All posts by renofriends

Welcoming the Syrian Refugees

At our November Business Meeting, Reno Friends debated a topic that days later would  command the front page: whether to welcome Syrians refugees in northern Nevada. The federal government is working through local non-profits to find homes and livelihoods nationwide for the 10,000 Syrian refugees it has promised to take. Our Meeting had been asked what it could do.

The Syrian tragedy is all too familiar today: refugee families slogging their way through the Balkans in a cold rain, drowned children washed ashore after their boats swamp in the rough Mediterranean Sea. Young men, many of them, but also elderly, parents, women, kids and babies — more than 4 million in all enduring a terrifying journey to escape terror and war.

Reno Meeting decided we would do what we could. A few days later, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the national lobbying arm of the Quakers, wrote us to urge our Senators to support funding for the processing and settlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. Several of us called to ask the government to authorize the spending.

Then came the horrifying attacks by ISIS in Paris and Beirut. With several hundred dead and ISIS threatening to attack American cities, governors of many states declared they were unwilling to allow Syrian refugee families to settle within their borders. Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada chose a different path: rather than an outright refusal, he said Nevada would accept no Syrian refugees until the White House had reviewed the resettlement program to make sure it was as thorough as possible. To date, nine Syrians have been resettled in Nevada, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

I understand the fear we harbor in our hearts. I lived through 9/11 in Washington, D.C., and remember well the paralyzing anxiety of another attack. I worried about friends and family riding the Metro, visiting popular landmarks like the Smithsonian, or just driving through the city. I know how hard it is to feel unsafe, to fear that a random act of terrorism will destroy the life and freedoms we often take for granted.

But does that mean the United States should turn away Syrian refugees? There is a remote danger that some of the refugees could be terrorists or be radicalized in the future, but so can American citizens and immigrants already living among us. Does fear of the few mean we should block the many who are worthy and desperate? And wouldn’t the Syrian children now enduring hardship to reach a better world be less likely to mature into terrorists if we took them in and cared for them?

These are difficult, complex questions. Nothing here is simple. But for me, this is a time when being a Quaker helps. Our Peace testimony asks us to recognize the child of God in everyone, and to do what we can to end violence and promote justice and human understanding. At the same time, the Integrity testimony urges us to be true to our word. “When lives are centered in the Spirit, beliefs and actions are congruent, and words are dependable,” says our Quaker guide, Faith and Practice.

It is, after all, the season of Peace. Let us open our hearts.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Thanksgiving and Family

More than any other holiday, Thanksgiving seems to be about gathering your community, bringing family and friends together to share gifts of food and affection.  It can be a chance to introduce a new girl- or boyfriend to the tribe, or reach out and include the lonely neighbor from down the street.  It can offer precious moments with an aging grandparent or a goofy game of Hearts with cousins you haven’t seen in years.

Though often full of love and laughter, these gatherings can also be trying.  Dueling food preferences can drive the cook crazy, teens may disappear into their cellphones, and some will weasel out of their share of the cleanup.  It can be enough to make one want to spend the holiday in quiet retreat.

Parker Palmer, an author, educator and Quaker, suggests that the challenges we face gathering our communities together are more important than the pleasures.  “Friends are most in the Spirit when they stand at the crossing point of the inward and outward life. And that is the intersection at which we find community. Community is a place where the connections felt in the heart make themselves known in bonds between people, and where tuggings and pullings of those bonds keep opening up our hearts.”

Living the Quaker testimonies often means having your heart tugged and pulled, but that’s how our hearts get bigger.  Surrounded by my sometimes annoying, sometimes wonderful family members, I try to remember that each is a child of God, that humanity can be messy.  When someone pushes one of my buttons, I seek to pause, taking a few breaths and summoning my compassion before responding.  Perhaps he or she is also struggling with the intersection of the inward and outward life.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving is also a time to be grateful for all that blesses us.  Scientists who study happiness say that a daily habit of gratitude – listing the things you’re grateful for – can go a long way toward improving one’s mood.  No matter how frazzled I feel when it’s time to say grace, it’s always the circle of hands that I’m most grateful for.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

The New Jim Crow

Several years ago, Reno Friends committed to finance the operating costs of the Nevada chapter of the Alternatives to Violence Project. AVP’s volunteers lead conflict resolution workshops inside Nevada prisons, seeking to empower inmates to lead nonviolent lives. The Meeting’s decision was not difficult: Quakers embrace the principle of nonviolence, and they have cared deeply about prison issues since the early members of the Society of Friends were jailed for their beliefs.

In this tradition, Reno Friends will gather Wednesday evenings this month and next to discuss the game-changing book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University and former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, argues that changes made to state and federal sentencing laws during the 1980’s – particularly those for non-violent drug offenders – have resulted in the imprisonment today of more black men than were enslaved in the United States in 1850.

The United States is now the world’s leader in incarceration. Our nation’s prisons and jails hold 2.2 million people, five times as many as were imprisoned 30 years ago, according to the Friends Committee for National Legislation (FCNL). Alexander says sentencing laws that require mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes are a legacy of generations of discrimination. She says the War on Drugs focused heavily on black drug users in cities, and prosecutors are twice as likely to seek mandatory minimum sentences for black defendants as for white. Today African-Americans serve almost as much prison time for nonviolent drug crimes (58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (61.7 months).

Incarceration has long-term effects. One in three black men in America are now incarcerated during their lifetime, and those who are convicted struggle for years to overcome the repercussions of their criminal record. According to FCNL, some states ban formerly incarcerated people from driving or getting the professional licenses they need to be a hair stylist or an accountant. Federal laws also permanently ban those with felony drug convictions from receiving welfare or food stamps. Many released prisoners are banned from public housing; not surprisingly, many become homeless.

To guide our discussion, Reno Friends will follow a book-group curriculum provided by Chris Moore-Backman, director of the Chico, CA, Peace and Justice Program. The group will meet from 6:30 pm to 8 pm every other Wednesday, starting Oct. 7 and continuing Oct. 21, Nov. 4 and Nov. 18 at our Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue in Reno. The class is free, but you will need to buy or borrow a copy of the book. If you would like to join us, please email me, the Clerk of Reno Friends, at wswallow54 (at) gmail.com to sign up. We hope to see you there!

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

How Healthy is our Quaker Meeting?

Just as people need regular check-ups, so do Quaker Meetings. Earlier this year, a Friend raised a question: how healthy is our Meeting? I looked around the room. There we were, a circle of caring people who meet regularly for Silent Worship in a comfortable Meeting House. Next door, our gifted First Day School teacher was working with a group of children. Outside, the Meeting House grounds were freshly trimmed, thanks to a group of generous volunteers. We had projects and activities on the schedule, and causes we care about and support in the larger world.  What could be amiss?

But as many churches and institutions know, surface calm can hide divisions and problems that may quietly bleed commitment and trust from the group. And so Reno Friends considered the question of our health. To frame the discussion, we read an article by Jan Greene and Marty Walton, two seasoned Friends, about the characteristics of healthy Meetings.

According to Greene and Walton, healthy Meetings have a clear sense of themselves and what they are called to do and be. They are places where it is safe to say “this is what I believe.” They include all types of people and offer a spiritual home for people making changes in their lives, deepening their relationship with God, or trying to discern God’s leadings. Healthy Meetings also care for their corporate life, and they understand that conflict is inevitable in any Meeting that is vital and growing, and that conflict can even deepen a Meeting spiritually. Healthy Meetings will discern when they have moved away from wholeness and have the courage to stay with difficult issues and wait for guidance from God.

There was a lot to think about, more than we could explore that morning. And so Reno Friends agreed to gather again this fall for a discussion or Worship Sharing about the standards for healthy Meetings and an assessment of how we measure up. No doubt we will find things we need to work on to improve, but thanks to the Friend who posed the question, at least we will be working together to identify and address our shortcomings.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Speaking in Silent Worship

Years ago, when I went to my first Quaker Meeting, a friend told me to just sit and listen. It was a large Meeting, and the silence was powerful. Yet several individuals rose and spoke from the heart during the worship hour. Later I asked my Quaker friend whether she spoke in Meeting. Rarely, she said.  She had been taught to stand and speak “only if what you have to say moves you so deeply, you just can’t stay in your seat.”

For many years I didn’t speak during the worship hour – I just listened as other Quakers shared their vocal ministry, often eloquent and riveting. Sometimes the messages started with personal anecdotes, sometimes with musings on a theme, occasionally with a quote from the Bible or another spiritual text. Many, whether brief or extended, bloomed into something universal and important. One woman rose and said simply, “I have to remember my wants are not the same as my needs.” A man told a winding story about his father’s search for God, only to conclude with the revelation that his father had died the day before and the man hoped his father now had his answer.

Understandably, deciding whether to share thoughts or a message can be difficult. If everyone is too circumspect, then the Meeting goes quiet and loses the wonderful perspectives and sharing of vocal ministry. But if too many jump up and share thoughts that haven’t properly seasoned, then Meeting can lose the vital foundation of silent contemplation. The Quaker Lanny Jay says: “There is no question of one’s worthiness to speak, or of the importance of the message. Rather, the matter at hand is the source of the message. Is it coming from the Friend who would speak, or through him or her? Is it for the Meeting as then and there gathered, or is the message not yet ripe, or meant to be kept to oneself, or better shared after Meeting with a more select audience?”

In the magazine Quaker Life, Stan Thornburg suggests Friends consider the following questions before rising to speak: Is the message from the Holy Spirit and not just from you? Is it intended for anyone besides you? Is it intended for anyone beyond the last speaker? Is it intended to be shared in this Meeting right now? Will others likely mistake the message for a political statement, lecture or personal announcement? Is the message truly one God is asking you to share? And, finally, must you speak?

We all have wisdom and questions and soul to share with the Meeting. The wonder and mystery of vocal ministry lies in its variety and heartfulness. May we all continue to speak out of the silence, and to one another.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

What Keeps Us from Committing to the Quaker Way of Life?

When Reno Friends gathered for a spirituality workshop last month, one of the most revealing questions to the group was “What keeps you from committing your life more deeply to Friends’ practices and the Quaker Way of life?”

Quaker spirituality is rooted in each person’s experience of God. So it’s not surprising that members and attenders of Reno Friends might have varied roadblocks to turning their lives over to God more fully. The Quaker testimonies, a set of convictions shared by Quakers, can set a high standard for spiritual and action-led commitment. The Integrity Testimony alone calls on Quakers to always tell the truth, to speak simply in the world so our truth can be understood, and to strive for authenticity in following one’s conscience.  As one Reno Friend put it, “living up to the scruples of Quakerism can be hard.”

Some Reno Friends said they struggle to set aside the comforts and excitement of the secular world to clear space for silence and contemplation. “It is difficult to keep a continuous connection to the spiritual alive when we are distracted by our cellphones and computers,” said one.

Others said the problems of life, “what needs changing in the greater world,” are a more serious distraction for them. Spirit-led action is all well and good, but too much busyness can prevent people from focusing inwardly and experiencing the transformation within.

Some people said they fear that a spiritual transformation might make them unbearable in society, or distance them from friends or family who might not understand, or are of different religions or persuasions. “If we took the inner insights to the ultimate end,” said one Reno Friend, “it could disrupt our whole way of life on a day-to-day basis.”

In the same vein, others said they are hesitant to take the leaps of faith common among early Quakers, who sometimes gave up professions or family or even their freedom to follow their leadings. Modern-day Quakers often don’t feel they have the strong Quaker community surrounding them that the early Quakers enjoyed.  “It’s hard for us to stay connected to Spirit without the shared experience of communal life in our faith community,” one Reno Friend said.

Others agree that risking the consequences of spirit-led action without support of a group felt daunting. One Reno Friend spoke of struggling with a leading that he feared would threaten his work and jeopardize his ability to support his family.  “I couldn’t risk that,” he said.

Indeed, Quakerism does raise thorny societal issues and asks each of us to examine our inner conscience and outward action. But the community of Quakers also accepts that each person is on their own spiritual path and timeline. It is up to each one of us to determine how we will deepen our individual spirituality and express that in the larger world.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

What Draws You to Quakerism?

The first time people attend a Quaker Meeting, they often find Silent Worship mystifying. It looks like nothing is happening, and that there’s no apparent reason why everyone has gathered. There’s no minister guiding the worship, no liturgy lending structure, no music filling the soul. There are just Friends, each head down in her or his own private silence.

Without the obvious expressions of faith common to most worship services, such as hymns, Bible readings or sermons, it can be challenging for Quakers to explain why they choose to gather for Silent Worship. In some ways, the Society of Friends took the Protestant Reformation to its ultimate expression:  they stripped away everything that served as a mediator between individuals and God so that each person could experience the divine directly, internally, in her or his own way.

As the Quaker Clarence E. Pickett wrote: “We who are members of the Society of Friends have little to fall back on except as our experience with truth. We cannot resort to ritual or creed or to ecclesiastical decisions for guidance. We must find our way by seeing the hand of God at work in the weaving of the fabric of everyday life.”

This month, when Reno Friends gathered for a day-long spirituality workshop, one of the first questions the group explored was “What is Compelling about Quakerism – What Draws You In?” The answers ranged widely but helped articulate what Quakers care about.

Many said they are attracted by the communal quality of Silent Worship; there is something powerful about sitting together in what Quakers call “expectant silence.” For many of us, the hour of silence Sunday morning calms the mind and focuses our attention on that “small, still voice inside,” whether we think of that as our conscience, our moral core, God’s voice or something else. The silence helps us take time to listen to that of God inside ourselves.

Some said they feel inspired by early Quakers’ willingness to seek this vital inner experience despite the threat of persecution and imprisonment in their day. Others said they are drawn by the absence of a specific creed or statement of belief, saying it makes room for the findings of modern science and keeps the individual experience of God at the heart of the faith. Others talked of the power of “turning the spiritual searchlight inward” and agreed that is stronger when done in community.

At the same time, Reno Friends said they are drawn to Quakerism just as much by the outward expression of Quaker principles as they are by the inner quest. From their earliest days in the 1600s, Quakers carried their beliefs into the world, supporting those who were hungry, homeless, needy or imprisoned. Many in our workshop said they like how the foundations of Quakerism – so full of kindness, compassion and love – lead directly to embracing social justice. Others said they are attracted by Quakers’ willingness to stand up to the established social order and speak Truth to power and empire.  Some said they are inspired by the Quakers’ courage in following their principles, such as pacifism, despite painful worldly consequences. And for most Quakers, the idea of seeking that of God in everyone is a central tenet.

We invite you to experience “expectant silence” for yourself. Silent Worship may sometimes look like a blank slate, but inside there are many things going on.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Radical Quakerism: From Roots to Shoots to Fruits

On May 2, Reno Friends will gather for a day-long workshop on Radical Quakerism led by Kathy and Bob Runyan from Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California. The Quaker Center’s  mission is “to nurture the spiritual growth and faithfulness of Friends and others while strengthening Quakerism and its witness in the world.” Bob and Kathy have developed this workshop for Friends Meetings around California and Nevada.

What is Radical Quakerism, and what does it have to do with roots, shoots and fruits?  According to the Runyans, early Friends preached and lived a message based on a direct relationship with God, experienced inwardly; that was Radical Quakerism. This message transformed the early Quakers’  personal lives,  and it attracted more than one of every one hundred English people into the Society of Friends by 1680, despite the risk to Quakers of persecution and death.

The May workshop will give Reno Friends an opportunity to explore their Quakers roots, particularly the concept of the Light Within and the role of expectant communal worship, which allows Quakers to recognize and pay attention to the Light Within.  In the Runyans’ words, “a pure, quiet, profound place can be found at the center of our being, if we wait in humility and turn our attention within, below our thoughts, emotions, fears, desires and expectations.”

When we yield to the Light Within, we are transformed and brought into unity with one another, the Runyans say.  But it isn’t easy. This part of the workshop –  the shoots –focuses on yielding to the Light, allowing the Light to transform us, and the mutual accountability and support that the Meeting provides us in discerning and being faithful to the Light Within. Discernment in understanding God’s will is done best in the context of the larger Meeting, where questions can be raised and support offered.

Transformation sends up shoots, but to nurture those and produce fruits – spirit-led action – Friends must come together in unity. The Runyans say that the Light Within will gradually bring those in a Meeting into unity with one another. That can transform our relationships if we stay connected to its source.  “From this Unity, we can act with the guidance of the Light Within as a corporate body to support one another’s leadings to bring about change in personal lives, the Meeting community, and beyond,” they say.

Bob, Kathy and their three sons attended Reno Meeting from 1995 to 2000 and the couple has served as co-directors at Quaker Center since 2011. Kathy says they are looking forward to seeing their old Meeting House and spending time with Reno Friends. The workshop is open to attenders and Members of Reno Friends. It runs from 10 am to 4 pm on May 2 at the Meeting House.

If you are interested in participating, please email the clerk at wswallow54(at)gmail.com. And remember to bring something for our potluck lunch!

In the Light,

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Harmony with Nature

When I look out on our beautiful Sierra Nevada this winter, I worry. Even with the late February snowfall, there will likely be little snowpack to sustain trees and wildlife through the coming summer, extending the drought of the past few years. And that makes me wonder if I’m doing all I can to help protect the remarkable blue planet that is our home.

Quakers have long held a testimony to live in harmony with nature.  As stated in Faith & Practice:

“God is revealed in all Creation.  We humans belong to the whole interdependent community of life on earth.  Rejoice in the beauty, complexity and mystery of creation, with gratitude to be part of its unfolding….  Live according to principles of right relationship and right action within this larger whole.  Be aware of the influence humans have on the health and viability of life on earth…. Guided by Spirit, work to translate this understanding into ways of living that reflect our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

For me, and for many Quakers, the accumulation of scientific data is convincing: the climate is changing and humans are responsible. Recently I received a copy of “Facing the Challenge of Climate Change,” a statement developed by Quaker Earthcare Witness, the Quaker United Nations Office, and Friends Committee on National Legislation for the United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014.  In this statement, the Quaker organizations called on world leaders to make the radical decisions needed to create a fair, sufficient and effective international climate-change agreement. They also wrote that “the current rise of greenhouse gas emissions is leading to an unprecedented rate of increase in global average surface temperature of extreme detriment to the Earth’s ecosystems and species, including human beings.” The groups added that they “recognize a personal and collective responsibility to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable peoples now, and all our future generations, do not suffer as a consequence of our actions.”

The Quaker groups referred to this challenge as a call to conscience. “We recognize the connections between climate change and global economic injustice as well as unprecedented levels of consumption, and [we] question assumptions of unlimited material growth on a planet with limited natural resources.”  I find this statement interesting, because it links the threat of climate change with the economic and social consequences of drought, disruptive storms, rising ocean levels and accelerating desertification.  For Quakers, it’s not just caring about the earth that matters – it’s finding a way to live sustainably so that everyone may share justly in the riches the earth provides.

Many other Quaker testimonies are interwoven with our commitment to live in harmony with nature.  The Integrity Testimony calls on us to keep our lives centered in the Spirit so that our beliefs and actions are congruent, and our words dependable.  The Simplicity Testimony asks us to take no more than our share of the earth’s resources and to be sensitive to the needs of others, especially future generations.  The Unity Testimony calls on us to work together to discern and serve God’s will, trusting one another and being confident that, together, Friends will find the truth.

Climate change presents perhaps the greatest challenge humans have ever encountered.  I trust that, consistent with our testimonies, Quakers will help define and lead the national and international response to this pressing problem.

In the Light,

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Finding an Alternative Path for Those Who Live With Violence

Several years ago, Reno Friends Meeting decided to dedicate most of its charitable giving to the Nevada Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a group of volunteers who go into Nevada prisons to lead non-violence workshops for inmates.

Practicing non-violence is a central Quaker principle.  As the Peace Testimony of Pacific Yearly Meeting says,

Friends work for reconciliation and active nonviolent resolutions of conflict. Friends have traditionally supported conscientious objectors to military service, while holding in love, but disagreeing with, those who feel that they must enter the armed forces. Friends oppose all war as inconsistent with God’s will.  Recognizing that violence and war typically arise from unjust circumstances, Friends address the causes of war by working to correct social injustice, and by strengthening communities, institutions and processes to provide nonviolent alternatives to military force.

AVP is an international association of volunteer groups, active in 33 states in the USA and in 50 countries. The Nevada branch receives no financial support from AVP’s parent organizations so Reno Friends Meeting furnishes much of what the volunteers need to cover the cost of workshop materials and travel to prison locations such as Lovelock, 100 miles northeast of Reno.

AVP began in 1975 as a collaboration between inmates in New York’s Green Haven Prison and Quakers interested in working with youth gangs and teens at risk. The program spread throughout New York State prisons and to other states as a prison program and, in some places, as a community program for people from all walks of life.

AVP, which builds on a spiritual base of respect and caring for self and others, draws participants and trainers from all religions, races, sexual identities, and walks of life. Its three-day workshops provide an intense learning experience that teaches conflict resolution skills designed to lead participants to new ways of being in the world.

And the AVP workshops appear to be working:  a recent academic study in one California prison found AVP workshops were effective in reducing behavioral misconduct by those who previously had disciplinary infractions during their incarcerations and among more educated inmates.

Nevada AVP coordinator Rita Sloan visited with Reno Friends last month accompanied by a recently paroled inmate who became an AVP trainer while in prison.  The parolee told us that AVP changed his life.  The parolee said he had retreated to a very isolated emotional place before attending his first workshop.  But AVP provided a safe environment to discuss his fears and hopes, and he learned to understand conflict and how to deal with it.  Once his parole is complete, he hopes to return to the prisons to volunteer again as a trainer.

Mixing inmates and members of the community within each workshop is integral to AVP, Sloan said.  Community volunteers must first be cleared to enter the prisons — a process that can take months — but the volunteers find the workshop experience is well worth the hassle. “We all have things to learn about non-violence,” said Sloan.  “We all have the seeds of violence in us, even if it is just through our words and gestures.  Everyone takes away something important from the workshops.”

If you are interested knowing more about AVP, go to our AVP page. You can also contact Rita Sloan by email:  rwrksloan (at) hotmail.com .

In the Light,

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.