By Valerie Hurwitz
On Saturday, February 26, 2011, the Festival of Friends took place at First Friends Meeting House in Richmond, IN. These gatherings began a year ago with the purpose of allowing Friends from different yearly meetings to gathering and worship together. There are no business sessions and no agenda, other than to enjoy each other’s company. The gathering on Saturday night drew Friends from Western Yearly Meeting (FUM), Indiana Yearly Meeting (FUM), and Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting (FGC). Though this is the first time the Festival of Friends is in Richmond, it took place last summer and the winter before at Indianapolis First Friends.
I was there ostensibly as the choir director. I usually direct the West Richmond Friends choir, and we rehearsed with the First Friends (Richmond) choir to sing two songs during the worship service. Worship began with singing hymns, and then a member of the planning committee explained what he hopes is accomplished by these gatherings. As some of the local Yearly Meetings have experienced tension lately, a group of Indiana Friends decided to plan these gatherings to build connections and understanding between meetings.
After a choir piece, ESR students Emma Condori and Evelyn Jadin got up to speak about the book Spirit Rising. Spirit Rising is a collection of writing and visual art by young Quakers from across the world and across the theological spectrum of Friends. Evelyn and Emma have been involved as editors in this project, and shared some common themes. They spoke of the work young Friends have done in gathering together, listening to each other, looking for what they have in common, and trying to better understand their theological differences. I would encourage you to read this book!
One of the interesting parts about their talk was that much of their audience was *ahem* an older generation of Quakerism. Did this older generation try to reach across branches of Quakerism and bridge theological and liturgical differences? What happened? Are projects like the worldwide YAF gatherings (in England in 2005, Richmond, Indiana in 2008, and Wichita, Kansas in 2010) merely a reflection of youthful idealism, or can they create a convergent Quakerism for the twenty-first century? What does that convergent Quakerism look like? These questions rose up during the open worship that followed. Several spoke about wanting to share their stories with Young Adult Friends, and the difficulties and hurt that some carry from trying to reach across boundaries in their own time. Open worship ended, to me, on a meaningful note: “Who are we to tell Young Adult Friends that they won’t be able to form and nurture these connections? Maybe they will.”
In every organization and every community, there is a natural and healthy balancing act between wanting to keeps things the way they are and wanting to change and try new things. Change for the sake of change is as damaging as just wanting to keep things the way they’ve always been. One of the tasks of leadership is to understand what to keep and what to change. This is not a unitary process, as the same thing may be kept in one setting and changed in another, and different leaders may honestly disagree.
Worship was followed by a meal and then a concert by the Earlham College Gospel Revelations choir. Katie Terrell, communications editor of Quaker Life magazine, brought copies of Spirit Rising to sell, and Paulette Meier (from Cincinnati and a member of Ohio Valley YM) brought CDs of her music (http://www.lessonsongs.com/). Connections, in my opinion, are best formed over meals.
Quakerism is not my faith tradition, and for those of you that do not have a Quaker background, some of the above might have looked like a jumbled alphabet soup (FGC? FUM?). Suffice it to say that there are different branches of Quakerism that include a range of worship practices and theological views. Like the person at the family reunion that you look at and question, “Am I really related to this person?”, the different branches of Quakerism sometimes look at one another in confusion, thinking “Do we really share theological DNA?” What I admire about Quakers is that there is some historical sense of what it means to be Quaker, aided by the small size of the community in comparison to mainline Protestant denominations. In one sense, it may seem like a tenuous tie that different branches of Quakerism claim the same first generation of ministers, writers, and evangelizers, but in another sense that is an enormous connection.
I am curious to hear the thoughts of others: For anyone else who was at the Festival of Friends, what was striking to you about the gathering? Do you have any thoughts about Spirit Rising? Do you think that modern convergent Quakerism is something new and different? What does a convergent Quakerism look like? How do we balance youthful idealism and energy with the knowledge that comes with experience? Could you imagine an event like this in your local area?Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.