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Picking up the branches: Reflections on the Friends General Conference Gathering, 2013

By: Robert Awkward
Published: November 19, 2013
Photo: AFSC

Note: I met Robert Awkward last year during his internship with Erin Polley and the "If I Had a Trillion Dollars" (IHTD) youth film festival. The festival invites young people around the country to engage in conversations around how to shift our nation's budget priorities from militarism and war, to supporting the resources that communities need to thrive. 

Though Robert and I both attended the Friends General Conference Gathering last summer, a yearly conference of liberal Quakers from around the country, I hadn't had the chance to hear about how the week's powerful events and speakers had touched him.  This post is a beautiful testament to the potential of Quaker spaces to transform us into agents for change in our lives and in the world. - Madeline

Lying face-up on a granite bench, sun blazing across my face and shedding my shadow down across the lawn, I wonder: How did I get here?

I was on the lush campus of the University of Northern Colorado, in the town of Greely, attending the Friends General Conference’s annual gathering. After my morning workshop, I found myself contemplating the path that my life was taking—heavy thoughts for such a sunny and lighthearted afternoon, but not uncharacteristic of the larger context of this conference. In this setting, introspection was typical and I was only just breaching the surface of a deep well of inquiry.

It was day two of a weeklong course of events, a week for which these Friends had traveled miles upon miles to come together in worship and self-discovery. I was only beginning to get to know the people who I had “come with,” or at least the ones with whom my nametag associated me: a colorful group of AFSC staff, all leaders in a range of pro-peace workshops. These staff members hailed from San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia and Denver.

I was among this diverse crowd, a young team member coming from Indianapolis with my supervisor and friend, Erin Polley. Entrusted with the responsibility of co-leading a group of young people through conversations and dialogue on demilitarization and media-based activism, I felt an inspiring connectedness to a much larger cause.

This cause was in essence the fight for alternatives to militarism in the US. The national youth project, “If I Had a Trillian Dollars" film festival (IHTD), that Erin leads each year perfectly exemplifies to me a dedication to that cause. Through creative activism and planning, AFSC staffers are able to engage young people across the US in issues that they see as priorities over massive military spending. These program activities and the discussions within our group of youth were drawing me closer to the realm of social activism that AFSC champions: an aim toward lasting peace with justice.

It all might sound marvelously encouraging, but none of it was that easy.

It was my second day in the position of co-workshop leader, and I was late. Being a few minutes late wouldn’t typically be something that left a substantial ripple in such a relaxed and non-competitive environment, but that day, for me, it was. This one moment was the pinnacle of a collection of smaller moments that I had lived on numerous occasions before. This moment reflected the time that I was late to pick up my sister from dance while visiting on a school break, and many more like it. It was a painfully embarrassing occurrence for me to relive. It was a habit that I could feel creeping itself back into this fresh new opportunity in Greely, and slowly gnawing its teeth into my daily practice.

It was something that I wanted to escape, but in that one moment, lying face-up, eyes closed, on a granite bench, sun blazing across my face and shedding my shadow down across the lawn, I wondered: How could I let such a poor practice and bad habit creep onto this new slate? How did I get here in the first place? I felt honored to be able to participate among this fantastic group of professional activists as well as an inspiring group of 6 socially concerned high school students. But this question of “How did I get here?” was allowing me to dwell on the mistakes that I had made, without doing anything to disrupt or change that pattern.

Plugging in my headphones, I rolled onto my side and turned on some comforting music. The sun pulled its blanket of warmth up over my shoulders as I dozed off for a few moments…

From that afternoon on during my thinking, processing, reflection and meditation, I began to soak in what I saw around me: groups of other participants meandering about the UNC campus, playing Frisbee on the expansive greens and meditating against tall oak trees; Young Friends gathering for their business meetings; and the band of babies crowded on a lawn outside of the dining hall working off a heavy lunch. Everything that I saw was connecting in some way; I just hadn’t seen what that way was yet.

The connecting link came during a gratifying and peace-filling moment in a plenary session guided by Vincent Harding and his colleague Tink Tinker. As all of us in the audience discussed ‘embracing and engaging our history’ with Harding and Tinker, an important question was raised: “How do we embrace diversity without making it too simple or meaningless?” To that, Harding and Tinker answered this: “We have to go through the ‘mud and mire’ and make mistakes to become experts. We must teach about ethnic diversity, but remember that every time we teach about someone else, we’re probably getting it wrong.” In tandem with this response, Harding later emphasized once more a key aspect of working in community: “A person of discernment can see, there are two voices: one of racism, sexism, ageism, discrimination; and, one of human nature. The first is my present and my history, and another is the voice of who I aspire to be,” (personal communication, July 4, 2013, paraphrased, emphasis added). Read an interview with Vincent Harding from the conference.

This was the link that connected my struggle with being late, to everything else that I was observing throughout the environment of FGC: I am a work in progress; essentially we all are. I highly doubt that anyone arrived at FGC with the general understanding that they were infallible. The path towards realizing our human nature is an intentional and conscious, exploratory journey. That evening’s talk, many hours of contemplation and a willingness to trust my life’s journey, culminated in the reminder that I needed.

I am a work in progress, and it is something that carries through today in the work that I do as a senior undergrad. I am in a long stream of processes and activities that will take place in my life; I am simply picking up the branches of experience from alongside the stream as I progress and swim toward my future. The Friends General Conference was and is a perfect place to share that progress with others, without judgment, but with constructive criticism and love.

So as I laid there face-up, eyes closed, on that granite bench; sun blazing across my face and shedding my shadow down across the lawn, I really didn’t have to stress on, ‘How did I get here?,’ but rather, ‘How can being here enlighten my journey along the way?’ and ‘What can I do on a practical level to not arrive late?’

I had come into that new space, ready to break new ground and explore new practices, but was instead reminded of perhaps one of the most primordial facets of my life experience: I have the space to learn by making mistakes and maturing in my journey, since I am always a growing work in progress.

More resources for the IHTD youth film festival:

  • Invite Quaker youth to think about military spending
  • 5 things your meeting/church can support IHTD and a shift in budget priorities
  • Preview for the 2014 festival (submissions due January 11th!)

About the Author

Robert Awkward

I grew up in a household full of music: Spiritual, Religious, Rock and Roll, Gospel, R&B, Soul… I enjoy athletics and have competitively played Soccer for at least 12 years. I’ve run Varsity Track in undergrad for the past 3 years, and I always enjoy a good round of paintball with friends. Along with a double major in Human Development & Social Relations and Spanish & Hispanic Studies, I strive to continue challenging myself academically as I encounter more opportunities to do so—and my time at Earlham College has proven to grant me those. In conjunction with those opportunities for academic advancement have come many cherished moments for spiritual exploration, continually deepening another fundamental part of my life.