Quakerism and God: A Personal Take

I was asked to speak on a panel for an Adult Religious Education class at my meeting about Quakers and God. At first I wasn’t sure whether to say yes, as I didn’t think I had very coherent things to say about God – having never pinned God down sufficiently to feel that I had any kind of grasp on the subject. But I did say yes, and really appreciated the chance to reflect on it. Here is an outline of what I shared:

I wasn’t raised with an expectation to believe in a God – in fact, it wasn’t talked about at all. I was raised with a very strong Quaker moral framework: to believe that violence is wrong in all forms, that we must work for peace on the big and small scale, that we always do the right thing even if it’s hard. In the 80s during the Sanctuary Movement, when I was a young child, we had Salvadoran refugees living with us, and to me that was normal. I thought everyone had refugees living with them. So I could see around me the fruits of a life centered in the Divine, but I had a really hard time figuring out how to get to that place where you can be inspired to the kind of courage and integrity that lets your life speak. For the first couple decades of my life I kept trying to make the Testimonies into a creed, but without the inward inspiration of the Spirit that gives rise to the Testimonies it just doesn’t work.

Then I fell in with the Buddhists. Here in the West we tend to think of Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion, but that forgets that there are as many kinds of Buddhism as there are kinds of Christianity. I fell in with some religious Buddhists, and they had a concept of God and were willing to tell me what the rules were and how to practice. I became a devotee of Green Tara, and it worked pretty well at first. Until I had a crisis of faith, when my experience of the Divine didn’t line up with the doctrine I was being taught, and I lost touch with the mother love of Tara and felt pretty abandoned. And the Buddhists weren’t much help with that. So I drifted back to the Quakers, who I could be confident would not try to force my experiences into a box of correct doctrine.

I tried for a lot of years to put into words what I believed about the Divine, but it felt very elusive. I’m a writer and I love words, but the more I try to use them to define this huge, indefinable, indescribable thing, the farther away it seems. So I stopped trying to define it. At this point, I can speak of “God” – it’s a stand-in word for something bigger than me, bigger than the universe, that has an impact on my inner and outer journey. If I cooperate with God, my life seems to go in good directions – though seldom in the directions I’d planned! I have to listen pretty carefully, get quiet inside to hear how my soul responds to a particular idea to know if it’s right for me. When I have a sense of clarity that it’s right for me, I know that that direction is the will of God.

In 2013 I started having mystical experiences. One of the gifts that Quakerism has offered me is to give me some framing language to understand what’s happening and put it in context without trying to define it for me. I didn’t know whether I believed in God most of the time, but I was sure I was encountering the Divine in those moments.

In 2014, God did something that was out of my previous experience – God was pretty insistent that I go to social work school. For the next three years, I had a daily sense that I was in the place God wanted me to be and doing the work God wanted me to do. It was an incredible feeling, and very very needed as I was doing work with people that our society has thrown away and who have lost all hope. Since that time, I’ve lost the sense of daily certainty that I’m doing the will of God, but all of my vocational decisions are made based on leadings. It’s how I got to be the editor of the Pendle Hill pamphlets: God placed me in that ministry.

At this point, I can see the ways that God has affected my life, leading me, redirecting me, teaching me: but I mostly see it in retrospect. Whether or not I “believe” is a daily choice. I have a daily spiritual practice of journaling that is a way of getting quiet inside and writing until the next step becomes clear. Faith is difficult for me – and that’s why God gave me a community. We all have different spiritual gifts, and others can carry the faith piece when it’s hard for me. I offer my spiritual gifts to the community and they offer theirs to me, and in each other we encounter God much more concretely, for me, than a belief in an entity “out there” or even “in here.”

To Friends Everywhere: an epistle from one of New York Yearly Meeting’s Parent Support Groups (DRAFT)

This is a draft document, not yet finalized.

Imagine you have young children and are going to a Quaker meeting for the first time.  You bundle your kids into the car and try to explain to them what to expect.  Imagine that you get there, excited to have space at last for spiritual renewal and encounter, and you are told that the meeting does not have childcare.  You are told that you can care for them in a separate room.

            Imagine that you are going to a meeting that does have childcare.  You call ahead to explain that your child has a deadly allergy to a particular food, and ask them to ensure that your child can be safe during the potluck and social hour.  Nobody knows how to handle your request.

            Imagine that you have been part of the life of the meeting for long enough for your spiritual gifts to be recognized.  You are asked to join the committee that you know is right for you.  You are excited to say yes.  “Great!” you are told.  “We need a young person on that committee.”  You feel uneasy, wondering if you were asked because of what you bring or because you tick a “young person” box.  Then you find out that the committee meets the third Tuesday of the month at 1 pm.  Nobody who is not retired has ever served on this committee.

            Imagine that you’ve been involved in the meeting for years and years.  Maybe your child is the only child in the meeting.  Maybe there are other children, but other parents don’t go to business meeting or serve on committees because there is no childcare or it’s not sufficient to hold your kid’s interest.  Imagine that you’ve been bringing this concern to business meeting again and again, and people keep saying they’ll do better.  Somehow, though, you’re always in the position of asking, “Will there be childcare?”  Somehow, there never is.

            All of these things that have happened to us.

            These are not subtle messages, Friends.  They say, clearly, “this meeting is not designed for you and your family.  You can be here, but you don’t belong.”  A meeting can claim to be as welcoming and affirming as it wants, but if its structures only really work for its current, primarily retired people then only its current, primarily retired people will stay.


Those of us who are under 60 in the Religious Society of Friends often get asked how meetings can attract more young people to Quakerism.  There are many answers to this question, none of them definitive, but we are moved to share our experience as Quaker parents who would like to raise the next generation of Quaker youth – and to feel like we, too, fully belong in our meetings.  The truth is that we don’t feel like we fully belong, and we know that the problem isn’t attracting young people: the problem is that meetings don’t know how to retain, care for, and spiritually nourish the young people and families who show up.

            The nine of us (seven currently parenting young children and two mentor-facilitators with adult children) have spent the past six months gathering biweekly for an online Quaker parent support group organized by New York Yearly Meeting, though some of us are from other yearly meetings.  Parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly challenging, and this group has been a lifeline to other parents in the trenches.  It has been a blessing to know that there are others who are experiencing the same overwhelm, stress, and unmooring from all our normal ways of coping and getting help, and that we can be real with each other in our joys and our despairs.  At the same time, we are dispersed all over the country, and cannot fulfill the role of a local spiritual community for each other.  We can’t bring each other soup or babysit each other’s children or nurture each other’s souls with in-person worship or bring a concern for how to better support families in the meeting to each other’s business meetings.  We need our meetings to support us in this stage of our lives.

            As the world seems poised to emerge from the crucible of the lockdowns and isolation, we’d like to let meetings know what we need from them.  We don’t have to go back to the way things were; we can take advantage of the disruption to look at what wasn’t working and what can change.  What follows are our thoughts on how meetings can attract and retain young people and families.

            To become a truly intergenerational faith, Quakerism must think through the needs and life stages of people of all ages and build practices that are welcoming and inclusive of all.  What do children and families need?  We need spiritual nurture; we need a loving community that is proactive about involving us in the fabric of the community; we need a place to joyfully offer our spiritual gifts in a way that is not yet another obligation or energy drain.  Most of all, parents are already at the outer edges of our capacity, and we need our spiritual community to have structures in place to support us without our having to ask.  If we have to ask, it’s already too late.

How Meetings Can Support Parents and Young People

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a crucible for those of us with young children.  No one is built to be a full-time caregiver 24/7 for months on end, let alone also try to hold down a job and keep our sanity in the midst of political turmoil and widespread suffering.  We have needed our “village” even more at the precise moment that most avenues of support have been removed. 

            Fortunately, there are many concrete things that meetings can do to support young people and families in the life of the meeting.  Right now, as people get vaccinated and things begin to open back up, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine and reshape what we want our post-pandemic meetings to look like.

Child Care

The first and most important thing a meeting can do is to provide childcare.  At the very least, childcare during meeting for worship is a necessity.  It is no easy thing to get young children to meeting on Sunday, and parents who are craving quiet worship are not likely to find the effort worth it if their worship time is taken up trying to keep those children quiet.

            A meeting that currently does not have any children should have a plan for what to do if a family with children shows up.  Perhaps the meeting designates ahead of time a handful of volunteers who enjoy kids to rotate spending time with the children if they show up with no warning.  Perhaps the meeting secures a paid caregiver who is on call.  Perhaps they provide a “First Day School in a bag” for children of parents who would rather the kids stay in the worship room, with quiet toys and books for a variety of ages.  In a small meeting with only a few children, perhaps the meeting asks each member to take a Sunday to spend one-on-one time with the children teaching them something the adult is passionate about that touches on their spiritual life.

            Where will the childcare take place?  Is the room safe for children?  Inviting?  If you wouldn’t have meeting for worship in a dark spider-filled basement with no windows, the meeting’s children are hardly likely to fare better there.  Are there activities and toys for many different ages?  Are the toys and books inclusive: do they portray a spectrum of races? do they life up full, inclusive diversity without defaulting to white heteronormative culture?  can children of various developmental abilities and special needs use them?

            If meetings want young parents to come to business meeting, childcare needs to be available then as well. And for childcare to be successful, it needs to meet the needs of babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school kids – likely, this requires different adults who have patience and joy in connecting with different ages.   If quarterly and yearly meetings want young parents to be involved, again, those meetings need to arrange for childcare.  Childcare should be the default.

            One meeting’s First Day School committee named themselves the Children in the Life of the Meeting Committee.  That name tells parents a lot.

            There are other considerations.  First Day School committees should look for capable, interested adults who are not currently parenting young children to serve; putting the burden on parents to create a First Day School program is a recipe for burnout.  There will be some parents who want to be involved, but the majority will welcome having a trusted spiritual home where they can take an hour a week for their own spiritual journey instead of focusing on their children’s spiritual needs.

            Best practices to ensure child safety include background checks for all who are in positions to care for children and a community agreement that everyone – including the children – is responsible for ensuring that an adult is never alone in a room with a child.  Basic precautions benefit everyone.

Food as a Ministry of Welcoming

Careful accommodation of food allergies and difficult food requirements is a huge draw for building community.  Parents of children with allergies navigate minefields every day; make your meeting a safe space.

            Where an allergy is dangerous, a potluck coordinator can make sure that every potluck dish affirms that the allergen is not present.  They can ask people to list the ingredients in the dish. The meeting can create a practice of never offering treats or foods directly to a child, even when they believe a food is safe.  Pressuring people to eat your food damages trust.  Having an environment free of anaphylactic inducing allergens is a huge relief to parents.  Understand that they might still bring their own safe food for their child to eat, because cross-contamination can be deadly.

            Care for food concerns can benefit everyone!  If there is a vegetarian main course in addition to regular main course, vegetarians can stay for potluck without having to make do with just salad.  Having gluten-free and vegan alternatives is a way to say “you matter and your needs are welcome here.”  It sends a strong signal about how much your meeting cares.  Ask, proactively, about everyone’s food needs; if they are met, you will gain great loyalty.

Religious Education and Spiritual Nurture

All members of the community are in need of religious education and spiritual nurture, but children and younger adults have specific needs.

            Spiritual formation is a life-long process.  Meetings tend to be better at religious education offerings that focus on individuals in the last third of their lives.  Some meetings are good at religious education for their children.  Very few have offerings for their teens and young adults.  Opportunities for all-age worship and all-age fun tend to be few and in between. 

            Meetings that are just starting to look at how to nurture faith formation across the lifespan can find many good resources through the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative.

            Thriving meetings know that talking about our faith renews and deepens it.  Children need systematic, age-appropriate teaching and reflection about the Quaker path – and so do newcomers and weighty Quakers of all ages.  Does your meeting have regular and meaningful chances to share about Quaker faith and practice?  Our collective silence is deepened through exposing the how and why of Quakerism, in as many different ways and opportunities as we can achieve. We are all learning, and talking about our practice creates a more inclusive and accessible process for all.

  • Children’s Religious Education

            Children will thrive in a meeting where they have bonded with other children their own age.  They will thrive in a meeting where there are adults who see it as their ministry to nurture and mentor them.  They will keep wanting to come back, first to see their friends and later to be part of the community.

            Children have spiritual gifts to contribute to the meeting, and naming and nurturing those gifts will serve them well for their entire lives.

  • Tweens and teens

            Tweens and teens are ready for worship sharing groups and need consistency in having a facilitator available to create and hold that space. This age group is so dynamic and needs an environment in which to identify their concerns and hold space for pondering deeper questions.

  • Younger adults and parents

            Younger adults may come to Quakerism seeking, and may not know quite what they are looking for.  Getting to know them and naming and nurturing their spiritual gifts will go a long way.  Asking about their spiritual journeys and offering support and resources with a light hand can be invaluable.

            One important function of monthly meetings that are limited in their young adult populations can be to connect them to other young adults in their quarterly and yearly meeting communities. New York Yearly Meeting, for example, has an active calendar of worship, socializing, and religious education opportunities that meet both in person and online.  The FGC Gathering of Friends has a thriving young adult program, and Pendle Hill hosts a conference for young adults every June.  Tell young adults about these opportunities, and let them know if there are funds your meeting can provide to make them financially accessible.

            Know that younger people tend to move much more often, for jobs and for relationships, and cannot take years to find their way into the life of the meeting.  Creating structured opportunities for people to connect, for example through spiritual nurture groups or regular worship sharing, meets the need for spiritual community.  Think about how committee service can work – or not work – for the transient young adults in your community.  Think about ways to include people that don’t require them to be involved in committees or business meeting.

            “We want more Spirit” is a frequent refrain.  We’ve spoken with many young adults who do not find the structure of meeting for worship and social hour working for them.  We’ve seen how well a more intimate group, a query-based worship-sharing format has worked online, and have experience with young adult retreats that create community and opportunities to explore leadings.  Young adults at several meetings have organized ongoing weekly or monthly dinners for spiritual discussion and mutual support.  Think about how you can support more structured ongoing opportunities for connection and sharing at your meeting.  Spiritual nurture groups of four to eight people, even if not aimed at young adults, would benefit the whole community; make sure to group the younger people together so that they can have support from their age cohort.

Involvement in the Life of the Meeting

The traditional way to get involved in the life of the meeting is through committee service.  Ideally, a nominating committee gets to know a newcomer, discerns the gifts they bring to the community, and matches them with a committee that will use those gifts.  This model works well for older adults, and much less well for young adults and parents today.

            Young people are stretched for time, energy, and money.  Even Quaker simplicity costs a lot more today than when our parents were our age, and the shift to the gig economy means that non-working time is a precious resource.  It is not fair to young people to expect committee service at the same level (or perhaps any level) as a meeting can expect from its retired members.  Young people today have significantly less wealth than previous generations, due in large part to structural changes to the economy and the cost of healthcare and education.  It is not fair to young people to expect the same level of financial support a meeting can expect from its older members.  Guilting or shaming young people or parents for not being able to contribute at the same level drives them away.

            Invite young people to serve, by all means!  But understand that we may not be capable of taking on anything more. Meet us where we are at.

            For parents, even the simple things can be hard.  If you’d like parents to give you some of their limited time, make it easy for them to give you their best: make it so that busy parents know that they simply have to show up at a particular block of time with the assurance that someone else will prepare the agenda and facilitate the meeting.  For committees, be clear in the expectations of committee duties and how long a term will last.

            It’s understandable to want a younger person’s perspective on your committee, but make sure that you’re asking a person to serve because their spiritual gifts match the committee’s needs, not just their age.  Many younger adults have had the experience of being invited to serve on a committee, only to find their then realizing, when the young people’s ideas and contributions were routinely ignored, that they were asked so that the committee could tell itself it was diverse.

            A meeting can look at this as a long-term investment.  Seeds planted today may take years flower.  During the parenting-intensive years, younger people often just don’t have the bandwidth to contribute as much to the meeting.  If the meeting welcomes them warmly and nurtures and supports them through the most difficult years, then the meeting’s investment creates a community they can expect that at some point the parents may wish to will make their way into more fully into the life of the meeting.  When the children are older, their parents will be able to give back, and be excited to do so. There may be many unexpected gifts from raising up voices that are too often missing from the room.

            People put energy into the things they’re excited about.  A meeting can be the thing that young people and families are excited about, if a meeting is willing to shift its approach to be more inclusive of a wider variety of needs and ways of participating. There may be many unexpected gifts from raising up voices that are too often missing from the room.

Pastoral Care


A community that makes people feel treasured will thrive and grow; a community that doesn’t will see its young people walk out the door.

            Working on inclusivity makes community things more open and welcoming for the entire meeting community, not just parents and children!  A focus on meeting everyone’s needs and providing spiritual nurture to all knits us together in a more trusting and loving community.  Yes, this is work, but it’s work that pays off with rewards that begin to multiply as we establish a culture of care and mutual support in our meetings, quarterly meetings, and yearly meetings.

            Those of us writing this are all looking for a place to belong.  We are Quakers, and we’d like our meetings to be that place.  We all want to feel wanted, to know that we are an important and integral part of the community.  We think our meetings are up for the challenge, and that we’ll all benefit from becoming truly inclusive and multi-generational.  Quakerism is a faith that the future is going to need, and we’d like to see a Religious Society of vibrant, all-ages, Spirit-led Friends for generations to come.

– Drafted by Janaki, with input and editing from Maya, Dave, David, Ami, Kat, and Christine

A Time to Love, a Time to Refrain from Embracing: Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting’s Spiritual State of the Meeting Report for 2020

I felt led to draft my meeting’s Spiritual State of the Meeting Report earlier this year. It turned out to be a blessing to reflect on our pandemic response. This was a group effort; much of the information about committees is not my work. Here it is:

A Time to Love, a Time to Refrain from Embracing: Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting’s Spiritual State of the Meeting Report for 2020

This has been a challenging year for Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, as we struggled to respond faithfully to the global pandemic, ongoing murders of Black citizens by the police, and an increasingly polarized political climate. With the outside world changing so rapidly, many of us found it difficult at times to stay grounded enough to discern how Spirit was leading us. Fortunately, we were able to lean on one of our biggest strengths: each other.

When things are going well, it can be easy to think of community as a nice thing to have: pleasant, not too onerous, a background hum in our busy lives. This year has awakened us to the fact that community is not just pleasant, it is essential. In hard times, we turn to Spirit and to each other. By this measure, we can say that Spirit has been at work among us this year, and that even as we grieve our losses, we also celebrate the precious ways the pandemic has knitted us together. When we look around at our community, we see the many ways that Love has manifested among us. What follows are just a few examples.

Our Pandemic Response

When the pandemic began, we immediately closed the meetinghouse and moved all meeting activities online. Our Worship & Ministry Committee worked quickly to figure out how best to recreate and support our worship online. A number of Friends brought their knowledge and gifts to the technical aspects of worship over Zoom; others helped technology-challenged Friends access our virtual meetings. As the demand for technical help continued month after month, it placed a strain on this small group of volunteers, and we are realizing that we will need additional support to meet our ongoing need for technical services in 2021.

Our Office and Property Committees kept on top of conflicting and ever-changing safety guidance and restrictions from all levels of government. Our tireless newsletter editors ramped up our communications significantly to circulate timely information and Zoom links. The Meeting’s clerk convened an Ad Hoc COVID Response Committee, consisting of committee clerks as well as individuals with relevant expertise. This group met biweekly and then on an as-needed basis to make decisions about safety and pandemic response that couldn’t wait until business meeting. This group was guided by the principle of an organic response, with individuals and committees being attentive to Spirit and to our community to discern what felt safe and what felt necessary as the situation evolved.

Our Worship

To the surprise of some among us, we found that online worship, though not the same as in-person worship, does work and can even be gathered. We were delighted to have members and attenders return to worship whom we had not seen in many years because they now live at a distance or were physically unable to join us at the meetinghouse. From our computer screens, we were able to welcome Friends from overseas, at home with a new baby, or confined to a hospice bed. One Friend from Germany with a past connection to our Meeting felt such a connection with us online that she was moved to apply for membership. Having had these Friends in our midst this year, we are unwilling to lose them when we move our worship back into the meetinghouse in 2021. Thus, we have made a commitment to have hybrid worship once it is possible to gather in person again. Discerning how to make that hybrid experience seamless and inclusive without placing unsustainable burdens on the community will be a primary challenge for 2021.

In terms of our vocal ministry, while we continue to yearn for deeper grounding for some messages, our experience of online communal worship is in some ways richer than before as we have been blessed by vocal ministry from Friends who have joined us online. Our Worship & Ministry Committee has sought to deepen our collective understanding of Spirit-led vocal ministry by sponsoring Adult Classes and engaging with individual ministers.

When the lockdown restrictions eased, several Friends followed a leading to hold a socially distanced meeting for worship outdoors at the meetinghouse when weather permits.  Tuesday morning worship continues on Zoom, with half an hour of worship and half an hour of reading from Faith & Practice, as does our semimonthly Bible Study group.

Support of Our Community

Some of our deepest concerns during this challenging time have been to maintain a sense of connection among us and to care for those who have been isolated. As well as handling membership issues, our Care & Counsel Committee offered other support to many members and attenders, including offering outdoor childcare so that young parents can attend outdoor worship. In partnership with Care & Counsel, Hospitality Committee members brought meals to those with medical issues and new parents. We hope this brought love and attention and sustenance to those of our community who are in need. At a time when so many are struggling, this has been an enormous undertaking. We lost several beloved members of our community this year and gathered online to honor the lives of members we loved even when the ugliness of a racist Zoom bombing tried to get in the way. Our Care & Counsel and Worship & Ministry Committees jointly formed an Ad Hoc Committee on End-of-Life Issues to formalize committee responsibilities after a death so that this ministry is shared more equitably across committees and no essential tasks are missed.

Although we closed the meetinghouse in March, we made the decision to honor our commitment to our paid employees and continue to do so. With nearly all rental income and Skyspace contributions lost, our Finance Committee guided us through difficult budgetary decisions, including whether to apply for paycheck protection (we did not), accept a government loan, or delay our mortgage payments (both of which we did). Despite the financial challenges posed by the pandemic, appeals from our Stewardship Committee prompted great generosity from community members to ensure we met our budgetary goals. These and other financial decisions have highlighted our need for a more grounded process for discernment around financial questions that are beyond the purview of any single committee. An Ad Hoc Committee on Financial Discernment was formed to bring needed clarity and grounding to our financial decision making.

Our Nominating Committee seeks to help match Friends’ gifts and the movement of Spirit in their own spiritual journeys to the movement of the Spirit in the life and work of the Meeting. With a new standing committee (Addressing Racism) and the proliferation of Ad Hoc Committees (Refugee Support, End-of-Life Issues, COVID Response, and Financial Discernment), we have a lot of openings to fill in a community whose members already feel stretched thin. We find that a small group of very active people wear many different hats, which means that (as we have learned to our sorrow) the loss of one of these essential people can have a devastating effect on the operations of the Meeting in addition to its emotional impact. Nominating Committee works hard to fill open committee slots, and this year met the additional challenge of identifying a new Clerk, Treasurer, and Recording Clerk.

Caring for one another, building community, welcoming visitors, and creating a peaceful place in which people can be with others, are some of the ways that Spirit moves in the work of our committees. We have sorely missed aspects of our community life that have been difficult to recreate online, including the wonderful food and conviviality provided by our Hospitality Committee and the warm welcome of guests by our Outreach Committee. Our Skyspace Committee has missed providing the world with a meditative 50-minute slow-art experience where many of our guests find an element of the Divine as they contemplate the heavens through our open roof. Our monthly hymn sing has also proved impossible to undertake safely. When these activities are possible again, we will cherish them all the more for this time of absence.

Education and Enrichment

Our bimonthly Adult Class offerings this year have helped to keep us connected to our Quaker practice, to our various leadings in the wider world, to the arts, and to big questions of life and death. With a robust schedule of diverse programming, attendance at Adult Class has grown over the past few years, with typically 25 to 30 people joining. The Zoom format has made it possible to have presenters and guests join us from afar, broadening the scope of our programming. Adult Classes have allowed various committees to lift up their concerns, to educate, and to provide a forum for conversations about difficult topics such as racism and reparations.

The Religious Education Committee has been faithful in creating online programming for our children since the start of the pandemic, though we are saddened that attendance has been low. The online experience is just not the same as in person, especially for young people who are already fatigued by online schooling. It has been difficult for young families to stay connected with the Meeting during this time, and we have looked for creative solutions to reach them. Our Zoom Christmas pageant was well-attended, and on December 21st we all enjoyed Winter Solstice Bedtime Stories from around the world. We know that many families are struggling, and we miss having them with us.

Our Witness in the World

Our witness in the wider world also looked different this year. We were unable to host homeless families through the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network this summer as we usually do, and instead our PIHN Committee collected food, personal care items, furniture, and Christmas presents for PIHN families. 

Our Refugee Support Working Group has continued to raise funds for Syrian refugees, led by Spirit in compassion and empathy for those around the world who are struggling with basic needs. Thanksgiving pie-baking was both a logistical challenge and also a great success in terms of fundraising and community building in the midst of a difficult holiday.

Our Peace & Social Concerns Committee focused on educating the Meeting about the faith-based community organization POWER, an effort which culminated in our joining POWER this year. A goal for 2021 will be to involve the wider meeting community in POWER in a deeper and more consistent way. As usual, the committee accepted grant applications from community members and distributed $5,000 to local service organizations.

We continue to grapple with racial justice issues, both within the Society of Friends and in the wider society. After the brutal murder of George Floyd, we organized a socially distanced silent vigil for racial justice at the meetinghouse. This year we became clear that our Ad Hoc Antiracism Working Group needed to become a standing committee, now called the Addressing Racism Committee. At a called meeting for worship with attention to business in July, that committee presented the results of their 2019 survey to assess the racial climate of the meeting. More than 60 responses were collected, and the analysis and presentation of those results were monumental tasks. To quote that report:

“With approximately 87.5% of the meeting community identifying as white, white perspectives, sensibilities and biases pervade the culture of Chestnut Hill Monthly Meeting. The voices of People of Color (POC) and their perspectives are so underrepresented as not to be representational at all. In a spiritual community that prides itself on searching for ‘Truth,’ this is a serious deficit.”

Overall, the survey results demonstrated that the meeting community sees spiritual value in addressing racism and has a good understanding of some issues, yet many of us have very little racial diversity in our lives. This analysis gives us a clearer picture of where to focus our energies going forward. Thirty Friends came to hear the report and join in the worship sharing that followed. We continue to look to each other for support and accountability in this work, for example through a book group organized by our Library Committee to read Me and White Supremacy.

In a time when many local polling places were closed for safety concerns, we opened our meetinghouse to three different divisions on election day, welcoming hundreds of voters. We were thankful to have this opportunity to support the democratic process.

In all of the challenges this year has brought—the pandemic, the racial justice crisis, the climate crisis, and political polarization—we sense that Spirit is asking us to become braver, more grounded, and more faithful. It is easy be discouraged by overwhelming crises, but it has been heartening to see how, when some among us keep the faith, it invigorates all of us to continue on. As we grapple with the spiritual challenges of our time, we expect to see changes within ourselves and within the Meeting. 


In the midst of an incredibly stressful and unprecedented year, we have held onto each other well. The pandemic could easily have been a period of hibernation or a slow falling away, but relationships have continued to grow. We are asking deep questions together, and we are taking on new and challenging work. We have found ways to stay open to the promptings of the Guide within our Meeting and out in the world. 

At the same time, we know that this has not been true for everyone. Our online meetings for worship have shrunk in size over time, and younger people are not as present. Online worship does not work for everyone, and some Friends feel isolated. We have had to lay down so many things that we did before COVID. We don’t know when it will be safe to physically gather again, and we don’t know how much we will have changed when we finally do gather.

Love required us to stay physically distant this year. Love required us to be stronger than perhaps we would have preferred; to plant ourselves deeply in faith to withstand the gales of turbulent times; to reach out to each other and lean on each other and support each other; to be a true community. Much is still uncertain, but we take heart from the ongoing work of our Property and Landscape Committees, who maintain our meetinghouse and its grounds, keeping things clean and orderly, cutting the grass, tending the plants: holding the faith that someday we will at last embrace each other again.

Big Questions

Can I be happy?
How can I be happy?
What do I want to do and be in the world?
How do I find peace?
Do I believe in Jesus?

Why me?
Why am i here?
Why my particular collection of circumstances and neuroses?

How do I live in my body?
How do I live in the world?

Where do I find healing?
What needs healing?

Where is beauty?

How do I trust?


Faithfulness to a leading: the Young Adult Friends’ workshop on racism in our community at PYM Sessions 2017

It’s been almost a year since one of the most powerful movements of the Spirit I’ve ever experienced in my life. It would not be incorrect to call what happened a miracle. Since it happened, I’ve struggled with how to write about. For a long time, I didn’t know how to understand what had happened, and it took me until just recently to understand that it was a story about faithfulness to a leading. Continue reading

The Wedding Ring, a drama in four acts

Ring 2

With thanks to Teya from Theater of Witness, who facilitated my developing this piece.

(Ring placed on the ground in front to the speaker)

Act 1: My grandmother, Martha Josephine Keeler, nee Haeberlin

My grandmother:

  • had an early relationship — a marriage — that fell apart
  • wrote a novel
  • married an intellectual

(speaker puts on wedding ring)

  • had an active spiritual life that some of her loved ones didn’t understand
  • had three kids
  • died when they were in their teens of cancer

(speaker takes a large step forward, takes off the wedding ring and places it on the ground in front of her)

Act 2: My mother, Linda Sanno Keeler

My mother:

  • had several early relationships — including being the “other woman” in an open marriage — that fell apart
  • worshiped her (fallible) father
  • traveled the world
  • married an intellectual

(speaker puts on wedding ring)

  • had two kids
  • wrote a novel
  • died when they were small of cancer

(speaker takes a large step forward, takes off the wedding ring and places it on the ground in front of her)

Act 3: Me, Janaki Rhiannon Spickard Keeler


  • had several early relationships — including being the second partner in a polyamorous arrangement — that fell apart
  • worshiped my (fallible) father
  • wrote five novels
  • traveled (some of) the world
  • have an active spiritual life that some of my loved ones don’t understand
  • married an intellectual

(speaker puts on wedding ring)

(takes a step forward)

  • want kids, even though I’m terrified I’ll leave them due to cancer

(takes a step forward)

  • decided to become unfrozen

(takes a step forward)

  • got serious about getting healthy.  Started treating myself with kindness.  Listened to my body.  Prayed.  Exercised.  Went to more doctors.  Gave myself what I needed to heal because I deserved it.  Started taking myself seriously.  Asked for help.

(takes a step forward, raises hands to the sky)

I open to the miracle of healing!

(takes a step forward)

Act 4: My daughter, Eleanor Sanno Spickard Chiarello

My daughter will:

  • grow up knowing she is safe and loved
  • worship her (fallible) father
  • travel the world, if she wants to
  • write a novel, if she wants to
  • If she decides to get married, her mother will be there.  She will not wear the wedding ring that three generations of women wore before her.  That tradition stops with me.
  • If she decides to have kids, her mother will be right there.  She will never have to watch her die of cancer.

I Have To Do This Myself

I am on the phone with my brother.
The distance between us is vast
           A thousand miles, two thousand?
           Philadelphia to San Antonio
           I could book a trip tonight.

It’s the most words he’s spoken in over a year.
I know
           but still haven’t learned
                     to let the silence settle until he’s ready at last to speak.
He lives in hell and each word is a fight.

The darkness surrounds him.
          He doesn’t know he’s lost because the darkness blinds him.
          He can’t see the road to travel.
Psychiatrists, I tell him.
          Medications. Your brain isn’t working.
“I have to do this myself,” he tells me.

He hasn’t hit rock bottom
Then even that hope will be gone.

Twelve Steps, I whisper, desperate:
          a hypocrite who hasn’t gone to a meeting in a year
          who thanks God every week for partial recovery.

I hang up the phone and cry on my partner’s shoulder.
          “It isn’t fair that I got out of hell and he’s still there.”
My husband nods, strokes my hair.
           He doesn’t understand.
           I hope he never has reason to.
           I got a miracle. I should be grateful, but instead I wonder
                     why my brother didn’t get one too.

Pennsylvania to Texas: the distance between us is vast.
           I could book a flight, be there in twelve hours
                     Show up at his door, call the psychiatrist, take him to a meeting.

I know how this story ends
He’s got to love himself enough to want it.

Instead I cry. I don’t know that my brother will ever love himself enough to pick 
up the phone, book an appointment.
Part of me thinks he will die first, waiting for someone to save him.

Am I crying for him or for me?
           For me. If he dies, I’ll be all alone with the darkness.
           Who will save me?

But I know the answer that the darkness blinds him to.
I will. I will save me.

The distance between us is vast, uncrossable
           Or at least, I can’t cross it.
           I can only wait on the other side
           Hoping against hope
           That he will find his way through the darkness, be released from hell.
“I have to do this myself.”

Hand in Marriage

Fandom: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Summary: When Igors wed, they give their hands in marriage.

Notes: Written for my sweetie, on the occasion of our marriage. 🙂


It used to be that when an Igor and an Igorina got married (or an Igor and an Igor, or an Igorina and an Igorina)*, the custom was that the two would give each other their hearts.


A marriage ceremony for Igors was open heart surgery, and often went on for hours as the switch was made. Naturally, the most skilled Igor heart surgeons came to be highly in demand as officiants of weddings.

Of course, open heart surgery is a bit risky, even for Igors. And there was always the danger than an unscrupulous officiant – or bride or groom – would make off with one or both of the hearts. After a high-profile case in Überwald where a jealous third party paid off the officiant to switch his (the third party’s) heart with the bride’s and to leave the groom’s in place, the tradition began to fall out of favor.

Instead, with the rise of DIY weddings, Igors and Igorinas took matters into their own hands, so to speak. They cut out the middleman, and began the new tradition of giving their hand in marriage.

Nowadays, an Igor wedding is still a surgery. Each member of the couple removes their left hand. Working together, they will stitch one hand and then the other onto the respective arms of their loved one. While normally neatness of stitches and regularity of spacing are much prized by the Igors, it is considered a mark of passion to be so distracted by one’s partner’s eyes (occasionally but infrequently also exchanged) that the stitching looks like the work of a novice or child. Indeed, sloppy stitching is often the only sign apparent to outsiders that the Igor in question is married.

As many outsiders do not appreciate this custom, they take the irregular stitching as a sign of inferior skills. For this reason, many of the top Igor surgeons find that their non-emergency practice with other races drops off considerably after marriage. Igors consider this well worth the tradeoff. It is the ultimate act of trust to give up the hand that plays such a prominent part in an Igor’s livelihood.

In spite of the occasional passionate lover who continues to make a literal gift of their heart to their partner, everyone agrees that the new tradition of giving their hand in marriage is much preferable. Igors are a practical race, after all. Hearts can break; hearts can stop. A healing hand can start a stopped heart, can restore hope to a despairing soul, can sew up the wounds left by slings and arrows. A loving touch can overcome years of heartbreak and abuse. Igors know that hands are as powerful instruments of love as hearts are. By giving their hand in marriage, an Igor signals that love is more than just something one feels in their heart. Love is something an Igor does, actively: touching and shaping and uniting and sharing, hand to hand and heart to heart.



* Natal sex does not always matter to Igors the way it does to humans, especially given the way that physical parts can be easily removed and traded.


The monastery was down a fifteen-mile unpaved road off the highway in the high desert.  The road ran along a river and had not been kept in good repair, so it took them a good hour to reach it.  Sophie was grateful to get out of the car and stretch her legs, and grateful too for the winding track up to the monastery building that gave her time to collect her thoughts.

They were here for Vespers, to hear the Gregorian chanting in this tiny backwater church under a sunbleached sky.  Miles from civilization, she figured the monks might need God more than they would if they’d had the distractions of city life.

The others in her party were ministers – not Catholic, but God was something they seemed to have down.  Sophie could count on one hand the number of her encounters with the divine, and none of them had been a particularly Christian God.  Still, she went to silent meditation twice a week with a mostly Christian crowd, and no other religion had held her interest for long, so perhaps by default she could call herself a Christian.

She wandered the compound for a bit, admiring the care that had gone into the architecture.  Once upon a time it would have driven her crazy; why bother to build a place like this when it had no earthly purpose?  But now she appreciated a church that would invest in the spiritual journeys of its acolytes, even if there was nothing in this material realm to show for it.

The bell rang for Vespers and she took her seat inside the chapel, accepting the hymnal offered to her.  The chant today would be from Exodus.

She’d heard CDs of Gregorian chant, but it took her by surprise to see that the hymnal was in English, not Latin.

These monks did not have the polished vocals of people who produced CDs for the laity.  They were much more raw, unpracticed; it was like hearing the tale for the first time.

They sang about a God delivering them from evil.  They thanked their God for his mercy, his kindness…

They thanked their God for killing all the firstborn of Egypt.

Sophie did not sing along.  She sat there in shock, hearing the tale for the first time.  Every single eldest son in the entire land had been slaughtered by the Israelites’ God.  And these monks were praising him.

The habit of obedience was deeply ingrained, and she did not move.  For half an hour, the monks sang their thanks to the God who had murdered thousands to free a few.

She followed her companions back towards the car silently, after, trying not to listen to them talking about how moving the service had been.  She fell further and further behind, walking the white scrubbrush trail by herself.

It wasn’t right.

The breeze whispered warm around her, comforting and fresh, and rustled the leaves as her footsteps slowed.  She looked up at the sky; the sun was near setting in the west but the sky was still a vivid blue.

I can’t worship a God who kills, she realized.  My God wouldn’t do that, she told the sky.  My God is a God of peace.

Somehow, she was not at all surprised when the sky answered back.  All right, God told her.  You don’t have to worship a God who kills.  That’s their God, and you don’t have to believe in their God.

She blinked, surprised.  That’s… allowed? she asked, tentatively.  She was pretty sure she was supposed to struggle, to come to terms with Scripture, not reject it outright.

The sky smiled at her, and the breeze wrapped around her like a hug.  No more words were needed, because she knew what God was trying to tell her: that her own experience of the love permeating the moment was all the Scripture she would ever need.  She could feel the rightness of it sinking into her bones.

Sophie smiled up at the sky.

Thank you.  Thank you.

Then she started making her way up the hill toward the gathered ministers.