My CPE program asks me to write a series of short reflection papers called Experiences of Faith. They touch on different parts of the faith experience such as Community (below), God/The Holy, Authority, Inside/Outside, and Saying Goodbye. IN writing these I thought it might be a good practice of sharing and accountability to post them here. So here’s the first of the series: Experience of Faith- Community.
Community is a central part of my faith tradition. The Quaker testimonies include Community along with Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, and Equality. I hear people often say that the pacifism and activity of Quakerism drew them in but it is the community that provided a reason to stay.
My sense of community began the summer before 5th grade when I started attending a 2 week Quaker wilderness summer camp. I was so scared the first night away from home that I started crying. The girl who was sleeping on the bunk next to mine was also crying. She reached out and took my hand and we spent the night comforting each other. Our whole unit was like that, the boys cabin and the girls cabin that made up a unit bonded like family. We loved each other fiercely, encouraged each other up mountains, danced together around fires. There was a feeling of inclusiveness that I didn’t find at school.
Baltimore Yearly Meeting is a regional organization of Quaker Meetings that spans southern Pennsylvania to southern Virginia. Each individual Quaker Meeting has a few teenagers who age out of the camping program when they get to high school. So the Yearly Meeting organizes youth retreats, every other month, that brings together about a hundred high school Quaker youth. The retreats are youth run; there is an Executive Committee that plans, convenes, and nurtures the community throughout the year.
Each Friday night of these retreats the teenagers come together for Quaker Meeting for Worship with an intention of Business (Quaker Business Meeting). The first things that is done each retreat is to read the Gathering Expectations which begin: “When Young Friends gather together we strive to foster a community built on caring, trust and love.”
In high school, I was an outcast. I was in the smart kid’s class. I was really good at playing oboe in the orchestra. I only shopped at thrift stores. I made a lot of my own clothes. I attended peace rallies and participated in the Day of Silence each year. After September 11th, I wore a black armband to school most days to protest the U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
It was my Young Friends community that kept me from bending to the pressures, judgement, and bullying that I faced at school. It was a community where I felt loved; people believed in me and I excelled as the clerk, or leader of the community. I had two mentors who were closer to me than my own parents. One of these mentors taught me more about Quakerism, Christianity, and activism than anyone else.
By the time I graduated and started college, I knew what kind of friends I wanted to make in my life. I wanted friends who loved me, supported me, believed in me, and let me do the same for them. I wanted friendships that were open, honest, and sometimes hard. I wanted friendships where I felt like I mattered, that I was wanted, friendships where I could show up for other people too.
Developing friendships like this has not always been easy. The Quaker and non-Quaker communities that I’ve been part of have also been challenging. I think our human society and our brokenness interferes at times with the ideals of radical trust, unconditional love, and shared resources. Issues of racism, classism, sexism, hetersexism, and other systems of oppression are found laced among our best intentions. The communities that I’ve been in that have been most successful are ones that openly talking about our flaws and cultivate a culture of forgiveness, grace, and believe in change.
In 2010, I ran a program for young adults to live in community, engage in service, participate in spiritual direction and develop skills in leadership. At the beginning of the program, the group was tasked with creating a Community Covenant. The group was given little in terms of direction except a set of queries that asked some questions that they might want to consider. The result was a beautiful statement and a set of guidelines. The statement read:
“We find that the values that are the foundation of our community are respect, trust, and love. We aspire both to ground our community and stretch ourselves by affirming our gifts and challenging each other and ourselves. We find that no written document can fully reflect the covenant we have already created through the relationships in this community. Our covenant consists of the love, respect, and trust that we have for each other, of the conversations we have had, and the experiences we have shared. Words cannot express the depth of this covenant- we feel our covenant, in our own hearts and between each other. We will feel and affirm this connection wherever we go this summer, fully trusting in the covenant of mutual appreciation that we have for each other.” (Pendle Hill, YALD program 2010)
This covenant statement reflects for me the essence of the type of community that I strive to be involved with. In these covenant moments, it is more clear of the expectations that the community places on the individual. I’ve grow up with an acute understanding of how my actions affect others and how other people’s actions affect me. There is a habitual thinking of a sense of self beyond the individual and yet a call, an expectation for the individual to call out the community for not abiding to the will or way of God. This is most representational during Quaker Meeting for Business, where the process is not consensus based, but is called seeking the Sense of the Meeting. Its a process where the community is seeking God’s will for the community, which may or may not be agreed upon by everyone present. Individuals are empowered and expected to voice concerns, alternate views, etc, for those voices could turn the heart of the community and change the direction of the discernment. However, other times those voices are released up to God and the way that is open before the community is contrary to what has been heard. Its a Sense, a heart feeling of what is right for all of us. When it works, the process is beyond beautiful. When it doesn’t, when egos and agendas interfere with us being faithful, we all feel the pain.
It’s harder as I grow older to be part of such an intentional community, since community members most often does not live with or even near each other. Annual Meeting sessions bring this region of Quakers together once a year and weekly Quaker Meeting brings smaller groups of us together more often. However, we are challenged to love, listen, trust, and forgive each other over time and distance. Communication is hard and conflict is not easily resolved in these ways. Yet friendships that foster this kind of community are still friendships that I seek. Its the kind of friendship that is expected of me in my faith community and among the friends whom I surround myself with. My husband and I hope to live in community someday; live next door to people who are these kinds of friends. We hope to have children in this kind of community, and raise them with expectations and joys of community as well.