First Time at Quaker Meeting

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A yearning for a spiritual community spurred my husband, Jerry, and me to a Quaker meeting three decades ago. Though I’d grown up in the Lutheran church and Jerry had been brought up as a Baptist, we both had questioned those traditions as college students.

 

In our late twenties, we’d found each  other – and a more relevant church home in an intentional ecumenical community in the inner city of Evansville, Indiana. Mutual friends had started the community, and they introduced us and nurtured our spiritual lives, our social justice consciousness, and our relationship. In 1979, two community members, ordained United Methodist ministers, had married us in the living room of the small house our group used as its base for neighborhood ministry and worship.us (1)

Two years later, Jerry and I recognized we needed more education to pursue our respective careers; Seattle offered programs for both of us. By that time, I was pregnant and due in July. We moved in the spring, hoping to settle in before the birth and the start of fall classes.

Part of our settling in included hunting for a church home without the formality of traditional worship services and one that was involved in peace and justice work. Quaker Meeting had made our list of places to check out. At that point, our only acquaintance with Quakerism, more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, was through the American Friends Service Committee. We’d handed out anti-war brochures from the organization a couple of years earlier in Evansville when registration for a military draft had been re-instituted.

One Sunday in April, we made our way to University Friends Meeting. We paused in the doorway of the worship room, scanned the rows of molded plastic chairs arranged in a circle, then chose two seats near the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Called Meeting for Worship, this hour of sitting in silence with no minister, no liturgy or sermon, no hymn singing or scripture reading, and no kneeling and standing, was nothing like the Lutheran services of my youth. Neither did it much resemble the house church we’d attended in Evansville, with folk songs accompanied by a guitar and communion with homemade whole wheat bread and a common cup of wine.

At first I fidgeted, wondering when someone would say something. Eventually I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and blocked out the sounds of crows skittering across the skylight and the whoosh of bus doors opening and closing at the Metro stop on the corner. I don’t remember if anyone spoke that day, but I recall I found comfort in the quiet presence of a hundred others doing the same.

Jerry and I talked later about how we both had felt at home in that simple space and service. A sense of “being at home” is commonly expressed by people when they talk about their first time at Quaker meeting. In fact, those are the words that Scott Holmes used to describe his first meeting in the recent episode of QuakerSpeak – My First Time at Quaker Meeting: “I felt like I had been wandering around a long time and had come home.”

Charlotte Cloyd explains that during her first time she was preoccupied, just as I had been.

“The first time I went to Quaker Meeting, I didn’t know how to listen, and I sat and was uncomfortable and noticed the silence and was too analytical of what the silence meant… I had to work on the process of figuring out: what am I listening for? Am I listening to myself? What’s going on? What is everyone else listening to and how does that affect the community and me?”

After our “first time,” Jerry and I attended University Meeting regularly. We were welcomed by other couples having babies, as well as seniors and singles who, when our baby unexpectedly turned out to be twins, became surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

We came to recognize that Quakerism was our path. For me, it was a place that not only allowed, but encouraged, my questions about God and faith. Anthony Smith found solace in the questioning he experienced at Quaker meeting, too.

“What impressed me about it was that there were people struggling. Not that they had the answers, but that they had questions and difficult questions that they were wrestling with, and they were trying to do so in a spiritually informed, but also very intelligent way.”

After many more times at meeting, Quakerism affirmed my belief that my faith, my work, and the way I live my life are all of the same cloth. It also gave me a vocabulary—such as the terms leading and calling—as well as tools and to open to a source of love and wisdom outside of myself to discern what I’m meant to do with my life. I remain grateful that my “first time” was a homecoming.

 

If you’ve found a spiritual home—at a Quaker meeting or elsewhere—what was your “first time” like?

 

 

 

Wanted

bookWe all yearn to feel wanted. Many of us receive that message from family, friends, work, and organizations—spiritual and otherwise. Some, though, only experience that sense in the form of WANTED posters that hang in post offices and courthouses or show up on Crime Stoppers websites. And those are the people whose stories Chris Hoke tells in his first book, WANTED – A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jails, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.

Chris Hoke signing my copy of “WANTED.”
Chris Hoke signing my copy of “WANTED.”

I met Chris in February at the Search for Meaning Book Festival at Seattle University. He’s part of Tierra Nueva (New Earth), a Christian ministry based in Burlington, Washington, that serves “people on the margins (immigrants, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless) and mainstream people.” His book had come out just three weeks earlier, and, just as he did in his writing, he spoke only a little about himself and much more about the men he works with as a gang pastor, jail chaplain, and co-founder of Underground Coffee.

WANTED has been described, aptly, as “a mix of true crime and spiritual adventure.” In it, Chris writes about bringing the teachings of Jesus into his daily experiences and encounters with gang members, men addicted to drugs, and “outlaws” like Ricardo (Richard) Mejia. Chris weaves Richard’s story through the book in chapters titled “WANTED.” Here’s how “WANTED I” begins:

Someone called the cops on Ricardo Mejia as soon as he was born. As soon as his fifteen-year-old mother had finished ridding him from her body, she slipped out of the Skagit Valley Hospital and left him there. When the nurse came in and saw the squirming newborn on his own in the clear plastic bin, she made no move to pick him up or cradle him. Instead, she picked up the phone and called the police.

Throughout the book, Chris reveals the story of the unlikely friendship that developed between him and Richard and of how they taught and learned from each other. In other chapters, Chris writes about many other men and of their gangs and crimes and of a world that I can’t imagine. The mini-lessons from bible studies Chris and inmates led put me back in touch with the teachings of Jesus and his example of love for the unwanted in the world.

Essayist and novelist Brian Doyle describes Chris’s storytelling well: “I never read a book so tender with its ears and so honest with its tongue.” This honesty and humility is present throughout the book as Chris also weaves in the story of his own faith journey. He writes that ever since his teens in suburban Southern California, when he “came most alive” in the late night, he’s been drawn to the kind of awareness that monastics encounter in the pre-dawn hours. “Maybe we were just coming at it from different sides of the clock,” Chris says. He divulges his own dark times and admits that the crimes he hears about from the men he meets in jail don’t alarm him—“to threaten, steal, destroy, cheat, evade, rage, attack, smother, and self-medicate are all impulses I recognize in myself.”

Chris’s stories make me think of my own reactions—compassion, often mixed with anger and frustration—toward the women I used to visit as a public health nurse. Some of them were the wives, girlfriends, sisters, or daughters of men like those Chris works with. I realized as I read Chris’s book how little I understood of their lives and of the broken systems that pushed them toward all the wrong places in search of feeling wanted.

coffeeA package of Underground Coffee fresh-roasted beans arrived at my door the other day. As I sip a cup of the rich brew, I reflect on a leading I’ve felt for a while to work with women in prison. I have a lot to learn about how to do that, but Chris’s experience reminds me of one essential skill—listening—which we Quakers feel easier with than many people. I don’t know if the way will open for me to put that to use in a prison, but Chris’s stories about Richard Mejia and the other men he serves as pastor show me the power of listening for that of God in everyone.

Next Chapters for Quakerism

Just a few months away from my 61st birthday, I’m aware of stiffness in my joints and how white is overtaking blonde in my hair.  I’ve noticed, too, how gray the heads are in my Quaker meeting, and I can’t help but worry about the future of this spiritual community.  
The latest issue of Friends Journalgives me hope, though, that there is new energy to write the next chapters for Quakerism.
In Coming Alive-Discerning the Next Chapter of Quaker Service, Christina Repoley writes of her journey to find a way “to live my Quaker faith.”  Despite her fire “to make a difference in the world” following graduation from Guilford College in 2002, she struggled—as many young, inexperienced people I know do—to find fulfilling work. She knew that earlier generations of Friends had found such support through workcamps organized by the American Friends Service Committee, but those no longer exist. While Christina discovered people in a  Catholic Worker Movement house in Philadelphia who shared her belief in the relationship between peace and justice work and faith, she still yearned for Quaker-based places to act on her desire to serve.  She noticed, too, that she wasn’t alone:  “I wondered why so many young people in my young adult age group were drifting away from the Quaker faith.”
Christina’s questions led her to conversations with Mennonite friends whose desire for faith-based, meaningful work had been met through Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).  Both programs offer young adults opportunities to live in community and to serve others and reminded Christina of the AFSC workcamps of the past and the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage she’d participated in as a teenager.
After ten years of listening—inwardly and to those who shared her vision—Christina found openings and help to establish a Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) house in Atlanta.

In August 2012, QVS welcomed seven young adults for a year of living in intentional community and working with local peace and social justice organizations. A year later, QVS opened two more houses—one in Philadelphia and another in Portland, OR—and accepted twenty-one new Volunteers into the three-city QVS network.

Christina isn’t alone in her yearning to put faith into action, though, and those desires aren’t limited to young people. Gray-haired Lynn Newsom writes in Friends Journal as well about her own search in My Path to Quaker House. Thirty years after first volunteering at Quaker House, a Fayetteville, NC center that provides counseling and support to service members who are questioning the military, Lynn found herself back on the organization’s board as it searched for a new director.After contacting all the people she thought would be “perfect for the job,” she had a revelation about herself and her husband, Steve:

Suddenly it hit me. Steve and I could and should take on the position. I ran to the kitchen and announced to Steve, as he sat peacefully with his tea, that we would be perfect for the job. “What job?” he replied.
Lynn describes the many opportunities and openings she’s experienced since retiring (for a second time) as an art teacher and sharing the post at Quaker House with her husband. “There is no doubt in my mind that I was led and continue to be led on this path,” she writes.
The searches Christina and Lynn write about are examples of persisting to seek clarity about a leading and about remaining open to the ways Spirit works in our lives. Their stories suggest there are many   chapters in Quakerism yet to be written.
What are other ways Quakers can support young people who are drifting away from Quakerism?
How do you put your faith into action?
When have you felt led to action?

Afterthought #23 – Quakers on YouTube

A year after organizing what likely was the largest Clearness Committee in the history of Quakerism to discern a direction for his work, Quaker singer/songwriter Jon Watts has announced where the fruits of his labor led. In collaboration with Friends Journal, Friends General Conference (FGC), and Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS), Jon will create a Quaker-themed YouTube Channel. This brief teaser has me looking forward to Jon’s new ministry.  I expect the adjectives used to describe it are apt: Succinct. Exciting. Informative.
You can join the project’s Quaker Speak mailing list to be notified when the first videos air.  Stay tuned!