Having grown up as the only Quaker in my public school, I felt like an oddity at times, especially during social studies class, when teachers would inform us that Quakers were dead. I had to say that Quakers were not dead, because I was a Quaker and went to Quaker meeting with other Quakers each Sunday. Friends in my hometown did not understand what Quakers were or why anyone our age would sit in silence for an hour. Each Sunday, my family would drive 30 minutes to another town where usually I was the only one my age at Columbia (Mo.) Meeting.
For these reasons, I greatly valued my time with other Quaker youth at Illinois Yearly Meeting sessions each year. For five glorious days I was able to be with other young people who were Quakers, and I felt fully understood by them. Yearly meeting at the meetinghouse in McNabb, Illinois, was usually the highlight of my year, and I attended annual sessions faithfully from age five through college.
As my age group at yearly meeting became teenagers, we began to keep in contact during the time between yearly meeting sessions and yearly meeting teen retreats (which we called Quakes). My sister, who is six years older, kept in touch with her yearly meeting friends mostly through letters and the occasional phone call. My friends and I, as teenagers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, more frequently kept in touch by email and instant messenger.
Years later, I still continue this online community building among Quakers, especially among young adult Friends (YAFs, those Quakers aged between around 18 and 35). In this article, I will first discuss the online outreach I have done with YAFs over the years at both local and international levels. Then I will talk about a new ministry to find and connect with Quaker and non-Quaker students at non-Quaker higher education institutions, and how online outreach is a critical component of this new ministry.
Online Organizing of YAFs
Currently most of the community building happens through Facebook and Twitter. In 2012, some other YAFs and I launched a now inactive website in North America (youngadultfriends.org). We also started a Facebook group (facebook.com/groups/YAQNET) and a Twitter account (@YAFriendsorg). Both of these social media groups are still active with over 1,700 members in the Facebook group and close to 750 followers on Twitter. I also made and continue to update a list of YAFs I’ve come across on Twitter (twitter.com/YAFriendsorg/lists/yafs-tweeting).
Initially, we did all of this to connect young adult Friends in North America, mainly because all the people working on the project spoke only English and lived in the United States. As a small group with limited resources (this project was funded by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Friends Institute Granting Group), we wanted to keep this project manageable. Both Facebook and Twitter, however, have attracted YAFs from all over the world who want to share and connect with each other. It has been an enriching experience for all involved.
One reason I like to do online outreach is personal. As a person with a speech impediment, I can communicate online with confidence that other people will know the words I am saying. In talking with people face-to-face or over the phone, I cannot be certain that others will understand me or let me know if they don’t. Yet written words are only a small part of language, so there have been some moments of confusion on social media; usually these moments are hilarious.
Much of the confusion has been around what the term “Friends” means. Sometimes on Facebook, people join the YAF (Quakers) Facebook group looking for actual friends or more specifically “friends with benefits,” low-commitment sexual partners. They don’t realize the group exists to connect Quakers who are young adults. On Twitter, people tweet at the account hoping to hear a definitive Quaker opinion on a political topic. They are not too pleased when I reply that some Quakers believe this and other Quakers believe that. Occasionally people will confuse us with Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth movement that focuses on college outreach. Despite some hilarious instances, the online interactions on social media have been positive and have helped build community.
I have also used online outreach to do local YAF organizing wherever I have lived. This has included using Facebook groups. Currently in the area around Greensboro, North Carolina, I use the Facebook group “Greensboro Area Young Adult Friends” (search that name on Facebook to find us), which has 46 members. These public groups have allowed people not connected with the Quaker community in the Greensboro area to find other YAFs. Also it has allowed young adults to connect across the branches, as there are Quakers in Greensboro from different branches: Conservative, Liberal unprogrammed, and programmed. One of the recent new attendees at our monthly potluck and worship, Quina, found the Facebook group after moving to Greensboro to be with her partner.
Another time I communicated with a local graduate student studying peace and conflict studies, Christi, on Twitter through First Friends of Greensboro’s Twitter account (@triadquakers). She was interested in exploring Quakerism, and because of the Twitter correspondence, she attended First Friends Meeting a couple of times; she also came to a few of our monthly YAF potluck worships. Examples like this prove that online outreach does translate into actual in-person engagement.
Part of my motivation for organizing YAFs online is that I know of many young adult Friends, like myself, who have struggled to find Quakers wherever they are located or find a nearby Quaker community. Many young adults end up moving frequently during their 20s and even into their 30s, mainly because of jobs or education. Sometimes the nearest Friends meeting is over an hour away, and school and work schedules can interfere. Sometimes Friends meetings have not been entirely welcoming to young adults. For example, people in their late 20s or early 30s do not want to be asked each Sunday if they are still in college, which has happened to many young adults I know.
Quakers need to start investing in YAFs and reaching out to both the young adults who grew up in the faith and those who did not. The time is ripe for outreach to young adults. I sense a burning desire among young adults today to find a faith community that is uncorrupted by the corporate church culture. Young adults are looking for new ways to engage with spirituality and community. The core of Quakerism is about community, and together we can have a corporate experience of the Divine. These two essential parts of Quakerism are still radical more than 350 years after George Fox had his vision on Pendle Hill of a great people to be gathered. Fox’s vision is still very relevant today!
Reaching Out to College Students at Non-Quaker Institutions
Currently I am creating a network of campus ministries to reach young adults at non-Quaker higher education institutions, and also creating resources for Quakers, Quaker students, and meetings to support campus ministries in their area. While I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, many of my classmates talked fondly of their denominational campus ministries and how these ministries helped them to discern their calls to ministry. There are many examples of denominational campus ministries like the Catholic Church’s Newman Center, the United Methodist Church’s Wesley Foundation, and the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s UKirk Ministry. Even other religions have campus ministry programs on campuses across the United States and Canada, like Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Muslim Students Association.
I know of several current Quaker leaders who came to Quakerism while attending non-Quaker colleges and universities. We do not have, however, any kind of a network or coordinated effort to assist Quaker students or other students who may be interested in Quakerism at these non-Quaker institutions. I want to change that!
Quaker colleges are doing a tremendous job of supporting Quaker students at their institutions, but most Quaker college students do not attend Quaker colleges. Even Quaker campus ministry programs at Quaker institutions reach out to non-Quaker students. At Guilford College, where I used to serve in campus ministry, we would often say that Guilford graduated more Quaker students than came into the college as first-year students. The network I envision will be similar in nature to other denominations’ efforts for college students. My hope with creating this network is to support Quaker students at non-Quaker institutions, to develop future Quaker leaders, and to reach college students who might be interested in Quakerism if they knew of our faith community. Just imagine if Quakers were on more college campuses and were able to reach a dozen students each year on, say, 25 campuses. What impact would that have on students’ lives? What impact would that have on the Religious Society of Friends?
Before starting out on this ministry, I knew that there were already Quaker students meeting together at non-Quaker colleges. During seminary, I started a Quaker student group at Princeton University as part of an internship I had at the Office of Religious Life. As I explored my leading to enter campus ministry, other campus ministers at non-Quaker institutions told me about Quaker student groups on their campuses. Since laying the groundwork for this new Quaker ministry earlier this year, I have heard about many more groups. For instance, I was surprised to learn from Canadian participants at this year’s Continuing Revolution Conference at Pendle Hill retreat center in Pennsylvania that there are at least four Quaker student groups meeting at colleges and universities in Canada.
Some of these groups have support from a local meeting while many others receive no support at all. Currently, none of this work is coordinated beyond a local level, and no one knows just how many of these student groups there are in the United States and Canada. I am working to find out where Quaker students are attending and where Quaker student groups are meeting (if you know of any of these groups, please let me know).
Quaker meetings and area Quakers will be a key component of this ministry because students are usually at the colleges and universities for only four years. This turnover has led to a distinctive ebb and flow for Quaker campus groups. With more support, these groups could remain stable even after active student leaders graduate. They could have a larger impact on students’ lives and on the campuses where they meet.
Part of this effort definitely will be online. I want to create a website that has resources for student groups, for Quaker ministers to use for their student meetings, and one that provides ways to talk about Quakerism to peers who might be interested. Already in talking with both students and Quaker ministers who work with college students, I’ve found excitement about a website to help with their groups. These resources would include how groups could run a Quakerism 101 series on their campuses, what worship sharing is, queries to use during worship sharing, and ideas for regular group meetings. It would also allow student groups to share their own resources with other student groups.
Undoubtedly, there will be Quaker college students at higher education institutions that are not near a Quaker meeting, so these groups could meet with other groups or individual Quakers through Skype or Google Hangouts from time to time. I also envision having regular regional retreats and a yearly gathering of these groups, but technology will allow these groups to meet more frequently (and more cheaply) if they so desire. As I did with the Young Adult Friends website, I am envisioning starting with college students in the United States and Canada, due to my familiarity with both Quakers in this region and the higher education systems in these two countries. At the same time, I am always happy to talk with Quakers all over the world about this idea, as well and find ways to collaborate.
Ultimately, my hope for this ministry is to expand the reach of Quakerism beyond our meetinghouse walls and beyond our colleges to meet young adults where they are. I hope this will not only help college students but also revitalize our aging monthly meetings with a new influx of young adults who are eager to experience the Divine in an unique, corporate worship style. In short, I long for a revitalization of Quakerism!
In my experience of organizing YAFs online, I have used a new resource to gather a great people together, a way that George Fox and the Valiant Sixty group of early ministers could never have dreamt of. At the same time, Quakers could use the Internet more and support online efforts to reach YAFs and young adults searching for a faith community that is different from and more radical than their own traditions. In my new ministry, I am finding ways to use online resources creatively to connect with college students. My efforts so far are just a small fraction of what could be done in terms of outreach to young adults. Overall, the lesson I’ve learned about online engagement is to remember the wisdom from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: don’t hide your light under a bushel!
Online exclusive: an interview with the author conducted 11/30/2016: