Like two sides of a coin, our Meeting’s strengths can also create challenges. Being a large Meeting in an urban setting blesses Friends Meeting of Washington (FMW) with a dynamic community. We have a steady stream of new worshippers, while active members often depart to pursue career or personal opportunities. We are challenged to welcome inquirers, to support friends as they are called to service elsewhere, and to maintain the vitality and continuity of our Quaker community. The global character of our city provides FMW with a wealth of experiences and deep intellectual resources, but sometimes these gifts also can manifest as verbosity and an apparent reluctance to listen to others’ points of view. Members and attenders who come to FMW from other spiritual traditions – or with no religious affiliation – bring an openness to new perspectives, while they may be less knowledgeable about Quaker thought and tradition.
“The freedom to go where the Spirit seems to be leading gives FMW enormous richness…people seeking a particular kind of spiritual experience are likely to find it or be able to create it.”
Asked to consider their personal relation to the life of the Meeting, Friends expressed deep connection and gratitude for the “succor,” “grounding,” and “strength” they receive from their participation in the life of FMW. Several spoke of it as being a central element in their lives.
“FMW means just about everything to me–it’s my center, really. And the center of that center is worship.”
Friends celebrate our diversity of age, race, sexual orientation, and spiritual beliefs. However, some FMW members and attenders feel that not all views are welcomed. In the past year, some Friends have come into personal conflict about their political choices or about some Christian-oriented messages delivered during Meeting for Worship. For some, these conflicts suggest that not all forms of diversity are equally valued and that the Meeting may not be a safe place to express all of our dimensions.
Also during the past year, FMW and the School for Friends worked together compassionately to find clearness on the future location of the school. After much prayer and discussion, the School decided it would remain spiritually connected to FMW but would physically relocate.
Friends also offered varying perceptions on whether and how worshippers stand together in love and conviction. It is rare for a large proportion of FMW Friends to work together on a single goal or initiative; some feel that in a Meeting our size, this is neither achievable nor necessary. Some feel that regular endeavors such as the annual Shoebox Project and working at local soup kitchens and shelters, special events such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Inauguration Day hospitality, and the memorial service of a homeless attender who was murdered are manifestations of a common Spirit through joint effort. Others feel that such events are not representative or are perhaps too few and far between. Equally important are small acts that are less visible: “the private carings so little known outside small circles are the most precious.”
“We stand together best … when faced with adversity from outside, that of an external war or conflict. We stand together weakly when that adversity erupts from within the Meeting.”
Friends acknowledged the gifts offered by individuals within the Meeting, including weighty Friends who let their lives speak and thus lead by example. Friends also expressed a hope that some aspects of Meeting life might be strengthened, including the nature of its silent worship. Several cited a wish for more Spirit-centered vocal ministry, noting the need for sensitivity in gently encouraging that end while realizing that Spirit-led revelations are not always easily recognized. There are also concerns related to eldering, which suggest the Meeting may want to clarify the ways in which Quakers can share Spirit-led guidance with kindness, respect, and sensitivity. A Healing and Reconciliation Committee has been formed to help address these concerns.
“There are…no messages which are given in Meeting that are devoid of spiritual content if we will only listen. Many are cries of a desperate heart…”
Our historic Meetinghouse also is a source of emotional concern. Deferred maintenance and wheelchair accessibility have been urgent issues for many years and, while significant progress has been made with support from the Property and Planning Committees, the Meeting has not reached unity on final plans – leading, for some, to a “sense of resignation.” While there is agreement about the need for full access and flooding prevention, concerns remain about funding and the extensiveness of renovations. Some Friends view our Meetinghouse as a beautiful spiritual home that deserves special care and attention; others feel that a large financial and/or sentimental investment in property is inappropriate. FMW also continues to struggle with budget shortfalls and some Members are deeply troubled that as a community we seem unable to meet our fiduciary responsibilities.
Many wish to see the Meeting foster greater connection among worshippers, both in shared service endeavors and in informal socializing, and to be more welcoming to newcomers. The Religious Education Committee is working to revive the “Friendly Eights” dinners. Some believe that hospitality needs to be Meeting-wide rather than having responsibility located only within one committee. Recognizing the promise of being a modern, urban, and open Quaker community, FMW is supportive of individual leadings, affirming the possibility that anyone may lead and that the nature of this leadership is fluid as different initiatives come forward.
“I worry about members and attenders who drop out, sometimes unrecognized, because they find they are unable to establish meaningful connections.”
Another common desire is for the collective body to be better grounded in Quaker faith, practice, thought, and history. Suggestions include expanded study groups, worship sharing on particular topics, panel discussions, outside speakers, and a thought-out path guiding people from newcomer to attender to member.
“…there is much enthusiasm about the ideas of Quakerism from new inquirers/ attendees, but …it is difficult for us new folks to gain the necessary information about ‘effective’ ministry and worship practices.”
In response to our concerns about the Meeting, we are working together faithfully. Our committees are seeking clarity on outreach to new attendees, on ways to embrace diversity, on fiscal and facility stewardship, and on actions we can take to further demonstrate our caring for one another, our spiritual community, and the world we live in. We trust the Spirit to lead these efforts and to inform our hearts. In so doing, we draw on the love, tolerance, and patience that have long sustained the Friends Meeting of Washington.
“It takes some effort to turn urban diversity into a spiritually unified gathering, but it does happen occasionally and we should all be grateful when it does – and patient with one another when it doesn’t.”