This month's Quaker blog carnival on QuakerQuaker asks the question, "How do we care?" The writing prompt suggests we think about what we mean when we say we are putting someone or something "under the care of" the meeting. I don't think I've ever heard this term used in my yearly meeting, but I've heard it elsewhere in Friends circles. I'm not sure we have an equivalent term or meaning. But that doesn't mean we don't care for one another!
I'm sometimes torn between being really grateful that meetings I've been a part of care for their members fairly well, and the fact that sometimes it's hard to see what we do for anyone outside our meeting. I wonder often what our role is supposed to be as the Church (universal): are we to care for one another in such a way that others are drawn to our community and want to become part of a group that cares so well for each other? Or does that make us seem like a clique that would be hard to be accepted into? Are we supposed to go outside our group of those we worship with on Sunday mornings and care for others in order to draw them in and help them learn to be part of a community they might not have found otherwise? Or, as is often the case, is the answer, "Yes, both"? But how do we find the time and energy to be that kind of caring community to those both inside and outside our worship group?
I guess we just do what we can, and hopefully what we're called to do.
I've felt cared for by my meeting community in many ways, but one of the biggest was when our first son was born. We were totally overwhelmed trying to figure out parenting a newborn and a huge life change. We were so grateful for the people who brought us meals and helped out in other ways. This prompted me to pay more attention when people in our meeting ask for others to provide meals for families when there are births, deaths, illnesses or other major events in which not having to think about cooking would be a huge blessing. This way of caring for each other is simple, but also profound in its effects and in the feeling of being cared for that people receive.
Something else I noticed when we lived away from the Northwest for a while: it's hard to get to know people in a new meeting, and those people who go out of their way to go beyond just a "Good morning" at meeting are really appreciated by newcomers or outsiders. We went to a Friends meeting where we didn't know anyone or have any connections, and it took a while for us to really get to know anyone. But there were a few individuals and families who really reached out to us. Some invited us over for dinner, some introduced us to another family who had a baby our son's age, some took us hiking, some simply made a point of talking to us and remembering our names, some took care of our kiddo faithfully in First Day School, week after week.
Since returning home, I've tried to be much more intentional about seeking people out who I don't know in meeting and making sure they feel welcome. This is not natural for me--it pushes me out of my comfort zone. We usually have a greeting time during our worship service where everyone gets up and walks around and says hello to people. I'm kind of an introvert, so normally I would just sit there and talk to whoever came to me, or talk to a friend next to me. But I'm trying to be intentional about scanning the group and looking for someone whose name I don't know. Sometimes we even have enough energy and forethought to invite people over for lunch to a house in some semblance of orderliness!
Some fellowship opportunities I really enjoy at our meeting are Wednesday night dinners together and community dances. These are caring opportunities in that they create space for us to get to know each other better, invite friends to come and be drawn into the community without any God-language being used, and they are places where we can have fun and play together. They are also intergenerational, which our meeting attempts to be good at. We want our meeting to be a place where all ages are welcome.
Our meeting also does some things to care for those who aren't part of our worshiping community. I'll just name a few. We have a clothes closet where those who need it can come get clothes for free. We keep gas vouchers and energy vouchers in the office so that when people come asking for help. we can give it. We created a path around our property so people can use it for walking and running, and there is an almost-finished labyrinth for people to use as a space to connect with God. Also, many individuals in our meeting work on projects either volunteer or paid that help others in one way or another.
I feel like our meeting is a caring place, and I try to listen to God when prompted to know how to care for others better. I'm grateful for the care I've received.
I wonder, though, if there are still more ways we could intentionally reach out with care for the larger community. We don't necessarily do anything risky, and we spend a lot of our time-resources on projects for ourselves. This is good in many ways, but is it the best use of our resources? How can we make sure we don't just get enmeshed in our own little community to the degree that we aren't available to care for those "outside"? Are there better ways of drawing people in that we aren't doing, or can't do because we spend too much time in our building?
When we "release" ministers, we mainly release them to work for us. Maybe as pastoral Friends we should create a model where we do all the internal work ourselves, and release those called to do social justice work in our communities, or to organize us to do that kind of work together.