Matters of budget and finance during our annual Quaker gatherings can often lead us from questions about numbers into existential conversations about why we even have yearly meetings. During one such business meeting this summer, which considered the 2016 budget of Intermountain Yearly Meeting, I found myself thinking of Edwin Starr’s Motown classic, “War.” Except the lyrics I heard in my inner ear were: “Yearly Meeting! What is it good for? Absolutely everything!”
Something draws us together every year, something good. We overcome a daunting geography to be together. In the West, vast distances separate our local Quaker meetings. Intermountain Yearly Meeting (IMYM), for example, covers a territory that includes all or part of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, South Dakota, and Idaho. Just the four states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico encompass more than 424,500 square miles, most of it with limited transportation options. Formidable highway distances separate the far corners of IMYM: Tucson, AZ, to Ft. Collins, CO, is 957 miles; Logan, UT, to El Paso, TX, is 947 miles. (For perspective, consider that Philadelphia to Chicago is 759 miles.) It is a testimony to the drawing power of IMYM that about 300 of us participate each year. What is it good for? Spiritual enrichment and raising young Quakers.
For me, the essence of IMYM is daily worship sharing. This opportunity to share in spirit with Quakers from other monthly meetings is my spiritual New Year. The Light shines in different people in different ways, and I value hearing new voices relating matters of the spirit and talking about ways we can bring our testimonies to life.
Another type of spiritual enrichment that the yearly meeting offers us is the message and testimony of each session’s keynote speaker. While individual monthly meetings and worship groups lack the resources to bring these good people to us, the collective resources of our yearly meeting can do so. The spoken words of our keynote speakers serve as a sort of Quaker sermon, bringing us closer to the Light and nurturing our spiritual practices and perspectives.
Returning from yearly meeting, we bring new perspectives and new connections home to our monthly meetings and worship groups. Not that every Friend who attends yearly meeting returns home overflowing with Light, but they often bring home a sense of spiritual renewal and energy. Fresh spiritual insights and experiences of yearly meeting attenders can enrich and strengthen the spiritual health of our local meetings, like a diversity of genes in a gene pool is healthy for a species. Many of our local meetings are small in number, and Quakers are a rare breed in general, so the fertile spiritual ground that is nurtured in our yearly meeting is vital to the ongoing health of our local meetings. I hope that all Friends appreciate this, whether they have attended yearly meeting or not.
What else is yearly meeting good for? Raising young Quakers. Yearly meeting is our Beloved Community. It is where we reap the benefits of our common spiritual practice. Children, teens, young adults, and older adults come together from cities and rural areas to spend priceless hours together in Quaker community – playing, worshiping, learning, and experiencing Quaker practice first hand. Often for young folks, this is the sole time of the year when they can experience Quaker living with their peers.
From a parent’s point of view, my wife and I rested easy knowing our daughter was gathered with kids her own age, exploring what it means to be Quaker, while we enjoyed fellowship with Friends from distant parts and participated in the yearly meeting’s business. We knew our child was in good hands. So much so that our daughter, as a young high school student, asked that our whole family seek membership in our monthly meeting. She had found her Quaker identity at yearly meeting; she sought to formally identify herself as a Quaker; and she wanted her mom and dad in on it, too. Without yearly meeting, this would not likely have happened. Our monthly meeting only had a small contingent of young people at that time, not enough to reach a “critical mass” in terms of age-appropriate experiences, but our yearly meeting provided that critical mass.
Yearly meetings also provide opportunities for children to shine in multi-generational settings. These opportunities help raise young people into young Quakers who know how to let their Light shine in the world. Young people read epistles and reports at our business meetings. They also take leadership in community events like the talent night that is a tradition at every yearly meeting.
Just this past summer, I signed up to share a new song at Creativity Night, which we hold at IMYM each year, a song that I had written earlier that week while at the gathering. It is a gentle piece involving some nice picking and a pleasant melody, and with its newness, I was focused on remembering how to play and sing it. While I was performing, I could see in the periphery of my vision that a little guy had joined me on stage – four-year-old Tobias, with a cardboard guitar, which had been a prop in a previous skit. The audience seemed to be enjoying whatever Tobias was up to, so I pressed on. I pressed on, that is, until he stepped in front of me and grabbed the guitar microphone and turned it his way to sing into it. At that point, I stopped altogether, and in the spirit of the moment, I looked down at him and said, “That’s not the way we rehearsed it!” He was so eager to imitate what he was experiencing all around him. And what he was experiencing was his Quaker community sharing fun, fellowship, and creativity. Our Beloved Community at play – that’s what yearly meeting is good for. ~~~
Tim Telep is a member of the Durango Friends Meeting. His article, “The Fruits of Practice,” appears in the December 2012 issue of Western Friend.