Last month I had the chance to do my first real travel for Friends World Committee (not that the Triennial wasn't real; it was, but it was essentially in my own back yard and had the feel of inviting people in, not venturing forth.) One of the things I looked most forward to when I accepted the job here was the opportunity to meet and know Friends from across the spectrum of our Society as well as our society. The first chance came in September when I traveled to the Midwest to attend the Midwest Regional Gathering of FWCC and to meet Friends in the eastern area of Indiana.
If there is a center of Quakerism in the country its not in New England, and its certainly not in Philadelphia. (Please don't let word that I'VE state this in a public way out or I'LL be run out of town on a rail!) Its in Indiana. Along the Indiana-Ohio border there are, within a few miles of each other four major groups of Friends: Evangelical, Conservative, FUM types and FGC adherents. On the 40 mile drive between Richmond and Muncie I counted eight Friends Churches or Meetings in the villages - some of them boarded up and looking as deserted as the hamlet they once served. Friends history in this part of the world is deep, if largely unrecognized. Friends presence in the area remains significant, if a bit blurred by other variables.
And eastern Friend that I be, I was prepared for the variety of experiences within Friends. I wasn't surprised driving up Cherry Street in Muncie, Indiana to see the Friends Church. Looking to all outward appearances like a first cousin of the Episcopalian church on the square in Barre, with stained glass windows and something that looked suspiciously like a bell tower (although I later learned there was no bell). I thought to myself when I pulled into the parking lot that this building, so very different than our meetinghouse, would serve to underline the differences among Friends that I would encounter on this trip.
But, you know, it wasn't all that different. The building was different. There was a pastor and that was different. But, he was certainly no more hireling ministry than I was working as I am for a Quaker organization. And with his dry self-deprecating sense of humor and his gentle, thoughtful manner it was easy to see why a meeting would ask him to represent them. And what an honest and loving community it was. Friends were sincere and straight forward (different than some of the meetings in the east where I'VE worshiped as a stranger and no one has spoken to me after worship.) I was informally adopted by a retired farmer, a kind, upstanding man, whose love of God and his wife defined his being and whose comfort and involvement with his meeting punctuated his daily life. But being taken under the wing in no way excluded others warm discussion and obvious interest.
In the afternoon, I was able to spend some time alone, sitting in the large, comfortable gathering room. The earth toned stained glass windows created a mute lighting. It was a comfortable place, a place that resonated with God's ever opening truths. It was so different than our kitchen/gathering room. It was so much the same.
Approximately 45 people attend The Midwest regional Gathering of FWCC. After registration, and social time we centered into a brief period of worship. Brent Bill, the pastor I mentioned, spoke briefly of the history of Muncie's Friends Church. John Punshon shared his sense that there have been fortunate side effects to the separations of the 19th century in America; there are positive aspects of each of the traditions among Friends that aren't evident in other places, Britain Yearly Meeting for example . I also spent Sunday with Muncie Friends: early morning unprogrammed worship, a kickoff pancake breakfast, the first Sunday School (yes Sunday School, not First Day School) classes of the year, and worship. I spoke to one of the adult Sunday School classes resulting in a lively discussion, with some excellent questions (for example, exactly what would be the similarities between me and a Quaker in Indonesia?) both during and after the presentation. Worship was semi-programmed.
My impression of Friends Memorial Church in Muncie was one of a warm, active faith community of Friends use to working together, use to leaning on each other and open to sharing not only genuine hospitality but deep fellowship with outsiders like myself. At the opening service for the year's Sunday school classes, there was lively singing of both children's songs and hymns. I left with an inspiring sense of community and a celebration of a faith that sometimes is not always evident in Friends' groups.
In my door to door travels over the next few days, I met Friends who gave me their perspective and talked about their faith in direct and candid fashion. One began the discussion by telling me in no uncertain term that the place where the liberal tradition of Friends is in error is that they take George Fox's concept of "that of God in everyone" as the central thesis of Quakerism. The central thesis is, in fact that "there is even one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition." Another told me Friends are at a turning point, a place in our history and development where we can enhance our spirituality, where if we let go of ourselves, God will both lead and nurture us. Two very different challenges, but statements of faith and direction that touch on our vitality.
I returned with a sense of our Religious Society's strength. We have our share of struggle with each other, and some areas of deep dissension-places where we may never become one. We also have a vigor and a potency that draws us together, an understanding of faith, although we express it differently that breathes life and beauty into each day. "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another." (1 John 1:7)
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