I write to you with a light heart and in gratitude for the generosity that enabled me to attend the 2017 Friends General Conference held at Niagara University, New York. It was a week filled with quiet companionship, and old and new Friends. It was also a week filled with deep contemplation and renewal of Spirit.
I arrived at FGC early afternoon on First Day, July 2nd, after three days of travel. My chosen volunteer action was to help register Friends that evening from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. but when my partner heard that this was my first FGC she insisted that I attend the All Gathering Opening Worship. G. Peter Jemison of the Seneca Nation, the historical stewards of the Niagara Falls area, opened the worship with a Thanksgiving Address given in the native language of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, gatherings. These traditional words were used to open and close all gatherings of the Haudenosaunee to bring people together in thankfulness of all Mother Earth gives us. The Haudenosaunee is comprised of the six native tribes of the area: Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and (the last added tribe) Tuscarora. You can read and listen to a beautifully detailed English version of the Thanksgiving Address here> . Mr. Jemison went on to explain the different Native American clans and tribal hierarchy and ended his presentation with a brief history of tribal interactions with the United States Government. It was a moving and insightful presentation.
On Monday, I attended the first session of my chosen workshop, Zentangle. I wanted a workshop that would broaden my often single-minded adherence to clerical, practical tasks. Each day I spent a couple of hours exploring the “other side” of my brain, letting my mind be immersed in creativity while the outside world remained on the other side of the door. The practical aspect of Zentangle is that you can spend hours or simply a few minutes resting your mind and soul and refreshing your being for the tasks at hand. And all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper!
That afternoon I attended the Book Author Event where SEYM Friend Jerry Knutson (Orlando MM) spoke about his pamphlet, “Individual Spiritual Discernment,” Pendle Hill No. 443. I’d read the pamphlet when it arrived at St. Petersburg Meeting and appreciated learning about Jerry’s writing process and the insights he’d gained while publishing his work.
The plenary speaker Monday night was Kenneth Deer, an activist within the United Nations for over 30 years on Indigenous Peoples’ rights. He has a long history of partnership with the Canadian Friends Service Committee, working with them both domestically and internationally for the rights of Indigenous peoples. He gave a detailed account of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations that drafted the original text of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in the Working Group on the Draft Declaration, which elaborated and edited the Declaration prior to its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 2007. It is sad to note that when the Declaration was finally adopted by the Assembly, the U.S. and the U.K. were among a handful of nations to oppose it. In the Q&A session following his speech, he answered many questions about indigenous people across the globe living on every continent (except Antarctica) who are endangered by the governments under which they live. You can read more about the plight of indigenous peoples here>
Tuesday night was a “free” night, no plenary session, although there were plenty of activities and interest groups. I chose to attend Lynn and Steve Newsom’s presentation of “The Strength of the Spirit: Moral Injury” which gave an overview of this injury incurred by men and women who have seen combat and the challenges they face in getting treatment through the VA.
On Wednesday, I met with Peter Crockett, a Friend from St. Pete Meeting, who asked if I would assist the lead usher at the following plenary sessions. The space presented a number of problems in getting everyone seated in an orderly manner and helping late-comers to proper seating without disrupting the session in progress but we all worked together and created a plan that worked a bit better. That afternoon, I and four new F/friends put on our tourist hats (and ponchos) and boarded the Maid of the Mist to get a close-up look at Niagara Falls. Truly a wonderful experience, though all too brief.
Wednesday was a night of active participation and joyful expression as Vonn New and a team of volunteers created two labyrinths and invited all to “listen, play, sing, move, dance, make a joyful noise” and “lift up the creative spirit of Friends young and old”. Musicians came together to perform a “spontaneous composition that reminds us that beauty, joy, peace, and love are the true antidotes to our turbulent times”. The rest of us simply walked, danced, or skipped our way through the labyrinths with spirits free to express themselves. It was a joyous evening.
On Thursday, American Friends Service Committee hosted the evening program. Sa’ed Atshan and Sandra Tamari, Palestinian Quakers, and Dalit Baum, an Israeli Jew, gave powerful descriptions of living in Israeli-occupied Palestine and the difficulties faced each day by its residents. They spoke to us of what moved them to active resistance and how Spirit informs their actions and drew parallels between their resistance movement and those of other resistance movements throughout the world including the U.S. Their experiences are a clear example of why working for peace in the Middle East remains an important part of AFSC’s work. AFSC began its work there 1948 and remains active there today. You can learn more about their involvement here>
On Friday afternoon, I had a real treat when Davida Johns, another Friend from St. Pete Meeting, and I took advantage of the free Discover Niagara Shuttle to travel from Niagara Falls University to Niagara Falls (where we took time to explore the area in more detail), through Lewiston and on to Youngstown to Old Fort Niagara. It was great to spend time with one of my favorite Quakers while being chauffeured through some of the prettiest country in the U.S.
That night, Pamela Boyce Simms, a Leadership Coach who convenes the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub, a six-state network of environmental activists, gave a deeply spiritual presentation around Eco-Justice, Equality and Earthcare. Pamela Simms is a Buddhist-Quaker, a UN ECOSOC Representative of Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), clerk of New York Yearly Meeting’s Earthcare Working Group, a Henry J. Cadbury Fellow at the Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, and a contributing editor at the Grassroots Economic Organizing Editorial Collective. Her presentation centered how working with the pain of the world can be a vehicle for self- and community transformation and she held her audience spell-bound throughout her presentation.
Saturday was bittersweet as I packed up to return home. I ate breakfast with Davida, Peter, and Lynn Cope, said my farewells, and started my journey back home. I returned to Pennsylvania via a short detour through Canada, crossing the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, and re-entering the U.S. over the Peace Bridge at Buffalo, NY. In Pennsylvania, I was able to spend a couple of days with my cousins who took me to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Wow, what a trip down memory lane! Then on to North Carolina where I visited with my niece who took me hiking in Ulmstead Park – 5.2 miles of flatlander’s nightmare (but I made it!). Finally, I spent my last night on the road in Georgia with (more!) cousins.
I am profoundly grateful to St. Petersburg Monthly Meeting and SEYM and to two very generous private donors for this opportunity to attend the 2017 Friends General Conference. This letter only touches upon the highlights. There were many more events and happenstances, meetings and renewals of friendships that just can’t be recounted in any letter of reasonable length. Thank you so much.
In Peace and Light,
St. Petersburg Monthly Meeting[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]