At Walker Creek Ranch, a 1700-acre educational/retreat center near Petaluma in Marin County, around 330 Quakers have gathered this week for worship and business. Our mornings are spent in Bible study, worship, and worship sharing. "Meetings for worship on the occasion of business” were held in the afternoon. In the evenings there were discussion groups as well as opportunities for sing-a-longs, dancing, and other fun activities.
This is the first YM I’ve attended since my wife passed away. Last year I had to miss PYM for the first time in twenty years because of our cancer diagnosis. On Monday when I showed up at Walker Creek Ranch, I was warmly welcomed by Friends, many of whom knew my story and were surprised/pleased to see me. Throughout the week I have felt an outpouring of love and support from many Friends and am grateful to have PYM as my spiritual family.
I became a magnet for Friends who have had close encounters with mortality. I feel as if I have entered a new community, the society of “those who grieve” and are seeking to be blessed and comforted.
One Friend who is a Lesbian tearfully told me how her baby died several hours after birth, and what a devastating experience this had been for her spiritually and emotionally. A woman shared how her husband died of cancer six months after their wedding, and how painful it was to lose someone during the honeymoon period of their relationship. Another woman told of how agonizing it was to lose her husband after 30 years of marriage and how it utterly transformed her life. A gay man told me of the pain he felt when his lover died in 1985—a time when the AIDs epidemic in San Francisco killed thousands of people—including nearly 300 friends of his friends who died within a couple of years during this time of plague. A mother wept fresh tears recalling the death of her seven-year daughter four years ago due to leukemia. A woman in her fifties confessed that her boyfriend died in a boating accident thirty years ago when she was a college student and she suspected he may have committed suicide. She not only grieves his loss, but also feels responsible because that weekend she refused to go out with him because she needed some space in which to do her school work. As people shared their sorrows, and I listened as compassionately as I could, I realized how much grief people carry and how much they yearn for a blessing. Led to do what I could to help, I organized a “bereavement group” which met last night. Four people showed up and shared their experiences.
We ended our precious time of sharing with a time of prayer and a song (“Thank you for this healing day”). I also led them in a quick laughter yoga exercise. We parted feeling relieved and light-hearted.
After this encounter, I thought of the phrase that Handel’s Messiah uses to describe Jesus: “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” I like the phrase “acquainted with grief.” It implies that somehow we can befriend our grief and become intimate with these painful feelings. By doing so, we can experience a deeper communion and friendship with others.
The main issue addressed during this YM session was whether to hire a full-time youth coordinator. The young people of this YM feel it is important to have such a person to provide a high quality youth program. They worked hard to prepare a 120-page report addressing the concerns of adults regarding cost, safety, program content, goals, etc. Friends listened to a summary of the report, asked questions, made observations, and nearly came to unity in approving this proposal. One Friend strongly objected, however, and the final decision is being held over until Friday.
We also heard about the financial crisis that the American Friends Service Committee is undergoing. Like many nonprofits, the AFSC has suffered a great deal due to the meltdown of our economy. Because 30% of its income comes from bequests, and because donors have drastically cut back on their giving, AFSC is reducing its program budget by 50%. Shan Cretin and Laura Magnani, directors of the AFSC regional offices in the West, talked about how this cutback will affect their programs and movingly pleaded for the support of Friends.
Shan is shown here with a guitar she just made, and is very pleased with.
We heard a fascinating report from Rolene Walker, who has been walking from Tijuana to Santiago, Chile, sharing a message of environmentalism with Latin Americans. She found that many Latin Americans are more ecologically conscious than North Americans. Joe Morris (with whom I stayed in Morro Bay) gave a thoughtful report about the state of environmental concerns among Friends and urged us to follow the example of Elijah and listen to the "still, small voice" of God amidst the earthquakers, droughts, and storms of our current ecological crisis.
The Peace and Social Action Committee, of which I am a member, presented minutes on Afghanistan and health care. Friends quickly approved the minute opposing expansion of the war in Afghanistan (how could we not do so?), but we could not come to unity about the wording of the health care minute. This minute was held over until a later meeting. Last night we had a lively discussion of health care reform in which twenty friends took part, and a newly worded minute emerged.
I have had many meaningful discussions with Friends over the past few days, and I feel I am connecting with them in a new and deeper way in part because of the cancer journey I have undergone. I feel as I am entering a new phase in my spiritual life: I am finally becoming an elder.
During our plenary session, I shared with Friends an intimate “secret” about my spiritual life. I explained that just as I used to tell my wife how much I loved her, and how much I loved hearing the words “I love you” from her, I also tell God “I love you” many times a day. As Mother Teresa once observed, we were created to love and be loved. By expressing this love openly and often, we strengthen our connection with the One who created and sustains us.
Another insight I shared: Trained to think scientifically, we may imagine that the best way to know something or someone is to be objective and detached. But it is difficult truly to “know” a person if we are indifferent to him or her. To “know” a person, we must be able to feel love and empathy—to be in relationship. True love—the kind of love that sees both the weakness and the gifts inherent in the other—is also a way of knowing the other. God, the ultimate knower/lover, both loves and knows us, warts and all.
Here at our Quaker gathering, we provide each other with many opportunities to deepen our knowledge and love for one another. Especially helpful are our worship sharing sessions, in which Friends reflect on open-ended questions about their spiritual life. We listen to each other’s reflections without commenting or arguing; we give each other the precious gift of listening from their heart to whatever is shared with us. This can be a powerful and liberating spiritual practice.
Over thirty Friends attend Steve Matchett’s 6:30 AM Bible study, which is conducted in worship sharing fashion. Steve (shown here with Kathy Hyzy, editor of "The Western Friend") is clerk of the Friends Bulletin board.
Equally well attended has been a series of early morning lectures by Brian Vura-Weis on important figures of Quakerism, such as William Penn, Rufus Jones, Joel and Hannah Bean (the founders of unprogrammed Western Quakerism) and Ken and Elise Boulding, 20th century Quaker peace activists.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this YM, in spite of the damp, foggy weather. When we arrived, Joe Franko, our clerk, compared Yearly Meeting to “Brigadoon” in part because it magically appears each year, and in part because of a bag piper who played in the background. Even more Scottish were the fogs that rolled over the hills and into our valley, bringing a chill to the bones and the need to huddle together for warmth, preferably over a cup of hot tea or coffee. I am glad that I brought my Northern Californian accoutrements—a thermal t-shirt, sweat shirt, clunky shoes, and an extra “blankie.”
Thank you, loving and gracious God, for giving me everything I need for my comfort and peace among these dearly beloved Friends.