This past July, over 540 Friends came to Monmouth, Ore., for the first all-ages, in-person Friends General Conference Gathering in four years. They came from nearby Salem and Portland, and from as far away as Costa Rica and Vermont. They danced, listened, saw the giant sequoias, and hugged. Overwhelmingly they were glad to be back to almost normal.
Generally beautiful weather meant lots of outside time. There was no rain, and even on the hottest days, the humidity was low, the abundant trees provided shade, and mild breezes gave relief.
In order to incorporate some of the best of the intergenerational delights from the 2022 YAY Gathering (for Young Adults and Youth), this year’s Junior Gathering group of Friends came to the beginning of the plenaries on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, and left after worship for their own program. With the light outside lingering until 9:00 p.m., they could play in the cool evening air.
Overall, the week was a success: workshops went well; the Friends of Color center hosted important events for the entire community; our high school program started to bounce back from the pandemic; and plenaries, featuring a host of topics, were well received.
Of course, it wasn’t flawless. After three virtual gatherings—one planned from the start and two that pivoted from in-person in the early spring—some procedures were rusty. For me, coming back after a 17-year hiatus to serve as the interim Gathering director, I found some things to be new, but many things were exactly the same. And just when I thought I’d seen everything, the local print shop in Monmouth, to which we paid a significant deposit in early June to obtain the multiple reams of colored paper we wanted for handouts, ran out of ink on Friday afternoon right before the event.
For years, we searched for a way to bring the FGC Gathering back to the West Coast (the only other time was Washington in 2006), and with Western Oregon University, we finally found a campus that was affordable and could work for many Friends. However, the closest airport was still 90 minutes from campus and lingering impacts of the pandemic paired with inflation made flights from the East and Midwest expensive and sometimes complicated. And this was before storms, smoke, and train derailments delayed some Friends 48 hours or more!
FGC’s decision to have pandemic safety guidelines in place before registration opened in early April and to stick to them in a rapidly changing environment meant some Friends felt it was safe to attend, but others decided that masking was too inconvenient or that the COVID vaccination requirement was unreasonable. The guidelines were successful in that we met our goal of limiting the spread of COVID and likely other contagious diseases. There were no cases of COVID reported during the event itself, and only two from our post-event contact tracing.
As always, I read the post-event evaluations and wish we’d given Friends more inside information. The decision, for example, to offer supplemental outdoor dining in a tent meant the university would require us to have disposable tableware—thus creating more waste than we would’ve liked. The Gathering Committee did discuss this and made the choice.
Other things, on reflection, we might have described better well in advance—housing clusters, for instance, were more difficult to create because of the distribution of housing types. Private bathrooms were in one group of dormitories, for the most part, while different configurations of shared bathrooms divided by gender were available in another. It’s a giant puzzle and always a challenge to get everyone where they’d like to be. Add to that the university’s ever-shifting dorm space inventory, further complicated by most students not moving out until June 18-19, and damage assessments coming after that.
Personnel changes also added a degree of difficulty. Both Western Oregon University and FGC had multiple changes between initial contact in 2019 and the holding of the Gathering four years later. In fact, there were three conference directors at both institutions in that span of time.
All these challenges aside, the Gathering occurred. It was a safe, blessed, loving, nurturing community. First-time attenders became acquainted with Friends from across North America, and longtime devotees found the spiritual sustenance that carries them through the year.
When Emily Provance gave the 2021 Walton Lecture to pandemic-weary Southeastern Yearly Meeting Friends, via Zoom, she said, “We’re not called to be the people we were before; we’re called to be the people we are becoming.” Similarly, I offer this: “We’re not called to have the Gathering we had before; we’re called to have the Gathering that is becoming.”
Our 2024 Gathering of Friends at Haverford College in suburban Philadelphia will likely be the largest Gathering in over a decade for many reasons. It will also be the first of a new era. Since 1962, in-person, all-ages Gatherings have been annual, except of course for the pandemic years.
Shifting social, financial, ecological, spiritual, and public health realities call us to experiment with new practices in how we gather as Friends. Average Gathering attendance has dropped almost 40 percent since 2000. From a high of 1,920 attendees in Blacksburg, Va., in 2001 to the pre-pandemic low of 847 in Grinnell, Iowa, in 2019, it is clear that things need to change. Further, the virtual Gatherings (2020–2022) attracted almost 500 first-time Gathering attenders, many of whom aren’t able to attend in person. Online programming, of various kinds, is here to stay.
Beginning with Haverford in 2024, FGC will host a traditional in-person Gathering in even-numbered years, and a smaller, age-focused in-person YAY (Young Adults and Youth) event in odd-numbered years. A virtual Gathering open to everyone will also occur in those same odd-numbered years. In addition to the virtual Gathering, work has begun on a series of “experiments” suggested by our “Gathering Anew” report, which was completed last October.
Not every event will be accessible, suitable, or desired by every Friend, but our hope is that within the totality of offerings, many Friends will find things to feed their spiritual hunger, inspire their connections with the wider body of North American Friends, and continue their journeys as Quakers in the twenty-first century.