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Serving from Our Times of Worship

By Steve Olshewsky

The old joke has a stranger wandering into an unprogrammed Quaker meeting and sitting in silence until finally asking the Friend nearby, “When does the service start?” The Friend politely whispers in response, “As soon as we finish worshiping.”

This joke, however, invites additional questions. When we come together in worship, does our joint worship experience propel us to serve others? How can we extend to the world around us the benefits of the faith communities we have built?

Many of us are already doing all we can to juggle our regular jobs, our family, our children, our health, our homes and the tireless demands of daily life. Having a time of escape and refreshment in worship anchors us as we navigate our week. When we rise from that time given to God — and these our Friends — to enjoy the after effects of worship, how do we share our blessings?

Individually, we share the benefits of membership in our churches and meetings by passing along the smiles exchanged on Sunday mornings, or by discussing what we remember hearing. It seems that Sunday afternoons are the best time to hold doors open for others or let the next person go ahead in line. However, even when we generously give of ourselves, are we serving the Religious Society of Friends. Where is the we or us in what an individual might do? Our actions, no doubt, express our faith.

At the same time, Quaker faith has traditionally involved more than personal goodness; it has led us to act for the common good. We still feel that passion, but do we use it fully? Even as we take our faith into the world, individually seeking to do justice and service, we can take our connections to the worshiping life of our meetings with us.

When nine teenaged Quakers from Florida visited the Immokalee tomato fields, as part of a weekend retreat, they were moved to take social action against the inhumane working conditions they saw. In the course of their discernment, and sharing their concerns in good Quaker order, they came to involve other teenaged attenders from around the nation. In turn, the full teen group involved the Friends General Conference gathering in their action last July.

The larger gathering of teens organized a protest march to a Colorado Wendy’s over fair pay for Immokalee tomato workers. It was well planned and advertised, but more importantly it expressed the coming together of Quakers to take a collective action. The efforts of these teens had a ripple effect throughout the community, and their work became that of the national congregation.

It seems that these teens were able to bridge the gaps that sometimes dampen other social initiatives. For whatever reason, we often fail to bring our concerns to our meetings where we could request a clearness committee to help test our convincement. Instead, we should strive to be responsive to leadings we become aware of, whether they are our own or our fellow worshipers.

Collective action was not invented by modern teenagers. In Luke 10:1-24, we see 70 sent out, perhaps as the Valiant Sixty felt called at the beginning of the Quaker movement to go as itinerant preachers and become known as Publishers of the Truth. While the 70 appointed in Luke went two by two, a style common to the Valiant Sixty, they were working in concert for a common good with their home group. The 70 in Luke, and the Valiant Sixty, heralded the immediacy of the kingdom of God which is at hand for everyone even today.

Luke 10 and the earliest Quakers provide models for going out into the world and sharing our good news that “the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” Verses 9 and 11 insist we share this message with those who welcome us and those who do not — so clearly, we want to share our experience of love and forgiveness beyond the place of worship where we gather with Friends. The personal encounters we have with God in worship can call us to share messages with others. So, too, an entire meeting can be called to witness a message to the world.

When it comes to experiencing the kingdom of God, no individual ministry can convey the sense of the meeting. Although a teenager presented Wendy’s with a request to join the Fair Food Program, it was the Religious Society of Friends marching tight loops on surrounding sidewalks that made it our witness instead of just hers. Collectively sharing this message catalyzed further actions. In Atlanta seven months later, this nurturing support encouraged six of the original Florida teens to organize a similar march on Publix with 63 Southern Appalachian Young Friends and 16 adults.

Ten of those Young Friends came home to Berea, Kentucky after their Atlanta experience, proposed a minute supporting the Fair Food Program, and convinced their monthly meeting to seek further endorsement from their yearly meeting. These teenagers provide a model that answers George Fox’s request to “be patterns, be examples” so that our “carriage and life may preach” in a way that reaches out to that of God in others. Not only have these Young Friends reached out to unite fellow Quakers in a common experience, they sparked a witness to the world that for Quakers, the Kingdom of God is at hand.

These teenagers revealed something essential about Quaker community and worship. Patiently experiencing the self-discovery that comes with waiting upon the Lord prepares us to respond to messages articulated by others. As individuals share their leadings, their voices need to be embraced and lifted up. If we can unite and carry through with supporting action, we can thereby reach out to the world. Ministering broadly in this way attracts people into the Light without being coercive.

Fox would ask that we “answer that of God” when hearing the ministries of those led to share their spiritual insight. This sharing is communal in an obvious way, but that communality can go deeper into the heart of what it means to be Quaker. As we open our hearts to God’s callings as expressed by others, we can share what we learn outside the immediate audience. Fox preached that “Jesus Christ has come to teach his people himself.” It is this people (the community), not individual persons, who can share what we have been taught as a people gathered.

This collective sharing attracts people to the Quakers. In this way, it is an effective form of evangelism available. Ideally, our ability to respond to our own callings, and those of our fellow Quakers, inspires in others confidence that they will be heard and nourished as they bring their activities into our corporate efforts.

I am personally encouraged by how Kentucky Quakers united in joint efforts to abolish the death penalty. Every Quaker in Kentucky has responded to this call for abolition according to their own measure, but the cooperative support of all Quakers facilitated more than the sum of individual efforts. As all three Kentucky meetings approved minutes of endorsement, all Kentucky Quakers made the work possible.

On the practical side, Kentucky Quakers helped each other get to Frankfort to meet with lawmakers. Lobbying for abolition, I can only share fully the good news of God’s love and forgiveness by demonstrating what all Quakers believe about love and forgiveness. In simpler terms, I can share my views, and other Quakers can even hold me in the Light as I do, but speaking Truth to power on behalf of those Quakers where I worship shares the religious teachings of a Quaker society. Lawmakers regard the exact same words more seriously coming from the Quakers, rather than from a singular Quaker.

Traditionally, when Quakers feel led to do something outside of their meeting, they are careful to consider whether their actions are a fair reflection of their religious community. For this reason we have clearness committees to help us know that our leadings are divinely inspired and not merely our vain egos. Armed with such validation, someone speaking Truth to power can share the endorsement of their Quaker society as a formal Minute addressed to decision makers. This puts an onus on the church or meeting to worshipfully consider the project and whether or not they are able to fully unite in approving of the action contemplated.

Opportunities for service come in the projects of our fellow Quakers as we are able to join in with their efforts. Some might say they are not able to understand enough to support or oppose an issue, but can we all understand enough to trust in the collective efforts of Friends gathered together for the purpose of discerning proper action? Can we create a place supporting right actions by lending our attention, our prayers, our signatures or our time to the activities of others proposed to our committees and business sessions?

Plenty of good Quakers are doing plenty of good things, but that can distract us from the responsibility of the wider body to reach out. As long as we know someone else is taking care of a concern, we can leave it to them. This is comforting, but untrue, as relying on others compromises our work. No individual proxy can convey the aggregate approval of Quakers, so we need unified bodies to join the efforts.

Our places of worship equip us to go out and preach the good news in other places thereby extending our community. Fox says that finding the right place within ourselves will empower us to “preach among all sorts of people, [all] over the world,” but can that be done alone? We all need the active support and involvement of the full Quaker body to accomplish the ministries we are called to do.

Steve Olshewsky works against the death penalty with Kentucky Quakers and state lawmakers. This article benefited from the Earlham School of Religion’s Writing as Ministry program.