Keeping It Real, Quaker Style

It’s always a bit of thrill and a leap into the wild when we open the pages of Friends Journal to whatever comes our way, as we do twice a year with our open issues. Sometimes a theme slowly appears as we read through the manuscripts. Perhaps it’s no great mystery that in the summer of 2018 Friends are wrestling with issues of justice and reconciliation. What I find fascinating is that these selections are curiously free of the whiff of manifesto or abstraction: there’s no extolling of Friends to do or not do some urgent list of actions. Instead, Friends are quietly, calmly looking at their surroundings and reaching for love and compassion.

J.E. McNeil (Contempt is a Bitter-Tasting Word) is a seasoned campaigner, a lawyer with executive directorships and board memberships on her resume, but in this month’s feature, she gets personal, even vulnerable. How do we begin to bridge the partisan chasms that have opened up in our lives, not just among politicians, but with our friends and family? How do we set aside the contempt and start to listen to one another again?

A recent alum of Quaker Voluntary Service, Andrew Huff (Life in a Box) now works at an emergency homeless shelter in Philadelphia. Because of space and safety constraints, every incoming guest has to fit their possessions into a single 23-gallon bin. Huff looked to see if he could get his material life into that space. He’s well aware of the class ironies of a stably housed person doing this as a voluntary exercise, but he approaches it headlong and clearly. It helped him understand the more systemic causes behind the housing crisis.

Camilla Meek’s story, Gota De Leche, starts off as a period of rest and lounging at the Pendle Hill retreat center. Curiosity led her to the library, where she stumbled across a fascinating if little-remembered chapter of Quaker history: the 1930s, a time when young Quaker relief workers traveled to Spain to assist refugees of Franco’s army in the brutal Spanish Civil War. Browsing turned to research turned to inspiration as she began to form her own concern for today’s refugees.

In Making Sense of the Starbucks Incident, Newtown Friends School seventh-grader Ankita Achanta shows how the Quaker values she’s been taught in classes could have defused a nationally publicized racial incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks. It’s sometimes easy to be skeptical of the Quaker identity of Friends schools, but Achanta reflects back the powerful impact of our collective witness in these institutions.

Kate Davies (A Quaker Perspective on Hope) shares another personal story, that of a longtime environmental activist who stumbled on an archaic meaning of the word hope and gained new insight into a power that can help us stay engaged and energized even in the darkest of times.

Finally, a reminder that while Quaker witness starts with worship and listening, it need not remain an individual concern. Seventy-five years ago, 52 Friends crowded into a room at the Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, to start the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Prophetic, Persistent, Powerful). Priorities and strategies have come and gone, but FCNL continues to equip new generations of activists and to provide a space of Quaker centeredness in the U.S. capital.

If the examples here are representative, Friends seem to be finding a grounded center, keeping our witnesses real and personal.


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