Aletia Dundas, New South Wales Regional Meeting
It’s 6 am, my alarm has just gone off and I can hear two older Quakers in the corridor speaking earnestly about the time and energy saved by drinking tea with cold water. Yep, it’s Day 1 of Yearly Meeting, and if you’ve ever read Roald Dahl’s book “The Witches”, the first day of Yearly Meeting always reminds me a bit of the witches’ AGM. While there aren’t the wigs, square toes, or an abhorrence towards children, there are similar squeals of joy as old F/friends greet one another. As we settle in to the first session there is the hope that this year will be just as nurturing as the last. And of course there are hugs. Yes, this is my extended family, and where I feel most at home.
And so, having showered and breakfasted, and greeted more F/friends in the corridor, I am ready to face the day, and proceed to “Summer School”, the full day workshop where we can explore deep spiritual issues or creative processes. This year I had selected to do a workshop on “Eldering”, where we would explore the spiritual nurture of the local meeting we are part of. I had been assured that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t an Elder per se, as the workshop would explore spiritual nurture in all its forms. This resonated with me, for, just as it is widely accepted that it takes a community to raise a child, I believe it takes a community to provide spiritual nurture to its members.
During this workshop, we were encouraged to draw on our own experiences of Eldering and spiritual nurture that have sustained us so far in our Quaker journey. Since I had been part of the Young Friends group that presented the Backhouse Lecture back in 2009, I began to think about the profound experiences of spiritual nurture I had felt being part of that particular community. Almost every Easter long weekend during my 20s was spent with Young Friends at the Quaker-loved property called Werona in Kangaroo Valley. The things I loved about these camps were the hugs, the fun, the depth and the sense of community that we created. I remember epic rounds of 500, laughing so hard over a ridiculous game of dares or mafia, swimming in the bitterly cold river, massage chains, and sleep-overs in the cave.
As I try to unpack why these experiences were so formative and valuable, and what it is about Yearly Meeting that sustains me in the same way, I believe there are a few lessons I have learnt that I hope will enable me to nurture others and create community again in the future. I think the first lesson is about creating enough free time for spontaneous interactions, often taking place during meals or in corridors. Over the cooking, washing up or later on by the fire at Young Friends camp we would discuss the meaning of life, the pursuit of meaningful vocations, what we thought Jesus was really trying to say and the struggle to live with integrity. We shared honestly about our fears, hopes and dreams for the future. These deep discussions sustained and enriched me. And through the laughter, the fun and the deep sharing, we built a community. I felt genuinely accepted for who I was and knew I was a valued member of the group even if I hadn’t showered for days, was wearing my daggiest clothes and was covered in ticks.
The same thing often happens at Yearly Meeting during mealtimes when conversation can turn from what we’re doing for work, to struggles in living with integrity, to one F/friend’s passion for Tibetan throat singing and back again to practical matters like who will take the minutes at the upcoming preparatory session. Sometimes I will stop to chat with somebody in the hallway on the way to a session and I find myself moving to a deep place of understanding and respect for that person and the way they have chosen to live their life that I am not sorry at all that I ended up missing out on that particular preparatory session entirely.
The second lesson, which group facilitators are so keenly aware of, is how important it is to build community and a space of trust. While the games and laughter of Young Friends camp might seem trivial to older Quakers, they were an important part of assisting everyone to feel included and comfortable. In a group of teenagers/young adults, as with older Friends, there are inevitably those who feel on the outer, and those who are uncomfortable in social situations. Taking time for laughter, games and getting to know one another in the things that are less eternal is a good recipe for building community and feeling comfortable talking about the more serious issues.
I think Quakers do know how to integrate laughter and fun into time spent together. For example, when the concert begins, suddenly all semblance of quietness dissipates, and there is poetry, singing, laughter and dance. For me, the concert is an important way that we build community and nurture one another. Singing, whether it is endless renditions of “The lion sleeps tonight” by the campfire at Werona, or equally endless renditions of “The George Fox song” accompanied by a few strong sopranos and a conga line around the room at YM, always helps me to feel connected to those around me.
The third lesson I took from Young Friends camp was about a willingness to “be adventurous” – to make changes or try new things because a certain way of doing things no longer suited everyone. After discussions about Easter camp, and listening lovingly to some Friends experiences of feeling isolated because distance and cost prevented them from attending shorter gatherings, we decided to make financial provisions for at least one person from Perth to join us every Easter. We questioned lots of Quaker traditions and kept the ones that suited our group, we trialled having two Young Friends on many Quaker committees and shared a great deal of richness as a result of these interactions. Business meetings were slightly unorthodox – normally conducted outside on the grass and accompanied by chocolate.
Older Quakers have also shared enthusiastically about the need to be flexible, and constantly open to adventurous and different ways of working. For part of the Eldering workshop we discussed one particular local meeting that had established methods trialling new ways of doing things. Being part of this meeting had been significant experience for many people, and there was a lot of talk about how being flexible, creative, innovative and open to trying new ways of doing outreach, Eldering, and worship sharing had helped shape a community that was responsive, deep, centred and alive.
During the subsequent days of Yearly Meeting our Eldering summer school group continued to meet, and support one other. It was during one of these follow up sessions, that I felt myself “Eldered” in the most delightful way. The facilitator’s daughter, aged 18 months, began waddling around the room quietly greeting all of us, pausing for longer with those who she sensed needed more loving attention. There was wisdom in her actions that we often overlook in children, and I was reminded of being open to spiritual nurture in its many forms.
All too soon, it’s the last day of Yearly Meeting, and time to go home. As I bid farewell to lifelong friends, and new and inspiring acquaintances, I hope yet again that the hugs, smiles and enriching conversations will lovingly sustain and hold me throughout the coming year, enabling me to go about my everyday life with integrity. The challenge for me is to find ways to recreate this same sense of community, love, passion, laughter and depth on a daily basis and to be prepared to play an Eldering role, in whatever form it takes, within my local meeting.