Mutual aid and Olympia Friends

I had a good visit at Olympia Friends Meeting last week (wow, was it only last week?), which seems to be a very vibrant meeting. There were about 80 people attending that morning, in a space small enough that there weren’t many open seats left. I appreciated this, because I think the quality of a meeting for worship/group meditation is greater when people sit closer together.

While sitting there, I felt some impulsion to speak about the need, as people of integrity, to be wary of believing things that have little evidence supporting them. But this went away, in part because there was a group singing before meeting began, and the last song they sang had stuck in my head: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, an old black spiritual. Eventually I stood and spoke about the need to show our love for each another by taking care of each other during hard times, even in material ways. I mentioned the traditional office of “overseers,” and how most liberal meetings laid them down in the 19th century (in part due to the influence of Progressive Friends, which I didn’t mention), and suggested we try to revive that function in some form, at least in those meetings that haven’t already. Other people spoke about their experiences needing or giving help; one spoke about how it’s difficult to know when you should help someone, and when you should just be with them.

After meeting, despite having so many people, we went around and gave our names and shared any thoughts we had that we didn’t want to share in meeting. I think this is wonderful, and I’m glad they do it. There seems to be a sentiment that it takes too much time unless you have a small group, but I think it’s worthwhile enough to do even if it takes half an hour.

During this time, someone confirmed that the meeting does in fact have an Oversight & Pastoral Care Committee, which got a good publicity boost I hope. My little sister (who wants to attend regularly now) sang a little song, which I’ve forgotten to ask her the name of.

After the close of meeting, one Friend from the Philadelphia area said her meeting there had a committee like this also. She also brought up the issue of “overseer” being an unpleasant name now due to its association with slavery. (This was also raised in the comments to Richard’s post linked to above.)

I’m not really sure what term I’d prefer. “Pastoral care” seems more clear, but it’s not ultimately a good metaphor for care of people I don’t think, being derived from “shepherd” (someone who watches sheep so they can be fleeced and eaten later). I like the term “mutual aid,” but it’s a bit moot since I’m not actively involved in one local meeting at the moment.

In the coffee hour, I met a girl applying to attend The Meeting School in New Hampshire, the uncle of a member of North Shore Friends Meeting, and a Friend who lived in the Longfellow House across from Friends Meeting at Cambridge decades ago when Henry Cadbury and others attended there. It’s a small world.

I don’t have any photos, sadly, because US Airways lost my luggage, and it’s still stuck in Seattle somehow 8 days later… :(

9 Responses to “Mutual aid and Olympia Friends ”

  1. 1 Pam Aug 20th, 2007

    I heard you finally got your luggage back, congrats! here’s hoping it had an exciting vacation without you :P

    I am sort of baffled by the “overseer” thing. I don’t intuitively get the connection, but then I do as well (ie: as far as I know it’s that the word is the same, though the *intention* was never the same, for some reason that makes a difference to me)

    but I’m mostly baffled by why folks don’t just change it. That’s my general philosophy on anything that’s hurting someone and not particularly helping anyone (would any meeting be diminished by having it called something else?)

    In our meeting it’s always been “ministry and counsel” as far as I know. That works for me.

    I have the same problem with “pastoral” - and really anything to do with sheepherding, which, after all, is about economic exploitation, rather than any sort of love or protection, as christians often tend to use it.

    Still, I like pastures, so I could get used to it :)

    I’m glad you had a good visit. I had planned to worship twice yesterday and ended up doing it not at all :(

  2. 2 Zach Aug 20th, 2007

    Well I don’t think many liberal meetings DO use the word overseer. It’s usually “Oversight (etc.) Committee” and to me that’s a big step removed from “overseer” in terms of associations with slavery.

    Yes, I almost can’t believe it. At least the wine has aged a little more. (It was a housewarming present — now I guess I’ll have to drink it myself :)

  3. 3 Liz Opp Aug 23rd, 2007

    Nice to read this account, Zach.

    The first meeting I attended regularly as a young adult was fairly large (50-70 adults on a given First Day), but we always took the time after worship to introduce each one of us and offer announcements and news of our lives. I found it rich and helpful in weaving the community together, and I just assumed that all meetings did this.


    I miss this sort of connection that is built into only a few of the larger meetings. My personal hope is that by setting the expectation that such sharing is a part of the worship that happens on First Day, more Friends, attenders, and visitors will actually stay, participate–and not complain!

    As to the practice of mutual care, I find that I don’t necessarily “wait” for the meeting to consider proposals from M&C or for specific requests for aid/care to be made. I am simply acting as I see the need, like when a long-time member lost her estranged, non-Quaker mother and hadn’t been able to connect with the meeting around her loss. Within 48 hours of hearing the news, my partner and I organized a potluck (intended for there to be leftovers for the Friend and her family) and an evening of singing (a favorite activity for this particular Friend). Many Friends showed up and the Friend was able to share stories about the mother she knew that the church was never going to know…

    For me, much of why our relationships within our faith communities (and other communities) are so important is because I can’t possibly know everyone in my community–but we can all know one another and therefore can be prepared, as a community, to extend ourselves in times of despair, trial, and tragedy.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  4. 4 Martin Kelley Aug 24th, 2007

    My understanding is that Friends’ use of the word “overseer” comes from Acts 20:28 (”Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God…”, King James), a phrase that the more Latin-friendly Bibles translated as “bishops” (…wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops…” from Douay Rheims). I’ve proposed a few times that we should just rename the committee to the “bishops committee;” as far as I know no one’s followed me up on that idea.

    I’ve noticed that there are people who are just very good at checking in, remembering details and connecting meeting members with one another. They’re so good at this seemingly-spontaneous care giving that we barely noticed their work until they’ve gone. It’s a true gift. We try to fill the void with a committee but the work becomes a task and chore. I’ve wondered what would happen if we worried less about committees and more about recognizing and supporting this kind of gift when we find our faith community blessed with it.

  5. 5 Paul Ricketts Aug 24th, 2007

    “She also brought up the issue of “overseer” being an unpleasant name now due to its association with slavery. (This was also raised in the comments to Richard’s post linked to above.”)

    As a African American Friend, I am not
    in unity with using the word “overseer”.
    To much baggage with the enslavement of my people.

    Overseer also for me implies a heirarchy.
    The overseers is higher than the rest of the meeting;


  6. 6 Zach Aug 24th, 2007

    I agree Paul, it does imply a hierarchy — and back in the day, there really *was* a hierarchy, believe it or not. Overseers didn’t just have a pastoral function, they also were the doctrinal enforcers, sort of the Quaker law enforcement. The ministers, elders and overseers would meet in “select meetings,” sort of like an executive committee. (Today’s Ministry and Counsel committees are the modern, less powerful and less exclusive descendants of those.)

    Liz and Martin,
    Yes, I don’t think it should always be committees who do this, though in many cases it may be helpful of course. Perhaps the best way to put it is that one way or other, it needs to come back into our discourse as a standard “Quaker activity” alongside eldering and ministry.

    Just like how many places don’t have recorded elders or ministers, but still minister and elder informally…

  7. 7 Mary M Aug 26th, 2007

    One of the talents the Lord has given me is that of what traditionally has been called overseer. I take care of the membership of my meeting, watching for indications of health problems among the eldest, supporting the other elder, listening where needed, feeding the hungry visiting the sick. Give me another name for what I do that does not imply managing slaves, or being hierarchically above others. Martin’s spontaneous care giving is a mouth full, but what he describes is what I do. I’m not comfortable with pastor, bishop and other traditional titles. I do see what I do as a gift, as I often see what others don’t.

  8. 8 Zach Aug 26th, 2007

    Mary, it’s wonderful to hear about how you’ve been led. Thank you for what you do in your meeting.

  9. 9 Frederick Aug 30th, 2007

    Hi Zach, — bumping into you electronically a lot these days.

    Just to put in a word for the shepherds: You’re right that the result is to fleece and kill them –problematic. But, responding to Pam, and speaking as a vegetarian who lives with a real live flock of sheep (others in my community here at the Meeting School eat them), I’d say the shepherd does feel loving and protective toward his/her sheep. Just the other day I freed a young ram from a burdock bush he’d velcro-ed himself to, and my heart went out to him! And they love to have their ears scratched. The loving shepherd then eating the sheep brings up a compromised image, or a paradoxical one, perhaps appropriate to an imperfect world?

    Thanks for the TMS link…

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