A Tale of Two Gatherings

I have just returned from attending both Quaker Spring and the Friends General Conference Gathering. Loving community blossomed at both, but they were quite different gatherings.

Quaker Spring, which invites Friends to, “experience the Inward Christ Together,” was held on the campus of Olney School in Barnesville, Ohio.  Stillwater Meetinghouse sits on a rise at the entrance to campus, above Friends Center, the retreat house of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). The Olney grounds include dorms, a small lake, an ample garden, a greenhouse, pastures for cows and goats, a chicken coop, and barn.  Since 2007, Quaker Spring has been an annual opportunity for liberal Friends to gather and learn with Conservative Friends. Mornings include Bible reading followed by a lengthy unprogrammed meeting for worship. In the afternoons, participants can invite people to join them in discussion on a particular topic, or may organize a clearness committee or game or outdoor event. A “Listening Committee” meets at breakfast to discern what is arising in the group. They plan the evening program day by day.

I came to Quaker Spring feeling burdened. During the opening meeting for worship, I had an image of a sunken ship, a boat called the Phoenix, whose involvement in Quaker activism in the 1950s and 60s  I have been researching for my book.  Recently it was found at the bottom of a river.  The ship is now being restored for future use by the Veterans for Peace. Like the mythological phoenix, it will rise again, and so will I.  But on the opening night I shared with my small group how I have sometimes felt sunken this past year.

I was grateful for extended worship every morning. Day by day I felt how God–and Christ–have been revealing and healing the emotions and thought patterns that have surfaced as I’ve struggled with various challenges, including grief at the end of a relationship. I rested every afternoon and walked quietly around the pond.  A few times, on the island, I sat in a narrow gap between evergreen trees and watched a flock of geese and goslings as they swam, waded, and pulled off the tops of tall grasses.  One afternoon, in preparation for speaking on an evening panel about Listening to God, I recalled the many different ways I have been aware of the divine presence alive in me and active in my life.  I remembered a time in 1995 when I was walking alone on a country road and had a sense that Jesus was walking beside me, asking me to commit to finishing an article for Friends Journal, the outline of which I had received in a dream. When I made that commitment, it seemed as though he took my hand, and I have never really walked alone since. One leading has flowed from another and I have been on a path of learning, teaching, and writing about the Quaker spiritual journey–past, present, and future–ever since. It was comforting to remember that I am accompanied, even when I seem to be alone.

A member of the Listening Committee convened a small group to have dinner with me on the last night. For an hour and a half, four wonderful people listened to me, asked questions, and provided love and support, helping me to feel how the Phoenix is rising even now.

At Quaker Spring, the movement of the Spirit builds day by day. This year, in an extension of last year’s conversations, the Listening Committee grappled with some hard questions about how to make the gathering more welcoming of racial diversity. In my final morning meeting for worship there, I felt God–Christ–very powerfully present in the vocal ministry and in the inner movements within me. It became more clear how the feelings and thought patterns that have been surfacing this year had their roots in my childhood and also in a patriarchal culture that has not valued intuition, emotion, mystical experience, and women’s ways. Even though I have struggled with difficult emotions, I have also seen God’s grace in the opportunity to acknowledge and embrace these aspects of myself and let them be released and healed. It has been part of the path to greater wholeness. Naming my blog “A Whole Heart” was an expression of the calling I have long felt to become whole-hearted.

The next day I traveled to the campus of California University, south of Pittsburgh, PA, for the FGC Gathering.  As a workshop leader, I arrived a day earlier than most participants. Still, after the quiet intimacy of Quaker Spring, I felt stunned by the numbers of people, the noise, and the confusion of figuring out the campus layout. By my second day, more than 1200 Friends had arrived and were noisily mobbing the dining hall. I wondered if it had been a mistake to come. However, I quickly discovered how to get into the quieter dining room by eating meals early, and I took time to rest and prepare for my workshop every afternoon instead of attending any of the many enticing events scheduled then.

I gained in strength as the week went by.  Elaine Emily, serving as elder, held my workshop group in prayer for five mornings as we focused on “Stories of God’s Love and Power.” From Monday through Thursday, I told stories: a Bible story, Quaker stories, and my story. Participants engaged and shared deeply. On Friday, they told their own beautiful stories of seeing God’s love at work even in difficult circumstances.

The theme of the Gathering was, “Let Love Be the First Motion.” Just a week before, Eileen Flanagan, a member of my meeting, had been asked to step in as the Thursday evening plenary speaker. At breakfast three days in a row, I joined with some other Friends to provide support as Eileen discerned what to include in her talk, and how much she would say about her participation in the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). For a couple of years, EQAT has been engaging in demonstrations, including civil disobedience, in an effort to persuade PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

On Thursday afternoon, Eileen and almost 200 other people traveled from the Gathering to Pittsburgh, where PNC Bank’s headquarters are located, to participate in a demonstration. That same afternoon, I convened a group to hold them in the Light. Over the course of ninety minutes, seven people joined our circle. We sat in a sunny classroom with a view of the green hills surrounding the campus. In the deepening silence, I felt a strong connection to the Earth, its mountains, its flowing waters, and the people who live on this planet. I prayed for Eileen and the Friends I knew were in Pittsburgh, including a group of Middle School Friends.

My prayer soon extended to the employees and stockholders of PNC bank, and then to all of us in the U.S. who consume energy in ways that make blowing up mountains and polluting rivers profitable. My heart kept expanding. I prayed for all of us to have the wisdom and courage to choose sustainable ways to live on this planet; I prayed for help and guidance in making the changes that are needed. A couple of those present seemed sleepy. Yet a Power was present among us, expanding our circle way beyond the windows of the classroom. I did not feel like the initiator. Prayer was happening and I was a participant.   Love was the first motion, not personal love, but divine Love that flowed through us. I felt that the prayer of our little group was more powerful because it was connected to people who were taking action on behalf of the earth and its people. I don’t know if Friends in Pittsburgh were aware of our little group holding them in the Light. Nonetheless, all of us were part of a larger effort, a divine motion of Love.

That night Eileen told the Gathering how her connection to friends in Botswana had sensitized her to the effects of climate change on the world’s poorest people. She said that high temperatures and decreased water in the soil threatens the lives of 180 million Africans in the near future. After visiting Botswana in 2011, she felt led to take action. She lifted up the importance of providing spiritual support for discernment and action.

After the plenary, I joined some other Friends on the plaza outside the convention center. We sat on a low wall that circles a fountain and shared our different perspectives and experiences of the Gathering, learning from each other.  During the week, two different conversations with Friends at lunch helped me to listen more carefully, inwardly, about how to invite my workshop group to move into deeper waters.  Walks and conversations with other Friends gave me a boost of encouragement.  That week I saw so many Friends with whom I have made important connections in the past. At first it was painful not to be able to engage in deep conversation with many of them. Eventually, I felt peaceful about just waving and smiling and giving quick hugs, feeling how we were connected in one community in which love was palpable.

On Friday afternoon I offered an interest group about the Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey, not sure if anyone would come in the middle of the last afternoon. I had reserved a small room that held a conference table and 25 chairs. To my surprise and delight, 30 people showed up. Some Friends brought more chairs from other rooms.  People were interested in the elements of the transformative Quaker spiritual journey, and we had a wonderful discussion.

God’s love and power were at the center of the stories in my workshop, and no doubt also in many of the other workshops at the Gathering. The evening plenary talks were deep and moving, yet they included few explicit references to God. Speakers shared stories of how love, community, and steadfast witness are able to touch and sometimes overcome terrible pain and suffering, including rage at the murder of a son and the agony of thousands in U.S. prisons condemned to solitary confinement. Asking questions in the search for truth, loving and supporting one another in discernment and action, and prayer were all held up as important. At the FGC Gathering, we were a loving, accepting, and diverse community, embracing many interests, needs, and activities. But there was little acknowledgement in the opening worship or evening talks that what can really change and heal the world is not our limited human love and power, but only the great Love and Power of God, which can flow through us if we are willing to join with the divine Fountain of Love.

On Saturday morning after breakfast, a final meeting for worship was held in the same huge arena where the plenary talks had been held. Chairs were arranged facing in from four sides, and microphones were delivered slowly and deliberately to those who stood to offer vocal ministry. Many people had already departed from the Gathering by then. Those who participated in that meeting for worship rested not only in the love we felt for one another and the gratitude for a blessed time together, but also in the Great Love. Many messages acknowledged God, or the Mystery, the Eternal Being, and Christ within.

streaming fountain cmw3_d_fountain2 mrgfile941245026256

The theme of next year’s Gathering, in Cullowhee, North Carolina, will be “Seeking Wholeness.” I pray that we will speak clearly of the truth that wholeness comes only when we are joined in that Eternal Being, divine Mystery, and Fountain of Love.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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11 Responses to A Tale of Two Gatherings

  1. forrestwife says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I didn’t even know about Quaker Spring.
    Light and love to you Marcelle.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thank you, Marcelle, for telling about these gatherings, your experience of them, and the different ways in which you felt love and challenge, support and meaning flowing through them to nurture your knowing of God in relationship with others in new or renewed forms.

  3. homer says:

    Thank you for including me on the mailing list. Beautifully written; I felt I was there with you as you shared your observations and feelings.

    Love and blessings, Homer

  4. Ellie Caldwell says:

    Thanks for sharing this. After 6 or so gatherings, I’m not sure it’ll attend again. They’re overwhelming! I frequently dream of gathering– can’t remember room number or find cafeteria. Love the feast of conversations, but it can be challenging. Will see how
    I feel led,….Ellie Caldwell

  5. awbrimmer says:

    I for one knew you were holding all of us at the EQAT protest in prayer, and I was grateful for that. Thank you for sharing your experiences here. I have started hearing about Quaker Spring, but I didn’t know what it was until now. Sounds like something I would love! Thanks for your faithfulness.

  6. Ellen Deacon says:

    It is heartening to hear that some Friends who are hearing about Quaker Spring for the first time, perhaps might be lead to learn more or even join us some year. We alternate between being at Barnesvville (Olney Friends School and Stillwater Meeting), and other locations. In 2015, we will be in a more easterly location, soon to be determined. If you wish to learn more, please feel free to visit quakerspring.org.

  7. I’m glad I happened on your blog again today, Marcelle, and got to read your reflections on the two gatherings. It’s always inspiring and encouraging to me when I read your writing. I resonated with your descriptions of how the two gatherings were different for you. Once I got home from the Quaker gatherings I went to in June, I managed to get caught up in the my various obsessive thoughts about practical needs and decisions, and didn’t take the time I wish I’d have taken to process it all through writing. I was thankful that you built time into your workshop for us to write on our own and share our stories with the group. It was a powerful workshop!
    I didn’t know you had a group holding those of us who went to Pittsburgh in the Light, but I did experience very deep, centering worship while sitting on the floor of the PNC bank lobby. It was a special experience, feeling somehow naked and vulnerable in that grand, prestigious lobby, while also feeling the power of Spirit in and among us. I appreciate that your prayer included the PNC bank officials, too. On the bus when we shared out loud what motivated us to go on the trip, a couple of young people said that they were looking forward to “ticking off” some bank leaders. It provided an opportunity to raise what it means to have Love as the first motion. I wasn’t sure whether to respond to these comments with the whole group, but in the end I was glad I did, and hope that it was received with the love I intended.
    Love and gratitude to you, dear Friend!

  8. Paulette, Thanks so much for taking the time to write this comment, and especially for sharing your experiences at the PNC demonstration in Pittsburgh!

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