Compassionate Listening and Adult Children of Alcoholics

Reno Friends Meeting hosts several community groups in our Meeting House, providing space for organizations that share our Quaker values and have no home of their own. For the last year, members of the Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families have gathered inside our space on Thursday nights. This 12-step fellowship program is designed to promote healing for those who struggle with neglect, shame, abuse and other legacies of growing up in a home led by alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.

One recent Thursday, I decided to join them. I was curious about the program and wanted to extend a Quaker welcome. That night, twenty people showed up, of all ages and types. They knew each other well, greeting one another by name and chatting a bit. When the program started, they shared readings about how alcoholism and dysfunctional parents can torque a family. One of particular interest was the “Laundry List” of traits common among adult children of alcoholics, such as low self-esteem, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility or the need to seek approval from others.

Over the next hour, the attendees took turns sharing their stories. Some spoke of harrowing moments in their childhood and how they had responded. Others talked of how they struggled in the present to respond differently to trying situations. Some even shared little victories, such as using meditation and prayer to calm down, or drawing a boundary between themselves and someone taking advantage of them. The stories were interesting, and many made me think of moments in my own life. No one, after all, grows up in a perfect family.

But what struck me most was how the group listened to each other. They paid full attention, and no one else spoke until the person had finished. Then they all said “thank you.” By agreement, they do not “cross-talk,” defined as giving advice or commentary, which allows each story a compassionate space. Watching them, I suddenly saw what a profound gift it is to listen attentively, wait until someone is done, and then thank them for their story. How often do we do that for the people in our lives? How often do we listen without being distracted by our own thoughts, our own response? How can we learn to let go of what is in our own head and really hear what someone is saying?

At the end of the evening, several in the room came up to thank me for the use of our Meeting House. I left grateful that we are able to provide a quiet space for them, and also for the insights they gave me.

If you are interested in attending or have a friend who might be, the Reno group meets from 5:30 to 6:30 pm Thursdays at our Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue, Reno, NV 89512.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at)

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

The Great Applesauce Giveaway

Every fall the children in our First Day School (FDS) collect apples from the tree behind the building where our First Day program meets on Sundays. The kids have picked up the fruit mostly so there wouldn’t be a big mess. But this fall FDS decided to put the apples to good use by cooking up food for Reno’s homeless. That’s how the Great Applesauce Giveaway was launched.

“We had been talking about homelessness and why someone might be homeless and hungry, and the kids wanted to help. This seemed like the perfect opportunity,” says Erin, our long-time FDS teacher. She put out feelers to the Reno Friends community asking if anyone had extra apples or problem apples. When one of the Quakers said she had plenty, the First Day School decided to meet on a Saturday and glean what they could.

The children enjoyed picking up and sorting the apples, and talked about how they were taking care of the land by eliminating a rotted mess of neglected fruit. They brought their harvest to the home of one of the kids, then peeled and chopped and boiled the apples. They had fun taking turns with an old-fashioned apple peeler, but still, it took a long time; several people worked into the evening. When it was done, however, they had lots of paper containers full of applesauce.

The next day, the FDS kids passed out the applesauce containers, and spoons, in front of one of Reno’s homeless shelters. “The cups were all gone within a few minutes,” Erin remembers. “Everyone could see what we were doing and they all came over.” It was a moving experience for the youngsters, Erin says. “It was very emotional; we were overwhelmed by how much greater the need was than we could fill.” One mom says the response from the homeless touched her son profoundly, and the First Day School kids soon agreed they would try to think up more projects to help. Later, they read about Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), a Quaker from England who worked in prisons and reported that no one ever asked the prisoners what they needed. People might bring supplies, but only the supplies they thought the prisoners needed, not what they truly wanted. And so the FDS children decided their next project would be to buy supplies for the homeless – but only after asking them what they need.

Reno Friends First Day School is available, for free, every First Day (Sunday) morning from 10 to 11. The First Day School explores age-appropriate issues and stories that teach the children about Quaker values and testimonies, such as the Peace Testimony and the Equality Testimony. For more information, look at the Reno Friends’ website under “All About Reno Friends.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at)

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

New Year’s Resolutions

Ah, January! After the flurry of Christmas – wrapping presents, baking cookies, hosting family – the bright skies and peaceful, quiet days of January always arrive as relief. I pack away the decorations with glee and crack open a fresh pocket calendar, ready to restart my life. 

Many of us take the New Year as a time to bring ourselves back to center. This is the point of all those resolutions: join a gym, lose twenty pounds, read a classic every month. But this year, I recognized my list of resolutions as all-too-familiar companions. I’ve adopted the same must-do’s every year; yet each January, there they are, still in need of attention.

It reminds me of when my younger son was small and seemed deaf to my requests. No matter how many times I told him to stop running around and get in the car, he did so only when I threatened to quarantine his stuffed animals. A therapist finally pointed out that I yelled instructions to my son so often he had stopped listening; it was all just background noise. “Don’t speak to him until you are ready to make sure he hears you,” she suggested. What wisdom! It worked like a charm.

Which raises the question: am I ready to listen to myself? And how about listening to the “small quiet voice within,” as the Quakers say?  Perhaps I’m embracing the wrong resolutions. After all, I’ll probably be fighting those same extra pounds the rest of my life. Maybe this year I could resolve to do something more radical, like adopting a resolution aimed outward, something to benefit the larger world instead of myself.

As I thumbed through my friends’ holiday cards, I was struck by how many contained messages pleading for peace. As terrorism and violence rock our world and the climate swings more precariously, many of us long for more safety and calm.

My resolution, then, will be to work for peace, wherever and however I can. I’ll start with those around me and work outward, following the guidance of the Quaker Peace Testimony: “The work of peace is the work of sustaining relationships of mutual human regard, of seeing and speaking to that of God in everyone, of seeking peace within ourselves, the family, the community and the world. The Kingdom of God is both present in each of us and a goal yet to be fulfilled. The task may never be done, but sustained by God’s love we are called to pursue it.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at)

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

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)

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)

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) to sign up. We hope to see you there!

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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