God Thing: Travels with Josh

Young Adult Friends

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!

Read Part 1 Here, How Deep the Water Is

Read Part 2 Here, Pipe Creek

Read Part 3, Frederick

Read Part 4, Herndon

Read Part 5, Happiness

Read Part 6, Wilmington

Read Part 7, Change

Read Part 8, What does being a Quaker mean to you?

Read Part 9, Tallahassee

Read Part 10, Fairhope

Read Part 11, The Stories We Need to Hear

Read Part 12, Texas and Louisiana

Read Part 13, Tuscon, AZ

Read Part 14, Fresno

Read Part 15, Denair

Read Part 16, Albuquerque 

Read Part 17, El Paso

Read Part 18, Sacramento

Read Part 19, Boise, Idaho

Part 20

West Hills – Portland, OR

I was speaking to someone recently about how I became re-involved in the Friends community. While my parents took me to Meeting as a child I was absent for about 10 years. Between work, school, music, sports, and (I’ll just be honest) partying, it simply wasn’t a priority. For a long time, I was able to hold the seam of my life together with a single thread. When that thread started to wear I figured a staple would do. There becomes a point, however, when a staple has punched so many holes in the fabric of one’s existence that no amount of mending is possible. We can try to use super glue and duct tape to fill in the holes but eventually, the sail that was our lives is more weight than fabric. It becomes an anchor that pulls us down and when the water starts flowing we have little choice other than to swim. I was fortunate enough that when my ship sank I was able to find land in sight. I’ve known others who were not able to see it. Maybe they didn’t want to; maybe they clung to that waterlogged hull hoping that it would eventually right itself. I cannot ask them now, so I will never know. I would like to say I was able to swim to that shore but I think it is much more likely that I was carried. I have come to refer to this as a “God thing.” Though the story is much longer than I have time for here it suffices to say that I arrived back with the Friends more out of an act of desperation than anything else. That was almost 6 years ago now.

At the time I had made the decision that romantic involves were not a good idea. It seemed unfair to bring another human being into what would ultimately be an endeavor of building a whole new boat. For those who don’t know, I mean this quite literally and during the next 5 years I ended up living on an old sailboat. For a time she made an excellent partner. We would go out on the water at night when all the jet skis and motor boats had gone. I would raise the sails and turn off the engine and it was just her and me and the wind and the water. For a time it was the closest I could come to having a one-on-one conversation with God. However, it is a truth that the cold touch of a fiberglass hull is no substitute for that of human skin and completely without expectation, I met a someone with whom has been able to be a traveling companion for far too short durations along this trip. She was able to fly into Sacramento during my visit there and we had an exciting and spectacular trip up the coast of Northern California and into Oregon. I left her at another airport in Oregon and shortly thereafter arrived in Portland.

So I think I counted close to 20 Friends Meetings and Churches in a 45 min radius around Portland. I thought I’d try a traditional, unprogrammed meeting for a change. The Google had another suggestion though. You know how you do a search for something and the Google says, “other people have searched for this”? A Meeting popped up that hadn’t shown up on my initial glances at some of the Quaker maps websites I normally use. I was intrigued. When I went to visit their website, they called themselves a programmed meeting yet were not part of the Evangelical, nor FUM, nor FGC or the conservative regional yearly meeting. I was further intrigued. They used a lot of the language common among traditionally unprogrammed meetings yet seemed founded in a pastor-oriented approach. Well, I had to check this out. Within 15 mins, maybe less, I logged back into my email and a chain had been started with people arranging their schedule so as to meet with me. And that is how I ended up at West Hills Friends.

In terms of history, I didn’t really get definitive dates but the general gist of it is that West Hills started in conjunction with a Friends School and the original building may have been one of the first in the Maplewood area. That building was moved and demolished in the 70’s, maybe? The people I spoke to remember having events in that space but they also remember that being some time ago. The new facilities consist of the main worship hall and a separate community building on the property. The main worship hall is pretty simple and arranged in somewhat of a combination of traditional Quaker worship rooms and those of the Evangelicals. There is kind of a stage area with a cross hanging on the wall but the podium is on the floor with benches arranged to face it from all sides. So there are a number of forward facing benches angled so that people from one side of the room can see the other, and towards the front, there are side benches that face all towards the center of the room from all sides.

Worship opened with a few songs, some from the hymnal and others from a book I’d never seen before, but they were all kinda classical worship songs rather than the praise music I have come to expect from the programmed meetings I have visited previously. After that, the pastor opened with a poem about not being afraid to belong (something that resonated with me for obvious reasons). Then they sang another song from the hymnal. This struck me because every time the lyrics mentioned the word “sinner” they changed it to “Children.”  Next, a lady came up to the podium and told stories about the different ways she would welcome pilgrims. (Again, another point of resonance.) This was all followed by about 20 minutes of silent worship.

After worship, I was able to attend their meeting for business. This seems to have happened a lot on this trip. Though I am loath to attend Business Meetings, as a rule, I am grateful because these meetings give me as much insight into the way a church functions as the actual worship. It’s kinda like when you rent a car and drive it for a couple of hours and then open up the hood and unscrew every bolt you can find to see what it does. (That why I always buy the good insurance!) One of the concerns I have heard across the board is that of people coming to Quakerism without, or else a radically different, Christian background. I have heard most of the pastors complain about this as an issue in open worship, which is why so many of them have cut down severely on the silent worship time if not eliminated it altogether. I have also heard the complaint that people new to Quakerism come to the church expecting the pastor to be in charge of everything. This dilemma often becomes compounded within business meetings in which people don’t really understand that decisions are made on consensus and not by the person who is doing all the talking as it is in most forums. This Meeting opened with the clerk giving a much appreciated and very thorough explanation of the meeting process. I have to say she was also extremely funny. The meeting in general was another example of a combination of what I come to know as traditional conservative meetings and those I have experienced in the Evangelical setting. While it had a typical committee structure, some committees consisted of a single person, who seemed more specialized to a certain extent. There were a lot of these single person committees. They also had a board of Elders. I don’t know that I totally understand what role this board plays but I got the impression that their jobs vary and were broad reaching. What I thought was significant was that they were exempt from the normal nominating procedures. When one member decides to step down it is their responsibility to nominate their replacement.

Okay so let’s back up to some history again.

By all accounts, there were a number of incidents that led to the decision to separate from Northwest Yearly Meeting. One of the ones that seemed most profound and may have been the catalyst that led to a 7-year long process of discernment, ultimately leading to the divide among the meetings within North West, was a situation with a member of the church at the time. This person was a beloved member of the Quaker community both within and without the Monthly Meeting. By all accounts a brilliant musician and a person of deep spirit, they were scheduled to lead the music program for the upcoming Yearly Meeting. Immediately prior to the event, this person and their partner decided to end their marriage and the said person became romantically involved with someone of the same gender. When their personal situation was discovered by people within the Yearly meeting, their position at the forthcoming gathering was abruptly terminated without cause or explanation. This may have been the event that prompted West Hill to reevaluate its position in regards to North West’s version of Faith and Practice.

After a lengthy period of discernment involving all of the members of West Hill’s community, a letter was written to the Yearly Meeting expressing their concerns about the current policies. From what I gathered by the people I spoke to, they were concerned that by discriminating against certain people the Yearly Meeting was neglecting to hold up Jesus’ teachings of love and acceptance. A letter was immediately written back informing the Monthly Meeting that unless they rescinded this position they were to be placed under disciplinary action. I am not sure about the technicalities of what exactly this involved. The version of the Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice mentions disciplinary actions only as it relates to individual members. I am told there were various meetings among the Monthly Meeting elders and board members with the yearly meeting, as well as periodic visits from the Yearly Meeting to Sunday worship to observe West Hill’s practice. It seems that those Yearly Meeting Board Members who were able to visit were immediately charmed by the welcoming Christian attitude they experienced with their witness. There were, however, a number of visitors from other Monthly Meetings who arrived with messages of condemnation, which were echoed by the voices of the yearly meeting board members who were unable to experience what West Hills had to offer.

I am told much of the blame for this disagreement was laid on the Pastor at the time, who was going through his own personal family tragedy. I am not going to write about that here because I feel like it is somebody else’s story to tell, but it suffices to say this period of loss and ostracization was indeed a dark time for West Hills as a whole. Despite what sounded like an extreme amount of uncompromising denunciation from individuals the Yearly Meeting itself became very much divided along with the issue of to whom they should welcome into the church. As these discussions became more public, an increasing number of Monthly Meetings started to side with the decrement of West Hills. I am told by several sources both within and without West Hills that ultimately a consensus was never reached. Despite this, a decision was handed down to the Meetings within North West giving them an ultimatum and a deadline to which this would apply. It was stated that if individual Meetings wished to practice in a Welcoming Manner they were to leave the Yearly Meeting by a certain date.

Having had the experience of this conflict for several years, West Hills was prepared for this gambit. Other Meetings were not so lucky. Like South West, North West holds all the deeds to the Meeting within the yearly meeting, so leaving after this point would have meant the loss of the Meetinghouse grounds and their place of worship. I got the impression that if the decision was made to leave before the deadline negotiations could be undertaken for the Meetings to retain their properties. There was not too much time given between the presentation of the said ultimatum and the cut-off date the meetings were to decide by, and it sounded like many of the meetings that would have left were not able to reach a consensus in time. Despite this rather limiting time frame, I think almost a dozen or so Monthly Meetings were able to extricate themselves from that care of the yearly meeting.

Many, but not all, of those Meetings were able to reform into what is now called Sierra Cascades Yearly Meeting.  They are now in the slow process of rediscovering themselves as Quakers and community, learning what it means to be a “Welcoming Church,” and finding their place in a changing society; as they evolve and change with the world around them.