One of my summer camp highlights as a child was to help build the Monkey Bridge every year and then cross it. My mother would not have approved had she known, due to the danger and to her ignorance of our native ways. But the grown-ups who stored the ropes all year long, who knew how to tie solid knots and to make us brave, were people I could trust, even though my mother might not have done so.
As Friends, we strive to weave bonds of trust among ourselves, and it takes special effort to weave them across generations. In the summer of 2009, Pacific Yearly Meeting (PYM) approved the creation of a Youth Program Coordinator position for a three-year trial period. Our community felt called to strengthen the bonds of faith and fellowship among our different generations, especially between youth and older adults. We agreed that by hiring a staff person to support us in working towards this goal, we would be more likely to reach it. Sarah Beutel filled this position from May 2010 through July 2011, and Alyssa Nelson has filled the position since then. I have been a member of the program’s Supervisory Committee from the start, nominated because I have raised my two teenagers with the support of our yearly meeting.
What does it mean to become a member of Friends? How does that meaning differ from one generation to another? Our committee cast out these questions to 11 Friends in Pacific Yearly Meeting, whose ages ranged from 16 to 63, and we interviewed them for answers that reflect on the material, social, and spiritual aspects of membership in the Religous Society of Friends.
As I mulled over these Friends’ responses, I imagined the vast network of relationships in our yearly meeting that stretches across the West, and the Monkey Bridge came to mind. We made that bridge from scratch every year and stretched it across a deep ravine—a sort of 50-foot rope ladder slung between two huge tripods of branches. The middle rope, the one that you walked on, was as thick as your ankle. But the whole enterprise was shaky, and it took a lot to make you haul yourself up to the top of that first tripod and wobble your way along that arm-breaking line from one bank of the ravine to the other. Similarly, we Quakers cast our lines of spiritual friendship across great chasms between our different situations in the world. So what does it mean to be Friends together today in Pacific Yearly Meeting?
Our generation gap is due in part to geography. We comprise 37 monthly meetings and 13 worship groups that are scattered over an area greater than 285,000 square miles (California, Hawaii, and Nevada), and that doesn’t count Guatemala and Mexico City, nor the 2,387 miles between Honolulu and San Francisco. Young Friends find it especially hard to gather together with others of their own generation. Very few of them live close to a meeting, and the cost and logistics of traveling to quarterly and annual gatherings are daunting. Even so, the Young Friends that we interviewed tended to cite Pacific Yearly Meeting as their spiritual home, rather than the monthly meetings near them. “I’m in a new city now and these elders didn’t know me growing up. They don’t know anything about me. Unless I relate to that person, it’s hard to have a spiritual conversation.”
Basic material considerations of money and effort are central to the question of membership. Young Friends know that membership involves a reciprocal commitment between a Friend and a monthly meeting, and many know also that they are not ready to make such a commitment. One Young Friend, self-described as being in her “itinerant 20s,” told us, “I feel very strongly that membership is too big of a commitment to be lightly transferred from meeting to meeting.” Another explained, “This is the period when you’re figuring out what’s going on with your life. . . . You don’t know where you’re going to be next summer. Our lives are so unknown right now that it’s hard to make that commitment.” Yet another explained, “Since I’m strapped for cash, I wonder how else I can give to the meeting, other than the committee work? As I say this, I know there are other ways, but generally speaking, that’s how I understand giving my ‘dues,’ so to speak—money or committee work.” For the older Friends we interviewed, the decision to seek membership generally occurred when they settled down, when they started their first jobs or started families. They also spoke of membership in terms of the material investment of themselves in their meetings: “Membership meant that I gradually took responsibility for business meeting. I was promising to be there when the meeting needs me, to do my share rather than assuming someone else will do it. . . . I want community, so I’m willing to do what it takes.”
The social aspects of community are also essential to the meaning of membership in Friends. No religious society exists unless two or more are gathered together. The purpose of the yearly meeting’s Youth Program Coordinator experiment is to strengthen the bonds of faith and fellowship throughout our intergenerational community. Our committee’s interviews with Friends revealed that simple fellowship precedes deep sharing of faith. For Friends of different generations to become “capital-F” Friends together, they must first become “little-f” friends together.
In our interviews, Friends observed that fellowship is nourished both by unstructured time together and by structured activities. For the past few years, Junior Yearly Meeting (our teen program) has hosted a session of “new games” at each of Pacific Yearly Meeting’s annual gatherings. While this session has brought some welcome lightness, Friends also long for other types of informal sharing with each other. One Young Friend asked for “more intergenerational activities. Not just having games one time, but things like hikes, with everyone of different ages going together. There’s always a tendency of age groups to divide by age lines. Figure out some way to force it not to divide that way.” One of the teens requested, “Do more things that involve people of different ages. One of the main reasons I don’t approach people is that I don’t know them at all.” And experience shows that it works: “At one New Year’s gathering, I noticed that I was so relaxed, so just there, and I felt like I didn’t have to do anything except catch up with people—people really hearing about you and caring about you, cooking together and recharging our batteries.”
In addition to wanting more unstructured time together, Friends also want to participate in more activities that offer safe structures for self-revelation. “How to have a conversation—that’s the biggest help that anyone could provide across generations. . . . I feel shy about working with younger people. . . . Mostly I don’t know where they’re at or what they’re interested in talking about. There haven’t been many situations that have been structured where I’ve talked to young people. And when they’re unstructured, it’s hard to get going, hard to feel you’re committed to the conversation.” Young Friends also emphasized that care is needed to structure any activity of self-revelation in a way that provides a level playing field. One advised, “If the intention of worship sharing is to build community, it’s really important that there are no right or wrong answers to the queries. A good query would be something like, ‘Share one of the most challenging experiences you’ve had.’” When done well, the disciplined sharing of personal experiences can foster deep bonds of mutual healing and growth across a wide range of ages. “When I was 12 or so, I went to PYM for the first time and was going through a painful time in my life. A group of Friends, most of them a generation or three older than me, got together as a sort of affinity group and sat in worship with me and shared how they had also gone through similar experiences. . . . It helped me to know I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. . . . It showed me that helping someone can be as simple as listening, and speaking from your experience.”
For Friends, the spiritual aspects of membership are intimately interconnected with the social aspects. An experiential faith of lived testimonies is revealed through the everyday actions of its people. Ideally, membership in a Friends meeting will heighten the tensions we feel between our values and those of the common culture, while strengthening our resolve to live by our Quaker testimonies. One Young Friend explained that “You and the meeting are supposed to have integrity, or keep each other accountable or grounded, but I’m not sure it ever works that way. Maybe membership represents an intentionality, a commitment . . . It takes hard work, and you thresh through things; often times it’s worth it and you all end up growing from it.”
In our interviews, several Friends spoke about ways that other Friends served as role models in their spiritual development. “The conversations I had with Earl Reynolds, I remember profoundly. Earl was an old Quaker activist who’d sailed the Golden Rule into atomic test zones, a crusty, no-nonsense, old-time radical. Hearing him describe the voyages and how he dealt with the authorities in Japan . . . gave me an image of character—how to be a strong, independent person and live your life with integrity.” Another Friend spoke about joining Friends at the time when he registered for the draft: “Membership seemed more important at the time of the Vietnam War. . . .to be in a community where it was okay to be against the war and government policies.” Friends also find spiritual role models in others who share their ignoble struggles as well as their noble ones. “[He told me how] he’s gone through some difficult times and how his spirituality helped him through it. . . . It’s important to see that even if you fall off the Quaker Wagon, it’s still there for you. He made me remember that it’s not about living the testimonies perfectly; it’s where your heart is and your intentions. At times your life can be clouded, but you can always find the Spirit and come back to it.”
Membership in a spiritual community of Friends requires us to speak truth about our testimonies while we try to live them. Disentangling the meaning of our actions from the values of the common culture is not something that we can do in isolation. Young Friends and new attenders especially want the guidance of seasoned Friends in this. “I don’t even know how to interpret the word ‘spiritual.’ I identify my upbringing as Quaker, but I am pretty strongly agnostic. . . . Dispelling myths of the superiority of a physicalist viewpoint . . . would probably be helpful in fixing generational gaps, because I think [today’s] aggressive atheism was not as common before [as it is] recently, when religious people are rarer than ever and being proud of your faith makes you a target on the playground.” Another Young Friend described the relief that just such a spiritual conversation conveyed: “As a young teen, I was perplexed about how Bible messages and Quaker ideas were not consistent [with evolution]. I was helped by an older Quaker who told me that God does not work in our time frame. You can believe in evolution and also put the Bible to good use.” Helping each other articulate our testimonies as we try to live them in the world can help us to let our light shine. “As a kid, sometimes you don’t even know you’re practicing your religion in Quakerism; it’s not like being Catholic. As a young adult . . . I’m proud that I’m a Quaker. It’s a special part of me and is a huge part of who I am. If you say you are a Quaker, people know—t’s a compassionate person, that’s an honest person. But that pride can be lost. We need to make sure our youth can be proud, learn how awesome it is to be Quaker, how much freedom and support we have.”
The material, social, and spiritual ties that bind a member to a Quaker meeting are infinitely complex. The decision to become a member is also infinitely complex, but a simple invitation can help. “The clerk of the meeting encouraged me to write a letter asking for membership and stood with me while I wrote it. It was about two sentences long, and I handed it right to the clerk. It felt perfunctory. But it was a big thing that someone invited and encouraged me to become a member. Yes, it’s nice to let people decide for themselves, but it’s also important to let people know they’re cared about.” Generally, such perfunctory moments lead to deeper processes of discernment, as another Friend remembered: “In my teens and early twenties, I think that membership was generally something I avoided. The idea of having to be a card-carrying individual of an organization in order to be a true member was what was so unattractive to me at the time. This all changed when an elder in my monthly meeting whom I looked up to approached me and suggested it was time for me to consider membership. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll get a clearness committee to explore the idea.’” One young Friend suggested that the yearly meeting might even develop an informal process of “checking in” with its young adult attenders about this. “There’s that time of transition that’s awkward. It could be more intentional. There could be a natural clearness committee for Young Friends about membership.”
My own membership in my monthly meeting began when my children were small, and my meeting helped me to raise them. The mother waiting at home is now me—wondering about my kids far away, crossing a Monkey Bridge with people I barely know. The work that Pacific Yearly Meeting is doing to strengthen our intergenerational community is work that strengthens me, too. Let us cast the ropes straight and tie them well, as we care for the bridge that is membership in the Religious Society of Friends.