Sometimes “Community” is lifted up as a testimony within the Quaker world. I can see why. Our emphasis on group decision-making, communion in the form of waiting worship where Christ is present in our midst, and our belief that testimony is our public expression of our communal encounter of our faith in Christ are all examples.These are the results of processes and practices that rely on a strong foundation of community, but the work involved in creating that strong sense of community is much harder to come by. This may come as a shock to some of you but my story of community among Quakers has been very up and down over the past 21 years of identifying as a Quaker. Mine has been a story of trying to belong and understand what it means to belong. There have been times when some Friends in some places have not been so welcoming [some going so far as to try to get me to leave]. But there have also been Friends in many places who have welcomed me even when I didn’t always fit into their categories.But those are longer stories to be shared another time. The point is: Just because we say we have a testimony of community does not automatically mean community and belonging exist.
Belonging to a Friends meeting and being a Quaker are identities in parallel: I am a Quaker because of my own convictions and understanding of who God is & I seek to belong to a local expressions of that larger and much older tradition. Sometimes my commitment to one impacts my commitment to the other and vice versa, but they are not always in sync.
What helps with creating belonging in our local expressions of the Quaker tradition? Here are three quick ideas:
1. We need to have a strong centerInstead of being focused on protecting external boundaries of community (what belief, or identity, or practice is acceptable), we commit to a deep knowing and understanding of the center of our tradition. For me that is a deep commitment to the liberating Jesus who is present in our midst and who stands in solidarity with the poor and all those on the margins. Being clear about our center – whatever that is – allows us to invite people into something. It recognizes that we cannot be all things to all people but we can be this specific expression of community to those who want to be a part of that. I don’t just want to belong. I want to belong to something.
2. We need to make practices and beliefs explicitAs new people show up they need be helped to know what is going on, what is believed, and how to get engaged. We should have structures, practices, and liturgies that assume from the outset that people who have no prior understanding of the Quaker tradition will be in our midst. There should be no mystery to who we are and what we do. We have a lot of implicit theology and practice that can feel exclusive if you’ve never experienced any of it before. I have heard people say this quote far too often, “Quakerism cannot be taught, only caught.” That is terrible theology and points to a culture of secrecy that will not only keep people from belonging, but it will also slowly kill off discipleship within our communities. Quakerism must be taught, re-interpreted, and re-taught again.
3. We need to build weak links with each other That low threshold moments of community can build lasting links to one another. It’s one thing to show up to an important business meeting, but if we don’t know each other, have never shared a meal, don’t know each other’s fears, joys, kids names, it is almost impossible to do the hard work of discernment together well. The baseball game we went to as a meeting last night is an example of building weak links. So are potlucks and bonfires. Things where we get together for fun, the stakes are low, and the goal is to build connections. The more inputs we have with these opportunities, the more we can invite various people in, the more we do the mundane work of building belonging.We don’t need to be big productions and we don’t need permission to do this: all it takes is an invitation to share a meal, a cup of coffee or tea, a walk, a podcast, or a project together. We can all be build weak links right now.
I think we always need this kind of work, but we need it especially right now when the world feels so dangerous and inhospitable. We need to re-introduce ourselves to community and to one another.Quakers have to work just like everyone else to build community and a sense of belonging. I believe we can do this by being clear about who we are and what we’re up to (our center), about onboarding people into our tradition (making thing explicit), and by making the effort to be lower-f friends with each other (building those weak links with each other).
by Wess Daniels, Greensboro, NC (Haw River Watershed)