This summer, I was invited to come to the Gathering of Friends General Conference to present a series of five daily workshops on the history of Friends in the 1800’s, as seen through the eyes of Allen Jay, who was one of the best known Quakers in the 19th century. Full disclosure: Allen Jay was also one of the founding member of West Richmond Friends, where I’ve been serving for the last 22 years, and a leader at Springfield Friends in High Point, NC, where I’m moving this summer.
Over 1,400 people were at the FGC Gathering, which was held at Western Carolina State University in Culhowhee, NC, high in the Smoky Mountains. At the opening session, people from all of the different yearly meetings and Quaker organizations were asked to stand. I stood when the New Association of Friends was called, and all week long people came up to me to ask about our group.
Nearly everyone I met at FGC knew about West Richmond’s welcoming and affirming minute – many FGC folks have been welcoming and affirming for much longer than our meeting. Everyone who spoke with me expressed support and prayers for our meeting.
The workshops I gave were extremely popular – I’d expected about 20 attenders, and wound up with 32! All of the copies of the Autobiography of Allen Jay were sold out at the bookstore on the first day of the gathering. The workshops met every morning from 9:00 to 11:45, and included worship, a hymn, an hour of lecture, discussion, and reading aloud from Allen Jay’s comments on the changes in Quaker life and practice in the 1800’s.
Afternoons for me were filled with workshops and interest groups, visits to the bookstore, rest and reading. Late one afternoon I was playing my hammered dulcimer out by the fountain in the plaza near our dorm. I looked up and found that a group of 12-15 Quakers had joined me and were all doing tai chi nearby, standing on one foot like a flock of Friendly flamingoes!
I especially enjoyed workshops on how to promote your meeting on social media, theological diversity among Friends, and a deeply moving presentation by an elder from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee people, who have a reservation near the campus where we were meeting.
Max Carter also led a standing-room-only interest group where he shared recent developments in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), which is facing pressure to divide the yearly meeting, mainly over the issue of homosexuality. I was asked to share our meeting’s experience with the breakup of Indiana Yearly Meeting.
In the evening plenary sessions, we listened to two attorneys from North Carolina talk about their work to oppose mass incarceration of African-Americans; an inspiring talk by educator and writer Parker Palmer; and a great concert by Indiana Quaker songwriter Carrie Newcomer.
My wife often criticizes me for not standing and cheering at concerts. I think I was the first person in the auditorium on my feet for the standing ovation after Carrie’s song, I Heard An Owl, with its chorus:
So don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will,
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves,
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love
My room mate, Eric, was an African-American Quaker from Atlanta, Georgia, who phoned home twice a day to his wife and joked with me constantly about how Quakers take themselves too seriously. He was deeply interested in what I had to tell him about the Alternatives to Violence Project and about Open Arms Ministries, a group of 15 churches in Richmond who work together to help people who have fallen between the cracks of other programs.
Unlike many Quaker groups, FGC does not hold business sessions at its annual gathering – which may be one reason why so many people enjoy it! As Parker Palmer commented, “People are leaving religion because of theological food fights…” He also commented that “conflict is not the end of community”, and quoted Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, who said – “Community is a continual act of forgiveness…”
As a Quaker pastor at an overwhelmingly unprogrammed gathering, I had expected to be challenged by angry Friends lecturing me about how “Quakers don’t have pastors!” (this is an experience I’ve had at a number of FGC yearly meetings). Instead, all through the week, people kept asking to sit down with me at meal times to ask about the New Association of Friends, to learn more about Allen Jay, or to talk about their ministries or challenges in their lives and meetings.
Did I agree with everyone I met at FGC, or with everything I heard? Of course not – I never expected that! But there were so many opportunities for prayer and worship, for conversation and listening, for learning about how different people are following their leadings, for making new friends, for browsing delicious books at the bookstore, for seeing new forms of art, for seeing how lively and diverse Quaker faith can be.