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The Spirit of God is often found in the midst of conflict. We can find it if we are able to stand still, prayerfully listen to one another and to the divine presence among us, maintain our practice of waiting worship, and seek truth together in community. Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM), a dually affiliated yearly meeting with membership in both Friends United Meeting (FUM) and Friends General Conference (FGC), experienced an eruption of cultural and theological differences in 2002 during the Friends United Meeting Triennial in Nairobi, Kenya.
This was my first time traveling to the African continent, where we worshiped with Friends from very different cultures. We were welcomed graciously by our Kenyan Friends at the FUM Triennial Meeting. Our Baltimore group experienced programmed worship services, prepared sermons from pastors, sometimes separate programs for men and women, and a strong sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I met Kenyan and North American Friends who were grounded in the Spirit, genuine in their love for God and their devotion to following Christ, our Inward Teacher.
But soon after we arrived in Kenya, our delegation learned that our beloved yearly meeting clerk, a gay man in relationship, had been disinvited from serving as a worship sharing leader. We were stunned and pained! Our immediate concerns were ministering to our clerk and trying to understand why his invitation had been withdrawn. FUM senior staff and volunteer organizers gave varied explanations. One explanation referred to an FUM personnel policy that included both staff and volunteers. BYM had representation on the board at the time the policy was approved; the representatives, however, had not understood its consequences. The policy states that staff and volunteers serving FUM pledge to be celibate if unmarried, with marriage defined as between one man and one woman.
We returned to the United States and our annual sessions in early August with conflicted hearts and contradictory experiences. The hurt experienced by our clerk and our sudden awareness of an FUM policy dominated that yearly meeting. We believed the policy was discriminatory, and consternation, pain, and anger permeated our gathering. It was difficult to hold onto the positive experiences of our visit. How could Baltimore Yearly Meeting possibly address our profound cultural and theological differences with others in FUM while maintaining respect and compassion for all? Our attempts to answer this question led us into a painful and prayerful process of discernment and worship that lasted several years.
Faithful Listening to the Spirit
Starting with our 2002 annual sessions, Baltimore Yearly Meeting leadership helped create opportunities for processing the raw emotions from our awareness of discrimination, along with the positive experiences of our time in Kenya. There were informal and formal information and threshing sessions. Staff and visitors from FUM attended some of our sessions and also participated. Friends engaged to learn more about our experiences and the origins of the controversial personnel policy.
Opinions and reactions varied within our yearly meeting. We discovered that BYM and several of our monthly meetings were not in unity around issues pertaining to same-sex relationships. We were in unity, however, to support our clerk. But what did support mean? Some Friends wanted to disassociate from FUM completely; others wanted to withdraw funds; and still others wanted to stay engaged and work on these differences while remaining in relationship. How could we wage peace in the wider world if we were unable to engage peacefully with our own family of Quakers? Many of our lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer Friends urged us to remain connected to FUM as a witness to the truth we have experienced. We struggled to remain faithful to expectant, waiting worship. No unifying Light was revealed to us for two years.
The Spirit Breaks Through
Finally, a way forward emerged during the annual sessions in 2004. During a meeting for worship with a concern for business, it seemed that a powerful experience of unity was present. A darkness was lifted from our collective hearts. We arrived at this clearness by eventually being able to engage in deep listening to the Divine Spirit, the Inward Teacher, the Christ within, for ourselves and for each other. We experienced what Douglas Steere called service in his 1955 talk published as Where Words Come From: we were “listening another’s soul into discovery and disclosure.”
We realized that the troubling Friends United Meeting personnel policy would remain for a time but that we could remain in “loving disagreement” with this policy. We felt led to be faithful to this clarity by remaining part of FUM with our witness to inclusivity. Our representatives to the FUM general board were charged with carrying that message. We also acknowledged the brokenness of our relationships with FUM and discerned a call to revive a practice of traveling in the ministry with the goal of knowing one another in that which is eternal.
A minute was approved, which stated these intentions. Funds for the FUM operating expenses were budgeted. Nine months later we approved sending these funds to FUM, asking that they be restricted to covering intervisitation and a conference on sexual and gender diversity.
A Deeper Message Revealed
Forwarding the money to FUM for intervisitation brought us a sense of relief. The pain we had experienced for several years had been palpable. Now there was a way forward—or so we thought: the check with our restricted donation was returned! FUM’s general secretary sent a letter explaining that funds could not be accepted for something that wasn’t an established program of FUM. The Spirit’s message was that the task of intervisitation was ours: we were to engage corporately and personally to develop and implement an intervisitation program within Friends United Meeting.
Appointment of an Ad Hoc Committee on Intervisitation
A small ad hoc committee was convened, which drafted a mission statement. Approved by the body in 2005, it included our intention to set aside contributions to FUM until unity was reached concerning our financial support.
The Intervisitation Program of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) seeks to strengthen the Religious Society of Friends and nurture the beloved community of Friends, especially within Friends United Meeting (FUM). While BYM’s concern regarding an FUM personnel policy planted the seed, that concern is not the program’s focus. Rather, as we in BYM faced the pain we felt as a result of that policy, we awoke to the fragility, and in some cases brokenness, of the relationships among the yearly meetings and monthly meetings within FUM. Thus the goal of BYM’s Intervisitation Program is to encourage, prepare, and support Friends to travel among yearly meetings with the faith that we can listen deeply, strengthen our relationships, and build our faith community. Our program assumes that intervisitation will be in all directions and those interested will offer and receive hospitality.
There is a wealth of wisdom and experience from the Christian tradition and early Friends concerning traveling in the ministry: for example, from the so-called Valiant 60, ministers who traveled throughout England and Wales in 1664. FGC had a traveling ministry program for many years, and many Friends have written books, pamphlets, and articles describing their faithful response to leadings to travel. The ad hoc committee gathered materials and resources from Friends’ experiences and practices and developed a process for our intervisitation program. It developed workshops and trainings, which have also been attended by members of other yearly meetings. The committee also asked guests for evaluations and suggestions for improvement of the program. For example, this is from an FUM guest to Baltimore’s 2010 session:
My experience at Baltimore Yearly Meeting was a dream come true. For many years I’ve read and considered the primitive path of our Quaker forebearers; the deep sense of waiting on God that permeated their lives. What I found was a gathered people hungering and thirsting for righteousness, with the concluding reality that they were being filled. I was greatly fed from the moment of arrival by the embrace of the intervisitation committee to the closing conversation with my roommate. Baltimore Yearly Meeting allowed me the opportunity to be stretched and “grown” in ways that I never expected. To God be the glory!
Intervisitation: The BYM Experience
Baltimore Yearly Meeting has not recorded ministers for quite some time. We found that practices of identifying and naming spiritual gifts and leadings needed to be re-introduced, or newly introduced. The ad hoc committee established a process for traveling ministers.
The first step is for a monthly meeting to establish a clearness committee to help potential travelers discern their leading. If the leading is affirmed, the committee helps prepare a travel minute. The travel minute is presented to the meeting for worship with a concern for business for improvements and discernment. If the monthly meeting approves the travel minute, it is forwarded to the committee which then recommends the minute to the yearly meeting for endorsement. The traveling Friend presents the travel minute to each Quaker group that is visited, and the presiding clerk records an endorsement on the travel minute. This is an opportunity to acknowledge the visit, send greetings back to Baltimore Friends, and to share reflections. Traveling with an elder (or companion) is also encouraged. The presiding clerk of an FUM-affiliated yearly meeting wrote this in 2007 on the travel minute of a BYM Friend:
I have seen [your BYM traveler] move through the various groups gathered—listening patiently, asking questions, and just being present. I must confess that for some there is a deep intake of breath at the idea that BYM has come to join us. “Will they jump down our throats—assaulting us on our passive pacifism? Will they share their disgust, dismissing us because of our perceived intolerances?” It has been a peaceful joy to have [your BYM traveler] here—representing you well—learning, building empathy and compassion, and also equipping us for change.
Over nine years Baltimore Yearly Meeting Friends have visited almost every FUM yearly meeting and association in North America. We’ve encouraged Friends to return to the same yearly meeting. We also actively invited Friends from other FUM yearly meetings to join us during our annual sessions, offering to cover annual session fees for program, lodging, and meals on a first-come-first-served basis. We engage with visitors in small and large group settings to share how the Spirit is working in our lives. Reports are made to the yearly meeting annually, and workshops and interest groups are offered at Baltimore’s annual sessions and during the year.
I returned to Mombasa, Kenya, in 2010 as one of a group of Baltimore Yearly Meeting women attending the United Society of Friends Women International Triennial, joining other North American women from other FUM yearly meetings. Several BYM men attended the Quaker Men’s Conference as well. Friendships and relationships were deepened as we entered fully into worship, educational opportunities, and business sessions with Kenyan and North American Friends. A Baltimore Yearly Meeting visitor to USFWI that year wrote this reflection:
I experienced so much in three weeks, yet barely scratched the surface of life in Kenya. I did get the opportunity to connect on a very personal level with some amazing Quaker women, young and old, rural and cosmopolitan. The practice of their faith and their identity as Quakers came across as central to life itself. “God is good all the time. All the time God is good.”
Ministry of Presence
Philadelphia Friend Douglas Steere once wrote about the powerful, long-standing practice and witness of Friends being present where we are in the moment, listening to the Spirit of Christ, the Inward Teacher: “I am present, Lord, I am present where I am and you are present with me.” Several years into our work, members of the ad hoc committee named our experiences with intervisitation a “ministry of presence.” This term has been traditionally used to describe pastoral care work, particularly chaplaincy work.
A ministry of presence is described by other public Friends traveling in the ministry. In Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) suggests that traveling Friends are “agreeing to rendezvous with God in a particular place with the expectation that if one is faithful to the rendezvous, something divinely good will happen.” A minister of presence travels without a particular concern, prepared sermon, or teaching plan. Friends listen for how God and Spirit is working. In a pamphlet titled Spreading the Fire, New England Yearly Meeting Friend Debbie Humphries reminds us that “early Friends embarked upon an experiential path that transformed them, refining corporate worship and business practices rooted in the personal and corporate experience of immediate guidance of the Divine.”
How Are We Called Today?
Transformation and healing has occurred throughout Baltimore Yearly Meeting and Friends United Meeting. These healing moments are recorded in reflections from travelers, visitors, and those visited. Another level of reconciliation and healing occurred in 2010, when BYM’s Interim Meeting was clear to resume regular, unrestricted contributions to FUM. The Intervisitation Program expanded to visit beyond FUM when BYM approved a revised mission statement in 2014.
Through a simple “ministry of presence” we hope to be spiritually and prayerfully present, to listen deeply with love and without judgment, to be tender with another, not to bring our own agendas, and to get to know each other in that which is eternal. Visits will be in all directions, and involve both offering and receiving hospitality.
We have much to learn about naming and supporting gifts of ministry, creating accountability in love, and eldering and companioning one another in public ministry. Knowing that early Friends went before us and many contemporary Friends are renewing these practices is an anchor for us. As one Friend discovered, “The peace work I do is through the Intervisitation Committee.”
These practices of traveling with a ministry of presence are an important aspect of the future of the Religious Society of Friends. Will we walk together on this journey?