July 9, 2009

Some initial reflections about FGC Gathering 2009

I'm intending to write separately about my experience in the Quakers & Social Class workshop that George Lakey led at Gathering. Before that, though, here are some less complex events and experiences I had while I was away from home.

A visit to Ploughshares Farm

One of the first people we saw on our 3-day car ride from Minnesota to FGC's Gathering in Virginia was Brent Bill and his wife Nancy--who he sometimes called Liz... very confusing to this Liz!

Brent was someone Jeanne had "met" via good ol' Facebook, though I was somewhat familiar with his blog, Holy Ordinary. I loved telling my parents that we were spending a night with "someone we met through the internet" ...and then waiting half a beat before explaining he was also a Quaker author and the writer of the preface to Writing Cheerfully on the Web.

Brent and Nancy's hospitality would be on the nature of the AAA four- or five-diamond rating. Y'know, when I hear "farm," I think of highly rustic, bugs crawling onto everything, no air conditioning, and a shared bathroom for whoever is there that night and the following morning.

But no: Ploughshares Farm is more like an immaculate Bed & Breakfast, with beautiful gardens, thanks to Nancy, and witty conversation, thanks to Brent. We also got a bit of a driving tour through nearby Plainfield, Indiana and saw where Western Yearly Meeting holds its annual sessions, as well as a former meetinghouse used by Conservative Friends.

We heard many stories about Quakers in central Indiana, which perhaps prompted me to ask Nancy and Brent how long they had been among Friends. I don't know that we ever heard Brent's answer because Nancy answered first:

"Oh, I'm a young Quaker. My family has been Quaker only for four generations."

What?!? I had to make sure she wasn't joking, which she wasn't. Brent went on to explain that Quakers in Indiana--and especially in central Indiana--had settled that area a long, long time ago, so four generations wasn't all that old as far as Indiana Quakers go.

We also heard about the struggles the two of them face regarding their monthly and yearly meeting, and how they began the Friends In Fellowship worship group just over two years ago. We had hoped to pass through Plougshares Farm again on the way back from Virginia in order to worship with these Friends on 5 Seventh Month, but Way was not open for that to happen.

If you ever have a chance to meet Brent or Nancy, or if you have an opportunity to stay with them at the Farm, do take advantage of the occasion!

FGC's Traveling Ministries Program

As I was preparing for the Gathering, I had a sense that I would not be spending my time doing the usual activities I've participated in so many times before. I felt little attraction to attending the worship that was convened daily by Friends for LGBTQ Concerns, even though it's usually quite settled and tender, despite having more than 70 Liberal Friends in the room. So I took things a day at a time.

On First Day afternoon, I attended a session that was offered by the Traveling Ministries Program of FGC (TMP). It was a time for worship and consideration of a few queries. Queries can sometimes be rather dull for me, but these queries seemed to indicate that the TMP is beginning to consider the bigger picture of Friends who travel in the ministry and their relationship to a vibrant Quakerism.

Here are the queries we considered:

    What is the Quaker message for today's hurting world?

    Can we begin to articulate a vision of our corporate experience and message? or is this not appropriate?

    Do we have a sense of what God may be asking of us? or are we each given a different message and task?
We divided into small groups to consider these queries and then reported back to the larger group. From there, the convener summarized the main threads she had heard, which went something like this:
We are called to continue living into a radical Love and our radical faith. The origin of this radical love is deep and ineffable, and we yearn to grow into it.

We also need to nurture its roots and there is work to do. There is work to do in ourselves, in our meetings, in our Religious Society, and in the world.

A number of groups used the metaphor of a tree: being a tree that stands firm as a presence to others; paying attention to the roots and the fruits of our faith and how we are in the world.

We are called to listen well to others and to model to others the Truth we seek to live.

We are also called to share the whole of our stories--not just the pleasant parts--so others can share the fullness of their stories.

We sense that there is a Message, even though we don't know what that Message is. We sense it may have something to do with how we are all part of the same Body; we are all small streams that flow into the same Stream...
Mostly, I was pleased to be worshiping for a short time among Friends, many of whom I treasure.

The tragic death of Bonnie Tinker

Later in the week, on Thursday, word reached the Gathering community that an attender had been struck and killed while riding on her bike. That night, the announcement was made that the cyclist was Bonnie Tinker--a person that MANY at the Gathering knew personally. She had been a plenary speaker back in the late 1990s at Gathering (I remembered I had interpreted into sign language her plenary address); she was very involved in Friends for LGBTQ Concerns; and she was a well known... personality... in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the country and around the world.

Bonnie was someone who advocated for oppressed and disenfranchised individuals, broke the rules in order to draw attention to the issue of the day, and worked tirelessly to change our society for the sake of equality and human dignity.

Though I didn't know Bonnie well, I attended a handful of Gatherings and smaller Midwinter events where she was also involved.

The night the announcement was made, all post-plenary events were cancelled and instead Friends were invited to a special Meeting for Worship, under the care of FLGBTQC. Most of us clearly were still stunned by the news and were in shock. But the convener of the called worship opened the time by explaining that in the 1980s, when so many of our loved ones were dying from the AIDS epidemic, FLGBTQC changed its form of worship and would do so again for that night:

Next to the convener was an empty chair. If someone wanted to express her or his grief--or other emotion, presumably--the worshiper was welcome to sit in the chair and speak from there. After sharing, the convener would then ask if the Friend was open to having a laying on of hands--a symbol that she or he was not alone and that she or he could stay connected with the community during such a tender time.

Some Friends spoke about when they first met Bonnie, or when they had last spoken with her. There were requests to hold Bonnie's family in the Light, some of whom had already been attending the Gathering and others of whom were traveling there because of the accident. One Friend reminded us to pray for the driver of the truck, too.

A few Friends did in fact move to the chair, but the corporal and cathartic release that some maybe were anticipating didn't emerge. It took time to digest the news and understand the implications that in fact Bonnie was gone.

The next day, Friday, during the daily afternoon worship--also under the care of FLGBTQC--Bonnie's sisters attended. Maybe Bonnie's partner Sara was also there, though no one made mention of her presence. It was at this worship when there were many more tears and sobs of grief.

And we sang.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Softly and Tenderly. Other hymns I didn't know.

And the news went out by phone, email, and Facebook. From local news broadcasts to articles in the Oregon newspaper and blog posts with additional details and personal reflections. I still come across news bits about the accident, though it's unsatisfying.

Nothing will bring Bonnie Tinker back to us. And there are a good many people who still need care, including the young adult Friend who apparently witnessed the accident, called 911, rushed to Bonnie's side, and held her hand as she died.

As I was finishing this blog post, I saw this open letter from the general secretary of FGC, Bruce Birchard. He writes about the events at the Gathering...

Looking ahead to 2010

Next year's Gathering is scheduled to be held in Bowling Green, Ohio--a new site for FGC, and there'll be a new paradigm for the week. Here is an excerpt of what was printed in the daily bulletin that was distributed toward the end of this year's Gathering:
Beginning in 2010, the FGC Gathering will run from Sunday to Saturday, effectively shortening the entire Gathering by one day. There are two major advantages to this:

- Lower fees for Gathering attenders (we are estimating by approximately 8%).
- More time on the first weekend to travel to the Gathering.

Having the Gathering begin on Sunday will alleviate the need for many Friends to take off work the preceding Friday in order to begin their travel to the Gathering site, and thereby reduce further the total effective cost of attending for those in this situation. We will continue to schedule the Gathering for the week including 4th of July, so that employed Friends need use only 4 vacation days, rather than 5. If reduced fees and a reduced need to use vacation to attend the Gathering result in increased attendance, it may be possible to reduce fees even further since our substantial fixed costs will be spread over more attenders...
FGC experimented with a shortened Gathering in 2006 when the Gathering was held in Tacoma, Washington. At that time, there were significant schedule conflicts between the activities of the Friends of Color Center and those of Friends for LGBTQ Concerns, so hopefully those conflicts will be avoided in upcoming years.

As for me, I'm currently planning to skip next year's Gathering, the first one I will have missed since I started attending in 1995. The Gathering has become a bit predictable for me and I feel my growth in the Spirit has stagnated considerably.

Also, since my partner and I continue to cut back on travels--for financial and earthcare reasons--we are planning to attend the White Privilege Conference next year, which will be held in western Wisconsin.

We also are toying with dipping our toes into the QuakerSpring meet-up that has emerged in the past few years, but we have more to consider about the where, when, how far, and how much sort of questions before committing to adding that particular event to our calendar.

Then again, God might call me elsewhere entirely.

In the meantime, I'll keep writing about my experience at Gathering. More posts to come.



Ashley W said...

Well, I can't speak for God, but I think you should come to the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference next summer. And maybe pay a visit to Freedom Friends while you're out here? There's a lot going on in the northwest right now and it would be great to have you visit!


Hystery said...

Where do you live that you think "farm" means bugs crawling on things and only one bathroom? lol You need to come visit us out here in Upstate NY.

Tom Smith said...

I would hope you might include QuakerSpring next year. It is a meaningful time of sharing and worship with an open agenda that provides much time for the leadings of the Spirit and sharing with Friends.

Liz Opp said...

Ashley -

It would be great for me to have another opportunity to head to the Pacific Northwest, and I've been intrigued about the Women's Theology Conference ever since I heard about it a few years ago (thanks to some link somewhere on someone's blog...). And I also hold very dear to me the opportunities of intervisitation among Friends, so presumably Freedom Friends would be on my list of Friends to worship with.

Now: I'm thinking you're on the planning committee for the conference, is that right? If you can point me to how to submit a proposal for a presentation, that would be a starting point, since I don't know that such a trip would be in the offing without adding more... ballast to the rationale. (Does that metaphor even make sense in this case?)

Thanks for the invitation! It's got my wheels rolling.

Hystery -

Good to hear from you again! I grew up in New Jersey, but where I got my impression about "farms" actually comes from the working farm where we stayed the first night on our way to Gathering, outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Lots of bugs (but tolerable), one bathroom (6 people that night), no a/c.

I've also been at a family's homestead (no running water, no electricity, plenty of bugs) and a couple of old farmhouses that were converted into modern single-family residences (creaky stairs, no a/c, lots of ladybugs), so there's reasons why I have the image I do about farms.

What sort of "farm" is in upstate New York?

Tom -

My partner and I have looked at the website for QuakerSpring more than a few times. We think we'd enjoy a smaller event, and one that is grounded in worship and meaningful relationships. We're just not sure what our summer will look like next year. ...Is there a mailing list we can get on, so we can be in the loop when registration starts, etc.?

Have you yourself attended? What can you tell me about it? Feel free to email me directly at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.


Robin M. said...

Liz, thanks for the first hand impressions. I have this secret (until now) wish that someday when I want to write a book that Brent and Nancy will let me come stay with them for a month so I could write in the upstairs bedroom and walk on the prairie and have them to talk to every day. I don't think they're really prepared for that kind of visiting, but a girl can dream, right?

I'm a little bit sorry to have missed the FGC Gathering this year, but it was the right thing for us this year. I'm barely going to make it to our yearly meeting sessions with my limited vacation days, and that doesn't even require a plane ticket.

I would love to consider further the queries from the Traveling Ministries program, and someday to attend the QuakerSpring gathering. As Way Opens.

Anonymous said...

Liz! I loved sitting next to you during the Traveling Friends Ministry meeting with a mutual Friend on the other side of you. This other Friend is grounded and thoughtful and sensitive and acted as a good angel on your shoulder, while I did my best to act the little demon prodding you with one-liners.

You behaved with admirable grace and restraint.

I typically knock the angel off my shoulder within the first five minutes of the meeting!