Quakerism Left Me


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I was 15 when I remember my yearly meeting first beginning to talk about splitting. It was during our annual sessions, and I was a participant of its large and vibrant high school program. We were playing games, singing, giggling about crushes, telling jokes and stories, and wrestling in the Southern red clay that banked any scraped edges.

I didn’t know this time would be the beginning of the end for many, and that in the next two decades, our type of Friends—Friends United Meeting—would lose approximately 40 percent of its membership.

At yearly meeting sessions, we listened to inspired sharing from older (but surprisingly understanding) women and men. At that age, one is skeptical of adults and the world, but we saw authenticity here. We received guidances that would shape our hearts in all days going forward.

Our worship was alive and deep. We were moved by the silent worship times. The experience united us. Being normal self-conscious teens, we thought when someone spoke out of the quiet, it had to be because something greater than they had moved them. We found ourselves quivering and crying at times over how bright and real the truth was, made visible in that sacred space. Our identity was made in those spaces: God’s children—known, loved, in community, and humble and open before the One.

I don’t know all that happened in the adult sessions. The disagreements stemmed from differing views on homosexuality, which had to do in part with theology, but were also a cover for political beliefs, ideas of authority, past grievances against one another, interpretation of scripture, concern for other affiliations, and being tainted by poor company.

We young Friends wrote a minute that year asking that the adults consider us too when they spoke of splitting. We knew we would be affected by a divisiveness that we did not experience and found contrary to the forgiveness and peacemaking that we were being taught. Though younger, we did sympathize. We too had dealt with conflicts, fights, bullying, and popularity contests. We knew enough to know that there was passion and genuine care among the adults, mixed in with something that was telling them to cut off their brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am not sure what wound up happening. Some said peace was made. Others said things were swept under the rug. We didn’t split. But we began to shrink, slowly at first. But I couldn’t fully see it from my vantage point. In the high school program, and later through young adult Friends activities, I found spiritual depth, acceptance, tolerance, joyfulness, and unique tools for seeking the Divine and practicing discernment.

In the 20 years that followed that summer, there would be the birth of the Internet, Columbine and countless mass shootings, sunsets on tobacco fields, strawberry picking, the fall of the Twin Towers, dancing on shiny floors, road trips to glistening saltwater, more than a decade of war, my first serious boyfriend, the sudden death of my sister, mills sent overseas, notification that we face global extinction, climbs to mountain top vistas, mountaintop removal, sweet marzipan, dizzying wine, the fall of the middle class, laundry.

I hadn’t known much about unprogrammed Friends before college, and I was glad to have met some before they started pulling funding out of FUM’s vital ministries. It had to do with making a point about “continuing revelation” related to homosexuality, but receiving the cuts fell somewhere on the spectrum of passive to aggressive. Having financial challenges can easily strain relationships, and we weren’t immune.

In a turbulent senior year of high school, marked by upheaval, a violent assault, and the death of my younger sister, I applied only to Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and, for better or worse, I got in.

I didn’t know much about the school other than the smell of some of the dorm rooms (stale food and sweat mixed with the chemical perfume of spray cleaners) from our yearly meeting overnights, and where to find some of the sporting fields from our game days. Incredibly tender from grief and being away from home and close friends, I clung to my faith like a nursing baby—sustenance and comfort to make it through each day.

I had been accepted into a program called the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but needed the scholarship and figured I couldn’t go wrong with giving priority to something that was faith-based.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Most of the students in QLSP identified as Quaker, but not Christian. They said terrible things about Christians, Christianity, and even Jesus. I had faced some scrutiny before in the small towns I had lived in for being a Quaker. Other Christians were skeptical that we didn’t have a formal creed or doctrine, and that we didn’t practice communion or water baptism. We leaned toward pacifism enough to make people uncomfortable and didn’t get too flustered by people who were of different, non-Christian faiths. The silent part of the service was also out of the norm, even if it was short and sometimes confused with the announcement period.

I wanted to be sensitive toward my new peers, but in the first year, I often felt attacked. I saw that my classmates were struggling with their own fights, but my open-handed offering of Jesus in those low times was often swept away or met with insult.

I began to see things differently over the course of the program. I started to realize that these non-Christians were talking about very Jesus-y things, such as looking out for workers’ rights at a hog factory hours from campus and in our own college cafeteria. There was concern for God’s creation and how overconsumption would first affect the least protected workers, and then make its way up.

Why wasn’t my Quaker church talking about these things?

I heard new terminology from these “Liberal” Quakers which sounded outdated, yet familiar. There was a lot of mention of Light. As I listened more closely and learned more about early Friends history, I began noticing many of these unprogrammed Friends were drawing expression largely from the biblical book of John and Jesus’s teachings. Many had been taught this language without its biblical context. Why had they never learned the roots of their spirituality before? Some began to wrestle with this question. Some met Jesus again for the first time.

World Gathering of Young Friends planning meeting (the author is on the right). Photo by Rachel Stacy, courtesy of Ben Guaraldi.
World Gathering of Young Friends planning meeting (the author is on the right). Photo by Rachel Stacy, courtesy of Ben Guaraldi.

Years later, I am on a transatlantic flight to meet with other organizers of the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends (a global summit of 18–35-year-old Quakers). Unable to rest on my flight, I watched a documentary about the ice age on the flickering square screen in front of my seat. The film was about the last generations to go into—and survive—the ice age. Research revealed that in these desperate times, groups of once warring tribes got together to exchange tools and survival tips, and then carry what they learned back to their regions. They also agreed to intermarry, thus sustaining life.

This is it, I thought, this is what we are doing. As people are leaving the church in droves, Quaker meetings are closing, splitting, swimming in controversy, or cutting their budgets.

I learned silly things on these trips, like recipes for foodstuffs I had never considered putting together and the words to new songs (sometimes in other languages). But I also learned new practices of conducting business and growing community; I gained a better understanding of the nature of the Divine and the development of spiritual disciplines; and I practiced methods for handling conflict.


2005 World Gathering of Young Friends in Lancaster, United Kingdom. Photo (c) John Fitzgerald.

In preparation for World Gathering, I spent four years traveling amongst Friends coast to coast in the United States, as well as throughout Europe, East Africa, Canada, and Central and South America. I stayed in homes and huts and asked Friends, “What is working in your community? Where are you finding life and where are you finding struggle?”

I heard similar perspectives, some particular to certain branches, others a general watercolor wash across the groups:

  • a fascination with early Friends and the birth of Quakerism
  • a longing to be part of a faith tradition that is still as creative and relevant as that of early Friends
  • a feeling of isolation, as a result of being a young adult Quaker or Friend in a mostly aging population and/or identifying as a Quaker in the broader world
  • current engagement had come largely from a foundation built to include youth activities, programs, and camps
  • enjoyment of music
  • a deep appreciation for silence and contemplative worship (notably mentioned by programmed Friends who wanted more of both and unprogrammed Friends who, obviously perhaps, saw the two as essential)

The events related to this World Gathering of Young Friends took a lot of time, energy, and preparation, but a community was forming, and the Spirit was moving. We sought transformation—to be shaped by one another and the Divine—in intentional settings that were quite different from the places in which we had emerged. And it happened. We were changed. Only, this experience created more problems in some cases.

We no longer fit into the places we returned.

I was flipping through photo albums in the living room of a boyfriend’s family home when I got the call that Randy Cockerham had died. Randy had been the clerk of our Young Friends program and someone I had known since I was 12. We had gone through camps together and toured with North Carolina Yearly Meeting’s Serenity Youth Choir several summers in a row. He was just 37 years old, and his death was unexpected. I paced the hallway before sitting, teary and dizzy, on the sofa, unable to comprehend the news.

Days later, I wandered a cemetery courtyard with the group of Friends with whom I had grown up. It was an overcast March day with a bit of chill in the air. We formed into rotating clumps, not unlike the black soil around us, spindly with blades of yellow grass.

We caught up on life: where we were living now, and whether we attended Quaker meeting any more. Most did not. Either there wasn’t a meeting in their current city or the local one was lacking in some way (no child care, no kids’ program, or the worship didn’t feel alive, relevant, or vibrant). We mourned our friend Randy, as well as the loss of our faith community and parts of our identities.

It was a variation on a conversation I had been having for many years in my travels amongst Friends. By then, I had visited many communities, screening my film on Quaker diversity, speaking on panels regarding the future of Friends, sharing messages at conferences, and bringing content to workshops. Everywhere I went, I encountered Friends who had experienced “transformation” or “opening” from cross-branch dialogues only to return home feeling further isolated.

The emails, phone calls, and even written letters continue to accumulate. These Friends express a desire to live more fully into the life they have been called to live, yet they struggle with spiritual communities that are self-obsessed rather than God-obsessed, that hold too rigidly onto decayed forms, that suffer from dysfunctional patterns of conflict, and that are deteriorating from the physical death of their members.

Circle of Hope members praying together. Photo courtesy of Circle of Hope.
Circle of Hope members praying together. Photo courtesy of Circle of Hope.

I discovered Circle of Hope while I was doing a six-month residency at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, just outside Philadelphia. I had heard about Circle of Hope from a few people I deeply respected, and then I began to meet Circle members at radical churchy events around the city. They were mostly young adults—articulate, intelligent, and sturdy—hailing from all parts of the country. It seemed many of them could be doing anything with their lives, but they chose to be in some of the most desolate parts of Philadelphia, to be Love in action.

People were singing, entering into silent contemplation, and everyone was invited to participate in creative, interactive learnings, all while the pastor and congregants spoke honestly. They held up the gospel while exploring climate change, ongoing war, job insecurities, student loan debt, and human suffering.

People were friendly. The values, priorities, and much of the language were familiar. They seem like Quakers, I thought. But they aren’t. Circle of Hope is a 17-year-old congregation that has become aligned with another historic peace church, the Brethren in Christ.

This can’t be real, I thought. So I kept coming back, continuing to attend services throughout my time at Pendle Hill. At the end of six months, I returned to North Carolina and began to tell others about the community I had found. Now, almost four years later, I am back in Philadelphia. I have an apartment here. I am active in a Circle of Hope congregation.

People frequently ask me if I’ve left Quakerism. I feel that Quakerism left me and many others like me. I identify as part of a wandering generation. We have to rebuild this spirituality for ourselves and for the future.

I gave up a lot to be here. I am exploring whether Circle of Hope is interested in cross-pollinating. I hope to start a new faith community back in North Carolina, drawing from the best that Quakerism and Circle of Hope have to offer. I am immersing myself in the workings of Circle of Hope, creating relationships, growing, learning, and if I am able, teaching as well. I do believe our tradition has much to offer. We take pride in our connections to accomplishments and movements that have changed the course of history. And I hope to prevent others from going down the paths where we may make mistakes. It’s important to admit that we’ve done that too.

I spent Saturday evening with a makeshift choir, recording one of the songs we sing in our services for an album that the congregation will be putting out later this year. In my home meeting, I am used to singing the European hymns of dead people from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At Circle, local congregants and related friends from other cities have written some of our hymns—these love poems to God. The passion is fresh, understood, and shared.

On this particular night, we have just finished a potluck, vegan chili and kale salad on my plate. I sit with my friend Becca, who has come from Northwest Yearly Meeting. Her husband stops to gently hug her from behind and quickly kisses her on the lips when she looks up. They are making Circle of Hope their home now. We are recording a song written by Seth Martin, a friend of the congregation and a graduate of George Fox University (and a “friend of Friends” as it has been said). We sing the song again and again; lyrics becoming stale. I am reminded of the time when I was a child in Arba Friends Meeting near Richmond, Indiana, and I had a clear vision of Jesus stopping in to visit our service. Wanting to maintain freshness in our repetitions, I stand up to say, “Hey! Imagine Jesus has come into the room and we are serenading him.” Everyone likes this image very much, and my idea is sweetly cheered.

We sing these words:

And my hands are open, and my feet are bare,

And my heart is hoping, make my life a prayer.

Feed us with your soil, as we mold and bend,

Freed from sin and toil, root us in again.

Give us eyes to see you, bring your fire and wind!

In ourselves and others, only you again.

Thanks to all before us, YES to what will come,

Ocean’s raging chorus sings, “Thy will be done!”

Sings, “Thy will be done!”

Betsy Blake

Betsy Blake was recently accused of having a fake ID during a night out dancing, but she is in fact 36 years old. Currently residing in Philadelphia, Betsy is self-employed as a business and communications consultant for progressive businesses and organizations. She can be reached at [email protected]. The original version of this article included more of the author's stories of the experiences of her generation of Friends. You can read the un-cut version of "Quakerism Left Me" (original) here.

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