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Journal of a Traveling Friend: Young adults and Quaker institutions
Summer is Quaker travel season, a time when Yearly Meeting annual sessions and Quaker gatherings of all sorts occur one after the other, often concurrently, from the middle of May until early September. As the AFSC Friends Relations Associate, I traveled to a total of six Quaker conferences or business sessions this summer, talking about and presenting different aspects of AFSC’s work. Each session was imbued with its own flavor of Quaker faith and practice, heavily influenced by the unique geographical, political, and social context of its member meetings and churches.
One common thread was an emphasis on the state and well-being of young adult Quakers (roughly defined as Quakers between the ages of 18 and 35), who are often only tenuously connected to any Quaker institution due to the transitory nature of their lives. Each Yearly Meeting and Quaker community had a different approach to supporting young adults, with varying degrees of success. How do you hold space for people in the midst of such transition, without acting out of fear or judgement?
During a Meeting for Worship at Northwest Yearly Meeting in Newberg, Oregon, sitting in a circle around a large fire, about 30 young adults had an opportunity to share their understandings of human sexuality and spirituality. Northwest Yearly Meeting has been struggling to come to unity over this matter for several years, ever since a member church announced that it was an “open and affirming” congregation, in direct opposition to the written stance of Northwest Yearly Meeting’s “Faith and Practice.” This Meeting for Worship provided an opportunity for the “Board of Elders” to hear directly from young people about this issue. Their thoughts, opinions, and leadings mattered for the life and future of the community.
Instead of being cloistered into programs designed specifically for people their age, these young people were fully integrated into the business at large, and their opinions mattered. By providing a safe and authentic Spiritual space for young adults to contribute to the dialogue around human sexuality and gender identity, the Yearly Meeting was both responding to the needs of its young adults, while moving forward together more powerfully.
Another vibrant gathering of young adults occurred in early June during the Young Adult Friends Conference at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania. This conference, organized by young adults, is a fairly new experiment in bringing about 40 young adult Friends together to learn about social change from their peers and elders.
I led an evening workshop on the legacy of the Movement for a New Society, a radical experiment in nonviolent direct action and social change based in Philadelphia during the 70s and early 80s. During the workshop, Pamela Haines and Chuck Esser, two members of “The Movement,” shared the strengths and weaknesses of that community. The young adult audience asked questions and sought advice on their own journey to live lives of intention and meaning.
Although Movement for a New Society was not directly supported by any Quaker body (it grew out of previous Quaker initiatives), it was influenced and infused with Quaker faith and philosophy. It did not fit the mold of an existing Quaker institution, yet it spread the Spirit of Quakerism in its vision for the Beloved Community. It was Quakerism being lived boldly in the world.
Throughout my travels this summer, I met young adult Quakers doing great work inside existing institutions, as at Northwest Yearly Meeting, as well as powerful, Spirit-led work outside of any Quaker institution. It became clear to me that, rather than creating "young adult" mini institutions within larger Quaker ones, the way to fully engage with and energize young adult Quakers is for those institutions to adapt and enlarge the scope of their identity to recognize and embrace the vision of its young people. Perhaps by adopting the creative and transitory nature of young adulthood, Quakerism can more powerfully adhere to the movements of the Spirit.