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Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

Quakerism Left Me (original version)


Betsy Blake I was 15 when I remember my yearly meeting first beginning to talk about splitting. It was during our annual sessions, and I was busy with a vibrant (and rather large) high school program. We were playing games, singing, giggling about crushes, telling jokes and stories, racing through grassy fields swelling with scented honeysuckle, and wrestling in the Southern red clay that banked any scraped edges. I didnt know this would be the beginning of the end for many, and that in the next two decades we--Friends United Meeting--would lose approximately 40% of our membership. In those days, like every summer at yearly meeting sessions, we were listening to inspired sharing from older (but surprisingly understanding and occasionally dorky) women and men. As high schoolers, one is undoubtedly skeptical of adults and the world, but we saw authenticity here. We received guidances that would shape our hearts in all days going forward. We say this still. Our worship was alive and deep. We were moved by the silent worship times. Most would agree these were the most meaningful. It was an experience that united us deeply. Being normal self-conscious teens, when someone spoke out of the quiet, it had to be because something greater than they, had moved them. We found ourselves quivering and crying at times, because of how bright and real the truth was, made visible in that sacred space. Our identity was made in those spaces. Gods children. Known. Loved. Community. For better or worse. Together. Humble and open before the One. I dont know what happened in the adult sessions. It wasnt the first time things had come up. It was something about homosexuality, which had to do in part with theology, but was also a cover for political beliefs, ideas of authority, past grievances against one another, interpretation of scripture, concern for other affiliations and being tainted by poor company. We wrote a minute that year as Young Friends, asking that the adults consider us too when they spoke of splitting, because we are the ones who would be affected in all our days going forward for a divisiveness that we did not experience and found contrary to the forgiveness and peacemaking we were being taught. Though our time on Earth had been shorter, we did sympathize. We too had already dealt with conflicts, fights, bullying and popularity contests. We knew enough to know that there was passion and genuine care with those adults, mixed in with something that was telling them to cut off their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

I am not sure what would up happening. Some said peace was made. Others said things were swept under the rug. We didnt split. But we began to shrink. Slowly as first. Youth, Young Friends, and later Young adult Friends activities helped me survive life. I found spiritual depth, acceptance, tolerance, joyfulness, unique tools for seeking the Divine and practicing discernment. In the twenty years that followed that summer (that I only now see as fateful) there would be Columbine as well as countless mass shootings since, the birth of the internet, sunsets on tobacco fields, the fall of the twin towers, road trips to glistening saltwater, more than a decade of war, my first serious boyfriend, the sudden death of my sister, mills sent overseas, shuttered warehouses, extreme weather, climbs to mountain top vistas, mountaintop removal, the threat of world population issues, learning to grow vegetables, college, actual snow on Christmas, card games with grandma, way too much television, dizzying wine, the fall of the middle class, laundry. I hadnt known much about unprogrammed Friends before college, and I was glad to have met some before they started pulling funding out of FUMs vital ministries. It had to do with making a point about continuing revelation related to homosexuality, but receiving the cuts, felt somewhere on the spectrum of passive to aggressive. Having financial challenges can easily strain relationships. We werent immune. ----------------------------------------I tried to remember those summers at yearly meeting, when I was later a student on that same Guilford College campus. In a turbulent senior year marked by upheaval, a violent assault and the death of my younger sister, Guilford was the only place I had actually applied, and for better or worse, I got in. I didnt know much about the school other than the smell of some of the dorm rooms (stale food and sweat mixed with the chemical perfume of spray cleaners) from our yearly meeting overnights, or how to find some of the sporting fields from our Game Days. Incredibly tender from grief and being away from home and close friends, I clung to my faith, like a nursing baby--sustenance and comfort to make it through each day. I actively felt its nourishment too, as I faced a whole new set of challenges all around me. New classes, new people, new schedule, new room, new demands. I had been accepted into a program called the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program or QLSP. I wasnt sure what to expect, but needed the scholarship and figured I couldnt go wrong with giving priority to something that was faith-based, especially in a transitional time.

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

I wasnt prepared for what happened next. The students in QLSP identified as Quaker but were largely not Christian. They said terrible things about Christians, Christianity, and even Jesus. I had faced some scrutiny in the small towns I had lived in before--by other Christians--for being a Quaker. They were skeptical of our not having a formal creed or doctrine, forgoing communion, nor offering water baptism. We were prowomen, pro-people of color, relatively respectful toward people of different faiths and weird about loving our enemies. The silent part of the service was also out of the norm, even if it was short, and sometimes confused with the announcement period. So I wanted to be sensitive toward my peers. But, at least initially, I often felt attacked. The grief I felt toward the loss of my sister, family, high school friends, and previous life began to shake my faith. I saw that my QLSP classmates were struggling with their own fights, but my open-handed offering of Jesus in those low times was often swept away. Anything but that. I began to be challenged. I heard these non-Christians talk about very Jesus-y things-looking out for workers rights from a hog factory hours from campus to the cooks and line workers in our own college cafeteria. There was concern for Gods creation and how overconsumption would first affect the least of these and then make its way up. Why was my Quaker meeting/church not talking about these things? I heard new terminology from these liberal Quakers, which sounded outdated, yet familiar. A lot of mention of Light. As I listened more closely and learned more about early Friends history, I saw that they were drawing from this way of speaking. Wait! These defiant non-Christians were largely drawing expression from the Biblical book of John and Jesus teaching. (Though often they lacked context.) The more this became apparent in our classes and conversations, the more it seemed to baffle these young adults. Why had they never learned this before? There was a holy sort of breaking-open amongst us, that happened slowly over time, but culminated for me during worship one night in the yellow-lit living room of our yearlevel leader. I began to feel a bold invitation asking me to give ministry. Speak, speak, speak, Love told me, my heart racing in my chest. I stared into the wooden floorboards, debating whether I had heard right and whether I had choice to respond. I knew the message being implored, but I did not have the words to express it. I remembered the urging from Fox and scripture that if I were to be faithful and stand up, the words would be given. Could I let it go? Oh no. I was on my feet, but words werent coming out, just sounds that began to sound like whimpering, and then I was crying, full-on crying in front of everyone, at the power of the message, and my inability to form the words. Defeated and embarrassed, finally, I sat down. There was a hole in the room that was alive, and everyone scarcely exhaled. But then, one by one, my classmates began to speak into that space, What I think Betsy meant was... would be enfolded into snippets of--indeed--the exact message that had been given to me. Despite questionably knowing Christ in the same way I did, it was apparent that God was speaking across our

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

backgrounds and experiences and we were getting the same thing. At least in that moment and many times to follow, God was uniting us with powerful guidances in a binding love that would change life and spirituality as we knew it. ----------------------------------------------------------------I am on an airplane, a transatlantic flight. The liberal Friends got to me. They made an inlet for the voice of the Divine to seep in to new parts of my life and it went right for the jugular, my passionate obsession with road trips and fuel consumption. I had all but given up my car for environmental reasons, walking my wobbly legs into muscled calves. But this travel connected to the organizing of World Gathering of Young Friends (a global summit for 18-35 year old Quakers) seemed to be okay. At least in my prayer life, I felt a peaceful yielding and encouragement toward yes. The air in the cabin was slightly stale and I nestled under the polyester fleece miniblanket, trying to sleep. I had come from a series of meetings in London or Brussels (its hard to recall now) and it hadnt been easy--the miscommunications, differing theologies, and varied cultural assumptions, but it *had* been rewarding. We wrangled all the fluff out of one another to get to see God, the great immaculate Creator, right there working and beating, reflecting Love back at us. The Spirit offered us shared solutions for bringing a wide cross section from the broken body of Friends--what young people were left--together, to better hear how we might be Faithful as a denomination, support one another, providing movement from our own micro-experiences. Unable to rest on my flight, I watched a documentary on the ice age, on the square screen in front of my seat. The film was about the last generations to go into--and survive--the ice age. Research revealed that in these desperate times, groups of once warring tribes would get together at these meeting places, exchange tools and survival tips, intermarry and carry what they learned back to their regions, thus sustaining life. This is it, I thought, this is what we are doing. As people are leaving the church in droves, as one Pew study suggests [site research?] Quaker meetings are closing, splitting, swimming controversy or cutting their budgets, here we are. I learned silly things on these trips, like recipes for food stuffs I had never considered putting together or the words to new songs (sometimes in other languages.) But I also learned new practices of conducting business, growing community, better understanding the nature of the Divine, the development of spiritual disciplines and practice in handling conflict. In preparation for World Gathering, I spent four years traveling amongst Friends coast to coast in the US, as well throughout Europe, East Africa, Canada, Central and South America. I made a documentary in the process, called Can We All Be Friends? (Currently available to view free online at: http://www.quaker.org.uk/can-we-all-befriends-video) I stayed in homes and huts and asked Friends, what is working in your community? Where are you finding life and where are you finding struggle? If you were

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

to bring the best part of your community to World Gathering of Young Friends, what would you bring? What would you need to feel comfortable? And how is God calling you and your larger community? I kept hearing similar feedback, some particular to certain branches, others a general watercolor wash across the groups. I heard: --a fascination with the Early Friends and birth of Quakerism --a longing to be part of a faith tradition that was still that creative and relevant --a feeling of isolation, both for being a Quaker/Friend and a young adult in a mostly aging population, and/or identifying as a Quaker in the broader world --current engagement had come largely from a foundation built with youth activities, programs and camps --enjoyment with music --a deep appreciation for silence/contemplative worship (notably mentioned by programmed Friends who wanted more and unprogrammed Friends who obviously perhaps, saw it as essential.)

World Gathering of Young Friends (WGYF) took place in Lancaster, England in 2005 (stats? with 312 young adults, 26 languages spoken etc?) The build up had been huge and costly, but the results are unforgettable with newly opened channels of fellowship and the forming of ongoing friendships, made easier through e-mail communication, skype and social media. (And yes, some couples formed.) In the States, there were events before, during, and after WGYF that brought these once divided (or at least previously unknown) young adults together. Philadelphia YM and Friends General Conference came through big time and released their skilled Young Adult coordinators to organize conferences and workshops, alongside leadership from a smaller Friends United Meeting contingency and some rebellious stragglers from Evangelical Friends International. Powerful bridge-building events dotted the country. These took a lot of time, energy, and much preparation but a community was forming and the Spirit was moving. We sought transformation--to be shaped by one another and the Divine--in intentional settings that were quite different from the places in which we had emerged. And it happened. We were changed. Only, this created more problems in some cases. We no longer fit in to the places we returned.

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

-------------------------------------------------------------------I was in the living room of my boyfriend at the times family home, flipping through old photo albums when I got the call that Randy Cockerham had died. Randy had been the clerk of our Young Friends program and someone I had known since I was 12. We had gone through camps together and toured with NCYMs Serenity youth choir several summers in a row. He was just 37 and his death was unexpected. I paced the hallway before sitting teary and dizzy on the sofa, unable to comprehend the news. Days later, I wandered a cemetery courtyard with the Quaker kids I had grown up beside. It was an overcast March day with a bit of chill in the air. We formed into rotating clumps, not too unlike the black soil around us, spindly with blades of yellow grass. We caught up on life and inevitably where we were living now, and whether we attended a Quaker meeting any more. Most did not. There wasnt a Meeting in their current city, or the local one didnt have a nursery or kids program or the type of worship that felt alive, relevant or vibrant. We mourned our friend as well as the loss of that thing we had lost, our faith community and parts of our identity. We hadnt missed dearly. It was a variation on a conversation I had been having for many years by that point. I was continuing to travel amongst Friends, screening my film on Quaker diversity, speaking on panels regarding the future of Friends, giving messages at conferences or bringing content to workshops. Everywhere I went, I encountered Friends who had experienced transformation/opening from these cross-branch dialogues and returned home only to feel further isolated. The e-mails, phone calls and even written letters accumulated, and I felt a certain responsibility. The young father from the programmed meeting who now was a part of a Methodist church--but knows in his heart he is still a Quaker, just has no access to a remotely functional meeting--and is struggling whether or not to go through with the requested water baptismal. He is struggling to let go of his convictions while wondering what sort of example to set for his children and wishing they could have what he had, growing up. The unprogrammed Quakers (too many to count) who find Jesus or who feel meaning from Christocentric language and feel hungrily desperate for more but dont know how to access it (at best) or are now ostracized or misunderstood by their new way of relating (at worst.) The Evangelical Quaker who has been exposed to the radical history of the Early Friends and has learned some of the continued practices of silent worship and wants to start a small group at his church but is met with anger by threatened pastors.

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

Everywhere I went the conclusion kept being the same. Something very important had been lost--our family of faith--and a replacement hadnt been found. Many of us were still trying. We were tired, frustrated, hungry, making do, or maybe even inspired by a little something, but it was so much less than we had hoped.

------------------------------------------------I discovered Circle of Hope while I was doing a 6-month residency at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, just outside Philadelphia. I had heard about it from a couple people I deeply respected and then I began to meet members at radical-churchy events around the city. These were mostly young adults--articulate, intelligent and sturdy--hailing from all parts of the country, who could seemingly be doing anything with their lives, but chose to be in some of the most desolate parts of Philadelphia, to be Love in action. I wasnt sure what to expect when I visited, but when I walked in, I felt it right away: this was it. This was the embodiment of these expressions of longed for community I had heard and experienced in my previous 15+ years of sojourning. This was it. It was happening right here. People were singing, entering into silent contemplation, invited to participate in creative interactive learnings, while a pastor and congregants spoke honesty, Light and mobility into the current struggles our generation is facing. Finally. There it was. The gospel held up firmly while exploring climate change, ongoing war, job insecurities, student loan debt, food deserts, incomprehensible tsunamis, earthquakes, human suffering. People were friendly. The values, priorities, and much of the language familiar. They seem like Quakers, I thought. But they werent Quakers. They were a 15+ year old congregation who had become aligned with another historic peace church, the Brethren in Christ church. This cant be real, I thought. So I kept coming back. This was real and it was happening. This was the beginning of a curious love affair. I continued attending services throughout my time at Pendle Hill. I didnt realize how spiritually hungry I had become. I once watched a film on a nomadic tribe who spent their desert days digging for roots to quench their hunger and thirst. Thats how it had been. So much work for so little. But here it was, all you can eat. Here is it, the people formed and worshipping, the community growing, the culture being affected in powerfully positive ways everywhere they go.

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

I became anxious to return to North Carolina. I had gained a taste and I wanted more. I began to tell others. --------------------------------I dont know whats going to happen, but I am here. Almost 4 years later, I am back in Philadelphia. I have an apartment here now. I am active in a Circle of Hope congregation while maintaining ties in my beloved home community with Friends and others in North Carolina. Have you left Quakerism? I have frequently been asked. In truth, I feel that Quakerism left me and many others. I identify as part of a wandering generation. We have to rebuild this for ourselves and the future if there will be anything left of us. I gave up a lot to be here. I am exploring whether Circle of Hope is interested in crosspollinating. I am wanting to start a new faith community back in North Carolina, drawing from the best that Quakerism and Circle of Hope has to offer. I am immersing myself in the workings of Circle of Hope, creating relationships, growing, learning, and if I am able, to teach as well. Because I do believe our tradition has much to offer. We take pride in our connections to accomplishments and movements that have changed the course of history. And I hope to also prevent others from going down the places where we may have made mistakes. It feels important to admit that weve done that too. I spent Saturday evening with a makeshift choir, recording one of the songs we sing in our services for an album that the congregation will be putting out later this year. In my home meeting, I am used to singing the European hymns of dead people from the later 19th and early 20th century. At Circle some of the local congregants and related friends from other cities have written some of our hymns. These love poems to God. The congregation honors their gifts. The passion is fresh, understood, and shared. On this particular night, we have just finished a potluck, vegan chili and kale salad on my plate. I sit with my friend Becca who has come from Northwest Yearly Meeting. Her husband stops to gently hug her from behind, quickly kissing her on the lips when she looks up. They are making this their home now. We are recording a song written by Seth Martin, a friend of the congregation, and a graduate of George Fox University (and a friend of Friends as it has been said.) We sing the song again and again. I find myself reminded of being a child in Arba Friends meeting, near Richmond, Indiana, when I had a clear vision of Jesus stopping in to visit our service. Wanting to keep the freshness in our repetitions I find myself saying, Hey! Imagine Jesus has come into the room and we are serenading him. Everyone likes this very much and my idea is sweetly cheered. We sing these words: And my hands are open, and my feet are bare,

Outside the Quaker Bubble

Betsy Blake

And my heart is hoping, make my life a prayer. Feed us with your soil, as we mold and bend, Freed from sin and toil, root us in again. Give us eyes to see you, bring your fire and wind! In ourselves and others, only you again. Thanks to all before us, Y ! to what will "ome, #"ean$s raging "horus, sings %Thy will be done!& !ings, %Thy will be done!&