Saturday, August 17, 2019

Pacific Yearly Meeting is on the endangered species list. Can it be saved?

As a Quaker peace and justice advocate I went to this year's Pacific Yearly Meeting   (our annual  Quaker gathering) with mixed feelings and very low expectations since PYM has been silent on peace and social justice concerns for the past four years and has been unwilling to make any public statement that challenges the Trump regime and its manifold and manifest threats to our democracy and our planet. PYM is a good example of what Dr. King meant when he said: "Our lives begin to die the day we become silent about things that matter."

Reading the public statements of  this year's Pacific Yearly Meeting, like the epistle, you'd have no idea that the world is imperiled by the rise of authoritarianism, racism and militarism--the dangerous isms that Friends seem to be afraid even to name. Even though 2019 has been the hottest year on record, there's no mention of climate disruption, which is sad because PYM was the birthplace of the Quaker environmental movement thirty some years ago. Now our Unity with Nature Committee is on life support, unable to function. Thankfully, a few Friends are trying to resuscitate it.
David Johnson

David Johnson, our keynote speaker, is a quietist Friend from Australia who spoke about the need to follow the Inward Christ, which I also ardently seek to do. For Friend David, however, following the Inward Christ has meant withdrawing from the messy world of politics and social justice and focusing on prayer and the inward life. Ever since succumbing to this theology a few years ago, PYM has become quietist in both senses of this word:
1) In  the Christian faith, devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism.
2) Calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them. "Political quietism."
This kind of quietism is contrary to the spirit of early Friends, which is summed up in the words of William Penn: "True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." The best antidote to quietism I know is prophetic witness, listening deeply for the "still, small voice" and then speaking out and acting boldly to help bring God's beloved community down to earth.

I appreciate the message of David Johnson--we need to take time to listen deeply to the Inward Christ, the Light Within--but this is what we have been hearing for the past four years from Friends who are chaplains (in one way instance in the payroll of the military) and/or uninvolved in any kind of social justice activism. We haven't heard a message from an activist/prophetic Friend since Jonathan Vogel-Bourne spoke in 2015, just before the election of Trump. Isn't it time to reconnect with our prophetic DNA, the powerful Spirit that animated early Friends?

One sign of vitality in our quietist YM has been an interest in confronting the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our Quaker world, as the PYM epistle notes:
With nearly daily workshops on immigration, inequality, and questions of right relationship, Yearly Meeting demonstrated a desire to focus more intently on diversity in our meetings and in becoming a more nurturing space for Friends of Color, who were joined this week by young Friends of color in meeting. Friends recognize the need for active outreach to persons of color within and out of Meeting.
Stanley Chagala
I'm glad that Friends are expressing a desire to reach out to  persons of color and I was impressed by the material on white privilege that was circulated and discussed.  I hope this talk leads to action. Reaching out to and accompanying people of color could help save us from our  risk- and conflict-aversive whiteness. In the work I do as a housing justice advocate in my local community, I work with people of color on a daily basis, and I encourage other Friends to do likewise. I'm pleased that a number of Orange Grove Friends are now visiting detainees at Adelanto and doing something to address our immigration crisis. This has brought us closer to our mostly Latino neighborhood. When we organized a "Know Your Rights" workshop, we canvassed our neighborhood and got to know our Latino neighbors a little better. That was an important step forward for OGMM Friends. 

 I hope that other Friends take to heart the need to reach out and become more involved in social justice work with people of color who are our neighbors. Being involved in the interfaith peace movement and doing local justice work has also connected me with people of diverse ethnicities and made a huge difference in my life.

I know that my talk of PYM being an "endangered species" sounds over the top, but in the PYM epistle Ministry and Oversight realizes that our YM is dying numerically, if not spiritually:
Ministry and Oversight asked us to consider one of the hardest questions of all: are we dying? Our numbers are half what they were some years ago when we met at Mount Madonna, and in our Monthly Meeting State of the Meeting reports, many Meetings do not say anything about children's programs at all. The speaker from Ministry and Oversight gave us a powerful image of great trees, rotting from the inside in their late years, but still putting out new growth each spring and still nurturing the world around them. We mourned thirty Friends at our Meeting for Memorials, but were reminded that the  Epistles from the 73rd Annual Session of Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends 2019 2 also gained twenty-six new members this year. The hard and yet hopeful truth is that Spirit is moving among us and transforming us. 
Comparing PYM to a dying tree, rotten from the inside, is a sad, but telling metaphor. I question this metaphor, however, because it implies that the slow death of our YM is a natural process, rather than the results of choices we have made. For example, is it possible that the number of attendees has dwindled in part because it takes 15 hours to drive from San Diego, 12 hours to drive from LA, and 3 hours to drive from the San Francisco area to our remote rural site, whereas it took half that amount off time to get to Mt Madonna? Are there deeper reasons for the decline of our YM membership? Is our messaging relevant to the rising generation of Millennials? Are we involving them and people of color in leadership? And are we ourselves truly transformed by Spirit? Are we willing to take risks to be faithful, like early Friends? Finally, are we timidly hiding our Light under a bushel, or are we out in the public arena, proclaiming the Truth that Spirit has revealed to us?

I know that many individual Friends and meetings are doing good work, but I'm not sure what our YM is doing to support this work, other than allow us to have workshops at YM.

One of the signs that we are an aging and dying YM is how much we relish our Meeting for Memorials. Others find these meetings inspiring but I always go away feeling slightly depressed. The anecdotes told about deceased Friends are not particularly uplifting or spiritual. These stories are very different from what I heard at Australian YM  where Friends usually begin a message about a deceased Friend by saying, "I am thankful for the witness of God in the life of so-and-so." In our Yearly Meeting, the witness of God part seems all too often to be forgotten. Instead, Friends tell little anecdotes, often focusing on some amusing detail  or quirk of someone's life, like their love of hot sauce. I am glad I won't be around when my name is posted on the memorial board. I wouldn't want to hear someone sum up my life by telling a story about how much I love mocha coffee. I wish that actual memorial minutes were available in some kind of binder so we could learn something about the lives of Friends who have passed on, rather than rely on fleeting anecdotes.

FYI if you want to honor me when I pass on, forego Memorial Meeting altogether and attend a peace rally instead or do something that will make this world a better place. That's what I believe Jesus would call us to do and that's what I'd encourage Friends to do who care about  me. Don't mourn, organize. When  Jesus was initiating his life-transforming movement, one of his disciples wanted to go to his father's funeral first and Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt 8:22). It sounds like a cold-hearted response, but sometimes that's what we need to hear and do. I think that PYM should heed that advice and not make Memorial Meeting such a big deal. Let's honor the living, let's follow the living Spirit,  and let the dead bury the dead.

That's essentially what happened at PYM when we decided to affiliate with Friends General Conference. Instead of being bogged down by our complicated past, we are looking forward to our future and connecting with a vital Quaker organization that embraces Quakers from across the United States. I hope that PYM will someday host an FGC gathering, as has North Pacific and Intermountain YMs.

When I said earlier than I came to YM with low expectations, I should add that I came with two deeply felt concerns and was not disappointed.

My first concern was to speak out regarding our silenced YM. I shared 100 copies of my statement. I also met with the clerk of Peace and Social Order (PSO) who said that she would make sure this was placed on the PSO agenda this year. I urged her to consider allowing our YM to support the FNCL advocacy campaign next year. Because we cannot bring minutes of concern to the YM anymore, I circulated a petition calling for the repeal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (which is FCNL's current campaign) and gathered around 40 signatures from Friends.I sent this petition to the offices of Senators Harris and Feinstein. I also had a picture taken of Friends with a banner saying "Repeal the AUMF," which I posted on my Facebook page so people would know where some Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends stand on this issue.

My second concern was to share the latest thinking and best practices on how to end homelessness. I took part in an interest group sponsored by PSO and shared these policy ideas. What I learned is that many Friends are helping to feed or provide temporary shelter to those who are homeless, but what Jill and I are seeking to do with our new nonprofit is to advocate for permanent supportive housing. Housing is what ends homelessness. As advocates, we also work with and not simply for those experiencing homeless. As a homeless woman told me this summer, "We like it when people make sandwiches for us, but we'd rather make our own sandwiches in our own apartment."
Steve Matchett and Gay Howard

I didn't come to YM only as an advocate with a mission, I came as a friend. What I enjoyed most was connecting with old Friends and making new ones at YM.  I have been attending for 30 years, so coming to PYM is like a family reunion. I delight in daily Steve Matchett's Bible study, worship sharing, and our nightly sing-alongs led by Jim Anderson et al. 

I know that God is not finished with PYM and the Spirit is seeking to transform us just as it is seeking to transform everyone and everything in our beautiful but broken world. I am still praying and hoping that the living Spirit  that inspired Jesus and George Fox and Martin Luther King will resurrect our Yearly Meeting and help us to be the change agents that this world so desperately needs.

Maia Wolff and her adorable kids

Maia's mom Pat 

Tim Vreeland and Judith Searle from Santa Monica


  1. I have a feeling this is the case for ALL Yearly Meetings of unprogrammed friends. I don't think it is just only Quietism, that is causing a breakdown, I believe its also a cultural shift informed by race and age. I have seen some religious groups make intentional,practical changes to accept a change of a more youthful and inclusive culture. It's what has to happen.It could be that Yearly Meetings are slow on the uptick. Think about how long (100 years) it took American Quakers to denounce slavery after receiving eldering from German Quakers.
    After meeting some Young Adult friends and teens at PYM, I have hope that we can thrive if we make room (like, clear the room for) a new way.

  2. Anthony:
    Your disappointment in our Yearly Meeting is clear, and expressed in the title “Pacific Yearly Meeting is on the endangered species list”, but from the content it is clear you have mixed feelings. In the photos you look happy to be there at Annual Session – not so?
    “Are there deeper reasons for the decline of our YM membership?” I can think of two that you don’t credit in your message:
    (1) the prevalence of “spiritual but not religious” – known as “nones” – which results in declining membership in all the organized Christian churches (including evangelical, of late). Why should Quakers be immune?
    (2) the conscious decision by some Friends not to travel to gatherings as an expression of their environmental concern. Can’t argue against acting on one’s principles.
    “Can it be saved?” would be a poorly formed query for worship-sharing, since a “yes, no, or maybe” answer leads to no solutions. Better is: “What can I do to save it?”

  3. Eric, you are correct that I enjoy PYM Friends and that's why I have gone consistently for 30 years. If I didn't love Friends, and believe that Quakerism has a message that the world needs to hear, I wouldn't be so deeply disappointed. The overall membership of YM has remained flat for a number of years, but the attendance at YM has dropped by half. That suggests to me that there is something amisss with YM. I suspect it has something to do with location, as I mention in my blog. It's a huge hassle to get to Walker Creek, and a waste of fossil fuel. We'd be wise to choose a location midway between northern and southern California, like Mt Madonna. Many Friends didn't like Mt Madonna because of the vegan food, but a vegan diet is what we need to help save this planet. Surely, if we care about our planet, we can forgo meat and dairy for four days. But that is apparently too great a sacrifice for some Friends. I like your question: What can be do to save PYM? I've provided some of my answers. We need to be socially relevant and speak to the times we live in. We need more activism, less quietism. What is your sense of how we can save Quakers from dying out?