If you were to come to West Chester Meeting on a Sunday morning, what would you see and experience? A well-kept meetinghouse on a busy street in the Borough, flags hanging on the front porch with a peace symbol and “Black Lives Matter” on them. Individuals, couples, families with children, college students, and a nonagenarian all coming to settle into worship together. A few Friends join online through Zoom on the television between the facing benches. Once a month, semi-programmed intergenerational worship with all ages together the whole hour. Greetings and introductions all around the meetinghouse at the rise of meeting. Someone is always rustling up coffee for fellowship.
What would you find under the appearances of those observations?
In summarizing the spiritual state of West Chester Friends Meeting, we begin with the fact that we are grateful for the resilience of our community. Over the last several years we have found creative ways to adapt and come together, truly in an effort to stay together. Yet upon reflection, our spiritual state feels much different than it did prior to the beginning of the COVID pandemic. In discussions amongst Friends to produce this report, we concluded that we must consider that the spiritual state of our community is suffering from the collective trauma of the events of the last several years. While we have done a good job continuing to function as a meeting, we view this moment as an opportunity to seek ways to address how we will continue to support each other and heal ourselves and our community.
In an article published in Psychology Today by Danielle Render Turmaud, M.S., NCC, titled “What is Collective Trauma,” she states:
“Situations that may elicit a collective trauma response may include but are not limited to: wars, natural disasters, mass shootings, terrorism, pandemics, systematic and historical oppression, recessions, and famine or severe poverty (Aydin, 2017; Chang, 2017; Hirschberger, 2018; Saul, 2014). Traumatic experiences like the ones listed above can lead to an onset of physiological, psychological, relational, societal, and spiritual consequences as reality is turned upside down. Although the trauma is dealt with collectively, the experiences and individual responses can vary greatly which may lead to increased confusion about what collective trauma looks like.”
Over the last several years we have experienced or seen every one of these potential triggers in our wider society as well as closer to home, so it shouldn’t be surprising that our community may be in need of healing.
While many Friends have returned to the meetinghouse for worship, we continue to be grateful for the Friends who attend online via Zoom. Technology has given us the gift of connection across great distances and has in some ways enabled us to be a more inclusive community. During the pandemic, we used Zoom for worship, meeting for business, committee meetings, adult and child/youth religious education (less of the latter, over time), and fellowship. The return to being at the meetinghouse has not ended our use of hybrid spaces for many of these parts of community life, and no one has expressed concern about our continuing to offer hybrid spaces.
In the spirit of inclusivity, we continue to explore ways to create openings for participation in worship and the life of the meeting. For example, we are testing the concept of holding Meeting for Business before Meeting for Worship. This approach seems to enable more people who are parents, and those with Sunday afternoon obligations, to participate in the business of the Meeting. We also introduced “Committee Sunday” prior to worship one week each month. During this time all the committees convene in the meeting house for breakfast and to hold their committee meetings. The inaugural feast of food brought back fond memories of shared lunch. The gathering offers an opportunity for committees to work amongst themselves and collaboratively with other committees. It is a terrific opportunity for fellowship while engaging spiritually in the work of the Meeting. We are encouraging our youth to participate with a committee as they feel led, which is in the same spirit as other intergenerational fellowship and discernment we have done together.
Meeting our young people where they are and listening to their input has shifted what we offer in religious education programs. At the request of our middle-school age group, part of their religious education program is a monthly Youth Meeting for Business. The group of elementary children who we delivered care packages to during the pandemic have become middle school and high school students. They have nominated a clerk, a recording clerk, and a treasurer and present a report to Meeting for Business each month. Youth report feeling more involved and heard, and we hope that this experience is supporting their sense of belonging both in terms of Quaker practice and community. At the same time, adults are appreciative of the participation of the youth and their presence. Our annual Easter Egg hunt has also undergone revision to meet youth interests; the youth choose 3-4 charitable organizations to receive support and hunt for eggs stuffed with vouchers which they place in baskets for the charities. This year, their concerns focused on water, music education, food insecurity, and LGBTQ+ advocacy.
Inclusion and accessibility have been on our mind for the last couple of years with renovation of spaces inside and out. Our social room renovation also gave us opportunities to rethink the art on our walls and representation in it, and for the first time to create a Children’s Meeting space in the meetinghouse. We hosted two PYM events in 2023, an Outreach and Religious Education Thread Gathering, and a Middle School Friends overnight, and saw how the spaces could welcome visitors in new ways – especially those using wheelchairs or strollers. The Stewardship Committee developed practices around building use, which we see as a form of community outreach and neighborliness. We yearn to deepen our connections on “Quaker Block” with West Chester Friends School and the Hickman assisted living community, recognizing the unique opportunity for multigenerational community with the three entities sharing spaces and family connections. Last summer, youth had a table at the Hickman Yard Sale and raised funds for the resident assistance fund through crafts and games that they planned, and this summer the meeting will have a table and presence at an annual West Chester music festival.
After simplifying our committee structure in 2021 with a focus on people serving with attention to their gifts and leadings, it is still the case that committees are small and some have not named a clerk. Perhaps in this lack of engagement we aren’t recognizing our collective trauma, and need to acknowledge the impact and mourning of the pandemic years, which raises questions: Do we have the capacity to do all the same things? Where do we put the limited energy of a smaller group of people? There was disappointment and frustration that the meeting retreat did not happen in the fall of 2022 after communications snafus with the camp where we hoped to host it. We’ve been working our way through the logistics to find a way to hold this weekend event, which we believe will deepen our knowing of one another and connections in community.
While we are present in person, Friends still voice concerns about how well we have come back to one another – Are we truly present to each other? We hear people question: is there enough vocal ministry? is there enough spiritual reflection? is there enough fellowship? do we feel truly connected to one another? Or, are we walking in the steps of what we think a return to the meetinghouse looks like?
These are weighty questions we are asking ourselves. In some ways, coming together on Sunday morning is a faithful act of individuals in a community. But we are longing to return to what feels like a deeper state of spiritual relationship with God and each other. In the coming months and years we will continue to explore how to strengthen inclusion, fellowship, and community in ways that will ultimately be the foundation for a strong spiritual future – together.
What is collective trauma, Danielle Render Turmaud, M.S., NCC, Psychology Today, May 23 2020