I am delighted to welcome Michael Wood as a guest blogger on Jolly Quaker. Michael has around eight years experience of Quaker youth work, and is currently co-ordinator of Friends Southern Summer Events (FSSE) Junior Gathering and Clerk of London Link Group. All views expressed here are Michael’s own, and not necessarily those of FSSE and London Link.
From the moment I was a gurgling baby in Meeting for Worship, I had a really good experience growing up as a Quaker. An interesting children’s group, a great teenage group and link group (regional gatherings of young people), as well as camps, FSSE Senior conference and Summer school, were all available to me. I started helping out with Quaker young people’s events to make sure all this continues.
In the various ways I’m involved in Quaker youth work, I am starting to sense that British Quakers are losing their corporate knowledge on how to include children and young people in their Meetings. In this post, I want to bring attention to some things that may help to address this.
The Children’s Committee
I’ve noticed that in some Meetings there is a view that responsibility for children and young people is a specialist task, that it is a job solely for the Children’s Committee (if there is one). Young people and children are not an alien species who need special handling. They want to be listened to, respected and loved in the same way as everyone else in the Meeting. However, too often have I seen children patronised when sharing news of their activities with Quaker adults, their reports being received with laughter because Friends are not listening seriously. We should listen with the same seriousness as when someone gives vocal ministry, for it may be ministry that we’re hearing. Are we in danger of ignoring our Advice and Query No.19? – ‘Rejoice in the presence of children and young people in your meeting and recognise the gifts they bring. Remember that the meeting as a whole shares a responsibility for every child in its care. … Are you ready both to learn from them and to accept your responsibilities towards them?’
The public message
How do we welcome children, young people and parents in the first place? People will look up information about the Meeting they are planning to attend via the web, the ‘Find a Meeting’ feature on the Britain Yearly Meeting website provides the basic address and contact details. It also gives information on ‘Children’s provision’, as stated by the Meetings themselves. I wonder how many of these statements come across as welcoming? Nearly half of the Meetings I looked at (51 out of 111) ask to be contacted before bringing children to Meeting. Other examples include: ‘Children’s meeting by arrangement. No young people’s meeting‘, ‘No children’s meeting but provision can be made if required’, ‘We can cater for children if notified’, ‘Children’s meetings are arranged on a very flexible basis…’, ‘Children welcomed and can be entertained with drawing and reading materials, but must remain the responsibility of the adults who bring them.’ The list goes on.
The overwhelming message is that ‘families are welcome to come, BUT…’ This communicates to interested young people and their parents that children and young people are not normal in Meeting, that if you’re a parent you can’t just decide at the last minute to go to Meeting as a family, and that child care at Meeting is ultimately the parent’s responsibility, even to the point of running the children’s Meeting themselves. It could also incite a very British worry – ‘I’m going to cause a hassle, fuss, or an inconvenience to the Meeting by bringing my children’ – the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) effect
I hope that the intent for all Meetings is to be as welcoming as possible regardless of age. What does your Meeting say to inquisitive parents? Does it need fixing?
We are all responsible
If there is no current need for a young people’s or children’s Meeting, then being prepared is the key to being welcoming.
How many people in your Meeting are DBS checked? How many should be DBS checked? If you don’t know what a DBS check is, then find out!
Have you read an issue of ‘Journeys in the Spirit’? Where do you keep you emergency children’s Meeting plans and supplies? Are your plans thought provoking and fun?
What youth groups, link groups and summer events are available to young Quakers in your Local Meeting? firstname.lastname@example.org can put you in touch with them. Is your Area Meeting affiliated with a Link Group? I roughly (and generously) count about 40 out of 71 (56%) Area Meetings that appear to have no affiliation with a Link/Youth group. We need more!
There are currently six summer residential events offered in Britain. There is fair coverage of these geographically and all report being open to applications from outside their primary catchment areas. These events are generally a week long. That extra time together is what creates such a unique community. Many young people cite it as the highlight of their year, and the friendships made at these events are often ones that outlast others. When school, university and jobs all change, these are the friends that stay. Often these events have a theme, allowing young people to explore the issues that are most important to them. The atmosphere at these events mirrors what we as Quakers would wish for all of society – truth, acceptance, love and joy. As one FSSE participant said, ‘At Senior Conference you feel accepted for who you really are. The community which is built in just one week is amazing and makes you feel very comfortable.’ How can we make this experience available to more and more young people?
We are all at different stages on our individual spiritual paths, but we sometimes forget that the distance we’ve travelled isn’t related to how long we’ve been travelling. Physical age and spiritual maturity don’t necessarily go hand in hand! Our responsibility to help each other on our spiritual journey extends to children and young people. We need to make sure we provide a safe space for this to happen, to explore our values and truths, to find out and take up opportunities to live our faith and to learn about Quakerism through each others experiences of it. We can afford to be more confident about our message to young people, because Quakers in Britain are pretty cool, even those ones who wear socks and sandals. We can be radical and progressive, we listen, and our identity comes from trying to live our values irrespective of popular opinion, the government or any other power which would have us do otherwise.
Young Quakers aren’t the future of Quakerism, they’re the present. Young Quakers should not be labelled (and therefore dismissed) as belonging to a future age and therefore different from the rest of the Meeting. If we as Friends want to avoid an ever growing age and understanding gap, we have to start with our own Meetings and the attitudes we have towards children and young people.
How does Michael’s experience of children and young people’s work amongst British Quakers chime with your own? When have you seen children and young people fully included in the life of your faith community? When have you seen them shut out?