Happy World Quaker Day! This is the fifth anniversary of the celebration started by the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), which invites Quaker meetings and churches around the world to recognize the oneness of spirit that joins us. Here’s the description of their vision, which is posted on their website (www.worldquakerday.org):
As the sun rises in each area of the world we want to remember that Quakers are worshiping through every time zone, celebrating our deep connections across cultures and Quaker traditions. We are united in love and can accompany each other on this special day that draws us together. As we worship, let us hold each other in prayer and thanksgiving, and let our hymns of praise resound across the world.
So let’s hold Friends all over the world—past and present, of all leadings and nationalities—in our hearts and minds as we worship together today.
From our earliest times—way back in 17th century England—we Quakers have felt led to impact our world by bringing our faith into action. From George Fox’s first realization that, “Christ is come to teach his people himself,” we have felt nudged forward in even our smallest daily choices to do our best to live out the stirrings we feel within. It’s not enough to simply have an inward conviction and then not act on it: when spirit gives us a deeper understanding of something, we recognize it as a leading that is meant to manifest somehow in our actions in the world. This is how more and more light—more peace, more justice, more love, more truth—flows into the world through us.
In Friends tradition, each of our individual responses to the prompting of spirit matters. Christ comes to each of us personally, leading us in the way we should go. When Margaret Fell first heard George Fox speak to a group in 1652, she wrote,
And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light, and has thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
She wrote that this idea left her feeling distraught, as she realized that her own faith fell far short of the personal response Fox suggested God desires. This is the same call we hear in Isaiah 6:8, where Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord, asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, unable to contain himself, jumps up, saying, “Here am I; send me!” The response to God, we learn, is supposed to be a personal response. The call is an invitation into relationship with God, walking and working side by side, and the only possible response to a gift of such sweetness is the spilling over of love that ministers to the needs of our world.
Listening inwardly and then acting outwardly caused Friends to be a kind of check on the social order, upsetting the social norms of the day. Friends used “plain language” with all people (which meant they didn’t honor the idea that some people were of a higher class). They refused to do things that conflicted with what they felt to be true, even something small, like removing a hat when greeting someone on the street.
Robert Barclay, a Scottish Quaker in the late 1600s, shared the reasoning behind this in his Apology, a classic book of Quaker practice. He writes,
Taking one’s hat off to another person, bowing or cringing, and other similar foolish and superstitious formalities which accompany them, should be forsaken. All of these were invented to feed man’s pride through the vain pomp and glory of this world.
Although this might seem like a small change on a personal level, that kind of spirit-led action planted seeds of social reform. Those touched by their refusal to go along were forced to recognize their own resistance or support as they considered whether they agreed or disagreed with the act. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that not everybody liked this approach. Friends were heavily persecuted, imprisoned, sometimes beaten, tortured, and killed for their dedication to the principle of right action. They were determined to live outwardly what they heard inwardly, and the result wasn’t always pleasant. But it did bring change.
Quakers have had a role in some of the world largest efforts to recognize the worth and equality of people all over the globe. They have made compassionate and systemic differences in mental health, education, and justice systems, starting in the 1700s and reaching into the present day.
Friends were one of the three primary peace churches involved in the development and management of the Civilian Public Service, which was the program for conscientious objectors during World War II. At a site near Medaryville, Indiana, up where the Sandhill cranes stop over on their migration each fall, Quakers, Mennonite, and Amish men raised millions of seedlings to replant areas scorched by wildfire. Quaker CPS workers also worked with soil conservation efforts; they supported struggling local farms whose able-bodied men had gone to fight in the war; and they made huge humanitarian differences in desperately understaffed and overcrowded mental hospitals. For example, in October of 1942, Philadelphia State Hospital had dropped from 1,000 employees to only 200, while the hospital population—originally intended only for a maximum of 2,500—had grown to 6,000 people needing care. That meant each attendant was responsible for 300 patients, which was impossible by any measure.
Being a conscientious objector to the war wasn’t all there was to it; Quaker CPS workers continued to struggle every day to live out their faith in their smaller choices. Would they use restraints for violent patients? Was force acceptable in overcrowded and sometimes threatening wards? In one mental hospital, the CPS workers were each given a broomstick to use to defend themselves if patients acted aggressively. One Friend refused to take the stick, feeling that doing so would be a contradiction to his leadings about peace. When he entered the ward, the patients crowded around him, asking, “Where is your broomstick?” He told them he thought he would not need it. “But suppose some of us gang up on you?” they asked. The Friend said, “I guess I don’t think you’ll do that,” and then he started talking about other things. Within a few days, patients were seeking him out, talking to him, telling him their troubles. Because he chose the way he did, an action formed by faith, the patients felt safe with him and he was able to offer comfort and support in a way his broomstick-armed colleagues couldn’t.
This centrally important idea, that the light of Christ teaches each of us personally, has led Friends to develop unique and peaceable ways of being in community with one another. The movement of the group as a whole is important, but the power of the masses does not overrule the individual leading of the spirit within. All are tended and listened to, in the knowledge that spirit will lead us to clarity if we honor what’s arising among us. We see this focus on the leading of the Light in the way we worship together, the way we care for the business of the meeting, and the way we seek to serve our world at large.
There are many Quaker organizations around the world today working to bring God’s light into the systems and lives that need it most. The Light might shine as advocacy, community, respect, equality, economic justice, freedom from oppression, sustainable earthcare, integrity in governance, and more. Here are a few of the Quaker organizations that are making a difference in this way.
The United Society of Friends Women International (USFWI) was started in 1881 by Eliza Armstrong Cox and others who felt a concern for missionary work. Eliza wrote, “My heart leaped for joy. Two of us were possessed at the same time with a like conviction for action on the part of Quaker women to move out on this highway of the King’s business.” Our USFW group meets here in the Fellowship room every other month and their work and study supports both local and global needs. All Quaker women are welcome.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is another Quaker organization that offers programs on development, peace, and service. Their mission statement says, “Our work is based on the belief in the worth of every person, and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.” In 1947, for their efforts in World War II, the AFSC was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the British Friends Service Council. In the award ceremony, the chairperson of the Nobel Committee, said, “The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to carry into action something which is deeply rooted in the minds of many: sympathy with others; the desire to help others…without regard to nationality or race; feelings which, when carried into deeds, must provide the foundations of a lasting peace.” There’s that idea once again that what we hear inwardly, we live outwardly—a hallmark of Friends making a difference in the world.
Right Sharing of World Resources (https://www.rswr.org/) is a Quaker organization that supports women in Kenya, India, and Sierra Leone as they develop businesses and become financial stable. Here’s how it works: A group of women applies for a seed grant. The group then loans the awarded money to women who want to start microbusiness ventures. The women create their businesses, earn income, and pay back the loans. The repaid loans are then used for additional grants to women’s groups who apply. Successful past projects include vegetable vending, bread baking and delivery, second-hand clothing sales, fish buying and selling, trading in palm oil and pepper (for Ebola widows), brick making, soap making, hair dressing, rope making, raising chickens, and bee-keeping.
So I hope you’re getting a sense of what it means to be a part of this world-wide family of Friends, not only faithful people across continents, but also people across generations who have listened to their leadings and then acted to bring more light into the darkness they find in their world. This connects with our claim to be friends of God, taken from John 15, when Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
God counts on our honest, heart-felt responses to George Fox’s question, “What canst thou say?” As Friends, we do our best each day to respond with faith to the needs we find around us. As we do, it’s heartening to remember that we aren’t just tiny little flickers of light, working alone in a time of great trouble. Rather, we’re part of a vast, faithful, spirit-led family, seeking person by person to light the world with the never-failing love of God.