Eldering: A Legacy

When I arrived in Champaign, Illinois, in 1963, I made my way to the Friends meeting the very first Sunday. What was I looking for? I wanted to follow a spiritual path; I had a calling to the ministry, and at the time Quakers were unique in encouraging women to take spiritual leadership. I also wanted silent worship. I wanted to be clear who was responsible if worship wasn’t helpful—I didn’t want ever again to return home after worship saying, “It wasn’t a good worship this morning—the minister didn’t do a good job.” I wanted to know that if it hadn’t been a good experience, I was the one who was responsible. And I was new in the community— one went to church to meet people.

I got so much more. I found a spiritual home, a spiritual community. I found people committed to working things out when they disagreed, and committed to finding the best way forward in any corporate decision.

I found elders—Quakers who helped me find my way spiritually. There was Rachel Weller, who was the first person to talk to me about practicing the presence of God, about praying without ceasing, about all of us having a piece of the Truth. If we found a way to unite all our little pieces of the Truth, we probably had found what God wanted us to do about whatever we were facing.

I had not yet spoken in worship. I wondered sometimes if I should speak, but I wasn’t sure whether it was God who wanted me to speak or if it was just me wanting to hear the sound of my own voice. However, James Ayars came up to me before worship one Sunday and said, “Ministry and Oversight Committee has been talking, and we think you should be speaking in worship.” I told him my concern. He said, “You just go ahead and speak. If you’re not moved by the Spirit, we’ll be sure and tell you.” It was still several months before I began to share during worship, and to this day I don’t know what Ministry and Oversight saw that made them encourage me to speak.

Another of those early elders was Gardiner Stillwell. He actually came a few years after I did. He had read “Friends, Society of” in the Encyclopedia Brittanica and decided he wanted to see what it was like when someone spoke because God gave that person a message. I was the first Quaker minister he experienced. He was so excited when I stood—it was actually happening! God had moved someone to speak! He often mentioned that I was the first person he heard speak in meeting. Gardiner had a prodigious memory. He often told me things I’d said 20 years earlier and I always tried to look as if I knew what he was talking about. One day curiosity overcame me and I asked him, “What was it I said that first time you heard me speak in meeting?” He said, “I don’t really remember what you said. I remember how it made me feel: that God had spoken to me through you.”

All of these elders had one quality in common—humility. They were all 30 and 40 years older than I and much more spiritually experienced. All three had a lot more social standing than I, a mere graduate student. But they all treated me like a spiritual contemporary. They asked me my thoughts about spiritual matters as if they genuinely wanted to know. When I became mentally ill, those elders carried me—carried me for 20 years. I stopped going to business meetings after faithfully having attended it for my first 15 years, but I was faithful in worship. That’s exactly what they often said to me: “You are faithful in worship.” Those dear elders encouraged me—they said my ministry nourished their spirits.

I had been taught in early childhood not to speak of an elephant in the room. Quaker worship had taught me to speak my Truth, but that was before midlife, when I had my very own, very big elephant—the diagnosis of mental illness. I thought hard before I went to worship that next time. Do I tell Friends the truth—or not? Friends were my family, but family was where I’d learned not to speak of elephants. I thought to myself, I’m sure they all know I’m sick. I would be making it harder for all of us— they’ ll have to pretend they don’t know, and I’ ll have to try to remember what excuse I gave to whom and when. It’ ll be harder for them to help me if they have to pretend they don’t know. Life is too short to spend it lying. And so, whenever I spoke in worship, I explained my illness before I told my story about the ways God was helping me heal. Friends—old and new, younger and more mature—often told me my sharing had helped them with the ghosties and ghoulies in their own lives.

One Friend made sure I always had a ride home after worship. When she began experiencing awful memories and realized her father had sexually molested her and her sister, and she had been complicit in his molestations of her daughters, it was in those car rides home from worship that she shared her anger and her pain. All I did was listen—listen and give her hugs. What goes around comes around.

In 1998 I felt called to attend business meetings again. That first business meeting was one of those four-hour marathons. My husband teased me, “Your problem was that you went back to business meeting cold turkey. You should have attended at least four committee meetings before attending your first business meeting!”

I began working on the meeting’s problems, and shortly after that I was nominated to Ministry and Oversight. M and O didn’t have a designated leader at that time—it was too politically charged for someone to want leadership. “Don’t make waves. You might sink under the waves.” I prayed for the meeting, daily. I prayed for everyone who walked through those doors, each one by name. Out of those prayers came my statement of the M and O agenda. Nobody ever said, “Where’s this crazy lady coming from, that she seems to think she can lead us?” Instead when I named the issues, they turned their attention at once to wrestling with the issue—they didn’t wrestle with me, they wrestled with the problem. Eventually, I was made clerk of the meeting. I was still mentally ill, but I had a deep desire to give back to my meeting. I loved them; they were in a sticky situation, and I worked to help the meeting heal its wounds and move on—together.

The elders who taught me to be a Quaker are all gone now. I’m the person who teaches others to be a Quaker. I’m an elder now! They taught me because they loved Quakerism and because they loved me; I teach others because I love Quakerism, and I love the strangers who walk through our doors. I see their hunger. Someone fed me when I was hungry, and now it’s my turn to feed the hungry. Jesus said, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” There are a lot of hungry sheep out there, and I yearn to feed them. That was the legacy of my Quaker elders. Now as an elder, it’s my turn to pass on the legacy.

Every one of us is an elder in the making in our meeting. Think about the legacy you received and the legacy you want to leave behind.

Mariellen O. Gilpin

Mariellen Gilpin, a member of Urbana-Champaign (Ill.) Meeting, is an editor of What Canst Thou Say, a newsletter for Quakers with an interest in mystical experience or contemplative prayer, and is clerk of the Ministry and Advancement Committee of Illinois Yearly Meeting.