Ten Miles Around

Illustrations by venimo

Going Local with Universal Ministry

As a public Friend who manages multiple social media accounts, I do a fair bit of hunting for good Quaker quotes. They are not hard to come by, and some names come up repeatedly, like Thomas Kelly. Recently, I was going through some Kelly quotes I had kept in a Google doc, and one of them caught my attention.

It was a quotation from A Testament of Devotion in which he discusses the imperative of holy obedience. Writing in 1939, he proposed that the spiritual moment called upon Friends to make a “vow of renunciation and dedication to ‘Eternal Internal’” that is no less serious than the vows made by monastic communities. It’s a bold move to say this to a group that traditionally doesn’t do anything that smells of “swearing an oath.” But Kelly believed that if our meetings were to shed our secularism and take on this life of vitality and wholehearted obedience, we could transform our world. He concludes: “Such bands of humble prophets can recreate the Society of Friends and the Christian church and shake the countryside for ten miles around.” The distance probably comes from George Fox, who said, “If but one man or woman were raised by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round.”

It’s a powerful image and a challenging call to action. I would love to be part of a movement that recreated the Society of Friends, the Christian Church, and the countryside. It’s the specific distance that surprised me: “ten miles around.” Why ten miles? Why not one hundred or even ten thousand? O Tom of little faith. Is anything too hard for the Holy One? Are there not a “great people to be gathered”?

I’m not sure why Fox and Kelly chose ten miles. But the more I pondered it, the more the number felt right to me. One of the great things about Friends is our global perspective. We take quite seriously our calling to be Light-bearers and peacemakers in the world. We lobby for national legislation and witness to the United Nations. We support folks doing international development, service, missions work, peacemaking, trauma-healing, and social entrepreneurship. This kind of prophetic witness and connection to the wider world is one of the things I love about the Society of Friends. But sometimes we become so globally minded that we miss what’s happening in our own backyard, in the “ten miles around.” Our global citizenship is laudable but can become problematic when the global reach does not grow from local roots.

On this point, I’ve been influenced by Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry. He argues that true “global thinking . . . is impossible” for any of us limited creatures. More to the point, those who attempt global thinking end up reducing and dehumanizing particular people and places. Unfortunately environmentalists can fall into the same logic found in colonialists. By orienting themselves to “the globe” or “the planet,” they abstract billions of local places, peoples, and communities beyond recognition. Any solutions derived from global thinking are then misguided and sometimes even dangerous. Our intentions may be more benevolent, but consider the impacts of American nation-building, multinational corporations, and even international aid systems.

Maybe you find Berry’s argument unconvincing. (Understand, of course, that I’ve not done his argument justice.) Nevertheless, maybe Friends should be cautious about overdoing the lingo of “human family,” “global village,” “save the planet,” and “change the world.” It may describe our aspirations for a peaceable kingdom, but it can abstract away the work required to renew our souls, our families, our neighborhood, and our watersheds. Maybe we do well to “start close in,” to borrow from poet David Whyte. He invites us to:

Start with the ground you know,
the pale ground beneath your feet,
your own way to begin the conversation.

In other words, start with ten miles around.

Assume the Spirit is up to good things within your place and among your people. Assume you can walk cheerfully about your neighborhood, answering that of God in every person. Assume you’ve been centered or planted in your place for a reason.

How do we “start close in”? Let me offer three humble suggestions.

First, we center down. Of course we need to center down spiritually, but we also need to center down geographically. Hoosier Friend Scott Russell Sanders said it well: “I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place.” If we stand for something, we have to stand somewhere. In the words of Archimedes and Elton Trueblood, we need “a place to stand” to do the heavy lifting of social change and spiritual transformation. This “place” isn’t just philosophical and ethical, it’s also relational and ecological. In Berry’s words, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”

Centering down means giving to local organizations, making memories at nearby parks, frequenting local restaurants and stores, worshiping with local congregations, joining local associations, growing a garden. It means cultivating gratitude for local resources and relationships, holding your specific region in the Light, and imaging what the peaceable kingdom could look like locally. As we integrate these practices into our lives, we develop place attachment, collect local knowledge, and nurture affection.

Assume the Spirit is up to good things within your place and among your people. Assume you can walk cheerfully about your neighborhood, answering that of God in every person. Assume you’ve been centered or planted in your place for a reason.

Second, we start close in by embodying our bumper stickers. We Quakers love a good bumper sticker. We also love a good slogan. Nothing wrong with those. But they are often general global statements and preaching to someone else. We don’t have to peel them off our Priuses, but maybe we can choose to read them locally and personally for a time. Take, for example, “Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions),” a slogan used by Friends Committee on National Legislation. Don’t get me wrong: I believe this should be applied in our political discourse and policy decisions. But “neighbor” (and “love,” for that matter) is one of those words used so frequently and abstractly that it loses much practical meaning. The hungry child in a faraway country or suffering family in a war-torn region are truly our neighbors. But also, do we know anything about our literal neighbors? Maybe they are difficult or boring. No exceptions, right? So how do we cultivate right relationship with them? Transform conflict with them? Care for our corner of creation with them?

We can keep it even simpler. In the spirit of starting close in, we can make sure we know two things: the names of our neighbors and the name of our watershed.

Elise Boulding noted that local community can be hard for Friends who are living as activists and “nonconformists.” She wrote:

For the great majority of people the geographical community is the community of identification. For nonconformists it often is not. The community to which the nonconformist looks for support is a community of like-minded people who may be scattered all over the earth. . . . The important thing is that everyone needs the feeling of belonging to a community of like-minded people.

This is a real challenge for many folks seeking to live a faithful life of prophetic witness. Sadly, the prophet is often not welcome in their hometown. We need to embrace belonging and cultivate community wherever we can find it. My issue, however, is that many contemporary prophets don’t even have a hometown to reject them or for them to reject. They stand against many things without a place to stand for and stand on.

If our nonconformist lifestyle leaves us feeling lonely and homeless, maybe our goal can be more modest. Maybe we can never be an “insider” in our community, but can we be members who inhabit the “inside edge” of the community? Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr calls this the “prophetic position.” He explains:

Prophets, by their very nature, cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are “on the edge of the inside.” They cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either. They must be educated inside the system, knowing and living the rules, before they can critique what is non-essential or not so important. . . .  A prophet critiques a system by quoting its own documents, constitutions, heroes, and Scriptures against its present practice. This is their secret: systems are best unlocked from inside.

Rohr cites Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela as examples of this tradition. Maybe it is a calling for some of us as well. We can be in our local world without being “of it.”

We can love our local place and people without hating other people and places. In fact, my affection for my family, landscape, and country helps me understand the value of other families, landscapes, and countries. It also helps me empathize with their complexities, histories, and challenges. Local membership doesn’t negate global citizenship. It gives it depth, integrity, and sustainability. It respects the uniqueness of the other. And it respects our human condition as creatures with limited energies.

We can center down on the edge of the inside. We can write letters to the editor and have a front porch conversation with our neighbors. We can promote food security across the country while dropping off a casserole for our elderly neighbor who just lost their spouse. We can fight global climate change and grow tomatoes in our backyard, fleshing out our relationship to the earth by figuring out how to deal with pests.

We start close in; we center down; we shake our countryside; we inhabit our inside edge. Who knows, maybe we will be led out into new, border-crossing lands. Or maybe we will be led to root deeper and deeper into our home in such a way that disrupts—and heals—the whole region.

The third way to start close in is to encourage a more robust understanding of universal ministry. Quakers insist that everyone is, or at least can be, a minister. Ministry is not reserved to a clergy class or only to those of a certain race or gender. It’s a beautiful version of what Protestants have traditionally called “the priesthood of all believers.” However, I’m afraid this is another concept that is so abstract that it contains hidden assumptions. In its popular application, universal ministry often looks like supporting folks doing spiritual and public work that aligns with our political persuasions and our unspoken valuations of meaningful work (sometimes valuing white-collar, professional, and progressive-activist work above other vocations).

I have a friend named Paul Bock. He is a pastor and a bus driver. At times he has been a pastor, other times a bus driver, sometimes both. He genuinely lives as if both were ministries. Because they are. I served alongside him on the staff of a Quaker meeting, so I know he’s a great pastor. I never had the privilege of riding on his bus route, so I have to take the word of kiddos he serves. Recently, he shared a letter that he got from a student on his route. It reads: “Dear Paul, I love when you say Hi and Goodbye. I love you.”

Any meaningful definition of universal ministry has to include the small-town bus driver who says hello and goodbye, loves their neighbor by getting them to school and getting them home while treating them like valuable humans—even if they are little humans and even if they live in a little town. A robust expression of universal ministry means we lift up the witness of bus drivers, farmers, contractors, and landscapers as “essential workers” in the peaceable kingdom.

I’m not sure how we do it, to be honest, but supporting universal ministry means we need to find ways to nurture stability ministry as well as traveling ministry. We must continue to support Friends called to travel in their teaching, service, and advocacy. But we also need to find language and systems to support those called to root themselves in a place for long-term ministry. Some Friends recognize the long-term ministry of pastors and missionaries. But those labels come with baggage and don’t communicate the spirit of local membership ministry. It’s probably closer to the “vow of stability” that monks and nuns make to their communities. Circling back to Thomas Kelly’s quote, we need to honor those who make an “irrevocable vow to live in this world yet not of this world, Franciscans of the Third Order, and if it be [God’s] will, kindle again the embers of faith in the midst of a secular world.”

Maybe ten miles is a humble proposition. But maybe it’s our human reach, even as human beings partnering with the Divine. Maybe it’s our parish, our portion, our piece of the peaceable kingdom. It’s a starting point: a place to stand. We start close in; we center down; we shake our countryside; we inhabit our inside edge. Who knows, maybe we will be led out into new, border-crossing lands. Or maybe we will be led to root deeper and deeper into our home in such a way that disrupts—and heals—the whole region.

I don’t think this is a small vision. It’s a big and beautiful picture to me. I imagine Friends all across the world in all types of eco-regions and cultures and demographics transforming their “ten miles around.” The work is often hidden and unglamorous, but it’s holy and connects to the work of everyone else doing their faithful part. If we all do that, maybe we really can change the world and save the planet.

Andy Stanton-Henry

Andy Stanton-Henry is a writer, Quaker minister, and chicken-keeper. He holds degrees from Barclay College and Earlham School of Religion. He carries a special concern for rural leaders, leading to his recently published book, Recovering Abundance: Twelve Practices for Small-Town Leaders. A native Buckeye, Andy now lives in East Tennessee with his spouse, Ashlyn, blue heeler Cassie, and 11 laying hens.

2 thoughts on “Ten Miles Around

  1. Amen, Andy! Thank you for this invitation. Early Friend talked often about building the Kingdom of God. I ask myself frequently what I would be doing if I lived as if I truly believed that this world was God’s world, as I say I do. Loving my sexist, racist old southern neighbor is the first step and probably the hardest…it also feels like the most important one.

    Mary Linda

  2. In Response to the thoughtful recent article “Ten Miles Round,” here’s my

    We propose a campaign to tell egg carton producers and grocery stores to use only cardboard egg cartons.
    Almost everyone buys eggs and almost everyone can have an impact. Cardboard, made from trees, can biodegrade in 3-4 months. Styrofoam, by contrast, is a plastic and takes 400-500 years to decompose.

    The Goal is simple. Call for the elimination of styrofoam egg containers, to be replaced by cardboard egg containers. Here are three (3!) easy steps.

    Step one. Center down. Recognize that your deep concern for stewardship needs some form of action, and that this can be one immediate step to improve our planet.

    Step two. Start close in. Go to your local grocery store and check out the egg cartons. Write down the name and address of each carton producer. These addresses are not necessarily local, but the cartons that land in my local store are.

    Step three. Encourage a more robust understanding of universal ministry. Each one of us
    has a message to share, a prophetic call to improve our planet.

    Part of step three is to act on our prophetic ministry.
    1. Children and adults—all of us—can check the producers of the egg cartons we buy. We can share the information with each other and save steps.
    2. We write post cards to the producers and either THANK them for producing cardboard cartons, or tell them NOT to produce styrofoam cartons. Tell them why: the plastic ones simply do not biodegrade fast enough.
    3. We meet and talk about what we’ve done. We nurture each other in our ministry and we adjust our mission as we learn along the way. We may even begin another campaign to continue our ministry.

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