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!
California is one of those big states that has everything, in a big way. Big cities, big mountains, big coastline, and big churches; as well as every kind of Quaker Meeting you can imagine. I decided to continue focusing on the Evangelical Friends, as those are the ones with which I have the least experience. Since I was on my way to Sacramento anyway, and some introductions were already made, I decided Sacramento Friends Church would be my next stop.
I arrived early for worship. I had heard that they were having a book study before the actually service started, and this peaked my curiosity. I walked around the two buildings several times unsure of where exactly I should enter. There were several doors into the building none of which mentioned “come in here,” and since I was early I was lacking of a crowd for which to follow. I eventually opted for a door that seemed like the oldest of them all and walked into the foyer of what looked like a very classical Christian church. There was a band practicing in the main room so I wandered down the stairs looking for people with a book in hand indicating that this was the place to be. I eventually found a room with a few people in which we discussed a chapter from the book “A Beautiful God” in which they explored the idea of what it meant to be a sinner.
The actual service started about an hour later. Friends arrived in a timely fashion (I call this “on Quaker time”), and filtered into the room in a pattern not dissimilar to that of a heard of geese, in no particular order but with a general sense of direction as if drawn to the forward facing benches. They were often garbed in jean shorts and flip-flops, there was a great deal of chitter-chatter in the background as the program commenced, and rather than a full rock band type concerto the singing was almost entirely from the hymnal. The praise music was pretty much limited to 1 drum, 1 electric guitar, and a lute. Despite the looming crucifix and the blue and gold stained glass windows, I would characterize this Evangelical church as being a bit more down-to-earth than some of the others I visited in my travels up the valley. The air was damp but pleasant, a very human smell crept through the still wind, and the room was bathed in a gentle amber glow cast from the ornate lamps, which hung precariously from the ceiling, filling the room with pale shadows and a mono-tonal golden hue. Before hand, the pastor explained to me that this would not be a “normal” program, and they had opted to eliminate their open worship for that Sunday to make space for a children’s program, or worship dedicated to the children of the church.
For the most part the service was what I’d come to expect from this form of worship: Praise music, followed by hymn singing, followed by some bible reading and a message from the pastor, and more praise music and singing. The youth pastor gave most of the message with the aid of a power point presentation and invited some audience participation into his ministry. The program for the children consisted of the wrangling of maybe a half dozen very young humans and their families. They sang a song followed by a kind of call and response segment in which the pastor read various questions from the bible to which the audience responds “We do.” They do this as a way of affirming the children are part of the church and the responsibilities that lie therein. This was followed by a portion where the pastor and some of the elders lay hands on the children who were then given a bible and certificate validating their presence within the church.
After worship I was able to attend their Monthly Business Meeting, one of the few still practiced in the Quaker tradition in this, the Evangelical Church Southwest (formerly South West Yearly Meeting.) Their corporate structure is similar to what I’m used to, with various committees sitting in for the decisions which in the other Evangelical churches are made by individuals. They open and close with silent worship. The only real difference I noticed between Sacramento’s meeting for business and what I am used to in traditional meetings was the accommodations and finical considerations for things like the pastor. That being said it seemed like the Pastor’s chief role in the operation of said business was to facilitate the decisions, which were made by individual committees.
The next day I was able to sit down with the pastor and the youth pastor and collect some histories on this church and some overarching information on the yearly meeting at large. Okay so the story is a bit confusing so bare with me, and please forgive me if this isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s kinda neat the way its told. So in the 1930’s a group of Methodists moved to the area and started meeting for worship under a weeping willow tree. I’m not sure how long this went on but in 1936 a “mysterious stranger” passing by stopped and gave the group enough money to build an actual church. Throughout this time, this group of people were interacting with a group of Quakers from Citrus Heights and in 1945. When they decided to make the church official they opted to call themselves a Friends Church under the care of Citrus Heights Monthly Meeting. In 1967 they moved to the building they are in now which was once a church of the Covenant with a loan from the yearly meeting.
So this is where it gets really interesting for me: To this day the Yearly Meeting or Evangelical Church South West still holds the deed to the property. In fact they hold the deeds to ALL of the churches in the yearly meeting and do so as a condition for participation in the yearly meeting even though the actually Yearly Meeting for Business no longer exists in any meaningful way. You might remember from my last post I talked about how decision where made on the yearly meeting level without much involvement from the members of the monthly meeting, this is why: I was told of at least one member of Evangelical Church South West who had a disagreement with the yearly meeting.
I didn’t really get the details of what this disagreement was in regards to and felt it wasn’t really my place to ask. (I am personally more interested in how people resolve their differences than what started them.) Anyway, even though the people I spoke to felt like the church was complying with the mandates set-forth from the Yearly Meeting, their property was sold and the church dissolved without notice and the members left reeling. So like I said I don’t really know the details of the disagreement or why this action was felt to be necessary thus I would like you, my dear reader, to try to refrain from judgment on this point because I was only able to get one side of the story. That being said, I am told the Churches who still owned their own property were able to leave the Yearly Meeting and did so without consequence. I am left to wonder if their reasons for doing so were because they did not like the idea of giving up their property rights to Evangelical Friends Church Southwest or because of some of the ideological differences there, and when they saw their chance to leave they took it.
There is another factor in this that interests me, and I will talk more about this in my next post when I have had a chance to reflect for awhile. People in California seem to be drawn more and more to the “mega-churches.” Several people tell me that, Evangelical Friends Church Southwest sees these so-called non-denominational churches as their chief competition. They seem to be growing at an exponential rate and in many cases have turned themselves into small cities. I have talked to some people from these churches and am told that in order to make this expansion possible they have had to change a lot of their practices to accommodate the changing culture. For example, at least one of these mega-churches no longer subscribes to one version of the bible and instead welcomes people to choose from whichever form they best relate to. I am told they often even use literature that is not strictly speaking of the Christian scripture. They apparently have also gone out of their way in many cases to welcome folks with what used to be called “non-traditional lifestyles” and have changed their outreach approach to one of attraction rather than promotion. I say this all because the policies at Evangelical Friends Church Southwest have not always been what they are now. As far as I can tell the consumer driven approach and the shifts in organizational governance are relatively recent changes and I wonder: Are these reactionary measures designed to compensate for a changing social and political landscape, maybe as a way to reinforce what were once considered traditional values, or for fear of losing something that many people held as singular truths?