Dear Jean-Marie Prestwidge Barch, Clerk, Ministry and Care Committee of Quaker Life Council,
In response to your email of 12/2/22, North Branch Friends Meeting of the Wilkes Barre area of Pa.(we meet in Forty Fort, Pa.) spent several First Days going over your queries during our Adult Discussion sessions about the spiritual state of our Meeting in the past year. It’s been an eventful year.
As a meeting, we are methodically rebuilding ourselves. We are going through a clerkship change, and we are writing a new meeting handbook. We have sought ways to deepen our understanding of Quaker process, to fill in gaps in our knowledge, and to learn from people who can help us recover from the loss of Meeting elders in recent years. Since this is our first such report, that we know of, a little history might be in order.
In the past few years North Branch has dealt with attempting to combine our Monthly Meeting with our Sterling Worship Group. Over the years, without realizing it, these two small groups had grown apart, partially due to our being 40 or more miles from each other. The emotional ties that once existed had dwindled due to distance, passage of time, decreased contact and membership changes in both groups. We then experienced the pandemic which further hindered forming personal relationships. We hoped getting together on Zoom weekly would help bring us together. We found that those who had formed strong relationships before the pandemic endured. Some of us who had not had strong relationships in the past, surprised ourselves by becoming genuine friends, as well as Friends. Unfortunately, Zoom did not suffice to foster a trusting, safe, united space in Meeting, especially in Meeting for Business. Factions had formed with people who had little experience with Quakerism, but had formed their own ideas of what Quaker process was and how Quakerism was to be done. These ideas were very much at odds with most in the Monthly Meeting who wished to follow the guidance of Faith and Practice. Loyalties were divided. The faction of newcomers, who advocated radical changes to Friend’s traditions, without first fully understanding those traditions, had difficulty being assimilated, overseen, or eldered by the Monthly Meeting; or even acknowledging that the established Monthly Meeting might have anything of value to teach them.
We, as a Meeting, had never encountered such division and controversy before, and had no idea how to deal with it. Our wish to be inclusive and respectful of the feelings and opinions of others lead us to not properly set reasonable boundaries for behavior. We requested help from USQ, and were referred to George Schaefer from PYM. George has worked with us, with the support of PYM and USQ, since October 2021, and is still helping us reform and revise our bylaws, write a Meeting handbook, and to reevaluate how we do things. He gave us classes on Quaker process, eldering, history, and how things are usually done in Quakerism and why. We are isolated in northeastern Pennsylvania from other Monthly Meetings and both groups had much to learn. The newly formed USQ Ministry and Care Committee also attended some of our Unity Committee meetings, and Meetings for Business. Phil Anthony, from Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting, also provided both groups with a lot of support and encouragement.
We originally expected that the Sterling Worship Group would end up requesting preparatory status, but this did not happen. Instead, some members of the Worship Group reaffirmed and strengthened their bonds to our Meeting, while others clearly wanted something very different. And some of the members of our Monthly Meeting identified with and attached themselves to that latter group. Overall, “Sterling“ and “Forty Fort” did not accurately designate those who wanted to leave North Branch from those who wanted to stay and rebuild our Meeting. In June, both groups decided that North Branch Monthly Meeting would lay down responsibility and oversight of the Sterling Worship Group at the end of September 2022. Most seem to be maintaining their membership with North Branch Friends and are very welcome to stay. A group of about five members and attenders chose to separate from our Monthly Meeting and some have been worshiping with Upper Susquehanna Quarter. We have maintained the memberships of those who have separated until they decide what they want to do with them, but they no longer participate in the life or spirit of North Branch Meeting.
North Branch Monthly Meeting has returned to truly being a beloved community in every sense of the words. We were allowed to start meeting again in person by Wyoming Seminary Lower School on September 4, 2022, in a hybrid format, with Zoom available. We were grateful to receive a Membership Development grant from PYM to purchase equipment to be able to offer this. People who had stopped attending because of the conflict have returned. We welcomed a longtime attender into membership in November, and have been enriched by the company of several visitors. We are joyfully watching our little Meeting show signs of new growth.
So, in answer to the first query, North Branch has seen what happens when a Meeting loses their sense of a beloved community to mistrust and contention and has labored mightily to regain ours. We are wiser now. This experience has taught us a lot of hard truths. We are more focused on protecting our beloved community by setting loving, respectful, but firm, boundaries. We know we need to have the courage to act boldly in defending our Meeting, and each other, against divisive influences; primarily by maintaining a firm and unified loyalty to Quaker process and ideals, while acting out of Spirit and love.
2). We were limited by the pandemic in being a neighbor, or in relationship with other communities. However, our Outreach Committee did develop four webinars that were well received and available on YouTube:
1) Supporting Our Transgender Neighbors
2) Plastics, the Environment and Us
3) Racial Justice and Superheroes
4) Grassroots Green Energy
Members recently had a table with information at United NEPA Alliance’s “Friendsgiving“ food distribution event before Thanksgiving.
We support two local food pantries in our annual budget, as well as two local Habitat for Humanity groups. We support Greenwood Friends School and Monteverde Friends School. We also support the Peace Center in Wilkes Barre and Friends Journal. We have supported Journeys End Farm Camp, run by a long time attender and based on Quaker values, for decades. The camp was laid down this year, but we are still offering aid for low income folks to be able to get Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares that provide fresh vegetables from the farm all summer. We attended USQ weekly Meetings for Worship on Zoom during the pandemic and were able to meet Friends in the Quarter. Many of our members and attenders are politically active in promoting equality, voting rights and protection for the environment. This summer, member Weavre Cooper (now Molina) married Evelyn Molina, the first marriage under the care of our Meeting in many years. The wedding itself was of course primary, but it also allowed us to live out our support of the right of every person to marry whomever they love. Some churches deny that equality. In reflecting later, we were pleased to note that among our Meeting there wasn’t even a question raised, no discussion of the rights of same-sex couples in general was needed, and that in fact our Meeting had codified that right in a minute decades ago. It was a joyous occasion to celebrate.
3) In addition to the above, we spent a lot of our adult discussion time studying systemic racism, and how we, as individuals and as a group, may contribute to it and benefit from it. We watched and discussed episodes of “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man“ on YouTube, and several presentations on racism by Friends Journal on their Quaker Speak videos. Our Social Justice Committee investigated different avenues available to help Afghanistan refugees, and we donated to two of those organizations. Many years ago we changed the name of our Overseers Committee to a more racially sensitive Overcare Committee.
4) Our meeting has not appointed a Climate Witness liaison. We are not sure what that means. Since we do not have a Meetinghouse much of our environmental action is on an individual basis. We produced two webinars on environmental issues (see#2). We met on Zoom for two years, but that was more because of the pandemic than carbon footprint. We are hosting a “Meditation on the Mountain” series, this Spring, Summer and Fall, both to share Quaker practice with others, and to provide environmental education. One member is serving on the planning committee coordinating Pennsylvania’s participation in the Great American Clean Up scheduled for April 1&2, 2023. Another member was troubled that his workplace doesn’t recycle so he brings their recycling home to put it out with his. A few members have invested in hybrid and an all electric vehicle.
5) Our learnings this year have been to uphold our boundaries around what it is to be a Friends Meeting and what it is not. Being inclusive does not mean tolerating everything. Our yearnings are always the same, to make Quakerism available to more people and to welcome a more diverse population. We have been a small but vibrant meeting for over 60 years. We have managed, even without a Meetinghouse, to interact with the community in a lot of different ways. But we feel we will probably not be able to grow without a sacred space to which we can invite the community; without a visible presence in the world. To that end we have a Meetinghouse Fund invested with Friends Fiduciary. It may not happen in our lifetime, but we are sowing seeds for the future.
6) We are concerned about the survival of Quakerism. We feel our success as a religion lies in reaching out to more widespread communities to find those who are “already Quakers, but don’t know it yet.” It seems there is a general dissatisfaction now in mainstream religions. We think Quakerism can speak to the resulting void in the world‘s quest for spirituality, without the heavy weight and divisiveness of dogma. The time is ripe for a resurgence of Quakerism. We trust that what Friend’s faith and practice has to offer is of great and recognizable value to people who have not yet experienced it.
It seems to us that PYM has already nearly saturated the market for Quakerism in the Philadelphia area. Everyone there is aware of Quakers and has a meeting close by to attend. But there are many areas where people don’t know we still exist. (We have included a map from Quaker Finder listing Meetings within 100 miles of our Zip Code to illustrate our point.)The formation and growth of new meetings in outlying areas is being left to a few individuals who may or may not have the knowledge and expertise to make it happen. So many of our small meetings have been laid down. Other religions have dedicated groups charged with finding underserved areas, setting up churches in those areas and promoting them. We feel PYM would benefit from setting up a committee to provide that expertise and the necessary contacts. That would include lawyers, those knowledgeable in real estate transactions, contractors, financial advisors, access to grants appropriate to small groups, etc. We actually were granted $15,000 years ago but it was stipulated that we would have to have a mortgage in place within a year. That was impossible. We were too small to handle a mortgage at that time. We will need to buy the building outright and then we can manage to maintain it. It was generous, but it didn’t meet our needs. So we weren’t able to use the grant at all. But that $15,000 would have really helped our Meetinghouse Fund . We have far different needs than a large group. What about a fund from which small meetings could borrow with little or no interest? People in Philadelphia would be very surprised at how far money will stretch outside of that area. We remarked that the money that was raised to replace rafters in a lovely old Meetinghouse would have been sufficient to buy 10 small ranch houses in outlying areas to house new Meetings. We should absolutely preserve our old Meetinghouses and their history, but we also need to look to the future. If we don’t change the status quo, we fear Quakerism will dwindle, accessible only to the people who have centuries of familiarity with it. We might benefit by innovation. Scattering the seeds of Quakerism widely now, we feel, will ensure we have trees to shelter under in the future. But first we need the faith and courage to scatter some of those seeds.
In the Light,
North Branch Friends Meeting