The dawn of the digital age among Friends has brought some new ways of thinking about many of our tradition’s practices.
One of these I see as most impacted is membership. What does it mean to the Quaker definition of “membership” to no longer be constrained by geography? Or is geography and a physical location still important?
Here’s some recent advice I heard from an interview with Pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson:
We go to a small church. When I was a pastor of a congregation, people would leave and say, “How do I pick a church?”
And my usual question, my usual answer was go to the closest church where you live, and the smallest. And if after six months it’s just not working, go to the next smallest. [laughs] ….you have to deal with people as they are. And you’ve got to learn how to love them when they’re not loveable.
In 2019, my family moved to Methuen. Massachusetts. Still within driving distance of my Quaker meeting in the Boston area. Soon after that – the pandemic hit – and we were not driving anywhere for awhile and all on zoom. Worship on zoom has always been a struggle for me. I believe in it, I think it is a much needed and great option for folks who cannot travel to a Quaker meeting. My teen cannot participate due to anxiety and screens. So what holds a community together when the group is meeting electronically? Quakers are finding many options – some of them I’ve mentioned before. Our meeting held worship on Sunday morning, and committee meetings. There was not much other space to be informally connected. Some meetings started informal outdoor potlucks and gatherings. Others held “game nights” or other social events on zoom.
One realization that emerged for me was my lack of connection to the physical place where I lived with others in my meeting. My “news” was never about the same happenings as other folks more local to the place where we used to physically meet in Cambridge. My former meeting has been caring for a worship group called “three rivers” – even though the group meets online, with folks from all over, the name and grounding refers to a physical space – the Neponset River, Charles/Quinobequin River, and Mystic/Missi Tuck River.
Driving around downtown Lawrence (as I do, every day) a new thought rose in me one day – I have three actual rivers also in my daily life. “My” rivers are the Merrimack, the Spicket, and the Shawsheen. My daily travels often follow and cross one or more of them. Those rivers were the lifeblood of the native peoples here, and then the immigrants who built the mills and communities that still are here today.
After some discernment, and over a year of attending the Lawrence/Andover Meeting (we meet right down the street from where I now live! ) I felt clear to transfer my membership to this local meeting. We are 6-8 folks most weeks. That includes a few members who now live in Texas, and join us each week thanks to zoom and our hybrid worship set up. The worship is nourishing and I am grateful for the opportunity to be present with others in the same physical space.
I am learning what “local” means in this season for me. Our meeting is partnering with local aid groups. Members of our meeting witness each week with signs on street corners at the local arms manufacturer, and the town square – speaking to our direct neighbors. We rent space from a local church, and have relationships with them and other local communities. My teen attends the public school in the area. We are local doctors and teachers and service workers in the greater Lawrence area.
My meeting participates in a “river cleanup” here in Lawrence each year. We joke about keeping our small section of the river (the one were are assigned to each year) clean of debris. It’s a big job. It can’t be done without all of us in the wider community.
I still visit many meetings online for worship. I’m getting back to traveling among Friends in person as that ministry unfolds in this meeting in this time. But what is most important for me now is the lessons of community. It’s not just what Peterson says – dealing with and learning to love those in your community. For me, the community is larger than the members of the meeting. It’s also the local place I am lucky enough to call “home” right now.
How does this impact my thoughts around community and “membership”? Even though I could attend mostly any meeting anywhere, for me in this time grounding in my own geographical communities’ concerns and joys seems to be where I am called.