from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel
Epistle to the Wider AAFM Community
on the Meeting Retreat on
Building the Beloved Community: Gifts of the Spirit
(Drafted by a small Epistle Committee
and edited by the Committee on Ministry and Counsel)
Over parts of three days of a weekend (April 20-22), a varying group of about 60 Ann Arbor Friends participated in a retreat designed to explore the idea of “building the beloved community.” We were led by Mary Ann Downey with Laura Melly supporting and assisting her; both are resource people for the Friends General Conference Traveling Ministries Program.
In small groups of six or seven, and as a whole body, we received opportunities throughout the weekend to know one another and ourselves in new ways. This retreat was intended for deep listening and speaking of things weighing on us. Though all concerns were not fully shared or addressed, the existence of several were noted for future attention. In the end, we recognized a strong desire to preserve the learnings of the weekend and find ways to share the weekend’s experience with Friends not present in order to most authentically take steps to create and maintain that beloved community.
Our first group endeavor was identifying aloud those obstacles “to leave at the door before entering.” In essence, we formed our guidelines for safety to use in the subsequent time together. Then, within several small groups each individual spoke to this question: “What work has your heart?” Deep listening revealed the breadth of expression of individual truth and the legitimacy of each different concern and point of view. This query offered the precious gift of a chance to hear voices never or rarely heard during meeting for worship.
Saturday morning began with brainstorming what we hope to get out of a spiritual community. This helped us realize how high our expectations can be, and by uncovering these hopes, to begin to consider how to make them more realizable.
Next, our discussion of guidelines on how to make worship sharing most beneficial gave us open-hearted ears for the small group sharing to follow. The small group query was “What brings us to Meeting and what nurtures us here?” In new groups, sharing and listening again brought forth revealing and moving ideas and truths. We were reminded of the sincerity and individuality of each person’s spiritual journey. And through self-reflection, we added more perspective on our personal spiritual commitments.
Following a bountiful lunch in the Fellowship Hall, lovingly provided by Janice Summers, we were asked to take a meditative walk, pondering what gift or gifts each of us brings to the Meeting. When we returned, collage “quilts,” visual depictions of the unique gifts brought to the Meeting by those Friends sitting at each table, then were crafted. The most meaningful part was hearing each person explain his or her gift before the entire group.
What followed this light-hearted exercise was the most challenging and action-oriented part of the weekend. Sitting in the Meetingroom, we were given instruction in choosing four ways to connect face-to-face with others in the room.
1) We could thank a Friend for her or his specific gift.
2) We could ask a Friend for some help with a specific need.
3) We could ask a Friend for time to talk about a specific problem with him or her.
4) We could ask a Friend for forgiveness for a specific act.
Friends crisscrossed the room and approached one another trying to articulate in this new language of connection. This was a difficult exercise. It did not all work well for everyone. In reflection, many recounted the relative ease of using the first option. Many expressed great joy from being thanked for an unknown gift they had given another. Several Friends admitted their inability to accomplish tasks three and four. The awareness of the tremendous difficulty of tasks three and four was a lesson and a blessing. Friends expressed feeling humbled in recognizing the egos, hesitations and anxieties standing in the way of this path to a beloved community. It became clear that in order to live and work together in love, we must build the required trust and exercise the valuable practice of asking forgiveness and discussing any problem with any individual concerned. We are interested in learning how to do this, and how to do common discerning of God’s will--for each of us and for our community.
On Sunday morning we shared what we had learned through this retreat about the Ann Arbor Meeting Community, about our individual part in the Meeting, and what each of us needs in order to contribute more effectively to the Meeting. We also learned some things about how our Meeting has worked through issues of witness and community in the past. We recognize that conflict can be a door to learning and growth. It can be welcome in a beloved community when each of us welcomes the piece of God’s Truth that another person contributes. We want to learn how to listen to one another more deeply. We are a beloved community not because we all agree, but because we value each participant’s commitment to listening for the Spirit, acting in response to the leading we are given.
This weekend gave us an awareness of a shared vision of beloved community and an experience with some of the action steps needed to attain that vision. It did not directly address those issues where there recently has been a lack of unity within the Meeting. Nor did it explore how the diversity of our different spiritual approaches—one of the strengths of the Meeting—can be used to help us find a deeper unity. This Retreat is just a beginning.
It gave us perspective on where we are and where we might be. It created ripples. How can we keep these ripples of learning moving outward? How can we include each Friend, present and not present at the retreat, in exploring these new steps so that individually and in community, we can move beyond whatever held us back on Saturday to a place where we can, with humility and sincerity, act toward and express with one another the hardest things?
We discussed having a day, perhaps every three months, when we actively practice the four steps to creating a beloved community that we met on this retreat, where we a) thank each other, b) ask for help, c) make an appointment to discuss a matter of disagreement, and d) ask forgiveness for having caused a hurt. We also discussed the value of Atlanta Monthly Meeting’s hand-made Quilt of Caring which circulates among members of their Meeting as they have special needs for love and care, placing them literally under the care of the Meeting. Perhaps we could do the same. We also recognized our need to build deeper skills when we discuss matters on which there is not agreement. We discussed having more workshops on improving communications, and particularly on building listening skills, and we recognized the value it would be to the Meeting as a whole, if we could continue more interpersonal sharing of our own approach to spirituality.
Finally, during Sunday’s Meeting for Worship came suggestions of ways Friends have dealt with matters of disagreement in the past. These include a) recognizing when “no decision” is a decision of its own; b) having a series of Meetings for Worship for Business when an issue is discussed at length and no decision is attempted; c) seeking a third way when there is disagreement, one that finds a deeper Quaker principle that helps us move forward; d) after consulting with all stakeholders beforehand, asking Clerks to draw up a possible statement for action by the Meeting.
Let us hope that this combination of personal actions, deeper uses of Quaker process, and recognition that we are, in truth, a beloved community, can help our Meeting deepen as it moves forward.