There’s an old Quaker joke: a first time visitor comes to meeting for worship and arrives just after the close of meeting.  The visitor asks, “So, when does the service begin?”

The meeting member replies, “Now.”

When I first became a Quaker I remember the clerk of the meeting talking about trying to live with integrity in all aspects of her life, trying to be the same person wherever she was.  She may have experienced herself as inconsistent, but to me she had a rock solid steadiness that expressed itself in all she did: whether clerking the meeting, or teaching First Day School, or caring for her children, or working with Habitat for Humanity.   There was a seamless quality to her living that inspired me.

I’ve wondered a bit about the recent tendency to name certain meetings ‘activist’ and others as ‘spiritual’ or ‘contemplative.’  Isn’t that a false dichotomy? This dangerous tendency rends faith from action and risks diluting the central Quaker understanding that our lives, both individually and corporately, are the principal expression of our faith. 

When I saw the posting of the position of Friends Liaison, I was drawn to apply in part because of the opportunity to explore this question among Friends.  How do we bring back together our interior lives and our outward witness? How do we again operate from a place of understanding that our worship comprises the well from which springs the fruits of our lives? How does AFSC serve as an outward manifestation of Friends’ faith, and how should it? I hope in the next months and years to be able to explore these questions with Friends, staff, and others interested in the work of AFSC.

As a way to begin my work as Friends Liaison, I’ve been talking with a lot of people, listening mostly.  I’ve been asking most of the people I’ve had the pleasure of talking with, “So, what makes AFSC distinctly Quaker?”  The answers are fairly consistent; there is clearly a spirit that runs through the organization that shapes the intention and practice among the communities AFSC serves.  The unifying response I hear is basically, “the way we work.”

This is expressed in many ways.  Here are a few quotations from staff:

“People are very mindful of ‘that of God in everyone,’ try to lift that up. It really helps us stay focused on trying to be good. In our difficult times, when we are wont to demonize, we can remind people that there is that of God and it helps reel us back to the right place.”

“We are able to maintain connections on both sides of a conflict. Clearly stated principles underlie our work and we have understood for ourselves that those principles take precedence above any one initiative or project.”

“AFSC at its best is able to create spaces for people to experience the potential for profound change, a space to leap out of day-to-day reality and offer reflection. We bring people together so they are able to speak from their heart about what they are feeling.”

“We approach our work in a thoughtful, reflective way that brings value to the effort.”

“We create space for dialogue.”

“We are dedicated to nonviolence, and, because of that, can speak truth to power.”

I’ve noticed Quaker practice expressed in other ways.  The quality of listening that I’ve experienced since I’ve been at AFSC feels deeply receptive.  I’ve been in meetings, and without anyone needing to facilitate, most participants contribute and build something together that is perceptibly larger than the sum of our parts.  There is a strong sense of respect and a commitment to stay in relationship.  I’ve only been at AFSC for 4 weeks, so my discovery is brief.  I look forward to discovering many more ways that AFSC expresses its Quaker roots and approach, and focusing some light and attention on them. 

I’d love to hear how you see AFSC as an expression of Quaker practice. Please feel free to post a comment below, and extend the conversation.  Or, if you’d like, feel free to contact me via email at friends@afsc.org.