A Visit to Yearly Meeting (Plus Some Questions)

I hadn't planned to attend Yearly Meeting this time; it was in Northern California & Meeting funds were down; why should I go traveling for spiritual pleasure when the human destruction of the climate we depend on continues so blithely unchecked?

There was this possible nomination to Pacific Yearly Meeting's Peace & Social Order Committee. I'd said I'd accept if they couldn't do better--and didn't hear from them for a long while. Then suddenly I did; and had to scramble to make the arrangements. Our Meeting's scholarship fund was $75 short of the cost; too late to make up the difference from the exhausted PYM scholarship fund--but then somebody returned some money... and then I enjoyed nodding out while doing train/bus/train/bus/waiting-in-Petaluma-for-ride from 3:00 Sunday to early afternoon Monday. I couldn't find the tent I'd been promised, so I borrowed one from Anthony Manousos. "Bizarre travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God!" (Bokonon, in Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut)

I don't usually enjoy the opening plenary sessions, but I didn't know anything about the site and hoped to learn more. Knowing how few of us had come from San Diego, I guessed we'd de facto already split the Yearly Meeting, between Northern California attenders and people who only made it to Southern California sites. Wrong, I soon realized--High attendence overlaps the obvious geographical lines.

I'd offered to lead a worship-sharing session, heard nothing about it, assumed that must be covered. No, it was announced, there'd been plenty of volunteers but they should meet after plenary, to see who was still available. Also after plenary, the existing Peace & Social Order Committee would be meeting. Not having heard where, I followed a worship-sharing organizer to... the copy machine; would I please dash to the dining hall to ask everyone to wait while she ran off copies? I joined a small mob there blundering in the dark; someone found the light switch; the organizer appeared at last and read names, mine not included... so I was assigned to a group almost entirely of would-be leaders, hmm. Eventually I dashed to the committee meeting: four members in a lounge wondering how many minutes the plenary Meeting could digest in the twenty minute slot we expected. Two measures were ready to go: health care and the latest war (more of the first & less of the second.) A third, calling for health care assistance to poor nations, had already been approved by Southern California Quarterly, so Anthony Manuosos felt the Yearly meeting should at least consider it; meanwhile two other members had found a factual error and insisted this wouldn't do! Things got vehement! Couldn't we, I asked, just read it with a suggestion to consider something similar next year? No, Anthony would do some rewriting & they'd meet about it after dinner tomorrow. Aha! So there might be some point to my nomination; there was work here for editors!

Worship sharing is usually my favorite and least favorite part of Yearly Meeting. Generally I'll start the week feeling outcast, cramped by guidelines that prompt us to talk about our lives as if "ideas" had nothing to do with us--and then, after stretching the rules all week, I'll come out utterly fond of us all. This time, the first query was: "What does 'Community' mean to you?" Without ideas, right!

Most of us were playing it all too safe, that first session, while our one first-time yearly meeting attender was already overwhelmed and sporadically weeping. (We didn't see him again until the last day, after someone had finally caught him up and persuaded him that bypassing the queries was okay, probably even good when something else was pressing!)

Being there "on business", I spent more time in plenaries than I like. The committee's minutes were passed, through an agony of amendment & quibbling, despite one person's objection to the health care minute (She didn't, she said, know enough about it!) I thought I ought to be there when nominations came up for approval, to see if someone wiser would reject me, but all that passed while I was weeding my email.

Meanwhile I made it to Mao (A card game with secret rules; people give you penalty cards and tell you when you've broken one) but retired prudently early, forgoing my chance to add another rule.. Then I met someone who wanted to learn go; a friend of hers had been teaching the game to his classes and he might like to play. We ended up in a three-person game until midnight, whee! Another evening was an informal gathering of singers & instrumentalists. (I don't get a lot of sleep while camping; the critters play tag around my tent all night & the hard ground wakes me early each morning. That early wake-up was helpful for making it to Bible study, which was excellent this year, aside from the leader having to ask me to stifle myself a few times!)

Plenary meetings are largely devoted to what I've come to call "Quaker Football," because usually it's about what we'll say about some important issue on which nobody but us cares what we say. That is, there's a lot of strenuous activity where the outcome doesn't matter as much as the activity itself. [This happens in every organization; there's an Offensive Team (those people trying to make something happen) and a Defensive Team (everyone working to prevent that) but in the Quaker version we're stringent about Unnecessary Roughness and we add this odd twist about wanting both teams cooperating by the end, if possible.] This year we were deciding whether to hire someone to coordinate youth gatherings. That is, we had an issue combining expenditure, professional staff, and Quaker youth! It got intense!

There's a real problem being a Quaker kid. There are, yes, other people with similar values--but those aren't the values being (quite effectively) inculcated by the contemporary culture and its media. So we have these wonderful young people with good personal values and not much social support for them outside their own families. It's hard for people to be happy without at least one group where they don't have to feel like Space Aliens! For Quaker kids, that's other Quaker kids! And they're sparsely distributed in much of this State.

So, the bulk of Junior Yearly Meeting & Young Friends intensely favored this proposal, which they hoped would make up for a serious lack of volunteer effort towards religious education/peer-support in PYM. They turned out en masse & endured hours of Defense maneuvers (ranging from some cogent real difficulties to sheer ego & desperate quibbles!) with utmost patience. Jim Summers had the wonderful idea (which he didn't, alas propose) that Pacific Yearly Meeting should consist of Friends aged 50 or younger, plus an auxilary Senior Yearly Meeting (in which, I suppose we geezers would be free to practice our Quaker Football skills?)

Some really strong clerking by Joe Franko went into heroic patience, soliciting & incorporating objections--and recurring appeals to the group to find unity with what had been proposed, given the widespread approval and obvious need. Once, at the end of a grueling afternoon, when he called for the group to approve the proposal that day, a young mother went off shrieking: "Don't you dare approve this while I'm off picking up my kid."

The Second Half began with a youth vigil in the patio at lunch time, after which the group moved into Plenary and set their elders a fine example!

Shan Cretin of American Friends Service Committee rose after someone's suggestion that the funds involved go instead to her organization. AFSC needs the money this year, but she didn't want it on that basis! It had been twenty-five years ago, she said, that she first attended PYM, where a group of young people had complained, not only about a lack of help with their difficulties, but about being excluded from proper respect on matters that concerned them. Then she told a story about her daughter, during AIDS Awareness week, wanting to hang a giant condom across the two palm trees at her high school entrance. Shan had patiently explained why this was probably unwise. And then, around 11:00, she got this phone call. Her daughter was stuck up a tree and couldn't come down! Shan called a friend with climbing gear and the two of them went to the school, where they rescued the daughter and hung up the condom. When you don't have a perfect solution, she said, you still sometimes need to do something!

I don't understand Quaker fondness for business meeting! You hear utterly wonderful messages, and you hear sheer obstructive unreasonableness (even from wonderful people) and you learn far too much patience (I was occasionally wondering if I shouldn't just find a group of Kali-worshipping Quakers where business might be dealt with more expediously!) But at last, Friday after dinner hour (shortly after someone pointed out that we weren't just missing dinner, but preventing the site staff from finshing work & going home) we settled the matter over some last-ditch mutterings and one very nice man's continued inability to agree.

Quaker process, said a woman next to me at worship sharing, is not the minutuous finibickerings that so appall me, but the effort, beyond & within all that, to "follow the Spirit in decision-making." If we ever got that part down, we'd have less trouble with the rest of it!

Despite this rather full plate, I believe we scheduled more time for worship (and ended up diverting less of it) than in previous Yearly Meetings. As always, I found it powerful. When David and I left I was flying three feet off the ground and hoped to hover an inch or so up for at least a week.

Instead, I came home to an abrupt reminder that The World doesn't do business the way we do. Our landlord made a pointlessly destructive decision about the building, much to Anne's & my disadvantage, and no one who counted would look at the actual structure or listen to anyone who had. Forty-nine years of foreign war and persecutions of vulnerable poorsouls never made me so angry! I know, landlord-tenant decisions aren't made by anything like Quaker process, and that's the point. I complain about the unwieldiness of our way of operating (It's significant that the founders of Pendle Hill didn't set it up under the care of a Yearly Meeting)--and I was awestruck at the way Joe Franko's Clerking enabled our Yearly Meeting to accomplish anything whatsoever in the face of such determined opposition. Yet in my own secular situation it felt utterly wrong, that I could be treated as an obstruction, a clueless person to be overriden at the convenience of people claiming to Know Better! (I must have needed some lesson real bad!)

I am gradually becoming fit for human company again, perhaps almost ready for Peace & Social Order.

We did have a final open Peace committee meeting at PYM. Someone had thought we should talk about how Friends' social/peace concerns related to The Testimonies; so we started talking about Simplicity and ended there (since living a Life "centered in God" ought to be basis enough)--and meanwhile people had real questions that concerned them. Everyone agreed, for example, that we should have young people on the PYM committee, making as much a allowance as possible for the sheer lack of time imposed on them by contemporary economic conditions.

But mainly, the problems San Diego has had keeping up our local Peace committee have been common to many monthly Meetings. PYM' Peace committee is supposed to be working out why that is and what should be done about it. (They'd wanted more members from Southern California specifically to travel between Meetings and look into the situation in this region.)
I am interested in reactions from members of any Meeting. Is your local Peace & Social Order Committee mortibund? Why do you think that is? If so, is Meeting as a whole serving that function well enough?
Specifically, is it time to rethink some basic questions? Why does a Quaker Meeting have a Peace & Social Goodstuff committee? What is such a committee supposed to be able to accomplish? How? What is our proper relationship, as Friends, to government and other worldly institutions?

Views: 48

Comment by marv ostberg on 9th mo. 29, 2009 at 12:09am
Well, apparently I am still given an opportunity to respond, although my criticism of Forrests positions were supposed to be deleted. What we have here is random and continuous complaining rather than coming up with specific ideas. For just one example as to housing rules: make some proposed changes in the existing rules that you think might work and be more fair than now. This can be presented to the appropriate officials and politicians. Also you seek out a political figure who would be a potental supporter to carry the idea forward. This is the way changes get made and it does work, particularly as you build a coalition. This probably also would involve actually getting involved politically - in the thick of it - to play a stronger role in legislation and changes. Talk alone is only helpful in coming up with a recognition of problems and then begining to develop workable alternative solutions. Then you have to move forward agressively, but in an assertive manner (negotiation is not a sign of weakness) and persist until you get the desired result or as close to it as political possible. In that regard you live with some imperfection as long as you have progress to show for your efforts. Then - at a future point - you go back at it again to gain more toward the goal, incrementalism. But we also have to recognize that what you propose to change may have legitimacy equal to what you would rather have. That is the beginning of compromise, which also is not a bad thing. Otherwise you get into a destructive zero sum game: someone has to lose if someone else wins. Surprisingly I see that approach with Quakers sometimes. They may be confrontive rather than engaging or attacking rathering than seeking common ground. Worth thinking about??
Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 29, 2009 at 11:47am
I felt that your criticisms of my position said more about thee than about me, but wouldn't go so far as to delete them. One central element of my position is that your determination to keep to the ruts you know is essentially the same, and occurs from the same basic process, as my own. The difference, as I see it, is that I've either spend longer trying what you suggest, or (through no fault of my own--or maybe that little flaw called 'laziness') saw through it sooner, was forced (by massive public opposition) to recognize that I'd been trying to get something from the System that it wasn't capable of delivering.

You are still suffering from the notion that officials (whether governmental or corporate) and politicians have something called "power." This is true in the sense that they can do enormous damage; they are powerless to make a "compromise" that transcends its elements, only the kind of compromise that makes a mixed wreckage of them.

Common ground? We would both like to see things working better, to the direct benefit of human beings, rather than to their ultimate detriment. And we both see the other's efforts as misdirected.

Other ideas, even criticisms, are welcome; I can't promise to be nice about them, but hope to be.
Comment by marv ostberg on 9th mo. 29, 2009 at 8:35pm
Forrest -
Thanks for responding. And at the age of 73, I too have experienced much of the frustration of which you speak. Interesting that my frustration is just as common with my church and other private sources as with government officials. That probably comes as no surprise to you either. But, perhaps unlike you I am not willing to cede the final choices to these kinds of bureaucratic forces out of frustration. Each day I think and believe I can have an influence and have some proof of that. Consider that you and I are still communicating, for example. The only thing you said that really angered me as that somehow African-Americans are forced into crime such as drug dealing because of racism. It could be argued fairly that the reverse may to true, i.e., by treating people like vicims instead of with respect for their potential we could equally be racistssd, because of a kind of an excusing and low expectations. In other words, I do not believe in blaming victims, rather setting aside the idea of victim even when true. To over state and often state that kind of "truth" can create a self fulfilling prophesy. Cheers and peace.
Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 29, 2009 at 9:38pm
"The race is not always to the swift, but that's the way to bet." Although there are desperate people who refuse unethical ways of making a living, if you've allowed a situation where the options, for some people in some areas, reduce to destitution vs black-market business, you can't be surprised if many of them would rather work in some black market. With specifically homeless people, I met some who wouldn't panhandle and some who made a con game of it. I'd consider the major financial businesses to be equally far from right-livelihood, and many white people are willing to deceive themselves about the ethics of that way of supporting their families. It isn't that any people are forced into crime, but that we shouldn't be surprised to find that we get what we collectively pay for: criminal businesses, dishonest appeals for charity, institutions that extort large rewards for dysfunctional and even counterproductive efforts to "solve" problems.

African Americans are more likely to have drug enforcement active in their neighborhoods, to be charged with greater crimes for the same action, to be convicted if caught and to have longer sentences when convicted. That doesn't make any individual black person entirely "a victim," but it does make it wrong to judge him as if he'd been offered the same education and work opportunities as an upper class white guy. Mainstream USians see nothing wrong with joining the army; members of other cultures see joining the local gang as equally "the normal thing to do".

Treating people as "victims" is probably not useful, but what is useful is a 'no-fault' approach. "This happened; you did that; and what's the best thing to do now?"
Comment by marv ostberg on 10th mo. 1, 2009 at 12:23am
I will have to think about that last comment for a while. You write beautifully, if a bit fatalistically, but I do admire your writing skills.
Comment by Forrest Curo on 10th mo. 1, 2009 at 3:02pm
"Fatalistically" comes largely from my pro-homeless activist phase, although ringing doorbells for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 "because Goldwater might get us into a big nasty war" played a part.

Sitting in at Sproul Hall a month or so later helped also, letting me see how something I'd witnessed would look after being run through hostile media. Also getting arrested during the Republican convention here, 1996... which finally convinced me I'd need to start my own paper (which was how I ran into the drug enforcement statistics: There was more meth manufacturing and use in Claremont, a respectable white area, than in Logan Heights, but it was indoors rather than conveniently on the streets, so part of the enforcement disparity was a matter of what would look best for the least effort...)

Anyway. Watching how the City Council dealt with issues of homelessness, from about 1991 to 2009... Much like what Veblen said, about being able to predict the politics of any American town by the interests of the local real estate industry (which in San Diego definitely includes the developers. This is the root of USian politics, down here where one finds the entry-level positions. It's kind of a miracle we got Bob Filner into Congress after he'd been part of that; more typically the most honest ones quit.

Once I called one of the better members of the County Board of Supervisors, about his vote for a punitive welfare measure. An aide told me: "He expects the courts will throw it out, and meanwhile it makes him more popular with the voters."

A few "good apples" are not enough to keep this tree from falling!

William Stringfellow did much toward stopping the Vietnam War, but he could say things like ~"The war could end tomorrow, and the power of [what he called] death in this country would simply find another way to manifest." I think (could anyone deny?) that this has gotten much clearer since then!

"Speaking truth to 'power' " does have its effect. The Mayor's aide assigned to read our street newspaper eventually came to agree with us--and was reassigned! We went on, running headlines like 'Regional Task Force Celebrates Fifteen Years of Homelessness' until... I admire Terry Messman, a much more competent journalist, who started before I did and is still (I think) going in the SF Bay Area, producing _Street Spirit_ for AFSC; but the things he has to write now look a lot like what he was writing when he started, because the thinking that produces the problems is still the same, still a given to the people who set the public agenda and make the public decisions. I had to sell my house a few years ago, used the proceeds to spend some time at Pendle Hill; I'm sorry my successors were not able to keep our paper going but I'm kind of relieved to be off that duty for now!

Less "fatalism"... than a sense of where the real power lies: In the power of people to cloud--or uncloud--their own minds. Until the psychic weather clears, this is no time to be out in it!

I don't feel very good at following God's lead, but centuries of our very best thinking have gotten us into a pit, from which nothing else can possibly bring us out! So I'm being lazy, for now, waiting to see what comes next.

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