Throughout the United States, there will be people missing from Thanksgiving tables this year. The pandemic has taken an astonishing toll, and there is scarcely a family that hasn’t lost someone. Along with those who died of Covid, there have been increased deaths from many other causes during the pandemic years, thanks to loneliness and stress. When we gather in a few weeks to offer thanks for the bounty of life, there will be empty seats in many homes.
Reno Friends recently gathered on Zoom in the sacred space of a Worship Sharing to tell each other what we all believed was most important about our Meeting. The pandemic spun us away from one another, and yet – through the efforts of many – we kept our community alive and busy by holding meetings, spiritual discussions, brown bag lunches, and even a Christmas party, all online. We learned to use Zoom, and figured out (through herculean efforts by our tech team) how to hold hybrid worship: in-person and online at the same time. We met outside for a holiday cookie-exchange, and even worshipped from the relative quiet of our shady garden on summer days.
It is Nominating season again, the time of year when our Quaker community tries to identify those who will serve as clerks and leaders of the Meeting in the coming year. Which raises an interesting question: What does it mean to be a leader in a Quaker Meeting? Technically, there are no leaders in unprogrammed Quaker Meetings, such as Reno Friends. Everyone is equal, and no one is in charge. But if there are no leaders, how does a Meeting organize to get its work done? How do Quakers determine how to worship, how to manage their programming and finances, or how to grow?
Last year I took a class at UNR on Qualitative Research which taught methods for conducting in-depth interviews. I was tasked with conducting two interviews about a sociological concept that interested me. Apart from my academics and in my personal life, I had been thinking a lot about my own life: what made me feel passionate, and what I might be here to do. I decided to take the project as an opportunity to interview two people that I thought would speak beautifully on the topic of “the meaning of life,” Rhonda Ashurst of the Reno Friends Meeting and one of the Buddhist priests from the Reno Buddhist Center, Rev. Shelley Fisher. At the root of this question was a desire to feel my soul a little and share an exceptionally profound idea with two incredible people.
Ever since the Quakers broke from the Church of England in the mid-seventeenth century, they have gathered for Silent Worship in plain rooms – ones usually bare of any religious art or symbols. This tradition has served Quakers well, as most Quaker Meetings still prefer simple rooms with few distractions.
Near the end of my two years of teaching in China, Volunteers in Asia (the organization that had hosted me) sent me materials about reverse culture shock. I was so excited about going home that I hadn’t thought about problems I might experience upon re-entry. In some ways, returning to “normal” life as pandemic restrictions ease will be a bit like returning home from a foreign land, and we might smooth the transition by taking time to consider the impact of the last year and anticipate what might come.
Every other month Reno Friends (the Quaker Meeting I attend), serves dinner to the homeless and hungry living on the streets of Reno. We each prepare food and then help to serve it. I bring my homemade bread, which often brings smiles and sometimes the sharing of a memory about the last time they had homemade bread. Often this is a distant childhood memory from a home long gone.
One of the central tenets of the Quaker faith is the Equality Testimony. As stated in the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s manual Faith & Practice, the Equality Testimony starts with this simple statement: “Friends testimony on equality is rooted in the holy expectation that there is that of God in everyone, including adversaries and people from widely different stations, life experiences, and religious persuasions. All must therefore be treated with integrity and respect.”
Reno Friends recently gathered for a Worship Sharing to talk about how we communicate and resolve conflict as a group. After two members left our Meeting last fall, we felt it was important to consider how we might listen to each other with more empathy and consideration, while also honoring individual leadings, contributions and concerns.
Though Reno’s Quaker Meeting is small, it somehow provides a bountiful community for Nevada Friends. There are those with decades of Quaker experience, others who have recently discovered Quakerism, and many in between. All of us are searching for spiritual solace in the silence, yet we have different needs and different approaches to questions about God and religious principles. When we make collective decisions, we usually do so with little drama, but sometimes there is strife. When that happens, it fills our Meeting House with sadness.