14 January 2010

Community and Responsibility

In true community, we will not choose our companions, for our choices are often limited by self-serving motives. Instead our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as the place where that person we least want to live with always lives! (Parker Palmer, in A Place called Community, PH Pamphlet 212)

A number of years ago I experienced what would become a pivotal event in my spiritual life. It was directly a part of my experience of living in community with my monthly meeting and experiencing all of our limitations to do so. It brought my idealistic view of what living in community meant directly into conflict with the reality of the limitations of our community. I could not reconcile it in my mind, and the result was a journey that still continues, a journey of resolution, dissolutionment, acceptance and commitment.

Growing up in an insular small town farm community, in a severely dysfunctional family of origin and extended family, I suppose I came by my desires for a different kind of community honestly. It would not be unfair to say that I was seeking what I lacked in my life, and that I was deeply attracted to the notion of intentional community as a corrective for the felt losses of my early life. It is also true that I found the commune efforts I sought out in the 70s to be lacking in spiritual center. This then was the covenant I brought to Friends when I became convinced: I will give you my all, and I will help you to build community, in return, I expect you to accept the underdog (like me) and to help right the injustice of the world. In fairness, I must say that it is only in retrospect that I can see this.

Still, it makes me wonder: What are the covenants we each carry with us when we join a spiritual community? I am fairly certain none of us entertains the thought as we start out that Parker Palmer posits: that true community is the place where the person we least want to live with will be found. Rather, the opposite is more often true, that we are seeking a community of like minded individuals where we can feel supported, loved and nurtured.

In fact, I didn't know that I desired anything different until a convicted sexual offender, who had served his time, gone through three psychological rehabilitation programs, and been released from prison, began to attend our meeting. At first none of us knew his history, and we experienced him as a rather eccentric but very intelligent man, with a gift for music and story, and a vast knowledge of Quaker history which was a gift to our second hours of worship. He had elected not to tell us at first, as he'd been summarily rejected from other communities and was trying a different way. I wondered when we asked him to share his music with the youth program and he declined. His history would only come into the public light gradually as he took the risk to share with some individuals, and eventually publicly when he was recognized by some members of a distant meeting he'd been written out of, at an annual session gathering. There, alarm was the resounding feeling, and he was asked to leave the session.

The accounts that follow would differ from person to person in our meeting, and I can really only tell mine, as it has evolved over the years. My purpose here is not to find fault or right or wrong in this matter, or to open wounds, but to expound on my personal journey and what it has brought me to in my understanding of true community.

I fell into prayer when I heard the news of my friend being put out of annual session. In this time of silent expectation, I heard that I should be a voice for the person, as our meeting had asked him to not attend while we sorted out the path we should take. I did not seek clearness on this with others, my first misstep in my community. Instead, in our emergency meeting I announced that I felt the man should have a voice, and that God had called me to be this voice.

I was unprepared for the outrage and indignation that followed. In taking the voice of the person, I had unwittingly become the target for all the feelings our community was experiencing: victimization, betrayal, fear, anger, and a host of other feelings. Not all of the community felt this negative response, and as a result we became polarized. Moreover, one friend felt so threatened that she felt obliged to warn me off that night, and I responded with a human, not god-led reaction of righteous indignation and anger.

I believe now that in that moment I lost my ability to be the voice of Spirit. I began responding out of my own fear and feelings of injustice, not from the place God was calling me. However, it would take years for me to see this clearly. I was feeling so defensive, that I was not open to eldering or leading from other members who tried to offer me help. Now I had begun to be a part of the problem, not a part of the solution as I believe God intended me to.

I am grateful that I did not abandon the meeting during this time, as continuing revelation and leading from the Light has brought me to a much deeper understanding as the years following have evolved. If it is true, as Parker shows us, that true community is God's attempt to help us grow and evolve, this was truly a potential growth experience for our entire meeting. Would that I had committed to a clearness committee then as I have now, and this journey might have been much clearer on my part. Some who fled the meeting in fear for themselves of their children, have, in my observation, not nearly reached the peace that God has graced me with.

It was a sad, sad time for our meeting. Our visiting Friend fared not much better, except that the salvation of this event was a core group who continued to meet with him, off the meeting property, to help him to find a place to worship, and to clarify his responsibility in the series of events. I believe we were able to help him gain some insight in to his responsibilities in community: to care for his own mental health, to be honest and forthright in entering a new community, to uphold the tenants of his parole, and to work to seek God's truth for himself. Eventually we did find a worship group which had no children as a part of it, where he was welcomed in.

I grieved that we could not find a way to incorporate him into our own meeting. It is not that I did not share the fears for our children, and for others who felt unsafe with him in our midst. It is that I strongly felt that we do not choose our neighbors or community members, and that God had delivered this man to our midst for the purpose of our own spiritual growth. I could not reconcile my idealistic view of this with the realities of the spiritual life and community in our meeting and its individuals.

The first gift that came out of this event for me was the realization that in accepting that I had always been a Friend in my soul, I was also part of a much larger community, and that community was able to meet some of my deepest needs while my own home community could not. I went to the following annual sessions, bleeding from the woundedness I felt, seeking a vision or a message, or some hope that I could remain a Friend. I certainly did not feel worthy. Friends I did not know well seemed to sense my need, and I was brought to conversations and tasks that began to help me see that God was still leading me.

One friend sat with me over lunch one day and helped me to frame the event in the larger picture of our meeting and Friends in general. He was a person that I had previously found to be challenging and in this instance I found his kindness, gentleness and nurture to be somewhat of a paradox, albeit a welcome one.

Some friends who were members of our meeting that I had not been so close with before sat with me numerous evenings, helping me sort out my pain. Friends from neighboring monthly meetings experiencing similar dilemmas shared their experiences which were far different than ours. We brainstormed how issues could be addressed differently and how healing could be sought.

I was asked to serve in a number of tasks that brought to the Light my gifts rather than just my woundedness. In this, I began to feel the Light moving within me.

I left that annual session knowing that the god of my understanding was still present and ministering through the greater whole. It was a revelation that began my calling to understand what true community is.

I resolved to return to worship. I intuitively knew that if I did not resume my role as a part of the mystery that is Hopewell Centre, I could not contribute or receive healing. I went when I was able, but I did not yet understand that the healing for my anger, grief and woundedness could be found in sitting with the discomfort in corporate worship.

This is not the end of my story. It is only the beginning. After that first year, I came to worship whenever I could. I also sought other spiritual teachers outside of meeting. I had to come to terms with the idea that although I dearly needed clearness, something inside of me did not feel worthy of a clearness committee, or thought that the meeting had other more pressing needs than to minister to me. From the position of my woundedness, I could not feel anything but weakness and fear in seeking the help of others.

One or two members of the meeting emerged as my caregivers and mentors. Their gentleness allowed me to hear them, and as I healed, I began to hear the messages that had tormented me in a different light. I began to have compassion for those who had disagreed with me, and to cease competing for the “right” way.

Intuitively, I had always known that as we continued to worship, God would create something new in us. This is one of the most powerful elements of my faith: that there is much that is a mystery to us and can only be revealed through grace and our willingness to be shown something new.

Years before I became a Friend, I understood the power of community. It is simultaneously the glue that holds us together and the water that washes us and pulls us apart and shapes us into something new. As Friends perhaps the most unique gift we possess is our ability to sit in corporate silence, waiting for God to reveal to us what we must know to survive and evolve.

Now, through this desert experience, and the incredible prodigal return, I have begun to understand how integral this is to our survival of the planet and all of its inhabitants. I do not mean this in a grandiose way, but in the most simplest of ways. Community will call us to learn new ways to live together, if we let it.

What I desired was a community where we could welcome anyone brought to our doorstep as God's gift, possessing yet another kernel of light necessary to our wholeness. What I found was the reality that neither I nor most of our community had arrived at a point of acceptance of that gift.

I am a little closer now.

Thankfully, God has not stopped speaking to me and directing me. The call to understand true community has become stronger and stronger. It has begun to feel like a gift that we should offer ourselves and the world around us: to understand how standing in conflict and in love, seeking Truth, can reveal new ways. God is still creating, and community is the canvas.

I am continuing to listen, research, learn and seek guidance as to how God wants me to minister to others about community. Once again, from out of the darkness has come a pinprick of light, which has spread to cover the darkness for me. The god of my understanding is constantly creating, growing, and revealing and for that I am grateful.


  1. Linda,

    Thank you for sharing this story. I struggle between believing that in a true community there is no "entrance requirement" for membership-- and accepting the possibility that on rare occasions a person might have to be asked to leave the community. I don't know if that was the right decision in this case, but am glad members of the community continued to support him.

  2. After experiencing such an event, I'd be interested in your response to this question: at what point do you know when it's time to leave a community.

  3. Ooo good question Pat! For myself, I try to say that the commitment I've made to the meeting is a covenant, so I'm not going to leave it any quicker than I would leave my marriage. But of course, everyone has different comfort and commitment levels. I think staying has definitely benefited me more than leaving would have. My sense is if I had left, I would just re-create the same lesson for myself (or God would) in the next place I went to.

    The one thing that I did have to accept was that it was probably better that my friend found a safer place for himself to worship, since my community was not able to meet him where he was. I guess if no one in my community had stood with me, it would have greatly affected my ability to stay.

    What's your take on it?

  4. Pat, as I thought a little more, I realized that there is a query I asked myself that allowed me to stay, and it is this:
    "Do you believe that the god of your understanding is living and breathing through you and others, and working in your life today to create something new?"
    If I could not have eventually answered yes to that question, I would most likely have gone.
    Luckily I am a Quaker, and have the tradition of waiting for an answer!