Every year, the members of Ohio Yearly Meeting descend on Barnesville like a flock of exotic--if plain--birds, a sudden migration of shin-length shirtwaist skirts, bonnets, straw hats, whites shirts with black suspenders, beards. Even after seven years, the descent never ceases to startle me.
Last year, for the first time, I fully attended the Yearly Meeting sessions. Others years, Earlham School of Religion, vacations, and our first year here, the intense shock of arrival, kept me away. This year, balancing teaching and the other demands of life, I did what I could.
I sometimes wonder at my membership in this body. To say I am not a rural person, despite living in a rural area in a house surrounded by open fields, woods and lake, would be a complete understatement. When I first moved here, my brother used to to sing me the Green Acres theme song and wonder that I was living in "Petticoat Junction." Often then--and now--theses lyrics from the Green Acres song float through my mind: "Keep the country, just give me Park Avenue." Seven years into the rural experiment, I can definitely say I am not likely, barring a famine, to be gardening, baking, canning, sewing or in any other way performing rural femininity. The chances of my adopting plain dress also equal zero: I hate wearing skirts, and while the idea of simply stuffing my hair under a cap is appealing, I don't know that the look would go with makeup and hair color, quaffing a glass of swine or watching Orphan Black.
So, here I am, What could I possibly have in common with these people? I don't share a rural ethos, and I have not a drop of the ancestral blood of Smiths, Guindons, Rockwells, Tabers or other old Quaker families.
And yet. As with Fanny Price in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, who suffered the pains of tyranny, ridicule and neglect, I also, beyond the former, encounter "something consolatory." This year, for example, compared to last, I felt more at home in my difference and more convinced the yearly meeting needs the difference I represent. I am very clear too that at this point my meeting role is a quiet one: to pray, to be present, to support. This is all to the good: the Quakers have a surfeit of chiefs.
Beyond the superficial differences, however--and in the end, who cares if our ethos is rural or urban?, -- I experienced the deeper kinship that unites us. Most of us are products of a transformed worldview, marked deeply by living in that "infinite ocean of light and love" that flows over the world's ocean of darkness and death. In Ohio Yearly Meeting, we are not "of the world," at least not entirely.
One manifestation, for example, appeared during our discussion of a policy to screen for sex offenders and require criminal backgrounds checks for anyone working with children. Quakers are the only group I have ever known not to roll over and play dead, acquiesce in complete abjection, the moment the word "litigation" is used. We know there is something more important than whether we are sued. (Really? Can that be in US society? Can there be a group that doesn't immediately cave in as soon as the word lawsu ... starts to be articulated?)
Therefore, although we decided to go ahead and screen for sex offenders and do criminal backgrounds checks on caretakers of youth, we made that decision based on love for our children, not fear of being sued. We did it because, as Quakers eloquently expressed it, predators look for easy prey, and our tendency to trust makes us vulnerable. We did this because we also know we can stand up for our principles against the threat of lawsuits if we need to do, because even were we to lose all our money and property, we would still exist. I felt deeply grateful to be part of a group that understands that its being roots in something deeper than the material and does not live in fear of losing its goods.
So I am in unity with this understanding of the universe that doesn't put its faith in chariots, in budgets, in programs, in worldly wealth. This gift of perception is so great, and in such short supply, that it calls out to be nurtured and spread. I am glad, as older meetings perhaps fade, to see all the new growth witnessed to during the yearly meeting, small shoots of life growing up in England, Italy and Pennsylvania, new groupings arising.