After social hour on the third day of January 2016, about twenty Scarsdale Friends gathered to consider the query suggested by New York Yearly Meeting—What is the spiritual condition of your meeting?—and to reflect more generally on the state of our meeting.
At the beginning of this session session, one Friend said: “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who’ve been there already.”
The query itself elicited some resistance.
- One said, “I find it hard to talk about spirituality”;
- another, “I don’t like the query”;
- and a third, “Spirituality is, for me, the most difficult way in to community and Quakerism.”
One person identified a dichotomy between spirituality and activism, another between spirituality and the necessity of taking care of physical needs; however, another Friend said that the care we take of each other is part of our spirituality and that “the indicator of spirituality is ‘how well . . . we love one another.’” A number framed their observations of our meeting in terms of spirituality:
“Spirituality is love, and I feel loved here.”
“Without spirituality in my life, I’d be dead.”
“The meeting is the biggest connection to spirituality in my life.”
Generally, Friends were happy about the condition of the meeting.
“My sense of isolation in the world is lifted here.”
“The spiritual health of this meeting is really good. In worship, we trust each other.”
“This meeting has a camaraderie and love for one another that I don't feel when I visit other meetings.”
A Friend knowledgeable about childhood growth and development talked about the changeover from preverbal to verbal communication: “There is a period where you are preverbal...We trust each other to dwell in the preverbal place, where we can hear the word of God.”
Another Friend felt that maybe “the meeting is rather pleased with itself.” In a way, this self-satisfaction is hard-earned. For many years (decades?), it was as if a cloud enshrouded our meeting as it tried to weather the loss of one after another of its beloved and weighty members. In the last few years, that cloud has dissipated somewhat. We continue to lose dear Friends (and attenders) through death and relocation, but, somehow we seem to have regained our footing.
“We continue to find our way, collectively and individually.”
“I always leave [meeting] with a renewed sense of hope.”
“I come away refreshed always.”
New faces and new voices bring new energies -- “fresh ideas and input” -- and new responsibilities:
“I’m thrilled to have new members.”
“Life on Nominating Committee is easier.”
“There is growth here. I am hopeful we are tending it appropriately but fearful that we are not.”
This growth takes various forms:
“The strength and centeredness of the meeting is growing by leaps and bounds.”
“The quality of Meeting for Worship is very strong and deepening. I want it to deepen further.”
“We grow in this meeting.”
“I have been raised by this meeting and would be a different person without it.”
Our Race in America book discussion group has enriched the meeting, opening us up to painful truths. The meeting “demonstrates an appetite to try new things.”
Our ability to satisfy this appetite is bumping up against limits imposed by our meeting’s 50-mile ‘diameter.’ The only convenient time for collective activities outside of meeting for worship is after social hour on First days. It is difficult to find available slots in our calendar. “Sundays are overbooked; other times extremely difficult.” One Friend felt “puzzled and lonely that people don't feel led to study and read more about the incredible gift of Quaker life with God,” but this same Friend acknowledged that there seemed to be no time to schedule a study group and driving distances made getting together after work during the week too challenging.
“This is a loving and supportive community. I don’t know where I’d be without it.” We try to take care of one another, but “we are busily involved in our own lives.” One Friend feels that “community here is strong but superficial; there is little depth to our commitment to one another. Our membership is aging and suffering physical failings, and we empathize but do not reach out effectively often enough.” Another that “when someone is in need, we don’t do what [other Friends / other groups of people] do. We don’t send flowers, but we do try to stay in touch.” And yet, two members of the meeting who experienced extended periods of physical disability expressed deep appreciation for the support that they received from the meeting.
Our First day school continues to be experienced by several Friends as an opportunity to teach, to serve, to learn, and to grow:
“I’m glad to be able to focus on the kids in First day school.”
“In teaching First day school I’ve learned a lot. One of these things is that I know more than I thought.”
“Teaching First day school teaches patience.”
For the most part, we are happy with the change made a few years ago to have our First day students and teachers join meeting for worship a few minutes before it closes. However, several Friends feels their worship is disrupted by the arrival of the children:
The variety of viewpoints expressed in our quotes illustrates that the unity of our meeting is not a unity of opinion.
The cares and inequities of the world, violence in all its manifestations—racism, terrorism, mass-shootings, killings by police officers, killings of police officers, abuse, exploitation, poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation—continue to weigh on Scarsdale Friends. Many in the meeting are frustrated and discouraged by our inability to respond effectively to these problems as individuals or as a community. Yet, several individuals do feel led to address some of the problems around us—for example, through running community-based AVP sessions and through making and delivering packages of necessities to people in the homeless shelters in our area at Christmas time. The meeting tries, with some success, to support these efforts and to embrace them as ministries that both bring help to the world and flow back and enrich the meeting.
For many, many years members of the meeting have worshiped with the Sing Sing and Otisville Worship Groups as volunteers with the New York State Department of Corrections. These Friends spoke of how rewarding that experience had been:
“I value what happens here and even more what happens in Sing Sing worship group, which feels truly transformative.“
“It’s a long road some of us have traveled. Sing Sing is a good way to understand how to understand. I’m part of a group that is moving forward.”
“In the ‘population,’ the men have to go armored and masked. But within the worship, the group is safe for 90 minutes.”
At the end of 2014, two incarcerated members of the Sing Sing worship group were accepted into membership in our meeting. Because Department of Corrections volunteers are not allowed to visit individual prisoners, several Friends not previously very involved in prison work have begun to visit these new members to strengthen our meeting’s ties with them. “Sing Sing has shaped the year for me, both visiting [an incarcerated Friend] and starting the [Race in America] book-discussion group.” These connections have deepened the relationship between the meeting and the worship group and contribute to the meeting’s growth.
A Scarsdale Friend who has been worshiping with the Sing Sing Worship Group for many years spoke of the “spooky action-at-a-distance” that binds our meetings together. “Themes in the worship group appear in our meeting for worship.” The spiritual vitality of Scarsdale Friends Meeting contributes mystically to the worship group and the strength and vibrancy from the transformations in the men in Sing Sing come back to the meeting. He was reminded that a former member of the meeting had felt that the main job of our Ministry and Counsel committee was to be concerned about the quality of worship. It didn’t have to do anything; the concern itself was sufficient.
Perhaps our ambivalence about New York Yearly Meeting’s query is a reflection of our theological diversity.
“I don’t believe there is a God.”
“Our diversity is a strength.”
“It’s comforting that this meeting holds such diversity of beliefs in God or ‘something bigger.’ I don’t need to define it any longer. I know it’s there.”
“The diversity of the meeting is a strength, but some Friends may still not feel free to express their innermost selves in language natural to them.”
The meeting wishes it could be a safe place for Friends and attenders to be fully themselves.