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.