Yearly Meeting Dispatch: Baltimore & home

I was only able to visit Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) for two days of its five-day session in Frederick, MD  (that’s annual session number 345 & counting); so there’s much I  missed. Too bad for me; but there was pressing business at home.

Still, I was able to get a good whiff of BYM’s atmosphere, and it smelled like home (I first attended in 1978, and am still a non-resident member), and it smelled healthy.

I think I can say “healthy” even though I missed the two documents that I was most looking for to test this impression:

  1. That always-revealing annual theological declaration, namely– the budget.

    The budget “theological”? Thee bet thy bippy, Friend.

    Regardless of what those in the room SAY about God, Christ, The Light, or their yoga classes, all such talk either turns  into something the body is willing to spend money on (and to PAY FOR with donations of money & time), or it’s just that — talk– and can safely be disregarded. Budgets are where religious rubber meets the rough road surface of reality. And in true Quaker fashion such “declarations” are not carved in stone, but are revised & renewed every year.

    I asked, and was advised that the new budget was still “in progress,” and had not been circulated yet.
    I took this to mean there were some “issues” with it. Most likely these will involve BYM’s camps, which is its main “ministry to the world.” In particular, its oldest camp, Camp Catoctin, needed and now has a new bathhouse.
                  The billion-dollar bathhouse [“Billion” is hyperbole.]

    But the cost of the new bathhouse, initially set at $297000, ballooned to more than $800000. That’s more than twice as much as estimated, adding half a million dollars. That sticker shock is still reverberating. The camps had to take out loans to cover construction;  how and when will these be repaid? How much will the debt load crowd out other spending?Where did what are now revealed as the ridiculously low-ball early cost estimates come from?

    Big questions; I didn’t get to stay and hear them hashed out. Then the next issue:

  2. Current Membership statistics: To be sure, Quaker membership statistics are fuzzy math numbers, not quite as bad as Pentagon budget estimates, tho not a whole lot more reliable. But in any event, over my 30-plus years there, BYM has seen continuing & substantial growth, of numbers and meetings. This trend is unusual enough that I always seek out the latest numbers to see if it is continuing.

    But they weren’t there, and when I asked, I was told they wouldn’t be ready until the BYM Yearbook comes out in the fall. And otherwise, seat-of-the-pants guesses were that the numbers will turn out level or maybe slightly down, but that’s almost totally subjective. So I struck out on that one.

    There’s an exception, though. In the single most hard-number aspect of this field, the data was available, and looked good: Donations. The Development report summed it up:

Over the last three years, the Yearly Meeting has seen a steady increase in contribution as well as a growing number of donors, although giving units (couples/families count as 1) still remain less than 15 percent of the overall Yearly Meeting membership. Calculated on 5,000 family units, Yearly Meeting giving went from 10.8% in 2014 to 12.4% in 2015 to 13% in 2016.

The patchwork of BYM monthly meetings that hangs over the front of the Clerks’ table.

Compared to the stark collapse in, say, North Carolina YM (FUM), where income plummeted by half over this period, these results are quite impressive.

Another way to put it is this: More BYM Friends are ready to PAY MORE to have MORE yearly meeting. Which is a recipe for survival and an indicator of health. It also brings us back to theology: what accounts for this vitality? (I suspect it’s more than new yoga moves; but that’s just me.) That question is worth much more attention than I can give it here; but it’s there, despite problems, and Friends from many places ought to be keenly interested in it.

Oh, and there  was one more item I was concerned about, and did get at least an initial answer:

  1. Racial  diversity & Youth inclusion: Last year BYM received a huge grant from a Philadelphia Quaker foundation, to finance a program aimed at increasing the involvement of young Friends and persons of color in BYM. 

    The program was set to last at least three years, and had three phases: First, gather demographic data about BYM members and meetings, to establish baselines for the project; second, work with meetings on various initiatives to increase involvement by the targeted populations; and then third, to evaluate the impact of the work in light of the original baselines.

    This is all straightforward enough, and the project was enthusiastically approved at the 2016 annual session.
    At least, I thought it was enthusiastically approved, and I was there when that happened. The contrast between this BYM project’s reception and the extended agonizing over similar issues in say, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, seemed quite stark.

    But –maybe I/we BYMers were kidding ourselves. The 2017 report from the BYM “ad hoc Growing Diverse Leadership Committee,” on the first phase, was not so sanguine. It reported: 

    In the past year, we found it difficult to bring to fruition some of our plans. Members of our committee designed a survey for local Meetings that would provide information about numbers of Friends of Color and Young Adult Friends. Meetings, however, were uncomfortable with the survey for various reasons, and so to date we have not collected as much information as we had hoped to obtain. On the good side, the survey generated very good conversations about the discomfort of collecting and using demographic information among Friends, which feels like a measure of growth in itself. We will continue to work on developing a meaningful way of gathering demographic information that lets us know who is attending our local Meetings and in what numbers, which will in turn help us know how we are growing. [Emphasis added.]

    Which is to say, BYM Friends were fine with the idea of the project, but actually DOING IT –well, it turns out, not so much.  And if the committee can’t get reasonably reliable baselines, then the project may not even get off the ground. (And maybe, while seemingly much more amenable, maybe BYM Friends will be revealed as not so much less conflicted and refractory in attitudes about all this than, say, Philadelphians . . .)

    How will the BYM sessions respond to this report? Alas, I missed that part. 

Yes, all too soon, I had to pack up the car and head out of Frederick Maryland back to North Carolina; first to join my colleagues in the cast of “Pathway to Freedom,” a Quaker-inspired outdoor drama about the Underground Railroad, followed later today and tomorrow by the final session of North Carolina Yearly Meeting FUM, which, unlike BYM, is about to go out of business after 320 years.

More on that later. I drove over and went south on Interstate 81, the scenic route down through the Shenandoah Valley, then jogged east toward Charlottesville and then turned south again on US 29, through Lynchburg and Danville to the North Carolina line.

Lynchburg has been practically absorbed into the ever-expanding Liberty University complex, down to and including the Jerry Falwell Parkway, to memorialize its late founder.

Sixty miles farther, Danville, or at least some of its prominent residents, made their sentiments clear in a couple of ways . . . .

A campaign billboard from last fall still stands behind its call to arms.

And just a few hundred yards away stands this flag, on a pole I guess was at least a hundred feet tall, and the flag itself must have been 40 feet long. There were no signs with it, but the flag spoke eloquently, if mutely.

Both were reminders of where I was headed. And they weren’t the last When I turned onto NC 49, the road to the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, I passed through Bellemont.

It’s a former factory village, whose mills are all long-abandoned and overgrown, including the one at left.

Bellemont just loomed larger in my mind last week, when I did some research on the brutal record of racial lynchings in the South.  That’s because the most respected archive listed only one such lynching in Alamance County, where the Outdoor Theatre is located. But with a big of Google-detection, I uncovered a second, which was not in that larger tally.

It was from 1920, of one John Jeffress, who was accused of assaulting a white child, and was dragged away from the sheriff by a mob and then shot to death between the town of Graham and Bellemont.  
Then a few miles farther there was another of those big confederate flags, this one  raised in the center of a field, on a pole at least 60 feet tall; not as big as the Danville banner, but still dominant in its space; also with no signs, no identification.

This is the setting in which last night, I took part in a dramatic recall of the Underground railroad; and then tonight, will be in attendance as similar sentiments take down a 320-year old Quaker body here. I’m comforted, as always, by the visit to Baltimore YM;  but today, it seems very far away.



5 thoughts on “Yearly Meeting Dispatch: Baltimore & home”

  1. If Friends could remember the “cheerful” in “walk cheerfully answering that if God in everyone”, perhaps meeting for worship would become a replenishing, uplifting source of strength people would look forward to.

  2. Chuck, I know you were hastening on to another eventful yearly meeting. But Baltimore YM had its moments after you left. Younger adult Friends eldered older Friends, and older Friends listened and heeded their eldering. It’s a long story, but BYM Friends would have missed lunch on the closing day of Sunday if a very kind and accommodating Hood College staff had not been willing to keep their dining room open a half hour or so longer, because the business session ran over. Friends were able to belatedly eat their lunch.

    1. Steve — could you say some more about what the YAFS were eldering their elders about, and what was said or done in response? I’m actually rather more interested in that than about whether their lunch was delayed; one suspects other readers may be too . . . .

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