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In a Quaker Minute

Donna Williams
On Relevance (March 2021)
Healing the World

Most people know several different ways for drawing a large group of people to a decision. I’ve experienced many: Robert’s Rules, the Lakota talking circle, the old-fashioned town-hall meeting, the top-down company-wide memo, a method I’ll call “spokes and wheels,” as well as Quaker meeting for business. These give us “outward forms” for grappling with messy social processes. None of them are sacred, although the sacred may work through them. Do I think some methods excel above others? Yes. Do I think we should change Quaker process? No! However, if I could change one thing in the Quaker mind it would be the errant belief that, in order to be good process, it must proceed at a glacial pace.

In the summer of 1986, I stood on a large open floor with about 150 other people in a workshop led by American Peace Test. In one busy morning, we came to a decision by consensus, a decision to act, a decision with serious consequences: some of us would probably get arrested because of it. The remainder of us would try very hard to not get arrested, so that we could support and bail out the ones who would. To be clear, we spent most of the morning simply learning the process that we would use later to make the decision, learning the process by practicing being “spokes” and “wheels.” Had we already been experienced in the process, or had we grown up using it, I think we could have come to consensus in under 15 minutes. Whenever I hear anyone say, “Decisions by consensus take a long time,” I want to shout, “It ain’t necessarily slow!”

At times, I’ve found myself swept up in the energy of a group decision, feeling the pieces coalesce, surprised by people’s creativity, marveling over results that were better than we had hoped for, and knowing that the decision would matter. Other times, I’ve groaned inwardly with impatience, picked at invisible bits of lint on my sleeve, gazed out the window with a longing to be anywhere else, and wondered if anything would come of it. By the time we’ve finished laboring over all this, will it matter?

It seems to me that Friends sometimes fall into the idolatry of worshiping the slowness of our process, instead of following the pace set by Spirit. It seems that we generally lack the faith and the courage we need to act swiftly – and we certainly do face decisions for which sooner would be better than later.

Going slow can be a way of holding onto the status quo, of delaying change. People often criticized Martin Luther King, Jr. for moving too fast and pushing too hard. He answered, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” In times of social change, people with power and privilege often drag their feet, study the issues, table the bills, and throw all manner of barriers into the path of the inevitable. Instead of setting goals and allocating resources, they pass toothless, feel-good resolutions. Some of the minutes we approve in our Quaker meetings, some of our lofty statements of commitment to just causes, seem like feel-good resolutions to me. And I find myself a participant in delay tactics, protecting the status quo.

I love sinking down into the silence of meeting. It’s soothing and comforting. It offers me a much-needed refuge from a world that is jangling with urgent crises. I definitely do not want to be “woke.” I long to put my head in the sand and sleep. And I generally don’t want to take any long, hard looks in the mirror. I tell myself I need to rest so that I can gather my strength for the marathon of problems in our world. However, once I’m rested, I don’t want to get up.

I carry around a joke in my head that is not very funny: “How long is a Quaker minute?” We spend hours, days, and months on our “minutes,” seasoning them and word-crafting. I wonder how often a meeting ever takes an old minute out of the archives and gives it an honest assessment: Did we follow through? Did it matter?

In my experience, Spirit is not always slow and gentle. At times she runs free, wild, untethered. No one can tell the wind what to do. She does not follow Quaker process, though sometimes She leads it. When Spirit speaks to me personally, she sometimes whispers in a still, small voice, but other times, She breathes down my neck at gale force, shouting, “Go! Move! Now!”

Our world faces a crisis that hones a new edge on the term “deadline.” Scientists warn that we face a vanishingly narrow window of opportunity to protect our planet. Every day we delay, another pack of uncounted species goes extinct. Every day we delay, the hardships we face multiply. I hear the clock ticking. It can feel overwhelming. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear: The time to act is now.

Would writing a minute on the climate crisis spur us to action? By the time we positioned every jot and tittle perfectly, would it matter? If the meetinghouse were on fire, would we stop to write a minute on the importance of evacuating, or would we pick up our skirts and run? Our house is on fire.

I respect what certain indigenous communities with scarce resources are managing to accomplish in response to the climate crisis: restoring forests, returning to healthy traditional foods, upgrading housing for energy efficiency, installing solar and wind power, protecting clean water for their children, and many more sustainability projects.

Imagine what Quakers could accomplish with all our wealth and influence. Maybe as a community, we could meet the terms of the Paris Accord. Or we could build carbon-zero villages as patterns and examples to the world. We could install solar panels and electric-car chargers at every meetinghouse, start revolving loan funds to promote energy efficiency, downsize our comfortable lives to a scale proportionate to the crisis we face. Instead, we struggle to agree to mail a small check to a non-profit or to write a letter to our member of Congress. I think we can do better.

In 2016, I stood on a hillock in the territory of the Standing Rock Sioux and beheld thousands of people from all over the world, camped on the floodplain at the juncture of the Cannonball River and the Great Missouri. Over a hundred nations sent representatives, most of them nations erased from modern maps. Their flags whipped in the wind. Spirit moved over the face of the camp. Prayer and ceremony suffused every waking moment, from the morning circle to the evening gathering around the sacred fire. Talk about a “gathered meeting”!

For months I had wanted to jump in the car and drive out there by myself, but something in me knew to hold back. Not until I was part of a small group of Friends and friends, who planned to transport a caravan of material and volunteer support to the encampment, did it feel right to go. What I do as an individual will never be enough to matter. What we do when we are gathered up together has a chance of making a meaningful difference.

Friends long for the Gathered Meeting, in part, because we long for the great feeling it brings us. Spiritual nourishment, like self-care, is wholesome, good, and intrinsically worthy. However, I sense that this great feeling is not the main point. A Gathered Meeting, by itself, is not enough to matter. To matter, the Gathered Meeting moves us to action that’s strong enough and swift enough to make a difference.  ~~~

Donna Williams lives with her husband and his dog in Great Falls, MT, on homeland taken from the Great Blackfeet Nation near the headquarters of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa-Cree. Although not prone to joining groups, she was affiliated with the Great Falls Worship Group for many years and occasionally attends the Montana Gathering of Friends (NPYM).

Meeting for Business Quaker process social change

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