Growing Roots from a Distance

The Holland family in Mexico last year. Photo © Cori Baumann.

 

I turned 30 in the Yucatan. That day in April 2015, Merida was the hottest recorded place on the planet. My family had moved to Mexico a few months before for reasons many and varied, and that is for another story. But we gathered that day to celebrate my birthday—my parents; my brother; and my sister and I, with our husbands and children—and we looked at each other. We could barely breathe in my house, which couldn’t be air-conditioned because of the louvered windows and the large opening in the ceiling, meant to let rain fall onto the indoor garden in the middle of the house. We discussed the possibility that we had made a giant mistake, uprooting our lives to move to the hottest place on the planet. But also, I said, this is a pretty auspicious start to my 30s. Could be a sign of big things to come, I thought. I just hoped they were good big things.

Fortunately, the extreme weather passed, and we determined that we could, in fact, remain in the Yucatan. And it was there that we discovered and became Quakers. It was around the time of my next birthday that I realized that I couldn’t bear the sexism in our Presbyterian and Baptist churches any more, and I also realized that I didn’t want my three sons to learn in church that other people can tell them how they can worship God and to what extent, nor to learn that boys are a little bit more like God than girls are. I started a conversation with my husband and my sister and her husband, and we decided to look for another church, one that loves Jesus and welcomes women to preach. All the other doctrinal stuff, we said, we’ll deal with at home.

I searched for weeks, unsuccessfully, to find a church like that. All I found was people telling me in Spanish that women should be silent in church. There was a “friendship church” nearby, and that stirred a vague memory. . . . Didn’t friendship have something to do with Quakers? What are Quakers, anyway?


We were discussing Quakers and how deeply Quaker ideas and beliefs and practices resonated with us and who we were and why we had felt so uncomfortable in our churches for the past few years. I said, “I feel like we might be Quaker . . . not that I want to 0become a Quaker, but that we already are Quaker.”


I opened my computer and searched the phrase: “what are Quakers?” What I found was a whole new world of people and communities who care about peace and equality and integrity. I found George Fox and Robert Barclay and Margaret Fell. I found yearly meetings that emphasized community and organizations that were working toward social justice. For weeks, I researched like it was my job, and in the evenings, I told my sister and husband what I’d discovered. I remember one evening we were swimming in a pool, discussing Quakers and how deeply Quaker ideas, beliefs, and practices resonated with us and who we were and why we had felt so uncomfortable in our churches for the past few years. I said, “You guys, I feel like we might be Quaker . . . like not that I want to become a Quaker, but that we already are Quaker.” My sister nodded and said, “I’ve been feeling the same way.” My husband agreed.

So the next day, I found email addresses on some Quaker websites, and I sent emails explaining what had happened to us, asking if we could just declare ourselves Quaker. Is that allowed? Can we just be Quaker? The answers I received were encouraging and welcoming: “Yes! You can be Quaker! Welcome! How can we help you learn more?”

We needed a place to worship. The closest meeting we could find was in Mexico City, about 24 hours’ drive away. That wasn’t going to work. So we formed what became a Quaker house church. It started with my family and my sister’s family, and eventually a couple other families joined us. I started praying that God would send us a “pastory person” who would know how to do things like weddings and funerals and sick visits and help us through theological crises, because we certainly didn’t know how to do that stuff, especially not in the Quaker way. God responded by saying to me, “You’re right there. What are you doing about it?” I was shocked by the question at first: I wanted to see a woman pastor, not be one. But in January 2017 I began working toward a master of divinity degree at Earlham School of Religion (ESR).

© Michiel Ton/Unsplash

 

Ican’t remember when we started talking about membership. I think it was very early in our process, maybe even before I started at ESR. We were isolated Friends, but we didn’t want to be rootless Friends. We wanted to be connected with other Friends. We wanted our children to have an extended faith community. I researched several yearly meetings, and when I found the website for the New Association of Friends, I knew I’d found my faith community. Margaret Fraser’s words resonated deeply in my heart, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that particular group of Friends. I emailed them to see if they would consider accepting a tiny house church in Mexico for membership. After several months of communication and process, they discerned that they didn’t feel clear to accept our house church into membership, but they offered us the option of joining as individual members at large. We were thrilled! And one afternoon, my husband and I (representing my sister who was traveling for work that day) sat in front of our computer and appeared in a meeting for worship for business via Zoom, and we were accepted into membership with the New Association of Friends. I cried with wonder and gratitude for most of the rest of the day.

It had been painful realizing that we no longer fit in the denomination we’d grown up in. It had been scary leaving our faith community. We’d formed a tiny one of our own, but we knew that isolation doesn’t often lead to vibrant health and growth. But now we have been accepted into another community, one that is committed to discerning the Spirit’s leading in all the ways and places the Spirit works.

When I applied to ESR, I didn’t realize that it was in the New Association’s region. Imagine my delight when I found out that I would be able to attend New Association meetings whenever I went to ESR’s on-campus intensive courses! On my first trip to Richmond, Indiana, I was hosted by a marvelous couple who had visited us in Mexico; they were present at our very first meeting for worship in July 2016. This couple just completely pulled my family into theirs, and over the years, as they transitioned to living in a nearby town in Yucatan and I traveled to Richmond for intensives, they became dearly loved friends to my family. When I (and later my whole family) attended the meetings in Richmond, I felt right at home in ways I hadn’t in a long time.


My membership allows me to be in the community of George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Bayard Rustin, and all the Quakers alive today. I am usually distant but never isolated. And I am always grateful.


I am now the director of Friends United Meeting’s (FUM) ministries in Belize City (which wouldn’t have been an option for me if I hadn’t held membership in a yearly meeting or association). My transition into this role included six months of traveling throughout the United States, visiting all sorts of Quaker meetings and gatherings. All of this visiting has confirmed for me what I already knew: I love Quakers. I love the way we worship; I love the way we live community; I love the way we do business; I love the way we struggle, always, to discern the will of God. I love the way we seek healing after painful splits. I love the way we work for justice in this world. I love the way we are so incredibly varied, and the way no two of the dozens of meetings we visited were the same. Quakers are by no means perfect. But we try to love. We try to love God and each other, and we try to live in a way that is just and peaceful. And I love that.

My membership in the New Association of Friends allows me to be part of all of that, the joys and the concerns. My membership allows me to be in the community of George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Bayard Rustin, and all the Quakers alive today. I am usually distant but never isolated. And I am always grateful.

Nikki Holland

Nikki Holland attends Belize Friends Church, and she’s a member at large of the New Association of Friends. She is the director of FUM’s Belize Friends Ministries and a recent graduate of Earlham School of Religion. She loves her family, reading, and laughing. Contact: [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *