Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Prison Mondays

I used to have an office with a desk that overlooked some trees, where I would sit at my computer and do legal work.  This semester, I sometimes think my office is a corner in a prison hallway next to a trash can.  I stand there while an inmate sits on the lid of the trash can, telling me what is on her heart.

Prison is loud and chaotic.  The dorms where I work as an intern are L-shaped, with open shared rooms down one hall and a day room on the other hall.  The rooms each have four sets of bunk beds and the lights never completely turn off.  It is nearly impossible to find a place for private conversation.

Sometimes I sit in the day room, talking with women or waiting for them to come to me.  Other times, I sidle up to a woman as she is sitting on the trash can, one of the quieter places in the dorm.  I ask if she wants to talk or if she would rather be left alone.  The other chaplain interns and I have found that the women are more likely to talk with us if we stand next to them instead of in front of them.

The women tell me about their children and their grandchildren (the majority are mothers).  They worry about sick family members and pray for the day that they will be able to return home.  Once I stood next to a woman whose eyes filled with tears as she told me that she had been driving drunk and the passenger in her car was killed in an accident.  "Will his family ever forgive me?" she asked.  "Will the pain ever go away?"

It's not all hard and heavy.  The women and I laugh together and share stories.  They tell me about the day-to-day frustrations of being in prison, and I agree that it must be hard.  They ask me questions about esoteric Bible verses (Jude 1:9, anyone?) and show me pictures of their families.

The women want to know what I can do for them.  Can I get them a bar of soap, deliver a letter, help them get into a class?  I tell them that I am there to listen.  We can talk about God if they want, or we can pray together, but mostly I am just there to be with them.  Some days, that's enough.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Week

I am halfway through my first semester of seminary, and I feel like I have finally settled into a routine.  Some days I am amazed by how different my life is than when I was working an 8-5 job.  I am enjoying myself very much, though.

Outside Cannon Chapel
Before I came to Candler School of Theology, many people warned me that seminary can be challenging for one's spiritual life, so I have been very intentional about my spiritual practices: setting aside at least 15 minutes in the morning for prayer and worship, reading a chapter of the Bible each night, giving thanks before meals, getting regular exercise, and blessing roadkill that I pass by on my bike.

My typical week looks pretty much like this:

First Day: Worship

On Sunday mornings, I have been worshiping with Atlanta Friends Meeting, a large, unprogrammed meeting in Decatur.  My friends Sadie and Chris live just a mile up the road from my apartment, so they usually give me a ride to meeting, which also gives us a chance to catch up.  Worship begins at 10am and lasts for an hour of silence and messages, with a few minutes at the end for holding people or other prayer requests in the Light.  After getting home from meeting, I often nap and then do any schoolwork I have left for the coming week.

Second Day: Prison

One of the unusual things about Candler is that the program includes two years of contextual education.  In our first year, all of the first-year M.Div. students spend four hours a week in social ministry or clinical settings.  On Mondays, I spend the day with eight of my classmates at Lee Arrendale State Prison, the largest women's prison in Georgia.
Chaplain Bishop (left) and the Candler chaplain interns

We meet up around 8am to take a van up to the prison, located about 66 miles northeast of Atlanta.  I have
been assigned to two dorms in the general population.  Two other chaplain interns and I spend about an hour and a half in each dorm, and we meet up with our other classmates for lunch and a 90-minute reflection class in the middle.

Working in the prison is one of the highlights of my week.  When I walk in the dorm, I never know what will happen.  Sometimes a woman will approach me immediately and I will spend most of my time with her.  Other days, I wait in the break room for women to come talk with me.  Most of the time I listen as they share their experiences and concerns, and we pray and talk together.

Third Day: Classes

Other than the reflection group at the prison, all of my classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  The day begins with History of Early Christian Thought (8-9:20am), a large lecture class where we are learning church history from the time of the early church to the Reformation (we will take a class that covers the Reformation to the current day next semester).

Some of my school books
Next is Pastoral Care (9:30-10:50), a smaller class that is designed to complement our contextual education work.  My prison group is combined with a group that is working in another prison for a class of fewer than 20 people.  We are learning a lot about ministry in the prison setting and pastoral care and counseling for women, and we practice pastoral care with and for each other.

After Pastoral Care, I usually skip chapel so that I can eat some lunch and stop by the on-campus farmers market before choir practice with the Candler Chorale, a one-credit class (12-12:50pm).  Our choir is about seven people, and we usually spend our time on Tuesdays preparing the music we will be singing and leading in the Thursday chapel.

My last class of the day is Old Testament (1-2:20pm), another large lecture class.  This is also a year-long class, and we are currently working our way through the Pentateuch.  We started talking about Leviticus last week and will be moving on to Numbers tomorrow.  I think this is the class that many of my classmates have found most theologically challenging, but I am really enjoying learning about the sources of the Old Testament and reading the text more closely than I ever have before.
Pitts Theology Library

Fourth Day: Reading

Thursday is usually my busiest day of classes, so I spend most of Wednesday in the library, reading and preparing for that.  I also try to fit in a lunchtime swim at the Emory pool, and in the afternoon, I meet with a therapist in the Emory counseling center.  Counseling sessions are free for students (or, rather, included in our tuition and fees), and it has been really great to have someone to meet with each week to help me through all of the transitions.

Fifth Day: Classes

My schedule on Thursday is pretty much the same as Tuesday, with a few exceptions.  Instead of choir practice, my choir often leads the singing in chapel (11am-12pm).  After chapel, I sometimes have another one-credit class called First Year Advising (12-12:50pm).  As the name suggests, this is a class that is supposed to help all of us transition into seminary.  We meet regularly (though not every week) with our faculty advisor to talk about things like financial literacy and what we need to do to satisfy the M.Div. program requirements.
Inside Cannon Chapel

Sixth Day: Schoolwork

Friday is another day without classes and it is tempting to take the day off, but I have been trying to get most of my schoolwork done before the weekend.  It is also a day when we sometimes have special programs at school (for example, next week I will be taking an afternoon workshop on the Enneagram).  Again, I try to fit a run or swimming into the day.  In the evening, I might go out to dinner or do something else to unwind after the week.

Seventh Day: Sabbath

One of the reasons I try to do so much schoolwork on Friday is because I have set Saturday aside as a no-schoolwork day, a sabbath of sorts.  It is amazing to me how tempted I have been to do schoolwork on Saturdays, especially when midterms are looming, but I have managed to stick with it so far.

On Saturday mornings, I have been going to a yoga class at a local ashram, then I usually spend the rest of the day hanging out with friends, reading (fiction!), or catching up with things around the house.  So, it's not a complete sabbath, but at least one day a week when I am not completely focused on school.

Friday, September 20, 2013

More Thoughts on Recording

The night before I went to preach at Camas Friends Church, I had a dream.  I dreamed that I was sitting in the Camas Friends meeting room, waiting to give the message.  In my dream, the announcements and introductions went on and on, and I began to get anxious that there would not be space for me to speak.  To my horror, I saw people standing to leave.  One by one, they quietly walked out of the room.  But when I looked to my right, I saw a small girl sitting on the bench next to me.  She looked up at me, her eyes wide, and said, "Are you going to be the preacher today?"  Then I woke up.

I have been in Atlanta for a month now, and it has been a bit of a bumpy landing.  There are things that I love about studying at Candler School of Theology: my classes are interesting, the professors are brilliant and entertaining, and my classmates are caring and thoughtful.  But I have also experienced a fair amount of culture shock.  I am adjusting to living in the South and being a full-time student again after several years of working as a lawyer.  I am also the only Quaker in a Methodist seminary, which has its own challenges.

One thing I did not anticipate was how big of a deal my recording would be here.

Because it is the beginning of the year, I often find myself in classrooms where we go around the room and introduce ourselves.  For many of my classmates, the introduction goes like this:  "My name is Jessie and I am United Methodist, on the ordination track in the North Georgia Conference."

When it's my turn to introduce myself, I usually say, "My name is Ashley and I am a Quaker (a member of the Religious Society of Friends).  I am a recorded Quaker minister (the Quaker version of ordination)."  

When I say that, people's eyebrows go up.  They shift in their chairs.  Last week, a professor said to me, "So, you're just here for the education."

It's true.  For many of my classmates, they need to go to seminary in order to be ordained in their denominations.  As a Friend, I do not need the degree to be a minister (in fact, several Friends tried to talk me out of it before I came here).

I am grateful for my recording, and it is still new enough that I am trying to figure out what it means to me and for my ministry.  I sometimes think it means more to non-Friends than it does to Friends.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend who should be recorded. She has a clear call to ministry and has been deeply involved in public ministry among Friends, which is bearing fruit. But her yearly meeting does not record ministers. 

She said that, in a conversation with another minister, she blurted out, "I wish they would just record me!" The other (recorded) minister reminded her that recording is not something to take lightly. 

While I agree on one level, I also think that, when someone is doing public ministry, eventually the lack of recording can become a burden, and it is a burden that the meeting should take up. It is the responsibility of the meeting to provide support and accountability for public ministers, and recording is the way that Friends traditionally have shown their intention to provide that support and accountability. 

I also think this weighs heavier on women than men. It is true that yearly meetings that do not record ministers do not discriminate between women and men (neither are recorded). However, that does not take into account all of the voices that women hear telling them that they cannot do ministry. There are entire denominations that will not allow women to preach or even teach men. It is still unusual for a little girl to hear a woman preach. And when Friends say that they will not record ministers, that is one more voice telling women that they cannot be ministers.

Recording is important, Friends. Especially the recording of women. We need to take a look around and recognize the gifts that God has given to our meetings and find ways to support the Friends who are sharing those gifts with us.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Tearing Down, Building Up

The word of the Lord came to me, saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah 1:4-10.
 The first time I preached, it was a surprise for everyone, including me.  

For our fourth School of the Spirit residency in the fall of 2010, the teachers put together a panel from the class to talk about "Being Other in Community."  I felt led to be on the panel, so I wrote a proposal saying that I would like to talk about the prophet as other.

After the teacher told me I would be on the panel, I spent the summer trying to write out my message.  First, I wrote about Elijah in the wilderness, telling God he wanted to die.  Then I wrote about the last chapter of Jonah: Even though Jonah's mission had been wildly successful, the story ends with Jonah being angry with God. 

Although both of those Bible passages spoke to me, the message was not coming together.  That was hard for me, because I had planned to write the message out in advance and submit it as my fall reflection paper.  I was also terrified of getting up in front of my class without knowing what I was going to say.

I spent a lot of time during that fall residency in prayer.  I still did not have the message.  Then, finally, during the hour of worship before the panel was scheduled to speak, I knew what I had to do.  It became clear that all I needed was Jeremiah 1:4-10, and that I would be preaching from that passage.

So I did.  I spoke about God calling Jeremiah to be a prophet and my own struggles with others naming the gift of prophecy in me.  I said that it was hard in part because I am young, but also because I am a woman.  I shared how challenging it is for me when I feel led to give messages that tear down and destroy, because I always want to build and to plant.

As I spoke, I knew I was preaching, and it felt right.  Afterward, I was glad that I didn't know in advance, hard as it was, because I only would have doubted myself and my abilities.  And that experience gave me confidence later when I felt led to preach again in programmed worship.

Now, three years later, I am beginning seminary at Candler School of Theology.  When I saw that the theme for orientation was "Tearing Down and Building Up," I laughed.  I knew immediately that it was a reference to the first chapter of Jeremiah.

Like the School of the Spirit, I know that seminary will be a distilling process for me.  In addition to what I will learn about the Bible and Christian history, I will also be learning about myself and what God is calling me to do.  I know that it will be challenging, and there will be days where I doubt myself and God, and wonder why I am here.

But I am also grateful for signslike this orientation themereassuring me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thoughts on Leadings II

A message I gave at Freedom Friends Church this morning during open worship:
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a woman who is not a Quaker (she is a member of a UCC church).  She asked me what Friends do when people have leadings that seem to be at odds with each other.  I said that it is like when you are in unprogrammed worship at a large meeting, and two people stand to speak at the same time.  They both may have true leadings from the Spirit to speak in that moment, but they can't both speak at the same time.  One of them has to sit down.

[If you would like to hear a recording of a longer message, the message I gave in programmed worship at Camas Friends Church last Sunday is now available for streaming online and on iTunes.]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Playlist III

I will be moving to Atlanta in just under a month, and I have been working on a new playlist for my ipod.  My playlists are not just a snapshot of the music I am listening to at the moment, they are one of the intuitive ways I work through challenging times.  I have posted before about playlists I made during some difficult ministry and before going to Kenya for the World Conference of Friends. 

This one is called "Something New."  Through these songs, I am trying to honor what I am leaving behind as well as where I am going.  I hope that they will help keep me grounded and give me strength and courage for what lies ahead.

Something New

The Dress Looks Nice On You, Sufjan Stevens
Wake Me Up, Avicii
Some Nights, Fun.
Pardon Me, The Blow
Skinny Love, Bon Iver
Nowhere, Massachusetts, Black Prairie
Wake Up, Arcade Fire
20 Dollar Nose Bleed, Fall Out Boy
Slips, Hymn For Her
Boom Boom, Storm Large
The Birth of Our Purpose, Jon Watts
You Are Everyone, Dar Williams
I Will Wait, Mumford & Sons
Carry On, Fun.
Fireweed Mountain, Seth Martin and the Menders
He Woke Me Up Again, Sufjan Stevens
The Only Moment We Were Alone, Explosions in the Sky
Walk Away Renee, Left Banke
Ancient Green, Kathleen Hannan
Loom, Ani DiFranco
Secret of the Easy Yoke, Pedro the Lion
Hum Hallelujah, Fall Out Boy
Your Hand in Mine, Explosions in the Sky
Banjo Lullaby, Seth Martin and the Menders
Cedar Tree, Indigo Girls
Shout Me Out, TV on the Radio
Awake My Soul, Mumford & Sons
Throw Me a Curve, The Go-Go's
One More Night (Your Ex-Lover Remains Dead), Stars
There's Never Enough Time, The Postal Service
The Transfiguration, Sufjan Stevens
Jessica, Regina Spektor
What Light, Wilco
The Lord Bless You and Keep You, John Rutter
Below My Feet, Mumford & Sons
Promise, Pedro the Lion

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My People

Send down the fire of your justice
Send down the rains of your love
Send down your Spirit, breathe life in your people
Make us the people of God

I have spent a lot of time over the past five years traveling among Friends, both in person and online.  I have been to evangelical, liberal, and conservative yearly meetings.  I have worshiped with Friends in meetinghouses and churches from Alaska to Nairobi.  I have read posts by Friends who are as close to me as family and by others who I have never met, but who I know to be kindred spirits.

All of this travel among Friends has been a privilege and a blessing.  It has also given me a vantage point on the Religious Society of Friends that I think is unusual.  I was reminded of that yesterday when I saw two posts online by Friends.

The first was by Becky A, who is currently serving as superintendent of Northwest Yearly Meeting.  In her post, On Our Way Rejoicing, Becky wondered what it is that Friends do together that is so worthwhile.  She proposed the following statement:
The NWYM of Friends churches are compelled to share the good news that Jesus Christ is alive and present today to teach us himself; that we identify ourselves as Friends of Jesus when we do what Jesus tells us to do individually and corporately; and that this Friendship is open to all.
The second post was by Cat C-B, entitled An Open Letter to my Christian Quaker Friends: Part 1 of 2.  In her post, Cat said,
. . .the same spiritual integrity that made me show up and keep showing up for Quaker meetings--because I was called, and I knew it--has also kept me loyal to and part of the Pagan community that formed for me a soul capable of hearing a spiritual call in the first place.  
For someone looking in from the outside, it might seem impossible that these people are part of the same religious society.  But I know better.  I have followed the ministry of both of these women for years, and I can attest that they are both faithful Friends.

It is hard for me, when I travel among Friends, to hear the ways that some Friends fear other Friends.  I wish all of you could see what I see.

We are all working so hard to be faithful.  We are trying to listen to the voice of the Spirit, however we name that divine presence.  Friends are also making a valiant effort to listen to each other across our differences, but we sometimes end up hurting each other, often through misunderstandings of the language we use.

Whenever I am with Friends, regardless of the kind of Friends, there is always a moment when I have the clear sense that these are my people.  It is not always the same—sometimes that feeling comes in open worship, other times in prayer, singing, or individual conversations.  Regardless of how it happens, I know then that these are Friends who are committed to each other and to listening to the voice of the Spirit together.

But now I am preparing to leave my Quaker bubble.  In just over a month, I will be moving to Atlanta to be a part of a different faith community: my class at Candler School of Theology, a Methodist seminary.

When I was coming back from the World Conference of Friends last year, I had a fairly long layover in the London airport.  There were several Friends around, and I ran into them a few times.  I was sitting on my own in one of the lounge areas, when I heard a clear message:
Go to the chapel to be with your people.
I shrugged and said, okayit wasn't like I was doing anything.  I had spent time in the chapel during my layover on the way to Kenya, so I knew where it was.  I had the vague idea that I might find some other Friends in there and we could have a final meeting for worship.

But that's not who was there.

When I went into the chapel and settled into prayer, the people who joined me were:  Hasidic Jews, wrapping tefillin.  Muslims praying toward Mecca.  A young Catholic woman making her way through the Rosary.

Quakers are my people. And those are my people.  We are the people of God.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Traveling Minute and Endorsements

                                                                                                            June 10, 2013

To Friends in Friends General Conference and Everywhere,

This letter is a traveling minute from Freedom Friends Church for Ashley M. Wilcox.  Ashley is a recorded minister in our meeting and a beloved member of our community.  We support her public ministry, and you may trust the testimony that she brings to you.

Ashley will be traveling to the FGC Gathering in Greeley, Colorado from June 30 to July 6, 2013.  While there, she will engage in ministry in many ways, including leading a five-day morning workshop entitled "Convergent Friends: Worship and Conversation."  Aimee McAdams, a member of Northwest Yearly Meeting, currently living in Minnesota will be serving as an elder for Ashley for this workshop.

We are confident that Ashley will challenge you and encourage you in your faith, and that your time together will be rich and fruitful.  Please welcome Ashley and care for her as we would care for her.  We would appreciate a note documenting the ministry she shares with you.

In Christ’s Love,

Alivia B
Pastor, Freedom Friends Church


Marie S

This was a sweet-spirited offering.
Kathryn R, Ashland

Ashley was a joyful and spirit filled presence.
Daniel W

We've been blessed to have Ashley's presence and guidance this week.
Steve D 

7-5-13 Bless you for your loving presence and instruction.
Mollie G

I deeply appreciated the experiential and worshipful workshop.  I appreciate Ashley's courage and her leading to provide this forum.

Dear Friends of Freedom Friends Church, 
Almost 1150 Friends from 31 Yearly Meetings met in Greeley, CO for the 2013 FGC Gathering June 30 to July 6.  Our theme this year was "At the Growing Edges of our Faith."  We welcomed and were blessed by the presence of Ashley M. Wilcox and her elder, Aimee McAdams.  The gift of service in leading a morning workshop was deeply appreciated.  We are richer for this gift, and we thank you for caring for this ministry and for sharing it with us.  We extend warm greetings to your community.
In Friendship,
Sue R, Presiding Clerk of Friends General Conference

Dear Friends - it has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Ashley's Elder for this workshop.  Thank you for your prayers and support of her ministry.  
Aimee M

Dear Friends,
I enjoyed a lovely spiritual Opportunity with Ashley - it was so wonderful to hear how the Spirit is moving in her life at this time and to share together each of our own questions and yearnings.  Thank you for sharing Ashley with us at FGC, and for nurturing the gifts and ministry she is carrying! 
Blessings, Eric E (Central Philadelphia, PYM; FGC Traveling Ministries)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

FGC Gathering: Report

Report on the FGC Gathering
June 30 – July 6, 2013, Greeley, Colorado
At the Growing Edges of our Faith 

“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.”  Psalm 16:6.

I did a variety of ministry while at the FGC Gathering, but my primary focus was on the workshop I led, “Convergent Friends: Worship and Conversation.”  This workshop took place over five days, meeting each day from 9:00 to 11:45 a.m.  Considering the context, the participants were quite diverse.  Twelve Friends registered in advance; another joined partway through and two were drawn away after the first few days by outside circumstances.  The Friends ranged in age from 18 to 92.  Most were from liberal, unprogrammed meetings, but one was from an Evangelical meeting in Bolivia and another was from a Conservative yearly meeting.  The participants were pretty evenly split between men and women, and we had varied levels of physical ability.

One of the gifts of doing this ministry was working with Aimee McAdams.  Aimee had eldered for me a few times at the World Conference of Friends last year, but this was her first experience traveling in the ministry as an elder.  It was a joy to see her growing in her gifts.  Each morning before the workshop, Aimee and I spent time in worship together.  That helped us connect with each other and be grounded for our work.  It became clear early on that we perceive the world in very different ways, which required us to be clear in communicating what we saw and felt.  We naturally split the work in the workshop, often with me paying attention to the group as a whole and Aimee tending to individuals who needed a little extra attention.  There was a high level of trust between us, in part based on the fact that we have a similar understanding of how God is present and at work in the world.  Working with Aimee was a pleasure, and I hope to have the opportunity to work together again. 

Leading the workshop was a growing experience for me.  Overall, I feel very good about it, but there were unexpected challenges.  Going in, I was a little nervous about the length; I had never led a week-long workshop before.  However, I felt pretty confident about the content.  With very few exceptions, I had successfully led all of the exercises in workshops in the past.  One thing I remembered as the week progressed is that every group is different―just because one activity was popular or meaningful in the past does not mean it will have the same impact this time.  Likewise, some things that had not been as meaningful in previous workshops took on new life.  This helped me learn to stay flexible and temper my expectations.  I heard feedback throughout the week that Friends found the workshop “gently challenging.”  I encouraged participants to stay with things that were uncomfortable, but to stop if something felt wrong.  

There were two main challenges that arose for Aimee and me as leaders.  The first was that we had a newcomer on the third day.  I had specifically asked the conference organizers not to allow anyone to take my workshop part-time, but I think this person changed workshops at the last possible moment on Tuesday.  The person was a fine addition to the group, but it was challenging for me because having a new person at that point changed the group dynamics and the new person did not know what we had done the previous two days.

The second challenge also involved an individual in the workshop.  I tried to be clear about my plans and expectations for the workshop, both in my written description of the workshop and in a schedule that was posted on the board all week.  I was intentional about the flow of the workshop, with more content and full-group activities in the beginning and more spaciousness and small-group activities as we got closer to the end.  I also decided to have Friends meet in the same small groups for the entire week.  In my experience, I have found that meeting in the same small group builds a level of trust and sharing that does not occur when the groups change each time.

The participant that I found challenging first approached me after the second day of the workshop.  He said that he had a lot of experience leading workshops and suggested that, instead of meeting in the same small groups, we change them.  He also informed me that his meeting was involved in the recent Indiana Yearly Meeting split, and offered to share those experiences with the group.  In retrospect, I should have said that the workshop was not the place for that discussion, but instead I just said that I would wait and see if there would be time for it.

About halfway through the final day of the workshop, we reached an impasse.  The group had finished one activity and I was about to introduce the next one, when the Friend said that he wanted to speak.  I tried to engage him individually, but it was clear that he wanted everyone to hear.  He then said that he had thought we were going to talk about the Indiana Yearly Meeting split, and he felt like we should take the time to do that.  Another Friend said he wanted to talk about some of the other large issues Friends face today, and a third said she wanted to talk about the issues the plenary speaker had raised the previous evening.

This was a hard moment for me because I knew that, no matter what I did, some people would be disappointed.  I listened to the Friends’ concerns, but Aimee and I were both very clear that we needed to follow the plan we had discerned in advance.  I suggested that, if Friends felt the workshop had not met their expectations, they share that in the written evaluations.  I can’t say for sure, of course, but my sense was that there was something about me or my leadership style that seemed particularly challenging to the individual who approached me.

I am happy to say that, during my time at the FGC Gathering, my self-care was the best it has ever been.  As is often the case when I do traveling ministry, I had trouble eating and sleeping.  It was a gift for me, however, to have so many people present who know me extremely well, including my former housemate, people from my School of the Spirit K-group, and members of my School of the Spirit care committee.  They were able to gently reflect back when I was acting tired or giddy.  I did yoga every morning, took breaks when I needed them, and went to the healing center twice for energy work.

One thing I was very aware of and had a hard time with was my rising level of "Quaker celebrity."  It felt like a lot of people knew who I was, either because they had read something I had written or heard about me some other way.  I felt like a lot of them wanted something from me, and I struggled with that feeling of fame and others' expectations.  It got to the point where I was carrying around a disguise (a hat and sunglasses), so I could escape when I felt like I needed to.  I have the sense that this will be an ongoing challenge for me.

Since returning home, I have tried to be very intentional and transparent about my process.  I was grateful that the gathering ended on Saturday, so I could take Sunday for re-entry.  I spent the morning in worship, creating a Venn diagram of my experience of the Gathering: preparation, what I thought I would do, what I did, and what I see coming out of it.  I have also written blog posts reflecting on re-entry and some of the themes I saw emerging at the Gathering, including privilege and vocal ministry.

I am grateful to all of the individuals and groups who made this ministry possible financially:  The Pickett Endowment, for its grant (and Lloyd Lee Wilson for nominating me); Friends General Conference, for the workgrant and travel grant; and Freedom Friends Church, for its scholarship.  I am also grateful to Freedom Friends Church for its spiritual support and traveling minute.  Thanks to everyone who was praying for me and who helped me to process my experiences both during and after the FGC Gathering.  And thanks, most of all, to God, for being with me every step of the way.

Ashley Wilcox 
July 14, 2013

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dialogue II

Sometimes when I travel among Friends, it feels like this:

OLDER FRIENDS:  But . . . we thought you would [be on X committee, come to Y event, speak to Z issue].

ME:  Get used to disappointment.


Possibly related: I have had this song in pretty regular rotation on my ipod since returning from the FGC Gathering.

Blessings, Friends.

Friday, July 12, 2013

FGC Gathering: Vocal Ministry

One of the things I often feel led to do is give vocal ministry in closing worship at Quaker gatherings.  This is challenging for me because I usually am pretty tired by that point.  It is also hard for me to give messages in front of large groups of people, so I feel God working me pretty hard at these times.  (I have written about this experience before, after speaking at North Pacific Yearly Meeting and at the World Conference of Friends.)

Talking about vocal ministry is hard because Friends believe that the messages in meeting are from God.  It would be easier if I could say that it is all God and I have nothing to do with it, but that is not true.  The message is from God, but God uses my voice and my experiences.

This is one of the reasons that daily spiritual practices are so important.  I have heard Friends refer to this as "stocking the pantry"—making sure there is good food there for when you are ready to make a meal.

I am tempted to say that, when I give vocal ministry, it is 25% me and 75% God, but that does not feel right.  Really, I think it is 100% me and 100% God—of course, God is much bigger than I am, so there is a lot more of God than me coming through.

It was in the middle of the night on Wednesday of the Gathering that I first had the sense that I might give vocal ministry in the closing worship on Saturday.  

As is often the case when I travel, I did not sleep well during the week I was in Greeley.  I was up in the night every night, often for enough time to read or eat a pretty substantial snack.  That night, I began to feel like I do when I am going to give a message, but I tried to ignore it and went back to sleep.

On Thursday morning, the feeling was still there.  I felt it while I was doing yoga before breakfast, and I was even more distracted than usual during breakfast.  (Poor Aimee, who was eldering for me, kept trying to get me to eat breakfast, to no avail.  Each morning, I would load up my plate, then pick at my food.  That is not usually the case for me; in what I keep thinking of as my "regular life," I am a big fan of breakfast and never miss it.)

Aimee and I left the dining hall and went to the classroom where our workshop was held.  As part of our preparation for leading the workshop, we settled into a time of worship, as we did every day.

During worship, I could feel the message strongly and I was really upset.  As we continued to worship, I told Aimee that I had this sense of leading and it was hard for me because I felt like I needed all the energy I had for the workshop and other obligations, and I didn't have anything left for the message.  I also shared the pieces of the message I had so far.

Aimee listened to me and asked clarifying questions.  In the end, I think we both had a sense of the message, but knew that it would be different by the time of closing worship on Saturday.  Our time of worship and clarification was very helpful for me; afterward, I felt like I could focus on what we were bringing to the workshop that day.

I have had this advance sense of giving vocal ministry enough times now that I know better than to fight it.  Instead, I did my best to let it go.  Every once in a while, I would check in to see if I still felt the leading.  It was there, like an ember in my chest, waiting for the right time.

At one point, Aimee asked me what it felt like for me to carry a message like that.  I said that, honestly, the closest feeling is how it feels when you have the stomach flu and feel like you are going to throw up.  You don't always feel like you will be sick right away, but it's always there to some degree.  You know that you will feel better once you do, but you also know that the feeling might go away on its own.

On Saturday morning, Aimee and I went to the dining hall early and I finally ate a full breakfast.  After eating, we continued to talk with Friends at the table.  Two of them at different times asked me if I had a message, and I said that I thought I did.  

As the conversation progressed, I began to feel the message more and more strongly.  I began to feel pulled inward and I had a hard time keeping my focus on the conversation, even though it was about the process of giving vocal ministry.

Aimee and I went back to our dorm and settled into worship in the living room of our suite.  Again, we talked out of the worship.  I shared some of what I was struggling with about the conversation at breakfast, Aimee asked clarifying questions and reflected back what she had heard.  Then we filled up our water bottles and walked over to the room where worship would be held.

One thing that often has been a source of anxiety for me when I feel like I have a message to share is whether there will be space to give it.  That is one of the reasons I like programmed worship—it has a specifically designated time for sharing messages that God has prepared in advance.  Sometimes I have felt the need to create space, but I did not have a leading to do that this time.

As we walked toward the room, I could see that Friends had set up the chairs so that they were facing each other in a large circle.  That was comforting.  At the entrance, two Friends from the worship committee said that Friends were settling into worship as they entered the room.  The Friends also let us know that the front rows were reserved for Friends who felt a leading to speak.  They asked that Friends move to the front row when they felt that leading.

I said, "I feel a leading to speak.  May I sit in the front row and stay there?"  The Friends looked a little startled, but nodded.

Aimee and I walked into the room, and I saw Connie G sitting in the front row of one of the sections.  I had told Aimee that I probably would have a clear sense of where I should be in the room, and in that moment, I knew it was sitting between Connie and Aimee.  I whispered to Aimee that none of the standing microphones were facing me.  After I got settled, Aimee asked me if she could leave for a few minutes, and I said I was fine.  She returned and we settled into worship.

A few minutes later, I quietly told Aimee that I had received more of the message.  She said, "I was just praying that you would get what you needed!"

Friends began to fill the room.  I had my eyes closed most of the time, so I didn't see most of them.  The worship deepened.  At the official beginning time, one of the Friends from the worship committee rose to welcome everyone and reminded Friends that those who felt led to speak should move to the front row.  She asked Friends to use the standing microphones, but then said that, if Friends had mobility issues, they should raise their hands and a Friend would bring the microphone to them.

Aimee whispered to me, "Good thing they will bring you your microphone!"

Then everyone settled into worship and I waited to give the message.  At that point, I was very physically uncomfortable, and most of what was going through my head was, "Stay in the room.  Stay in the room!" along with some unprintable words directed at God.  I looked up and saw two good friends—one who used to be on my care committee and another from my meeting in Seattle—which was very comforting.

A woman rose to give a message and sang.  Shortly after that, I felt led to speak.  I rose to my feet.  I felt anchored to the spot, with Connie on one side and Aimee on the other, and I could feel the presence of another Friend behind me, grounding me.  Even though the standing microphones were just a few feet away, I did not feel clear to move.  So I raised my hand.  A Friend brought me a microphone, and I delivered the message.

Although the messages I give are always slightly different, the ones in this context seem to follow a pattern.  They are intensely vulnerable, prophetic, based in Christian language or the Bible, and accompanied by a lot of tears.  In other words, it seems like they are geared to get one's attention.

I know by now that, for some Friends, hearing me give a message like that for the first time can be a powerful experience.  But for Friends who know me well or have heard me speak often, there is a sense of, "Oh, Ashley's just doing her thing."  Not that those Friends are dismissive—I believe that they are listening to the message and it may have something for them—but it's a little like hearing the same concert performance over and over.  It loses a little of its sparkle after the third or fourth time.

I have come to expect certain responses when I give these messages.  The best is when Friends say, "Thank you for the message" or "Thank you for your ministry."  Those phrases acknowledge that the message is from God and that I have been faithful in delivering it.  My usual responses is, "I am glad it spoke to you."

I have also found that Friends are drawn to me after I speak.  That seems natural.  I have spoken on behalf of God, and I have a certain "God glow" when I give vocal ministry that is attractive.

Another response I have found is that Friends will approach me and say, "I didn't understand what you were trying to say there."  My first response to that usually is, "The message probably was not for you."  I am glad that they are trying to engage, but I usually do not have the energy to try to explain the message.

The worst is when people approach me and try to debate what I have said or dominate me verbally or physically.  Fortunately, this does not happen very often, but it is difficult because I feel tired, vulnerable, and empty after delivering that kind of message.

That is where elders come in.  A big part of eldering for me when I give messages like that is being a watchdog at the rise of meeting.  Before the meeting, Aimee and I talked through an escape plan, if I felt like I needed to leave quickly.  

Fortunately, that was not the case.  I felt clear to stay through the rest of worship after I spoke.  After worship, I felt like there was a bubble around me.  Friends walked past, but only a few engaged.  Aimee and I sat until the room had nearly cleared out, then had a wonderful conversation with two children.  Finally, we headed back to our dorm room, so I could shower and change and go to lunch.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

FGC Gathering: Some Thoughts on Privilege

There were several themes in the air at the FGC Gathering, and one of them was the concept of privilege.  I heard at least two messages in meeting for worship about privilege, and I know many people were in conversation about it.

All of that made me think about the difference between privilege and privilege.

I think you know what I mean, but just in case, here's an illustration.  Imagine a middle-aged man beginning to give a talk by saying, "I feel so privileged to be here tonight."  Now imagine a young woman with hairy legs and a shaking voice saying to that man, "Check your privilege."

It's the same man.  He has the same amount of privilege.  But it's different, right?

As I write this, I am keenly aware that I am a newcomer to this conversation.  But I sense an opening, in myself and in the Religious Society of Friends, that we are ready to engage more deeply on this issue. 

Part of that opening is inspired by two recent posts by Joanna H (Privilege, part 1 and Privilege, part 2).  I also know that many Friends (and others) have been working hard on this issue for years.  Ones that come immediately to mind are Liz O, Vanessa J, Jeanne B, and George L, and I know there are many more.

This is not meant to be a treatise on privilege.  Rather, I am taking a page from Parker Palmer and trying to write about something I don't completely understand.  I know it is challenging, and I appreciate you hanging in there with me.

It feels disingenuous to talk about the ways I feel marginalized without first acknowledging my own privilege.  Yesterday, a co-worker and I took a minute to list all of the ways we could think of that I am privileged.  It was a long list. 

I am: white, able-bodied, blue-eyed, Christian, reasonably attractive and fit, very well-educated, employed, cisgender, and a U.S. citizen.  I come from a middle class background and I have a vast safety net of family and friends.  Although I identify as bisexual, I usually come across as straight, which means that I have the choice of whether and when to reveal my sexual orientation.  The list goes on.  I did not do anything to earn this privilege, and all of these things make my life easier.

I am also a woman and a young adult Friend. 

Over the past few years as I have traveled among Friends, I have encountered assumptions about me and about who we are as Friends that make me feel alienated as a woman and a young person.  [Note: it feels a little strange for me to identify here as young.  I am 31.  In all other parts of my life, I am a real adult.  But in the context of the Religious Society of Friends, I am young and I am grouped into Young Adult Friends (YAFs), regardless of whether I identify as one.] 

This post is about the ways I have felt marginalized by my gender and age.  I am not trying to fix things.  I am just going to list of some of the assumptions I have come across and attempt to explain why they make me feel "other."  Although I am trying to separate them out, there is some overlap.

Assumption #1:  YAFs do not have much Quaker experience (and have lots of free time).  Last year, when I was in Kenya for the World Conference of Friends, a woman sat down next to me at breakfast.  She mentioned that she was on a nominating committee and asked me what my gifts and talents were.  I told her that I was pretty busy.  She said, "You're young, how busy could you be?"  At the time, I was clerk of my meeting in addition to holding down a full-time legal job.

Assumption #2:  We all have the same amount of money.  We don't.  Some people, when they want to go to a Quaker event, just write a check.  I don't think I have ever paid a full registration fee for a Quaker event.  In order to go to the FGC Gathering this summer, I had four grants (the Pickett Endowment, a workgrant for leading a workshop, a travel grant, and a scholarship from my meeting).  Young people are more likely to be taking the cheaper options: sharing rooms, getting fewer meals, or camping.  YAFs are less likely to have vacation homes.  At the World Conference of Friends, much was made of having Friends pay their fair share based on their home countries' gross domestic product.  But while we were there, a YAF from one of the wealthiest countries confided in me that she had been homeless just months before the conference.

Assumption #3:  The people who want to be there, are.  Sometimes when older Friends sigh and say, "Where are the young people?"  I want to respond, "They are at work!"  We do not all have flexible schedules.  I am fortunate enough to have a job with paid vacation leave, but even so, I had to save up for months to have enough vacation time to go to the Gathering for a week.  It is time I did not spend on other vacation or to see my family.  Young Friends are working to pay rent, support their families, or pay off student loans and other debt.  YAFs have to carefully discern whether to attend Quaker events.

Assumption #4:  Everyone feels safe.  Like many women (and also a lot of men), I am a survivor of sexual assault.  One of the consequences is that I am very sensitive about people touching me, especially men.  As a woman, I have found that many men—including Quakersfeel free to touch me in ways that they would never touch other men.  At Quaker events, there is a lot of hugging and other casual touch, and Friends have at times made me feel uncomfortable (or even shamed me) for avoiding hugs.  (And don't even get me started on "cuddle puddles.")

Assumption #5:  Everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and be heard.  This is a hard one because Friends have always held that men and women are equal.  However, in our culture, women are socialized to keep quiet and men tend to interrupt and to dominate the conversation.  Although Quakers try for more equality, we don't just leave those patterns behind when we are in Quaker settings.  One of the ways this comes out is in conversations about vocal ministry.  The assumption often is that ministers tend to speak too soon and for too long (more common for men).  My experience is that I am more likely to be unfaithful by waiting too long before I speak (more common for women).  Rather than being told to "be humble" in ministry, women may need to be told to "be bold."

I could go on, but that feels like enough for now.  I am not sharing these to try to make anyone feel bad.  I just ask that, if you find yourself making these assumptions, you stop to think first. 

Check your privilege, Friends.  And be grateful for the privileges God has given you.

Monday, July 8, 2013

FGC Gathering: Re-Entry

Just over three weeks ago, I had a yard sale.  In preparation for my move to Atlanta in August, I sold just about anything I thought I could do without for the next few months.

On the morning of the sale, I realized that I had forgotten to include a large glass vase.  I was busy getting things ready for the sale, so I set the vase on top of a bookshelf in the dining room.

Yard Sale, photo by Alivia B
A few minutes later, when I was in another room, I heard a crash and breaking glass.  I immediately knew what had happened: one of my cats had knocked over the vase and broken it on the floor.  I ran out, locked the cats in another room, and began to pick up the pieces.  Without thinking, I started to scoop up the smaller bits of glass with my bare hands—a stupid idea, which resulted in a small shard of glass imbedding itself in the tip of my right middle finger, where it stayed.

Over the following week, I tried various methods to get the glass sliver out of my finger, to no avail.  It was painful, but invisible, and I could see that it was not infected.  I realized that I just needed to wait for the glass to naturally work its way out of my finger.

After a few days, it no longer hurt, but it was strange to know (and to be able to feel) that there was a small piece of glass in my body.  Just yesterday—three weeks after the sale and when I had nearly forgotten about it—the glass finally started to come to the surface of my fingertip.

Coincidentally (or more likely, not), yesterday was also the day I had set aside for re-entry after returning home from the FGC Gathering.  In my slowed-down, processing state, my healing finger seemed like an apt metaphor for some of the deeper healing that happened for me at the Gathering—healing of deep spiritual wounds that I didn't know I still had.

I feel like I am just starting to understand some of the healing that has taken place.  I know that I will write more about my experiences at the Gathering because I need to report back to my meeting and the Pickett Endowment, but I don't have the words quite yet.

Instead, I am working through my feelings with art and music.  I spent most of meeting yesterday creating this Venn diagram of what happened for me at the Gathering (and what did not).

Venn diagram
I have also been singing and listening to music.  If I were to choose a theme song for my time at the Gathering, it would be Storm Large's "Angels in Gas Stations," which I probably listened to close to 20 times while I was there.

Blessings, Friends.


*UPDATE 7/15/13*

I did, in fact, have a lot to say about my experiences at the FGC Gathering, once I had a little more time to process.  Here are the posts I wrote about it:

FGC Gathering: Some Thoughts on Privilege

FGC Gathering: Vocal Ministry

Dialogue II

FGC Gathering: Report

Traveling Minute and Endorsements


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Convergent Friends Workshop Email

[Sent to the Friends registered for the Convergent Friends workshop I am leading at the FGC Gathering.]

Dear Friends,

I am looking forward to seeing all of you in just a few weeks at the FGC Gathering!  Aimee and I are praying for you and for our time together in the Convergent Friends workshop.

One thing that we ask everyone to do between now and the Gathering is to spend some time each day doing a spiritual practice.  Some suggestions for a daily spiritual practice are:
  • Spending time in worship or prayer
  • Reading scripture or from the workshop reading list
  • Taking a walk with intention
  • Setting the intention of loving each person you encounter
If you would like some other suggestions, the FGC New Meetings Project has put together a helpful handout on Tips for Developing a Regular Spiritual Practice.  This is one way for us to start feeling connected and intentional about our time together.

I hope that you all have safe and pleasant travels!