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Telling the story of us: Reflections on Quaker Voluntary Service
By Madeline Schaefer
We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being, a faithful person. And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach. In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives.
-Marshall Gantz, Why Stories Matter
I’d never been to Georgia before I arrived at 9pm last Thursday. For a few days, the somewhat tiring story of “Madeline in Philadelphia” was disrupted, and I had an opportunity to realign my inner vision, to reconnect with my personal journey towards wholeness.
One of the biggest shifts in my understanding of that story occurred when I entered the “real world” after graduating college. No longer part of the story of my family or a particular educational tract, I suddenly found myself the main character of my own life.
A sign in the QVS dining room
It was pretty terrifying, really. There were certainly plenty of stories to choose from—English professor, art critic, house wife—but none, as far as I could tell, that resonated with my most authentic self.
As volunteers for Quaker Voluntary Service, the young people I visited during my stay in Atlanta were still sorting out what their own authentic journeys might look like. But working full-time in community support and development organizations that can place high demands on their emotional and psychological energy is not easy. Caught up in the drama of life and change and community, there is little time to consider rather abstract concepts of meaning and motivation.
On Friday, I helped facilitate a “QVS day,” a monthly gathering with the volunteers, director Christina Repoley, and Atlanta Meeting’s Friend in Residence, Erica Schoon, on the theme of “Story-telling” and, more specifically, “Telling the story of QVS.” Sitting at the center of the circular room, I asked each volunteer to share the story of why they had decided to be part of QVS, and how that decision fit into the larger story of who they are and why they do what they do.
A clean sink
It’s a hard story to tell. As young people, many of us do not feel empowered as agents of our own journey. Unless, of course, that journey involves buying particular products, or fitting to a pre-existing story of the “wayward 20-something.” But rarely are we invited to consider our own journey toward self-knowledge and growth.
After spending a few hours in the morning identifying the main elements of their stories—the conflicts, the supporting characters, the various stages—I asked each person to identify one motivating force that they can trace from their early childhood. How did that drive and then direct them to this spot, right now?
For most of these volunteers, coming to QVS was part of a deep story of faith motivated by a love for human connection and a desire to heal the world. A few volunteers longed for a stronger understanding of Quakerism—how do Quakers fit into a larger Christian tradition? Others were looking for a sense of community and togetherness similar to other communities that had provided strength to act powerfully in the world.
Often we find ourselves living out our lives in competition with others, creating a story of self that prioritizes personal success and satisfaction over human connection and community. During the day on Friday, I encouraged the volunteers to put those stories aside and focus, instead, on the deeper longing for connection and fulfillment that motivates each one of us to seek to serve.
Much played piano
Marshall Gantz, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, identifies three stories for social change—the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. By identifying our personal struggles and motivations, we as individuals can better understand our capacity for change and for good. By identifying the story of “us,” by sharing our stories, we can better understand what common values—that divine spark—have led us to where we are right now. And by acknowledging the story of now—where we are and where we would like the world to be based on those common values—we can better determine what needs to be done, together.
But we cannot work together for change if we have not identified our common values. And we cannot identify those values unless we have had a chance to meditate on what it is that we truly desire—connection, wholeness, joy.
The volunteers in Atlanta have an opportunity to write the story of QVS together, a story of growth in which they are empowered actors in the creation of a transformed world.