Options, Part Two

One of my more common failings, friends, is getting something started and then forgetting to finish it. And such was the case with this. My apologies for the delay in posting part two of this essay. Part One can be found here—or, if you’re looking at this on the main screen, just scroll down.

Now to the communal options! I’ll list these in ascending order of audacity. 

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Farming the Meeting

Much like Farming the Yard, this option is to draw on untapped resources. Simply scale up Farming the Yard, using the meetinghouse grounds and volunteer time to raise some food. This food could then be divided up among the people of the meeting to ease costs, or to supplement the after-meeting snack, or donated to a nearby food bank.

Not every meeting can try this option. My own Eastside is basically in a forest, though there are still farm-like considerations; managing forests is just very slow farming. But there could be variations: some cities have communal gardens, and a meeting could collectively work a plot in one of those. There are other ways to farm the grounds, too: put in a windmill or a few solar panels, for instance, and save the rain runoff in barrels for watering plants. University Friends Meeting in Seattle hosts a homeless shelter in its worship room every night, and it is acclaimed as the quietest shelter in the city. It’s the only congregation-hosted shelter in town that uses the worship space. That’s truly opening doors wide to the poor! The meeting has had to make some sacrifices to keep the shelter, but they keep on making them.

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The Friendly Restaurant

In my essay on what I call “the Economy of Love,” I described a few budding Quaker businesses, such as a farm, a coffee-roaster, and a gourmet popcorn seller. I also described other methods of doing business—asking and gift-giving rather than buying and selling. I mentioned a coffeehouse near where I live that has no fixed prices; everyone pays what they can. And I mentioned an item on a menu of a restaurant that anyone can order, no matter what they can pay, so that anyone can have a good, nutritious meal. There’s a movement afoot to spend a little extra when buying coffee so that someone else can get some free. These are all trends that I like.

I also have fond memories—well, one fond memory—of a community restaurant in south Seattle called “The Silver Fork.” It closed recently due to the owners growing old and weary, and no doubt there were always money pressures, though the place was doing good business until the day it shut down. I learned of it only months before it shut its doors, and so most of what I’m going on is by reputation, and by my one time eating there. It was a fixture of the community, a mainstay, a tradition—and it was a mixing point of races, which can be rare even in as multicolored and multicultural a place as south Seattle.

I’ve also heard of a restaurant that opened without taking out a single bank loan, instead relying on donations from the community. That particular place failed—in no small part, I think, because it didn’t pay its workers fairly. But I’ve seen real community-built places as well, with tiles on the walls thanking those who made it possible, going strong.

All these thoughts keep swirling around in my head, and I dream of a Quaker restaurant—we could call it “the Friendly Table,” perhaps, or “the Meetinghouse,” or “Fox’s Feast”—where anyone of any color or class or creed is welcome, where you can get good food and good cheer, a place that could become a touchstone and a tradition for the community. It could be a gathering place for musicians, or for activists; it could be a place for community meetings and community feasts. It could be a place where the poor could order alongside the rich without shame, and put down a dollar not for burgers and fries but bread and soup and respect and hope.

It’s a mad and crazy dream. It would take a lot of work. And restaurants go belly-up if you simply blink at them too much. Nor are traditions and touchstones created by simply wishing. But I think we can apply “Fandarel’s Formula” here: “Has been done. Can be done. Shall be done” (originated by Anne McCaffrey). That is, the fact that it has been done means that it can be done, and, if we’re speaking of a good thing, therefore we can and should do it, too.

While this can’t really be combined with “Farm the Yard” or “Farm the Meeting” alone, some support from the Farming options could be added to, say, a Quaker farm or two outside the city. Quaker farms have been done, too, after all, and therefore can be done…

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The Sabbath Yearly Meeting

The Sabbath year, in ancient Hebrew tradition, was a “year of rest for the land,” in which no agriculture was practiced. People gleaned what grew naturally, nothing more. This would allow the land to reclaim some of its fertility. The year also restored the health of the community in other ways, too: as Hebrew society grew more complex, the Sabbath year requirements expanded, and eventually called for the forgiveness of debts and the liberation of slaves. Liberation of slaves with some traveling money, no less, so that no one left slavery without something to get started. Moreover, loans couldn’t be refused on the basis of the Sabbath year coming. And, while I am less certain of this last aspect, “only eating what grows naturally” could have had a leveling effect, too. Gleaning was how the poorest lived in ancient Israel, picking up whatever leftover food they could find, and during the seventh year, everyone was a gleaner, living for that year as the poor lived all the time. So the Sabbath year, every seventh year, was a crucial reset button.

The annual sessions of our yearly meetings are expensive affairs: expensive to organize, put on, and get to. Especially out west, where vast distances have to be covered to reach annual session, travel costs can be severe—both in terms of money handed out, and in terms of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. (Friends in Hawaii trying to attend Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Annual Session in California, for instance, have no choice but to fly.)

The Sabbath Yearly Meeting concept, therefore, is simple: every seventh year (or however often), we don’t have an annual session, trusting that standing committees can handle any business that might arise. This will save on traveling costs of all varieties.

But the Sabbath year was about regrowth and rejuvenation, letting the land lie fallow so that it might heal. Just skipping an annual session doesn’t quite do that. I would say that Friends skipping annual sessions should take at least some of the time they would have otherwise spent for reflection on their own. Monthly meetings could hold retreats instead; queries could be distributed. I would also recommend that the yearly meetings offer people the option of donating what they would have paid to attend annual session to the yearly meeting’s fund. Even if only ten percent of people did so, then the yearly meeting would have an added reserve to help make other things possible: taking on larger projects, helping pay employees a fair wage, helping people attend annual session in the other six years, subsidizing low-impact travel, etc. I think this model has particular benefit for our changing demographics.

One caveat: I recommend that some program for children still be available. In North Pacific YM we have two camps, one for our middle-schoolers and one for the high-schoolers; I’d say we should keep those. Kids come to depend on such things, and a two-year wait is a long time if you’re only twelve.

Other potential variants:


Quarterly meetings could hold an additional session to replace the yearly meeting, as such gatherings can be smaller and cost less to attend (in both senses).
Food costs, particularly in shipping, can considerably increase the overall impact of an annual session. If enough meetings and families take up the Farming the Yard/Meeting options, supplemental food could be brought in, traveling with the people so there’s no extra carbon footprint, and be made available at low cost. Venues oftentimes have issues with this, particularly as they are trying to make ends meet themselves, but it’s worth considering anyway. Perhaps college kitchens could make use of Quaker produce.

Smaller gatherings could be held in the homes of Friends, particularly towns and cities with a number of Quakers. Friends from out of town would be hosted by Friends living there. These gatherings could be social, spiritual, organizational, or a combination. It would naturally get crowded, but we might be able to put up with that for a few days, and kids could camp out in the back yard. I would recommend that everyone help out with meal preparation and do a thorough cleanup before they go, however, so as to take some of the burden off of the hosts. This might be another good use for the larger and largely-empty houses I mentioned earlier. This idea, by the way, need not be confined to replacing annual sessions!

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The Arsonist Option

Micah Bales wrote a blog post called “Burn Down the Meetinghouse!”, deploring the amount of time and money that meetings spend on their buildings. I doubt Bales meant it literally, and I know I don’t… mostly. But meetinghouses can be a real drag on a meeting’s resources, and Quaker Money Problem #1 turns up so frequently whenever Property Committee steps forward to report.

So what could be done?

I know of a meeting that is located on some valuable real estate, as it’s close to a light-rail line under construction. The value of the land is going to go up significantly, and developers are already pouring into the area. This meeting could sell the land to a developer, perhaps with the stipulation that some or all of the property would be used for low-income housing, then take the money from the sale and apply it to some good cause, using the donations that usually paid for meetinghouse upkeep to instead pay rent on the use of some community-center hall for meeting for worship.

It would be a bold move, and one with many difficulties and sacrifices. For one thing, many others make use of the building, and it’s a primary meeting point for regional Quaker activities. So it that particular case, a straight “burn down the meetinghouse” approach might actually cost more, in non-cash ways. Other meetings have meetinghouses that are historical relics, not to be so cavalierly disposed of. On the other hand, old buildings cost rather more, and do we need to maintain every example of 18th Century Quaker architecture?

Burning down the meetinghouse would force us to meet differently—likely in more public settings, which has the benefit of making us more visible, or in or homes, which has the benefit of making us get to know one another better. It would also seem to put a limit on the size of meetings. But with inter-visitation and regular attendance at Quarterly and Yearly Meeting sessions, those issues might be turned into strengths.

As I see it, this option might be wisest for smaller meetings that have large maintenance bills.

Another approach is one adopted by a downtown Seattle church, which tore down its sanctuary and rebuilt a new one… with low-income apartments upstairs. So the church is still there—probably a bit more cramped, but in the same place and with its own space. It now shares the block, however, with housing for the poor.

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Village-Building

My mother often remarks that many Quaker practices, held over from earlier days, assume that Quakers live in villages within walking distance of lots of other Quakers. And I remember from my history studies at Earlham College that New Garden Quarterly Meeting in Indiana covered about two counties. It doesn’t quite work that way any more.

But perhaps it’s time to start going back to that model, with a few changes.

When I was a small boy, my mother and I lived within walking distance of my grandparents in one direction, and my uncle in the other. This made life immeasurably easier for my single mom, as grandparently child care and uncle-ic role modeling was routinely available. The benefits of living close to family are obvious. The benefits of living close to Friends are clear as well. But how to create this?

Some of it might emerge simply by considering where other Friends live when moving. We already consider such things as schools and transportation; why not consider the proximity of other Quakers, as well? Adding that factor to an already long list of criteria for a good neighborhood could be a problem, however, and it’s not every day that a house on the same block as a beloved Friend will open up when one of us is about to move. So I think this is better done with intentionality. Pick a good neighborhood and start moving there. Try to get houses within a few blocks of each other—adjacent would be ideal. This will take time, most likely years, and so will require significant advanced planning, coordination, and pooled resources. It might be more feasible for younger people, but this could lack permanence. Having an intergenerational mix is best.

Though I think village-building has some clear benefits, here are just a few things that could be gained from it:

  • Combine this with the Quaker House options, and/or with Farming the Yard, for some truly radical shifts in lifestyle.
  • Meeting for Worship could be held on a daily basis, or spontaneously.
  • Communal baking and batch cooking could become a standard practice, saving on costs still more.
  • An entire community could get down to one car, and certainly down to one lawnmower. Tool libraries (sharing equipment) could become standard, and skill libraries (sharing talents) as well.
  • Though I am rarely concerned with “security,” as I prefer to trust to the protection of the Light, Friends would always be able to look after each other’s homes while someone was away. Certainly Friends would always be able to take care of pets.
  • The whole neighborhood could be made more peaceful. Friends shouldn’t descend on some part of town to “fix” the place, but if a large number of us move into one part of a city, it would only be right to meet our non-Quaker neighbors and become involved in communal actions already under way. In the background, ideally, but providing resources and expertise as necessary. If we go in intending to farm our yards and live quite simply, it will be a bit less like gentrification.

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The Common Purse
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2.44-47)

“The Common Purse” is quite simple: we share money. We hold things in common. We don’t have private property; we give it all to the group.

This is the most audacious option I have, considering I’m speaking largely to a middle-class American audience. We have been taught that we need to be independent, that we need to stand on our own.

But frankly, we are already dependent on others, just as they are dependent on us. Unless you grow all your own food and make all your own clothes, you rely on others, often in ways that have been carefully and deliberately made invisible. So our independence is largely an illusion anyway. Why not face up to the fact, and make our ties with each other more clear? Wouldn’t that be more in keeping with the testimony of integrity?

The idea of surrendering all our possessions and all our money to the group, however, is still a frightening prospect. It has a definite whiff of cults and communism. And Friends have enough difficulties coming to consensus about money as is; adding to the pot and raising the stakes enormously would seem to make things much, much worse.

Quakers differ from communists and cultists, though—we don’t generally have leaders who can exploit the “common pot.” Occasionally treasurers make off with some cash, but our clerks, being on such a frequent rotation and so focused on finding the will of the meeting rather than getting their own way, are not exactly candidates for cults of personality. Moreover, no meeting is entirely on its own—it’s highly unlikely that some would-be cult leader could come to dominate an entirely yearly meeting, and no charismatic clerk could take over all of the Society. Friends would support each other across meeting lines to deal with such a situation. The danger in communism is a stultifying bureaucracy leeching away the resources of the community, but in true Quaker gospel order, we are the bureaucracy, for better or worse. Moreover, cults are traps, and communist societies are involuntary. There’s no way that Friends could make this option anything but voluntary.

That puts a different face on things. It leads us to other models: monasteries, for example. But we’re not a faith for handing over all our property to some hierarchical church. There would be no abbot or abbess calling the shots about the group’s resources; indeed, there would be no human higher-ups at all. If we are truly, truly living by discernment, then making decisions about the group’s money would really mean leaving the financial decisions up to the Spirit.

That changes things yet again. One of the reasons cults and communism don’t work is because of that human element: greed on the one hand, distrust of others on the other. Thinking of our Friends whom we have labored with over business meetings, we might naturally recoil in horror at the thought of putting them in charge of our checkbooks, or shudder at the thought of submitting grocery lists to the consensus process. But handing over our money and property to God? Well, why wouldn’t we do that?

Well, we wouldn’t do that because even the best meetings don’t find the will of the Spirit every time.

The Common Purse may be a hope, then—something to aim for, something to dream of, something to work toward, but with the full knowledge that it will be highly difficult to achieve, not something done lightly, something to be taken on only when we are truly grounded and ready.

On the other hand, when will we ever judge ourselves ready? Is being ready for such a thing even possible?

So maybe it’s something we need to attempt, even if we aren’t ready, even if it’s likely to fail. Perhaps it’s something we need to try, if only to teach the next generation what will work and what doesn’t, if only to push the possibilities forward just a bit. Or perhaps it’s something we need to try entirely for ourselves, to learn to let go.

All our wealth is only loaned to us, after all, by the true Creator and Owner of All Things. Perhaps we need to learn to take all that has been given to us, and give it again.

~~~

These are the options for simple living that I have encountered or dreamed up. Others are out there. Go looking for other ideas. (YES! Magazine is a good resource; so might be the diaries of early Friends.) Mix and match the methods and strategies you find.

But the single most important thing you can do to live more simply is to actually do something. Do something achievable—don’t set out to overhaul your life and the whole economic system all at once—but take action. There is a decided tendency among Friends, I believe, to think about such matters, to admire and applaud people who take simplifying steps, but to never actually take the plunge and take action. The recent recession has forced some changes, and to be honest that’s how I got started down this path, but that’s never the same as giving up what you have, without immediate self-need, for the greater good.

So if you truly believe in what you’ve just read… try it. Find what the Spirit wills you to make simpler, and simplify.

Bear this in mind as you do, however: there is only one way to be good at anything, which is to be bad at it first. You will try something and it will fail; that’s a given. So try it again, or try something similar, or approach it from a different angle. And you will, at some point, fail again; that’s also a given. Keep going. Find other ways. Remember Fandarel’s Formula again: “Has been done. Can be done. Shall be done.” Use that as a reminder and as a hope and as a call to action. If you believe in this, then for the Spirit’s sake, keep at it until you’ve found ways that work. And if and when you’ve done some of these things already… try some more.

The world must change, Friends. You know this. And the Spirit is crying out to us to change. So listen. Listen, and change, and live simply—so that others, and the future, may simply live.

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