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Can You Hear Me Now?

More than any other place I have ever lived, Washington is a talking city, an environment where words are simultaneously the most precious and the cheapest commodity. Words serve as weapons of political warfare, badges of honor, markers of identity and demonstrations of expertise. Language is employed to build up and tear down. In a town like Washington, the exercise of power means framing the conversation. The real game here is about dictating the terms of the debate.

This is a very different relationship to words than the one that I have experienced in the Quaker tradition. For Friends, the primary goal of all words is to provide a pathway into truth that goes beyond our narrow attempts to define and control it. In this view, language is meant to direct us to the inward reality that we all have access to, the truth that will guide us and draw us into unity. In the Friends tradition, the spoken word is meant to be a tool of liberation, freeing us from bondage to falsehood. This truth that we encounter together sets us free and challenges us to reexamine our narrow interests and old assumptions.
From this perspective, the way that we often communicate here in Washington is questionable. If words are intended to provide a doorway into the truth that lies beyond us, what happens when we speak primarily to get our own way, so that our own perspective prevails while others are discounted? What is the spiritual effect of a culture that views language as a means to gain power over others, rather than as a tool to produce transformed lives that bless and surprise everyone?
If the United States’ political climate is any indication, communication that cajoles, confuses and coerces leads us into division, alienation and violence. When our speech becomes simply one more method of waging cultural warfare against those we disagree with, we are left without means to find the common ground that could resolve our conflicts. A society that has stopped listening is not far from civil war.
I believe that God has called me to engage with the wider world, to work for justice and reconciliation in a culture that struggles to live within even basic forms of civility, much less mutual understanding and love. Yet, at the same time, I am convinced that it would be a mistake for me to accept the wider culture’s destructive norms of communication. What might it look like to passionately participate in American society without buying into its patterns of verbal combat and battle-hardened talking points?
This question is alive for me as I work among my friends in the movement for economic justice. All of us have become accustomed to communicating in ways that are basically violent. We instinctively defend ourselves from attack and ensure that our point of view is spoken. We perceive (correctly) that if we do not barge in and say our piece, others who are more forceful will do all the talking.
This is hard for me, because I am used to the Quaker mode of conversation in which long pauses are normal. Stretches of silence provide time to reflect on what has been said, and to listen for the voice of the Spirit in our midst. Among Friends, there is an expectation that conversations provide an opportunity to listen collectively, and this shared openness to God and one another helps to develop trust and solidarity within the group.
When I first became involved in the Occupy movement, one of my great hopes was that I could help to introduce Quaker practices of deep listening and collective discernment into the movement. And during the first days of Occupy DC, we had some remarkable successes. But it soon became apparent that almost all of us were more familiar with the combative, self-asserting style of communication that we have inherited from the wider culture.
Even as we rise to challenge the domination of the 1%, we seem stuck communicating in ways that keep us fighting one another. It is hard to see how the 99% can ever be free so long as we continue to use the modes of discourse that have been thrust upon us by the wealthy elite and their corporations.

A real nonviolent revolution in this country cannot be simply about economic indicators; we must transform the very culture we live in, including the way we speak and make decisions together. It is truly a beautiful thing when we really hear one another and experience solidarity spreading throughout the room. Nevertheless, this way of hearing is much more difficult to achieve when we are all worried about whether we will get a chance to speak.

For my own part, I wrestle with how to stay grounded in the Quaker mode of deep listening and trust while still being able to speak to my friends who do not share this practice. How can I engage in our shared business in a way that invites the whole group into greater openness and depth? How can I keep my own grounding in the practice of patient waiting on God, even as all the cultural forces around me clamor for immediate reaction? How can I share this practice of trusting attentiveness with my friends and co-workers? What would it look like to hold open a space for shared exploration in truth?

Occupying the Fruit – or the Roots?

Over the past five months, I have had the opportunity to participate in many organizing meetings for the Occupy movement. These gatherings have taken place in public parks and the middle of the street, as well as in church basements, offices and homes. The earliest of these impromptu gatherings took the form of public General Assemblies, the organizational engine that got the Occupy movement off the ground. Since those first days in McPherson Square, many dozens of sub-groups have spun off, each one engaging in its own particular mission.
The McPherson Square camp began to take a back seat to off-site organizing in late 2011, and most of my energy has gone into Occupy Faith DC, and Occupy Church. Spending most of my time doing organizing within faith-based, and especially Christian, communities, I got used to operating within a certain context. The meetings that I have been attending have been largely based in a shared set of values and worldview grounded in the Christian tradition.
Of course, I neither expected nor desired to cloister myself within the Christian community. There a lot of really important work being done right now in foreclosure resistance, and these efforts are by no means limited to faith-based occupiers. We all need to pitch in for the struggle to secure the right to housing for everyone, especially those who are being robbed by predatory banks. This crucial work has drawn me back into the wider activist scene, where occupiers from all backgrounds and worldviews are drawn together in our common struggle for economic justice.
Engaging with this wider circle will take some getting used to. I had begun to take for granted the rhythm of shared prayer and reflection within the Occupy Church, and the pace and feel of the secular activist community is quite distinct. Many of our friends in the wider movement are admirable in their emphasis on getting things done in the most efficient ways possible. For people who are busy with work, school and family commitments, getting tasks accomplished as quickly and effectively as possible is important. Yet, in my life as a Quaker, and as a participant in the Occupy Church movement, I have experienced a different way of relating towards the work before us.
Within Occupy Church, there is a great value placed on fellowship and worship, not primarily as a means to an end, but as a way of building up the gathered community. During our organizing meetings, we spend only about half of our time actually doing business. The rest, we spend in simple conversation, potluck meals and worship. All of this seems quite practical to us. While eating and worshiping together does not necessarily make us more likely to acheive our objectives in the world, it does make us more likely to love one another, to place our trust in God, and to grow together as a community.
At the heart of the matter is a question of priorities. Which is more fundamental: The strength and unity of the community that does the work, or the fact that we “get the job done”? While we obviously aim for victory in our campaign for economic justice, the Occupy Church has charted a course that emphasizes building up the community itself, trusting that a healthy community will produce positive results.
One way to conceptualize this is by thinking of a fruit tree. A fruit tree itself is not particularly valuable to human beings. We cultivate fruit trees first and foremost because they produce apples, pears and peaches. Yet, we obviously cannot fail to care for the tree. If the tree itself is not healthy, neither will the fruit be. It is imperative that we care for the tree, nurturing it in its growth, so that it can bear the best fruit possible.
The Occupy community is just such a tree. Clearly, we exist as a community for the purpose of bearing fruit. We desire to see the fruit of social justice take shape in our society, and we want to see these results as soon as possible. Yet, this growth simply will not materialize unless we prioritize care for the activist community. We need to nurture those roots – human relationships, networking, leadership development, and the bonds of mutual concern and sympathy – that will spur us on to greater love and bolder action.
Without this vital root structure, the Occupy movement is unsustainable. We will be like a plant that sprouts quickly, but because of shallow soil is unable to come to fruition. If we truly want to keep our eyes on the prize, to “get things done” and see our dreams of economic justice take shape, we may have to slow down and care for one another. We occupiers are not machines. We need love and care. We need friendship, beauty and meaning in our lives. Without these things, we will not bear fruit.
How can we in the Occupy movement embrace a culture of long-term growth, grounding ourselves in the relationships of care that we require to sustain our fruit-bearing community through the years of work that our dream of justice demands of us? How can we seek not only immediate results, but also to tend the relationships that make victory possible? How can we embody – right now, in microcosm – the society that we seek to give birth to?

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #8

Dear brothers and sisters in Truth,

My travels among Friends this summer are now underway as Faith and I visit Eastern Region Yearly Meeting at their annual sessions in Canton, Ohio. It might be fair to say that Eastern Region Yearly Meeting is the flagship of Evangelical Friends Church in North America. Eastern Region (formerly Ohio Yearly Meeting [Damascus]) was the only one of the Orthodox Yearly Meetings to decline membership in the Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) when it was formed in 1902. Eastern Region felt that FYM’s statements of faith were not sufficently Evangelical. They were certainly uncomfortable with some aspects of FYM’s corporate statement of faith – the Richmond Declaration – which denied the use of outward signs of sacrament, such as water baptism and bread and wine communion. Since the late 19th century, Eastern Region has held that there should be “freedom of conscience” with regard to outward signs of sacrament. Since the 19th century, some churches in Eastern Region have celebrated these rituals, but they are optional: No one is required to be baptized with water or partake in bread and wine communion in order to be a member of the Friends Church.

Over time, a number of other North American Yearly Meetings became disaffected with the insufficiently Evangelical stance of the Five Years Meeting. Oregon (now Northwest) Yearly Meeting broke away from FYM in the 1926 after FYM would not acknowledge the Richmond Declaration as a creed. Kansas (now Mid-America) Yearly Meeting withdrew in 1937, and most of Nebraska Yearly Meeting‘s monthly meetings withdrew and formed Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting in 1957. Evangelical Friends Alliance (now Evangelical Friends Church) was formed in 1965, and Evangelical Friends Church in North America now includes Southwest Yearly Meeting (formerly California) and Alaska Yearly Meeting.

But Eastern Region is the original. Here, ever since the Revival experience of the mid-1800s, Friends have greatly emphasized the tradition of Evangelical Protestantism, often at the expense of Friends heritage. The attitude among Friends in Eastern Region might be described as: “hold onto what is essential, jettison everything else.” And for most Friends in Eastern Region, what is essential is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, fidelity to the Bible as the Word of God, and an actively missional stance in the wider world (see Matthew 28:19-20). And, by and large, the Evangelical Protestant tradition has all of these things.

The Friends tradition, except as it directly supports these three emphases, is not seen by most Friends in Eastern Region as being necessary. It is worth noting that the Friends tradition is often referred to as “Friends distinctives” by members of Evangelical Friends Church: They are the things that make Friends “distinctive” from other Evangelical Protestants. But the Evangelical Protestant tradition – the story of Luther and Wesley – is normative. As a Yearly Meeting, Eastern Region is Protestant first, Quaker second – if at all. It is worth noting that most Friends here do not identify as “Quaker,” as that word is associated with liberal, non-Bible-based Friends branches. Friends here are very careful to distinguish between the Friends Church and Quakers.

Attending Eastern Region Yearly Meeting has been a “cultural experience” for me on a variety of levels. The first worship service I attended was a three-and-a-half-hour-long Spanish-language service. There were around 200 Spanish-speaking Friends in attendence to hear many individuals and groups perform music, to sing congregationally, and to hear a number of speakers, including a guest preacher who spoke for around an hour. He was an impressive orator who alternated between stand-up comedy and fire-and-brimstone screaming. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more warning and judgment, he made us laugh. I enjoyed seeing the vibrancy of the Spanish-language Friends at Eastern Region, though I was a bit concerned at how segregated the Spanish-language and English-language sub-Yearly Meetings were. Most of the Spanish-speakers only stayed for the weekend, leaving the English-speakers to do Eastern Region’s business on Monday and Tuesday. It was as if there were two Yearly Meetings, and the English-language Yearly Meeting was where the business was done.

The English-language portion of the Yearly Meeting was just as much a cultural experience. The worship services were made up of three primary elements: Congregational singing; performing artists (from Hungarian Gypsy musicians to a teeny-bop Christian rock band); and preaching. Friends applauded after most of the songs and sermons, and there were rarely even a few seconds of silence between events. I had difficulty with how prepared and managed everything felt; and the congregational singing and preaching was often triumphalist in nature.

Another challenge for me was the almost exclusively male leadership of the Yearly Meeting. Eastern Region has no female senior pastors. One younger Friend who I spoke to said that she had female Friends who had left the Friends Church to join the Mennonites in order to be able to engage in pastoral ministry. They did not feel that they could do so in Eastern Region. It was noteworthy that this year the Yearly Meeting recorded one of their long-time missionaries as a minister of the gospel – but not his wife, who has been co-missionary with him for decades. No one publicly questioned why this should be so. Throughout the time here at Yearly Meeting, I have heard statements that underscored the role of women in Eastern Region: For example, when one leader prayed that God would, “raise up new missionaries and missionaries’ wives.”

Another thing that I must mention is that Eastern Region Friends vote. I had known this before I arrived, but knowing that Friends in this Yearly Meeting vote could not entirely prevent me from having my breath taken away when I first witnessed it. Most of Eastern Region’s business is done without discussion: A report is presented and approved (they say “favor” to indicate approval). However, a vote is taken on “motions” – that is, on any action item.

Voting seems to be especially important for cases when there is a question from the floor about the decisions that the leadership has presented to the body. The only vote where I heard any “noes” came after one individual questioned whether it was in right order to freeze for the coming year the Yearly Meeting’s “minimum wage” for pastoral ministers. After this man had spoken, the clerk called for a vote on the matter without hearing further discussion. The vote was taken by voice, and I would guess that it passed by a margin of at least ten to one. It seems that voting in this particular case served the function of allowing some Friends to “stand aside” on the decision. But I was disturbed that no time was given to discernment of the matter; Friends were not encouraged to wait on God to provide further guidance. There was a schedule, and Friends intended to get on with it – so a quick vote took care of the voice of dissention.

Eastern Region had its good points, of course. I was impressed with the fact that the Yearly Meeting took half a day to do service projects in the community. I went with a team of Friends that weeded the grounds of a local Jewish community center, and a dozen other teams served the local community in many other ways. One team visited a man in very poor health and cleaned up his yard. Another team visited the local fire station that had just lost a fireman and cleaned their vehicles and prayed with them. Yet another team worked with children. I thought that many Friends could learn from Eastern Region’s very practical service orientation.

I was also deeply impressed by Eastern Region’s cross-cultural emphasis. While I am concerned by the de facto segregation of the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking sections of the Yearly Meeting, I am very excited about the development of that relationship. Eastern Region also has a Chinese-language congregation, and “ethnic ministry” is a stated emphasis of the Yearly Meeting. I am excited to see how greater partnership might develop between Friends of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Eastern Region bears witness to Friends’ Testimony of Unity: to the power of Christ’s Spirit to unite us across cultural, class, and linguistic barriers.

The emphasis at Eastern Region is on church-growth, foreign missions, and Evangelical Protestant theology based in the authority of Scripture as the Word of God. I did not detect much interest in engaging with other (non-Evangelical) Friends. Nevertheless, I believe that Friends would do well to reach out to Eastern Region Yearly Meeting, inviting them to share fellowship with the wider Religious Society of Friends. Despite our doctrinal differences, we are all children of one Heavenly Father, and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will permeate all of the churches of Eastern Region Yearly Meeting and that Friends will be responsive to the Inward Light of Christ as it seeks to lead them in His Way.

This coming week, Faith and I will be visiting Northwest Yearly Meeting, also a part of Evangelical Friends Church. I was blessed to visit Northwest Yearly Meeting last year, along with Tyler Hampton, and I am looking forward to being among Friends there again.

I pray that the Spirit of Christ is richly dwelling in each of you, leading you in the way of truth and mercy, justice and love.

Your friend in the Way of Jesus,

Micah Bales

Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)

I flew into Omaha and spent the night at Marshall Massey’s home, before he and I took off the next morning to West Branch, Iowa, the site of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)’s annual sessions. This trip came as the last of my stops before returning to Richmond, and I was quite exhausted. I took advantage of IYMc’s relaxed atmosphere and slow pace to unwind a little bit and focus on being present with the people there, letting go of most of my concern to get anything done.

Iowa (Conservative) struck me as a very mellow, cozy group of Friends from across Iowa, and with meetings in Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin. As I commented to several Friends there, I imagine that IYMc is similar to what my yearly meeting, Great Plains, might be like in character if we were to become fully unprogrammed and incorporate a few large, liberal meetings. While there was definitely a strong element which I would identify, for lack of a better term, as “liberal-oriented,” there was also a clear desire as a body to maintain some of the traditions of Conservative Friends, which I appreciated.

In particular, I noticed that the meetings for business were slower, beginning with between twenty and thirty minutes of open worship, and carrying significant periods of silence between items. The presiding clerk, Deborah Fisch, also served as recording clerk, taking the sense of the meeting, preparing each minute as Friends waited in prayer, and then proposing the minute to the body for its approval. Each item was approved and minuted at the time that unity was reached, not waiting until the end of the session to prepare and approve the minutes. I found this custom to be helpful for a number of reasons. Not the least of these was the way in which it bypassed the need to prepare the minutes all at once at the end of each business session, which has always seemed like it must be stressful for the recording clerk. It also provided a minute or two of silent worship between each item of business, which I felt helped keep the body more centered and attentive to the fact that this was in fact the Lord’s work and not our own.

When reports were received, there was generally appreciation expressed from the body for the report, either vaguely (“I appreciate the report”) or more specifically (“This report gives me a sense of what organization X does and I am pleased with the work that they are doing”). The clerk minuted the reaction of the body, along with an acceptance of each report. The yearly meeting’s queries were read, along with selected responses from the meetings. These responses, in addition to the state of the meeting reports from each monthly meeting, gave a sense of how the body was faring in its walk with Christ, giving a sense of the state of the yearly meeting as a whole, as well as that of individual local meetings.

The one event that took place at IYMc that I want to highlight in particular is the closing worship on Sunday morning, which I found to be particularly impactful. We were called, early on in the time of worship, to come to the living waters of God and to be filled with that life, and, as we sank down into that Life, we found that God had ministry for us, not only to comfort us but also to convict us and call us to action. A minister arose and told us of how, just before meeting for worship, she had been with her children, exploring the outdoors near the meetinghouse. The children were catching frogs, many of which were in the stage between tadpole and frog. Her daughter picked up a frog and brought it to her. The frog appeared to have a tail, still, but as she looked more closely, she realized that what at first had looked like a tail was in fact an extra set of hind legs. “The frog had two sets of back legs!” We heard more ministry that morning, but at the core of it all I felt a call for us as Friends to repent of our complicity with the destruction of the creation and to change our lives dramatically to come into alignment with God’s will for us: that we be in unity with the creation in Christ.

Are we listening? Do we hear God’s call to repetance? Do we hear God’s call to turn our lives around, to turn towards the Light and away from our own destructive ways of living on the earth? Are we ready for radical reorientation? My prayer for Friends of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and for all Friends, is that we might together hear the Word of God in our hearts and change our lives, laboring together to lead lives that reflect humility, love and firmness in Truth.