Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Travels in the Ministry in the Spirit of John Woolman

I hope to travel extensively in the ministry this summer in order to attend Intermountain Yearly Meeting in June, the FGC Gathering in July, and then Pacific Yearly Meeting in late July and early August. At each of these gatherings I will be speaking about the interfaith movement and the Parliament of the World's Religions. I expect to travel for around six or seven weeks, visiting Friends along the way. This is an old Quaker practice which I describe in this article, "Travels in the Ministry in the Spirit of John Woolman."


“Having been some time under a religious concern to prepare for crossing the seas in order to visit Friends in the northern parts of England, and more particularly in Yorkshire, after weighty consideration I thought it expedient to inform Friends at our monthly meeting at Burlington of it, who, having unity with me therein, gave me a certificate. And I afterwards communicated the same to our quarterly meeting, and they likewise certified their concurrence. Some time after, at the General Spring Meeting of Ministers and Elders, I thought it my duty to acquaint them with the religious exercise which attended my mind, with which they likewise signified their unity by a certificate, dated the 24th of third month, 1772, directed to Friends in Great Britain.”—John Woolman.

According to Friends General Conference’s traveling ministries website, “Traveling ministry was an intrinsic part of the Religious Society of Friends from early times until recent history.” It has long been a custom of Friends to seek a travel minute (what Woolman calls a “certificate”) from their Meeting when they feel a leading to travel in the ministry under the weight of a religious concern.

I followed this custom when I felt led to go to Australia to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions and Australia Yearly Meeting in December, 2009. I first went to my monthly meeting to seek their discernment. After prayerful discussion, Santa Monica Friends united with my concern, and our clerk wrote a travel minute affirming my call to this ministry. I then brought my concern to Southern California Quarterly Meeting (SCQM) where it was considered and another traveling minute approved. SCQM’s minute read: “We support Anthony’s effort to encourage Quaker involvement in the interfaith movement to promote peace, justice, and deeper spiritual understanding—what Douglas Steere called ‘mutual irradiation.’”

It’s nice to have such certification, but it also takes a lot of time and trouble. So the question arises: why bother? Why seek the support of Meeting when you have a concern?

As I understand it, the goal of our work and our life together as Friends is twofold: first, to empower each of us to follow the way or the will of the Divine (as we understand it, to the best of our limited ability); and second, to build a community of faith based on mutual love and respect. By going to our Meeting for its discernment, we show respect by seeking its advice and wisdom. By sharing out concern with our Meeting, we also give it an opportunity to provide its loving support and to be part of this Divine leading. This can be a great blessing for all concerned.
Sometimes it becomes clear, however, that our concern is not shared by the Meeting, at least not at first. This can be a painful experience, but it can also be very helpful. It may mean we need to reconsider (or as we Friends say, “season”) our concern, or pursue it as an individual matter, apart from our Meeting. It might also mean we need to reflect more deeply on what is motivating us, and what is causing others to feel a reluctance to offer support. Are we too pushy, too self-righteous? Is there an element of ego or insensitivity in our pursuit of this concern? Is the time not yet ripe for moving forward? Resistance can be very instructive and can help us to see our concern in a new light, from another’s viewpoint.

On the other hand, Meetings can be enthusiastic about a leading and can offer support either in the form of prayer or of funding. My Meeting has a fund for sojourning Friends that has been enormously helpful when members of our Meeting have felt led to travel in the ministry.
When Friends travel with a minute of support, the nature of the travel changes. We can’t help being aware that we are representing not only ourselves, but also those who have blessed us with their support. In my case, I had the blessing not only of my Monthly and Quarterly Meeting, but also of the Christian Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference and Quaker Earthcare Witness, the Quaker environmental organization. All of these groups had minuted their support for my travels, so I felt obliged to do my best to represent them as best as I could. This was not as burdensome as it might seem. Their support reminded me that I was not alone, that I was surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who cared about me and the concern I was carrying. Remembering this helped me in difficult times when I felt lonely or just plain tired.

It was customary for Friends traveling in the ministry to have a companion or elder travel with them. I can appreciate the wisdom and value of this custom after traveling for six weeks in a country with a culture and history quite different from what I am accustomed to. Not having a travel companion, I am grateful to Skype (the internet equivalent of the Holy Spirit) and to Friends in the United States who served as my elders and helped me through some challenging times.

While traveling in Australia, I gave presentations at monthly meetings in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, and Adelaide, where I attended Australia Yearly Meeting. Everywhere I went, I presented my travel minute and it was signed by a clerk. When I returned to the States, I shared these letters with Friends so that they could feel connected with Friends in Australia.
Those who would like to learn more about my travels to Australia and the Parliament of the World’s Religions can read my article “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth” at the Quaker Universalist website: http://www.universalistfriends.org/uf051.html#Manousos. Suffice to say, it was a profound and life-changing experience to go to the Parliament and spend a week among 6,500 spiritual leaders from every religion imaginable, and from around the world, many of whom share our Quaker values and concerns about peace, justice, and the environment. It was energizing to see that the interfaith movement is a global phenomenon with the potential for changing the religious culture of the world in significant ways.

One of the crucial lessons of the 21st century is that if we don’t want the world to be dominated by religious fanatics and militarists, we must stand in solidarity with other people of faith concerned with justice and peace. That’s why I was pleased by FCNL’s recent epistle “Encouraging Quaker Engagement with American Muslims” (Nov. 2009, published in the Jan/Feb 2010 Newsletter). I would urge Friends to go further than this epistle recommends, however. We need to “stand together to practice equality and justice” not only with Muslims, but also with Bahais, Jews, Buddhists, Sihks, and others. This is what the interfaith movement is all about!

I continue to feel led to travel in the ministry to share my concern about the interfaith movement. This summer I plan to go to various Yearly Meetings and to the Friends General Conference Gathering to give presentations. Because this concern is ongoing, I am bringing this concern to Pacific Yearly Meeting and asking for its support.
Traveling in the ministry can be a deeply enriching experience for all concerned. I am indebted to Australian Friends for sharing their wisdom and insight with me as I did my best to share my concern with them. I resonate with the words of John Woolman who understood that when we travel in the ministry, we learn as well as teach:

“A concern arose. that I might feel and understand their life and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.”

It is my hope that I will continue to travel in the spirit of John Wooman, and that other Friends will feel led to do likewise.


Friends General Conference has a traveling ministry program. Those who would like to learn more should check out: http://www.fgcquaker.org/traveling/home

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