Drugs, alcohol, and really good coffee

Ironic? Karma coming full circle? Terrifying? For me the feeling of being called to run a session on drugs and alcohol the first night of Summer Gathering was all three.

When I was a teenager there were several Summer Gatherings where Young Friends (YFs) drank. One year when Summer Gathering was over New Years Eve, all the YFs organised to go off site and drink. Two people stayed sober to make sure everyone was safe, only overage YFs bought the alcohol. We went to a park, drank in a big fort, and saw the New Year in. Nothing went wrong, no one got too drunk, and we all came back safely together. Even so, the next day we were in big trouble. The adults were upset at us, and we had to have a big meeting with about 50 people. It went on for hours. We got to have our say, but none of us could really see why we’d upset them.

Fourteen years later I was at a recent Summer Gathering, where a number of small groups of adults went to the pub, or off to a restaurant and had wine with dinner. The rules hadn’t changed, the enrolment form said the Summer Gathering was alcohol free. Had the culture changed? Was it a double standard? I began to realise that the issue was complex, not just about the rules of the site, not just about safety, but also about being inclusive. Those years ago we had included all the YFs, but we had excluded the adults. We had literally divided the community. Perhaps that’s really why they were upset.

The Summer Gathering organising committee (this year entirely comprised of YFs) were very keen to have a session on drugs and alcohol. In recent years YFs have brought alcohol or gone off site and gotten drunk. Sometimes under sixteen year olds have been involved too, and there have been occasions where young people were extremely ill and even hospitalised at Quaker gatherings due to the unsupervised use of alcohol. Even though the camp rules say they shouldn’t drink this can be taken as somewhat hypocritical when they know that many adults are sharing a bottle of wine in their tents. The committee therefore didn’t want a session laying down the rules, but one in which the issues were openly discussed on the first night, where corporate witness and a sense of unity might make drinking or not a collective rather than just an individual decision. If different people and different age groups could listen to each others views and explore the underlying issues and values, perhaps there was less chance of the community being divided? We had done this on a much smaller version at the last YF camp and it had worked. With some trepidation, but a strong leading to do it, I volunteered.

Through the conversations I had in planning the session I began to see that this was about more than just drugs and alcohol, it was about being together as a community, about being fully present with each other and building relationships in a positive way. With help from several other YFs I came up with some questions for the session. What does it mean to be a part of this community for 8 days? What makes us feel included at Summer Gathering? What are the behaviors that can make people feel excluded at Summer Gathering? Why might people want to take drugs or alcohol? Is there anything different about doing this in normal life, and doing it at Summer Gathering? Why would people choose not to take drugs or alcohol/abstain at SG? How do we look after each other? How do we keep people safe?

About 100 people of all ages attended the session. YFs took the list of questions and led groups of ten to fifteen people in a discussion, using the questions and several short readings from Quaker literature. As they did this I walked around, caught snippets of conversation, getting a sense of when it was time to encourage everyone to move on to the next set of questions. I don’t know exactly what each group discussed. The tone though seemed thoughtful, considered and caring. It wasn’t as loud, heated or contentious as I thought it might have been, maybe that was a due to a growing sense of unity or maybe it was the ever latening hour and people tired from travelling.

It’s hard to tell what result the session had on the gathering. I do know none of the YFs drank on site, or off site as a group. I know that a few people (adults and YFs) had the odd drink off site. The gathering certainly felt very inclusive to me, and almost everybody, including all the YFs participated in the games and dancing on New Years Eve, and we saw the New Year in as a community, together.

And the YFs did raise nearly $1,000 selling great coffee and hot chocolates in auditorium foyer. Maybe the session kept people on site and away from alcohol, or maybe it was the Summer Gathering café. Quakers after all did invent hot chocolate in the 1700s as an alternative to alcohol!

Special thanks to Leith, Marion, Quentin, Richard and all the YFs for their thoughts, inspiration, and help in planning and running the session.


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