Reflections on yearly meeting in session, PYM

 

We exchanged the corn fields of Lehigh Valley for the peach trees of Mullica Hill this year. As much as I griped about DeSales last year, I confess I missed the rural-ness of it. Rowan felt strangely urban, even though the part of New Jersey it sits in is not exactly a hoppin’ place. But the rooms were a great improvement. The kids and I (and Susan for a night) had a double suite with our own bath. And the golf carts were rolling! My kids will forever associate Residential Yearly Meeting with two things: flagging down golf carts for rides and eating whatever they want from vast dining halls. Oh, and the awesome Friends made through the superior youth programs!

I think I will forever associate RYM with arriving hot and bothered. This year, I came from a full day of teaching hormonal teens acting, fought my way through rush hour traffic and arrived in time to unload bags and linens for four of us, and to make up beds. Then Sooz and the kids arrived. I wanted to shower but realized I had forgotten soap and shampoo. A change of shirt and some extra deodorant and the four of us went to dinner in the Rowan dining hall, a futuristic hallucination of a room, kind of “Jetsons meets mod-Italian”. It took of couple of tries to figure out how the food was laid out among the various serving islands. Also – no trays. Later, Sooz took the kids to the kids programs rooms and I went to the vast auditorium called Wilson Hall. It’s a both a sign of how good the kids programs are and how familiar Griff and Ella are with them, that they were deposited there with minimal fuss.

I had come to RYM to deliver a speech that night (a portion of which is in a blog post here called “Bridges Between Yearly Meetings“.) Because of my work schedule in July, I actually finished writing it a month ago and have spent the last month sending it to a few trusted Friends for feedback. It was originally about ten pages longer, but I hacked away at it to get it close to the 45 minutes requested. Even with those ten pages out, I knew it was going to be longer. In a dry run last week it came in at 53 minutes. But reading it over in the days before I arrived at Rowan, I came to feel that it had been written by someone else. Not that I felt the ideas weren’t authentic, but rather that so much water has passed beneath my fragile bridge in the past month that I feel like a different person now. As I sat on stage next to Tom Gates, who was introducing me, I gradually became more and more nervous. I saw Sooz had returned from dropping off the kids.

There was an epistle read from the Standing Committee on Worship and Care (which I sit on), followed by some passionate ministry from the floor. It was in response to the Committee’s sense, expressed in the epistle, that PYM needs to to do a better job of supporting worship and ministry on a Yearly Meeting level. Then there was a wonderful presentation on the Friends Center at Race Street, and the way we are living our testimonies by taking such a bold step in eco-friendly design. Then Tom introduced me. He had asked if I wanted to begin speaking out of the silence, and I said I would. So we settled into worship in that giant hall, and I felt my heart pound in my chest. Here I ask: was it stage fright? exhaustion? or God? Does it matter? I use these physical sensations as signs of Divine Presence, but am aware that any doctor could parse them into clinical diagnoses. I guess what matters is what I choose to believe, over and above what I know. I felt moved to rise and speak after only a few minutes of worship. It was just past eight.

It was nine when I finished. I had that peculiar out-of-body experience actors know, when one feels somehow detached from the event taking place. This sensation was fortunately fleeting. I tried to remember to lift my eyes off the page and see my Friends as much as I could, scattered amidst a sea of empty orange seats. Afterwards, I felt spent, but whole. The response to the speech was enthusiastic throughout the weekend. I tried to quell my vanity with the sense that I had somehow been useful to my Friends, and the cheerful expressions of gratitude I received warmed me more from the connections they formed between us, than from their praise.

The Yearly Meeting made some weighty decisions that weekend. We were united in un-designating about 14 million dollars in funds and re-allocating them for general use. Some Friends asked to be recorded as standing aside, and one stormed angrily out. Then the next day, we agreed to form a committee to propose a process by which the Yearly Meeting can discern its priorities. One Friend rose and loudly complained about the pace of our proceedings, and while there were aspects of what he said that escaped me, I resonated with the sense he expressed that we were rushing and glancing over matters that deserved more time. I will suggest to the planning committee that for next year, the deliberative sessions be day-long, with a lunch break, and the workshops in the afternoon curtailed or eliminated.

Over all, I had the same sense I had last year, that of joyful co-mingling and fellowship with my spiritual community. I had meaningful encounters with young and older Friends, over meals, walking to sessions and riding in golf carts. I spoke in my speech about nurturing the experience of love in our communities, and this past weekend, we did. I felt loved there. And I spoke about supporting bold and beautiful ideas. And we did that too. Not because of my speech, I’m sure. But because the power of the Holy Spirit was flowing through us, and bringing us together.