I recently spent several days at the annual sessions of the Religious Society of Friends in New England. Think of it as a Quaker conference, where a good sound system is necessary even though hours at a time are spent in silence. It was the 350th year that New England Quakers had gathered in this manner, and often the gathering had been held, as it was this year, in Rhode Island.
The theme was Jubilee. Friends were asked to approve all agenda items together, with minimal discussion, so that the bulk of our time together could be spent waiting to hear God’s call for our witness in the world. This required an incredible amount of trust, but despite some hesitation, the business was completed quickly and we began to wait.
Some Quakers would say it’s not possible to explain what happens in the silent worship we share. Often, silence was interrupted by sounds of fidgeting and shifting, but every so often, this white noise would cease as the silence grew palpably thick.
As we listened to one another and to God, several people who stood to offer spoken messages remembered our rich and tangled history that includes witness against slavery, prison reform, caring for the mentally and physically ill, resisting all forms of war, as well as the schisms that occurred when we disagreed and the reconciliations when we eventually forgave one another. Others made suggestions about eating simple meals, driving less and bicycling more, addressing the homophobia that exists even amidst Friends. We agreed that these certainly were noble undertakings, but the witness that was brewing required much more. So we continued to wait.
Between our large gathered periods of worship, small groups met to talk about the experiences throughout the week. The group I had been assigned to was incredibly diverse, more so than I’d ever before experienced in this sort of intimate setting. The group included a woman with a twitch that caused her teeth to gnash and her arms to spasm and beat at her body uncontrollably and a college-aged man with Asperger’s Syndrome who had strong interests in political regimes and what he called “the Hacker’s Code”, which he said helped him order his life. As group members introduced themselves, he interrupted and asked the woman why she twitched like that. She explained tenderly that she had twitched for a long time, and there was nothing she could do to fix it and that he shouldn’t be afraid. He nodded, and I felt less afraid of her and him. Then we talked together about what it means to help people, and we reflected on the story of the Good Samaritan.
I wish I could report that at the halfway point of the annual sessions — when I had to depart — we were onto something tangible. There would be another three days of sessions and silent waiting after I left. Perhaps after another eight hours of waiting in worship, New England Quakers would pinpoint God’s call, but I can only speak for myself.
What stands out from my three days at the Quaker conference is that in the end, I hugged the woman with the twitch. I became Facebook friends with the man who lives with Asperger’s and the Hacker’s Code, and he sends me messages suggesting titles of his favorite science fiction novels. While I can’t say what, exactly, my faith community’s witness is to this complicated, hodgepodge mess of a world, I expect that the hug and the accepted friend request have something to do with it. I expect that learning to see one another without the lenses of political alignment, or hip-ness, or mental agility, or physique helps us to see one another as God does, and brings witness of the Holy Spirit into the world. So can bicycling. And meals of beans and rice. And overcoming phobias of all kinds with strange and utterly shocking expressions of love.
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