Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Stoking the Fire

I had my first real experience with Friends United Meeting (FUM) Friends over the weekend at the Stoking the Fire conference, which took place May 22-25 in Milford, OH.  This was supposed to be my first week of work at First Friends Meeting, but since my supervisor is out of town, she suggested that I attend the conference and get to know FUM Friends that way.  I usually like to wait a while to let things settle before writing about an experience like this, but since I am leaving for California tomorrow, I want to write some of my initial impressions.

One of the highlights for me was being able to ride in the car with other Friends from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM).  I did not know any of these Friends before we set off together on the 7.5-hour trip from Greensboro to Milford, but we know each other well now!  We spent a lot of time talking about our meetings, yearly meetings, and preaching, and we laughed a lot.

This was the first Quaker conference I have been to in a long time where I did not have any
responsibilities.  That was a little strange for me, but also pretty great.  The planners did a good job of building spaciousness into the schedule, with breaks and unstructured time, and I spent a fair amount of time napping and reading for pleasure.  The conference center was also very comfortable, with single rooms and plenty of food.

I didn't know what to expect entering an FUM gathering, but the Friends were extremely welcoming.  I got to spend time with some Friends I hadn't seen since the 2012 World Conference of Friends.  It was lovely to be able to catch up and share new ideas (some Friends and I especially enjoyed debating the parameters of "bro theology" over lunch one day).  I also got to know some new people, and I expect those relationships will continue online and as we travel among Friends.

The worship times were warm and welcoming, with a spirit of listening and a willingness to experiment.  The gathering was explicitly Christ-centered, and I got the sense that many Friends there feel out of place in their own meetings; they seemed relieved to be in a place where they could share their Christian beliefs freely.  The singing throughout the weekend fed my soul, especially in the Saturday evening Taize worship.

One thing that was surprising and disappointing was the gender imbalance in presenters over the weekend.  Men preached every morning, led the plenaries, and led most of the other activities in the large group.  In our main sessions, only two out of ten were led by women.  There were three young men (i.e., under 40) present, and all of them had leadership roles in the main sessions; there were at least eight young women, and none of them did.  The women who led tended to be in typically female roles: as support, leading music, or leading prayer.  I also noticed immediately that everyone was using male pronouns for God.  I am not used to hearing exclusively male pronouns anymore, and it was distracting and a little alienating for me.

Even more distressing were some of the comments that older men made to younger women present.  There was one man in particular who referred to all of the women there as "honey" and "girl," and then proceeded to tell them what to do.  I heard from three women that some of the men had made inappropriate comments about their appearance, including sexual and racial remarks.  This behavior is unacceptable and I expect better from Friends.

The conference took place over Pentecost weekend, and there was a sense of longing for a new Pentecost among Friends, a renewed fire in the Religious Society as a whole.  We did not experience that kind of fire, but there was a warmth to the gathering that was encouraging.  I think most of the Friends there came out with a renewed feeling of commitment and a greater sense of hope for the future of Friends.

In the final session, we spent time sharing where we had seen fire in various places throughout the weekend.  Rather than a bonfire, many of the fires were more like the candles in the Taize service—small but giving off more light and heat than we might have expected.  

Then Colin invited Friends to join him in the center of the circle, to draw near to Christ with him.  He started by inviting people individually and eventually everyone was welcomed in.  Afterward, a Friend referred to this moment as an altar call, and I realized that it was, but unlike other altar calls I have witnessed, which can feel manipulative and coercive, this grew organically out of the time that we shared together.  Friends felt free to come to the center or stay on the edges, and Christ was present everywhere.


  1. Well put -- thoughtful and helpful, Ashley!

    1. Thanks, Brent! It was great to see you!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Ashley. I look forward to reading more from you and others. Best to you in your role with First Friends.

  3. Thanks for sharing Ashley and THANK YOU for talking about the inappropriate comments from older men thing, I was only there briefly (like for 3 ish hrs) and I experienced that too. And it is not just there , it is something I have experienced consistantly around the quaker world at fgc stuff too. It is really not a good thing. I'm not sure why it is so tolerated.

    Go Ashley!

    1. I'm sorry you had that experience, Shannon. I think it's important to name these things, and I hope that people who see them happening will have the courage to say that Friends acting this way are out of Gospel Order.

  4. Hi Ashley,

    --I am so glad you have also discovered the ministry of car ride conversations!

    --I had a conversation one time about a young woman who was being really blatantly sexually harassed by one of her boss's peers in front of other men. She said it really mattered that one of the other guys nailed the harasser and called him out really directly. I think it would be awesome if that were more the culture around Quakers too.

    In the Light.

    1. Yes, one of the big things men can do as allies is to call out other men when they treat women badly.

  5. I found myself yearning to talk about Pentecost with Friends last weekend, so really appreciated your post. Part of my work is supporting an Episcopal church's RE program, and I am brought close to elements of Christian faith and liturgy that were not part of my Quaker upbringing or RE education -- like Pentecost. Sunday morning I was on the floor with kids, talking about Spirit and the fire and serving them cinnamon candy so they can FEEL the fire -- And that same fire is an image that resonates so deeply with me as a Friend. The idea of a renewed Pentecost . . . I wonder how Pentecost might resonate for us in the sense of shared identity connecting across the languages we speak as Friends. The apostles went out, perhaps we might enter in a period of gathering in.
    Thinking about branches, FUM and FGC, racial justice, gender equality . . . If the unity we seek celebrates not sameness but equality of the differences . . . If difference can be creative and generative . . .

    Do you know the poem “Fire” by Judy Brown? I often read it at Godly Play trainings -- a reminder to leave some space so that the fire can grow.

    1. It's nice to hear from you, Melinda! I know Friends do not observe the liturgical year, but it seems like Pentecost is one of the most Quaker holy days. I did not know the poem Fire, but I really like it. The image of the space between rings true for me.

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience at Stoking the Fire, Ashley! Your presence helped bring light and life to the gathering!
    I appreciate your comments regarding gender-imbalance. Though I was not part of the nuts and bolts planning team, I know this matters to those who were responsible for inviting Friends to share. They tried to sort out who might be called to serve/minister and be mindful of the diversity within FUM. We can always improve, however, and so I will pass this along to the team as they debrief this experience and plan for future ones.
    I am troubled by the fact a handful of the men were inappropriate in their sharing. I heard about this at the conclusion of the gathering and have already committed to speak to them directly. As we discussed at the conclusion, we did not design this to be a one-time event. Rather, it is our hope that FUM will nurture and encourage a community on the way to being spiritual alive, deeply connected and faithful in service. In order to get there, we need to have the courage and humility to address those who intentionally or unintentionally do harm to others. We will have that conversation...in the hope it minimizes the possibility of it recurring.
    Blessings, peace and joy as you minister in Greensboro this summer!

    1. Thanks for your response, Colin. I am glad to hear that you will be following up with these individuals directly. It was wonderful to see you this weekend; thanks for all the work you did to make the conference a welcoming and supportive space.

  7. The gender imbalance bit is so puzzling to me because the makeup of the planning committee was pretty even with men and women -- if anything, more women IIRC (I wasn't on it; I just know who was), including several women who are very emphatic and very feminist.

    My sense of FUM as a whole is almost entirely from the board meetings and Triennial. I am the recording clerk, which is a position of authority, though it's often a more traditionally female role for sure. I have never felt any pushback that felt gender-based, but one difference I HAVE noticed in FUM gatherings rather than FGC/FWCC/NEYM gatherings is a greater emphasis on more traditional forms of authority.

    In a way I like this; I find that my YM is so allergic to ANY kind of authority that we can't get things done. I like it when we can say "this person knows her shit; we will set her on this task and let her carry it out." FUM does this better than liberal friends and let me tell you it makes recording for FUM board meetings 1000x easier than recording for any other Quaker body I've ever recorded for (well, except for the marathon sessions but that's another story.)

    But what I'm getting at, and what I noticed at the gathering much more than I noticed the gender imbalance, was that the leaders were all, well, traditional leaders. Everyone who spoke, to the best of my knowledge, either was in the ministry full time or had retired from being in the ministry full time. Or had written books or whatnot.

    In the Quaker world, and the FUM world in particular, those people are still very male. The more traditional the authority, the male-er. Just thinking about the superindents and secretaries of North American (well, and African too but that's a whole 'nother story) yearly meetings is fairly illustrative. Because patriarchy.

    Anyway. I am pretty confident that the planning committee was looking for non-male voices, because I know the planning committee and I cannot believe that they weren't.

    I suspect, however, that they may have self-derailed by the ways they were looking for leadership.

    I think FUM is more susceptible to that kind of bias because of how it approaches leadership (in contrast to how non-pastoral gatherings approach it). In non-pastoral gatherings non-pastors are more frequently lifted up. And they are more often women.

    I also feel like this happens more in gatherings across yearly meetings, rather than within them, because not everyone knows everyone. In NEYM it's easy for me to say "Leslie Manning should preach!" and everyone knows she's got it going on and will agree with me. In a trans-YM gathering if someone says the same thing, other people DON'T know that she's got it going on, and so they ask, "well, what is her experience? What are her credentials?"

    (Discursive side note: THIS IS WHY WE NEED TO RECORD OUR MINISTERS! Liberal friends have been ALLERGIC to this but I swear it is a tool to fight the patriarchy. Because then that's what the person's minute becomes: the ultimate Quaker credential. ANYWAY.)

    The distinction is important to me because it will affect how future planners look at it. If we just say, "more women please!" I think they will feel frustrated ("but we were LOOKING for women!") and defensive ("I'm a feminist, damnit!"). If we say, "how about expanding the idea of what spiritual authority and leadership look like in a conference like this, and include more diverse voices thereby? Maybe take minutes recording gifts of ministry as All The Credential We Need, in classic Quaker fashion?" I think that's more useful to them as planners because it is a clear way to shift what they're doing.

    But I think that's a heavier cultural rock to push.

    1. This is an interesting perspective, Rosemary, and it rings true. I agree about recording! As I have argued in the past, recording is especially important for women because there are so many voices telling women that they can't be ministers. It was great to see you and reconnect.


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