I became a convinced Friend the first time I walked into a Quaker meeting for worship. I was twenty-one, and I experienced the best of what Quaker worship can be. Compared with my previous experience of religion – a “stand up, sit down” experience of being “preached at” – I said to myself, “this is the real thing.” That was fifty years ago.
At Boulder Monthly Meeting, where I have been a member for almost four decades, young people show up several times a year. They come as part of a “religious studies” class, or they come individually with f/Friends who have recently moved to the area. In spite of the welcome we offer, these young people seldom return more than once or twice. Then we, the members and attenders of Boulder Meeting, look around, keenly conscious that both our median and our average ages are rising year by year.
Driven by puzzlement – and by a conviction that it makes no sense to just sit around hoping that things will change – I decided to step out and seek young people with characteristics like mine when I was in my twenties. I had been an activist.
I was in a good place and it was a good time to embark upon this experiment: I live in a “university town” and the 2018 elections were just months away. With little bit of searching I found a statewide nonprofit that was conducting voter registration drives on college campuses, called New Era Colorado. I soon became the only 70-something showing up regularly on the Boulder campus in October, helping university students register to vote and then, in November, helping make sure they actually cast their ballots. The experience was both rewarding and uplifting, and it opened my eyes to the real possibility that young people could transform the Religious Society of Friends.
My search to connect with young people “like me” stirred up strong memories of my early days as an activist. My road to activism was a difficult one: I started out as a Navy pilot. When I declared myself a conscientious objector and refused to fly during the Vietnam War, I had been strengthened by observing three men in the La Jolla Monthly Meeting who had gone to prison during WWI, WWII, and the Korean War as conscientious objectors. Their lives spoke to me. Upon discharge, I began two years of full-time work in the antiwar movement. “The movement” provided the best of company; we really did create a national uprising that made U.S. continuance of its war in Vietnam and adjacent countries untenable. (See: www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/opinion/vietnam-antiwar-officers.html)
In 2018, I felt a lot of commonalities between our campus organizing and the antiwar work I had done in the 1970s – long hours, seemingly unbounded energy, serious dedication, infectious enthusiasm. One evening, as we debriefed the day’s activities, I choked up when I realized and said, “It has just struck me why I like you all so much. When I was your age, I was just like you.”
I am still just like them in many ways, but the world has changed dramatically. All of us who are “older” can rattle off illustrations: slide rules replaced by computers; three-minute “long distance” phone calls replaced by text messages and emails; trips to the library replaced by the astonishing research capabilities of smart phones; American factory jobs replaced by the globalized economy; and life-long employment replaced by the gig economy. Acceptance of white privilege, male privilege, and heterosexual privilege is increasingly challenged. None of my twenty-first century colleagues is being drafted to fight on foreign soil, but all are being confronted with the existential crisis of climate change. All of them are more keenly aware of the complexity and depth of global problems than I was at their age. None of these changes, however, explain why Quaker meetings have aged so noticeably over the last few decades.
One partial explanation may lie in the changing role of “service” in our broader society. During the twentieth century – and particularly during and after the devastation of the century’s two World Wars – “service” was a common vocation for young people. Many were attracted to work in organizations like the Red Cross and the Peace Corps. The American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Service Council in Great Britain provided opportunities for many young Quakers. Such organizations abounded in the twentieth century. Also, a large percentage of people in the U.S. still lived in rural areas – or in small towns or small cities – where people knew each other.
Fortunately, in the face of this changed reality, many Quaker meetings and Quaker organizations are beginning to create new opportunities for young people to become part of Quaker communities. Quaker schools and colleges, Pendle Hill, and the Ben Lomond Quaker Center are providing education and access to ideas and mentors. Two organizations – the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) – are increasingly noteworthy for the work they are doing to help the Quaker way speak to young people through advocacy and service.
I draw comfort from the initiatives that Quaker organizations are taking, which demonstrate that some Friends have moved beyond the puzzlement stage and are entering a stage of initiative and experimentation. Certainly, FCNL and QVS are prime examples.
In recent years, I have worked closely with FCNL. Several years ago, the organization coined the slogan, “The future needs an advocate.” This serves as a motto for an explicit campaign to raise and dedicate significant resources toward recruiting, training, and including young people in the work of FCNL. The campaign includes four outstanding programs: 1) The Young Fellows Program recruits recent college graduates to work for FCNL for eleven months, for living wages, building expertise in public-interest advocacy in Washington, DC. 2) FCNL’s annual Spring Lobby Weekend brings some 500 young people together from around the country to learn the fundamentals of the Quaker way of public-interest lobbying and then to put those skills to use with visits to Congressional offices to lobby on a specific topic. 3) The FCNL Advocacy Corps hires and trains community organizers, ages nineteen to thirty, to organize on selected issues in the communities where they live; in 2018, the Corps hired nineteen such organizers. 4) FCNL also provides paid, eight-week internships each summer to several young people, ages eighteen to twenty-three.
Similarly, Quaker Voluntary Service has initiated explicit programs to engage young people in Quaker-inspired action. QVS opened its Atlanta House in 2012, after its founders decided to help fill the need for structured opportunities for service for young people in this new century. QVS now supports communities of young adults in five U.S. cities. They recruit volunteers from any faith tradition, asking only that the fellows “try on the Quaker way” during their year of service.
I feel hopeful that some of the young adults who work under the auspices of FCNL and QVS will eventually find their way into Quaker meetings. Other national and regional Quaker organizations clearly also act as
magnets to and examples of living in the manner of Friends, and they too are attracting young people.
Let us follow those examples of initiative and experimentation in our own meetings, in our advocacy, and in our service. Let us look for new ways to invite young people to join us to “let our lives speak.” ~~~
* Google it.
John Huyler is a member of Boulder Monthly Meeting in Colorado (IMYM).