As a first-time attender of Canadian Yearly Meeting, I’ve been informed several times that a week full of Quakers can be overwhelming and that clearness committees are available to help. Wow! Where was that warning when I signed up? So far I’ve experienced no need for therapy. Instead, I’ve met wonderfully friendly and welcoming people. Perhaps a more appropriate disclaimer could have been: WARNING Quakers may be friendly and gatherings might be addictive.
A tip for those who are new, the meeting for first-timers was very helpful and reassuring. It was nice to hear how others came to Friends and to know I was not alone.
One thing that is a bit of a challenge is understanding Quakerese. There are many phrases and acronyms that leave me scratching my head. I thought Quakers were known for plain speaking? While acronyms can be quicker for those in the know, they can also be barriers that keep newcomers and inquirers from feeling welcome. I keep feeling that there’s a secret playbook I’m not yet privy to.
It’s early days, but I’m still excited to be here and looking forward to learning more about Spirit and continuing to get to know fellow Quakers and how the business of the yearly meeting is conducted.
group photo on our last day together. The pink things are journals that we wrote as a group during the experience, so treasured!
In 2002, I flew to Baltimore, Maryland to join my fellow pilgrims for the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage (QYP). From there, all 25 Young Friends would begin our journey, retracing George Fox’s 17th-century footsteps in the United States. While on my pilgrimage, I tried to journal every day to capture what an amazing time I had during that month. Some of my (deeper) journal extracts from that time formed the basis of my reports back to the Canadian Friend and my meeting. They still speak to me, so I’d like to include them here.
digging into the costume bin at Celo community in North Carolina
“I don’t know which thought is scarier: that I’ll never be able to return to my old life or that idea that I could, thus forgetting my experiences.” (August 14th, 2002)
“I’ve never seen fireflies before- we were catching them my first night here. When you look up at the sky, it’s impossible to tell the shooting stars from the fireflies, so I make a wish on both. You can never have too many wishes.” (July 12th, 2002/August 8th, 2002)
“I think I have mostly figured out why I hesitate to call myself a Christian. The word now has a negative connotation because people have done so many evil things in the name of Christ, quite literally giving Christians a bad name.” (August 12th, 2002)
work project sanding doors
“God is that which is good within us all. God is not some grey-haired old man up in the sky watching over us. God is the spirit that prompts right decisions, the space within us filled with love for all the things around us. And God is all around us- in the sunset, the frog and the leaves- all that is beautiful and necessary. But all this is just the tiniest portion of God’s power, mercy and love for us all.” (July 19th, 2002)
When I wrote my report after the pilgrimage, I described it as a “warmth in the pit of my stomach.” Like all strongly emotional events, I felt it in my gut. Looking back, the whole month seems to glow with a special light.
I wish I could say, six and a half years later, that I have changed as much as I thought I would. I already knew then that Quakerism was home and that Quakers were my family, but I have yet to find what I’m looking for in meeting for worship (likely because I rarely attend) and am therefore still not an official member.
canoeing in Merchants Millpond, North Carolina
However, I do still talk to some of my fellow pilgrims. We used to keep in touch via a MSN Groups website, which we only recently let lapse in favour of Facebook. Each pilgrim stands out clearly in my mind, their energies fuelling a diverse group of people that I was honoured to travel with.
It wasn’t just the other pilgrims that made an impression on me. For unprogrammed Young Friends, which we all were except for one semi-programmed North Carolinian pilgrim, it was a real challenge for me to connect with the more “churchy” Friends meetings. To quote my 2002 report, “I can see that a faith that cannot be questioned or challenged is a faith that is weak. I learned that sometimes we have to accept things without understanding them, but that we should never accept things without question. I learned that Quakerism is much bigger than my former vision of it. Programmed meetings with a much more Christocentric and politically conservative views flourish in the states and challenge me to figure out what it is that links Quakers beyond our roots. I still don’t know the answer to that one. I have more clearly defined my perception of God, as well as realizing that God defies definition by my limited comprehension. I’m still challenged by the silence- so often I find it filled with my own worries and insecurities instead of the calming presence of God, but I do feel the importance of seeking that presence in my life.”
North Carolina in the summer is hot and muggy! We all had our feet in buckets
This hasn’t changed. I wish I could explore these types of Quaker meetings again, as I found that discovering what religious practices simply feel wrong to me are often the best way to find out where I fit in our diverse, challenging, wonderful Quaker family. In some ways, I guess the pilgrimage never truly ends: the road simply changes.
By Nori Sinclair
January 12, 2009
2012 update: I know that the pilgrimage is still a strong and living memory for me because almost ten years later, reading over what I wrote during and following the pilgrimage speaks to me as strongly as ever. Since I wrote this 2009 piece, I have found a home in a Quaker meeting, the one I was born into in 1984 – Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting in Victoria. It intrigues me that for a faith so tied to people and their collective worship rather than church buildings, I can be so connected to a place, the almost century-old Fern Street Meeting House. It has my childhood footprints in clay on the wall and has a wooden floor and tall windows, all steeped in the weighty and peaceful spirit of decades of worship. After all the wanderings of the pilgrimage, all the testing and thinking it allowed me to do, it sometimes surprises me that I ended up right back in the same place where I started. The place is the same, but I am different.
I’ve asked Friends who have had the opportunity to experience different Quaker Institutions, events or activities to share about their experiences of them. If you have an experience to share, please don’t hesitate to contact me. -KM
Peter Stevenson about his experience with Earlham College
When I was in high school and visiting colleges, there were two things that impressed me about Earlham. The first was that I felt able and comfortable discussing spiritual discernment with the admissions staff. This was important to me because I knew that I would be basing my choice of colleges on Leading. The second thing that impressed me was that there seemed to be more of a sense of peace than the other colleges that I visited.
I ended up attending Earlham College for two years. During that time, I was really able to immerse myself in Quakerism. Richmond, IN is the home of three Friends meetings (twoprogrammed, one unprogrammed), the headquarters of Friends United Meeting, Earlham College, and Earlham School of Religion. Earlham College also has one of the most comprehensive Quaker libraries in the world. This experience helped me to deepen my connection to Quakerism at both an intellectual and a spiritual level.
However, I left Earlham College because it was no longer working for me. Perhaps the biggest challenge of Earlham is integrating its identity as a Quaker institution and its identity as a liberal arts college. Often what happens is that its Quaker values become compromised as it tries to make sure that it is up to par with its “peer colleges”. Earlham, and other American liberal arts colleges, are set up to help young people transition from living at home and going to high school to living independently and having a middle-class job. I was in a situation where the independence that I was needing, living off-campus with my then-girlfriend, Jesse, was not available to me. I was also feeling that the workload that was expected of us was not compatible with my needs for simplicity, and I was not able to attend Earlham part-time.
There is a lot more that I could say; if anyone has any specific questions, I would be happy to answer them.