Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Truth in Short Supply: Baltimore Yearly Meeting

My contribution to the Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices anthology was entitled, "Reviving the Slumbering Light". I was responding to a particularly unfortunate experience I experienced a couple years ago at a monthly meeting. The title could also easily apply to Baltimore Yearly Meeting's annual gathering. What I mean by this will soon be as clear as I can manage.

Before I begin, I want to note up front that I do not see myself as the eternal curmudgeon. Every community has at least one and I'm also aware of how easily they show themselves on an online forum. We don't often act responsibly regarding constructive criticism. It seems that when problems must be voiced that it is necessary to fall into one of two extremes: the risk-averse hand-wringer or the chronically misanthropic complainer. "Rocking the boat" need not be an emasculating experience, nor have we any need to cherry pick someone's best intentions from his or her baseless insults and petty grievances. Though I seek that which is God within everyone, some people make the process very difficult.

As I collect my thoughts, I am inspired by the early Quakers who, out of a desire to speak Truth to power, found themselves frequently misunderstood. It is in emulation of that great and noble tradition that I write, risking the same response. To be sure, had I chosen to write immediately after arriving home, I would have spoken from a place of frustration and anger; my prose would have reflected it. Now, after processing what I went through, I believe I am better able to objectively outline that which caused me no small distress.

Here is what I mean. Baltimore Yearly Meeting was run with as little transparency and accountability as I have ever seen in a spiritual gathering. I find this dumbfounding, since many of the problems present defied common sense. To cite one example, chain of command was nonexistent. Friends were confused as to what person or persons on staff (or on an appropriate committee) needed to be approached for specific purposes.

I shudder to think what would have happened had a person had an accident or severe illness requiring immediate medical assistance. Moreover, no pre-packet of general information was provided to attenders before showing up on site. Ideally, at minimum this packet would have lain out important details, phone trees, room assignments, and emergency contacts. It could have been printed out beforehand for those who would have preferred a paper copy or provided in PDF or Word format to those who sought to be environmentally friendly.

Here another example: orientation was held only once, which is fine for those with the financial and time resources to attend for a full week, but is very inconvenient and unfair to many Friends who arrived after the proceedings had gotten underway. Signs pointing attenders across the campus of Frostburg State to scheduled events were minimal. It is my understanding that efforts were made to increase their presence, but these efforts need to continue and to be greatly expanded. In short, the gathering was run by long time attenders for people who were also long time attenders.

For those like me who had never been before, we felt for all the world as though we were engaged in a massive scavenger hunt. Even those who had attended many times before got confused by the lack of adequate organization and often arrived late to activities. While I know that the phrase "Quaker organization" is an oxymoron in some corners, I think surely we can do much better than this. Had I not attended a prior gathering where these sorts of problems were not found in bushels, I might not hold these same expectations.

I arrived seeking spiritual refreshment in the company of others with the same inclination, and I regret to report that I did not find it. Instead, I felt in many ways as though I was a new member of a country club or fraternity. Whether Friends intended it to be structured in such a fashion or whether this is a consequence of ignorance and neglect, I know not, but the feel of the gathering was about as far from Beloved Community as I can imagine.

I aim to help out and assist others as part of my leading from the Spirit, but when the work of pertinent committees and individuals is kept hidden without any easy means of comprehension or discernment, it makes me not want to undertake the effort needed to obtain this information. To try to better explain precisely what it is I mean, here is a example of a conversation I had.

Me: I'd like to know more about the __________________ committee.

Long-time Friend: Surely you must know ____________________.

Me: No, actually, I don't.

(Thinking to myself) No one's ever really introduced themselves to me before. How would I know them if they don't make it easy for me to participate? How can I participate if I am expected to do so much legwork up front?

Long-time Friend: Well, talk to _______________________.

Me: I don't know them either.

It has been my experience that committee work is often rewarding. I don't want to be seen as though I'm bashing the committee system as a whole. But I think also that many of us are well aware of what happens when one or two people take control over a committee. When these people think that working together is some threat to their own power, then Quaker process completely breaks down. In unfortunate situations like these, other committee members often feel as though it's not worth the trouble of an argument or a conflict to correct this Friend in a spirit of love.

I saw this at Yearly Meeting and my impressions were confirmed by other Friends I spoke with privately. Several threw their hands up in the air, stating that this had been the way things always had been ever since they'd been attending. It is from these conversations that I understood the dysfunction was systemic and totally entrenched.

This regrettable dynamic kept most Young Adult Friends from wanting to engage in daily activities. Instead, they kept to themselves. I did discover that most Young Adult Friends in attendance tended to trend more to the younger end of the spectrum, towards the late teens and early twenties. I am a full decade younger than them and yet, I have to say I felt a sense of kinship in their company more than I felt with most older adults. There were maybe two or three other Young Adult Friends in attendance who were in their late twenties and early thirties, which is problematic in and of itself, but another subject altogether.

On this general topic, a Friend gave a group presentation at BYM, directly discussing waning Young Adult participation. He titled the talk "Where Have All the Children Gone?". To answer his query literally, and in part, I'd answer that they simply don't want to deal with the exhausting drama and needless conflict. They see adults, their presumed elders, acting childishly or not especially Friendly, and they want no part of it whatsoever. One cannot blame them. I myself have noticed in my own monthly meeting that a great divide in attitude and mentality exists between the Young Adults and Older Adults, and the two are often in tension with each other.

Are we asleep, Friends? If we are, it should be easy enough to rouse ourselves from slumber. I recognize that change becomes progressively more and more difficult to enact as we grow older, but straightforward reforms like these are vital to the survival of our faith. My concerns speak well beyond just one Yearly Meeting. As I set down these words, I seek to keep a foot planted firmly in two camps, both with people with my age, and also with those older than me.

There is certainly enough blame to go around, should we choose to devote our energies towards finger-pointing. I, however, would much rather discuss strategies for continued growth and healthy dialogue. What I do know is that unless we are willing to speak the same language, we should expect to stay here forever. It's not fair to demand that others must learn our language to gain admission and then act incredulous when they take offense.


michaeldavidjay said...

And I complained about my Yearly meeting (laughing). I feel for you... and you are right -- there needs to be an agenda and contact information. If no one knows the issues, then there is no openness.

Pat Pope said...

AMEN, AMEN, AMEN! I see this problem most poignantly in my own meeting of Evangelical Friends. My particular meeting has a number of newcomers and unchurched folks coming, many of whom are young and I constantly cringe at the things that we take for granted like giving simple directions to rooms in the building or details about how certain things work. I hate cliques and yet we come off as cliquish when newcomers can't seem to find entry. We must practice the habit of thinking like those who are new or outside of our fellowship if we are ever going to attract and/or retain them. I also have seen how some react against change and it sends the wrong message to the young. We're not setting good examples for how to work through conflict and then we expect them to forgive and forbear with people. Not many young people have the patience for that particularly if they've come out backgrounds in which they have not been taught these type of principles. Increasingly young people want to be where there is vitality and life, not a bunch of old folks dying on the vine.

Tom Smith said...

I have contended for a while that Quaker Institution is an oxymoron. It seems whenever we establish an institution that we are trying to maintain, much of the Friendly nature disappears. With regard to Baltimore YM specifically, I suspect that some of the lack of transparency (glass likeness?) may be related to those that live in glass houses dare not throw stones. Some of the issues within BYM are of such magnitude and institutionalization that throwing any stones, that is - raising the big issues that are kept just below the surface, might just shatter the institution, or from another story find that the institution (Emperor) has no clothes.

Bill Samuel said...

I was active in BYM for many years, but that is quite some time ago now. There are a variety of issues and a variety of reasons that most youth drift away.

I came to the conclusion after many years that there was an evil spirit in BYM. Maybe that's too strong a term, but I'm not sure that it is.

Now I see this in the context of the spirit of the churches as used in Revelation, and as particularly opened in the works of Walter Wink. Such a spirit becomes resident in the institution, and is not dependent upon the current individuals in it.

I served for a year on Supervisory Committee (hasn't existed at least by that name for a very long time). It exhibited certain negative characteristics although no one on the Committee was that way. This spirit dominated in such a way that I decided not to so serve again, which was a bit surprising to Friends since most people served longer than a year.

I do not know how this spirit developed. I suspect that things which happened around the consolidation of the 2 Baltimore YMs may have at least contributed to it. I wasn't around for most of that, but it became evident that the consolidation only occurred through some means which lacked integrity.

Probably there were at least some roots of the spirit evident for a much longer time in at least one of the YMs, but I came into YM activity too late to know much about that.

Such a spirit is extremely difficult to change, and it would require a lot which I suspect BYM Friends are nowhere near ready to undertake.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Linda (haven) said...

My Friend, I feel for you and for your experience. My own beginning of the week did not start out so well. I think it had a lot to do with my expectations. I wanted the theme of the week, and the business, and my own expectations, to all fit well, and they did not. I had the expectation of that, and when it did not, I was let down. I had to do my own spiritual preparing, and then amazingly, things began to get better. I do not think it was BYM that lacked the Spirit. I do not think there is an evilness to the BYM, or to any Meeting. I think that God is Present with us all, should we choose to wait on that Great Mystery. Often we are too impatient,or we do not choose to wait, or to listen. The more I listened this week, the more I heard God speak. By the end of the week, I realized that the problem was more that alot of the people present did not want to hear what was being spoken.