The Great Plains can be a lonely place to be a Friend.
Most Plains towns are small, and spread thin, with serious distances between them. Very few are tourist destinations, or even common stopping points for travelers.
And what this means is that, outside of Dallas/Fort Worth, which has all the usual advantages of a metropolis, and Wichita, which has the advantages of EFI’s Friends University, active Friends can’t expect to number more than a couple of dozen in any Plains town, they must expect that there will be few if any truly exciting Quaker events at any location within two hour’s drive of their town, and they must expect that they will very seldom have any Quaker visitors except for family.
Kids grow up here and then move to towns and cities far away, because there just isn’t much future for them in a dwindling farm community. If the parents are lucky, the town they move to isn’t more than a few hours’ drive. Those who don’t move away, may “marry out” and convert at the time of their marriage to their new spouse’s more conventional denomination, with a bigger church and more amenities. In either case they’re lost to the Quaker community they were raised in.
And so the Friends churches in little Plains towns have a marked tendency to grow steadily smaller from each generation to the next.
Great Plains Yearly Meeting, which I visited in early June, began life ninety-eight years ago as Nebraska Yearly Meeting.
It was the place where the slow westward migration of Friends, from the Atlantic seaboard inland, finally tapered off to a ragged halt: from Baltimore and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings, the surplus children of established Friends families had crossed the Appalachians and settled in Ohio; from Ohio and North Carolina, they had settled, first Indiana, then Illinois, then Iowa. Crossing the Missouri into Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, they found the land just a little too harsh, and the rainfall too sparse, to justify settling in numbers. Some did settle here anyway, and tiny meetings sprang up in east Nebraska rural communities; but most kept going to the more promising lands of Oregon and California.
Those who did settle in Nebraska were solid Gurneyites, comfortable and accepting of standard-issue Protestant ways of thinking. There was no splitting-off of conservatives, the way there was in Iowa. As the pastoral movement took off among Friends, the Nebraska meetings hired pastors. When the Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) was organized, they joined immediately. They accepted the Uniform Discipline without complaint. As their members continued to drift westward, they organized new local meetings, with pastors and hymnbooks and offering plates, in Colorado.
But thinking didn’t stand still, here in the sparsely-settled plains, any more than anywhere else. When the Evangelical Friends movement began coalescing, this represented a definite new trend in Quaker thinking, a shift from standard-issue Protestant to Protestant-right-wing. Kansas Yearly Meeting, representing most of the Friends in that state, was openly a part of that evangelical movement from the 1930s on — to the point where it has now renamed itself Evangelical Friends Church - Mid America.
In 1957, Nebraska Yearly Meeting was torn in two by disputes between the evangelicals and the moderates; twenty-one of its twenty-seven monthly meetings seceded from the yearly meeting and formed their own new body, Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting, as an Evangelical Friends body. Following that split, Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting moved still further to the right; but most of the six meetings remaining in Nebraska Yearly Meeting began moving inch-by-inch toward the left.
The tiny remnant that was Nebraska Yearly Meeting was torn again in the late 1980s, over the issue of whether an openly gay man, much loved by the majority of the yearly meeting’s members, would be allowed to serve as clerk of the yearly meeting. He was not allowed to serve, but a minority nearly seceded from the yearly meeting all the same. At this point the gay-and-lesbian-rights issue became an important standing concern to Nebraska YM Friends. Two prominent recorded ministers at University Friends in Wichita, a meeting that maintained a dual affiliation with Mid-America Yearly Meeting (EFI) and Nebraska Yearly Meeting, published a letter openly defending gay marriage. The leaders of their quarter in Mid-America Yearly Meeting forced their de-recording as ministers in Mid-America. But Nebraska YM kept them on as recorded ministers, and indeed as honored members.
Now, as the only remaining organized refuge for liberal pastoral Friends in the central Plains, it was probably inevitable that Nebraska Yearly Meeting would cease to be a predominantly Nebraskan body. By the 1990s it had come to include more Kansans and Oklahomans than Nebraskans. And in 2001, recognizing its changing character, it renamed itself Great Plains Yearly Meeting. At that point, its annual sessions had already been rotating between Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas locations for many years.
In the early Oughts (this present decade), the general secretary of what is now Quaker Earthcare Witness visited Great Plains YM three years in a row, winning its affiliation with QEW and its support for that organization’s very New-Age-flavored efforts. About the same time, a Friend from the very liberal unprogrammed Intermountain Yearly Meeting (Independent/Beanite), moving to Kearney, Nebraska, organized a similarly liberal unprogrammed worship group there, under the care of Central City (Nebraska) Monthly Meeting.
In the middle Oughts, two of Great Plains’s last five remaining monthly meetings — Central City, which is the mother church of the yearly meeting, and Heartland, in Wichita, Kansas — sought and obtained dual affiliation at the monthly meeting level with Friends General Conference. And meanwhile, the most theological right-wing of Great Plains’s monthly meetings, Council House in Oklahoma, which like University Friends maintained a dual affiliation with Mid-America Yearly Meeting (EFI), dropped out of active involvement in Great Plains.
Each of these developments was yet another step leftward in this little yearly meeting’s evolution.
I started attending Nebraska YM sessions in 1995. Oh, it was tiny, with only thirty-odd people attending! And at that time, its sessions were as plain and sober as any yearly meeting’s I’d ever seen.
Except for one special banquet, there was nothing on the schedule except for business meetings and worship services. No workshops. No interest groups. No worship-sharing groups. No featured speaker. And the business sessions were restricted to bare basics — consideration of the annual budget; appointment of new officers; hearing of routine reports from the monthly meetings. No open wrestlings with Big Issues.
Grey Quaker buggies pulled up by the meetinghouse: and you thought there were no Friends left who still held to the old ways!
For an outsider like me, this was a tough set-up to get comfortable with. The budget and the appointments and the routine reports didn’t mean much to me. There wasn’t much on the program to hold my interest. I spent a lot of each day just sitting in worship while the business proceeded over my head.
But a few people in the yearly meeting took a few minutes here and there to help me get my bearings at least a little bit. And I was intrigued by bits of what I saw.
I attended the final reunion of the graduates and faculty of Nebraska Central College, a college that the yearly meeting had founded a century earlier, and that had shut down for good shortly after World War II; the handful of surviving alumni and alumnae and faculty sang their school song one last time in the quavering voices of the elderly, and I thought I was going to cry. I witnessed the formal recording of an elder dying of cancer as a minister in her monthly meeting; Johan Maurer came all the way from Oregon to be present for that one, and I did cry.
I participated in the entertainments put together for the yearly meeting, whenever it met in Oklahoma, by members of the Osage Nation: it was tribal dances one year, and a traditional guessing game another year, and it was all wonderful.
I learned of how the adopted son of one family in the yearly meeting had murdered the daughter of another family in the yearly meeting, and the two sets of grieving parents (who had always been close friends) had struggled, vainly, to save the young killer from the state’s death penalty.
Gradually, over the space of a few years, I began piecing together the story of the yearly meeting as a whole — surely the most theologically and ethnically diverse of all yearly meetings in North America.
I watched as the yearly meeting liberalized, and at the same time, modernized the format for its sessions. It introduced workshops and featured speakers. It began talking in business about the big issues.
And at the same time I watched it dwindle. In 1995 it had less than 750 members. In 2007 it had barely more than 600. In 1995, as I said above, it had thirty-odd members attending its sessions. In 2007 it had only twenty-six; and the six representatives visiting that year from outside Quaker bodies (AFSC, FWCC, Baltimore Yearly Meeting) were a substantial fraction of the total number of people in the room.
Even though the yearly meeting program now includes workshops and featured speakers, the basic business of the yearly meeting remains almost as simple today as it ever was. This year there were only two real departures from the routine.
The first departure was that the leaders of the yearly meeting passed out a new “Handbook”, still in draft form, laying out the basic procedures of the yearly meeting — including, among other things, the yearly meeting’s officers and committees, the monthly meetings’ responsibilities, the budget structure, queries for young Friends, a standardized procedure for a “dedication” ceremony for young children (which is a sort of an equivalent to infant baptism or first communion in other Protestant denominations, but without the use of water or of a physical communion ceremony), a standardized “officiated wedding” procedure (which seems to me half-way between Quaker and Protestant), and a standardized procedure for recording ministers.
This was the first time Great Plains had issued such a manual since the last updating of its book of discipline, back in the 1920s. Everyone present saw it as a Big Deal.
And the second departure from routine was that the yearly meeting wrestled a bit with the issue of FUM’s personnel policy — the policy that excludes anyone from a staff or volunteer position within FUM who engages in sex outside of marriage, marriage being defined as between one man and one woman.
I doubt that any of my present readers need to be re-familiarized with this issue, since it has been so hot for so long among Friends. Baltimore Yearly Meeting had two or three representatives present at the Great Plains YM session this year (depending on how you count) — perhaps (I’m just guessing) because Great Plains is about the only FUM-only yearly meeting that comes anywhere close to sharing Baltimore YM’s point of view.
What seems clear to me is that Great Plains YM is very committed to FUM and to laboring within it to make it work. It fully understands the positions of both sides in the personnel-policy debate, and has members in deep sympathy with both sides. It values the good works that FUM engages in — works such as Ramallah Friends School, and charitable efforts in Africa — and would be collectively heartbroken to see those efforts grind to a halt because Friends were unwilling to support them financially.
Great Plains YM considered the case of Southeastern Yearly Meeting — which has dual affiliation with FGC and FUM, and has recently announced that it is suspending its affiliation with FUM and that it will let that affiliation end in two years unless it sees signs of liberalization in FUM’s policy. And the Great Plains folks decided that they would make efforts to send one or two representatives to Southeastern’s sessions next year, I believe in a very nonpartisan spirit.
Great Plains will also send one or two representatives to Baltimore YM this year, continuing an ongoing intervisitation commitment.
Needless to say, these two decisions add up to a very taxing commitment for a yearly meeting that only twenty-six members were attending. It’s a measure of the distress that Great Plains is feeling over this brouhaha, that it is lavishing so much of its limited energies on it, even as other pressing matters, like the declining membership totals for the yearly meeting, and the growing urgency of environmental issues, go neglected.
But all this makes sense when you consider the essential loneliness of being a Friend in the Plains.
Hominy Friends Church, interior, at 2007 yearly meeting: the presiding and recording clerks are conferring. I think this whole meeting room is only about three times the size of my living room at home. But given the size of the Friends community hereabouts, there’s really no need for it to be larger.
Support systems are all-important here. It’s not like Washington, D.C., or Ann Arbor, or Los Angeles, where if the Friends were to cease to exist, there are half-a-dozen other local spiritual groups you might feel comfortable with. If the Quaker world were to cease to exist, here in the Plains there would not be much of anywhere else where a person of the Quaker sort could feel at home, without picking up stakes and moving to some big city. Friends here maintain active, loving liaisons, to the best of their ability, with FUM, with EFI, with FGC, and with several sorts of independent Friends, simply because all these groups provide influences that help make their own local communities feel nurtured and stable.
And for Friends elsewhere, on the two sides of the FUM personnel-policy dispute, to be tearing FUM, the nearest thing to a middle-ground middle-American Quaker organization, to pieces in this way, is not just deeply distressing — it’s an assault on perhaps the single most important piece of outside support helping to make lasting Quaker communities possible here.
Would that the hotheads in Southeastern YM — and in Baltimore and New England and Iowa and the yearly meetings of East Africa — would think about this before they make things worse! But of course they don’t.
Micah Bales, who is the son of the outgoing Presiding Clerk of Great Plains YM, and a very caring and committed Friend in his own right, has just recently published an essay on his own blog site, describing his feelings upon watching a “gay pride parade” in Washington, D.C. You may have already read that essay, but even if you have, it’s worth reading it again, with the situation and needs of Friends in Great Plains YM as a reference point. You might find you hear another layer of meaning in his words.
I still have more to report about, concerning this year’s session of Great Plains YM, but I’ll save it for a final installment.