Twentieth-century theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” There have been times in my life when I was doing good and important work, but it was not the work that made me come alive, and it was not the work for me. Currently, I am the executive director of Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS), a new expression of the tradition of Spirit-led service and witness, which is at the core of our faith community. During the summer of 2013, QVS celebrated the close of our pilot year in Atlanta, Ga., and welcomed 21 young adult volunteers to our second program year, expanded to two additional cities.
This leading has unfolded for me over the course of the last ten years. This work, and all of the steps leading to the start of it, has always felt alive and full of love and rightness for me. Not that the journey has been easy or without conflict, pain, and lots of frustration. The “coming alive” that Thurman described is not simply doing what feels good or what is most comfortable in the moment. It is more than just doing what makes you happy. To come alive requires a deeper sense of listening (to what Quakers would call the Inner Teacher or the Inner Light) and also learning how to respond faithfully to what you hear. Early Friend Isaac Penington said it this way in 1671, “Mind and watch to that which quickens and enlivens the soul towards God, and watch against that which flats and deadens it; for they are both near, they both seek after you, the one for your good, the other for your hurt.”
I graduated from Guilford College in 2002, on fire to make a difference in the world and to live my Quaker faith. But I had a hard time finding anything concrete for a young, relatively inexperienced person that would fulfill this longing. So I moved into a Catholic Worker Movement house in Philadelphia and met amazing, radical, dedicated people who understood their work for peace and justice to be in direct relationship with their faith, and who answered the longing in me with real-life opportunities and support. While searching for Quaker-based examples of similar service and justice work, I had become a little jaded and disappointed with Quakers. I found many instances of people pointing to examples from our history, but very few highlighting current experiences or contemporary Friends. Eventually, I did get involved in Quaker work in Philadelphia, serving on staff with American Friends Service Committee for two years and on various Friends General Conference committees. I continued to wrestle with how our faith could regain the vibrancy and prophetic quality from the past and create opportunities for Friends to follow leadings in supportive community. At the same time, I wondered why so many people in my young adult age group were drifting away from the Quaker faith.
One day about ten years ago, an older Friend named Sandy, who is a mentor of mine from my home meeting in North Carolina, came to visit me in Philadelphia. We had an enlightening conversation about faith and community, allowing me to put my thoughts about disillusioned young Friends into words. While he and I were sitting at my kitchen table, the basic vision of what would later become Quaker Voluntary Service just spilled out of me. Sandy wondered why I felt more connected to other faith communities than to my own. At the time, I was living in community with some Mennonites my age. As I saw more and more Friends in my age group slowly detach from Quakerism, this group of young adult Mennonites remained committed to their faith community despite also having questions and concerns about their faith. They were active in their local congregation and part of a larger network of other Mennonites at similar points in their developing adult lives.
I realize there are many historical and theological reasons that contribute to Mennonites and Quakers having different approaches to forming a sense of self-identity. However, as I conversed more with my Mennonite friends about this topic, the same response kept coming up, one that I agreed with myself: The opportunity to engage in faith-based, meaningful work in young adulthood greatly contributes to a fuller sense of self within the world. They explained “meaningful work” as work that is firmly rooted in and explicitly part of the overall Mennonite faith and church structure. Two examples of organized groups that exist to facilitate this kind of experience for Mennonites are Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), a program designed for young adults to live together in community and work in service-related internships, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief, service, and peace agency with projects in North America and around the world. Several of the Mennonites I was living with (and many of their family members and friends) had done a year of service with MVS, or had spent time overseas with MCC. These organizations are well known and accessible, and, most importantly, provide transformative experiences. In addition to developing their convictions about social justice and their role in the world, participants are able to firm up their identities as Mennonites and their commitment to the church. Their descriptions reminded me of my experience in 1998 with the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage (a program run by Friends World Committee for Consultation for young Friends ages 16–18), and of stories I had heard from older Friends about past AFSC and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting workcamps, where there was a sense of belonging, a connection to a wider community, and a way to engage in one’s faith tradition while doing something meaningful and potentially world-changing, as well as opportunities to worship and work with like-minded people.
Sandy and I began talking about where this kind of experience was in our own Quaker community. As a recent college graduate, I had little luck finding an organized group within the Quaker community that was founded specifically to support the growth and energy of young adult Friends like me. The programs that existed during that time seemed so small. I noticed that many were not directly recruiting Quakers and most did not contain any faith component. Plus, they were not connected to each other, making it difficult to find them all at once. It was easier to find programs like the Peace Corps and other non-Quaker programs, like MVS, or in my case, the Catholic Worker Movement. These groups focus on social justice and peacebuilding, and they know how to incorporate the gifts of younger, less experienced people in meaningful ways, but they are missing the connection to Quakerism that I was looking for.
The concern about how we Friends nurture and support our young people, facilitate transformative experiences for them, and set them on a path to being effective change agents in the world became alive in me, and I soon was convinced that Quakers needed a program that would fill this need. At first, I was impatient. I had just come up with this brilliant idea and was ready to make it happen. I could so clearly see what the problem was and how to fix it! But thankfully, things don’t happen so quickly when we are not really ready.
I made several initial attempts to get the idea into motion, including submitting a proposal to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for how they could revive the old workcamp house in West Philadelphia and get the necessary funding. But, due to many reasons, the time was not yet right to implement this large-scale vision. At that point, I had not done enough listening, relationship building, and research both within and outside of the Quaker world for such an involved endeavor to be successful. However, what happened next was definitely a positive step along the way. I was invited by FGC to work with others on a concern that was—and still is—at the heart of the big idea: How should Quakers support and nurture our youth and young adults?
So my original vision was set aside for a while, but as I engaged in the work of the Youth Ministries Committee of FGC, I continued to feel a sense of life and love that affirmed my time and energy was well spent on addressing this concern. I also felt a sense of belonging with and trust in the other committee members. Looking back, I believe that the work completed over the ensuing years, on my committee and in many corners of the Quaker world—work that revitalized our faith, engaged prophetic witness, and empowered young and old alike to articulate and live out our Quaker values—set the stage for the next phase of the project. Movement was happening all over the place! Through this process, I learned several important things about testing a leading. I learned that sharing a vision with other people is crucial, and that concerns can be acted on in many different ways. I also learned that patience and endurance is required.
By 2008, I was living in Atlanta and had been working for AFSC’s Southeastern Region for a couple of years as the peace education coördinator. I was feeling clearly led to leave my full-time employment at AFSC and apply for seminary, though I did not fully know what I would do with a formal theological education. I was burned out, exhausted, and felt that while the work I was doing was important and exciting to many, I felt it was being done from a place of despair and anger, rather than of joy or even hopefulness to make a difference. It became clear that if I was to engage in peace and justice work for the long haul, which I very much wanted to do, then I would have to create a more sustainable and joyful path to follow.
Around that same time, while at a different committee meeting for FGC, my good friend Bruce Birchard, who was then the general secretary of FGC, and I went for a walk during a break. I remember him asking me, “Christina, what is it that you really want to do when you get your Master of Divinity?” We both stopped; then I replied, “Well, Bruce, what I really want to do is work on that vision of creating a service and community program for young adult Quakers, the idea I told you about when we first met.” He looked at me intently and said, “I think we are ready for it, and I think you are the one to do it.” It was one of those moments that you remember as a critical turning point. Right then, he helped me figure out the next step, which was to organize a consultation on Quaker service with the help and support of others.
Once I began sharing my idea with people from all over the country, I received some surprising feedback: “Oh, I have had that exact same idea!” and “I have been working on something very similar.” and “You know, we tried that in the ’90s.” Before then, I had no idea that others carried this vision, too! My leading felt true because it was about something larger than myself. There was a real convergence of people and groups with a very similar idea and a shared longing. What had always felt like a personal leading for me turned out to be a much broader leading for our Religious Society of Friends. With confirmation that so many people all over the country were yearning for the same thing, it felt like the right time to move forward.
During my last year in seminary, I had the opportunity to devote time and energy to researching the history of Quaker service, as it was the topic of my final thesis. I especially focused on exploring the AFSC workcamp programs. I delved into how the workcamps formed, how the experiences shaped young Quakers and seekers, what the camps accomplished in terms of the work itself, and why they ended. Through this research, I was able to further articulate the goal and aim of the fledgling Quaker Voluntary Service—a clear vision similar to what Rufus Jones called “prophetic service.” During seminary, I also had the chance to meet with the directors of about 15 other faith-based service programs (all in the national network Volunteers Exploring Vocation)—organizations like MVS, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Mission Year, and Brethren Volunteer Service. They welcomed me with open arms, sharing generously their program plans, budgets, expertise, advice, and encouragement. Many of them noted how their programs had long ago been inspired by examples of Quaker service, and that they wondered what had happened to us. Far from viewing us as competition, they were excited and supportive about welcoming another similar program into the fold, knowing that Quakers will reach a different population of young adults who may not be drawn to the other opportunities out there, and also recognizing that Friends bring many gifts to this kind of work.
In the latter part of 2011, the board of QVS formally decided to launch our first house of service in Atlanta. Over the next several months, way opened in terms of funding, finding a house, securing commitments from site placement organizations where our volunteers would be placed for their service, and recruiting many wonderful applicants. The foundation I was employed by at the time allowed me to spend a large amount of my time in service to the beginnings of QVS, and one of our board members was released for ministry to focus on this work full-time. In late August 2012, I became the full-time executive director of QVS, and we welcomed our first class of seven young adults to the Atlanta house.
Our basic model, similar to other faith-based volunteer service programs, is groups of six to eight young adult Volunteers (it is QVS policy to capitalize this word when referring to our year-long adult volunteers) living together in intentional community while they serve full-time in professional roles at local organizations devoted to working with or supporting marginalized people and changing unjust structures and systems. By partnering with local organizations, we are better able to ensure that we are not inventing service projects that really only serve ourselves, and we strengthen long-term relationships in the nearby communities. Our Volunteers serve to increase the capacity of these organizations, helping them do the work they were already doing and will continue to do whether we are there or not. QVS also partners with local meetings to provide spiritual care and support to our volunteers. Additionally, we set aside time and energy to focus on our programming. Every other Friday is a “QVS Day” when the Volunteers do not work at their site placements, and instead spend time together exploring themes of justice, spirituality, and community. We have three retreats during the year, and Volunteers hold regular house meetings for worship and for business.
The first year was an amazing success. I could write a whole new article describing all of the many wonderful ways our Volunteers grew and changed and all of the incredible things we learned, including how much Atlanta Meeting deeply benefited from the relationship with QVS. We have expanded our work to include two new cities: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon. We have incredible support from many Friends in both places. In late August 2013, ten years after I sat at my kitchen table in Philadelphia as a 23-year-old dreaming about how to change the world, we welcomed 21 new volunteers into our three-city QVS network.
I’ve learned that when we faithfully discern our callings, whatever they may be—for they are all different and all vital—and act faithfully, we are not guaranteed an easy time, or success, or anything at all except for God’s presence and love, and a feeling of rightness, life, and joy. Resisting the urge to charge ahead to do what we think needs doing or what we may want to do means we can make time to pray and listen, be in community, and test our leadings, also making sure to occasionally check that they are still full of life and faith. When we trust this process, I believe we will find that we have more boldness and courage, that we are better able to continue to love sacrificially, that we are more prophetic, and that we can sustain our work and witness over the long haul.