A few months ago, a Friend told me how difficult it’s been serving as clerk of her monthly meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee.
“There are people in our meeting doing good work,” she said, “but they don’t do it through our committee. They don’t even tell us what they’re doing so we can help spread the word about it. So, I suggested, if people are just going to do their own thing anyway, maybe we don’t really need this committee. But everyone acted outraged and said, ‘Oh, no! We can’t possibly lay down the committee!’” She sounded exasperated.
This clerk is not alone in her frustration. During months of traveling among Friends, I’ve heard enough similar stories to convince me that our work for peace and social justice would be better served if we at least questioned what purpose these committees serve and found new forms when the old forms feel dead.
It’s understandable that many of us hope to address social issues through our monthly meetings, especially if we are not already doing so through our jobs. Trying to face violence, injustice, and environmental devastation alone is a recipe for paralysis. We need to work with other people. The problem is that a monthly meeting is set up to be a faith community, not a social action group. The Finance Committee takes care of the meeting’s finances. The Grounds Committee the grounds. Even Care and Counsel—which may vary in name and scope from meeting to meeting—has a limited mandate, focusing on the care of meeting members and attenders.
In contrast, the poor Peace and Social Concerns Committee has a mission that is both enormous and vague. Is the purpose to educate meeting members on current events, to support the leadings evident among us, or to galvanize the meeting around some common concern? Among those Friends who want to take action, some feel led to work on climate change, while others are led to prioritize addressing racism. Some feel passionately about feeding the hungry or housing the homeless, while others want to respond to whatever issue has been in the headlines recently: the Iran nuclear deal, the Syrian refugee crisis, or gun violence. Many committees feel pulled in different directions and do a little on everything, usually with little impact.
To complicate matters further, Friends have different philosophical approaches to social change that may lurk unnamed. If a meeting does collectively agree on an issue—say, gun violence—will it teach Alternatives to Violence in schools, lobby legislators for better gun control laws, or organize civil disobedience at a local gun shop? Each has its merits, but the least controversial option will usually prevail if it needs the support of a whole monthly meeting. Installing solar panels, for example, which my own meeting is pursuing, is a wonderful common project, but it’s also an easier sell than challenging the local utility company to create solar jobs in high unemployment neighborhoods, as Earth Quaker Action Team’s new campaign does.
This is why Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) was formed outside of the usual Quaker structures, to free its members to challenge powerful institutions in ways that make some Friends uncomfortable. The result has been that many Friends willing to use nonviolent direct action to address climate justice have found each other across monthly and even yearly meetings. EQAT, whose board I chair, has also attracted many beyond the Religious Society of Friends, especially college students and young adults, who have strengthened the group in innumerable ways. If we have any hope of changing powerful structures—whatever issue we are addressing—we need to work with people beyond our own walls and use tactics designed for that purpose.
This doesn’t mean that our monthly meetings are irrelevant. They can be places where we change ourselves, despite the larger unjust structures. If a meeting wants to work on racism, it can make sure it is welcoming of all and sensitive to racial bias in the way its various committees do their business, from Care and Counsel to Adult Education. If the meeting cares about climate change, its Finance Committee can divest from fossil fuels, while the Grounds Committee installs a rain garden, in addition to solar panels. I suspect that meetings with struggling Peace and Social Concerns Committees are sometimes reluctant to lay them down precisely because charging a few Friends with that responsibility is easier than letting those concerns permeate all our work.
Yearly meetings face similar challenges to monthly meetings, but their larger scale also creates more possibilities. Southeastern Yearly Meeting (SEYM) has done a great job of following the leadings of their teenagers, first in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) campaign for fair wages and then EQAT’s campaign to get PNC Bank out of mountaintop removal coal mining. When PNC moved its annual Shareholder Meeting to Tampa, Fla., in April 2014, Friends from seven SEYM monthly meetings with a six-decade age-spread rallied. Afterward many said how great it was to work together on a cause. Last year Philadelphia Yearly Meeting laid down old committee structures in order to make more room for the Spirit, and a call to address racism emerged from the body.
If we make attention to the movement of the Spirit fundamental to our work for peace and social concerns, we may breathe new life into old structures or create new ones altogether. This attention to Spirit is what I want most from my own monthly meeting, which is, after all, a faith community. I am deeply grateful when my meeting supports my work for climate justice—holding the launch of my book Renewable under its care and giving money to EQAT—but what I appreciate most are deep communal worship and people to pray for me when I’m doing something scary, like committing civil disobedience. And those gifts come from the life of the body, not from any one committee.