One Friend asked: “In addition to worship, do you have any information about the hard-and-fast ways that early Friends “gathered into community”? Did they have Friendly Eights or a potluck? Did they meet to hear about the newest project of their local Quaker institution?”
This tongue-in-cheek question highlights how many of us think about community today. To my knowledge, early Quakers did not organize events for the primary purpose of fostering or creating community. Daily they prayed and meditated on scripture. Then, during lengthy and frequent meetings for worship, they were brought together by the power of God, united into a spiritual body. Almost as important, they depended upon one another to live faithfully in a hostile culture. This helped forge deep spiritual bonds among them.
Friends today still experience spiritual oneness during gathered or covered worship, but such experiences are less common. Apart from worship, probably the most powerful way that Quakers experience being gathered into spiritual community today is when jointly carrying out a leading, especially when it carries a risk. In an article entitled “People and Peoplehood,” Quaker Theology editor Chuck Fager discusses early Friends’ sense of call to be a people of God. In it, he shares an experience of his own. On a spring day in 1967, he crossed the Canadian border at Ft. Eire on the Peace Bridge, one member of a group of New York Quakers carrying medical supplies to be shipped by the Canadian Friends Service Committee to civilian victims on all side of the Vietnam War. In obedience to a leading of the Spirit, these Quakers were defying the law and committing civil disobedience. They announced their intention to the Border Patrol.
Fager wrote, “I smiled all the way across the bridge, and I remembered especially the warm greetings of the Canadian Friends who met us. That was a very special moment in my young Quaker journey. And in reflecting on what made it so special, this word “peoplehood” came back into my mind. That walk over the bridge, and the reception we got from Canadian Friends, was the act of a self-conscious people, a group with an identity and a mission; and that day, these realities were clearly in focus for me, if not yet articulated.”
Reflecting on what helps and hinders community, Elizabeth Ann Blackshine shared some contrasting experiences. During a year spent at Pendle Hill retreat center, she was part of a powerfully transforming community. She wrote, “my time at Pendle Hill, with a very racially diverse group, was indeed the most gathered I felt in a spiritual community to date among Friends. Never had I been so ripe for healing and transformation than that year and never had I been so deeply met and supported than at that time. I attribute it to the many elders who were there that year. They and other seasoned Friends offered such a deep holding space, that unquantifiable quality of cultivating the air of love in every corner of a space, of having the love generator on 24/7 that allowed me to heal and transform deeply, feeling so spiritually and soulfully held. The willingness to be deeply vulnerable, exposed, fully present from all Friends is a big factor. That year at Pendle Hill was such a beautiful balance of holding on to a core of Quaker principles, with an encouragement to have meetings for worship with a concern for just about any topic one was drawn to. There was such a wide container for Spirit to fill.”
She did not find this kind of wide community, however, in a meeting she attended that was “full of the unresolved conflict and prejudices that affect Friends today.” She has found similar dynamics in other Quaker groups: “While I find the worship completely dynamic, unlike any other form of gathering and worship that I’ve experienced, I seem to run into road block after road block socially among Friends. My perception is that it’s race-based on both sides. This is not an accusation but more a shining of light on a deep wound that all Friends could benefit from looking at and pouring attention to for Spirit to continue to slowly heal. I’m so thankful for the Friends who are doing that on their racial and social justice committees and for Friends like Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye whose book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship has been an enormous resource along this slow journey. I long for more worship sharing around topics of race and other social barriers that still need enormous healing in the nation and therefore, naturally, still in the Society of Friends.”
Elizabeth prays to help create a nurturing “container” for transformation. She hopes to “learn to weather more of these storms together and not in isolation. I pray for the courage to participate with a whole heart…”
Rhonda discovered that over time she grew into her community like a branch on a vine, and that giving and receiving from her Quaker meeting became part of one flow. John 15:5 speaks to her of community: I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. This passage resonates with her “relationship with God through the meeting.” She reports that, “Over the past year or so, we have become more intentional about enhancing the depth of our community and exploring our Quaker roots. Now, worship feels more vital and we have a clearer sense of the Spirit moving among us.”
She has been surprised to discover how she herself has benefitted while serving her meeting, and how, in doing so, she has become a part of the meeting in a new way: “Over the past couple weeks, I have discerned that I am being led to grow more fully into who God wants me to be through one of the meeting’s ministries. I know it shouldn’t surprise me, but I have a strong tendency to try to ‘go it alone,’ discrediting my role in the community and not believing that the meeting is God’s and the Christ works through the meeting. I thought that I needed to figure out what my spiritual gifts were so I could determine what I needed to do, quite independent of the meeting. Now, I believe that my participation in the meeting has allowed Christ to live in and move through me, so that I, in conjunction with the meeting, might do Christ’s work in the world.”
Gathered Into Community Today: In what ways have you, others, and your meeting been brought together into a spiritual unity or community? What, if anything, has stood in the way of that?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe Leadings of the Spirit. * * * * *
(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin