“Let us be ready to give and receive help, to rejoice together in the blessings of life, and to sympathize with each other in its trials.”
– New England Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, 1985
This year, I learned from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2017. That’s 192 people a day. Many Friends I love are affected by addiction and recovery. I began wondering: How can we, as Friends, support recovery and wholeness? What do people in recovery really need? I began interviewing Friends about their experiences. I spoke with people recovering from drugs, overeating, and alcohol. They shared with both candor and grace. One Friend opened by saying, “I’m more than willing to talk about my recovery, elusive as it may be.” Their words have touched me deeply.
Hearing these stories has helped me with my own healing and connection. I want to give thanks to all the people who shared their stories. And to the public Friends, ministers, and elders who added their insights to the mix. I spoke with Friends from different sexual orientations, ages, and yearly meetings. However, I didn’t interview any Friends of color. It’s worth noting that my circle of friends and teachers has been shaped by White privilege.
Let’s start with the barriers. People listed lots of barriers. I talked with Gary, a Friend in recovery, about addiction and recovery. (All Friends in recovery quoted here have agreed to give their first names.) He pointed to denial as a huge block. “Quakers would sometimes have a hard time believing that people would [take drugs],” he said. “Not other people, but Quakers would do this.” Other Friends echoed this sentiment.
Looking for more context, I talked with Lloyd Lee Wilson about how he sees unprogrammed Friends. Lloyd Lee is a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). He has traveled widely among Friends. At one point, he visited the home of each person at his meeting; they held worship together at home, and he learned: Quakers have about the same rate of alcoholism as everyone else and the same rate of domestic abuse as everyone else. He reflected on how we’ve been slow to admit that divorce and other challenges happen within our community.
Gary remarked, “Quakers have such high expectations of ourselves!” I laughed when he said this. I think it might be time to admit that we’re affected by the opioid crisis, just like everyone else.
A second barrier that gets in the way is shame. Shame makes us feel like we should hide parts of ourselves from sight. Kersey, a Friend in recovery, described shame as “deep in the subconscious, an unwillingness to behold, and be held.”
I think shame keeps us from finding the love that we need. At one point, Gary admitted that his drinking was hurting his life, and he went to rehab. While he was away, he said, “Nobody in the meeting knew.” He was clerk of the meeting at the time.
When Gary returned home, he met with the Worship and Ministry Committee to share about his journey. And he heard back, “Oh, I’m so upset that we didn’t know you were struggling! And we didn’t offer any help to you in your struggle.”
Shame can make us believe we’re unlovable, that we can’t share parts of our lives with someone else. Fortunately, we have very strong tools, as Friends, to respond to shame.
“When someone is in need, whom do you ask?” This is from Martin, an elder at my meeting. Our lack of structure makes it hard to find information. Do you talk to the Care and Concern Committee or to the clerk or do you ask somewhere else?
Lloyd Lee told a story about London Yearly Meeting in 1900. They had stopped recording ministers. They figured it implied that some people were responsible for vocal ministry, and others were not. He told me: “By making it no one’s responsibility, they thought we were making it everyone’s responsibility. But they actually made it no one’s responsibility.”
Without a pastor, how do we reach people in need? Gary suggested a clearer protocol. Fortunately, Martin told me that Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) is working on this. BYM has started a Pastoral Care Working Group, with the goal of better pastoral care.
Today, we protect and guard our privacy with a kind of fierceness. In the past, though, Friends had very tight communities. In the face of persecution, we banded together. Martin told a story about this. In one meeting, in the 1600s, there reached a point when all of the adults were in jail. The next week, the youth still met for worship. They still gathered without their parents.. What would it take for us to commit to community like that?
I talked to Jim Higginbotham, a professor of pastoral care at Earlham School of Religion. He said that unprogrammed meetings “have a really strong respect for privacy and for individual choice, more so than in other faith communities.” With that kind of privacy, we start to believe we don’t actually need one another. It becomes harder to ask for help. Martin said that one of the problems in offering pastoral care is “getting people to admit that their strife rises to a level that is worthy of bringing forward.”
In many cases, pastoral care folks hear about a person’s difficulty only after the fact. It can be hard, Martin said, for a person to come forward and say, “My soul is burdened.” We have been taught to seek ways to care for ourselves as individuals. But, as he pointed out, we have great tools for reclaiming that communal space. We can use clearness committees for “life’s other large changes” beyond marriage and membership. In some places, this is already beginning to happen.
We can look to 12-step groups to see a model for real community. They provide a space where asking for help is natural. Trish, a Friend in recovery, talked about the 12 steps and surrender. “We get in these states in the world where we think we can control and do everything,” she said. “And we can’t. We can’t; we can’t. We need to acknowledge and see that we are really out of control.”
At their best, Quaker meetings can help us and hold us when life is out of control. Tim, a Friend in recovery, was living with a drug addiction for some time. He had reached a point of incredible darkness. A Quaker saw this and invited him to start attending meeting. Tim said, “He could see my pain. And instead of offering solutions or suggestions, he offered a community.” This began a time of great transformation and stability in his life. Later Tim told me: “The love that was extended to me, by my Quaker community, remained consistent. And that was different than other communities in my life.”
So we’ve looked at the barriers: denial, shame, lack of a pastor, and individualism. Now let’s look at the solutions.
If we’re living with denial, then we need more vulnerability. We need programs, as Jim described, that help us “recognize the potential addict in us.” In many faith communities, Jim said, people focus on a concern after the pastor raises awareness in a sermon. Without a pastor, Friends have some more work to do to lift a concern.
In the United Kingdom, there’s a group called Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs. QAAD offers speakers who can share about substance abuse. Although we don’t have a group like this in the United States (as far as I know), we can still host adult education programs in our meetings.
I learned from Friends in recovery that many folks are taking their recovery journey out of Quaker meeting and into 12-step groups. I think we are missing opportunities as a faith community to show up and do good work. In a 12-step group, it is normal and natural to ask for help. Trish reminded me of this: “The first three steps say, you gotta go to God. You can’t do it on your own.”
How do we change our culture? Lloyd Lee offered a few examples. We could admit to someone, “I’ve been having a hard day. I’ve been having a hard week.” When it comes to sharing joys and concerns, we can reveal something that’s uncertain. For instance, “I just had my disability interview, and I’m not sure it’s going to work out.” At Lloyd Lee’s meeting, he noticed Friends under 40 are sometimes more willing to share. He told me, “I hope and pray there is a generational change coming in.”
If we’re facing shame, then we need someone to stick close with us on the journey. And fortunately, Quakers have a great tool for facing shame: the practice of accompaniment. Accompanying someone means staying nearby, through the pain and shame and fear, and holding fast to love from Spirit.
Tim found accompaniment in his Quaker community, mainly from elders. They stayed with him through sobriety, recovery, and relapse. They became a “true line” through the bumpy journey. And when he relapsed, Tim could share this with a seasoned Friend. He told me that when he shared, she didn’t run away.
“Each time I quit, I firmly believed it,” he said. The Friend listened and told him, “I believe you too. Each time. That’s what was true for you, in that moment.” I find that to be beautiful.
Other Friends yearned for a stronger presence at their home meetings. Trish said, “I share some of my story, [and] most people don’t know what to say. There’s a little more curiosity because I’m dealing with something everybody does every day, and that’s eating! But, [people ask] more about what I do with the food than about the recovery.”
In my life, elders have helped me return to belonging—in a community or in the human family—when I feel like I’m on the outside. I remember the first time this occurred for me. It came as a surprise. I met someone who could walk with me through the desert of my pain, and I felt her presence close by.
There are many ways to accompany someone. Another Friend I know holds space from a distance. She stands at the horizon like an anchor when someone is feeling grief. Her presence reminds us that the horizon is there.
Accompaniment and eldering are spiritual gifts. They need to be tended by the wider community. Lloyd Lee has written a book about how to live out our gifts with integrity. In it, he shares more about the nuts and bolts. I would recommend Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order to learn more.
One important note: accompaniment is different from therapy. Accompaniment is not about being a counselor. Jim reminded me that we need to be “extraordinarily clear” about our limits when offering pastoral care. He suggested a rule of thumb: meet up to three times on a given concern. After that, refer someone to a professional. A therapist or chaplain may be able to help.
To stand with Friends in recovery, we need more tenderness and vulnerability. I asked Friends how we could build this. Many people mentioned small groups. Kersey shared that in a small group, we can share “in a relevant way to the group that is there.” We can consider whether the people are ready to hold our story and fit the story to ourselves and to the group that’s present.
Lloyd Lee talked about building a covenant community. “The word ‘covenant’ is important here,” he explained. “I have a commitment to God because I feel called to this group. I also have a commitment to the group—not because the group meets my needs, but because God calls me here.” Lloyd Lee shared more about how we are asked to love as God loves. And that means sticking together because we have a commitment to God. “No matter what thee says . . . [or how it bothers me], I recognize that God still loves thee, and is calling me to love thee as well.” This is what it means to be in covenant community.
A covenant community doesn’t have to be small. Lloyd Lee told about visiting a Seventh Day Baptist church and finding authentic community:
During the Saturday morning service, a young father confessed that he had fallen off the wagon. And it had affected his marriage, his ability to be a father, and his community. He said he felt estranged. And he asked for forgiveness from the community. Then he knelt on one knee. And the whole congregation got up and surrounded him. And put their hands on him. And if you couldn’t reach the man, you put your hands on someone else who was reaching him. And they prayed for him: for his healing, for his restoration, and right relationship with all those groups. Then they gave him holy oil and anointed him. And when they were done, he rose up, like a phoenix from the flames, and stood up and went back to his seat with his family.
Wow, I thought. Just wow.
It seems clear, from hearing stories and interviews, that 12-step groups are providing real critical grounding and support. This left me wondering: what’s left for the Quakers to do? Do we really need both groups?
Tim assured me that we do. “They complement each other,” he said, “and I think it’s necessary to have both.” Tim explained how he goes to Quaker meeting to deepen his connection to Spirit. He goes to 12-step groups to learn how to be sober. For him, Quakers offer spiritual grounding, and they have welcomed him, whether he was sober or not. I think maybe that is what we are called to do.
There’s a woman in my town who comes to Quaker meeting only now and then. She shared something with me once, and it has stayed with me ever since. What she said was this: “When I want to feel welcome, I go to the Friends meeting.”
When she said those words, I felt their power and truth move through me. With an outsider’s eyes, she shared about our witness to the world. What a beautiful gift that is.