The Friendly FolkDancers (FFD) have been "Dancing Cheerfully Over the Earth Answering That of God in All" since 1986. In February of 1999 we danced a bit further, all the way to New Zealand. There we met with truth prospering among Friends and spoke our measure of truth and light to them through the dance we shared. Our "peace movement" took us to 8 of the Friendsí communities there as well as to a Friendsí wedding and a Maori gathering.
The nine tour group members were from widely scattered locations. Four were from Northern Yearly Meeting, two were members of Pittsburgh Friends Meeting (currently resident Friends at the Honolulu, Hawaii, Meeting), one Friend was from Colorado, one was a New Zealander, and one was a Baptist from Toronto, Ontario. This distribution of tour membership is roughly typical of FFD groups of the past 13 years. Although many FFD members are from Northern Yearly Meeting, the birthplace of the group, our membership includes Friends from 16 yearly meetings, four of those yearly meetings outside of the USA.
New Zealand is as wonderful as most people have said it is. It has beautiful scenery, striking varieties of plants, and warm and welcoming people, both Friends and non-Friends. On top of that, we saw virtually no screens on the windows and doors of the buildings, because there was a negligible number of mosquitoes and flies, at least from a mid-western USA perspective. The houses were filled with light and air in a way that is unique in my experience. Our visit coincided with the end of summer, which may have been a particularly good time to experience the beauty of the country, but it seems likely that the country simply has an extra large measure of grace and goodness.
There is so much good to be said about the country that it would be easy to write of nothing else, but that is not the intent of this article. I take the experience of Thomas Merton as a warning to Quakers who might dilute the substance of their messages with too much "tourist" content. Though Thomas Merton ended up a Trappist monk, his early search for a spiritual home included a visit to a Quaker meeting for worship. He wrote of how profoundly he was affected by the worship, until a woman stood up and proceeded to give an extended travelogue lacking in spiritual meaning for Merton. With that unfortunate non-spiritual interlude Quakerism lost the interest of a person destined to become an important religious voice of his time. Since we need to nurture and encourage those "Thomas Merton" spirits in our midst, this will not be a travelogue of our journey to New Zealand as much as it will be an attempt to share the journey of Quaker ministry which is the Friendly FolkDancers. There will be more about the FFD experience with New Zealand Friends, but first weíll take time for an overview of the Friendly FolkDancers as an organization.
First of all, we need to make something very clear Ė what the Friendly FolkDancers do is ministry and our members areministers. Calling someone a minister can be problematic in liberal Quaker circles, given how many of us have come to Quakerism having fled religious backgrounds and attitudes which we experienced as oppressive. Many of us think of a minister as "people trying to force their patriarchal/superstitious/holier-than-thou manipulations down my throat". The word "ministry" is less threatening and is more easily accepted, as in "spoken ministry" for messages shared in worship, or "Ministry and Counsel Committee" for one of the groups trying to especially nurture the meeting. On the other hand, the traditional practice of minuting individuals as "recognized ministers" has decreased almost to non-existence in our circle of Friends. Perhaps we fear that attaching the name "minister" to individuals carrying out a ministry will give them power over us, the kind of "power over" many of us fled. Perhaps we fear our own feelings of inadequacy if we recognize someone else as possessing a calling, vocation or ability that merits the special name "ministry". Many of us would find it less threatening or judgmental to just say all are equal and doing their ministry in their own way. This will not, of course, provide any guidance for those seeking light, discernment and direction, but at least it wonít offend any one in an active sense.
Certainly all persons have their special gifts, and certainly there are many forms of ministry and gifts. It is also true that a ministry remains a ministry even if the word is never used to describe it. At the same time, there are important gains to be made from naming a ministry and ministers, both outwardly and inwardly. Using the word inwardly helps an individual or group become intentional in the work to be carried out. Outwardly, recognizing a minister or a ministry can communicate to others a message or experience that comes from the Spirit and can serve to nurture connection to the Spirit. It can, indeed, serve as a friendly "spiritual review", in the same way that a film review can give us an overview of the plot and quality of a movie, motivating us to see or not see a film. By naming a ministry we can encourage one another to expose or not expose ourselves to its possibilities. Practicing group discernment about gifts and ministries can help us all forward.
All of this reflection on ministers and ministry is especially relevant to the FFD context, because we are a particularly Quaker Ministry. Clearly, many (but not all) liberal Quakers are uncomfortable with preaching that that goes anywhere near religious or Christian dogma, feeling that these are touchy subjects for discussion. The "preaching" which is most widely accepted in our circles is that which touches on our testimonies, particularly the Peace Testimony. The FFD preaches a message of peace implicit in the dances we share from every corner of the world. Introducing people to other cultures through the dances of those cultures allows the participants and spectators to forge a connection by-passing the limits of words. We literally put ourselves "in their (dancing) shoes". We have also explicitly declared our message of peace through our frequently used theme "Dancing The World Together". We illustrate this theme in our short performances through medleys of dances from countries or cultures which either are or were at war, symbolically uniting them through their dances. Thus, "The Balkan Balance" unites the former Yugoslavian countries, "Thawing the Cold War" celebrates the new-found reconciliation between the US and the former USSR, and "In Gandhiís Footsteps" extends Mahandas Gandhiís prayer for peace between the Hindus and the Moslems. Part of the beauty of preaching through dance is the freedom from the oft-hurtful words (like "should" or "sinful") that usually pepper sermons. The preaching of duty and responsibility is replaced by a physical prayer of love and connection.
Sometimes we have the opportunity to be involved with the substance of peace and justice work in more immediate and concrete ways. One North Carolina Meeting we visited used the occasion of our tour to raise funds for Bosnian students. In the course of the 1998 mainland European tour, our tour group was invited to dance for the illegal immigrants held in a "detention center" located in Belgium. The audience included about 500 people of 50 different nationalities. The initial response was slow and reserved, but it blossomed into an important mutual sharing, the beginnings of breaking down the isolated barrier between the distrustful and isolated groups occupying the detention center. A spontaneous return visit on the following day led to greater sharing of the dances and cultures of the detainees, and a resolve by one of the FFD members resident in France to return monthly to share with the people of the camp.
In the course of the New Zealand tour we were privileged to be invited to be part of a Maori gathering which was especially powerful in terms of the Quaker pursuit of peace and justice. A complete description of the intricacies of the situation would certainly be beyond what can be accomplished here, so please be aware that what I understand and am able to communicated will fall far short of an adequate rendering of the experience. It appears that the relationship and issues between the Maori and the people of European (and other) descent parallels that of the Native Americans and those whoíve arrived in the Americas since 1492. There are issues of treaties, rights and a status as second-class citizens. Several years ago the Maori occupied a piece of land representative of the issues and tensions. They remained on the land, a city park in Wanganui, for around 90 days. A crucial juncture arrived when the government resolved to remove them by force. The local Quakers got wind of the plan and acted to organize a number of people, Quaker and non-Quaker, to form a human cordon around the property, barring entry of the police, and thus successfully impeding the removal attempt. At the end of the occupation, the Moari not only felt they had successfully called attention to their concerns, but they formed a trust and friendship with Quakers across a racial divide piled high with historical injustice and polarizing interests. Each year the Mairi have returned to the spot in a kind of festival commemorating the event. The FFD visit to New Zealand was scheduled to coincide with Pakaitore, the Maori name used to refer to the spot and the event, and we shared with them our "Dancing the World Together" theme and our support for their efforts. Unbeknownst to us, they had reached a communal resolve to again occupy the property (beyond the time which their official permit allowed) to once more highlight the national lack of progress on their concerns. This announcement of the occupation was made directly following our performance and tangentially included references to the trust which had grown between our communities as a result of the earlier supportive actions. We had a clear impression of being included in a strong nonviolent effort to redress injustices.
One of the parts of the Maori process for accepting us onto their marae, their name for the sacred spaces where their ceremonies are held, seemed particularly powerful. As the final step in the entrance ceremony we were greeted by a line of Maori in their traditional manner. Instead of our western handshake, one puts forehead to forehead, nose to nose while clasping hands. There is an intimacy and candor that necessarily accompany such a greeting. Apparently, this method of greeting was too close for many of the immigrants who came after the Maori, and they were either terribly uncomfortable or simply refused to do it. There is a name for these "foreigners" in Maori Ė Pakeha Ė which means, I understand, "those who donít share air". This struck me as a profound insight Ė that my culture is part of a mass of people who refuse to share air, with all that this implies. It felt as if this encounter with the Maori was one more step over the world answering that of God in others. Certainly we carry part of the light with us, but we also discover it in those whom we meet.
Our ministry is also Quaker in that it is experiential rather than cognitive. There are understandings to which our feet can carry us in the dance which are only painfully accessible by the powers of mind and speech, if at all. Many of us have tried to explain the taste of some new food to another person (as in "it tastes kind of like chicken"), but any verbal description is a pale shadow and poor substitute for the actual experience. The greatest portion of the FFD program is the participation dances in which all are invited to join. While our performance and words may prepare the audience, the shared dancing is the actual experience. This is closely parallel to the Quaker approach to worship, where reading, discussion or singing may prepare us, but the real power is encountered in meeting the Spirit face-to-face in the open space created by the silence.
We are also a Quaker ministry in the way we carry out our preparation and program. Our tours are rooted in daily Meetings for Worship and Business. And while we do divide functions and we each bring various strengths to the tour, we especially attempt to share the teaching of dances and announcing of our program, recognizing that the Spirit speaks through all of us. Eloquence of phrase and perfection of technique are not measures of the Spiritís presence, and we attempt to live this through a sharing of these "public speaking" elements.
A key goal of our tours is to aid Meetings in building and deepening community. Potluck meals are certainly one widely used opportunity to cement connections, but they have a downside in the many "weighty" Friends they produce. (This can be offset, by the way, by an adequate quantity of dance before or after a meal.) Dancing in virtually any form can be a pleasure and a delight, but folk dancing, particularly in the form of lines and circles, is special in that it avoids the pairing of individuals and the emphasis on romantic energy which couple dances foster. All dancing can be fun, but folk dancing can serve to build community and is easily inclusive of all ages. Of course all forms of dance are folk dancing (and will be thought of that way with the elapse of sufficient time), so there is certainly no either/or opposition of values here implied. In our 13 years of touring we have seen ample evidence of deep connection knit and found within many Meetings by the experience of folk dancing as an entire community, young and old. For example, a Pennsylvania Meeting clerk wrote to us these words. "What I noticed, during the evening, was that we could loose ourselves in the happy time. I noticed how excellently everyone was drawn into the dancing and community. I also noticed that small difficulties were being ironed out by the sense of greater community - the other half of a couple appearing with us, a meeting disjuncture being resolved in the hall." The clerk of an Meeting in England reported something similar, that the sense of community engendered by our visit opened many Meeting participants to experience refreshment and joy in each other, something which had been sorely lacking through a year of struggles and endless committee meetings. Committee meetings are good, in their place, and eating together helps build community as well, but folk dancing together is often a surprisingly effective way to find a unity and community of all ages.
Not surprising, perhaps, is the fact that music and dance can bridge the experience of programmed and unprogrammed Friends. The FFD has attempted to take our ministry to all branches of Friends and thus far we have danced with all stripes of Friends but those of the Evangelical Friends Alliance. This degree of intervisitation is perhaps slightly less easily attained than you might expect, given an avoidance of dance within some evangelical circles, including some Quakers. For a long time there was hesitancy on the part of Kenyan Friends to welcome our tour there in 1996, due largely to a history of just such a prejudice against dance. Remember that in the 1800ís virtually all Quakers eschewed dancing of all sorts. Eventually we were welcomed by the Womenís Meetings and when the Kenyans, both men and women, saw the nature of our dance and ministry, they resoundingly embraced our tour as a Christian ministry - without any need to speak traditional words of that faith. Our peace ministry was accepted at face value based on the evidence of their eyes. Perhaps we could find an easier unity within unprogrammed Friends of Christian and Universalist camps if only we would folk dance together more often!
In fact, although we often refer to our distinctive form of worship in liberal Quaker circles as "unprogrammed", there is, in fact, depending on the Meeting, an almost codified structure to the worship. Clearly, the early Quakers wanted to throw away the empty forms. That is a worthy ambition, but sometimes we accidentally toss out the baby with the bath water. Our largely unwritten guidelines for worship sometimes inhibit or prevent the guidance and enlightenment of the Spirit from flowing through us and enriching our Meetings. The vast majority of messages in Quaker Meeting are delivered in quiet, pious tones, limited to a few minutes and are limited to speaking. While this is likely the norm in FGC-affiliated meetings of our time, there has been considerably greater diversity in our past. The calm, quiet tone may be appropriate to some messages, but sometimes the words we are given to share seem meant to burn or to melt. Our unprogrammed tendency these days is to moderate and filter these messages, and that can be an unfortunate unfaithfulness to the measure of light we are given. It is quite clear that George Fox and the "valiant 60" were hardly given to such moderation, and William Penn has been described as speaking at such length in one Meeting for Worship that one listener assembled thirty plus pages of notes based on one of his messages! I donít think that any of us want that in our Meetings, but that may well be the point. The question perhaps should be "Is it in and of the Light?" instead of "Is it what I want?". While there are certainly many vital Friendsí Meetings, there are also many dead spaces, gasping for the breath of the Spirit. Are we filtering the Spirit from our midst by our norms and comforts?
All of this is especially relevant in the context of the ministry of the FFD. In addition to the joy and community, we frequently experience transforming moments of worship without words which involve movement. We have traveled to a relatively small number of programmed (FUM) meetings, so I was surprised at the report of one Friend who had been present at a workshop held as part of the Friends United Meeting Triennial several years ago. The participants were asked to share special experiences of gathered meetings, and at least a few of the sharings were about the experience of the program of the FFD! Statistically, this is an amazing testimony (or perhaps an incredible coincidence). Our own experience has been the same Ė there is often a movement to a deep place of connection and sense of the Spirit that is part of our program. The message received through movement and often without words may be heard and felt throughout the room. This is precious fruit of the Spirit, well worthy of the name of Worship. Would such a presence of the Spirit be welcomed in most Meetings, being delivered through movement instead of words? Would most people be too intimidated to try it, even if the Spirit were solidly leading or pushing them in that direction?
Perhaps we could imagine a truly unprogrammed, "unprogrammed worship." Perhaps some messages would be calm and reasoned, but some might be cried, thundered or sung. Perhaps the message might be only that the "speaker" kneels silently, or maybe the message might be to wash the feet of "least of us." Maybe the message might emerge through a dance moved to the rhythm of the truly "different drummer." Of course, any of these messages may or may not be from the Spirit, just as any spoken message might be, and we should consider applying the same criteria to them when holding a message in Meeting for Worship.
The FFD does not specialize in ecstatic, evangelical-type experiences, but our program does sometimes have unforeseen, dramatic results. At one of our stops in New Zealand we danced first at a nursing home. Many or perhaps most of the audience were physically limited or in wheelchairs. Our selection of participation dances is such that we easily adapt to such a group, and we did on that day. In addition to the wheelchair-bound dancers, there was at least one man moving with us on one crutch. On the following First Day, at the end of Meeting for Worship, this same man rose to proclaim smilingly (and this quotation is reproduced to the best of my memory), "This past Friday, for the first time in my 91 years, I danced (dramatic pause) The Hokey Pokey. I struggled up to dance with my crutch and ever since that dance I felt my leg growing stronger. As you can see, I no longer need the crutch!" We donít usually claim miracle healings as one benefit of our visits but few of us would be surprised that such experiences of joy can lead to physical healing as well.
When we offer to visit a Meeting, we invite each group to use our visit as an opportunity for outreach. Some do a phenomenal job of reaching out to the community, and others are almost secretive about it. A good many Friendsí groups perhaps have undeveloped "outreach muscles," possibly because of an aversion to practices of other religions. Up to this point, I believe that no Meeting has found the slightest problem with our brand of "Quaker Evangelism" when witnessed first hand. It has felt freeing to be able to have such an outlet for joyful sharing the fruits of our Quaker fellowship. Though there is a total lack of statistics to document the degree of success, we have often received feedback about new visitors to Meeting for Worship following an introduction to Quakers occasioned by a visit from the FFD.
In the beginning of the year 2000 we plan to tour in the Pacific Northwest. We will be using that trip to stretch ourselves a bit further in the area of outreach. Our typical stop on tour is hosted by Friendsí Meetings and worship groups, with only rare exceptions, mostly related to nursing homes and schools. We will be making a deliberate effort to schedule some stops outside our comfortable Quaker envelope, with activist groups and other associations likely to be receptive to our message of peace, joy and community. Obviously, we will be leaning heavily on contacts in the region to forge the connections and do the groundwork for us. In any case, it promises to be a rich experiment in unprogrammed Friends evangelism. At the very least, we can hope that our travels will help weaken the stereotyped image of Quakers as an Amish-looking, anti-dancing, nearly extinct people. Maybe seeds will be planted of a dancing, smiling, vibrant people, thriving in this century, evolving and growing.
You have plenty of options in the case you wish to contact The Friendly FolkDancers. The current clerkís address is Mark Helpsmeet, 2550 Gregerson Drive, Eau Claire, Wisconsin 54703. You may call (715) 874-6646, visit our website at www.infinitejoy.com/ffd or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you may meet us on our journeys or at the FGC summer gathering where we lead nightly folk dancing.
Many different names have been used to describe Quakers through the ages, but one that resonates profoundly with many of todayís unprogrammed Friends is "Seekers." The word implies a continuing search for God and the Light, helping to balance a sense of many religions as rigid and doctrinaire. Certainly, these aspects of the concept have drawn me to the label and affirm a part of the truth that I experience and wish to validate.
There is a quality of the name that fits less well with my experience. In addition to our seeking, we occasionally find ourselves in the presence of that which we are pursuing. Sometimes we find ourselves moving with that Spirit, harmoniously living with the call of the Divine in our lives. At this time we feel something like Finders Ė not of the ultimate and final Truth, but of the place where we belong and the path along which we are called to continue. We havenít trapped or boxed the Spirit, but we find ourselves moving and growing in concert with it. It feels like something beyond merely being a Seeker, but is such a fluid and moving experience that calling ourselves Finders would also seem misleading.
This experience came upon me clearly in the course of the Friendly FolkDancer tour to New Zealand. I had the sense of us moving to the lead of the Spirit, to the rhythm and pace of the Divine. This contrasts with the times we are out of step, aware of the lack of flow in our lives. It seemed clearly to me that Quakers are Seekers, but more than that we are Dancers with the Divine. We are seeking to be in that continually unfolding movement of the Spirit. At our best, we are partners of the Divine, faithfully following the lead, always sensitive to the changes in tempo and direction. When this image came to me, I had a tremendous relief because, instead of an endlessly pursuing an unattainable goal, I saw myself attempting to learn the dance. My task would never cease, because the dance and its variety never end, but I could know the faithfulness of being in the right place in the dance, for at least the present moment. That, in itself, is a powerful and rewarding place to be.
May our seeking be fruitful and may we each find our right place as we dance with the Divine.
Move When The Spirit Says Move!
By Mark Judkins Helpsmeet
Traveling among Kenyan Friends and experiencing their unabashed and fervent prayers, it was hard not to be stretched and changed. I caught some of their spirit and shared my own prayer with them. It was something like this:
"The words you pray are good. God wants and needs the words you pray. They are good words, but they are not enough. God also needs the testimony of you hands, your feet, your whole body and life. Learn to pray with all your body."
Most ministry Iíve shared in Meeting for Worship has been spoken, but several times Iíve been called beyond our norm of short, evenly spoken verbal messages to truly unprogrammed ministry. One time in particular I obeyed when the message I was given was to move in a circle, stopping at certain positions, facing the center. I was physically acting out the question with which I was wrestling as I moved around the circle. Itís hard, perhaps impossibly to convey to you what happened. I was quaking and feeling foolish because it was so different, so odd, compared to "normal" verbal ministry, but I clearly felt the direction of the Spirit. A couple minutes into this physical prayer, the understanding burst upon me, and I had an answer to my quandary. I was stunned, overjoyed, and I cried. I donít believe I could have experienced the blessing of that prayer if I had only prayed with my mouth. The same is likely true for many of us, so my admonition to all of us is this: To experience the full fruits of the Spirit, we need to pray with all of our body. We need to sit when the Spirit says sit, Pray when the Spirit says pray, and move when the Spirit says move!
Many Quakers today are refugees from other religions. For a lot of us, silent worship gives us space, freedom from the annoying and oppressive voices which used to preach at us. Silence can be a safe place to heal, but it has itís dangers too. This "safe" silence can become a weight upon our tongues, a need to scrutinize each word and phrase because someone may find their wound in our words. That kind of scrutiny may keep them safe, but it can also crush all the joy, energy and spontaneity out of our expression.
Iím enthusiastic about multicultural education. It seems such a rich alternative to the melting pot, where all color and differences are reduced to the least common denominator. The melting pot results in safe, predictable blandness. If we are not conscious and careful, the same thing may happen to our Quaker worship.
As the Friendly FolkDancers tour, we usually end our final dance standing in silent worship. On one tour, I closed that worship by saying "Amen". Afterwards, one of the tour members asked that I not use that word because, she said, it was like 3,000 years of patriarchy being shoved down her throat. As a group, we discussed what we could say, but found that almost any word might be objected to by someone. She suggested closing with a handshake, in the traditional Quaker manner, avoiding the danger inherent in words.
I recognize that many people carry deep wounds and that we should not cling thoughtlessly to words or behaviors which may be perceived as wounding. Still, shortly following that tour experience, I realized that we had been moving toward a bland, "melting pot" solution to her discomfort. I also realized that we could perhaps have chosen a "multicultural" alternative. For instance, we could each have closed the worship in our own personal idiom, be that "amen", "namaste", "shalom", a handshake, or a great big "yahoo"!
I was also struck by the ease with which we could forget to practice what we were preaching. There we were, trying to teach international peace by getting people to try on the dances of diverse countries, yet finding enemies in the diverse ways each of us has to express the Spirit!
I leave you with this query. Is your meeting for worship
a melting pot, or is it a multicultural pot luck?