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The Peaceable Kingdom 2.0: Young Adults and Quakerism’s Future

Many Quaker Meetings proudly display an iconic and beautiful Edward Hicks painting of the Peaceable Kingdom as described in the Book of Isaiah. In fact, this past weekend, at PYM’s annual sessions, there was a giant paper‐mache rendition of this scene in the leadership‐themed tent. But what does it mean, in 2011, to let our young people lead us into unexpected relationships that transform the world? While at ISNA, I was given a comprehensive understanding of how Muslim young adults are nurtured and engaged by Muslim institutions and expected to develop faithful relationships within the community, from the moment they are born untill the day they assume leadership positions.

In this post‐Christendom, post‐9/11 country, there is a growing inter‐faith youth movement, thanks in part to the ability of new tools to enable communication and relationship. Youth from many backgrounds are represented in this movement, but not Quakers. Why? I believe it is because Friends have not successfully implemented the contemporary structures and new technologies through which this movement functions. We experience a lack of connection both inside and outside of our community due to generational and technological issues. This post will be an exploration of how Muslim, Quaker, and other faith communities pursue work with young adults to achieve a vision for the future of their respective communities.

I spoke with Iman Sediqe, the outgoing President of the Muslim Students Association (which serves individuals ages 18–35) and learned how their structure functions and benefits their Muslim communities:

There is a clear need for Quakers to have a similar structure to empower and engage its young people. Rarely are there yearly meeting structures for college students and young adults, and less and less so these days as three of the most vibrant and far‐reaching young adult programs are facing a bleak future. In response to tough economic times, Friends have responded by down‐sizing the Youth Ministries staff of Friends General Conference last year, defunding Pendle Hill’s Young Adult Leadership Development Program for future years, and eliminating the Young Adult Friends coordinator position at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting this year. I was in attendance at PYM’s sessions this past weekend. Most poignant for me was the manner in which the issue was framed. Friends spoke of the YAF position as something nice and generous that the yearly meeting had done for young adult Friends (YAFs), but that YAFs really have the means to take care of themselves for the most part. I find this to be patronizing and extremely short‐sighted. I believe it indicates a lack of vision for the future, and an unwillingness to address the dynamics of generational turnover and community cohesion on which the future is built. Quakers don’t have the only fruitful approach to faith, and young adults can and will find alternatives. Ultimately, the Religious Society of Friends needs young adults just as much, if not more, than young adults need the Religious Society of Friends.

In our interview, Iman describes an intentional structure and process to weave together rising and established generations. This is not seen as something done primarily for the benefit of the younger generation, but instead as a crucial step in ensuring that their community maintains a wholness of relationship with one another, retains its rising members because of those relationships, and ultimately, years down the line, has leaders who are well‐versed and trusted within the community. Within the Quakerism I have experienced, I see no similar practice. There is a patchwork of resources and endeavors, including occasional young adult Friend events, some grants for projects, summer programs to develop leadership, and so on, but these are disjointed, scattershot, removed from the larger Quaker community, and woefully incomplete compared to the intentionally coordinated and consistent offerings of other faith communities. If Friends are experiencing frustrations and a lack of trust with their current leadership (as a fair number at PYM’s annual sessions expressed) I would suggest that this would not be as acute had there been intentional approaches to establishing, maintaining, and developing relationships with these leaders when they were younger adults. There would be more trust, a practiced ability to communicate, a deeper understanding of the community’s processes and awareness of the important stake‐holders in the community. We must live into the fullness of the fact that the future is present and embodied in our younger generations. Considering the declines in membership and corresponding rise in median age, we must live into that soon, or resign ourselves to growing irrelevance and an eventual fading away into the pages of history.

Muslims are not the only faith community to see the importance of this work; most mainline Protestant denominations invest serious time, energy, and money into young adult ministries. They function through student‐oriented structures akin to the Muslim Student Association, such as the Lutheran Student Movement

Friends once engaged in this work through the Young Friends of North America, and were known for their leadership and participation in ecumenical circles, but now without an intentional process and approach to ecumenical and interfaith engagement by our youth, we lack a seat at the table. As Iman says, “Quakers don’t even come to mind” as a faith community to partner with.

I have spent the last 3 years researching, leading workshops, holding interviews, and interest groups around these issues and what to do about them (thanks in part to the support of the Clarence and Lilly Pickett Endowment). One report from this research can be found in a paper written for Friends Association on Higher Education’s journal Quaker Higher Education.There were five key elements of successful intergenerational partnerships that I noted in my gleanings from Iman, the ISNA event, and in interactions with other communities of faith. These include:

-Accompaniment. Building intergenerational relationships that partner for the sake of one another’s growth and the benefit of the wider community is vitally important. This could be some sort of mentoring, eldering, travelling alongside under a ministerial concern, spiritual friendship, serving as a board member for a Quaker organization, or just a cup of tea and some simple discussion every month or as way opens. Without a systematic or intentional process by which we engage younger generations, it becomes especially difficult to pursue mentorship and other forms of intergenerational partnership. It becomes everyone’s responsibility and at the same time no one’s responsibility and the resources for doing such work are not easily found.

-Connection and service to peers and other youth. Bonding with other youth and young adults as Quakers both inside and outside their faith community is vitally important. It reinforces the bonds of community that will keep them involved in the future, helps them define what it means to be Quaker by witnessing other expressions of Quakerism, and gives a testing‐ground for being Quaker in the wider world. There is also a great opportunity for weaving back, and focusing young adult energy into the service of children, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. At ISNA, it seemed like half the event was run by young adutls on work grants, especially around tech help and youth work. This is a wonderful moment to develop budding talents, and build cohesion among the relationships of rising generations.

Without a clear approach, the past four years generated an inconsistent series of national events for YAFs that lacked cohesion and failed to cultivate and accumulate the lessons learned over time from each event. Participants are often abruptly confronted with one another’s differences in theology, without a foundation of trust that comes through consistent relationships. This is dysfunctional and reinforces the internal disunity of Friends.

Externally, we are absent, as Iman notes. This kind of engagement could create opportunities to improve our understanding of the wider world of faith and the precious gifts of our own tradition. When we come into situations where our beliefs are in stark contrast to those around us, we see our uniqueness more clearly and are challenged to articulate who we are and what we believe to the outside world. Muslims have been forced to do this because of the culture which besieges and painfully misunderstands them, while Quakers have generally accepted being benignly misunderstood for Shakers, the Amish, or others, and have (by and large) stayed out of ecumenical and interfaith endeavors as a faith community.

-Discernment. Probably the most immediate need for young adults, and the clearest area where our communities have the potential to bond and serve, is in figuring out how each young person will engage the wider world now that they have completed their journey through family and school. At ISNA, I noted that there were programs to help individuals discern and work on their vocation, their family and romantic relationships, their relationships to the economy and college debt, and so on. I would add to this list the question of lifestyle and location. What does it mean to be a 20‐something Quaker and live “in it, and not of it” in the 21st century? How does that impact one’s relationship to place and geographically rooted community?

This need also allows a community to teach the Quaker spiritual tools to these individuals at a very influential time. The most common clearness committees are for membership and marriage, where the clarity sought often comes in a yes or no, proceed or pause fashion. If this is the typical extent of experience that our members have with clearness committees, then we aren’t effectively teaching the more difficult and nuanced group discernment that exists not in yes‐or‐no, but in finding the next step or piece of clarity to guide one’s life.

-Vocational and leadership development. Once discernment is clear and a concrete area of vocation is indentified for an individual, the question becomes: How do I find a way to offer these gifts in a manner that is consistent with my values and beliefs? Helping emerging adults identify ways in which their faith and practice can manifest in their everyday work is a powerful anchor for the spiritual life of a young person. Additionally, the potential for leadership within the faith community becomes riper as clarity around one’s gifts is achieved. If our community can aid in that discernment, it can also help develop those gifts and channel that leadership into the service of that community.

-Accountability along with support. It is my experience that young people will strive to live into whatever expectations are set for them by those they respect and love as their elders. We can be quick to say yes to any initiative that a young adult presents, regardless of whether they are pulling their weight as a member in the community, or committed to pursuing their initiative faithfully. However, if those elders fail to follow‐up and hold individuals accountable, it sends the message that the work of young adults isn’t important enough to cause concerns for the manner in which it is done, and the larger role that the young adult plays in the community. In general, young adults need to live up to the challenge of being committed to community and faithfulness, and the community can show its commitment to them by holding them accountable to this challenge, in addition to saying Yes! and throwing money at well‐planned projects that YAFs propose.

In discussing the Muslim Student Association with Iman, I was convinced of the importance of ensuring a clear path from infancy to full involvement in a faith community. She talks of the importance of young adults becoming involved in the Muslim community now, so that they will be both present and prepared later on when the community needs them to step up to the highest levels of leadership. In many ways, the idea of being deeply wedded to a faith community goes against the natural tendencies of someone in their twenties. It is a time of transience and a desire to embrace knowing oneself in‐of‐oneself, without the defining pressures of family and community that have been present up to that point in development. It seems appropriate that there is a need for individuals to serve as shepherds to these lost sheep. This will help us both retain the youth we have invested in since their birth, and capitalize on the opportunity to speak to the condition of others in their cohort (who are many, if you consider the results of the Belief‐o‐Matic quiz at beliefnet​.com).

Yes, “young people are the future,” but more importantly, they possess the global awareness and technological skills that older generations so desperately need now in order to be relevant in the future to come. It is the prerequisite to any sustainable existence of a vibrant future. It is clear to me that the undeniable impact of information technologies has presented formidable challenges to Quakers. It has changed how the world communicates and, therefore, how we must communicate with the world. If we are unable to use these new tools, we will find ourselves, our truths, and our witness to these truths, unheard and unseen. 

Within younger generations, there is a strong desire to take their Quakerism seriously, to live into it as their primary identity, however they can find themselves caught between worlds, not knowing how to apply their Quaker faith and practice to these new digital realms of existence. They have grown up on keyboards, on instant‐messaging, online. They are “digital natives”. They need older generations to impart wisdom as to what it means to be a Friend “friending” on Facebook, just as much as older generations need younger generations to teach the hard skills around using these new tools. We are incomplete without one another, and won’t share in the work of each other’s lives unless we are operating through the same mediums of communication. Part of any successful generational dynamic is a union of wisdom from older generations, with new knowledge and skill in younger generations.

In that sculpture scene of the peaceable kingdom at PYM’s sessions, there was a notable and perhaps telling absence: there was no sculpture of a little child leading them. We need each other more than ever before, and there is only mutual benefit in ensuring that the gifts and energies of rising generations are properly nurtured, mentored, harnessed, and led into their own leadership for our community. We are meant to be members, one of another. The Muslim community is ardently pursuing this work in response to persecution; can we tackle this work without the prompting from such pressure? John F. Kennedy once noted that the Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of two symbols: danger, and opportunity. More than for Quakerism alone, but for the wider world of faith, justice, and the vision of the Kingdom, we could take this moment of financial crisis as an opportunity to pivot in a new direction. We can transform by fearlessly investing in new degrees of relationship with one another, the world, and the tools and structures through which it operates. Let us not be short‐sighted nor moved from a sense of scarcity. We are blessed with an abundance of ability to unite wisdom and tradition with knowledge and innovation, young with old, and together forge a future in the spirit of Isaiah 11:6 where,

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Stephen Willis Dotson is a member of Goose Creek (Va.) Meeting who carries a concern for the future of Friends. This concern manifests in a desire to nurture rising generations, to facilitate Quaker engagement with ecumenical and inter-religious work, and to help the unique gifts of Quakerism reach those who are seeking them through both traditional and emerging technologies. He is a Board member for Friends Journal.

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