I’m going to take up the invitation offered by young Friend Paul Christiansen, in a comment to his article in the Western Friend, “Younger Blood, Older Eyes.”
The article opens well:
Western Quakers seem tired to me.
Those of us on committees feel it most clearly, I think, especially people on Nominating like me: a sense of how important our Society’s work is, and a sense of the limited energy we have for it. There are fewer of us to carry on larger tasks; our strongest and wisest have been carrying us for a long time, and when they lay down their burdens, the work is not taken up again with such vigor or skill. Some have life left, but it seems that many feel stretched, weary. Not enough coffee and too many cups.
The decline of volunteerism in the U.S. is not a new topic. The pressures on the middle class, where it now takes two incomes to sustain a typical household, leaves many people plumb wore out, and more likely to surf or sit in front of the TV. Friends meetings are no exception; Christiansen speaks of Nominating Committee difficulties with filling slots. Been there, done that, and have no easy solutions. The East is no better off than the West in this regard.
Christiansen invokes the mass movements of the Sixties, notes that there are still plenty of big issues facing us today, and wonders why there is no comparable groundswell today, at least among Friends. Why not? Because, he suspects,
. . . . we’re tired.
Maybe so. But all of us? From here, my response to the piece, which was touted on Facebook as a revealing look at “generational dynamics,” gets mixed. How many similar articles have I read that take one or a few persons’ experience (be they young or old) and then proceed to diagnose “Quakerism” at large, especially to conclude that it’s in dire straits?
Too many, and their insight quotient tends to be pretty small.
Does this piece escape that fate? Not entirely. “So, where are Quaker youth?” it asks — “There are a few of us, scattered thinly . . . ”
But are they really so few and so scattered?
In the Comments following the article, one YAF reports firsthand that in Multnomah Meeting, a few hours south of Seattle, there are lots of them; and then from Austin Meeting we hear that there are lots more, active and vocal. (Austin Texas is still “in the West” as far as I’m concerned.)
This data doesn’t fit with the opening premise, and personally I think the larger answer to “where are the Quaker youth?” is mixed: some meetings have a good number of active YAFS, some don’t. And in some places there are thriving inter-meeting networks; other places, it’s sparse. Does that amount to a crisis? Count me not convinced.
Christiansen acknowledges that some YAFs from smaller meetings seek out larger gatherings, such as Yearly Meetings, where they find enough of their peers to have the sustaining community experience. Such “oases” of community have long been of great value to many younger Friends (and, hello — lots of us older ones too) who are seeking to live in a somehow Quakerly way amid a largely hostile environment. My experience is that this “oasis” plan can be a viable survival strategy; at least, I’ve been following it for most of forty years. In this connection he mentions an annual New Years gathering:
. . . which has alternated between Oregon and California for decades. It is entirely run by young people, which adds a vital sense of ownership that’s quite attractive to youth who feel unwelcome elsewhere in the Society
[Memo to the Western Friend: Wouldn’t it be much more useful to take a closer look at the New Years Gathering? How has it managed to survive the coming and going of several generations of YAFs through its doors, who then moved on into their post-YAF lives?
Indeed, my partner, the fair Wendy, has very fond memories of these same New Years events from back in — well, let’s just say Back In The Day before Christiansen’s generation was even in diapers. Finding out what has made this event viable for so long, and whether any of its secrets might be portable — now THAT would be a signal contribution to the YAF survival and retention efforts in many places.]
Mention of the New Year’s gathering moves Christiansen to the nub of the dissident YAFs’ complaint:
[The New Years event] adds a vital sense of ownership that’s quite attractive to youth who feel unwelcome elsewhere in the Society.
Mark that: there is a feeling common among Quakers under thirty, or even forty, that Friends over forty have been in charge so long that there’s no way for us young people to contribute. When my fellow youth attend their home meetings, they are usually still thought of as children; when they go elsewhere they are outsiders. It is not intentional exclusion, but long memories and unspoken traditions shut people out— also true among younger Friends, I admit. Quakerism, a Friend said, is “Like a game of Mao,” Mao being a game in which the rules are never explained, and new players learn the rules when they’re punished for breaking them. It is a game designed to frustrate; the Society of Friends can be similarly hostile.
The “Mao game” part is real enough, yet it is not only a generational issue: I’ve seen plenty of older new attenders scratching their heads and wondering, “What did I do wrong??” This point is reinforced by a comment on the article from a recent attender who’s still struggling to figure it out: he’s 50-something.
As for the “no way to contribute” and YAFs being “shut out” by hidebound elders, this may be a real problem, but are you aware that it’s not a new one? How many have read about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in its “classic” years of dominance over colonial Pennsylvania — when YM Clerks served for decades, and then passed the post on to their favored sons?
Or consider this sardonic cartoon from 1828, which showed how the reigning PYM Clerk so favored the insiders and “shut out” the mass of members that the resulting resentments exploded in the Great Separation:
A new problem? Friends being excluded, shut out, and treated with hostility, circa 1828.
This image deserves some thoughtful reflection: if issues of being closed and shutting out non-favored members are recurrent, or even abiding Quaker problems, maybe there is experience and insight to be gained from former generations. Today’s young inquirers may have to dig it out themselves, but maybe they don’t have to re-invent it.
Christiansen shows some sensitivity to this. In a comment on the piece, he says,
The challenge as I see it, however, is to work *with* the “old guard” and not against it. . . . It’s worth remembering that while Quakerism may be opaque to younger eyes, youth culture can be similarly opaque to the generations that came before. Wiser, I think, to have the conversation, and trust that the leading of the Spirit will make itself known.
What? Youth culture opaque?? He must be kidding. I’m hip; I think the Beatles are just fine. (But that stuff called “hip-hop”? Just a fad. It’ll be gone by year’s end. Also, I know perfectly well that “LOL” means “Living On Love.” Totally.)
So how do we “work *with*” various generations? Honestly, I’m not sure that’s the key question.
Yes, there are generational cohorts, with somewhat distinctive outlooks and experience. Yet I’m persuaded there’s much more going on, and seeing the problems of Quakerism through a generational lense misses a lot of important points, which are not rooted in an age grouping; otherwise, why haven’t they gone away as I’ve grown older?
Instead, I want to suggest that dealing with generational (and most other) difficulties in the Religious Society of Friends today calls for learning and applying some specific skills, or what might also be called virtues. Pardon the clunky mnemonic, but I call them “The Seven Ups”.
Yep. The seven ways to fix Quakerism, whether you’re young or not. They are:
Toughen Up. And
Don’t Hurry Up.
Permit me a brief explanation:
Show Up: Quakerism belongs to those, of whatever age, who stay around, attend the meetings, and do the grunt work. If The Society doesn’t bring Light for you, find another path. But if it does, don’t expect to mail it in and get anywhere beyond the fringes. There’s a reason liberal Quakers generally don’t believe in hell: because we have committee meetings instead. (What? Did you think I like them any better after forty years worth?)
Read Up: I grow weary of those, young or old, who complain that nothing about Quakerism is explained. Sure, many of us elders may be too diffident about speaking of it; in fact, he’s quite right about that — but before you leave in a snit, have you looked over the meetinghouse library? Many Friends over many years have done their best to distill the explanations into writings long and short, old and new, enough to fill many shelves. (Your Meeting lacks a library? No excuse: lots of it is now online.) Make use of them.
This is a key point for me. Quakerism may be young among the world’s religions, but it has still produced a rich deposit of faith and experience.
So if Talmudic scholars pursue their studies for decades, and Quranic jurists do likewise; if a Jesuit priest invests a decade learning his craft, and my friend Sarah who is becoming a nun has spent six years in fulltime study and preparation — please, why should anyone expect understanding Quakerism to involve no more than a couple of pamphlets, or an hour or two in group discussion?
Frankly, such insinuations are unbecoming. No, that’s not plain enough: they’re demeaning.
But are we all supposed to become rabbis? Well, as an occupation, no. But Quakerism abolished the rabbinate, remember? And the bishops and the priests and the mullahs too. So who does that leave ultimately responsible for my “faith seeking understanding”? It’s me, that’s who. And where, Friend, does the responsibility lie for yours?
And having learned something, then Speak Up. Christiansen cops to this in a Comment on the article, when asked for suggestions about how to open doors for YAFs.
My next suggestion for young people of all ages is to speak out, respectfully but firmly. Conversation between equals is the rock that we have to build on.
Young people of all ages; I’ll drink to that (root beer, of course, which was popularized by a Quaker). Effective speaking up is greatly enhanced when the speaker has done some serious reading and is beginning to know what they’re talking about.
And as this happens, many will be surprised to discover that much of the over-forty reluctance to speak about Quakerism is based on a failure to do likewise. Yes, all too many of my generation of American Quakers don’t talk about it because we don’t know diddly about Quaker history or thought, beyond a couple of pamphlets and whatever certain social action groups say it is. This fog of ignorance, dubbed “the Age of Amnesia” by one observer, is among our least attractive features, and quite frankly deserves no deference because it is largely based on laziness and timidity.
Yet a bit of learning can be dangerous, especially if it obscures what is the equally or even more important mandate to
Ante Up. I didn’t realize this until it happened, but I ceased being a “Young Adult Friend” and turned into an “Adult Friend,” not on my 35th birthday, but on the day I sat down, after many years of attending and membership, pulled out my check book, made a donation to my Meeting, and then followed it up each month thereafter.
That was when I began to “carry my weight,” and before long, to realize I was “gaining” what those older Friends called “weight.”
How did it happen? The answer was a bit unsettling, but no less true for that: I was now concretely invested in the meeting.
Yes, I know we older Friends rattle on endlessly about how money should not be the measure of anyone’s value to a Meeting, or inhibit participation therein. And mostly, we mean it.
But there’s another side to the coin: Quakerism, like just about every other institution, has a material base: bills have to be paid. Meetinghouses require lights, heat, maintenance, sometimes costly. Scholarships to camp or yearly meeting don’t fall from the sky. Religious Education materials are not all given away free. The joyous community of yearly meeting or whatever require groceries, rent, insurance and fees. And if there are staff, salaries don’t magically appear.
This is probably the most closely guarded of older Friends’ secrets, and I may get in trouble for spilling it, but what the hell? – money counts. Our only excuse for concealing this fact, and it’s a lame one, is that we didn’t invent it: such doubletalking hypocrisy about money is practically ingrained in the Quaker DNA; it would take another long post even to begin to explore why.
The Latest from Quaker Wikileaks: Money Matters!
So if you’re a YAF and you don’t feel taken seriously in your meeting, consider this advice, hidden away under the heading “Stock” in the oldest printed Discipline: “A stock [i.e., treasury] having been generally kept, and by experience found useful, for the necessary occasions of the society, it is agreed, that the same be occasionally renewed by a collection from each quarter . . .” Or this, from Query 4 of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) Discipline: “4. Do we assume our rightful share in the expenses of our Meeting?”
Eventually I came to see that this was not simply a worldly question, but also a spiritual one; for “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” is a true statement, even if it is in the Bible (Matthew 6:21).
So far, so good. Still, I admit there will be times and places where none of these habits will be enough. There are meetings and organizations with entrenched establishments which will take your money, let you do the grunt work, and still keep you and others at arm’s length, patronized and on the back benches. (Yet this too is not only a feature of advanced age; I realize it may not be so visible from your standpoint, though; us geezers look so much alike, after all.)
Christiansen writes of this:
When young Friends are welcomed to participate, we often wind up as the token young person on a committee. This can exhaust and deaden, for committees are not designed for action or vitality; Quaker tradition moves slowly. Tradition guides, but tradition grows comfortable, and change grows hard. When we young folks try to act, we’re told “We don’t do it that way,” and we’re never told why. Older Friends must talk with us about Quaker traditions and history, or we won’t learn them; only by trusting and supporting us in our ideas can we become part of the life of the meeting.
Older Friends need to talk, and do so plainly; absolutely right. But remember the cartoon from 1828? Sometimes those in charge refuse. So what then?
Well, in the early 1890s, after an evangelical autocracy had ruled (and stifled) London Yearly Meeting for decades, a band of young insurgents gathered and discovered that they were well and truly fed up, religiously as well as generationally. So they planned a coup. And to bring it off, they went underground. That is, they
What? You mean they schemed and connived?
Yes. if you believe such things do not and cannot happen among Quakers, Friend, it’s time thee woke up and smelt the fair trade organic shade-grown roast arabica.
In this particular case, which has been well-documented, they proposed to hold a “Home Missions” conference, on matters of “current concern” — which were left deliberately quite vague and innocuous-sounding, and obtained a pat-on-the-head green light from the dozing elders. Then they stacked the program committee with their own kind and generation, and quietly, so quietly, put together a program which, in 1895, started a revolution. The old farts didn’t discover what the whippersnappers were up to til the conference was actually underway; and then, by golly, it was too late. Freaking brilliant.
The Elder Establishment personified: J. Bevan Braithwaite, dominating minister in London YM for decades; he had no clue til it was too late.
Many other examples could be offered; but I encourage you to look them up yourselves.
So sometimes, in dealing with us elders, you’ll find that you may have to wait for a Quaker funeral or two before taking your rightful places among the in-crowd. But often enough, if you get together and Smarten Up, this process can be speeded up.
Finally, the time may come when passive aggression doesn’t cut it. Now and then you may have to actually push your way into the charmed circle, and even engage in open conflict. Yes: the zero-sum game does get played among Friends, more than we care to admit. [At this point, you may insert your favorite platitudinal quotes about how conflict is good and avoiding it is bad, etc., etc. Don’t worry; we will not mention them again.] In Ecclesiastes (the Bible again), we are told there is a time for everything, including “war.” That applies to Friends too, so when that time comes, Toughen Up, do what has to be done, and thank God for the peace testimony.
In a usually milder form, this last injunction has a special applicability to younger Friends: The Society of Friends is not, as you are discovering, always a warm fuzzy, welcoming, ever-safe, nurturing and generous place. (What human institution is?) Sometimes, if you want in, you’ll have to Toughen Up and push your way in; politely, if at all possible. Or with an elbow here and there if need be.
And don’t be put off by this penultimate of my lugubrious Seven Ups. It doesn’t come into play that often. Usually, if you’re among those who Show Up and Ante Up, the experience is more like what happened to me in the Meeting I attended from the late 70s to the early 90s.
There was definitely an “entrenched establishment” of elders there when I arrived. I don’t say they were “oppressive,” but there they were, and why not? They had created this meeting, found the meetinghouse, raised money to renovate it, and kept it going, so I could come and fumble along and find my way.
But then one First Day — it was literally like this — I looked around the meeting room at the scattering of what I had been thinking of as “Younger Friends” (i.e., like me), and had a shocking double realization:
First, that almost all the Establishment Elder Friends were now GONE (death, retirement, the usual); and
Second, that OMG! — it was now OUR TURN, including MY turn, to see if we could continue what they had started. One by one, fairly quickly, we stepped into all the big slots: Clerk, Treasurer, etc.
It wasn’t a power struggle. Quite the opposite: it was more as if someone next to me had dropped a precious vase, and it was up to me (or someone like me) to catch it before it smashed on the floor.
Nobody announced this, or asked if we were ready, or now felt included. It’s just what happens when the calendar flips over enough times. Still, somehow I felt surprised, as if I’d been riding on an escalator, lost in a daydream, then -bump- there I was at the top, or rather, the next level. (A third realization came later: I wasn’t a “Younger Friend” anymore.)
And when the “bump” comes for today’s YAFs, I hope they’re not all “tired” already, as Christiansen suggests.
In his quick list of suggestions for dealing with YAF discontent, his article concludes with something very striking:
Lastly — and I admit this is really tenuous at the moment, but I think it’s really going to be the key — we need something to really believe in. Call it a cause. What that cause may be… well, that we need to work out. But I suspect we need something to act on, a rallying cry.
I found that both very interesting, and a bit troubling. Interesting because it might — maybe — be a goad to some serious seeking, which is all to the good.
But troubling, because I’ve heard it before, and it left me scratching my graying head. There’s still lots of wars, our constitution has been shredded, the planet is crashing, etc., etc., and yet somebody can’t find a cause? What’s up with that?
Except here again, I’m not persuaded: some YAFs I’m acquainted with do have causes or leadings they’re dedicated to and developing; so it doesn’t apply to all. Another aspect is that, for those of us who are old and have been working for “causes” and leadings for awhile, it raises a challenging question: how does that kind of involvement get transmitted to the next generation? Can it be?
Is it a matter of inviting YAFs to more committee meetings? (Somehow I doubt it; but go anyway.) Where and how do people get “inspired”? I could tell you my story about that, but part of it is that my story isn’t necessarily The Way To Do It.
But maybe one quick snippet: I didn’t really have a clue as to my “cause” or “leading” (vocation was my term) until my mid-thirties; and then it took another decade-plus to feel as if I was getting on track with it; we’re talking late forties here. Yeah, I think I was pretty dense. And along the way I stressed about it a lot. But I can look back and see that God was working on this denseness. (Still is, one hopes.)
So if this experience has anything to offer it is the charge to keep seeking and threshing, but Don’t Hurry Up, that is, don’t be surprised if it takes awhile; because the Spirit “is like the wind, it blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (Yeah, another Bible quote: John 3:8)
So Christiansen is right: that one needs some working out.
Another thing: if he was looking for ONE cause that everybody would get behind, here’s one old Quaker ready to say of that: BEWARE. The world is complex; God is mysterious; real problems are many, and so are true leadings. In my time, the people who wanted us all to line up behind their Cause were generally best avoided.
Well, I’ve tried to follow Paul Christiansen’s advice to “young people of all ages . . . to speak out, respectfully but firmly” here. And I’ll close by quoting one of the YAF comments on his article, which I think does the same:
Quakers have a valuable, unique, and vital message and approach badly needed in this world and if the “old guard” aren’t interested in working with young friends it will be their loss. I don’t plan on going anywhere (unitarianism, ugh) and I have the wherewithall to stand in my meeting and demand change. I hope other adult young friends realize the power they have in their youth and energy.
Okay, so that was from my daughter Guli, in whom I am well-pleased; so I’m hardly unbiased here. But I think she kicked it.