The resolution of the meeting’s long-standing conflict with “Q” in “Challenging Conflicts in Our Meeting” in the December 2017 issue illustrates a fundamental question about Quaker meetings: Are they for the one lost sheep or for the ninety and nine of us, safe and comfortable in our spiritual community? The resolution described in the article took care of the meeting but not of Q, who remains unable to express himself effectively and caught up in anger. The fear that Q’s angry words caused in Friends is also troubling, because a peacemaker who is frightened by angry words will have a hard time making peace in a shouting world.
Mary Julia Street
What seems key to me when encountering questionable or offensive situations in meeting is to not shrink from addressing what is going on, preferably by describing exactly what we’re seeing. I want to emphasize the word “describe.” It does not help the situation to jump quickly to evaluation or explanation. Evaluation and explanation, even when completely correct, keeps the problem (and the person) at an intellectual level.
For example, consider a middle-aged man who regularly chooses to sit very close to a young female newcomer and converses with her exclusively after worship. We could evaluate this behavior as creepy, or explain it away as the man being clueless, but he may evaluate or explain his behavior differently. (The young newcomer should also be met with and heard from.) Our thoughts about him or the situation don’t really change anything anyway. It certainly wouldn’t help to pull the man aside and ask him not to be creepy, because he will likely not agree with that evaluation. Instead, it is more helpful to describe to him in painful detail his actual behavior. For example, you might say, “For the last three Sundays, you walked past empty benches and sat next to X with only a few inches between you.” Then make an explicit request: “Starting next Sunday, please sit next to one of the adult men.” It is important to do this intervention with the understanding that this person is most likely behaving without an intent to be creepy, and that the female newcomer is also unhappy with his behavior.
When a Friend seems to be devolving into patterns that we might associate with mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, dementia, or paranoia, it is even more important to stay with description and avoid jumping to conclusions. This is not only because one’s conclusion might be wrong, but because it rarely helps a person to be offered a diagnosis in place of compassion. Imagine an elderly member who has recently displayed uncharacteristic outbursts of disproportionate rage.
Another reason I suggest describing questionable behavior is that we need to check our tendency to maintain a smooth but false veneer. Sometimes our impulse to control disruption is not in the interest of the spiritual community. Behavior we label as rude or offensive might turn out to be a needed intervention in a meeting that is spiritually dead and covering it up with a gingham tablecloth of niceness.
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Let me add this (though it’s rather obvious). Disruptive behaviors at Friends meetings are exacerbated by the way those attending the meeting choose to react. Those reactions cause harm to all; yes, being direct saves everyone heartache.
Vegetarian economics and hospitality
Lynn Fitz-Hugh’s article “Being Vegetarian Is a Climate Issue” (FJ Jan.) suggests that refraining from consumption of meat, especially beef and lamb, will help reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that are driving climate change. Large amounts of carbon dioxide are released by the production of the U.S. corn crop, and methane is released from the intestines of ruminants, such as cows and sheep. Alas, refraining from consumption of beef and lamb doesn’t seem to help the climate much. To bolster corn production, the U.S. government mandated that ethanol—made from corn—be added to our gasoline. Not only does producing the corn that goes into ethanol release the same amount of carbon dioxide as any other industrial corn agriculture, but fermenting that corn, and then distilling it, releases much more carbon. Of every three atoms of carbon in a starch molecule, one is released as carbon dioxide in the course of fermentation. And then there’s the high-energy process of distillation to separate the ethanol from the mash, which releases still more carbon.
Fitz-Hugh believes that the corn not fed to animals might be sent abroad to feed hungry people. That is also not a good idea. Dumping of U.S. corn in Mexico has undermined the Mexican farmers who used to produce corn; no doubt the effect in other countries would be the same.
I am not suggesting that being a vegetarian is a bad idea. There are good reasons to avoid meat in our diets, but we need to understand the forces of economics better before we attempt to change the world economic system by our personal choices. Philip Harnden’s article “Simple Living Beyond the Thrift Store” in the same issue underlines my point.
White Plains, N.Y.
While the core principles are sound in the article “Being Vegetarian is a Climate Issue” (FJ Jan.), I find it decidedly naive and downright problematic in many places, including suggesting that we as a Quaker community forcibly offer only plant-based food without considering the actual needs of the people we are in community with. It is not hospitality to set a table that will leave multiple guests struggling with their medical needs after eating a meal. It is not good stewardship of our communities to exclude anyone for something so simple.
Perhaps my work as Friends General Conference’s Gathering food coordinator is coloring my comment. I think of the hundreds of attendees who would be fighting their bodies and in some considerable discomfort throughout the entire week, if we transitioned to exclusively plant-based proteins. I am one of those attendees, and I cannot imagine facing down a week of only vegetarian meals while trying to focus on my job, the eagerly anticipated socializing, and self-care. I wouldn’t be able to stay awake for more than an hour at a time by day two of the event!
Bringing the joy of food that honors people’s needs and nourishes the bodies of all attendees at Gathering is what makes the work of this position worthwhile. Using food as a political tool is not on my agenda. Food is inherently political, entwined with our values and culture. Using food to exclude or shut down an outlet of hospitality, especially for people who are often struggling for balance in their own bodies, is against everything I know as a kitchen manager, cook, Southerner, and Friend.
Suzanne W. Cole
New Orleans, La.
What is our testimony of simplicity?
I wince when the Quaker testimony of simplicity is considered only in terms of economics (“Simple Living Beyond the Thrift Store” by Philip Harnden, FJ Jan.). My understanding of early Quakers is that simplicity was as much about not being distracted by worldly ways as it was about improving the world. Even Wikipedia says: “Testimony to simplicity includes the practice among Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends) of being more concerned with one’s inner condition than one’s outward appearance and with other people more than oneself.” This article does a wonderful job of being concerned about other people more than oneself, but fails to address being concerned about one’s inner condition.
Perhaps it would be less confusing if we talked about our actions (testimonies) supporting inner simplicity, our actions (testimonies) regarding stewardship of the Earth, and our actions (testimonies) regarding equality and justice for all people.
I, too, thought that simplicity meant not being caught up in having the latest thing the world wanted to sell us but being satisfied with what we have. Contentment is an inner spiritual experience of being free from consumerism. Living should be more than what I own and use. As I approach retirement later this year, I can see that I will need to simplify more for personal economic reasons, and will have a wonderful opportunity to concentrate my life on relationships with God and others.
I certainly agree with the contention that changing our personal behavior is not a sufficient response to poverty and the material excesses of our culture. Perhaps though, the bumper sticker (“Live simply that others may simply live”) is a call to change our collective behavior as well.
Our individual lifestyle changes can make a difference, if the money and time that we save by implementing them are redirected toward the social change that we want to see. However we live out the testimonies though, we have to respect the choices of others; we don’t know what factors informed their choices. We can use these different choices as kindling for discussions about our testimonies, and perhaps even as a catalyst to collective action that may influence the wider culture.