I recently spent almost a week in western Massachusetts at a gathering called Quaker Spring. Quaker Spring was conceived as an entirely unprogrammed gathering, where our whole agenda would be Spirit-led, each day’s program being composed in the morning by a small steering group, aptly named the listening committee. The concept of the gathering is to listen together to how Christ is leading us, and how we might best respond as a gathered community.
This year, I found the community part a bit complicated. Normally, Quaker Spring is held on the campus of the Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio. Rooted in that location, it has tended to attract a pretty wide range of Friends, both geographically and theologically. This broadness of background and experience has been a real strength, giving us a lot of perspectives from which to approach our shared quest to be faithful listeners and followers of Christ Jesus.
In 2011, Quaker Spring migrated for the first time to New England. We hoped that trying out a new location would draw in a lot of new Friends who might not otherwise travel all the way to Ohio. I was unable to attend that year, but I heard from many that the gathering was truly blessed. This year was my very first time in New England, except for a few visits to the city of Boston, and I was looking forward to getting an introduction to that part of the country.
I got a bit more of an introduction than I bargained for. While I’m not sure about the exact statistics, anecdotally I’d say that this year upwards of 80% of us were from New England Yearly Meeting. This introduced a dynamic that I had not experienced at Quaker Spring before. Informal conversations would often turn to committee work going on in New England Yearly Meeting, and many times the themes that emerged in our larger assemblies spoke most directly to the concerns of liberal Friends in the Northeast. Given the composition of the gathering, this was completely normal and understandable. But I found this pattern challenging.
At other Quaker Spring gatherings, I had always felt like I was part of a motley crew of spiritual misfits, finding our way together. I might not have been normal, but nobody was! This year, however, I often felt out of place. I knew many of those in attendance, including quite a few whom I consider personal friends, and yet I felt isolated, marginal and unneeded. Superfluous was the word that came most easily to me at one point, when trying to express how I was feeling. While I was genuinely glad for the opportunity that this gathering provided for so many Friends from the Northeastern US to gather and listen to Christ together, something was holding me back from participating fully.
Having had this experience, I was touched to read a blog post from another Quaker Spring participant, Joanna Hoyt, describing her own struggle to fit in – not just at Quaker Spring, but in the Religious Society of Friends in general. She reflects on the questions that had been occupying her thoughts: Who are my people? Where do I belong? Where am I accepted? What practices can I accept? After her experience at Quaker Spring, she concludes that these may not be the right questions at all. Instead, she feels drawn into the living experience of God in community, showing love and listening deeply to others.
I feel grateful for Joanna’s reflections. They help me to clarify at least part of what I was struggling with during my time at Quaker Spring. The question I was asking myself at Quaker Spring this year – Is this my people? – was not the real question. Rather, the deeper question was: With whom is God calling me to dwell?
This feeling of being superfluous, of being out of place at Quaker Spring, was accompanied by an intense drawing to return home to Washington, DC. I could feel it, deep in my bones, that the work God has for me is found in the daily relationships and spiritual community that I am developing in my neighborhood, city and region. I have no doubt that God used this year’s Quaker Spring to advance his purposes in the lives of many, but I was being called elsewhere.
So, it seems I got the question wrong, too. Rather than wondering who my people are, there might be different, more edifying questions to consider: Who am I called to serve? Who is God sending me to dwell with? How is God placing me in relationship with others, and how can I open myself to being changed by those relationships? Rather than agonizing over who my people are, perhaps a better question is, Whose people am I?