All posts by eprovance

The 45-Yard Line

Let me start by saying that this would be a perfect American football analogy if I could use the number 50 instead of 45, but unfortunately, that’s just not how this works.

Though if we all wait another five years, it will be.

For now, imagine a football field with a 45-yard line right in the middle. (This football field is only 90 yards long in total. Go with me here.) Now, standing on the 45-yard line, you can go in one of two directions. If you go in one direction and get all the way to the end zone, you score points for one team. If you go in the other direction and get all the way to the end zone, you score points for the other team. In both cases, the objective is pretty much the same…dodge the obstacles, be agile, work as a team, get to the end zone. But to score points for one team, you’ve got to go one way, and to score points for the other team, you have to go in the opposite direction.

In the actual game of football, the two teams are competing. One group of people wants to score points for one side, and the other group of people wants to score points for the other side. Because it’s a competition, it’s a zero-sum game. One team scores points at the cost of the other.

In the past year, I’ve found myself in Quaker circles making lots of arguments about what I think of as the “over/under 45 strategy.” (Hence, the 45-yard line.) Essentially, my premise is that in modern society, we have a generation gap unlike any other in history. It’s not about these crazy kids and their music; it’s about a fundamental change in our way of thinking.

People who are 45 this year were born somewhere around the year 1972. This means that they were finishing high school in about the year 1990. While the Internet technically started in 1965 and first received its name in 1973, the early ‘90s were the time when the Internet went from a scientific laboratory thing to an actually-in-people’s-homes kind of thing—in other words, right when today’s 45-year-olds were either in college or starting their first full-time jobs. Both socially and neurologically, today’s 45-year-olds were moving into adulthood during the Internet’s first five to seven years. (The prefrontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until you’re nearly thirty.)

40-year-olds went to high school with the Internet; 35-year-olds, middle school; 30-year-olds do not remember a time without it. 25-year-olds don’t recall a world without smartphones. 20-year-olds were born after the invention of social media.

None of this is to say that people over 45 can’t be good at the Internet. Some people over 45 are extraordinarily proficient and spend a great deal of time online. But there is a difference between skills we learn as fully-formed adults and activities that influence the physical formation of our brains. There’s a reason why advertisers target teens and twenty-somethings; it’s because habits formed in those years tend to persist for a lifetime.

Scientists are still struggling to define the effects of Internet exposure during brain development. But there’s a fair amount of evidence that those under 45 process information in fundamentally different ways. For one thing, under-45s tend to sort information for relevance very quickly; this is the result of a lot of scanning, such as scrolling rapidly through a social media feed. Under-45s generally require more visual stimulation and struggle to learn from large bodies of text. They are less likely to develop a long and trusting relationship with a particular source of information, partly because Google searches and social media feeds link to websites and periodicals but don’t emphasize origin; it’s easy to read an article and never notice, much less recall, whether it came from the Washington Post or Huffington Post, from Buzzfeed or somebody’s blog. And there’s a tendency toward instant gratification. Under-45s expect to find the answers to questions within seconds.

I don’t find it terribly useful to focus on whether this is all good or bad. It simply is. And it is in abundance; some studies have discovered that exposure to the Internet causes neurological responses similar to heroin use. It isn’t going away.

So what does this boil down to?

Over 45 Under 45 Comparison

Let’s go back to our football game.

There you are on the 45-yard line. If you want to score a point for the under-45s, you’ve got to run one way—social media, photos, videos, impact storytelling, quick access to knowledge. If you want to score a point for the over-45s, you’ve got to run the other way—paper, phone calls, long pieces of text, institutional loyalty, building knowledge over time.

But are we happy with the idea of this being a zero-sum game? What happens if we want both sides to get points? I’d say that we have to decide this isn’t a competition, and we have to learn how to run both ways simultaneously. We might need two footballs. We might need more players. But for sure, we have to commit to cooperation.

When I talk about an over/under 45 strategy, I’m usually talking about either communications, fundraising, and outreach. The same principles might apply in religious education or pastoral care, but not to the same degree of intensity. An over/under 45 strategy is, at its heart, a bifurcated strategy. It’s doing quite different things, with the same ultimate intent, in order to reach both age ranges.

Let’s look first at communications. In Quaker circles, communications happen locally and at large-scale institutional levels. An over-45 communications strategy would mostly involve printed newsletters, with the same newsletters in the same format often emailed or posted on a website. Articles might be lengthy. Font, format, and illustrations would be less important, as long as the text was legible. Announcements would appear in list form. Content would emphasize the activities of the institution because the readership is likely to be interested in the institution, even if they themselves aren’t participating in the work.

An under-45 communications strategy, in contrast, would mostly involve social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, possibly Tumblr or Pinterest). Articles would be short and would contain mostly content directly relevant to the reader—or, if the content were not directly relevant, it would be single-story narratives with an emphasis on personal impact. Announcements would come out through messenger apps or text messages, with a strong element of user control about which announcements to receive and which not. Photos and videos would be used frequently.

An over/under 45 strategy is tricky because you can’t take the same content and post it on multiple platforms. Most of us know instinctively that you couldn’t take a bunch of Facebook posts, print them out, and call them a newsletter. But similarly, you can’t take a newsletter produced for print or email and simply paste a link on social media. An under-45 generally will not click on a link labeled “newsletter” because there’s nothing in that to indicate personal relevance. But the same under-45 might follow a link to a single article with a strong title and a vibrant illustration. The under-45 is also looking for additional links. If one article references another, there should be a built-in hyperlink to the second article. That serves the under-45’s expectation of instant information.

Fundraising, too, requires a bifurcated strategy. Over-45s have been trained, over their lifetimes, to establish and maintain long-term relationships with institutions. I trust this institution; therefore, I give money. Direct mail campaigns are effective, as are annual funds. Fundraising efforts might include long pieces of text written abstractly about the organization’s mission and intent. Over-45s are okay with writing checks, and they’re prepared to stamp their donation envelopes.

In contrast, under-45s have been trained, through Internet exposure and through a changing job market, not to establish or maintain long-term institutional relationships. Under-45s habitually hop from one institution to another according to which one best matches their current needs and interests. Capturing this audience requires impact storytelling, published on social media, with as many photos and videos as possible. “We are providing education to 200 children” is interesting, but it isn’t enough. A two-minute video of the school, in which a story is told about the direct impact the education has on the life of a child, is much more compelling. So, too, is immediacy. The under-45 thinks, I know where my donation is going and see it having immediate impact; therefore, I give money. A specific fundraising goal is important, and it helps to have an Internet-based indicator: can I see the exact percentage of the goal that’s been raised? Can I see a list of which of my friends have already donated? Under-45s often don’t write checks. Many of them don’t even have checks. They expect to donate instantly by credit card—on their smartphones.

By now, the difference in outreach strategies should be pretty evident. Over-45s might see a newspaper ad or hear a radio commercial and investigate. They might decide to visit your Quaker meeting even with very little information ahead of time—because they grew up learning things slowly, from books and encyclopedias. If your website has a collection of long articles about Quakerism, over-45s might actually read them. They also might take home and read lengthy pamphlets at the end of a first visit.

Under-45s will find you if you’re present on social media—or, at the very least, if you have a sufficiently strong website and pop up pretty high in local Google searches. They’ll want to see lots of photos of the people in the meeting, not a single thirty-year-old drawing of your historic building. They’re likely to click on a video titled “What is Quakerism?” or something along those lines, and if there isn’t a video, they want a FAQ page with clear answers to specific questions, so they can scan through and read what’s relevant to them instead of trying to process lengthy articles. Some under-45s will read in depth, eventually, but only if you provide easily scan-able information first.

It’s hard work to develop and enact over/under 45 strategies—in fact, it’s basically twice as much work. And people on both sides of the 45-yard line tend to find the other side mystifying, not to mention irritating—why don’t they just put out a little more effort? We wouldn’t need two strategies if that other age group would just learn to be flexible!

But it’s beyond flexibility. We are wired differently. Our brains work differently. If we want to reach both groups, we must learn to cooperate and to move in both directions simultaneously. Because we can’t abandon our over-45s, those who have been—and often still are—the lifeblood of our communities. But we also can’t ignore the under-45s, who will soon be the under-50s, and then the under-55s, and so on…at least, we can’t ignore them if we hope to have a future.

‘Tis a Gift

A couple of Friends recently asked whether I could provide monthly updates on where I’m going and where I’ve been. The answer is yes, I can—and this is the first of those.

 

Where I’ve Been (July)

On the first day of July, I found myself in Toledo, Ohio, preparing for the Friends General Conference gathering. I spent my week facilitating a workshop called Building a Culture of Multiage Inclusion. I had seven vital and remarkable participants.

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We covered a number of topics, and often in a very lively way—but one of my favorite moments was when we got quiet and I asked the parents in the room, “What would you want other Friends to know about how to nurture you?” Below is their response. I’d love to bring this workshop to other places; feel free to reach out to me.

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July 1st was also my first day being an associate with Good News Associates, an organization to support non-institutional ministry. Through this group, I can receive donations for the first time, and I also have a cohort of other Friends engaged in non-institutional ministry. It’s really quite something to find that kind of home.

The second week of July brought two videoconferences with Friends involved in the Friends World Committee for Consultation traveling ministry corps. The first was a gathering of just the Friends from North America, and the second included Friends from all parts of the Americas. A very hard-working translator made sure that we all understood one another. The second call was an opportunity for the members of the traveling ministry corps from both language groups to engage in deep sharing of our experiences with travel in the ministry. It can be hard to maintain a sense of family and togetherness across continents and language barriers, but in the end, our connection goes beyond these things.

(And Skype helps, too.)

A handful of Friends gathered for a little swimming-and-picnicking day that week, as well, which was a rare opportunity to be together in a way that was strictly “off the clock.” You could also call it a Sabbath.  I ate some chives.

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The following week brought several meetings, including one for the advancement committee of the North American board of Friends United Meeting. This is a new field for me, and many of you know how I excited I get about new fields! I’ve raided the New York Public Library and am happily settling down with a collection of charts and spreadsheets. I’m passionate about this work because I’ve seen, first hand, the effects of FUM’s ministries. You can’t quite look at a budget the same way after you’ve had the experience of meeting a little girl in Kenya whose education relies on those numbers. Hidden in those rows and columns are a new car for a medical center and a periodical for aging Friends and peace work in troubled communities and extra pencils for child shepherds.

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Then came New York Yearly Meeting sessions, and what a week it was. My favorite moment was the announcement of a new preparative meeting in New York Yearly Meeting. “Christ is the Answer Friends Church” is a Swahili-speaking congregation of Congolese refugees outside Buffalo. Translation for Faith and Practice, anybody?

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Where I’m Going (August)

For today and the next two days, I’m spending quality time with my computer, catching up with—and getting ahead on—emails and so forth. This includes work on Holy Experiments and Quaker Open Book and ongoing research in several areas.

Next week I’ll head for New England Yearly Meeting annual sessions, where I’ll be a facilitator for a worship sharing group and where I’ll just generally have the opportunity to meet with Friends and to worship with them. There’s a healthy, ongoing relationship between New York and New England Yearly Meetings, with many Friends who travel back and forth. Both feel like home to me.

After that, the plan is to come home and do some writing, along with preparing for Digital Outreach (a project for Facebook training and social media outreach through Friends General Conference) and the upcoming trip to Ramallah Friends School.

Math

Yes, I’m about to talk about math. Real math. In my experience, a lot of folks back away when I bring this up, and I’m asking you not to, because that of God in everyone is getting lost in mathematical algorithms.

Seriously. Algorithms are affecting every part of our lives, and they’re perpetuating racist patterns while being sold as—and legally treated as—completely neutral. Quakers appear at statehouses, women’s marches, climate justice demonstrations, Black Lives Matter assemblies, and pride parades. We feel led to write minutes and send letters and pass around petitions. And I strongly suspect that, if we were open to it, we might also be called to witness in mathematics departments in universities.

Because I am not a mathematician, the concepts I’ll summarize below are not mine. For more information, solid scientific evidence, and a lot more detail, check out Propublica’s series called Machine Bias: Investigating Algorithmic Injustice or Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

And now, without further ado:

 

What Is An Algorithm?

An algorithm, for the purposes of this discussion, is a complicated math equation that can make assessments about the present—or predictions about the future—based on information gathered from the past.

An extremely simple mathematical algorithm might be used to predict the likely mean temperature in Anchorage, Alaska in December of 2020 based on the mean temperatures in Anchorage, Alaska in December in each of the last hundred years. A slightly more complex mathematical algorithm might take into account not just the temperatures themselves but the general trends in temperature changes in Anchorage in the last hundred years—is it getting generally warmer? cooler? or are temperatures oscillating?—and come to a more precise prediction based on that information. A very complex mathematical algorithm might take into account weather patterns throughout the entire world and the effects of climate change and come to an even more precise prediction.

A different example of an algorithm might be one used for university admissions. A set of data—such as SAT scores, GPA, and possibly a few other factors—is fed into an algorithm, which is a complex math equation, and the equation offers a prediction of the likelihood that the given student will succeed in that university.

The algorithm is the equation itself. Many algorithms are insanely complex. Especially when we’re talking about algorithms used by computers, it’s likely that you wouldn’t recognize one as math and wouldn’t have any idea what it was if you saw it.

 

How Are Algorithms Written?

As I understand it, even a mathematician or a computer programmer would be unlikely to be able to sit down and write even a moderately complex algorithm. Instead, humans write a piece of coding for a computer that teaches the computer how to write algorithms. Then, the computer is fed massive amounts of data until it has gathered for itself enough information to figure out how to make assessments of the present, or predictions about the future, based on data from the past.

This is much easier to understand with examples.

Suppose that you wanted a computer to recognize bone tumors in x-rays. You would do this by first feeding the computer thousands upon thousands of images containing bone tumors. You would show the computer where the tumors were. Over time, the computer would learn what particular types of x-ray shadows might indicate the presence of tumors, and it would write—for itself—an algorithm to recognize tumors. Eventually, you could give the computer any x-ray, and the computer could assess with reasonable accuracy whether a tumor were present.

(If you’re wondering about the accuracy rate, yes, computers are pretty accurate with this type of task. The highest level of accuracy, though, is a computer working in partnership with a human medical expert; the two working together detect tumors with more accuracy than either the computer alone or the human expert alone.)

Here’s another: suppose you were holding parole hearings, and you wanted to know the likelihood that a particular individual would reoffend if released. You would do this by first feeding the computer thousands upon thousands of records of people who had been arrested, imprisoned, and released on parole. Over time, the computer would learn various indicators that affected the likelihood that a person would be arrested again after parole. Eventually, you could give the computer any record of any person up for parole, and the computer could predict the likelihood that the person would reoffend if released.

Except. No. It can’t.

 

Where’s the Racism Part?

In the bone tumors example, the computer is only able to find new bone tumors because it has been taught accurately about past bone tumors. Computers are very intelligent in some ways, but if you fed the computer thousands upon thousands of pictures of kitty-cats and identified them as bone tumors, the computer would then, in the future, identify all kitty-cats as bone tumors and probably wouldn’t know an actual bone tumor from a turnip truck.

And in the parole example, we’re identifying kitty-cats as bone tumors. For one thing, the computer actually has no idea—even when reading past data—which individuals reoffended and which ones didn’t. What it knows is which individuals were arrested again and which ones weren’t. And we know from any number of studies that people of color are more likely than white people to be arrested, even if the two are engaged in identical behaviors.

But the computer doesn’t understand this. The computer also doesn’t care. Its job is to create an algorithm that can predict the chances of re-arrest, and it does this task amorally. It will use any data we give it, including level of education, zip code, and economic status, all of which are heavily influenced by race. Then it spits out a score. That score—just a number—is all the judge sees come out of the algorithm. The judge doesn’t know why the score was given. Even the computer itself doesn’t know why the score was given. There’s no explanation attached.

Famously, one computer—experimenting with correlations, but not actually building algorithms at the time—discovered that the level of margarine consumption in the United States is an excellent predictor of the divorce rate in Maine. When the United States eats more margarine, more people in Maine get divorced. When the United States eats less margarine, fewer people in Maine get divorced. No rational person claims that this is a direct causal relationship, but a computer wouldn’t hesitate to do so. Artificial intelligence doesn’t know what’s absurd.

So here’s the situation we’re in: a computer crunches a person’s data through a computer-generated algorithm and makes a prediction based on zip code or education or who-even-knows-what, and in many states, judges are using these scores to grant—or deny—parole.

Oh—and why are people of color more likely to be arrested than white people, even if they’re engaged in identical behaviors? One reason is because neighborhoods containing a higher percentage of people of color are more heavily policed. And why are these neighborhoods more heavily policed? Because police distribution is frequently determined by algorithm. The math itself is perpetuating a racist cycle.

 

Why Aren’t These Algorithms Being Checked by People?

In theory, there are two ways that a person could check an algorithm, although the first way—the way most of us might think would be obvious—is actually impossible. You can’t just print out a computer-generated algorithm, look at it, and detect racism. Most of the time, a human being can’t even print out a computer-generated algorithm, look at it, and determine what it’s designed to do. It’s way too complicated. When computers are generating their own algorithms, they don’t bother generating them in such a way that people can read them. Why would they? Computers generate algorithms for their own use.

The only other way to check an algorithm is to test it, to check its predictions against reality and, if you like, for racial neutrality. And here’s where things get really interesting.

In the case of one algorithm that’s used in actual parole cases, the algorithm was checked—and adjusted—for racial neutrality. When it is accurate, it is race-neutral. That is, it predicts recidivism accurately at the same rate for white people and for people of color.

But when it is inaccurate, it is not race-neutral. It is significantly more likely to predict that a person of color would be arrested again when they actually would not, and it is significantly more likely to predict that a white person would not be arrested again when they actually would.

The algorithm can’t be adjusted to be race-neutral both in its accuracies and in its inaccuracies at the same time because the data it’s working from is racist data, gathered from a racist society.

 

Are There Laws About This?

So far, not really. There’s an argument to be made (and I’ve heard lawyers make it) that there would be legal accountability for mathematical algorithms if anybody ever challenged one in court, but to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet. And no, there’s no legal accountability written into law right now for what comes out of a mathematical algorithm. And this is a problem, not just because many algorithms are perpetuating inequality but also because they are sold as neutral. Algorithms are sold as the solution to racism and other forms of bias. If we just take the human influence out of things, we will have solved these problems, right? How could math do anything but make a neutral, just, and rational recommendation?

But of course, this goes back to the fact that if the data’s not neutral, just, and rational, the algorithm’s not neutral, just, and rational, and neither is anything that comes out of it. And so far, nobody’s legally accountable. Not the computer programmers, not the companies that own the intellectual property and sell the use of the algorithms, and not the companies or the people that put the algorithms into practice. And certainly not the computers themselves.

 

What’s the State of the Ethics Conversation?

If anyone’s reading this who knows more about it than I do, I’d welcome updates and additional information here. But as far as I can tell, the ethics conversation hasn’t gotten very far.

There are some computer programmers and mathematicians who are talking about this. There are some people who are raising the alarm. But there aren’t very many of them.

I also question the quality of the overall ethics conversation. About a year ago, I attended an event at Columbia University. A statistics professor—extremely highly regarded in his field—was giving a speech about the ethical use of statistics. It lasted ninety minutes. For the first half-hour, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. The man was charming. But in the last hour, I realized that he wasn’t saying anything. Here was a person considered to be an ultimate authority in his field, giving a lecture about ethics to his students—theoretically, soon to be the next generation of authorities in the field—and he wasn’t prepared to say whether anything was or wasn’t ethical. He danced around a number of issues, feinted at commenting, made genuinely funny jokes, and then backed away without committing himself or challenging anybody.

Even if the ethics conversation in university math departments were robust, there’s an additional problem because the work done by programmers and statisticians and mathematicians often doesn’t belong to them. Many times, it’s a corporation that owns the intellectual property rights, which means that ultimately, the decisions about the use of such algorithms are made by managers, CFOs, and CEOs who may not even understand the ethical subtleties (and, of course, also might not care).

By the time the algorithm gets to an end user, it’s several steps removed from the human beings that originally worked with the computer that generated it, and whatever warnings or provisos those programmers originally made might very well never make it to the customer.

And then, of course, there’s the lawmakers, who’ve done little if anything about algorithms so far, though New York City is trying. I can imagine a number of reasons for this, starting with the fact that the lawmakers themselves may not know or understand the ways in which math is functioning. Even if they did, it’s hard to explain to a constituency, especially in a sound bite, why you’re focusing on computer programming “rather than” social justice, even if the truth is that computer programming is at the heart of what threatens social justice. And finally, there’s the matter of speed. How do you write laws to govern algorithms when artificial intelligence is developing so quickly that new technology goes from state-of-the-art to archaic in the span of a year or two?

 

Exactly How Widespread Are Algorithms?

Artificial intelligence-generated algorithms are affecting every part of your life: the ads you see online and physically in your neighborhood, the prices you pay (online and in stores), where you see police and where you don’t, your likelihood of being arrested, the jobs you get, the wages you’re offered, whether you receive loans, the types of insurance you’re eligible for, the rates you pay for insurance, which universities accept or reject you, the search results that pop up when you Google something, and what you see (and don’t see) on social media.

If you are poor or if you are a person of color, you often pay higher prices for the same goods or services even while you receive fewer jobs and less pay for the jobs you do get. You’re also more likely to be targeted by police and by a variety of predatory schemes to take your money. All of these trends are reinforced by algorithms that are being sold as “neutral.”

And no matter who you are or what your political views might be, search engines and social media are using algorithms to make sure that you only see information that reinforces your preexisting perspective.

 

What Can We Do?

For one thing, we can stop being afraid of math. Or if we can’t stop being afraid, we can act in spite of being afraid. We can educate ourselves. Start with Propublica’s Machine Bias: Investigating Algorithmic Injustice and Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Both are easily accessible; you don’t have to be confident with math to understand them.

Beyond self-educating, we can pray, and we can act. If there is a field of social justice that’s being overlooked and needs a spotlight, this is it. I don’t know what activism looks like in this field. Nobody does. But we can discern, be led, try things, fail, and try again…

What I do know is that the answer isn’t “stop using technology.” For one thing, it’s too late.  Artificial intelligence is here to stay, and our choice as Friends is only whether or not to be involved with it conscientiously.  (We don’t even really have the choice of whether to be involved in it, since the algorithms produced by AI are, as explained above, deeply ingrained in every part of our lives.)

Even if we could opt out, I don’t believe we ought to.  When it comes to technology, I feel led to minister and witness, not to withdraw:

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Harvard Business Review
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Truth in Recruitment

Are we, as Friends, prepared to deal with this complexity?  Are we willing to be?  How do we respond?

Grieving Abby Scuito

This post is a considerable departure from my usual, but it’s something I’ve been chewing on for months and seems worth talking about.

In 2003, a TV show called NCIS came on the scene. NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It’s a shoot-‘em-up action crime show with heart, still in production after fifteen years, in my opinion because of the investigative-team-as-family theme at the center. Gruff ex-Marine Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is surrounded by a crew of coworkers, most of whom are at least a generation younger than he, nearly all of whom have serious trauma in their pasts, and between the moments of plot, Gibbs nurtures his little Gibblets (as fans refer to them) much like a tough-love dad.2c6b7d18524f70b7f139f3caa0b126bf

 

One of the show’s most popular characters is Abigail Scuito, generally known as Abby (Pauley Perrette). When the show premiered, the actress was about thirty-four, though the age of the character was never stated. Abby is a forensic scientist with all but superhuman abilities, beyond brilliant, though it helps that she’s working with technology that seems to be flavored with a soupçon of sci-fi. She’s also deeply religious and exuberantly loving and passionate about hard rock and tattooed and pigtailed.

AbigailSciutoAbby Scuito is so compelling that some researchers credit the character with an upswing in young women entering the sciences. They call it “the Abby effect.”

I really love Abby.

At the end of season fifteen, Pauley Perrette left NCIS. There are some pretty sad rumors around the question of why. I don’t want to repeat the rumors because the truth is that we just don’t know. Someday we might.

In the meantime, I am grieving Abby. (No, the character didn’t die, but it’s clear she’s not coming back, which amounts to the same thing.) And as I’ve mused about this character—warm, sassy, faithful, smart—did I mention smart?—I’ve realized something. It’s not really Abby that made Abby so special. It’s the people around her.

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Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take anything away from this character. She’s unique on TV and fascinating to watch. But sometimes people talk about her and say things like “the world needs more Abbys,” and I think the truth is, the world has a pretty fair number of Abbys. Our problem is that most Abbys get squished.

When Abby dresses authentically, her coworkers appreciate her individuality, while many women in the wabigail-e2809cabbye2809d-sciuto.jpgorld have to dress according to someone else’s code in order to be taken seriously.

When Abby teases her coworkers, they tease her back, then get down to business and listen to what she has to contribute, while many women in the world learn to play things straight because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously.

When Abby expresses her fears or shares about her personal life, her cow10a735d0c644c3a82621e7e58ce86dab.jpg.pngorkers respect her honesty and respond in kind, while many women in the world don’t dare show vulnerability because this will be interpreted as weakness.

When Abby excels, her bosses recognize that and offer raises and promotions, while many women are consistently passed over because raises and promotions are more closely tied to golf course relationships than professional capability.

When Abby is smarter than her coworkers, they admire her and act on her contributions, while many women experience jealousy and doubt from the people they work with.

This is why I’m grieving Abby. It’s because I’m mourning the example of a workplace that embraces her: a workplace where an intelligent and highly competent young woman is automatically taken seriously and regarded with respect, where contributions are fa5ad7e5f65a897d4a8adaac83c5b8b5--pauley-perrette-story-ideas.jpgevaluated on their inherent value, where ideas are not ignored until a man repeats them, where it’s possible to be emotional and still viewed as rational because everyone understands that these two states aren’t mutually exclusive.

The very existence of Abby, in the highly respected professional position that she held, was frankly a fantasy.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s what I take from knowing Abby:

Do I want to be like her?  Yes, absolutely.  I find Abby inspiring.  I hope to be as smart, as hard-working, as kind, as authentic, as joyful, and as loving as she.

But more importantly, I want to be like Jenny Shepard and Leon Vance and Jethro Gibbs and Ducky Mallard and Tony/Ziva/Cait/Tim/Jimmy.  I want to recognize and value all of those who cross my path for their authentic contributions to the community.  And given the world we live in, that means working really hard to see and put aside my own prejudices and–sometimes–to point to people who are being overlooked and, when necessary, amplify their voices.

I’ll miss you, Abby.

Inaction, Interrupted

I had not, as it were, dictated the words, I had simply followed them where they wanted to lead.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

I like the footstools in this meetinghouse. It’s not my first time worshipping here. It’s a comfortable place to visit mid-week. Not far from the train station, small group but reliably present, with footstools for short people—this is something I appreciate.

Also, the windows are pretty. And the benches. Very old benches. There’s a piano in the corner and a sign on the piano about how Quakers didn’t traditionally use pianos. There are Bibles and hymnals on the benches to flip through if that feels appropriate.

I wonder if I might be called to speak. There’s a bit of internal tugging, but I find I’m not sure what the message is. Also, there’s rarely spoken ministry at this meeting. Since I don’t have words, clearly I’m not—

I’m speaking. Without intent or processing of any kind, I’ve stood and kicked my little footstool upside down and opened my mouth and I’m halfway through a sentence before I’m conscious. I seem to be talking about releasing one’s material possessions. Fascinating. I’m making sense—that’s good, at least I’m not babbling—but I certainly have no idea where this is going. A moment later, I appear to be finished. I sit.

I’m feeling glad that I didn’t knock over any other furniture.

Or fall down.

That was interesting . . .

 

 

This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

 If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.

Meet Friend

 

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This is Friend.

Friend came into being a little more than a year ago at a “creativity and spirituality” weekend at Powell House. The whole community worked together to design her, cut her out, stuff her body with cotton, tie on her hair, and make her clothes. We also gave her a travel minute when it became clear that she felt called to travel in the ministry.

This is what her travel minute says:

Dear Friends, This is Friend. She likes to hear all different kinds of music, likes opera, and loves to dance. She also likes hearing stories and is very creative and artistic. She doesn’t like getting dirty. Her gifts are giving hugs and being an exelent listener. She travels in the ministry because she wants to build friendships with all kinds of Quakers. 

Maddie S, Linnea K-C, Emily P, Mary B, Naomi P-G, Jillian S, Anne P, Bridget B, Ruth R, Cathy R, Maeve

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Friend has spent a little over a year now preparing to travel in the ministry. She made one trial journey with me last spring to Matinecock meeting on Long Island. That visit was super fun for Friend, and ever since, every time I’m leaving town, she tries to climb into my backpack, but she NEVER FITS.

She’s finding this very frustrating.

So a few days ago, Friend and I had a little chat about the post office. I explained that although she is perhaps a little too short to travel by bus or train unaccompanied, she might be able to travel by box, if she doesn’t mind being shaken up and turned upside down and so forth. She considered this very carefully and consented that she might be willing to try it, as long as I pack her a few crackers in case she gets hungry on the way.

Anyway, Friend is now looking for Quakers to visit! Later on, she thinks she might have particular destinations in mind, but for the first few trips, she’s up for anything—evangelical, pastoral, conservative unprogrammed, liberal unprogrammed, urban, rural, domestic, international, little meetings, big gatherings—whatever, as long as there’s a group of Friends waiting to greet her.

Is anyone willing to be Friend’s first host? All you have to do is take her along to whatever worship or other activities are already happening among Quakers where you are. Write a letter in response to her travel minute telling about what you did together, and if possible, take some pictures and post them online for everyone to see – #travelingFriend. Then, after a week or two, pack her up again (with a handful of crackers) and send her home.

Contact me if this sounds like something you’d like to do!

On Worship

Discoveries don’t come when you’re consciously looking for them. They come when for some reason you’ve let go conscious control. They come in a sudden flash, and you can receive that flash, or you can refuse to. But if you’re willing to receive it, then for that instantaneous moment of time you’re really you, but you’re not conscious in the same way you have to be later on when you look at what you saw in the flash, and then have to work out the equations to prove it.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

2009

In my first Quaker worship, I’m not evaluating the experience for itself as much as for what it can tell me about Quakers. The whole first hour, nobody talks and that annoys me because I don’t know anything more than I did before I came. I come again the next week and somebody says “there is that of God in everyone,” and I’m sold—I’ve found my spiritual home—but I’m not so sure about this worship thing. An hour’s a very long time for silence. I sit where I can see the clock, and I check it often.

2010

A friend of mine comes to worship with me. Afterwards she says that she liked the meditation, the group mediation, “because that’s basically what it is.” I feel like something’s wrong with that statement, but I can’t articulate it, so I let it go.

2011

I stand up in worship and say a thing. Afterward I’m pretty sure I did it wrong. There’s supposed to be huge feeling around speaking in worship, like you’re compelled to do so, right? I don’t think that’s what I experienced. I don’t have anybody to ask.

2012

More and more often, I stand up and say things, and over time I start to recognize what’s meant by “ministry.” I recognize it on a visceral level, when I’m speaking it and when I’m hearing it. By listening to others at yearly meeting I learn about things like “opening to Spirit” and “channeling energy,” which sounds like a lot of hooey at first but the people talking are people I respect so I take it seriously even when I don’t understand it. There’s a kind of openness that I can feel in my chest and throat, a manifestation in my body of a spiritual truth. I absolutely do not talk about this.

2013

At a yearly meeting function, at lunchtime over a buffet, somebody tells me I’m a prophet and I choke on my root beer. Nobody’s ever defined that word for me in the Quaker sense. This woman says this rather casually and then walks away while eating egg salad. Did she just compare me to Moses and Jeremiah? Because that’s just—I’m not—that doesn’t seem like a thing you say over a buffet.

2014

I’m studying neuroscience for no particular reason and come across a book about alpha waves. I learn that alpha waves are associated with creativity and sudden insight and that they’re induced by profound relaxation—the kind of state brought on by stillness, silence, maybe deep breathing. The more I read, the more I see how Quaker worship stimulates alpha waves. I feel like the neuroscience doesn’t explain away the spiritual experience but deepens my appreciation of it. Why shouldn’t God work with our physiology?

2015

Sometimes worship is boring. I kind of want the mountaintop experience every time, but it’s a discipline. Generally speaking, the less I want to be in worship, the more likely it is that I need to be. On one occasion, I have an experience in worship that manifests as a vision. I see something. It’s not a pleasant something. I post-game the experience with a couple of elders. They help me process. It’s kind of a big deal for me.

2016

The experience of deep, settled worship is the same wherever I am. Sitting with Friends with the intention of listening for God . . . even Friends from other traditions, the ones who sing and pray instead of sitting quietly. We share the intention of listening for God. We share this experience. It’s amazing to me.

2017

At least every week, and often, every day, quiet time—listening to God—and it can be boring or comforting or scary. Or joyful or funny or annoying or challenging. Or healing or exhausting or sad or surprising. And then I get up and write letters and answer emails and tie children’s shoes and ride the subway and, of course, the thing is, you can listen to God then, too.

2018

The Methodist Church a block from home has midweek worship every Wednesday. It’s small and informal and nourishing, so I go when I’m in town. The pastor says, “I’m grateful for the settled spirit you bring. It’s like you just bring in this groundedness, this peace that you carry with you. I guess that must come from being a contemplative for so long.” And I wonder when—how—I became a contemplative, me, who likes spreadsheets and half the time can’t sit still.

 

 

 

This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.

Joyful Wednesday

A good laugh heals a lot of hurts.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

It starts with six Friends in a circle on the floor. We’ve come together because our community’s in pain. The meeting is stuck in a decades-old conflict, with all kinds of old hurt and trauma, and everything is serious and everything is work and everything is eggshells all the time. We know we can’t fix the very real problems, and the last thing we should do is whisper behind closed doors. So we take everything that’s wrong and put it to one side and ask the question: how can we inject some joy and playfulness into this meeting?

From there comes Joyful Wednesdays. Everyone’s invited, but most of the meeting says, “I’m there for worship and committee meetings and business meetings and I’m not coming in an extra evening for fun.” And that’s okay; the group that comes is simply the group that comes.

We alternate. One Wednesday, singing and worship sharing—the next Wednesday, games and discussion. Then back again.

Hymn singing’s completely new to some of us. We discover that “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” is the perfect theme song, not because it’s on topic (although it is) but because it’s Beethoven and everybody’s heard it before. We also love “Jubilate” and “I’ve Got the Joy Down in My Heart,” especially the part with “the wonderful love of my blessed Redeemer,” which is more Christocentric than most are on board with but comes so fast in the music that it’s lost in laughter anyway. A bunch of stodgy Quakers, dissolving into giggles…

For worship sharing, we use Britain Yearly Meeting’s little red book of queries and delight in asking newcomers to the group to “pick a number between one and forty-two.” This choose-a-random-query thing is delightful. Sometimes we accidentally choose one that’s boring. But that’s okay. We don’t have any rules against do-overs.

Games are fun. We invent Quaker Pictionary and Quaker Charades and eventually Quaker Hangman. (We justify it as Quaker Hangman because, instead of hanging the man, we’re rescuing him, erasing his little body one part at a time.) Gary uses either “Jesus wept” or “Margaret Fell” every time it’s his turn.

The discussions are the best. We choose topics based on what people want to talk about. We start with death. It’s the best conversation about death I’ve ever had, maybe because we’re all giddy, because here we are, discussing this thing we’re usually silent about. We decide at the outset to just say things and not worry so much about whether we’re right or not. Other nights, we talk about addiction, sex, happiness, lying, power, marriage, family, and books. One night, we talk about life.

I learn that Hayden is an occasional smoker. Austin has crazy political theories. Robert hates that worship happens on Sunday mornings—he’d prefer afternoons—and Lucas loves chicken nuggets but feels morally conflicted about eating them. One night, quite by accident, we discover that every person in the room is afraid of the police. On another night, we share mystical experiences, we realize we’ve all had them, and yet, we’ve all hesitated to tell the stories for fear that we might be ridiculed.

Ava, who is new to Friends, starts to cry one night and can’t explain why. Lyle brings in a soft lamp because he’s bothered by institutional lighting. Renee comes only once and is annoyed to find us on the floor in a classroom and not in the meetinghouse; she didn’t expect the informality of some people in chairs, some people on the floor, and for her, Sunday morning worship is better, and that’s fine. Jonah lectures too much—but he’s learning to listen.

Oddly, we don’t call it “Joyful Wednesday” right away. It doesn’t have any name, really, in the beginning. When we settle on Joyful Wednesday—it sounds right to all of us after about six weeks—we start writing it down on the space request forms, and so JOYFUL WEDNESDAY is what’s written on the bulletin board and in the meeting’s newsletter. Every Wednesday for a year, I write JOYFUL WEDNESDAY in my planner.

It doesn’t last forever. The group begins to dwindle. Occasionally, no one shows up but me. I can hold the space for awhile, but I’m not going to push. I put out a message: “Is anyone else willing and able to host?” They’re not. So about fourteen months after acquiring its name, Joyful Wednesday dies.

This is not sad. We’ve proven something; we can gather together intending joy. We can make a space for vulnerability. We can set an intention and write it in our calendars. Singing and laughing and playing and talking can be part of this community, and that’s what we needed to know.

 

 

 

This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.

 

Three People I’ll Never Meet Again

If I’m confused, or upset, or angry, if I can go out and look at the stars I’ll almost always get back a sense of proportion. It’s not that they make me feel insignificant, it’s the very opposite, they make me feel that everything matters, be it ever so small, and that there’s meaning to life even when it seems most meaningless.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

“Travel in the ministry” covers the gamut, from the sublime to the ridiculous and often both. Sometimes you think you’re doing ministry and discover you’re receiving it, like the time a man in North Carolina pulled me aside to teach me about angels and to caution me—“don’t become the courtroom prophet.” Sometimes you think you’re just enjoying a cup of tea, and suddenly the woman next to you is talking about her daughter, who was nearly kidnapped yesterday. And sometimes you’re deep in the thick of things and the building closes and you wind up finishing the work in a parking lot.

I have trouble drawing a line between “ministry” and “not-ministry.” I’m not prepared to say that everything is ministry, because brushing my teeth, for example, most definitely is not, and also saying that everything is ministry seems to me to devalue actual ministry. But it certainly happens at unexpected times and not always in ways that we could have anticipated.

Here are three stories of moments that taught me—“everything matters, no matter how small.”

 

ONE

In Cairo after an overnight flight, I have a seven-hour layover. A video announces that those with a layover lasting more than four hours should report to the such-and-such desk, and so I do report to the such-and-such desk, where I’m informed I’ll be given a free stay in a hotel and a hot meal if I sit and wait for forty-five minutes. This does not appear to be a scam—the men behind the desk are in official airline uniform—but only I and one other passenger appear to qualify, and once we’ve waited our forty-five minutes, the employee who comes to escort us asks for our passports and starts to walk away without explanation.

I call him back over and ask him what’s happening. He offers a half-answer, and I follow up. Then I follow up again. He’s clearly annoyed, but I have no intention of being lost and stranded in Cairo, particularly without my passport. When I’m finally satisfied that I understand what’s happening, I follow him (as does my fellow passenger) through the airport and a bizarre series of queues; I’m asking questions all the while. “Which hotel? Will the shuttle bus bring us back? What time? Where do we check in for the next flight?” I have a feeling he’s going to repeat this story down the line, and I’ll be the “pesky American woman,” though I’m not at all sure he’ll use the word pesky.

Not until we board the shuttle bus do I get to know my traveling companion. He introduces himself as Samuel. He’s a Ugandan man who grew up in Rwanda who now works in Haiti while his family lives in Kenya. That’s where he’s going now—to spend a few weeks with his family. He speaks eight languages. He says, “Thank you for asking the questions you did. That man, he did not like you asking questions. But I also wanted to know the answers. And I did not dare ask. Perhaps we will find the returning shuttle bus together?”

 

TWO

I’m approached on a subway platform by a woman my age leading an old woman. The younger woman says, “Excuse me, but are you taking the A train uptown?”

As a matter of fact, that’s my plan, so I nod.

“I’m taking the E to Queens,” she says, “but this woman is going to 175th Street, to Columbia Presbyterian. I don’t know her. A police officer gave her to me. She’s a little confused. But that’s where she needs to go. Can you just make sure she gets on the right train?”

“Sure.” This falls into the category of things that have never happened to me before, but then, this is New York City, and I generally get at least one of those every day.

Young-Woman-to-Queens smiles and passes Old-Woman-to-Hospital along by the simple expediency of nodding and walking away. I don’t ask for her name because that’s not done here; we don’t trade names when we connect with strangers. But Old-Woman-to-Hospital needs no introduction to feel at ease and starts chattering to me. I can’t hear her very well—subways are loud, and this old woman isn’t—but she seems to be perfectly happy doing a monologue. Young-Woman-to-Queens disappears with the whoosh of an E train.

When the A train comes, Old-Woman-to-Hospital and I climb onboard, and she continues her soliloquy, completely undeterred by the fact that I’m seated across from her, six feet away, and the train is rumbling, and I wouldn’t even know she was talking except that I can watch her mouth move. She’s definitely talking to me and not to herself; she’s making eye contact.

It occurs to me that although my only job, in theory, was getting her on the right train, I’m not convinced that she’ll have the ability to get off. I’m not sure she’ll recognize her stop. If she does, I’m not sure she can move fast enough to disembark before the doors slam. And my stop is at 168th Street.

It’s mid-day, so the train isn’t very crowded. It’s me and Old Woman and four young men. We’re nearly to Washington Heights, so odds are that those four young men are Dominican—or if not, Puerto Rican—and I stand and approach them and ask, “Excuse me, but do any of you speak English?” (This is not a ridiculous question. Most of my neighbors don’t.)

Only one looks up and says, “Yeah,” rather suspiciously, and I can’t blame him.

I try explain Old-Woman-to-Hospital, who is watching me cheerfully. “She’s going to 175th Street, to Columbia Presbyterian. I’m not sure if she can get off the train fast enough. Will you just make sure that she gets off the train? Somebody else can probably get her to where she’s going.”

“Where’s she going to exactly?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know her.”

“…Really?” And I see on his face the same expression I probably wore back on the platform, the expression that says, I’m not going to act surprised, New Yorkers don’t, but this is weird.

“Really. A young woman gave her to me back at 42nd Street, and she said a police officer had her before that.”

“Well…” He smiles a little. “Okay. That’s my stop anyway. I’ll get off with her and—well, I’ll make sure she gets off, at least.”

“Thanks.” I lean over to Old Woman and say, “He’s going to make sure you get off at the right stop, okay?”

Old Woman nods her head unworriedly. “Okay, you have a good day, sweetie.”

Strangest game of Telephone I’ve ever played.

 

THREE

My friend Lisa and I worked together years ago, but today we’re getting reacquainted. We enjoy a light lunch and a walk at Columbus Circle and ultimately, inevitably, we sit down to talk about the old days. She mentions a man we both worked with once, back in my theatre days: “I don’t know what everybody had against Vic. He always seemed like such a great, funny guy.”

I’ve heard her express that opinion before. Back when we were working together, I tried to avoid gossiping, figuring that a stage manager’s job is to promote unity in the company, and Vic made enough trouble for himself without my help. But he could be charming, until he felt he’d been crossed, and clearly Lisa had never seen him in that mode. And it was no longer my job to protect members of the company.

“Y’know, Lisa,” I say slowly, “I know you always saw him at his best. The thing is…well, one time, we had a daytime rehearsal, because the choreography wasn’t working for one of the numbers, so we called him and a couple of the other men in around noon. It was a small group, just the men and their understudies and the choreographer and me. But Vic was mad. He was mad that he’d been called in. He needed the rehearsal, but he was angry.

“You know how tall he was. A foot taller than me. Well, after that rehearsal, he got right up in my face. He screamed at me. And he swore at me. And he told me I didn’t care about anybody, that I was selfish and totally incompetent at my job, that I had no consideration for him. And he demanded an explanation for why he was called into that rehearsal—which wasn’t my decision, by the way—and then kept screaming at me and demanding an explanation but not giving me the opportunity to talk.

“So I told him the conversation was over, that I could not possibly give him an explanation that would satisfy him, and that if he had a problem with me he was welcome to take it to my boss. He’s not a good guy, Lisa. He used his size intentionally to terrify me. He scared me. And that was what he meant to do.”

“I’m so sorry,” she says immediately. “You’re right, he’s not. I had no idea he did that. That is not okay.”

It surprises me a bit how quickly she believes me, how quickly she turns her opinion around, how she doesn’t even try to justify his actions. I’m impressed by her faith in me, that she never doubts my experience, that she’s prepared to alter her own evaluation of this man based on my word. And I’m grateful.

We’re in a public place, and a man has sat down beside us; we’re sharing a bench. He has seemed to be absorbed in his phone, but he looks up at this point and says, “Listen, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I gotta tell you, I just have to say—that man is an asshole. I’m so sorry that he did that to you. Nobody should ever do that to you.”

I smile. “I know. But I appreciate your saying so.”

 

 

 

This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.

On Identity

If we aren’t capable of being hurt we aren’t capable of feeling joy.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

I find myself in the library reading Ecclesiastes and wondering how on earth I got here. I’m at a conference—a relatively small one—with a bunch of Quakers I don’t know very well, and it’s already been a strange few days. It’s late. I know some people are snacking in the common room, but I don’t dare go down there because they’re all the sociable types and I’m just—not. Normally I’d be in bed at this hour, but something tells me not to be, so with nowhere else in particular to go, I’ve wandered into the library. This place used to be a monastery, so Ecclesiastes turns out to be the best thing I can find.

I like Ecclesiastes. The end of all man’s toil is but to fill his belly, yet his appetite is never satisfied. What advantage then in facing life has the wise man over the fool, or what advantage has the pauper for all his experience? It is better to be satisfied with what is before your eyes than to give rein to desire; this too is futility and a chasing of the wind.

The author of Ecclesiastes pretty much thinks everything is futility and a chasing of the wind. You could call him a pessimist, but I find him comforting for reasons I’ve never been able to articulate.

There’s a man wandering up and down the halls whisper-yelling for Melanie. “Melanie? MELANIE? We’re going out for ice cream . . . MELANIE!!!” This continues for nearly twenty minutes, by which time he’s absolutely awakened anybody who might have been asleep in the first place—except maybe Melanie.

Around the time he gives up, I finish Ecclesiastes for the second time and snap closed the Bible. This is ridiculous. I’m going to bed; there’s no logical reason not to, and it’s been a long and exhausting day.

I get nine steps down the hallway and nearly crash into Jolene, who’s emerging from a bedroom. I know she’s Jolene because she’s wearing a nametag. I’m not. I’m already in my pajamas.

Jolene looks straight at me and says, “Great! Exactly the person I was looking for.” And she pulls me back into the bedroom behind her.

There’s another woman sitting on the bed. Jolene says, “This is Maggie.”

(I’m not Maggie, so I assume the woman on the bed must be Maggie.)

“Maggie,” Jolene continues, “this is Emily.”

She remembered my name?

“Emily, Maggie’s had a rough day. She needs somebody to talk to. Maggie, you can trust Emily. Tell her everything. Excuse me—I have to go to a meeting.”

And just like that, it’s Maggie and me in our pajamas staring at one another across the room. Maggie does not find this as disconcerting as I do, and she starts describing a vision she’s had that day. Of angels.

I feel like this is a case of mistaken identity. There are Quakers who do the whole mystical thing, but I’m not one of them! I know and love and trust enough mystics to believe that the realm they describe is real, and I’m even begrudgingly willing to admit that I’ve brushed up against the mystical myself from time to time, but I’m not comfortable engaging with it and don’t especially want to be. I like spreadsheets. And systems analysis. And logic puzzles.

Nevertheless, I listen intently to Maggie, for several reasons. First, Jolene told her that she could trust me, and I desperately want to live up to that endorsement. Second, Maggie seems to be in some level of genuine distress. And third, as long as I’m listening, I’m not required to speak.

She finishes by saying that she really needs someone to lay hands on her—“just to channel in some clean energy.”

Okay. Well, again, this is a case of mistaken identity. I don’t do this. Except—I kind of do know how to do this. I’ve known enough healers to know how it works. I mean, to know the theory. Lay hands on the person, open to the flow of Spirit, channel love. Right. So she moves into the chair, and I place my hands on her shoulders and get started.

This is the part where you’re supposed to turn your brain off, I think, but my brain doesn’t work that way, so I’m acutely aware that this is maybe the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, weirder even than the time I was still working in theatre and found myself pushing a shopping cart full of roller skates through an abandoned high school at midnight, and then the thought occurs to me that nobody ever told me how you know when you’re done, and oh, this is a problem, how am I supposed to know when to stop?

That thought keeps me occupied for several minutes, and I’m sort of grateful for it because it gives me something to focus on, and in the end it doesn’t matter because Maggie knows when to stop. She just stands up and says thank you and good night and I leave and brush my teeth.

When I finally get to bed, I reflect on vulnerability. On why I sat in that library reading Ecclesiastes well past my usual bedtime even though it was a thoroughly illogical thing to do. On why I didn’t pop my head out and ask if I could join the group making a run for ice cream. On why Jolene remembered my name and dragged me into that bedroom. On how she knew Maggie could trust me. On why several healers had talked me through this kind of thing, even though I’d never asked because I’d never planned on trying it.

I reflect on being open to God, and how there’s no such thing as being conditionally open.

And how I think I actually did help Maggie.

Well—okay.

 

 

This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.

 If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.