Friends from Northumbria, Teesdale & Cleveland and Wensleydale & Swaledale Area Meetings have met at Darlington Meeting House on 21st May 2011 for our annual Quakers in the North East gathering.
We have spent time worshipping, sharing food, making and renewing friendships, and working together to explore the Friends World Committee for Consultation’s six queries on global change, through a range of creative and reflective activities.
Some of us, at times, have struggled with the language and form of the queries. Some of us, at times, have found that they illuminated our experiences and helped us to express them. We have been both daunted by the size of the problems and excited by the actions some of us are already taking in response. We have valued the opportunity to be together and share our concerns and our thoughts and feelings about global change.
We would like to contribute to the FWCC Consultation by sending this minute on to Friends World Committee for Consultation along with a report based on the work we have done and the records we have made today.
Signed during closing worship,
Susan Wood (Teesdale & Cleveland AM Clerk)
Query 1. How has global change affected our communities and ourselves?
We began the day by sharing our responses to Query One.
We see a growing divide between rich and poor and a lack of understanding of the situation of the other, industry lost and young people facing unemployment in spite of education, coastal erosion, rising fuel costs, a high environmental cost for the food we import and transport, and a loss of community independence. We live in a time of denial, on the one hand, and of generalised anxiety – how will we cope? – on the other.
We recognise that the effects of global changes are complex and multi-faceted. Global communication systems help us to make our voices heard and form relationships, they can revolutionise the work of large charities while placing obstacles in the way of smaller organisations. In a globalised world we can no longer avoid encountering ‘the other’ and this can lead to understanding and a broader sense of community but it can also result in prejudice and a hardening of hearts.
We have witnessed positive responses to change and have first hand experience of groundbreaking community initiatives. Some of us live in transition towns like Hexham and Richmond, where people are seeking to address the issue of fossil fuel dependency at a local level. Some of us live in Middlesbrough, which has been awarded Beacon Town status for environmental initiatives and where residents come together to share a locally grown town meal. Many of us now live in areas with efficient recycling systems. Some of our local children are learning to grow food in school and we feel that young people are growing up with a real understanding of the need to care for the places they live in.
Query 2. What actions have we taken in response to global change as experienced in our area, to express our responsibilities towards all creation? In what ways have my own activities or those of my global community contributed to positive or adverse local and global change?
We made individual responses on post-it notes to Query Two.
Friends recorded making changes to the way they shopped, cooked and ate, doing all three more thoughtfully. This could involve reading labels, checking food miles, shopping to avoid waste and using up leftovers or composting. In some cases it meant eating less meat, or eating less extravagantly overall. It also meant recovering traditional skills in gardening, beekeeping, cooking and preserving, collecting wild food and learning to appreciate and use ‘weeds’. Many of us are trying to eat seasonal, local foods as much as possible and to grow our own or support local businesses, organic growing initiatives and farmers markets.
When shopping, Friends talked about trying to buy less and to make, re-use or repair items whenever possible. Many items are bought second hand, shared, borrowed, or obtained through Freecycle. We talked about putting thought and research into new purchases, especially domestic appliances, electronic devices and cars, trying to assess their environmental impact. Many of us are involved in Fair Trade as shoppers, campaigners or sellers.
When it comes to getting around, some of us are trying to live without cars or have given up a second family car. Others are trying different ways to reduce our car use, rationing our petrol allowance, instituting car-free days, shopping locally and working at or nearer to home. We are also trying to reduce the environmental impact of the driving we still do by combining errands, sharing transport, and driving more slowly. We recorded trying to avoid flying, making as much use of other public transport as possible and walking and cycling whenever we can. A professional driver talked about some environmental improvements in the road haulage industry. For some of us, new communication technologies mean that we do not have to travel so much to shop or to attend face-to-face meetings.
We find many ways to reduce our energy use, from wrapping up warm, switching off lights and not using ‘stand-by, to installing solar and other alternative forms of heating and buying from ‘green energy’ providers. Some of us try to conserve water and some have chosen to have their water use metered. Some of us have actively supported local wind farm applications.
We try to be fully involved with and nurturing of our local communities. Friends are active in community arts, community festivities and local politics. We are involved with local green initiatives and are users and supporters of a wide range of local services from libraries to health care facilities. Many of us choose to use local businesses and trades people wherever possible. In our working lives, we serve the community as health workers, counsellors, in projects for the unemployed and homeless, and in many other roles.
We value our families, friends and neighbours and talked about the importance of talking to one another, of turning strangers into friends, of helping family members economically and in other ways, and of watching out for and helping our neighbours. In turn we gain strength and support from other people, sharing food growing projects and allotments, involving our grandchildren in the gardening, getting involved in LETS and Time Bank projects, campaigning together for recycling collections, better more affordable public transport and local health services.
We also talked about supporting communities that are geographically distant from us via church poverty action, campaigns for health services abroad, shared interest schemes and other forms of ethical investment, as well as through Fair Trade.
We are aware that our actions contribute to negative global change and environmental destruction despite our best efforts and we are sometimes dispirited by things like low public transport use, consumer waste, our own lack of energy. We are also sometimes confused about the best course of action. How do we reconcile food miles with the desire to buy fairly traded goods? How does our Internet shopping or our ‘evening in’ affect local businesses?
Despite the difficulties, we recorded our attempts to live more simply, creatively and co-operatively. One of us said:
I am beginning to be aware of the power of feelings of confusion to limit action. On the other hand becoming free of guilt and feeling gratitude releases energy.
Query 3. How do changes around us affect our relationship with God? How does my relationship with God affect my responses to the changes around us? What role does faith have in my life and in the life of my community? In what ways do I and my Friends church or meeting community bear witness to our Testimonies in our daily lives?
As part of our response to Query Three, some of us listened to a Friend share her recent experience of being called to work in Uganda and of teaching Speech and Language Therapy students there.
Some of us took time for quiet reflection in the Meeting House or grounds.
Others shared our responses to the query in a confidential creative listening group, exploring the relationship between personal faith and the needs of the world around us, the questions and uncertainties we have, and some of the ways in which we’ve been led to respond.
Query 4. What stories and experiences from past times of catastrophic happenings such as major droughts – perhaps from Scripture, perhaps the record of regional or local events – might inspire us to respond to the changes the world is facing today?
In response to Query Four, some of us took part in a workshop Godly Play; Story Telling through Godly Reflection. Our facilitator told the story of Exodus using three dimensional materials and lots of space and silence to invite listeners into the story and explore how it connected to our own experience.
Others made a mandala, drawing, painting or writing their responses onto circles, which were then arranged around an image of planet earth and brought into our final meeting for worship.
Once again, Friends were invited to sit, walk or read quietly, if they preferred to consider the query this way.
Another group met for discussion and reported that they had found the topic a difficult one. The group acknowledged that environmental degradation has been happening for millennia and found some comfort in the thought that, although we live with present uncertainty, we have a wealth of past experience to draw on.
They acknowledged our apparent failure to learn from past mistakes, noting the return of far right politics in some areas of Europe, the siting of nuclear facilities in dangerous places, and the growing divide between rich and poor. But they also found hope in initiatives like the transition town movement and in the volume of support for positive change demonstrated by on-line petitions etc.
They insisted that there are ‘reconcilers in our midst’ and that we are called to be bridge-builders, open to the needs of others. We are also called to ‘be aware of the beauty and mystery of the earth as well as its fragility.’
‘Scientists have said that we all have within us the elements (physical and chemical) of the stars,’ they reported. ‘As Quakers we want to look for the light of the stars too.’
Query 5. How can we bear witness to the abundance God offers us and testify to the world about ways in which justice, compassion, and peace may address significant disruption, stress, and tension?
Some of us reflected on Query Five by exploring the burial ground and using found and recycled objects to make individual creative responses. The results, which were displayed for Friends to look at and think about during the day, ranged from small sculptures to descriptions of the many uses of the wild plants growing around the Meeting House.
Others took part in a writing workshop, creating series of three haikus to try to capture the abundance of the world around us, the destruction we see in it and a personal response.
Others met as a group to discuss the query. They asked, ‘Is there really abundance,’ when competition for finite resources like water and oil is already fuelling global conflicts? They considered the situation in Israel/Palestine, the need to plan for declining oil supplies, and the work QPSW is doing on climate change and economic security, and reminded us that the world is not rich enough to give us every material thing we desire. On the other hand, our sense of abundance doesn’t need to be based on increased wealth. Friends talked about the ‘happiness index’, which suggests that beyond a basic level, greater wealth does not lead to greater happiness.
They also reflected that significant positive changes can be obscured by disproportionate amounts of bad news. Perhaps, among other things, Friends are called to be seekers after and publishers of good news, especially in our own neighbourhoods. Among the good news shared right away was the work of small groups in the Transition Towns, who have made certain progress, making waste land productive, planting trees, promoting school gardens, and instituting community days. Friends also remembered other projects, ‘Edible Todmorden’; a school which recycles textiles into fashion; and the ‘We are open’ initiative in Middlesbrough, where artists promote their work in unoccupied shops.
Although It is easy to be dispirited by the scale of the problems, the group reminded us that large actions can begin with a single person – Bob Geldof and Band Aid, for example, or the young Arab whose suicide triggered regime change in Egypt and beyond. ‘We are all flawed,’ they said, ‘but all are capable of showing a spark.’
Query 6. How can we support one another in rekindling our love and respect for God’s Creation in such a way that we are messengers of the transforming power of love and hope.
At the end of the day, we came together again for Meeting for Worship, Query Six was read at the start of worship and Friends were invited to share anything that had particularly spoken to them during the day. Some of our creative responses, our poems and paintings, were laid out in the centre of the circle.
In ministry Friends celebrated the opportunities we had had to support and encourage one another in a world where it is more common to criticize and find fault, and described the pleasure of working alongside others, while following our own inspiration. One Friend reflected that, living alone meant she had a special opportunity to immerse herself in work for change. Another asked for support in her experiment with a ‘plastic free month.’
We were reminded that there are few imperatives laid on us as Friends but that we are called to find and follow our own leadings and to support the leadings of others. In our work for the Kingdom, we may be called to do one thing well and will need to trust that others will be called to do the rest. We may need to learn to take the long view.
A Friend quoted Rufus Jones’ assurance that we are held together by the gravitational power of love. We have to live with the unknown but in moments of light, and knowing that we are loved and held, we can see it as the uncertainty of creativity rather than the uncertainty of despair and we can bring this hope to the communities we live in and the work we do.