Monday, May 24, 2010

Fishing Strategies for the Future

Several of the disciples were there--Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples. "I'm going out to fish," Simon Peter told them, and they said, "We'll go with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.

Jesus asked them, "Friends, haven't you caught any fish?" They answered him, "No, we haven't." He told them, "Throw the net on the right hand side of the boat, and you'll catch some." So they threw it out and were unable to haul it in because it was so full of fish.

That disciple whom Jesus kept loving said to Peter, "It's the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his clothes back on, because he was practically naked, and jumped into the sea. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread.

"Bring some of the fish you've just caught," Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.


A fellow Friend writes about whether Quakerism can adapt to the changes of a new age, namely the fact we are far more inclined to uproot and relocate than we were in a previous era. He posits whether we are capable pushing back against prevailing trends in an effort to reverse them, concerned that our complicity in all of this constant back-and-forth isn't just detrimental to the Religious Society of Friends, but also to the stability of the planet and the people who live there. Quakers aren't the only faith group feeling the pinch, knowing they must evolve or die, but in the process not knowing quite how to do it. Trends and statistics only underscore the seriousness of the situation.

Even so, precise location, I find, makes a significant difference. Living in Washington, DC, has provided me significant challenges, particularly concerning my efforts to maintain a strong and active Young Adult Friends group. The culture of the city encourages career-driven peripateticism and having studied the history of the area, I have had to concede that it has been this way for a very long time. Established precedent is difficult to roll back once enacted. To some degree, the situation that faces me is not much dissimilar to that of maintaining a college organization like the Young Democrats, one which is always in a state of flux. As I think back on my time as an undergraduate, I am always amazed at how quickly four years passed.

In this example, every year a new slate of members enters the picture in the fall as incoming Freshman, and every spring outgoing Seniors graduate and head elsewhere. This dynamic is also present in any group with an age requirement, like Young Adult Friends, whereby members routinely age out. Establishing a firm change of command while I can and designating new leaders well before it comes time to formerly pass the baton is what I strive to maintain. Though the YAF clerk and I understandably take the most active role regarding organization and structure, we do seek out members who we hope will take over when we ourselves no longer identify as young adults.

In this city, my contemporaries move here knowing full well that this will not be their final stop on a metaphorical train trip towards a greater occupational goal. At most, they may be here for four years of college, but then it's off to grad school elsewhere, or to a job wherever they can get it. In this day and age, with the job market as unsettled and limited as it is, I find that even Young Adult Friends who would like to stay around have no choice but to opt for relocation. Those who are fortunate enough to get a job in a different city of course take it, but many Young Adults, to say nothing of Young Friends choose to enroll in grad school in the hopes that doing so might make them more marketable to employers. With that decision is also the hope that moving forward towards some greater goal, even if it means living off student loans and ascribing to a life consumed by study and ascetic poverty is better than spinning one's wheels in frustration, going nowhere.

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, as I did provided me a very different perspective. Most people who moved there from other places intended to stay for a long while, and the natives who stuck around after high school or college around felt much the same way. Those desperate for greener pastures like me left, likely never to return, except perhaps to visit. In smaller cities and small towns, this same compulsion to leap-frog from place to place does not exist in the same proportion. Certain professions insist upon constant relocation. Academia, non-profit work, activism, and politics are all fields that demand one change ZIP codes on a frequent basis. Many Friends, particularly liberal unprogrammed Friends, are employed in these sorts of occupations so it makes sense why they rarely are in the same place for long. The red state/blue state divide also factors into the equation, since a more traditional conception of lifestyle runs contrary to that of the average urban professional.

One of the reasons I have embraced internet activism is because it renders physical location more or less redundant. To be sure, there will always be a need for personal interaction, but since we are increasingly more and more tethered to electronic communication, there's a sort of immediacy present online that is very useful. While one way of life may be ending, another seems to have sprung up in its place. I certainly understand the worries of those who feel we may be incautiously scrapping what existed for centuries and in so doing destroying forever a system that has accomplished an incredible amount of good. At times this fear is my very own, but I also recognize that the internet has been an amazing pallet for creative expression. Speaking in a purely spiritual context, I have seen my views validated and confirmed by people I would otherwise never have met or encountered in person, regardless of whether I was twenty-five at the time or eighty-five.

Do I visualize the cyber-meeting or cyber-church replacing a gathering of people in a physical setting? No, not really. To me, at least, there will always be a role and place for it. But what I do envision is that internet-based community will strengthen the bonds of common cause and unity among fellow believers. I see it as a supremely helpful resource and in many ways analogous to the small group model that has been practiced by many individual faith gatherings for the past several years. Some ideal mix between ground-based and internet-based worship seems to me the most sensible solution. Religious minorities, among which Quakers are merely one example, have developed novel solutions to challenges over the years. In an age well before electronic communication, certain faith groups extended a hand to members and attenders who were unable to attend weekly gatherings. Because of physical limitations or due to the fact that they lived in remote parts of the country where gatherings were miles away, these worshipers opted to receive devotional material in the mail. I think a similar model can be utilized in this circumstance, too, and certainly not simply as an outreach to the disabled, the shut-in, or the isolated.

Micah's post focused particularly on retaining that which we have. I agree with him that doing so is very important. But I find a particular leaning and calling to extend a hand out to those who have never heard of Quakerism beyond a face on a box of oatmeal, or the name of a street. The internet could not be a more effective tool to accomplish this. My own talents lend me to embrace what we have rather than devise a strategy that, to me, is akin to swimming upstream. If we accept that, at least for right now, maintaining lasting membership and attendance in any meeting or church might be unfeasible, then I'd rather find a way to reach outside the existing structure to cast my net on a different side of the boat. In so doing, I might find myself with more fish than I had ever dreamed.

1 comment:

Micah Bales said...

My dear friend Kevin,

Unfortunately, I'm afraid you have misunderstood my post. Mine was not a call to abandon the internet, nor to defend tradition rigidly at the expense of being relevant to our present societal context.

Instead, I asked Friends to consider how we should adapt our tradition - which is predicated on the assumption of general communal stability - to the exigencies of (post) modern life.

I'm no enemy of the internet; I see it, in fact, as one of the tools that will make a more settled existence compatible with continuing community on an inter-regional and planetary level. However, I do wonder whether some of us have allowed the internet to become our primary spiritual community, rather than sinking our roots deep into the difficult, broken, human communities where we live.

I did not intend to issue a call to abandon modern life. However, I do think that it is important to name that we are no longer living in the same social context as that gave rise to the traditions of the Religious Society of Friends. I believe that it is important that we re-examine our tradition in light of our present-day context, and that we consider our present-day context in light of our tradition. I suspect that we will be called to adapt both our lifestyles and our tradition to how God is leading us today.

Your friend in Truth,