Overheard at Annual Sessions Day 4

Annual Sessions

Written by Grace Sharples-Cooke, Interim Director of Development

Burlington News: One of the morning news stories from yesterday’s first Meeting for Business was that the ownership of the Burlington Meetinghouse and Conference Center was transferred from PYM to Burlington Quarter. William Robbins, Clerk of Burlington Quarterly Meeting sent this message of celebration:

Dear Friends,

On behalf of Burlington Quarterly Meeting I extend greetings and a personal apology for being unable to be present this morning. Burlington and Salem Meetings are without question the progenitors of the Quakers’ experience in the Delaware Valley.

This fact alone was enough to lead Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, some 20 years ago, to take what can only be described as a leap of faith in repurposing the old Meetinghouse into the Burlington Conference Center.

Experience has shown that the time is right to enter into the next stage of the life of the historic old Meetinghouse. We at Burlington Quarter are prepared to undertake that next leap of faith and are grateful that the Yearly Meeting has been able to find a way forward to allow that to happen. We will need your best wishes and support as our Quaker story continues.

Sincerely, Bill Robbins, Clerk, Burlington Quarterly Meeting

The quarter sent several Friends to Annual Sessions to look at different models for how the Meeting and Conference Center could grow into an organization that both anchors and serves the surrounding community. Many Burlington Quarter members took a close look at Mercer Street Friends in Trenton, and found inspiration in their organizational model. The research was helpful, and Chris Bond, an Attender at Crosswicks Meeting, and public school teacher, came up with a lot of ideas to consider.

Fast or Slow? While the Burlington transfer went through fairly quickly, other important issues have taken time to work through Quaker Process. Some of the discussion around the lunch tables at Sessions has been about how fast Quakers could/should/will move on key initiatives.

There are Friends who feel the urgency of climate change, others who focus in on building better communities, on membership growth, quality of worship, or on working for racial and economic justice. City meetings are highly attuned to racial injustice and gun violence; rural meetings are looking at aging membership, committee structures, outreach issues, and partnerships that support refugees or climate change concerns. Some Friends are taking a close look at their climate footprint, or racial footprint, or both at the same time. There are those who feel a strong push to impact communities through education, business growth, or who feel the need to participate in the charter school movement to deliver better outcomes.

Everyone I spoke to at sessions expressed clear and loyal love for their home meetings, and for the Quaker Faith. Worship in community remains the single largest factor feeding into Friends’ engagement with Faith. PYM grows that sense of fellowship and spreads it across other meetings and other locations. There is no one I have talked to who has not valued the variety and type of fellowship we try to deliver at Sessions and many also take that warmth and connection back to their home meeting.

We are first and foremost a faith community and a community of Friends.

Fellowship or Great Strides Forward? I am catching up with Gabbreell James who is wearing another one of her cool T-shirts. This one is an FGC tee that says “Got Silence?” I spoke with Gabbreell for a bit about her thoughts and expectations about PYM; she explained that back when she started to come to PYM Sessions, her initial expectations for concrete action were high – which led to disappointment. Today, her primary expectation of PYM is “to see Friends from other meetings/other quarters, that I don’t get to see regularly, and to be able to have some fellowship. So, that is what I expect; and I know that’s going to happen because there is going to be other Friends here.”

A second expectation Gabbreell articulates is her wish “to have, hopefully, thoughtful conversations; to expand my base of Friends and to enjoy people. And that is what I get when I come to PYM. Yes, my daughter enjoys Children’s program, and many times (for me) Plenary, or the Epistles, and the business is interesting. Or it’s (covering) things I am concerned about and it’s good to know what the Yearly Meeting is actually doing.”

Gabbreell is concerned about Climate Change, and she notes that her son “has served on Earthcare witness, which is an organization that does national Quaker climate work.” She adds, “I am very concerned, and I’ve made changes in my life recently because of it. (Changes like) buying locally, so things aren’t shipped, eating seasonally, so that I’m not supporting pineapples here, and mangoes there, … and even with my clothes, (I’m) thinking about more American made. I try to make changes … when I become aware of new information, and I try to incorporate them in my life, the best that I can.”

Sallie and David Jones, members at Birmingham Meeting, come to Sessions every year and they offer these insights about why they return.

David begins; “we find connections, I think we sort of stay up (to date) with what’s going on in the Yearly Meeting, (which is) something that’s important, … and we can take that back to our meeting, as well as keep ourselves connected to the wider body of Friends. We always come away with things to talk about, and things we’ve learned.” Sallie adds that she loves “the energy of the young people, and their (PYM) leadership … (who) come up with remarkable things, not just for the kids to do, but for our intergenerational community.”

In terms of what has been happening at their Meeting, the Joneses report that Birmingham has been engaging with a refugee family from the Congo for the past year. Sallie says there are several people in the Meeting who have joined in an interfaith group as co-sponsors for this Congolese refugee family via the Church World Service.

Sallie explains “it’s a family of seven who lived in Tanzania for 19 years … (and) it’s been very challenging; they’ve had very little education, and possess limited English language skills. We’ve just passed the one year anniversary of supporting this family, so (the program has us) in the process of stepping back a little.”

In terms of process, Sallie says the Meeting had to raise all the money needed to support the family for its first year before the family came, which meant raising about $14,000. Getting volunteers was not easy. Sallie notes that “many people chose to make a contribution, but could not give much time, and the Meeting had to find volunteers provide transportation, get the family enrolled in school, coordinate tutoring, English language training, and meet healthcare needs.” Overall, Sallie says, there are several refugee families in the PYM area that are being supported by Meetings, and the host institutions put teams of volunteers in place to do the daily work.

Sallie says Birmingham also did neighborhood outreach; “we put a sign out on the street that said ‘Are you interested in helping a refugee family resettle in the area?’ People saw it, and said ‘I want to do something’. We got a lot of people who just walked in the room and introduced themselves and said ‘I want to help.’ We were very surprised in such a good way!”

Ed Solenberger is a Friend from Millville Meeting, a small meeting built in 1847. He’s a natural outdoorsman, who is generous with his time, enthusiasm, Quaker witness, and hugs. In terms of what is going on in his neck of the woods, he says “one of the things we are working on (at Millville) is a renovation of our meeting house, and putting in some ADA compliant restrooms. Otherwise, the life of the spirit has been there, and continues to be there, with strong worship – which is why I come! Plus, on September 8th, 9th, and 10th Upper Susquehanna will be having their fall family gathering, which includes Chrystal Lake Camp – a camp that is used in summer by Christian Scientists.”

That sounds like fun! With cabins and capacity for tenting, the Quarterly outdoor gathering becomes an annual highlight for the community. Ed says that Camping is not an uncommon occurrence at the more rural meetings, and we think it is something that more urban/suburban meeting communities could consider trying at their Quarterly Meetings.

New attenders: I talked to two Sessions attenders who were very new to Quakerism. They were Wendy Simonson, who lives next door to PYM staffers Richie Schultz and Gage Beamish, and John Greenhow, who attends Goshen Meeting.

Wendy met Richie and Gage at Quaker Volunteer Service Corps, the next house from hers. She and Ritchie have the same birthday, so they invited Wendy to Richie’s birthday party, where she met a whole lot of Quakers. She first decided to go to a meeting two weeks ago, and liked it, and then looked up PYM’s Annual Sessions and decide “oh it’s not so far, I’ll come!” She’s really enjoyed watching Quaker process, and has liked all she’s been exposed to.

John, who walked into his first meetinghouse six weeks ago, has already been to Goshen’s Meeting for Business, Concord’s Quarterly meeting, and now Yearly Meeting. He says “I came to sessions to learn more about Quakers and what I found was a community of loving, caring, spiritually conscientious Friends, and I’m thrilled to be here. When I moved back to Philadelphia, I was looking for a Quaker Meeting and did some very cursory research on the web, really more on a whim, but the messages Goshen had on the web seemed like it might resonate and I thought I’d give it a try. I felt at home the first time I was there!”

Finally, I offer this very moving story—brought forward by Dana Reinhold, clerk of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting—of what the Residential Sessions experience meant to her, and of how her Meeting’s acreage at the Friends Southwestern Burial Ground in Darby, PA, has become a final resting place for some 200 Muslims.

“I like seeing the pulse of Annual Sessions–only a few people at the beginning, and then the growing, still moderate, crowd for a couple of days (on Wednesday and Thursday), and then the influx Friday. It’s exciting. And then, (I like) having a sense of the flow of the business from one session of Business Meeting to the next; just having a sense of the energy; that has been really intriguing.”

Dana continues, “One of the things we talked about here yesterday was the new life of our Burial ground. It used to be a very small operation, we would bury about a dozen Quakers a year, and in the last few years that has really shifted because we have been discovered as a place where people can have green burial and that has meant an influx of Muslim populations from the city. So, we are burying about two hundred Muslim individuals … each year in recent years. They come from all countries, and represent different United States groups of Muslims, so they don’t all have the same customs. It has involved a lot of work on the part of the burial grounds staff, especially the manager, Graham Garner, to build relationships and come to an understanding of the needs of the different Muslim communities. A number of them are young people who are killed in gun violence in the city, and so the burial grounds staff end up in a role of ministry to people who are grieving loss through violence.”

To close this report, let us just say that Faith is a cloak that wraps us all; it carries us from birth to death, through school, career, and retirement, and it is what PYM Friends have in common. That humanity, the love for a grieving family, the wish to do good for others, to hold a Friend in prayer, or in the light, to help a fellow Quaker learn new skills, to contribute as a volunteer to a better social safety net, a better charter, public, or Quaker school, that is why we gather at PYM. That is what Annual Sessions is for: to be open to the Divine spirit, and do better for others, and ourselves.