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Quaker Women’s Theology Conference

When the invitation to write an article for Friends Journal about the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference (PNWQWTC) came in the spring, I couldn’t believe it when I found myself writing back to them with excitement, saying, “Yes! Of course I would love to!” Truth be told, I had been avoiding Quakers until the week I spent at PNWQWTC in June. Last year, I told myself that I needed a break; after diving into the Quaker world with both feet four years ago, I have done little that was non‐Quaker. Only a month previous to the conference, I had graduated after four years at Earlham School of Religion. My whole world revolved around Quakerism: my friends were Quaker, my school was Quaker, my ministry was among Friends. I was well steeped in the tradition and was feeling like I had become quite prune‐y. And spending so much time immersed in the Society of Friends left me feeling burnt out, hurt by internal politics and disillusioned by the imperfections I saw around me.

So, when the chance arose a little over six months ago to move back home to my family’s organic farm on a small island in British Columbia with my husband, I jumped to take it. We stepped down off of each committee that we were serving on (a goodly handful between the two of us), packed up our house and made our way west to have our Quaker sabbatical.

When I found myself driving down through beautiful scenery in Washington, on my way to PNWQWTC, I couldn’t help wondering how I had ever thought this was a good idea. What was I thinking, deciding to spend time with more Quakers on my sabbatical, so soon after I graduated from ESR? Especially when there was such a good chance of this conference being a difficult one, bringing together women from different branches and trying to build relationships over the divides? But even as I grumbled, I knew that I was going where I was meant to be.

In the first evening, as I drove through the gates of the beautiful campus of Seabeck Conference center, I realized that I didn’t know anyone at the conference, except through phone calls. Everywhere, I saw women hugging each other, their love for one another abundantly clear. A t other conferences, this is what I would be doing; greeting f/Friends with love and hugs and squeals of joy. But here, I felt a little awkward and unsure of myself. Not only did I not know anyone, I didn’t even have my husband beside me—he could often ease the way because he seems to know someone in every Quaker circle we walk into. I t felt like the first day at school, unsure of the clothes I was wearing, of what kind of things I should be talking about, of who I wanted my best‐est friend to be.

During the weekend, I met women that I connected with deeply, feeling a spirit connection with them that is inexplicable. I not only stumbled upon new dear f/Friends, but the self that I had left behind on the road somewhere between my Quaker life and my farm life.

The first thing that became clear to me during my time at Seabeck is that I need more corporate worship in my life. Worship nourishes me in a way that I was not aware of until I didn’t have access to it anymore. (On the small island that I live on now, I have to travel 6 hours round‐trip to attend meeting.)

The “home group” that I was assigned to was an incredible gift throughout the conference. I t gave me a place to process what I was experiencing, such as the “aha!” moments that drew me back to my Path one step at a time and to go deep into the Spirit with a small group of women. I assumed at the beginning of the weekend that I would know who belonged to what branch of Friends and that I would have to work at being in relationship with those women. Both in the home group and beyond, it was a wonderful surprise to realize that I couldn’t tell liberal from evangelical, programmed from unprogrammed Friend. Even our nametags didn’t say which branch of Friends we came from or the meeting we belonged to—we were just Quaker women, exploring community and the theme of accompaniment together.

Of course, this didn’t mean that we didn’t talk about the differences among us. It did mean that it wasn’t the first thing we learned about each other. What an incredible experience to be at a conference where we truly started by becoming community, by falling in love with one another, and then beginning to work on the difficult things as they came up rather than doing it the other way around! And work on difficult issues we did. We labored together over unintentional hurts that happened regarding differences in belief and practice, grieved together over the impact of sexism on women in Quakerism, and were outraged together over the continued presence of ageism in the Society of Friends. We joined together in loving support for Friends who were struggling with personal or loved ones’ illnesses and identified places in our lives where we were feeling the absence of support and accompaniment, making commitments to find it upon our return home.

Prior to the conference, I had been asked to sit on a panel of young adult women to talk about our experiences in regard to the theme of the conference, Walk with Me: Mentors, Elders and Friends. Though I don’t remember the exact words spoken, I remember vividly the gist of the plenary and the power of it. Each of the four women spoke about a different experience of being a young adult woman in the Society of Friends. The Spirit moved strongly among us as we shared very different experiences of being mentored and supported on our journeys. The women attending the conference celebrated with us the ways in which we had been empowered and held sacredly. And we mourned together as some of us shared the experience of not being taken as seriously as our male counterparts or coming up against the insidious barrier that ageism erects.

In the question and answer period, a woman asked us what we thought could be done to shift the sexism that still exists in our Religious Society today. The answer that came through me was to begin to confront the internalized sexism that, as women, we let dictate so much of our lives. I t was ministry to my own soul, as well as for those who were listening. So often, in my own ministry, I have struggled with the call to stand proudly as a woman minister in the Society of Friends. I have been called to both the role of minister and that of elder in my time among Friends. For me, being an elder is a much more comfortable experience (though difficult work and very demanding), because I can blend into the background. Time and again, elders and Friends have encouraged me to step firmly into the role of minister, to trust the Spirit to flow through me, and to be courageous. Sometimes I do better at it than others. But until showing up alone at this conference—sans husband— and realizing just how strange that was for me, I had not realized how much my own internalized sexism continued to permeate my life and steal my power. There, in that group of strong and wonderful women, as they surrounded us in song and prayer at the end of our panel, I let the tears stream down my face and felt a terrifying and awesome wave of my own power. To be faithful means that I must not only submit to the Spirit, but also claim my own strength, step into my own courage and celebrate the powerful woman I was created to be.

My weekend at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology conference left me with another realization about myself. This one, however, turned my understanding of my current life on its head. Here I was, at this Quaker women’s conference, after stepping away from all the various roles that I had in the Society of Friends and seeking the idyllic farm‐life and life‐beyond‐Quakers, only to realize a very simple truth: I had a place among Friends. Not only did I have a place there, I was called to be there. I am called to be there. Despite the discomfort it causes as I drag my heels and the imperfection that I witness (in myself, as well as others), it is my home. Perhaps it’s not my forever home (can you hear my Quaker boots dragging?) but it is my home for now.

It was with great joy that I drove home, feeling refreshed in body and spirit for the first time in months. I felt more sure of myself than I had in a long time.

Though I sometimes think that the lessons I learned should be permanently etched in my mind, Spirit is much more fluid and forgiving than that. Instead of becoming a crystallized piece of truth that I could grip quite firmly in my hand and hold high for people to see (a very dangerous sort of clarity), those understandings (of needing more worship, stepping into my own power, standing in the face of sexism, being a minister, and my place being among Friends) settled gently into my life much more like a piece of silk might. They touch me softly as I walk through my life, more prominent at times than others. A t times, they surprise me and sometimes, they soothe me. But always, always those revelations are close, like the Spirit, and there for me when I think to reach for them.

From my husband, I am learning to love the art of quilting — and those pieces are small scraps of truth that I have found along the way. In time, I know that my life will be filled with silky scraps of continuous revelation that will come together to be a beautiful never‐finished tapestry.

Erin McDougall received her Master's of Divinity from Earlham School of Religion and lives on Mayne Island, British Columbia.

Posted in: Features

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