June/July Forum 2012

Membership not old-fashioned

The April issue of Friends Journal raised a number of interesting issues about membership. One of them is the peculiar habit Friends have of identifying themselves as Quaker through their membership in a meeting, a tendency not found in other denominations. The issue also asks us to look at whether this emphasis on membership also makes some (especially young adults not yet able to put down roots) feel unwelcome or like second-class citizens. These are good questions.

To some degree, the concept of membership is one that belongs to another time and place. As we do with other things in a heavily secular world, we begin to forget the religious reasons for membership. Early Friends believed deeply in an accountability to the fellowship that was found in a meeting and a group of people. Quakers had rejected both Pope and clerical hierarchy as the source of Truth, and they even said the Bible was not the primary source of Truth; Truth, they said, was to be found experientially. After the James Nayler incident, it became clear to Friends that there had to be checks on leadings claimed as Truth by individuals, that leadings should be tested, and that individuals be held accountable to the collective wisdom of the fellowship. Thus membership in a meeting provided a group to labor together to discern all of the most important decisions of a lifetime: to marry, to pursue a specific career, or to answer a call to ministry or activism.

Fast-forward 350 years to the United States where the entire population is highly mobile and young adults especially are in transition. I was raised a Friend and went to college as a member of the meeting in which I grew up. It made no sense to transfer my membership while in college. Following college, I lived in six places before settling in Seattle, which has four meetings and worship groups. I attended each of them before finally finding my home. By then I was 36! It was a long journey, yet it was convenient to have my membership at the patient meeting where I grew up and to be able to list the meetings where I was sojourning. Rather than simply discarding the idea of membership (as some suggest), we should hold young Friends’ membership in their yearly meetings, to which they could pay their annual fee.

For those who come to Quakerism from another faith, our approach to membership must be puzzling. In many churches, becoming a member is no more significant than signing up for a book group. We, however, hold a clearness committee for potential members and report back to business meeting on whether we have clarity to accept the person into membership. For many this is an intimidating process. In my meeting, a long-time attender never applied for membership out of concern that her husband’s employment for a major arms manufacturer might disqualify her. She was never persuaded to apply because there were indeed members of meeting who, given her husband’s employment, were not clear to accept her. I also recall someone in my yearly meeting who did not apply for membership because he felt that he was not good enough, not sufficiently morally pure. That seemed tragic to me. Is membership as value-free as applying for a library card? Or does it stand for a set of values? We must grapple with this, not ignore it.

For older attenders who are ambivalent about membership or unclear about its purpose or benefits, I would offer the following: some look for the perfect meeting, waiting to find it before applying for membership. Like some singles who are dating, they will have an eternal wait. There are no perfect mates or meetings! In fact, it is helpful to think of membership being like a marriage: it is a two-way commitment. At its best, it brings great gifts and fulfillment; at its worst, it can be a lot of work and painful. Like a marriage that isn’t wholly satisfying, a meeting can be worked with, rather than treated as a sporting event watched by spectators. As in a marriage, we also may be asked to grow.

Requiring accountability and spiritual work and growth, membership in a meeting is not to be cast aside as some sort of old-fashioned idea. We should not confuse membership in our Society with membership in secular groups like social clubs or other organizations where membership helps define social status or identity. That is not what the Religious Society of Friends is about.

Lynn Fitz-Hugh
Seattle, Wash.

The Living Presence bridges difference and heals

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the April issue of Friends Journal, you may have noticed Earl Mitchell’s lovely painting of the Durham (Maine) meetinghouse, built in 1829 (Mark Greenleaf Schlotterbeck, “Waiting with the Outcasts and Strangers”). The door to the meetinghouse is open. Like all monthly meetings within New England Yearly Meeting, we are dually affiliated with both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. Our door is open for all to enter, and our meeting is home to a wide spectrum of belief and practice. The open door is an invitation to worship together. While Mark Greenleaf Schlotterbeck imagines that Jesus stands outside Durham Meeting, it is my (our) experience that the Living Christ Light transforms and deepens worship here. Far from excluding, that Living Presence helps us to bridge difference, to heal, and to draw us together into the (however imperfect) Beloved Community.

Daphne Clement, pastor, Edwin Hinshaw and Sue Wood, co-clerks
Durham (Maine) Meeting

I am in the throes of packing for a journey and haven’t finished reading the April issue of Friends Journal, devoted to the subject of membership. But I am delighted to see attention given to the generation gap and the need to attract and retain young Friends. I’m also grateful for Mark Greenleaf Schlotterbeck’s powerful essay “Waiting with the Outcasts and Strangers,” which defines a kind of membership of conscience in unexpected ways. I hope Mark will find his way back into Durham (Maine) Meeting, both physically and spiritually. In the meantime, his argument (“to exclude gay people from staff and volunteer positions is morally indistinguishable from excluding people because of their skin color or gender”) is rendered in the most compelling terms. His discomfort with Friends United Meeting’s anti-gay personnel policy and his argument that Jesus himself would wait outside the meetinghouse will, I hope, be heard by FUM.

“If we cannot take this step of solidarity” in support of gay Friends, we should, Mark suggests, install two drinking fountains in the vestry: one for gays, the other for straights. It would be a situation not so different from the drinking fountains in the South, once labeled Whites only and Colored only.

David Morse
Storrs, Conn.

Whetted interest

At Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., we are focusing on Quaker heroes in First-day School. Deborah Swiss’s article on Elizabeth Gurney Fry (“The Angel of the Prisons,” FJ, March) whetted my interest. I requested her book The Tin Ticket from the library, which it obtained from a small town in western Pennsylvania. The book is captivating—focusing on research, creating full characters from archived materials, identifying issues of becoming a new country, and bringing alive not only Elizabeth Fry but the young women who were transported. Please pass on my thanks and praise to Deborah Swiss.

Susan Betts
Wyndmoor, Pa.

Whole world is my meeting

Gabriel Ehri’s comment (“How Do We Define Who Is One of Us?,” FJ, April) that “one can practice faithfulness to the Inner Light whether or not one calls oneself—or is called—a Friend” made me smile. I am a person whose primary focus in life has been faithfulness to what I believe is my Inner Guide—a force that, as a young Methodist, I referred to as the “God radio” in my heart. Though I feel a great sense of kinship with Quakers (whom I discovered at age 31 and worshipped with for three years), I find that my spirit is fed primarily through the experience of ecumenical contemplative-prayer groups.

I was guided to join one such group 17 years ago, but it was not love at first sight. I was unable to understand, initially, why I had been inwardly steered to a contemplative-prayer group of individuals whose theology was far more conservative than my own. Only through much prayer on my part, and I’m sure on the part of the other participants, did we finally (after five years!) begin to accept each other and, consequently, help each other to grow and expand spiritually. I now appreciate the gifts that I receive when I allow myself to worship with those who appear to be “other,” and because of this I yearn for additional opportunities to bond spiritually with as many religiously diverse humans as I possibly can. I now like to think of the whole world as my meeting.

After reading in the April issue about the many young-adult Friends who choose to remain outside conventional meeting membership, I’m wondering if they are experiencing feelings similar to my own. George Fox’s Pendle Hill vision was of “a great people to be gathered.” Why must that great gathering of people be anything other than God’s children coming together as one family?

Shelley Bourdon
Lexington, Va.

I just read the beginning notes by Gabriel Ehri in the April issue. They got me thinking about my own experience of Friends and meetings, especially his two questions: “Who do we mean by we?” and “How do we define who is one of us?”

From about 1976 to 1986, I was associated with Wilmington (Del.) Meeting. I was on the Religious Education Committee for three of those years and clerk for two. For that entire period, I was not an official member of the meeting. First, I was very uncertain of my worthiness to be a Friend, since I am a Vietnam veteran and extremely and uncomfortably conscious of that. I am still working on this problem. Second, and quite strangely as I think about it, I was never asked if I planned to become a member of the meeting. During this time, I also became what amounts to an unofficial member of the meeting at Wilmington Friends School’s Lower School. For four years, I took my daughter to school and stayed for meeting every week. When she moved on to middle school in another building, I stayed.

Since about 1990 and continuing to the present, I have been volunteering every Thursday morning at the kindergarten. When time for meeting for worship comes around, I go with my kindergarten buddies. I attend meeting regularly throughout the year, except when school is not in session. I am still not an official member of a meeting. When asked why not, I reply that Lower School meeting is not an official meeting. Then I am asked: “Why don’t you just join Wilmington Meeting?” The real reason is that it is not my meeting. The other, and probably more important, reason is that I love meeting with my kindergarten buddies and the rest of Lower School. The messages, while sometimes hard to hear (given in those tiny voices), can be wonderful. I honestly feel that Lower School worship is my meeting.

If I am not officially a Quaker, if I do not attend an official meeting, does that matter so much? The sense of community I get at Lower School is sometimes overwhelming, very real, and satisfying. Isn’t that what is most important about meeting for worship and being a member of a particular meeting? I hope so. Here’s one last note: my meeting is the largest in Delaware, about 300. That seems like a bonus, especially when there is a vibration of all those small souls being together in one room, all in meeting together. I certainly would never admit that on some Thursdays there is less vibration and more turbulence. But then, I always give the children the benefit of the doubt, because I have spent worse times in other meetings trying to rise above the turbulence of grown-ups.

Where does that put me?

Thomas F. Bayard (Tim while in kindergarten)
Wilmington, Del.

Remembering Rustin without distortion

For those of us who truly want to engage with this inspirational man (“Bayard Rustin at Swarthmore College,” FJ, March), it is distressing to see how time and time again Bayard Rustin’s foundational relationship with God is clinically excised by a hostile ideology. Why even bother to bring this man to the attention of a wider public if only to distort his faith and then bring someone else to wider attention? Clearly Bayard was a man of great faith, and it was this faith which poured into his efforts for justice. This is no secular and politically correct, sterile hero, but a man of God.

Mark Johnson
Blue Mountains, Australia

Striving to mend a broken world

In reading your issue on prisons (FJ, March), I asked myself, “Why have I been visiting in prisons off and on for the last 25 years?” The answer is that I am joining in an action that strives to mend a broken world. The prison worship groups and Alternatives to Violence Project workshops, in which I have participated, both focus on creating community, something that makes all of us more complete. For me, it is important to see and to know those whose lives are hidden from our view and whose struggles are unacknowledged in the wider world. All of us are diminished when some are not seen. My hope is that my witness is experienced as a supportive act. All who participate are enriched.

“When we are all welcome, we will all be free,” was a message given by someone in my home meeting that I experience as a truth. When I go into a prison, I am expressing my faith in an Inner Light that has the possibility of transforming my life as well as those of others. It is my responsibility to bring the hopefulness of my faith with me, and it is also my responsibility to convey to the outside world the potential of those I have met in prison.

Because I have been going into prisons for a long time, I have had the opportunity to see people I have met in prison struggling to lead constructive lives on the outside, often with significant success. These struggles are regularly the result of long sentences, lack of programs in prisons, and parole policies that do not recognize the possibility of change.

Other problems may occur as a result of unexpected consequences following release from prison. Some people have not been able to change while incarcerated. I believe that prison policies focused on punishment and revenge do not support positive change in those who are incarcerated, and as a Friend, I stand against a criminal justice system based on these values. In recent years, I have found it important to add my voice to those advocating for the need for a fundamental change in this system.

Pamela Wood
New York, N.Y.

I have been a recipient of the Quaker visitation program for a good 20 or so years now, and it has afforded me an opportunity to explore and better understand not just myself but Quakers, the greater community, and society. This gives me faith and hope that I will return to society someday.

I have never been judged by Friends, only shown respect, kindness, and compassion. These last two decades have been a learning experience that has helped to produce a new person in me, and has also helped those with whom I have shared my experience. Prison is a lonely and isolated environment. Quakers have broken the bonds of negativity that can encompass and enclose a prisoner’s self-esteem and self-worth. The visitation program is one way to keep prisoners informed and in tune with the community and societal events, a way to remind those of us behind these walls that “there is that of the Creator in all of us,” if only we seek to explore deep inside ourselves. Quakers are with us to say, in effect, that we are not alone in our struggle.

Quakers are a living example of their motto “Let your lives preach!” On behalf of all socially conscious prisoners who have experienced or heard of the Quaker experience, I thank you for your tireless efforts.

Yohannes Johnson
Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, N.Y.

The March issue on crime and punishment really caught my attention, for I don’t believe that too much publicity can be focused on the injustice of the U.S. criminal courts and prison systems; it stirs the conscience of us all. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much in the issue to be relevant, excepting Richard K. Taylor’s “A Quaker Stand Against Mass Incarceration,” which was comprehensively on point. I hope Friend Richard’s approach will serve as a model for future issues of Friends Journal on topics truly focusing on crime and punishment.

Gerald Niles
Tomoka Correctional Institution, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Peace in ordinary things

There is a wonderful freedom about Peter Lang’s “Walking from the Shadows into the Light” (FJ, April): the witness of a life lived with abiding reality. He suggests walking cheerfully (without earphones or rushing!) over all the Earth, seeing that of God in the poor souls who suffered in the Morristown, N.J., hospital for the insane, which was built in 1876 and is now in ruins. I cannot think of a better place for pilgrimage. I hope to go there myself one day and walk in his footsteps. In every family there is insanity, now often named Alzheimer’s or autism. Our nursing homes may be in ruins by 2076!

At the moment I am homebound with pneumonia and caring for a husband receiving hospice care. Like Shakespeare’s Prospero in his last play The Tempest, I struggle to release Caliban (the dark, earthbound sins we all battle at 3 a.m.) and Ariel (the bright, too bright, sickness that strikes at noon). I am slowly breaking the magic wand of control in order to leave the enchanted isle for hometown Milan (or Dumont).
Peter Lang’s peace is found in doing ordinary things like a daily walk, faith service to a loved one, or worship in the same old place with the people we see every Sunday. When we are unutterably at home, we may be surprised by joy and grief when we meet God among the ruins.

Roberta Nobleman
Dumont, N.J.

What we say versus what we do

I love the story in the April issue titled “General Sam Wants You!” It’s less about what we say and more about what we do. With all our talk, what will we, you, or I do? Words can inspire, but leaders like Gandhi and King demonstrated courage by being willing to sacrifice and be imprisoned. Is the article more about the obscene amount of funding for the military, the disparity between spending for the military and that for social programs, or about the principle of being forced financially to participate in war?

Alan Gamble
Jackson, Mich.

The answers may be within

In the article, “The Faith of the Magi” (FJ, Dec. 2011), it’s stated that the Magi of Zoroastrianism had many names for the Lord, but the main name Ahura Mazda (God of Light) is the name Friends use. As Friends wait on the Light to interpret the divine, do they really worship a different God? As we look at Scriptures and peel back the layers, literal interpretations aren’t the truth we seek; the answer may be within. Spiritual allegories that use the world without to symbolize the abstract world within have meanings that relate the Way, the path of challenges within.

Dirk Davenport
Salem, Ore.

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