Monday, April 4, 2011

The Fragmentation of Friends?

I’ve been noticing a trend recently in Quakerism. Consider these:
• Last summer at a Yearly Meeting gathering, I heard a presenter talk about one Friends organization that has reduced programming by 50% while keeping pensions 100% funded
• A high-tuition Friends School and its sponsor Meeting are considering separating over concerns of the tuition not in-line with Quaker values, and concern about what it is that makes the school “Quaker”
• A Yearly Meeting’s budget proposal that would eliminate financial support for Young Adult Friends (YAFs) programming and support. As a result, young Friends and young-oriented Friends are passing around a petition of support, but using words like “organizing” and “standing in solidarity with YAF’s”.

Each one of these issues, in a vacuum, is of concern. In each case, I could easily take sides and say “sure, people who have worked all these years deserve their pensions, and yes, high-tuitions smack of greed and reek of arrogance and privilege, and no doubt we should support YAF’s as they are our future”. But when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on here, and then look at the larger world, I see a pattern emerging among Friends that is immensely disturbing to me. There seems to be a drawing of lines along wealth and generations that is somewhat convoluted, and all are driven by the current economy. But rather than coming together, we seem to be pulling ourselves apart at a time when we need each other the most. I would love to pose this: We are in a deep economic hole as a result of at least 30 (and more likely 60) years of punting on big issues, and now the chickens have come home to roost. The whole country (as well as other countries) is facing the same thing, and we Friends are no exception. Can Friends be truly prophetic, embracing the community as one entity not segregated or intimidated by generational divides (or any other divides for that matter) in dealing with these big issues? Basically, to use a phrase from a former intern, “Can we all just put on our big-kid panties, hold each other’s truths, while considering what we all need to give up so that our future is bright and our presence is felt”? This would mean that we should perhaps drop all long-standing committees (on race, glbt, Indian, environment) that tend to pull us apart more than bring us together, and reconsider where we see ourselves in the world. We will also need to put our egos aside and accept that, no matter where we fall in the generations, “it’s not about us”.

So, to go back to the three bullets above as an example, I propose the following questions:
• How can we use the unexpected drop in income to best serve the communities we have made commitments to (social justice requires a long-term commitment) while honoring our promise to our retirees and honoring the spirit of their work that only lives in the future through the next generation of workers (most-likely to be YAF’s). I would hope that some of the 100% pensioners might be willing to give up some of the pension to invest in the future, which would also be a wonderful Testimony to Simplicity, Integrity and Equality.
• Has anyone asked the students what it means to them to be at a Quaker School, regardless of the tuition? It’s the parents who have the wealth, not the kids, but it is the kids who will inherit the wealth. Shouldn’t we welcome the opportunity to work with these schools to nurture Quakerism – not as a political value or a practice of silent worship, but as a deeply committed lifestyle that promotes peace and justice, including economic equality? I’m not sure we help this effort by arrogantly looking down on the tuition or the ego-driven life to get into the best school and to be a huge success.
• To the YAF’s: How is “A movement of Solidarity” nurturing compassion and understanding? Does the loss of this position mean you can’t carry on? I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you are all adults now. You’re not disenfranchised voters or exploited and abused laborers. Yes, your concerns need to be weighed and considered by the whole body (that includes you), but a “movement of Solidarity” seems a little dramatic to me. I have to say that even embracing “YAF” as a separate category has added to a “separateness”, and the elders have certainly played along (or lead? I’m not sure which came first). At the same time, I do know that the current structure of much of Friends is not particularly welcoming of new ideas or thought.

I think these are extraordinary times. As these events unfold, my hope is that we can put our reactivity aside and see that we are all in this together. Let's recognize the challenges and conflicts, and come together rather than choose sides. We desperately need the vision, creativity and energy of all for whom that is a gift (most often the youthful ones), and we need the wisdom that can bring the learnings of the past to the present but not be constricted by past – and often false – visions of how things were. But we need these to make up one body, not separate bodies.

I am sure that this may very-well offend people who I deeply admire for their passion and work as humans and as Friends, so please know that this in no way is meant to cause any. I am really wondering if we Friends can take to heart that we all need each other to have a future; divisions and exclusions of any kinds, whether it is walking away from tables of people with whom we disagree, or focusing on funding only as the issue that matters seems to be little more than a lost opportunity for us to really practice our faith.


Jade said...

In my experience, where there are divisions and conflict, there is a call from the Spirit to go deeper. We can't turn away from conflict because it is often a sign of something we've already been neglecting. But I think we can enter into it from a place of love, and true gratitude for the people God has given us. How has God used conflict in our lives and community?

Ken Maher said...

Friend Brad Ogilvie asks this question: "Can Friends be truly prophetic, embracing the community as one entity not segregated or intimidated by generational divides (or any other divides for that matter) in dealing with these big issues?" We've been asking ourselves this question for well over a century, haven't we? erhaps it's the wrong one to ask, since it doesn't appear that we're any closer to an answer today than we were, say, a century ago. And I don't see committees on race, LGBTQ interests, Native American concerns, or the environment as pulling us apart, any more than AFSC did when it was organized to feed starving children in Europe after WWI. These committees, rather than being ego trips, as Friend Brad suggests, offer us opportunities that speak to our condition as individuals without betraying Friends' testimonies.
His suggestions for the three examples he cites may be useful. Since I'm not directly involved in any of those particular problems, I can't say. However, I do believe that the questions he raises have not borne fruitful answers in the past, so perhaps it's time for some new ones. Any other suggestions, Friends?

Alice said...

I think the questions Brad posed are well worth considering, especially as re-framed by Jade. (How has God used conflict in our lives and community?) I think I understand why Brad reacts negatively to the ideas of "solidarity" and "petitions". Part of the problem is the choice of words, and we need to listen more deeply. In haste, people sometimes uncritically pick up the words and tools (like petitions) that are "lying around", that are in common worldly use. What Young Friends and YAFs mean by them may be different or deeper, and we need to work together in the Spirit to understand the seemingly mundane business of budget allocation and to move forward in the Light.

(Oh my, here I am using Quaker cliches to critique "worldly language". Not sure this moves things forward...)

Steven Davison said...

These three problems all have in common the difficulty of governing Quaker institutions in the midst of a hyper-capitalist culture, especially during times of economic crisis. Capitalist culture always disfigures and tries to suffocate gift-based economies like religious institutions, nonprofits and the arts. In the face of these pressures, these institutions are inevitably forced to accommodate market forces to some degree in order to survive and these necessary compromises inevitably diminish both their outward and material mission and their inward spiritual vitality. This is a tragedy, not a fault.

To some degree, the problem also arises from the professionalization of Quaker service. These institutions have paid staff and it often is in the spiritual and material lives of these people that the friction between gift-based and market economies takes place. The market will not relent. The only way to keep these institutions whole in their current forms is to give more.

The only other alternative is to completely reconfigure the services. Institutions will always fight to survive. So a radical new vision of how to educate or serve the members of a yearly meeting will almost surely come from some other place. Usually, it comes from those who suffer from lack of services and yet have the resources needed to wage a revolution. Looked at it this way, cutting YAF program support, for instance, might be just what we need. That depends on young adult Friends.

George Fox was himself a young adult when he found that no institutions spoke to his condition. He was led to lead a revolution. He turned inward in his search, after looking outward to the institutions around him for what he sought.

I think it was Walter Brueggemann who said that lamentation is the beginning of prophecy. When those who suffer cry out, they have recognized their condition. Their desperation and yearning opens them to revelation. Are we Quakers beginning to suffer? Are these cries mere whining, or true lamentation?

Ken Maher said...

Right on, Friend Alice! (How's that for a nonQuaker cliché?)

Friend Steven, you're so right about undiluted capitalism and the overprofessionalization of service.
We can see how this latter problem has created havoc on an even more pervasive scale in education.

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Thank you all for the comments to help clarify. About Ken's comments on the various "identity/topic" committees, my comments come from the experience of clerking BYM Peace and Social Concerns Committees, and seeing little opening or receptivity for bringing the committees together to share wisdom and to look at the common ground (such as economic justice/equality) that pervades all these issues, so as a collective, I think we are operating at less-than rather than greater-than the sum of our parts. I think there is a move away from identity politics, but there is also a huge resistance to change.

Again, thanks, all for the comments.

Ken Maher said...

Brad, you're quite right about social justice turfing among Friends. When I first came to Friends over 40 years ago, the Buffalo (NY) Meeting was passing on its housing equality work to a spinoff group still in the Meeting house and gearing up for a community-wide draft counseling center there. Everyone in the Meeting had their own individual concerns, but the Meeting as a whole was able to focus most of its energies on one major effort at a time. Sadly, Friends seem to be unable to do that these days.

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

I think this somehow fits with some of what Steven is saying (I saw this on an e-mail this morning): "You only have power over people so long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything he's no longer in your power --he's free again." -Alexander Solzhenitsyn

wcandler1 said...

Will said:
Clearly these are noteworthy observations. I don’t see so clearly the divisiveness of these decisions, but it does prompt a question: Did Friends understand what they were doing? (Quite possibly yes, but it is not transparent.)

• Last summer at a Yearly Meeting gathering, I heard a presenter talk about one Friends organization that has reduced programming by 50% while keeping pensions 100% funded

Question: They kept pensions 100% funded (and I should hope so too! There is no point in promising pensions you will not be able to pay!) , but did they change staffing levels or levels of promised pensions? If the program was halved, but staffing unchanged, this sounds uncomfortably bureaucratic.

• A high-tuition Friends School and its sponsor Meeting are considering separating over concerns of the tuition not in-line with Quaker values, and concern about what it is that makes the school “Quaker”.

Question: What is the point in running a Quaker school that Quakers cannot afford to attend? It seems that Quakers do know how to run good schools (or is it that with per capita costs three or four times what the state system gets by on, there had better be a difference?)

What is underlying the “concerns of the tuition not in-line with Quaker values”? Who set the tuition? If the answer is “The Board of the School that no longer has significant Quaker representation”, then beyond history, to what extent is it a Quaker school? What would “tuition in line with Quaker values” look like? If tuition were cut, what expenses should be reduced?

If a better education is being provided and is widely recognized, then high fees may be necessary to equate applications and places, but much of this tuition should be used to provide scholarships to enable Quaker children to attend Not least because hopefully the children of Friends will affect how the student body conducts itself.

• A Yearly Meeting’s budget proposal that would eliminate financial support for Young Adult Friends (YAFs) programming and support. As a result, young Friends and young-oriented Friends are passing around a petition of support, but using words like “organizing” and “standing in solidarity with YAF’s”.

The implication seems to be that the budget proposal was made without consulting YAFs? This is just poor Quaker process. But equally ‘ “organizing” and “standing in solidarity with YAF’s”’ is not good Quaker process; a better response would be for YAF to (a) consider if they really need their existing budget, (b) whether they themselves could fund more of it, and (c) explain to yearly meeting what will be lost as a result of the reduced budget.

Comrade Kevin said...

In my own meeting, YAF segmentation from the rest of the meeting developed when YAFs were not given easy access to greater meeting functions, nor really even acknowledged. So it wasn't so much a construct of vanity or ego as it was necessity.

The division still exists to this day, and I would argue that the YAF group has experienced more robust growth than the rest of the meeting. And there is a sense of greater cohesion and a spirit of genuine love and concern not always present elsewhere.

Building bridges of common purpose and spirit is still my foremost ambition, but it takes far longer than I would have ever thought. Naturally, the character of each meeting is different, but it has taken upwards of two years to make serious inroads with older adults, when the YAF group took only months to become very tight-knit.

Magdalene said...

Hello Friend Brad,
I am entirely in accord with the overall message of this post. However, I am discomforted by your specific examples regarding identity-based committees and the YAF response to PYM. Because I know you personally, I can take for granted your good intentions, but I am concerned that the specifics of your post have the potential to be more divisive than unifying, just as your are suggesting we avoid.

In terms of the identity-based committees and subgroups, all the one's you mentioned happen to be groups and issues that are usually marginalized and made invisible (and therefore more disempowered) in the wider society and in our predominantly white, middle-class, hetero, middle-aged faith community. It is my understanding that the systems of oppression that we are all living in are creating such divisions among us, whereas groups such as this are seeking to empower these often invisible groups so that there can be greater unity, greater equality, greater overall wisdom through our plurality. I believe that doing away with groups such as these will only renew their invisibility and marginalization, which we've been working to overcome for decades (/centuries).

As for the YAFs standing in solidarity with one another, I feel deeply troubled at the way our words seem to have been taken out of context. I hope my peers will approve if I speak as a part of this group in reporting that although I am an adult--as you point out--I have experienced voicelessness and invisibility within our meeting communities. I have experienced an overall blind eye cast on my particular experience and how it makes me different from the usual middle-class, established, middle aged friend. Having solidarity from other younger friends and adults that are attuned to our particular needs and gifts has done nothing less than kept me in this religion that has at times felt hostile and irrelevant. Solidarity is the opposite of division.

Now, before anyone else comments on the YAF's gathering of momentum, please know that this momentum has been initiated by a number of the Friends that I consider some of the most powerful elders and ministers of our times, so let us have faith in their message. Furthermore, these Friends have undergone more intentional and long-term training in quaker process and practice than the VAST majority of members of our community of liberal east coast Friends, so let us have faith in their process. I share worship and business community with many of these Friends and have experienced such faithful laboring and gentle attendance of the inward Spirit that it has actually spoiled me, because I thought all Quakers worked like this! I can assure you, that anything that comes out of this group will be with rendered with the utmost love, tenderness, and openness-- including openness to eldering voices who are truly grounded in Spirit. That said, I would like to post the minute to PYM in its entirety, so ya'll can see for your own eyes what exactly we're standing in solidarity with, and that we are not seeking divisiveness, but vitality.

YAF Working Group Minute of Concern:

Thank you.
Love and Faith,

PS since language was mentioned earlier, I'm sure my antiquated Quaker language will be noted (and I hope forgiven) but after studying Quakerism and reading a lot of oldschool Quaker crap, I can't help it! Besides, THIS is the newest chapter in our history of published dialectics. Cool!

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Hey Magdalene; Thanks for the comments. Yes solidarity can bring unity, but it also brings exclusion. I have pondered, for example, how the solidarity of YAF's is defined, and how YAF is defined. Is it an age range? a shared vision? A shared spirituality? A shared commitment and passion? A shared lament? I too have felt neglected, ignored, dismissed. I've felt it from elders, peers, and youth (less-so with this group, thankfully). I'm a "tweener" (by age, the very tale end of boomers, but more of a gen-xer by identification with experiences, but also with identity). I find my greatest task is to listen, rather than be listened to (ala Prayer of St. Francis).

I do find it interesting how much people are focusing on and running to defend the "Save the YAF's" (some even have posted about saving Young Friends" or even PYM). I personally find that real movements don't have paid staff - they are a passion.

As for the committees, my experience is that many are rigid and, by focusing on either who one sleeps with or the color of the skin, we sidestep the real egregious injustices (i.e. economic injustice). Often these committees exist because they have existed, neglecting cultural changes. In other cases, they exist because previous generations still feel hurt, and the committees seek to heal, but also continue to demonize the "other" despite the fact that the world has changed phenomenally. In committees of Indian, racism, and glbt, for example, a common issue might be access to education for a more secure future. The separation of the committees does not allow for the common-ground work to happen. I think we are functioning as less than the sum of our parts, and stuck in a discernment process disconnected from what is on the ground.

Wow, way too much here.

Peace, and let's carry forward.


Raye said...

Thanks for your post. What does "holding each others' truths" mean?

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Ruth - I think, for me, it really means listening with authenticity and appreciation that what one says, and what one believes, is his/her truth and is to be valued, even though it may not be what I believe, and that the capital T Truth is made up of all our small t truths.

Anonymous said...

Friend speaks my mind. Fragmentation is a natural phase of growth in the life cycle of organizations. We are now experiencing a growth spurt due to new technology in communication...
Perhaps the recent mention of Quakers on the Colbert Show will bring new seekers to Friends...will we welcome them?
An influx of new ideas and energy is just what the Society needs.