Hello my name is Joshua Ponter. I am a member of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting in South Jersey’s Philadelphia area. I have embarked on a year-long mission to travel around the country collecting stories about the founding of different meetings and looking at the way we practice Quakerism today. I will be blogging about my travels on the PYM website. Find my latest entry below. Please email me at JPonter1@gmail.com if there is anyone from your meeting who would like to sit down with me and speak to some of your history — or if you would like more information on me or my project . Thank you!
It is at this point I have completed the second leg of my journey… This journey anyway. I have traversed the entirety of the southern United States and am beginning my travels north. Many years ago, in what seemed like a different lifetime, I was working as an RN in a hospital full time, something like 50 hrs a week. Words like depression and anhedonia don’t even begin cover the extent of despair at which I was feeling. Life it seemed to exist in a perpetual twilight. I guess working nights didn’t exactly help the situation since I never saw the sun any higher than the horizon. I used to dream of escape. To run away from anyone and anything that was me. At the time my identity was completely wrapped up in my occupation. Anyone who has become a nurse will understand this. I suspect the same principle applies to cops and soldiers, who have seen combat as well. There are some things
that change us on a fundamental level. Thus, I decided escaping my job would be a good place to start. I could not predict, however, that it would end up to such an extreme.
I decided to take a week off work. The plan was to get to the west coast; as far as I could get from my work, my home, my life in New Jersey. I did not have a passport at the time so I was limited to the US. I had gone to Hawaii already and as it was January, Alaska didn’t seem particularly appealing. I decided to head towards California. I’d maybe drive down the coast, hike through the redwoods, or just vegetate on the beach. The problem was I couldn’t figure out how to get there without getting myself into a significant amount of trouble. I was drinking at the time; not as heavily as some folks, but more than most. It had become a necessity in my life. While I could stop long enough to work my 13/14 hour shift, 48 hours was about my max. I debated flying or taking a train across the country or maybe even just an extended road trip, but I certainly didn’t want to be sober for my vacation. I knew I would eventually have to drive and there were some lines I knew if crossed I would not come back from. I ended up spending the entire week in my room alternating between sleeping and crying. When it became time to return to work I was in such a state that returning to my unit was no longer an option. Instead, I went to the Emergency department and checked myself in. What happened next is somewhat of a blur. Though I may elaborate in a further entry I hope that you, dear reader, will understand if I feel like I’m not quite ready to talk about it here.
I felt that this story was important to mention in order to compare that place I was in to the place I’m in now. Having spent such a long time in a cocoon-like haze. I am reminded of the man who dreamt he was a butterfly. I wonder, was that the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning? So here I am, almost 6 years sober, having traveled more than 8,000 miles to the otherside of the country, and living an adventure I never dreamt possible. Crossing that line at the California inspection station was the moment I realized what a thing of beauty life can really be… then I saw the gas prices.
Okay so with the help of a very dear friend I worked out a really good budget before I left. I’m not really a money person and while I have made next to no mon
ey over that past several years I have always made sure I was spending less than I was making. Things like my living arrangement on the sailboat and the way I would essentially rent my clothes from goodwill aided in this endeavor, and while I had planned to return home with very little in my wallet I had not budgeted for the $4.50/gal price hike, or the “summer gas” which is for some reason far less fuel efficient. It is times like this I wish I could ride a bike without being a danger to myself and everyone within a 20ft radius. It became clear to me that I would have to do far less driving in CA than I had planned and look for as many free places to stay as possible. Most Walmarts in California do not allow that option, but I was able to reach out on Facebook and contact some folks. That is how I ended up spending almost a week parked on a Friends Lawn in Fresno.
Having spent a great deal of time with unprogrammed and FGC affiliated meetings I resolved to visit as many “non-traditional” Friends Meetings/Churches as possible as they are becoming much more prevalent on the west coast. I was able to attend Fresno Evangelical Friends Church and talk to several people. Oh boy! What an education! I may have to refer back to this experience in several more entries.
I am told the Church originally started in a circus tent under the care of South West Evangelical Yearly Meeting. I believe some of the confusion at the Tucson Church was due to the name change in which the “Yearly Meeting” became “Evangelical Friends Church Southwest.”It seems like they decided to do away with some of the traditional Quaker lexicon. Maybe to make the organization more available to folks not raised in Quaker tradition, maybe to isolate themselves from traditional practice, or maybe a little of both?
While there are a significant number of structural differences, there are also other changes when it comesto terminology. For example, rather than a meeting room they have a “sanctuary” and rather than committees they have “teams.” In terms of differences in structure, it seems like individuals rather than committees make major decisions. These people are elected and are on a board of trustees on the Yearly Meeting level. I’m told their decisions are then brought to business meeting which used to be a 3-4 day event, though has been reduced to a single conference. Yet, at this point, I am told the decision has already been made. It seems like this step is more of a formality than anything else. While there are regular meetings for the pastors none of the people I have spoken to have attended a yearly meeting recently. Said people remember that there once used to be a quarterly meeting, but this has since been done away with completely. There seems to be a great deal of trust given to these board members or “Trustees” to make the deci
sions that are right for the church, the idea being that God put them on the board and therefore works through them. While it seems like this process is much more streamline, it’s hard to say what has been lost.
It was several people’s belief that this lack of a commitment to traditional Quaker process was more of a reflection of our changing culture and the culture of the church. I am told it has changed to gear towards gaining numbers rather than a focus on spiritual growth. From an objective prospective, I can see how this may be considered a means to an end. Putting bodies in the seats increases a church’s income, which means it is able to provide more services, programs, and facilities, which may lead to spiritual development, but it was the opinion that a “consumer based approach” was somewhat a self-defeating spiritual endeavor.
Fresno Church is about to embark on a merger with a Church known as Valley Friends. Though they use the name “Friends” in their title it was the opinion of many I spoke to that, this was more of a non-denominational practice rather than an organization that has held to many Quaker beliefs. The reason for the merger seems to be out of necessity more than anything else.
In the 1960’s Fresno’s membership bloomed up to around 300 Friends. It was at this time they moved into a new building. The one they occupy now was built specifically for their church. It was also constructed to look like an office building as to increase the resale value in hopes they would eventually have to move again to accommodate a growing population. Unfortunately their numbers have dwindled significantly over the past several years. With an aging population and stiff competition with some of the non-denominational “Mega-Churches” in the area it was decided by the higher-ups that Fresno would need to accommodate the Valley Friends Church and integrate their practices into Fresno’s services. Along with the boom in attendance, Valley Friends is to provide a great deal of capital that will be involved in renovating Fresno to suit their different needs and begin a process which will hopefully attract more membership and a younger population so that the church will begin to thrive again financially. It will be interesting to watch this develop and I hope the wonderful people I have met there will succeed in whatever form that might mean to them.
Read Part 15, Denair