Baltimore Yearly Meeting
In 2017 I went to the Annual Session of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This was the 346th Annual Session of BYM. It felt momentous to be part of something that reached so far back in history, back to the 17th century, 100 years before the United States even existed.
Getting there was not too momentous. It was held at Hood College in Frederick, MD, which is an easy half hour drive up 270 from Washington. What was of note was that I went for the whole week, and I had never taken a whole week's worth of stuff on the motorcycle before. I really just added a backpack full of clothes. I didn't think it would make much of a difference, but I really noticed it on the way up.
Deepening of Faith
There were two themes for me at Annual Session, and the first was the deepening of my Quakers faith. It started with a panel discussion on the first night about the school to prison pipeline. It was an excellent panel. They had an ex-con, a public defender, a former prosecutor/judge, and a parole officer. This brought a wide variety of informed perspectives on the problem. It was eye opening to me they way the criminal justice system is sucking young kids into prison, and the way it is targeting African-Americans and other minority children. Perhaps most shocking to me was the use of zero-tolerance policies and school resource officers to to turn school disciplinary offenses into crimes. It struck me because of my history and concerns with bullying. I've felt that a lot of schools just let it happen, in the way I was chased out of public school. But in other (African-American) schools, it seems we are using it as a way to criminalize behavior that's probably from bad home situations, rather than solve problems at home or teach kids how to be good citizens.
Lots of good solutions were proposed by the panelists: jobs in poor communities, having mentors (people from outside help the community rather than arrest the people in it), get cops out of schools, change the criteria for charging children as an adult, diversion program to educate rather than criminalize, teach people how to be parents (there are programs like the Harlen Child Zone and the Baby College), get rid of bail (which can be crushing to poor families), and legalize drugs.
The second day I was introduced to Experiment with the Light, a guided meditation based on the writings of early Quakers and how they prayed. I found it really interesting. It closely mapped to how I thought of my Quaker worship, but provided more structure to it.
Then on the third day I went to a criminal justice reform workshop that I had previously signed up for. The picture became even more disturbing. 40% of black males in some states unable to vote because of racial bias and ex-con prejudice. Jailing the mentally ill to treat the symptom rather than the disease. Federal subsidies to increase solitary confinement as part of a tough on crime initiative. Bail bondsmen having an incentive to keep crime high and lobbying to do so.
It all came together on the fourth day when I went back to the Experiment with the Light group. I was feeling called to work on criminal justice reform, but I felt so unable to heed the call after the stresses of my job at the CPSC. Just before Annual Session I had sworn off any conflict of any kind, because every last nerve I had was so raw that any conflict was sending me into emotional spasms.
Part of Experiment with the Light asks you to visualize the issue you are praying about. The image I got was the light pushing me toward the darkness, but there is a collander in the way, and as the light pushes, bloody chunks of my flesh are coming out the other end of the collander. While I was seeing this, the idea came to me to relax, that I was too tense. And when I relaxed in the vision, I turned into water, and flowed easily through the holes in the collander. And then, as it is water's nature to find the lowest spot, I flowed into the darkness and found the place I need to work to do the most good.
It came to me that God wants me to work against the evils in our criminal justice system. But God understands that I need to heal. God wants me to heal, because God loves me. And God wants me to work on the criminal justice system, because he loves those who are trapped in it. I had never felt that love before, so I don't know how to respond to it. But I am trying to relax, so that I may heal, and that I can do God's work.
Deepening of Irritation
The second theme for me at Annual Session was my increasing irritation with Quakers. The first thing that increased my irritation with Quakers was the way some of them abuse meeting for business. In Quaker meeting for business, everyone's concerns are heard and taken into account. This can make Quakers rather slow to make decisions, because any diagreements have to dealt with rather than set aside.
Now, while there are nice panel discussions and workshops, the real point of Annual Session is to take care of the business of an organization that spans four states of Quaker meetings: over 50 meetings with over 7,000 members. (And affiliates, can you dig it?) So there is business meeting every day, all morning long. And committee meetings in the afternoons. And things were running behind. And the clerk was clear that things were falling behind. And people kept getting up to give reports, and instead of condensing what they were going to say, they were going on and on about things with flowery language and slide shows that spent a lot of time not really saying anything. But you can't really prevent that without ruining the consensus building power of the Quaker process.
One of the things that got a lot of attention was expanding the diversity of meetings. Quakers (in America) are very white, and yet they are very concerned about equality and have a long history of working towards equality, dating back to abolition and women's suffrage. So there was much teeth gnashing about this. Much of the push was coming from the camping program, which is much more diverse. But there was this thing I noticed. When someone would say something, often a lot of people would raise their hands up and wiggle them back and forth. No one ever explained what this meant, although I took it to be some sort of silent applause for the speaker. But having that group activity going on without explanation made me feel really excluded.
That immediately brought to mind Quaker language. In the first day of meeting for business, one Friend had said "lest I run ahead of the Light." At them time I thought it was an interesting metaphor using the concept of the Inner Light, our personal, unmediated connection with divine truth. But in light of the exclusionary force of the hand wiggling, I saw it as another exclusionary part of Quaker culture. If you come in to Quaker meeting and you hear people talking in metaphors you don't understand, you are going to feel excluded. It's not like Quakers are unaware of this. This has come up in my meeting when greeting people from outside the meeting, although it was brought up by a woman who works specifically with outreach in another meeting. If Quakers want to be diverse, we need to open up our culture more, to make it less exclusionary. Instead I see us revelling in the exclusionary parts of it.
And then there was the usual stuff about liberals that irritates me. We had a group exercise one night, and part of it was making posters. One poster read "Words are Violence." Well, no, they aren't, shithead. Words can be mean and nasty. Words can hurt. But that doesn't make them violence. Once words are violence, they can be outlawed, and that's a very dangerous thing.
This warping of language has always irritated me. Another example I have seen in Quaker meeting is "People are not Illegal," so we shouldn't call people illegal immigrants. Well, they are people who immigrated illegally, so I don't think it's a huge strech to call them illegal immigrants. And while it is incorrect, you could call them criminal immigrants instead. But they would rather call them "undocumented," and obsure the truth that they broke the law. Now, liberals aren't the only ones who do this. All sides try to manipulate the language to their benefit. But when Quakers, who are called by the Testimony of Integrity to be honest and open do this, it bothers me.
There were things I liked about how meeting for worship with a concern for business was run. I felt the clerk really gave a slow, deliberate pace to the meeting. There were pauses for silence, that gave room for consideration in context. This allowed the Quakers to wait for the decision to come, rather than chasing it down with their preconceived notions.
There was also a great moment during the consideration of a minute against military action against North Korea. It was based on saber rattling by Trump and others in his administration and Congress. I was in the group that worked on the minute, and we did a lot of wordsmithing on it. And then it came before the full business meeting, and they wanted to do a lot of wordsmithing on it, and called into question a lot of decisions that the group I was in made. The clerk felt there was too much contention on the issue, and asked if it should be held over for consideration until the next day. One Friend stood up in response and said something along the lines of "stop wordsmithing and approve!" And we did.
In the End
I am reminded of one of my fraternity brothers saying that Hell Week is the most fun you'll never want to have again. I'm not sure I want to go back to annual session, but I'm glad I went.