Articles & News

NEO AFSC February 17, 2017 Podcast


We summarize last week’s activities; share next week’s upcoming events; and comment on Exxon corporation’s use of  first amendment “free speech rights” to avoid guilt and responsibility in selling fossil fuels despite knowing  those products caused climate change; introduced mis-named “right to know” legislation in Ohio; and a review of the new film about James Baldwin on race, class and power. [Length: 33:32]

Categories: Articles & News

La Seguridad

American Friends Service Committee - Wed, 02/15/2017 - 5:23pm
Categories: Articles & News

BREAKING: Jeanette Vizguerra, Undocumented Mother, Chooses Resistance to ICE and Enters Sanctuary in Denver Church

American Friends Service Committee - Wed, 02/15/2017 - 11:56am
Jeanette and kids

Jeanette Vizguerra and her daughter Luna lead chants at AFSC’s monthly vigil at the for-profit GEO detention facility in Aurora, Colorado.

Photo: AFSC/Photo: AFSC/Gabriela Flora
Categories: Articles & News

Falling Through the Cracks: The Children of Calais

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 3:10am

“The Children of Calais” drawing by Erik Dries of Netherlands Yearly Meeting.

Until late last October, there was a refugee camp in Calais in northern France. Across the Channel from one of the wealthiest countries in the world, approximately 10,000 men, women, and children lived in squalor and hope. Among them at the time the camp was destroyed were approximately 1,500 unaccompanied children. They ranged in age from 8 to 18, and had come from more than 25 countries, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan. Some of the older ones had come alone; others had lost the adult(s) who had accompanied them at the start of their difficult journeys. All hoped to go to the United Kingdom, either to join family or friends or simply to find asylum from a place where their lives had become impossible.

At that time, their fate was governed by two things: the Dublin agreements and the Dubs amendment. The Dublin agreements specified that asylum seekers are eligible to enter the UK if they have close family there. The 2016 Dubs amendment to the UK immigration law tried to broaden it to include the youngest and most vulnerable children.

The concern for vulnerable children was well founded. When the southern half of the Calais camp was destroyed last March, approximately half of the unaccompanied children disappeared, having melted into the French countryside, gotten lost in the social system, or fallen into the hands of those who would traffic them or convert them to violent ideologies.

Before the destruction of the camp at Calais, it was estimated that around 40 percent of the unaccompanied children in the camp had family in the UK, and thus had the legal right to go there under the Dublin agreements. Destruction of the camp was postponed for a week in order to allow the UK officials time to process these asylum applications. On Friday of that week of grace, a bus was scheduled to take children to their families in the UK. It was canceled with no explanation. On the following Monday, French officials began the destruction of the camp, projected to take a week.

Photo by Kate McNally

Residents of the camp, including the children, were asked to go to a warehouse and register for transport to accommodation centers (ACs) throughout France. Children were registered but sent back to a section of the camp built out of shipping containers to await transport to the UK or to ACs. On the Monday in the predawn darkness I saw numbers of young people with backpacks melting into the darkness in the town. They were afraid of the uncertain future awaiting them in the ACs, and preferred to take their chances alone.

By the Wednesday, French officials declared that the job was done, and the camp was empty ahead of schedule. This despite the fact that there were still several hundred children and even more adults who hadn’t been registered. The registered children were sent back to the camp to wait in the shipping containers for the buses which the French officials imagined would come from the UK to get them. Those who weren’t able to register fell through the cracks of the system and are currently uncounted and unaccounted for.

Those who had been registered stayed in the containers for a week, while the governments of France and the UK passed the buck to one another and the camp burned around them. The children had no food, no water, no sanitation, no social workers, no adult supervision at all except for the police who surrounded them. It was clear that the police were there to keep them in, not to keep them safe. They were fed and cared for solely by volunteers who provided food, water, clothing, and supervision. The volunteers slept on the concrete outside the shipping containers to protect the children.

Meanwhile, the camp was being destroyed around them. One eyewitness said, “They sat inside the shipping containers and watched as their home burnt, choking on the smoke and worried for their brothers and sisters. Every responsible adult they could communicate with in their own language had been taken away on a bus.”

Eventually the UK sent officials to accompany the children to the ACs. It has been reported that many of them left the buses before they arrived at the ACs, leaving the children with no information about their fate. More children fell through the cracks as they disappeared from the buses which were carrying them to the ACs. By this time they had a profound distrust of the system which they felt had abandoned them.

A survey conducted by the charity Help Refugees in late November 2016 reported that conditions in the ACs were inconsistent. In many the accommodation, food, and activities were of good quality, but the help that the children needed to understand their options and to apply for asylum in the UK was largely unavailable. In effect, the children were being warehoused. It was left to French workers to provide the language and legal support needed for the children to complete an application in English to join the UK. This was made even more difficult by the lack of information available from the UK.

In addition the report noted that many of the children in the centers presented symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, while the centers had very little professional psychological support available.

The report states, “At no point in our research did we find evidence that the (UK) Home Office has been informing minors about the four criteria for eligibility in their guidelines. Those interviewed and found to be [not eligible] were not informed of this and continued to believe that they were eligible for transfer to the UK.”

In mid-November, the Home Office went further and gutted the Dubs amendment, severely cutting the number of children eligible to enter the UK under it. This was done after children had been told they would be able to go, prompting one group of children to file legal proceedings against the home secretary (who is roughly the equivalent of the Secretary of the Interior) and others to go on hunger strikes. Still others disappeared from the ACs.

By the end of the year, only a few hundred children from Calais had been transferred to the UK. The rest continue to wait, with no answers, no information, no hope.

Currently it is estimated that between one-third and half of the children in ACs in France have disappeared. Some have slipped away to make their way back to Calais where they hope to get to the UK by illegal and dangerous means. Others may have fallen into the hands of traffickers. Still others may be on the road to violent futures. There are many cracks they can fall into. Surely in a civilized society we can do better for the children of Calais.

Author’s note: The Guardian reports that the accommodation centers will all close on February 10, with no indication of what provisions may have been made for the kids. I have heard similar things from other sources, but with slightly later dates. It’s hard to get good information.

Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), together with the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network (QARN), have published a report on Friends’ efforts to respond to the influx of displaced persons in Europe. “Quaker Faith in Action: Friends’ work in the area of forced migration” builds on feedback from Quaker respondents across Europe, and explores the important work done by individuals, meetings, and organizations in response to this unprecedented humanitarian challenge.

This article originally published online 1/30/2017

The post Falling Through the Cracks: The Children of Calais appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

February full issue access

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 3:00am
Members can download the full PDF or read any article online (see links below). Features: Seven Tasks to Health the World by Michael Soika; Respect is the Heartbeat of Standing Rock by Shelley Tanenbaum; Mystical Experience, the Bedrock of Quaker Faith by Robert Atchley; I Am Not a Religious Person by Sarah Pennock Neuville; Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring by John Andrew Gallery. Poetry: Wallops Island Celestial Meeting by George Eastburn; Where🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Among Friends: Venturing Outside Our Comfort Zones

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:55am

When we make room for the unexpected and felicitous in our lives, what happens? It’s a question worth reflecting on, and one for which we are offered answers whenever we plan an open-theme issue, as is the case this month.

We humans are born explorers. We can commit not just to learning from new experiences, but to seeking out new experiences.

I read the articles that came together in this issue as products of exploration, openness, and commitment—elements that just might be essential in our spiritual and religious lives. At any point, we can decide to venture outside our comfort zones, open up, prepare to be changed, and to acknowledge that the power to change is what makes us human and gives us the capacity to improve the world around us.

In “Respect Is the Heartbeat of Standing Rock,” Quaker Earthcare Witness general secretary Shelley Tanenbaum shares the experience of three older Quaker women committing their presence to the gathering in defense of sacred Lakota Sioux land from the construction of an oil pipeline. What she learned, and shares with readers, runs deeper than the news reports we’ve all seen about this massive direct action.

We are also pleased to share with readers two pieces on that mystical experience that has been central in the definition of the Quaker way as a distinct spiritual path. Robert Atchley gives us an overview of the topic from the perspective of an elder with 30 years of research and personal practice invested in the subject. Complementing this is the voice of Sarah Pennock Neuville, new to our pages, who in “I Am Not a Religious Person” describes in vivid detail a recollection of her own mystical experience, which has led this young woman to a nuanced and developing understanding of what she calls “the litheness of spirituality.”

Frequent Friends Journal contributor John Andrew Gallery, a Friend from unprogrammed Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, collaborates with Conservative Ohio Yearly Meeting Friend Susan Smith to bring readers an outsider’s eager perspective upon attending two Conservative Friends gatherings in Barnesville, Ohio. Gallery arrives an explorer but quickly finds himself absorbed and carried to deeper understanding and unexpected vocal ministry. Smith plays the role of Gallery’s welcoming host and interpreter, rounding out and enriching this self-searching reflection.

From all of us at Friends Journal—staff, volunteers, and creative partners—thank you, reader, for giving us reason to keep exploring and sharing the fruits of Quaker discovery and deepening with you and with the world.

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Categories: Articles & News

Silence in the Noise

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:50am
Photo by Flickr/santos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) I came to Quakerism in 1995, a new mom overwhelmed by the gobsmacking spiritual earthquake of having brought a brand new human being into the world. Religion and I had long since shown each other the door, but I felt my soul hungering for a way to engage with a world that now seemed so crammed with🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Categories: Articles & News

Forum, February 2017

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:45am
No spectators in a crisis Thanks so much to Rev. Barber for sharing the Light, in the form of his brilliant, powerful, courageous, spiritual analysis and call to action (“The Third Reconstruction” by William J. Barber II, FJ Sept. 2016). I must say that you gotta lotta Quaker in you, sir! This is precisely the kind of spark needed to ignite a Third Reconstruction. People need to realize that there are no spectators in this crisis. One is either for equal justice under law, or with the🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Categories: Articles & News

Seven Tasks to Heal the World

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:40am

As we stand witness to the violence and the protests across the country, we are forced to ask: What is the heart of the matter? I’m not sure that anyone has an answer to that question. Until we acknowledge our own culpability, there is little hope for a lasting solution. The change we seek will only come when we see a change of heart in a sufficient number of people to tip the balance toward peace, community, and respect for each other.

As I reflected and prayed about this, seven actions came to mind. These are actions each of us can take to heal our own hearts and to heal the hearts of others with whom we are connected.

Listen Deeply

Listen deeply to those we meet, and listen deeply to the stirrings within our own souls. This is more difficult than it seems, especially when we are called to listen to those who don’t agree with us. When we commit to listening deeply, we commit to honoring the dignity and value of others. We listen deeply when we start with the belief that we can learn something from the other person, something we may not have considered before.

Listening to the stirrings deep within our souls is an act of faith. The Quakers teach that there is that of God within each of us. If we listen to the voice of God within, we will be guided to act in big ways and in small. But the key here is stilling our hearts and minds, listening to the leadings of the heart, and then acting upon them.

Act Justly

To act justly means to follow the Golden Rule: that we do unto others as we would want others to do unto us. It also means that there is an integrity between what we believe on the inside and how we act on the outside. We can’t go to church on Sunday and also tolerate bigoted comments at work on Monday. We can’t oppose abortion and also oppose using tax dollars to support needy moms and children.

We would do well to remember the advice of the Catholic monk Thomas Merton when he said that the essence of the universe is “mercy, within mercy, within mercy.” If we act with mercy, we will also find justice.

Trust God

Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Trusting God means that ultimately we believe good will prevail over evil. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should just kneel down and pray for everything to be all right. What it means is that God is active within the world, speaking to and through each person. God’s guidance is here, but our willingness to listen and to act on that guidance may be lacking. I believe that the building blocks of the Kingdom of God are here now, but we must each act to bring that kingdom about, person by person and day by day.

Be Sorry

No matter what the situation or confrontation, we played a role in its development. We need to say the words out loud to the person who is the focus of our attention. Are we alienated from our parents? From our siblings? From our children? Say the words: “I’m sorry.” Are you and your friend or co-worker no longer talking due to political differences? Say the words: “I’m sorry.” Have you gossiped or caused harm to someone either intentionally or unintentionally? Then say “I’m sorry” to them. Heal the wound in your heart by showing sorrow for your actions or inaction.

If we take this in a broader context, from the personal to the societal, we can say “I’m sorry” for the social ills causing our country pain. In this instance, there is no one to say “I’m sorry” to, but the action of saying it helps to create a personal conversion of heart. And once a sufficient number of us acknowledge the pain we have caused as a nation and say “I’m sorry,” then we can begin to witness a communal conversion of heart. I’m sorry for the genocide of the Native Americans. I’m sorry for slavery and the ongoing pain it has caused. I’m sorry for wars that were started to gain profit and resources. I’m sorry for pillaging the environment and for causing climate change. I’m sorry for school systems that fail the children. I’m sorry for the structural systems that promote income inequality and create a permanent and growing class of families who are falling behind.

If we don’t name the pain that is the heart of the matter of our societal inequity and violence, then we have no chance of healing it.

Ask for Forgiveness

Just as we need to say “I’m sorry,” we must also ask for forgiveness and mean it. Asking for forgiveness is the first step in freeing ourselves from guilt and pain. For everyone to whom we said “I’m sorry,” we now need to ask for forgiveness. Perhaps the person from whom you seek forgiveness has died. Ask anyway, from your heart and soul. Asking for forgiveness is as much about seeking our own peace as it is in receiving absolution for our words or actions.

On a societal level, forgive me for not speaking out against injustice. Forgive me for not taking a stand when others were harmed. Forgive me for seeking to protect my way of life at the expense of others.

Say Thank You

Sincerely saying “thank you” honors the gift that we are given, and it honors the person who provided the gift. Saying “thank you” is also recognizing that I don’t have all of the answers. Saying “thank you” acknowledges that we are who we are today due to the multitude of gifts we have received from others. And for these gifts, we should give thanks.

Say I Love You

Sometimes saying “I love you” is difficult to do. We learn from the Bible that we should love others as we love ourselves. Perhaps, the first person we need to say “I love you” to is ourselves. Much of the pain in the world is born from a pain deep within our own hearts. A friend of mine said that where there is great anger, there is great pain. I would take that one step further and say where there is great anger, there is a broken heart. And the only way to heal a broken heart is to open our arms and our hearts and demonstrate our love.

As you can see from the seven tasks listed above, these really aren’t about healing the world. They are about healing ourselves. The final four are more profound if we take them in consort with someone with whom we are having difficulties (they are detailed in the book Ho’oponopono: The Hawaiian Forgiveness Ritual as the Key to Your Life’s Fulfillment). They are all about finding a place in our hearts for love and forgiveness. If we are broken or wounded, we cannot fully honor and value another, especially another who does not look like us or who does not think or act like us. A person who feels loved and respected is more likely to reach out to others with love and respect. And that is how we will bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.

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Categories: Articles & News

Respect Is the Heartbeat of Standing Rock

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:32am

Photo by the author.

Strange combinations of beauty and blight were everywhere when I set out for Standing Rock, North Dakota, home of the Lakota Sioux. I chose to travel by train in order to have the blessed time to prepare mentally and emotionally to be present at Standing Rock and to limit my carbon footprint. Within 15 minutes from departure time, I was rolling around the beautiful northern shore of San Francisco Bay right through the Richmond oil refineries. A few hours later in the Sierra foothills, tall evergreens were equally interspersed with rust-brown dead and dying trees, due to a beetle infestation caused by the drought. This contrast of the land’s grand beauty with blight followed me all the way to the incredible North Dakota big sky, which was juxtaposed with oil pumps, pipelines, and police brutality.

After spending a few days at Standing Rock, I was struck by the similarities to Gandhian nonviolence. As explained by Chris Moore-Backman in his book The Gandhian Iceberg, Gandhian practice has three important components: grounding in Spirit, a beloved community, and direct action. Practitioners first ground their behavior and their actions in prayer and guidance from Spirit. They surround themselves in a community of like-minded people, all supporting each other materially and emotionally. When they are called to action, the call comes from a deep place of prayer and Spirit, and is supported by the entire community.

The Standing Rock community is welcoming, mutually supportive, nurturing, and prayer-based. There is one main camp of water protectors, Oceti Sakowin, and a separate nearby camp, Sacred Stone (the original core camp). Within Oceti Sakowin, different tribes and themes have camping clusters, including Two-spirit camp for LGBTQ folks; Red Warrior camp (for those most focused on direct action, off-limits to visitors); the media and legal teams; and medical support. Oceti Sakowin is on contested treaty land, now controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, and, as of this writing, residents have been threatened with eviction. Just across the Cannonball River, there is a much smaller camp on the Standing Rock Reservation for families and women.

Three of us from Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) felt called to visit Oceti Sakowin in mid-November. We felt moved to participate with this historic gathering of now over 400 indigenous communities and anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people gathered to protect the Missouri River watershed from a proposed oil pipeline. The Lakota are holding the government accountable to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty that ceded land to them, even though in practice, that land has not been theirs to use. Thirty-eight miles of the pipeline will travel over this contested land. I brought a statement of support from QEW, as approved in September. Carol Barta brought a statement of support and winter supplies donated by Quakers and Mennonites from her Manhattan, Kansas, community. Judy Lumb, who resides in Belize, brought a statement of solidarity and a flag from the Garifuna, one of the indigenous groups of Belize. We understood that we were visitors and observers, and we minimized our use of resources at the camp by staying overnight off-site. We are inspired by the Lakota who say, “Mni Wiconi” (Water is Life). They know that living well can only come from a harmonious relationship with the natural world.

Standing Rock has served as an inspiration to both indigenous and non-indigenous people. I encourage you to go directly to indigenous organizations and leaders to hear what this is all about. Some places to start are,, and the Indigenous Environmental Network on Facebook for day-to-day updates.

In our local communities, inspiration to support the water protectors at Standing Rock was palpable. Supplies flowed in as soon as Carol let her community know that she was traveling to Standing Rock. When a farmer died ten years ago, his wife could not let go of his large supply of Carhartts, extremely warm overalls that are used throughout the prairie by people who have to work outdoors in the winter. This was the time for her to let go, with much joy that her husband’s supplies would be well used. The day after we dropped off our supplies, we saw someone walking around in one of those Carhartts. Not only did Carol’s community quickly rise to the challenge of donating supplies, but two Friends took one look at Carol’s tiny car and immediately handed her the keys to their van for our transportation.

In all of the stories told about brutal treatment of the water protectors, it is rare to hear about the peaceful and Spirit-led day-to-day flow of the main camp, Oceti Sakowin. We were never made to feel out of place, even though we were newcomers, didn’t know all the routines, and were non-indigenous. Our gifts of winter clothes and warm sleeping bags and blankets were greatly appreciated; our presence, even more.

The first glimmer that you are entering a different kind of community comes when you drive past some of the more than 400 flags that indigenous groups have sent to Oceti Sakowin. At first, the camp seems a hodge-podge of structures: teepees and tarpees mixed up with army-like mess tents, standard nylon tents, tiny houses, yurts, and a large dome. Twice a day prayer circles happen in a central plaza, followed by announcements. Nearly every day, there is a nonviolence action training and a newcomers’ orientation. The first place we stopped was the free store.

Due to blowing snow and ice, Carol and I didn’t arrive at camp until midday on November 19. As soon as we started unloading supplies, a camper approached us to ask if we had any warm boots. Carol asked what size. The camper desperately needed women’s size 7.5 to replace the rubber rain boots she was wearing (fine for Portland, Oregon, but not for winter in North Dakota). The only boots we had with us were women’s size 7.5. Yes! Soon after, we were approached by a woman looking for blankets and sleeping bags for the women’s tent. This is a tent set up in the family camp across the river for women to gather daily and to provide a relaxing space during menstruation. It felt like the perfect home for our supply of five extra-warm sleeping bags and several blankets.

On the fateful day of Sunday, November 20, Lakota elders spent all day in prayer and discussion. That evening water protectors on the frontline tried to clear Highway 1806 to the north for traffic, the road having been blocked by authorities in late October. (The day before we had observed how an ambulance took an extra 30 minutes to arrive at camp due to the road closure.) That evening, water protectors on Highway 1806 were met with tear gas, water hoses dousing them in sub-freezing temperatures, and explosive devices that resulted in the probable loss of one woman’s arm.

Earlier in the day, however, much of camp life went on as usual. Three meals are prepared daily and shared throughout camp. Judy helped with lunch that day, and she ferried water around the camp (see her blog at Camp etiquette includes honoring elders in many ways. One simple way is that when lunch is ready, young people bring plates of food to elders as a show of respect. There we were: three older Quaker women sitting in the sun near the main fire pit. Suddenly two young people brought us plates of food! We were grateful.

When we met someone, there was always time for a talk. That was more important than rushing off to “do something.” This is how relationships are forged. This is how important relationships are in this community.

Not that there wasn’t much going on: lots of winterizing to prepare for the fierce winds and cold common in North Dakota winters. The construction crews were determined and working diligently. We saw an impressive crew putting up a straw bale structure. Another crew was assembling a food storage shed for keeping food from freezing. Teepees and tarpees were everywhere. A local Lakota young man invited us inside his canvas teepee with a small wood stove, which was incredibly warm and cozy on a 25-degree day. Tarpees follow the structure of teepees but use tarp instead of canvas for the walls and include a clever smoke-hole design. Carol is connected with a Seattle group that designed these and donated supplies to set up 80 of them at Standing Rock. We met three Navaho from Arizona who had spent the night in a tarpee. They reported it was spacious but in need of a wood stove for warmth (the stoves are on the way).

A few hours after we left Standing Rock, the people we had casually chatted with were being sprayed with water in sub-freezing temperatures. A week after we left, the sunny, central plaza in Oceti Sakowin was blanketed with snow; the wind was howling; and inhabitants of Oceti Sakowin camp were threatened with eviction. We left the camp filled with love and respect for those on the frontlines, for Lakota elders who inspired and led the effort, and for all of us who, in big and small ways, consider ourselves water protectors. Mni Wiconi.

As of December 4, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement to put the pipeline under the Missouri River and stated that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required to complete the project. On January 18, two days before President Obama left office, the Corps issued a notice of intent to complete an Environmental Impact Statement on the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. Time will tell whether this gathering of spirit becomes yet another instance of invasion and destruction of an indigenous community, or serves as a pivot point for how we all relate to the natural world. What role do Friends have?

This article originally published Dec 7, 2016. It has been slightly revised for the February 2017 print version to update readers of actions taken in mid-January 2017.

The post Respect Is the Heartbeat of Standing Rock appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Mystical Experience, the Bedrock of Quaker Faith

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:30am

© Mopic

Mystical experience is direct experience of God. Quaker silence is an invitation to experience that of God within ourselves, and indeed within the entire perceivable universe. George Fox felt that we should “walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every person.” He also said, “Be staid in the principle of God in thee . . . that thou wilt find Him to be a God at hand.”

Rufus Jones (1863–1948) was arguably the foremost Quaker scholar, writer, and advocate of opening to mystical experience as a central practice among Friends. He built on foundations laid by Meister Eckhart, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, William James, and many other Christian mystics—people who had had direct experiences of God and tried to describe them. Jones concluded that the founders of most great religions of the world got their spiritual understanding through mystical experience. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are filled with reports of direct experiences of God. Mystical experience “makes God sure to the person who has had the experience,” wrote Jones.

Jones cautioned against using the term “mysticism.” Each seeker of “God within” is confronted by a unique personal and cultural labyrinth that he or she must negotiate to directly experience God. Because each path is different, it is impossible “to make an ism out of” the journey to experience God. But perhaps we can agree that we seek direct experience of “the Divine Ground of All Being”—the term Christian theologian Paul Tillich used for the transcendent Holy Spirit. Perhaps we can agree that we are all dancing around a divine Light that eludes naming. Jones also pointed out that we are seeking our own direct experiences of God, not “second-hand descriptions” of mystical experiences in books and scriptures. However beautiful and uplifting Eckhart’s descriptions of his direct experiences of God might be, we cannot have his experience. We can only have our own.


Most mystics report experiencing God as immanent: God is here and now—palpably present to be experienced. God is also experienced as transcendent. God is infinite and therefore beyond our ability to completely perceive or understand, or even denote. But for many mystics, God’s infinite awareness can be intuited and is a super-magnet that can draw us out of our conventional personal and culture-bound consciousness and into a non-personal awareness that allows us to see with “eyes unclouded by fear or longing.” This is the vantage of the sage mystics who have many years’ experience viewing the world from a non-personal viewpoint. Sages have many years of practice abiding in a field that transcends our earthly concerns, yet sages also experience compassion and love for those—including the sages themselves—who endure the suffering involved in living a human life.

Is mystical experience rare? Apparently it is not. According to Jones, mystical experience is widely available, if we are tuned in to it. He wrote that “many people have had this vital experience.” God is everywhere we look, if we know how to look. In my 30 years of research on spirituality and aging, I found that many types of situations can evoke an experience of God within. Being in nature, meditation, contemplative waiting, religious rituals, singing hymns, reading sacred texts, and service to others are but a few of the situations in which people find themselves in touch with God within.


Among Friends, mystical experiences during meeting for worship are common, but only a minority of these experiences leads to vocal ministry. Why? Many times the experience is not in the form of words, and putting it into words is daunting. Often, direct experience of God is ineffable. As Eckhart noted, “As one’s awareness approaches the wilderness of the Godhead, no one is home.” Tillich called the Supreme Being “the God beyond God,” meaning that there is a field of Being beyond our personified God—the God who resembles us and speaks to us in our language. Tillich called this transcendent God “the Divine Ground of All Being.” Hindus call it “the Great Sea of Being.” The enormity of the Ground of All Being is very awe-inspiring and humbling to experience, yet it is comforting to abide in this field of ultimate, limitless Being.

Is there a knowledge element to mystical experience? Jones suggested in his book The Radiant Life that we use our experience as a guide for answering this question for ourselves. If we begin with questioning if there is “an intelligent, creative, organizing center of consciousness [that] transcends itself and knows what is beyond itself” and if our experience gives us a definite yes to that question, then we know and understand in a way that is guided and informed by mystical experience of God.

Jones wrote: “Spiritual ministry, in this or any age, comes through a prepared person who has been learning how to catch the mind of spirit, and how to speak to the condition of the age.” I wrote song lyrics that relate to this point: It takes practice to feel that deep connection as the havoc of this world goes on and on. Soul-centered life has a deep attraction that ever draws me back for more and more.


We often need help in recognizing what we are seeing. Ken Wilber, in his book Eye to Eye, points out three main ways of knowing, or “eyes”: the eye of the flesh—sensory knowing; the eye of the mind—our dualistic cognitive processes of acquiring language, ideas, and meaning; and the eye of contemplation—our holistic, integral capacity to abide in non-doing. Each of these eyes has its injunction (if you do this), illumination (you may see that), and method of confirmation (knowing you really saw that). For Quaker contemplative knowing, “waiting upon the Lord” is the injunction, direct experience of God (mystical experience) is the illumination, and discernment is the confirmation. When Friends agree that someone is a “weighty Quaker,” the community’s discernment is confirming the validity of that Friend’s contemplative understanding.


Quaker spiritual practice involves much contemplative waiting, not waiting for something, but simply waiting. The region of my awareness where I have most often had direct experiences of God is deep, inner space. When I sit in meeting, I release into that space. Of course, my mind sometimes has stuff it is processing, and when that stuff arises, I release it. Over and over, I release. After a time, I am able to release into abiding in the vastness of inner space, where I experience God. I feel God’s palpable presence. I feel God drawing my awareness to a non-personal, transcendent level.

In his Discourse on Thinking, Martin Heidegger distinguished two very different types of thinking: calculative and contemplative. Calculative thinking is preoccupied with the surface of thinking and a thinking process aimed at dominating and manipulating situations and “re-presenting” or constructing experiences and stories. Contemplative thinking is deep thinking. It “contemplates the meaning that reigns in everything that is.” Contemplative thinking requires that we develop the art of waiting. “Contemplative thought does not grasp the essence but rather releases into the essence.” Contemplative waiting is a practice of remaining open to experiencing God.

Friends who have waited together for decades often reflect this openness. They are secure in their faith because they have met God countless times along the way. Some of these meetings were dramatic experiences, and some were ordinary. These Friends are confident of God’s presence, even though this presence is revealed in different ways to different people. In my experience, the sages in our midst understand each other, often without much talk, because their mystical experiences over the years have been shared and are similar enough to be taken as roughly equivalent. There is not much vying or trying or hair-splitting among sages; they have released into the Divine Ground of All Being, where they increasingly abide. This does not mean that they are detached from the world—far from it. It simply means that they are aware of the deeper backdrop, the Divine Ground of All Being, as they play their part in everyday life.

The transcendent knowing that comes with spiritual maturity does not mean turning one’s back on prior stages of development. Wilber wrote that we “transcend and include.” Our transcendent, non-personal consciousness includes a deeply reflected upon version of what came before in our personal evolution. In most cases, this “transcend and include” process is conducive to a forgiving and accepting stance toward the earlier self.

At the start of their conscious spiritual journeys toward God, people often have immature faith that needs nurture and protection in the form of study, structured practice, and supportive community. As they grow more comfortable with their direct experiences of God, study becomes a reward and stimulus for openness. Structure becomes more utilitarian and less a means of protection. Community centers in the One.

From its beginnings, Quaker faith and practice has assumed that we are created with the capacity to influence our evolving experiential relationship with God. We are not passive, empty vessels hoping to be filled. We have to move toward God, be open to God, be willing to meet God, and be guided by our experiences of God. For me, this has been a recurring feedback loop. I act from the non-personal, loving vantage that comes from connection with the Great Sea of Being. I observe the results of this enlightened action, which have always been vastly superior to the results of actions taken from a purely personal vantage. I am affirmed in my connection with God and that connection’s influence on my capacity to see things more clearly than I could from a limited personal viewpoint. All this takes place with awareness of the Ground of All Being in the background.

Trusting this process required practicing it over and over. The proof is in the pudding. Of course, all my words are merely “fingers pointing at the moon.” They are not the moon. You have to see the moon for yourself.


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Categories: Articles & News

I Am Not a Religious Person

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:25am

© skywet

I am not a religious person. It’s not that I oppose the concept, but I seem to have an obnoxiously logical brain, which often prevents me from belief in anything unseen. Thankfully, I have been gifted in my family and faith. The openness and stance of the Quaker faith is one that I hold dear and appreciate greatly, and my family has always allowed me space and opportunity to conjure and compose my own opinions from the clasp of my heart and the tick of my mind. I have found that the diversity I have been surrounded with in both life and meeting has granted me an unusual amount of acceptance. I like to believe this leaves my mind extended and accessible. For someone like me, someone whose logic naturally outweighs her faith, involvement in the Religious Society of Friends—and this involvement alone—has pulled from my core the precise braid of conviction, coherence, and palpability that I needed.

An open mind has not always been my strong suit. Even as a child, I found myself strongly opinionated on the subject. If I couldn’t see it, then there could be no basis for believing in it. Science and facts seemed to me much more reasoned and tangible than the cookie-cutter versions of religion outlined for me; they were over-simplified, as they are for many children. That is not to say that my imagination wasn’t strong; in fact, it was the strongest part of me. It was the simple fact that I concurrently maintained a tight rein on my figments. Regardless of how anyone conceptualized various denominations for me, I continued to see no difference between theology and fantasy. My saving grace lay in my ability to keep my mouth shut. I knew enough to see that my opinion was solely my own, and happened to be a controversial one.


After my grandmother died, my mother’s grief and apparently genetic talent for distraction drove her to plan a spontaneous family vacation. She flew around the house booking hotels, renting cars, and arranging her perfect vacation down to the last detail. My high level of self-involvement and constant preoccupation caused me to be oblivious to this, of course, leaving me pleasantly surprised when the announcement of our excursion reached me. I had recently turned six, and I felt that this age deemed me the most mature self I was ever going to be. How could I learn anything more? I was about to be surprised.

The trip my mother had planned was to Kenya. Two weeks away seemed to be the greatest amount of time she could pretend that everything was normal. We didn’t complain; I’m not one to turn down a vacation, regardless of motive. So we packed up, got our shots, and headed to the airport. The entire trip was magical: we rode camels, stayed in beautiful resorts, and saw amazing wildlife. Despite all of this, there was one unequivocal highest point of the trip.

I can recall this memory vividly (the phrase “I remember like it was yesterday” means nothing until I think of this moment). We had rented a towering black Jeep with eight leather seats, two comically large sunroofs, and a private tour guide. When I look back, I realize the shame I would feel now if I took the same trip. With impoverished people surrounding us, we rode like royalty, glistening with sunscreen and camera lenses, and marveling and gaping at the “culture” we were experiencing from behind our bubble of privilege. I am eternally grateful that my six-year-old mind either did not see or did not care about our conspicuousness.


On this particular day, our tour guide was driving us through the grasslands. Our guide’s name was Gilbert; he was instantaneously close with us, and he remained an unlikely family friend for years to come. Gilbert, much too excited to see if we were listening, rambled on. He fired fact after fact, waving and pointing with one hand and steering with the other. My father occupied the front seat, leaning dramatically out of the window with his massive Nikon, snapping memories like there was a shortage. My mother sat behind him, sitting upright and at attention, undeterred by the spacious seats to her left. Her head bobbed up and down with the uneven earth, looking from the window to the guidebook in her lap. Her auburn hair blew softly against her shoulders, and I remember wondering how she could be so subdued at a time like this. My brother, Steven, and I ruled the entire back row, leaving us childishly giddy at our new leather kingdom. The sunroof above us was open, and, due to its massiveness, we both stood on the seat and poked our heads out into the open air, staring in wonder at the infinite view that unfurled before us.

Waist-high stalks of wheat-gold grass rolled in perfect synchronization with each other and the wind as far as the eyes could see. It was impossible to drag my eyes away from the beautiful shimmering ocean of blades that seemed equally silken and sharp. Baobab trees rose up from the calm sea like islands, offering tall vantage points from which to stare across the liquid gold. I couldn’t help but imagine myself falling backward and letting the dreamy tide of pasture carry me along, running underneath me until I was far away and could live amongst the warm waving allies.

While lost in my daydream, Steven’s voice pulled me back. “It’s hot. Can we get food?” In my stupor, I hadn’t noticed that he had sat down and was now staring at my mother with pleading eyes. Being six years older than me, he was just entering the long stretch of being a teenager, and his patience was constantly at the last fiber of a worn rope. My heart jumped at the thought of having to leave this groundbreaking exhibition any sooner than absolutely necessary.

“Steven! Look!” I shouted involuntarily, trying to distract him from any need to leave. I thrust my hand into the air, pointing randomly at anything to draw his attention. My pointer finger landed on the sky. His head snapped in my direction, causing his floppy, brown locks to fall into his eyes. He swept his fingers across his forehead to clear his vision, and I watched his face, hoping my weak attempt was successful. He slowly rose again, pushing me aside so we could both fit through the sunroof once more. His mouth grew slack and his eyes widened in wonderment. My initial reaction was to be deeply relieved, but curiosity overcame this.

I turned my head to follow my own arm. What I saw made my heart swell and mouth drop. My lungs held their air hostage as if breathing would release the moment. Until now, the limitless sky had been blanketed with downy clouds, darkening at the edges like a comforter, leaving the world to sleep far below. Now, the edges of this cover had parted to let in the sun, as if to awaken the globe from its peaceful slumber. The rays of the sun were perfectly visible from the cloud line all the way to the ground, their long arms reaching down to caress the earth. They poured into every seam of nature around us, causing the surrounding golden sea to glisten and dance in the wonderful warmth.

It was as if I were inside a painting, as if what I was seeing could not have been real, as if I were completely alone, and yet completely intertwined with all of life. It was the most magnificent display I have ever beheld. The perpetual click of my father’s camera became inaudible; Gilbert’s stream of facts was lost in the furor of giggling grass, and my brother faded out of my peripheral vision. I was completely enraptured: caught, as if time had stopped; paralyzed, as if movement would cause me to awaken. I let the tendrils of warmth embrace me and brush my skin. My lungs filled to capacity with each breath, holding the sunshine within me before setting it free to run with the breeze.

No one spoke for a long time, or perhaps they did; if there was conversation, it was lost in my trance on the way to my ears. I was neither deep in thought, nor completely without it. My mind was mulling over the images behind my eyes. Organizing the newfound impressions was the first step to understanding, and wheels between my ears were furiously attacking this primary task. My fog didn’t clear until we were back in our beds that night. Everyone present knew the beauty of day, but I doubt it affected them as it had me. No words could do the incredible display of nature justice.


I remember the internal conversation I had with myself that night. The topic at hand was a complex one, perhaps one that was too advanced for a six-year-old to truly comprehend: God. My lack of belief had been so solid in my mind. But when I saw that enthralling landscape, everything was different. I hesitate to say that I was changed. I had not been changed. There was no voice of God; there was no hand—literal or figurative—that came down and touched my heart. But there was a new sense of openness toward the idea of religion, of faith.

I could no longer wholeheartedly deny the possibility of something bigger than humanity, something greater, regardless of my personal feelings on the matter. I had seen something indescribably moving, something that had given me a feeling I had never felt before. To this day, I cannot find a word that shoulders enough emotion and enough love to describe the feeling my heart overfilled with that day. There is no opinion that is immovable, no opinion that is flawless, and no opinion that is complete. Opinions are made to be deepened and explored, not to be left stationary. While my views were not reversed, they were extended, and therefore evolved into a deeper, more mature mindset.

It was not so much a discovery of a possibility but a distinction between two concepts that are recurrently thrust together: religion and spirituality. The attached dogma of any faith can be intimidating, and to many, no path separates the two. It is common to fear the rulings of the church and to doubt that personal judgements will be accepted. Perhaps the largest step to moving past this fear is concluding that spirituality offers not a set of beliefs but rather the freedom to trust in the existence of a connecting force between all lives, without the required braces that any organized religion brings. Acquainting the human psyche with this apprehension looms habitually as a long, daunting, and difficult process, yet my encounter with pure nature had blended my views with the substance to make years of progress in only a moment, however unconventional the education.


I am not a religious person. I am a person with a tremendous experience that allows me to see and appreciate the light in everyone and everything. I am not a religious person, but I am a person who was lucky enough to be shown the separation between the literalness of religion and the litheness of spirituality

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Categories: Articles & News

Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring

Friends Journal - Wed, 02/01/2017 - 2:20am

Photos courtesy of the author

Part one of two

In 2014, I attended my first General Gathering of Conservative Friends and the Quaker Spring that followed it. If you asked me to describe what happened at either event—what was said or discussed, what new insights I obtained from attending—I would be unable to give any answer except to say that I found it spiritually nurturing. I had a long-standing, but generally unfulfilled, interest in the Conservative Friends tradition and welcomed the relaxed, peaceful atmosphere of Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, where both events were held. My enjoyment was great enough that when the two events came around again in 2016, I signed up and eventually boarded a bus for the ten-hour ride from Philadelphia. This time there was so much that was significant to me that I decided to write this account of my attendance in order not to forget what I learned, and to be able to share it with others. To double check my recollections, I asked Susan Smith, another attender at both events, to review this article. Her comments amplified my own in such a rich way that I decided to leave them in and have identified them.

The General Gathering of Conservative Friends is sponsored by Ohio Yearly Meeting and held from Friday—I should probably say Sixth Day—evening to First Day noon. This year it attracted about 30 participants. I have yet to figure out what the purpose of this gathering is, and I think that is one of the reasons I enjoy it: it seems to have no purpose; it is simply a time for some Friends to renew their spiritual journeys.

Susan Smith: That, in fact, is the purpose: for attenders to renew (re-orient, re-energize, recommit, assess) their spiritual journeys (or conditions, practices, lives), of which renewal occurs not only through worship and Bible reading but also through fellowship with other people.

Leaving meals aside, the agenda is quite simple: Bible reading in the morning, followed by meeting for worship before lunch. There is free time in the afternoon, followed by another meeting for worship. Seventh Day night, there is a meeting for worship for sharing personal or general concerns, and on First Day, there’s a final session of Bible reading and then meeting for worship is held with members of Barnesville’s Stillwater Meeting. All sessions are held in the historic, and lofty, Stillwater Meetinghouse, which shares the site with Olney Friends School.

In both 2014 and 2016, I learned that Conservative Friends have a different approach to speaking in meeting for worship from what I am used to. For one thing, they speak much longer than would be tolerated in any of the meetings I attend in Philadelphia. More importantly, their messages almost always begin with something from the Bible: a passage might be read without comment, or a message might begin by quoting or paraphrasing a Bible story and then move on to some general or personal observations. Rarely, however, would a message begin with personal experience, as is often the case in meetings I attend. As a result, the messages had a greater spiritual depth for me than ones I normally hear or give myself, even when I begin with something from the Gospels, as I often do.

Susan Smith: This is interesting: that regularly beginning messages spoken in worship with the gospel results in greater spiritual depth of messages. We have noticed that, too. Maybe the causal direction indicated in “as a result” doesn’t matter, but I wonder about it. It could also be that using Scripture as a starting place for messages happens when the speaker is already in a place of greater spiritual depth, whereas regularly beginning with personal experience is more likely to signify a focus on oneself than on God’s presence (or love, care, work) in this world.

In one meeting for worship, an older man in plain dress seated on the facing bench gave a lengthy message that included a phrase that was like an arrow going straight to my heart. “This is the way,” he said; “walk in it.” For several years now I have felt that I have lost my way spiritually, and this message brought forth the sadness I’ve felt about that. Both the message and feeling stayed with me, and so on Seventh Day evening, when invited to express personal concerns, I found myself led to speak. I said that I felt I had lost my way and didn’t know how to find it again. I was certain that God had not abandoned me but that I seemed to have abandoned God. This was quite difficult for me to admit. It was the first time I had expressed these feelings publicly or even privately to anyone else. Merely being able to speak my concerns aloud was its own consolation and lifted some of the burden of despair I often feel.

Susan Smith: Yes, speaking one’s concerns aloud is often a consolation, and can also open one’s heart and mind to insights that were being blocked by the anguish of the concern.

Other Friends spoke of their concerns, both personal and general, and some Friends offered comments that might have been directed to any one of us, but I often felt were directed to me. None provided what might be called advice; it was more as if Friends were holding me in the Light verbally, if that makes any sense. One Friend quoted words of Isaac Penington that, strangely enough, I had read earlier that day in a Pendle Hill pamphlet. “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down into the seed which God sows in thy heart, and let that be in thee and act in thee.” These words felt directly relevant to me. Other messages similarly spoke of not despairing in times of dryness but accepting them and waiting in expectant silence for change to come in its own time. It was, I felt, the sinking down into the seed, the expectant waiting in silence that was missing from my life.

On First Day morning, the Gathering was joined by members of Stillwater Meeting, some in plain dress including a family of what looked like two parents, three sons, and three daughters, whom I remembered from 2014. I am particularly impressed by young men who have made a strong commitment to a spiritual life—women, too, of course, but as a man, it is the men who affect me more. In Philadelphia, I often see young Mennonite men handing out leaflets about their faith or Mormon missionaries walking around, probably soon to increase as a result of the recent completion of a huge Mormon Temple in downtown Philadelphia. And of course I see many men, old and young, in traditional Muslim dress. What strikes me most about all of them is that they are so certain in their faith that they are willing to express it visibly in the clothes they wear. It is a certainty of faith that I feel I lack.

I often wonder if this apparent certainty is merely the result of being raised in a family with a strong religious belief (I remember how certain I felt at an early age about the Catholicism I was raised in) or whether there has still been a time of personal convincement. So I approached one of the young men in plain dress with this question. He was generous enough to respond, saying first that of course his family upbringing had a great influence. But then he spoke quite passionately about what “we” believe, referring to a passage from Romans, which he first quoted then quickly opened his Bible to find so he could read it to me accurately. It was from Romans 12, I think, but I may not be remembering accurately; it was a further demonstration of how much the Bible is a ground of spiritual knowledge for Conservative Friends—and a reminder of how poorly I know it.

Susan Smith: Thee seems to want that deeper spiritual grounding. May I suggest intentional daily quiet reading of the Bible, staying in the New Testament but going beyond the four Gospel books. Go slowly. The object is not to check off parts read, but to sink down with little pieces, one by one in sequence until thee’s read a whole chapter and a whole book. Read as much in each session as thee has “outward” time for and inward focus. The books don’t have to be read in the order they come in the Bible. See where thee is led.

There is a break of about two and a half days between the General Gathering of Conservative Friends and the start of Quaker Spring. Both years I have been privileged to stay at Olney Friends School for those intervening days. The Gathering primes my pump, you might say, and the days in between allow me to rest, read, write, and prepare myself for the more intense agenda of Quaker Spring. Olney Friends School is located on a very simple but very beautiful campus, shared, as I said, with Stillwater Meeting. The school is small: 40 to 50 students housed in one small dormitory for boys and another for girls; and one main building that contains faculty offices, classrooms, library, dining hall, and gymnasium. In addition, there is a guesthouse; several small houses, one of which is Friends Center; and a new science center on the edge of the campus. All this is surrounded by playing fields, a pond with a small island reached by a distinctively designed bridge, and spacious lawns covered with fireflies in the July evening and planted with many different types of trees. I was told that 37 different species of birds have been identified on the site; nearly all of which, I can personally testify, begin chirping at 5 a.m. just before the sun begins to rise. Otherwise, it is very peaceful during the couple of days when I have been there alone, except for a few staff and a few summer farm-intern students.

Quaker Spring began in 2007 and draws about 50 participants from all parts of the United States and one or two from abroad. There is no specific agenda for the approximately five days (Third Day evening to First Day noon), although there is a schedule. The basic concept is to be open to the leading of the Spirit and the inspiration of those who attend. The schedule consists of Bible study and meeting for worship in the morning, two workshops or discussion groups in the afternoon, and then a panel discussion or talk in the evening. This year the content of the afternoon workshops and evening meetings was decided by the group as a whole, a new approach that seemed to work well.

Unlike Bible reading at the Conservative Friends Gathering, which consisted of simply reading passages without comment, Bible study at Quaker Spring includes comment and discussion. A highlight this year was an enactment of sections of the story of Joseph and his brothers, put on by two teenage boys—the only non-adults in attendance—with the support of a number of adults. The enactments came with a series of queries to be discussed one-on-one with the person sitting next to you, and these, too, came like arrows to my heart.

Joseph is betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. One query was the obvious: Have you ever felt betrayed by someone you thought loved you? For me, the answer was immediate: my father. Betrayal is not the word I would usually use: abandoned in a psychological sense is what I generally feel, but the story and query made me realize that there was a sense of betrayal about it that I had not previously recognized, and that probably had a lot to do with the feeling of anger I carried for him. Joseph eventually forgives his brothers, and so the obvious query was: Have you forgiven? Again, for me, the answer was immediate: no, I had never forgiven him. I carried my anger, resentment, and disappointment to his death, much to my regret. It was only years later that I could acknowledge that he had done his best and that he had loved me even if it was not in the way I had hoped. Without these queries, I probably would not have seen the connection between Joseph’s story and my own life, and would not have benefited from a new understanding of my own experience.

I attended three of the afternoon workshops and skipped the fourth to sneak away and play pocket billiards (pool), my secret avocation, having discovered a refurbished pool table in the student lounge. Two of the workshops consisted of sharing our spiritual journeys. I always find other people’s stories inspiring and amazing, even though they also make me feel how little of real significance I’ve done myself. This was true in both these sessions. When I told my own story, I was surprised to find how emotional I still felt about my first experience at Quaker meeting, realizing that I had at last found a spiritual home. Telling my story also gave me the opportunity to speak again about the sense of being lost that I had spoken of at the General Gathering of Conservative Friends, and, once again, just the sharing of that gave me a sense of release and relief.

The second half of this piece will appear in the May 2017 issue of Friends Journal.

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