Being Quaker . . . Where You Are (review)

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Being Quaker . . . Where You Are: A Journey Among Isolated Friends in the Northwest
by Sakre Kennington Edson
reviewed by Eric Sabelman

Reading Sakre Edson’s collection of interviews is an experience akin to sitting in worship-sharing with Friends whom you almost think you know already, each contemplating the query, “What kind of Quaker am I?”

This is not quite the query the author posed to her interviewees: “What is it like for you to be an Isolated Quaker?”  That question (especially when “Isolated” is capitalized) suggests that these people are yet another branch split off from mainstream Quakerism.  In some ways this is true: They all have in common a physical separation from the weekly Meetings for Worship that for most Friends are their spiritual and social center.

For most of the fifty-seven people the author visited, physical separation from other Friends was a by-product of choices they made in work or residence; but for a significant number, separation was their deliberate choice.  Only two (by my count) had had unfortunate experiences that led to a decision to be a Friend without ties to a Meeting.  A few never joined a Meeting but felt themselves to be Quaker nonetheless. A few at the other end of the involvement scale had been highly connected to the Quakersphere, but retired after serving as an AFSC official or yearly meeting clerk.  Many have connections to other faith traditions, attending local Buddhist, Methodist, Catholic or Christian Science churches. Only one seems to make an effort to be known as a Quaker to the small coastal town where she lives.

Some meet in small groups with non-Quakers, sometimes in silence.  No formal worship groups made up of Friends under care of a Monthly Meeting exist among them, though some have tried to establish worship groups that faded away over time.   Still more express a wistful hope somebody else will start a worship group close enough for them to attend, because silent worship with other Friends remains important to them.  A number of these folks live in the vicinity of Spokane, Washington.  It makes one wonder: What it would take for them to actually start meeting together?

The depth of self-examination in each interview adds to the sense that the interviewee and the reader are engaged in worship-sharing.  This depth is a credit to the author’s skill in drawing out feelings and experiences not often shared by isolated Friends . . . or regularly-attending-Meeting Friends either, for that matter.

Sakre Edson is also skilled in setting the scene.  She takes you along on her travels, prefacing each interview with a short description of the sights along the road or ferry that you take to get to the home of her interviewee and of the house or cabin that person lives in.  Every interview is accompanied by photos of the landscape or house and the interviewee – you may find their faces familiar, even if you have never met them.

In the preface to the book, Sakre Edson reports that some on North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s list of isolated Friends declined to be interviewed.  She asks: “Are we doing all we can to serve their needs?”

Sakre Edson speculates about why they did not want to be interviewed, but except when they had schedule conflicts, she does not know. This subgroup might be represented by a the writer of a letter to Friends Journal (Sept, 2017): “I have concluded that very few people who attend Quaker meetings these days have a clue what being a Friend is all about.  Even worse, they seem to be not particularly interested in learning. . . You’re better off without your meeting.”  This is the attitude of a truly isolated Friend.

Sakre Edson’s journey among isolated Friends took place from 2008 to 2011.  Having gotten to know them through her book, I wonder how they are doing now, in 2017.  Are they still satisfied being among Friends only a few times a year? Have they migrated back to the city?  Or have they even started a meeting where they are?  ~~~

– Eric Sabelman is a member of Palo Alto Meeting (PYM).