In March, I gave a talk via Skype to the Midwest Interbranch Young Adult Friends Gathering on the future of Quakers and the need for Young Adult Friends to take leadership. – Greg
In 1652, a 28 year old uneducated young man climbed Pendle Hill and at the top of that hill he had a vision of a great people gathered. This vision is what brings us together today. George Fox saw that the time was ripe for a major shift in his society and I will argue that we are in a time today where a major shift is needed in our society.
George Fox and early Friends were a radical band of seekers. They caused a lot of ruckus
and they were unafraid of voicing their convictions and telling others that their beliefs were completely wrong. They had a powerful message for the masses that Christ Jesus came to teach himself. They certainly were not afraid to share that message with anyone. They even had the gall to try to convert the Pope and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Early Quakers had fervor in part because of the political climate that England was in due to an ongoing civil war. Many felt that they were near the end of days and that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. In part, I would argue that we are in a similar time period. Even though I do not think that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent, we are reaching a critical point in history, a time that we need to be on fire again.
More than 350 years after early Quakers began preaching their message, I sense a burning desire among people today to find a community that is uncorrupted by the current corporate church culture. Because of the recent culture wars and the obscene wealth that some churches flaunt around, many people have left the church in disgust and some of them have become refugees within Quakerism, especially liberal Quakerism. But a lot have just left the Church altogether, which is why we have a lot of people, identifying as a “none” and/or Spiritual But Not Religious.
We are seeing an upheaval in society with the Occupy movement a couple years ago and now with Climate activism and the Black Lives Matter movement. These are callings, yearnings for a major shift in society. Most of these movements have offered/are offering temporary community, which only lasts as long as the next victory looks possible. The Indian social activist Arundhati Roy said about 15 years ago, “Another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Quakerism has a lot to offer these movements, much like what early Quakers were offering in 1650s to the English society. In some ways, what we have to offer will not look much different than what early Friends were offering, yet in other ways they are completely different.
Early Quakers did believe in the sacraments, but not in the outward forms of the sacraments because first they did not believe that Jesus required them in the Bible and second they felt that the practice of outward sacraments over the centuries had made the practices to become empty, devoid of meaning. They wanted to recapture early Christian fervor to revive Christianity from its dull, hierarchical form that it looked like by the 1640s and 50s because the church had become institutional and corrupted. Early Friends wanted to find an uncorrupted faith that was rooted in community.
One of the most radical things that early Friends offer was the idea that an individual could have a direct relationship with God. They were raising up the idea of individualism in a time when people were grouped in the masses. As Quakers, we still believe in direct revelation, but our most radical offering to the wider world is a heartfelt commitment to community in the face of growing individualism. Other churches invite people to the table for outward communion on a weekly or monthly basis. But our inward communion happens whenever two or more are gathered for worship. We are participating in this sacred communion tonight. This communion has the power to sustain people hungry for change longer than any short-term victory could ever provide.
The time right now is ripe for a major shift. Quakers can provide a place to spiritually support this important work and the people involved. Are we willing?
Are we as Young Adult Friends willing to take on leadership for this shift? The shift in the Religious Society of Friends should come from Young Adult Friends. We have been at the forefront of change since the 1650s. As a denomination, we were founded by a young adult, someone younger than I am. Then in the 1860s, not too far from First Friends Meeting, it was young adults within Indiana Yearly Meeting who insisted on gathering outside of the yearly meeting program to sing and offer vocal ministry. This helped to lead Quakerism outside of the Quietism period. It was young adult Friends in Philadelphia who started meeting together in the 1910s- 1920s. This effort helped to lead to the founding of the Friends World Committee on Consultation and the unification efforts to rejoin the Hicksite-Orthodox yearly meetings in the Philadelphia area and other surrounding yearly meetings.
Sometimes I see more young adult Quakers at rallies and at retreats than I do at meeting for worship on Sunday morning. Are we living up to or down to what is expected of us? What are we offering to our meetings? Are we opting in? I don’t think it is easy to be a Young Adult Friend in a lot of Quaker meetings. Some are great, but many are indifferent or even hostile. Older Quakers tend to ask people in their late 20s or early 30s if they still in college. Or else regard us as not willing to stick around, so Friends do not even try to learn the names of young adults who attend their meetings/churches. I have been to some meetings where no one will greet you even if they know you are a newcomer. Sometimes it is not easy, but are we making an effort? What alternatives are there? We could also be starting our own worship groups and inviting people into a deeper communion together. For example, in Greensboro along with others I have started a monthly young adult group where we meet for potluck and worship. Young Adults come from different meetings and even no meeting to meet together for this time of fellowship. Are we willing to step up and lead?
We already have young adult Friends changing the landscape of the Religious Society of Friends and inviting non Quakers in at the same time. I want to highlight the work of a Young Adult Friend Christina Repoley and the founding of Quaker Voluntary Service. (A disclaimer: I am on the board of the organization.) Christina graduated from Guilford and wanted to find a way to serve Quakers. Like other young adult Quakers, she quickly found herself living in Philadelphia and a while she started working for a Quaker organization. But she did not feel supported by Quakers in general.
During her time in Philadelphia, Christina became friends with several young adult Mennonites and they had fond memories of service opportunities from Mennonite Voluntary Service. Christina wondered why is there was nothing like that in Quakerism. This question led to an almost a decade long journey that led Christina to finding people to help her build what is now Quaker Voluntary Service. Along the way, Christina invited others, including other young adults to join her in her vision. Her vision became a collaborative effort that bought Quakers together from different branches to dream big. Ten years after graduating and feeling unsupported by Quakers, the first cohort of young adults moved into a QVS house in Atlanta, GA.
Now four and half years later, there are about 25 young adults living in houses in four cities. About half are Quakers and the momentum is still growing. QVS is re-engaging young adult Friends into Quakerism and introducing others to Quakerism for the first
time. Local meetings in these four cities are feeling re-energized by these QVS Fellows. All this has happened from a young adult Friend who was frustrated by a lack of support by Quakerism.
What ideas do you have to re-energize the Religious Society of Friends? What ideas can meet the needs of the people who are hungry for something more?
One idea I have is the formation of a nationwide Quaker campus ministry program. Other denominations and faiths have programs to nurture their college students who do not go to their denominational schools, but not the Quakers. There are some local efforts here and there across the country, but they greatly vary in quality and effectiveness. These ministries attract non Quaker students as well. Despite knowing that some of our leaders have come to Quakerism while attending non Quaker institutions, Quakers have made no effort to make a big push to offer a nationwide campus ministry program or much less materials to help Friends thinking about reaching out to college students. I have witnessed that college students are searching for something more meaningful, something more fulfilling than what the regular college experience can offer. Many students realize they have a need for a time for quiet reflection, which Quakerism can offer.
Whatever we do, we need to be mindful that it takes time. I know that I find this frustrating because I am a very impatient person. It is very hard for me to practice patience, but I am trying my best.
Last weekend, my pregnant wife Jenn and I planted seeds for our garden and put them in a window sill, to be planted outside in a couple weeks. The next day during meeting for worship, I realized that when she gives birth in late June, we will hopefully be harvesting some of the produce that came from these seeds we just planted. In both instances, I do not know what the fruits of our/her labor will be exactly, but I do know that we can only hope that with love, patience, and maintenance, we can give both the plants and our baby the best chance to thrive in the outside world.
Whatever we try will not necessary thrive. Within a garden, not everything bears
fruit. One year might be a bumper crop but another year we could have a drought and everything could be lost. Along with all of this is the knowledge that we are not in total control, so faith and hope are important components of gardening and parenting. Faith and hope are also important in ministry and working on finding a way forward. How are we preparing the ground to grow these vital ministries to meet the world’s need? How are we working to support each other?
More importantly, are we Young Adult Friends willing to step up and lead the Religious Society of Friends in a new direction?