the Spirit. That is at the center of the biennial Quaker Women’s Conference: being vulnerable, open-minded, porous. As a Religious Society, we must strive for this to do Spirit’s work.
In 1997, nine women from three yearly meetings, MidAmerica, South Central, and Great Plains, decided to plan a Quaker women’s conference to be held in their part of the country. After two years of planning, the first conference was held in Oklahoma in December of 1999. Since then, gatherings have happened biennually and are always planned by women from the different yearly meetings that are represented at the conference. This year’s attendance included members from South Central, Mid America, Illinois, Great Plains, Iowa (Conservative), Ohio, and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings. Many women come time and time again, but it is always open to all.
I am a 25-year-old convinced Friend. I am a member in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which is solely affiliated with Friends General Conference. I practice unprogrammed meeting for worship and have a liberal perspective on social justice.
My roommates were also relatively new to Quakerism. One small difference: they came from the Mennonite tradition! On my first night at the conference, I walked out into the mild, quiet night air and marveled: what was Quakerism, again?
Over the next three days, out in the woods of Welling, Oklahoma, my heart was moved, my mind challenged, my soul refreshed. I met radical women of every type imaginable: psychologists, mushroom farmers, social workers, missionaries, survivors, artists and teachers; women whose lives spoke of faith, spiritual risk-taking, and love for community. I made a wonderful connection with my plain-dressing, teenage roommate—creating music, taking muddy walks to sit by the river. We found that we had many things in common: we’d both been homeschooled and loved being silly and making people laugh!
I was astonished daily by the amazing variety of beliefs among us. I had never before been to a multi-branch Quaker conference where we actually acknowledged our differences. I remember often being challenged by a spiritual principle that diverged from mine and feeling the slow, internal shutting-down process that is so natural to us. Like all judging, it is a coping mechanism we use to protect our feelings and our sense of identity. I would begin to "pull the shutters" in my heart and mind, disengage, tune out. But then, the faces of women I had eaten lunch with or taken a walk with would serve as an appeal to be present, as they were. Timely, loving promptings of Spirit allowed me to "let down my heart." Opportunities to share in small groups were halting, but seemed to say, "This is it! Here’s your chance!" It was time to be an open channel. To my surprise, this had more to do with my breath than anything else. The key was in not allowing my body to shut down, giving off an air of aloofness, which, in a group setting, can start a chain reaction of a lack of trust. I found when I could train my body to reflect open listening and acceptance, my heart wasn’t far behind.
I found programmed worship to be surprisingly comforting. This could be because of my familiarity with it, having grown up in Baptist/Methodist traditions. Having an order of service that included singing, readings, and prepared messages was familiar to me. The prepared messages were stories about God’s infinite love (the theme of the conference) and speakers spoke from their direct experience. Having silent worship time after the programmed part of meeting was incredibly rich. I felt the ongoing softening of my heart, the open-channel making. This "spiritual storytelling"— sharing that of God in yourself —was not what I had imagined programmed worship would be. It was natural, Spirit-led, and honest.
Workshops were incredibly diverse, spanning from "Reiki for Self-Healing" to "Scripture Reading in the Manner of Ohio Conservative Friends." These were also chances to connect to the common sacredness we share across the branches. It was delightful to see this cross-pollination of inspiration. Our open mic night included readings from the Tao Te Ching, Christian poetry, and the singing of peace rounds. All of our expressions were received with appreciation, no matter how different they were.
This gathering of women is an area in our Religious Society where blessed bridge-building is happening and where love is abiding. We are called to know that of God in one another. To see how Spirit is active throughout our Religious Society and what we can do to enrich one another’s work. When we strive to be open channels, in body, mind and heart, the Spirit of God can move!