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I Am About to Do a New Thing

By Margaret Fraser

After decades of relative peace, Indiana Yearly Meeting is separating; with meetings holding almost a third of the membership leaving, some to remain independent monthly meetings, others forming a new association with a still developing format.

As in any life-changing event, each participant in this separation has a unique story. My sense is that while the precipitate event leading to the schism was a minute published by West Richmond Friends that celebrated inclusiveness, the discussions that followed revealed many monthly meetings have long harbored many differences: views of human and organizational authority, the interpretation of scripture and the teachings of Jesus. Some wanted uniformity of beliefs to be enforced; others did not. Friends’ peacemaking abilities were stretched, but eventually it became clear that reconciliation was not going to happen. I wrote:

An image is coming to me of having been in a catastrophic event. It is as if my home, along with others in the neighborhood, has been destroyed. We are traumatized, in occasional disbelief that it could have happened. With repeated realization come unexpected tears. But as we look around, we see that we are all alive, all safe . . . Most of us have not built before. We simply lived in our old houses. So we are going to have to identify gifts and skills that exist among us, and many of us are going to learn new skills.

In January of this year, 2013, 120 of us gathered at Richmond First Friends to share food and worship. We recognized that schism was inevitable and began to prepare ourselves for formal separation. The Friend who served as clerk for the evening asked people to report whether their meetings were “engaged” in plans for a new organization, “dating” or observing. We agreed on some broad aims, then appointed trustees and a nominating committee. It was stressed that if each meeting were to legally retain its funds and property as part of the settlement, we needed to be sufficiently organized to incorporate.

As Indiana Yearly Meeting had set deadlines, it was imperative that we move forward. However, too much pressure to be “in” or “out” would add to the stress in meetings, as well as adding to the lines that had already been drawn. We sought to avoid wounding splits in congregations. Fortified with considerable trust and some hugs and tears, we began the process of building a new Quaker family. We decided to delay choosing a permanent name for ourselves until we knew what our ultimate geographical boundary was, and incorporate simply as The New Association of Friends. I ended my blog:

So here we are. A little shaky, but wearing new hard hats and work boots, on a giant Habitat site, ready to join a crew to build the structures for our community, and to build community itself in a more intentional way. We have friends around the world praying for us and cheering us on. We will tread on each other’s toes — it’s a good thing about the work boots. In our clumsiness, we may hammer our own thumbs, or say things we regret. But if we keep our eyes on the Source of our faith, on why we are doing the work, and end each workday with laughter and gratitude and forgiveness, I think it will be just fine.

I accepted the invitation to serve as clerk, cleared my calendar and began regular travel between home in northern Michigan to Indiana and Ohio. With a laptop and mobile phone I can work anywhere, but my favorite place is in the archives of the Lilly Library at Earlham, surrounded by minute books and bound copies of The American Friend.

Thank goodness for social media. With a need to communicate, but no funds for mailings, we started two Facebook pages: The New Association of Friends, and Friends in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, both intended for those Friends desiring to stay connected personally despite the division in the yearly meeting. I used a free service to send an occasional electronic newsletter. Anxious to get a website up quickly, we chose Friends General Conference’s Quaker Cloud as our platform for http://newassociationoffriends.org. We are not part of FGC — we all have semi-programmed worship and most of us have pastors, but we have found that organization to be helpful.

One by one, meetings began to join. With no staff or office, yet in need of a mailing address, we happily accepted the office of New Castle First Friends Meeting, extended on the day when it decided to join the New Association, to be that home. The “baby” was well and truly born in April when we were notified by the State of Indiana of our incorporation. In June, with the support of Indiana Yearly Meeting, we were accepted as full members of Friends United Meeting. Our conversations with Friends Committee on National Legislation and Friends World Committee for Consultation about recognition are also looking hopeful.

Things are moving fast. In six months we went from nonexistence to vitality. At the time of writing we have 14 meetings (800 people) and some individual members whose meetings have chosen either to remain part of Indiana Yearly Meeting or to become independent. We are a network of independent meetings, sharing a vision of mutual support. We are diverse in theology, history and size. Two of our meetings, West Elkton and Richmond First Friends, are more than 200 years old and predate the founding of Indiana Yearly Meeting. Three more, Spiceland, Salem and Raysville, are more than 150 years old. Dublin, Muncie, New Castle, West Richmond and Pennville are over a hundred years old. There are a couple in their 90s: Bluff Point and Williamsburg, and one youngster, Englewood, which is 25 years old.

One of our meetings has over 200 members. Two have slightly over 100 members, and two just under 100. One has 54, and six have in the teens or twenties. Two have fewer than ten members. Rural depopulation has left a faithful remnant caring for aging buildings. I anticipate many opportunities for us to form volunteer work crews to work on some of each other’s buildings and grounds.

Much of the last six months has been spent on legal and administrative work: getting incorporated, developing a purpose statement, recording of gifts in ministry, and so on. Nonetheless, we don’t want administration to dominate. After a time of pain and some isolation, we want to get to know each other better, to worship together, and to relax, as we did at a recent picnic in a state park. All our business meetings begin with worship and joyful, shared meals as we make new friends. We are eager for more shared religious education and opportunities to serve.

After a period of inward focus, it is time to look outward. In addition to FUM’s work, our meetings support a range of ministries from local food pantries to global service. We want to know more about each other’s ministries and share our support. As part of the settlement, Indiana Yearly Meeting will transfer some endowments for Earlham College, Earlham School of Religion, Ramallah Friends School and college scholarships for African American students. This will give us the opportunity to keep alive the vision of those who gave those funds and to showcase the impact that the recipients are making on the world today.

We found ourselves in a place that we did not expect nor sought, and we had to summon flexibility and creativity that we scarcely knew we had. Earlier this year, a Friend designed what we called a “logo-ish thing” to be used temporarily — some grass, our name and the quotation from Isaiah 43:19, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” As I emerge and take a breath, I can look back and say, truly, this has been so.

Margaret Fraser is a member of Friends of the Light, in Traverse City, Michigan, and Clerk of the New Association of Friends.

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