Last fall in a Quakerism 101 group I facilitated at Cincinnati Friends Meeting, a Friend spoke of a recent conversation she’d had with her 92-year-old father who for 60 years faithfully attended and was active in a Presbyterian church. She was somewhat unsettled to discover that he wasn’t even sure he believed in God. He didn’t really have a theology, he told her; he went to church all those years for community.
This anecdote speaks volumes to me now, though before I attended Earlham School of Religion (ESR), I would have responded quite differently.
First, a little background: In 2002, following a series of what I would now call “leadings,” I moved from Colorado Springs to Richmond, Indiana, to attend ESR. After 25 years as a high school and college English teacher, at a time when most of my cohorts were considering early retirement from teaching, I began racking up new student loan debt.
The irony of my decision was not lost on me. I, who for years had avoided organized religion and anything remotely connected to Christianity; I, who had never been baptized or joined a church, now found myself in a Christian seminary. I brought with me a wealth of life experience, and along with it a lifetime of thoughts, habits, and tendencies that would require adjustment and unlearning. In my four years at ESR, I was challenged and changed in several particulars, but the greatest change came in my understanding of the spiritual significance and power of community.
As a student at ESR, I loved the challenge of the coursework; I loved being able to talk freely about the Divine, to use the words “God” and “Jesus” without hesitation, without fearing my listeners would think I was proselytizing. I loved being able to say what I really believed, even if it did not fit neatly into church doctrine. I loved everything about being at ESR. My soul was very full.
What I found difficult was the whole community thing.
Relationship with individuals was one thing; community—people in groups— was another thing entirely. In my mind, community was messy, tangled, complicated, frustrating. What had community to do with God and me? Surely community wasn’t really necessary if one was called to the contemplative life. To give you an idea of how resistant I was, in one of the first classes I took at ESR (fall 2002), we were asked to journal about this reflection question: “Where does God speak to you in the ESR community?” Here is what I wrote:
I come from a long line of antisocial non-joiners, especially the women. For at least three generations back, the women on my mother’s side of the family have been independent and reclusive. For instance, Bert, my grandmother on Mom’s side, told me a story about a time she visited her mother, Grandma Keene, who lived alone in the Ozarks in a house built by her grandfather after the Civil War. Nothing grand; just a small house back in the woods, no indoor plumbing, and no telephone.
One morning after she had been there a few days, Bert got up early, let her dog Thor outside first thing, then made coffee and went to sit on the porch. Thor was gone for a little while—maybe 10 or 15 minutes, she said—and then came back and plopped down on the porch with a bone he had found. Bert watched Thor for a few minutes and then realized he was chewing on what looked like a human jawbone with bits of flesh on it. She wrestled it away from the dog and took it into the house to show her mother.
After they determined it was definitely a human bone, Bert said, “I think I better go into town and get the sheriff, Mama.”
“Why, you’ll do no such thing,” said Grandma Keene. “I don’t want that old fool tromping around here.”
“Mama, there’s someone dead around here, just a few minutes from the house. I’m going to take this to the sheriff.” Bert went in the house to get dressed, and when she came back downstairs, she looked around for the jawbone. It had disappeared.
Bert went to the kitchen where her mother sat snapping peas. “Where is it, Mama?” she asked.
“I threw it in the woodstove,” said Grandma Keene. “Now you got nothing to take to the sheriff. And if you bring him back here, I’ll tell him you imagined it.”
They argued some more, but Grandma Keene prevailed. She’d rather have a dead body around, she said, than have strangers coming to her house and prowling around her property.
A typical “hillbilly” reaction, maybe, but part of my family heritage of antisocial people.
In response to the question concerning where God speaks to me in the ESR community, I have to say that so far, I’ve felt very moved a few times in meeting.
Notice the chip on my shoulder? Notice how completely I ducked the question about community? My poor professor!
At ESR, of course, community was unavoidable. Each class was its own community and set of relationships, and so was student meeting for business, an eye-opening experience with Quaker process. On Sundays I attended First Friends Meeting in Richmond, where I found many like-minded Friends interested in mysticism and the early Friends, but there was an unspoken understanding that such things not be discussed around certain other Friends in the meeting who might object. (I once listened in disbelief to an impassioned argument among Friends at an ESR Common Meal about whether or not George Fox was a mystic.) Encountering the differences among Friends my first year at ESR was a shock to me; I had thought all Friends were like George Fox or Isaac Penington, so I was unprepared for the tension and distress of Friends in conflict. At Indiana Yearly Meeting that year, when someone from northern Indiana brought forward the notion of permitting baptism and communion in their meetings, an older Friend rose to speak. “If you add the outward sacraments to Meeting for Worship,” she said with deep emotion, “Where can I go?” and I understood what it meant to say, “This Friend speaks my mind.”
My second year at seminary, working part-time for Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR) required me to attend their board meetings, where I listened to periods of intense (sometimes downright prickly) discernment concerning which projects to support. Representing RSWR, I attended, back-to-back, the 2004 United Society of Friends Women International Triennial in North Carolina and New England Yearly Meeting, two very different manifestations of Quaker process, community, and relationships. And during my last year at seminary, I worked as a part-time minister for Eldorado Universalist Unitarian church in Eldorado, Ohio, a few miles from Richmond. This warm and welcoming UU community provided a wonderful “incubator” for what early Friends would have called an “infant minister.” In all these instances, I witnessed community and participated to greater or lesser degrees.
During my third year at ESR, I was first and most deeply drawn into a community; it happened at West Elkton Meeting in western Ohio. There, for my field education project in Writing as Ministry, I worked closely with West Elkton Friends as I researched and wrote the history of the meeting for its 200th anniversary in 2005. After ten months, I knew members of that meeting (living and dead) better than I did most members of my own family, and I felt closer to them. In the process of reading old minutes and diaries I discovered three separations in the meeting: the Hicksite/ Orthodox split in 1828 or so; the split between the Anti-Slavery Friends and the “wider-Body” Friends in 1843; and a more recent split over the issue of homosexuality. In 1982, the current West Elkton Friends congregation had been led to remain open and loving to a same-sex couple; their decision earned them condemnation from Indiana Yearly Meeting and caused a split in West Elkton Monthly Meeting. More than 20 years later the memory of that split was so painful many choked back tears when they talked about it. The depth of people’s reactions to all three separations showed me more clearly than anything else how binding, significant, and powerful are the ties of community in a Friends meeting. Especially when Friends acknowledge the presence of “something higher” in all our doing and being together, we create a powerfully united spiritual community.
A seed of understanding about the spiritual aspects of community was planted during my first semester at ESR (the same semester in which I wrote the story about Bert and Grandma Keene) in a course called “History and Literature of the Old Testament.” In the text we used, theologian Walter Bruggeman stressed the idea that religion is about relationship between humans and the Divine; the Old Testament, he said, is essentially a long narrative of the relationship between the Israelites and the God of Abraham. What’s more, in that narrative, Divinity made the first motion toward relationship with humans! “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.” (Jer. 7:23) Throughout the Old Testament, the message repeats: I will be your God and you shall be my people.
At some point in the next few years, the seed germinated and I realized that all religion is about relationship—about our interaction with each other and with the Divine. Without relationship, even ethics and morals have no meaning. A lone human being in a vacuum cannot be ethical or unethical, moral or immoral. Ethics and morality are concerned with how we treat others— whether those others are humans, animals, the environment, or the Divine. And clearly, in all religious traditions, the Divine cares how we treat each other.
Our greatest tests of love, compassion, and courage come from our relationships with other human beings. Whether we like it or not, being faithful to the Spirit and being fully human requires us to interact with others, hence community. All this I began learning at ESR (however reluctantly), both in classes and in various communities with which I became involved. The degree to which I have changed is apparent in my reaction to the elderly Presbyterian who claimed he didn’t really have a theology, but attended church for community. I want to assure him and his puzzled daughter that, in the most important ways—and if we do it right (“Love each other as I have loved you”) community is theology.