Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The night of the IBQs – NEYM Part 5

I don't remember who at sessions mentioned Iron Butt Quakers (IBQs) who can sit for long hours in business sessions. We certainly had them in quantity on Wednesday evening. The scheduled called for the meeting to last from 7:00 to 9:00. We still had a few unfinished items of business. We had two memorial minutes that we hadn't heard yet. We had the history chapter from the new Faith and Practice that was due for preliminary approval. We had to approve the nominating committee report. And we had to approve the budget. We got through most of everything else by shortly after 8:00. The Finance Committee brought back the budget with some changes. They had restored the travel budgets but they had not restored the money for FGC and FUM. They stressed that this budget was in deficit by about $17,000 and that this would almost exhaust our reserves. At that point I spoke that there was another way to look at this. I said that by accepting this budget we would be committing ourselves and our meetings to increase their contributions to the Yearly Meeting by $17,000 overall. If at the beginning of the year you had told me that I would speak as much on the budget as on FUM issues, I would not have believed you. Such are the surprises that happen at Yearly Meeting. I do need to be careful how much more I speak on the subject or Nominating Committee will be asking me about the Finance Committee or the Advancement Committee.

At that point people began asking again for ways that they could keep their contributions from going to FUM. There were number of people who spoke how they could not be complicit with the discrimination they saw in FUM. There were expressions of anger and pain. Other people spoke of the need to remain engaged with FUM  There were expressions of anger and pain. It was 9:00 pm and some parents had to leave to collect their children from the evening activities.

The meeting continued.

Paul Hood gave a lengthy testimony of his experiences as a marine in the Pacific in World War II and how he was eventually led to being a tax resister. Although he hasn't paid Federal income taxes since the Vietnam War, he found to his surprise that he was eligible to a tax rebate check this year. After giving it some thought he filed a tax return and has now decided to give his rebate check to the Yearly Meeting.

The meeting continued.

Wellesley Meeting has not approved it's budget for the year because they have not reached unity on what to do with their contribution to NEYM because of the FUM issues. Phil Fitz, a gay man who had been the clerk of the Working Party on the FUM Personnel Policy, said that he would take that work back up. He also offered that, if Wellesley reduced its contribution to the Yearly Meeting, he would personally make up the portion of that which would have been their contribution to FUM.

At one point I looked up and the clerk of the Finance Committee was still standing by the podium where she had been when she made her presentation as if she were waiting for more budget questions, although it was clear that we had long gone past that point. I don't know how long she stayed there.
I sat in my seat holding the meeting and the clerks in prayer.

The meeting continued.

There were more expressions of anger and pain. Someone said that they did not know if there was a sense of the meeting. Jan Hoffman said that there was a clear sense of the meeting. The sense of the meeting was that there was a lot of pain around these issues and that we had a lot of work to do.

The meeting continued.

A lesbian friend spoke, asking us why we had to look so far away for homophobia to fight. Why didn't we fight the homophobia in our meetings and our communities. She is responsible for our child care and she said that it was possible, although she didn't know that it had happened, that people might not come to sessions or bring their children because they wouldn't want her caring for them. She works in early childhood education but there are schools in Massachusetts that won't hire her because of her sexual orientation. Why aren't we working on that? She reminded us that last year we had committed ourselves to look at our own issues around sexual morality, to work on our own issues of homophobia. Had we forgotten that and abandoned the commitment we had made just last year?

Shortly afterwards the Chris McCandless, who had done an excellent job of clerking the entire session, said that it was his sense that we had approved the budget, that we would trust the Finance Committee to create a mechanism that would allow people to specify that their contributions not go to FUM and that the clerks would prepare a minute and bring it to us in the morning.

The meeting ended sometime between 10:30 and 11:00
Iron Butt Quakers indeed.

The last night of Yearly Meeting is traditionally the night of the coffee house. It is organized by the Young Friends but Friends of all ages participate. It is a fun way to end sessions. This year will be known as the year the adults did not come to coffee house. At one point they stopped the performances and held the adult business session in prayer. They knew that if the business meeting was going this late, it needed our prayers.

There were many people holding the business session in prayer. The meeting stayed well focused and centered throughout. In the journals of Quaker ministers that I have read, I have seen references to being involved in close, hard, work during a meeting. This was certainly our case that night. There is a lot of work that remains before us. Pray for New England Yearly Meeting.

The thing that saddened me was to feel the same spirit of schism here as I had felt at the FUM Board Meeting in Kenya. It was not as strong or as prevalent, but it was there. I was also saddened that the entire discussion seemed to be focused on New England. By and large, the people speaking about withholding money were talking about their need to not be complicit. There was little willingness to hear about how their actions might be perceived by others. There was no discussion about how we might work to end homophobia within FUM. It was all about us. This might be a necessary stage to go through but ultimately God is calling us to be all about other people. Eventually we will have to emerge from our self-absorption and deal with the people in the world who do not see things the same way we do.

God grant me the strength, courage and wisdom to do that.

Blessings to all.

Will T

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A change of pace and convergence - NEYM Part 4

On Tuesday morning, during the worship after the Bible Half Hour, Peter Blood-Patterson suggested that Friends who didn't want their NEYM contributions going to FUM should instead send some multiple amount of that amount to some other organization doing some similar work such as the African Great Lakes Initiative. While he was speaking I made the mental calculation of the membership of NEYM and the amount that we send to FUM and realized for the current year that meant $5 per person and in the proposed 2009 budget it would be $2.50 per person. I was reminded me of the New England town meetings I have attended where budget items worth tens of millions of dollars would be approved with no discussion and a $1000 appropriation for something like parades would take most of an evening.

In the morning business session the representatives to the FUM Triennial made our report. We read the epistle from the Triennial. A Friend from Maine spoke to how Ramallah Friends School had been founded by Friends from Maine and it had been operated by New England Yearly Meeting until it was transferred to the Board of Missions which later brought it under the care of FUM. Eden Grace, who is FUM Field Staff in Kenya and a member of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting, then gave a five minute report on all of the work being done in Kenya.

Tuesday night we did not have a business meeting. Instead we had a concert by Anais Mitchell who had grown up as a Young Friend in New England. I enjoyed the music and it felt restorative to not be discussing difficult issues – either inside or outside of worship. I had advertised an interest group on Convergent Friends for that evening after the concert. Lynn said that she knew what we needed and went to the store and got chocolate chip cookies and strawberries and lemonade. About 15 people showed up. We talked about what Convergent Friends were and the place of the Bible in our spiritual lives. The question I had that we didn't get to discuss much was what does it mean to be a Convergent Friend in New England. Is it just a discussion that happens on-line and at interest groups at other conferences or is there something more that we are called to do. Whoever we is.

One of the things I realize is that New England YM probably has as broad a range of theological diversity of any Yearly Meeting, at least in North America. We have pagans and vocal non-theists. We a plain Friend who taught for years in Kenya. We have pastoral meetings that identify strongly with FUM. We have liberal unprogrammed college meetings. We have committed social activists. We have recorded ministers. We have meetings on record that they do not record ministers. And somehow we manage to hold together and work together and worship together and be strengthened and nourished and nurtured by each other. Sometimes this is in spite of our differences and sometimes it is because of them.


Will T

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Things heat up. NEYM – Part 3

On Sunday afternoon the business agenda was given over to hearing the State of Society Report, hearing the report on the Working Party on Spirituality and Sexual Ethics, and threshing on Friends United Meeting. That was the way it was laid out in the agenda. After the Working Party report, the clerk said that there was an hour left and this was time to bring up any concerns people might have. For the first half hour, the comments centered on responses to the Working Party and how we should provide guidance to our young people and so on. After about half an hour I turned to my wife and whispered to her that this wasn't the conversation that I had expected.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth and a Friend stood and asked the clerk again when the threshing on FUM was going to begin. Once again, the clerk said that this was the time to bring up any issues that might be on people's hearts. This brought forth a series of speakers with concerns about the FUM personnel policy, the perceived homophobia of FUM and how people could not see their money going to support this organization any longer. There was a lot of pain and anger expressed. At least one person got up and read a brief extract from the Richmond Declaration and part of the General Board minute from February, 2007 which reaffirmed it. He used this to support his position that NEYM should withdraw from FUM. As he read the minute, my first reaction surprised me a bit. I found myself saying to myself, “Hey, I wrote that minute-don't read it back to me and tell me what it means.” Fortunately I had spent the week or two before sessions began recalling James 1:19-20, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.” Sometimes I think that these words should be projected on a screen above the clerk's head at every business session everywhere.

Towards the end of the meeting I was able to speak to remind Friends that FUM was more than just a personnel policy. It includes people who, when faced with violence in their own communities, sheltered and protected people in their own homes, brought food and blankets to the displaced, and helped facilitate reconciliation when displaced people returned to the communities they had fled. They had thought that the peace testimony did not apply to them because they lived in a peaceful country but when they needed to, they rose to a witness in their lives, at considerable risk, that we in America would be hard pressed to match. I spoke of the need to remain in dialog. I spoke of the need for spiritual hospitality. I encouraged people to look to see whether their need to maintain their own purity in not associating with the homophobes of FUM was not prompted in part by the same spirit that caused Friends elsewhere to not want to associate with the sinful homosexuals. Based on later comments, I don't think that suggestion gained much traction among Friends.

In the evening we heard the reports from the Quarterly Meetings on their consideration of the minute of commitment and how they had begun the process of exploring their understanding of sexual ethics. There was more discussion of all the issues at that time as well. Sylvia Graves, FUM General Secretary, arrived fresh from Western Yearly Meeting, in time for the evening session. She remained with us for the rest of our sessions. I do not remember many specifics of that session. My memories of some of the details is already getting a little hazy. One thing I do know was that by this point I had a number of appointments to discuss these issues over meals later on.

Monday morning my wife and I skipped the business session and went for a bike ride. The weather was sunny, dry and not too warm. It was the most enjoyable part of sessions for me. Monday night was the first presentation of the budget. This was where people started talking about wanting a mechanism so that they could contribute to the Yearly Meeting but not have their contributions go to FUM. The budget issue I found myself speaking to was the elimination of the representatives travel budget. I am fortunate enough that I can afford the extra expense that this would mean for me. I was concerned that this restriction would limit who would be able to serve the Yearly Meeting as a representative to the larger Quaker bodies. I also felt that it was changing the terms under which I had accepted a three year appointment last year. The hardest part for me was that it felt like the Finance Committee was devaluing the work of the various representatives. More precisely, they were setting a value of $0 for all of the time and energy I have put into being one of the representatives to the General Board. I described the job to some friends like this: “I go to the FUM General Board meetings and say things that some people there don't want to hear and then I come back to New England and say things that people here don't want to hear.” I am getting an increasing appreciation for the work of mediators and diplomats.

More to come.

Will T

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Setting the Stage - NEYM Part 2

I returned from New England Yearly Meeting on Thursday and proceeded to get sick. Not from the happenings but perhaps from a lack of self-care (like getting sufficient sleep) during sessions. I have spent a lot of time sleeping and resting since then and I am feeling better. I don't know that the time has given me any more perspective on sessions. I recall what I heard from a number of people, “This is all so complicated.”

The theme of the sessions was “War, God Help Us.” The idea was that we would look at our response to the current wars that have been going on for 7 years without much response from Friends in New England. At least not corporately. There were references to the Peace Testimony but they as often related to divisions among Friends as they did to our external condition. The greater part of our corporate discernment was devoted to our finances and our relationship to FUM and our reaction to the personnel policy of FUM which restricts employment by FUM to people who are celibate or in a heterosexual marriage with only one other partner. One can look at this as a valuable exploration of our condition and a continuing exploration of our differences, something that a regular reader of this blog will know that I generally favor. Or you can look at it as another victory for the forces behind the war who have skillfully managed to distract their opponents into disputes on the topic of sexuality. As far as I can tell, both are true. God will have to help us sort this out.

Last year NEYM had begun addressing the issue of the FUM personnel policy. We had realized that we could not address the statement of sexual ethics contained in the personnel policy when we, as a yearly meeting, had not examined our own sexual ethics. We have been asked a number of times by our Young Friends to provide some guidance but we have so far not done so. The Yearly Meeting had minuted our commitment to begin exploring these issues. On Sunday night we heard reports from all eight of the Quarterly Meetings about the progress that had been made on this issue. There was a range of responses. Some meetings actively embraced the discussion. Some meetings felt that other issues were of higher priority and had done nothing. Many meetings fell somewhere in between.

There was a group of people, who came with a concern that they could not, in good conscience, see their money go to FUM because they felt that it would make them complicit in the discrimination that they see being practiced by FUM. There were some who went so far as to say that New England should disaffiliate with FUM because of the reaffirmation of the Richmond Declaration.

In addition to these issues there were issues with the Yearly Meeting budget. There was a significant shortfall in donations both from monthly meetings and from individuals. The Finance Committee presented a budget that contained some deep cuts. One area that was eliminated completely in the initial presentation was representative travel. Another significant cut was that our donations to both FGC and FUM were cut in half.

The stage was set for a difficult Yearly Meeting Sessions.


Will T

Monday, August 11, 2008

Laying down and taking up burdens. NEYM Pt 1

I want to start out my discussion of this years sessions of New England Yearly Meeting with an observation from our opening session. On Saturday evening we had an exercise in which we were divided into smaller groups and from those into triads to answer some queries. The second of the queries was along the lines of “What burden do you bring to Yearly Meeting Sessions that you would like to lay down with God's help.” As I sat with that I realized that the burdens that I brought to Yearly Meeting were ones that God had asked me to take up, so there was no laying them down. The burdens I was carrying were my concern for unity among Friends, my concern for healing and reconciliation within FUM and my concern for the relationship between NEYM and FUM.

As I sat with this some more, it appeared to me that the question arose from a truncated view of the spiritual life. As we begin our spiritual journey we carry many burdens that come from the pain and injuries that we have received in the course of our lives. The first part of our journey is to find the healing that allows us to lay those burdens down. The progressive laying down of burdens of pain and sin is a lifetime process. But at some point there is a change. We have healed and grown enough that we start getting burdens offered to us. These are the burdens of the concerns that we come under that shape our spiritual life's work. They are the ways in which we turn our healing and our growth into gifts for the larger community. There is a sense of rightness about undertaking these things that makes the work bearable. They provides a focus that allows us to let go of things that we are not called to. They are the way in which we find our place in the body of Christ. Sometimes we are carried and held in the work in a way that it seems effortless. Other times it is still hard work. The yoke may be easy – meaning that it fits comfortably and doesn't chafe or hurt – but sometimes the load is heavy. You do not need a yoke to carry something light. You need a yoke to carry something heavy and bulky. Of course a yoke implies that you are not working alone. Oxen are yoked in tandem, so part of taking on the yoke is knowing that you will have help. But there is still work to do.

It seems to me that many Friends seem to think that the spiritual life consists exclusively of the first part, of the laying down of our personal burdens. We do not talk so much about the second part of the journey where we take up the burdens of the work that God would have us do. Do we like to stay at the level of Quakerism 101? Are we reluctant to move on the higher level courses? Where is Quakerism 322 or 453? Where are the graduate courses? In our meetings do we even acknowledge the advanced curricula in the school of Christ? Are we content to welcome newcomers and provide them with a basic introduction to Quakerism and let them find their way after that or do we demonstrate and teach the challenges and joys of living a life of faithfulness? Do we demonstrate that we are finders or do we wish to remain seekers forever?


Will T