Reflections on Service: An Interview with Jane Orion Smith

I recently caught up with Jane Orion Smith to discuss her 18 years with Canadian Friends Service Committee, and what she learned along the way.
Q: What motivates Quaker service work?
Orion: Quakerism is a religion of response. The motivation is a response to the Inner Voice, not just what we think is right. Quaker service work is deeper than analysis or emotion – it’s rooted in our experience of Spirit, in the core of our being. This is not exclusive to Quakers, but it’s our touchstone.
Q: Why does Quaker service work matter?
Orion: The world yearns for justice and peace – calling us to respond. Because service work is rooted in a deep knowing, that knowing emboldens us to not give up, whether or not there’s progress, whether or not there are people who seem to care, that Inward Voice keeps us going. There are issues that aren’t popular and can take decades, maybe even centuries, to resolve, but Quakers keep working on them. We can’t do it on our own strength – we need each other and we need our spiritual centre. Few are willing to keep on with an issue that doesn’t seem to show results, but Quakers are looking at more than outward signs.
Q: What personal qualities or support structures around you have helped you most in your service work?
Orion: Patience is a pretty big one! It can take a long time for people to come around on an issue or to discern a way forward that’s collectively held. Being plain-speaking and trying to create a culture of open-mindedness is, I think, really critical within any organization. When there’s a conflict it’s so important that people are able to talk about it and try to move it forward. Conflict can be painful, but it’s also an opportunity to deepen relationship. Of course, that requires a willingness from all parties, and that doesn’t always happen, but organizations become sick by avoiding conflict. Conflicts are three-dimensional entities. I’m looking at it and analyzing it from one perspective, but people see it from different perspectives, and we need each other to understand it in its full depth. So the more we can let go of our own opinions and assumptions and try to hear things from different perspectives, the more we can come up with better solutions. The key is to listen deeply and also to let go.
We always talk at CFSC about the work being all about relationship – with our partners, our committee members, our fellow staff. Even having social conversations with people from out of town who drop into Friends House [where the CFSC office is located] is an opportunity to find out what’s going on in their communities, to get to know them. That relationship building is the foundation for the work that then happens with them, with their Meeting, and in developing an understanding of the Yearly Meeting as a whole, which is vital. To know one another in the things that are Eternal – and mundane!
Q: What work opportunities stand out from your time with CFSC?
Orion: I was fortunate to work on same-sex marriage legislation, our response to 9/11 and the anti-terrorism legislation and civil liberties concerns that followed, conscientious objection and the War Resisters, and ecumenical justice. I served on the board of KAIROS for 10 years as chair, treasurer, and in other roles. CFSC pushed me to grow in so many ways, to see the deep complexity of any issue, and to learn how best to communicate in the process of discernment, how to speak and frame things so they could be heard and understood. Funnily, I learned this most working in the governance and administrative areas of CFSC.
Q: You helped CFSC navigate many challenging decision-making processes, some in which Friends had very divergent opinions. What advice would you give to people seeking to make difficult decisions in community?
Orion: Deborah Fisch, former Friends General Conference staff, used to say her job was to “love the body.” By “the body” she means the community, and by “love” she doesn’t mean the feeling, but acting in a caring, compassionate way. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of becoming self-aware, so you know when your ego is in the way. It’s a daily discipline. And we’ll have times of failure, but hopefully we learn from those failings. In community, we’re trying to make a decision that I call the “will of the all.” So that relinquishment of the ego is key. And sometimes it’s just not the right time and you have to wait for things to shift.
I remember asking Margaret Clare Ford when she was CFSC clerk, how to work with people who didn’t listen and seemed to not be open to others’ views or experiences. I was pretty frustrated. “Orion,” she said with her wry smile, “they are the stone against which we sharpen ourselves.” A challenge like that forces us to deeply analyze the person’s perspective and to develop a real precision about why we think differently. There will always be that person who’s a challenge, but they’re actually also an opportunity to better ourselves. We also need to hear and see the truth coming from anyone, and particularly from those whose personalities may not click with our own.
Q: You’ve experienced discrimination because of your gender expression and sexual orientation, but as far as I can tell you never seem bitter or hateful about it. Why is that?
Orion: I haven’t found hate to be useful. The first person it destroys is me. But when you work with difficult issues and are dealing with general stress of a leadership role, you are vulnerable to behaving badly. I’ve always had people I could talk to confidentially. You have to be able to lay out all your garbage and assumptions, the bad things you can think when you’re in stressful situations. You have to clear those things from your body to get to the place where you need to be in order to respond compassionately and productively. We’re all human. We all have terrible thoughts and feelings at times. Being self-aware that you’ve got this poison in your system that you have to purge before you act is how you don’t fall into hate. Hate is never going to solve anything. When we’re in a state of alienation we cannot heal. Healing is all about relationships.
When I’ve been angry it’s usually because people aren’t listening. A lot of Quakers might think LGBT2SQ issues in the community are essentially resolved, but they aren’t. God joins a couple in marriage; Friends are but witnesses to what has already been done – we just discern whether to take a marriage under our care. But whether to take a same-sex marriage under their care – on the basis of sexual orientation, not the couple’s readiness for marriage – is still at the discretion of local Meetings. As a Yearly Meeting we haven’t said the possibility of such discrimination is intolerable.
We still have trouble listening to marginalized people who articulate how to make Meetings more welcoming. For example, most churches say “everyone is welcome” – few mean it. An “everyone welcome” sign without a rainbow flag actually says to many LGBT2SQ people that other people are welcome but they aren’t. It can be salt in the wound. And not just for gay people. It’s hard to build and sustain a truly diverse community! It’s more complex than we realise. It means cultural change – and Quakers are not always so good at change, despite our belief in continuing revelation.
Listening and responding to the needs of marginalized people requires more than empathy. If the action being asked for – like a rainbow flag or being properly addressed by our gender preference or name – isn’t harmful, then why wouldn’t you do it? We need to ask marginalized people what will make Quaker Meeting a more welcoming space for everyone, and be willing to change, and be changed.
Q: Can you tell readers why you’re no longer working at CFSC?
Orion: I had a bad fall on the ice five days after my 15th anniversary of working for CFSC. I’ve spent three years trying to heal and recover from a traumatic brain injury, but I remain too disabled to work. My days have to be carefully planned and paced or I’m toast. Mostly I’m toast anyway! I still can’t process or organize well. I’m easily stressed out. My wife Janet and I had to work together on the text for this interview after it was done – so I probably sound pretty good here! My disability is a lot about learning how to be – and getting value out of that – rather than doing. Fortunately, I had a good teacher in Alex Mungall, a f/Friend who had multiple sclerosis. He was formidable in his being – it was life changing, knowing Alex.
I’m not less than who I was because I’m disabled. In some ways, I’ve really deepened. No one should feel sorry for me – I’m on an adventure of sorts. Not one I’d recommend for anyone, but if you find yourself there, you can find your way forward. I miss my competencies, but most of all I miss being with people and going wherever I want without a second thought, because everything aggravates my symptoms. I’ve learned what an inaccessible world this is for people with disabilities. I’m in pain 24/7. I’m learning how to live alongside it. I’m figuring out how to form new relationships as a different person, in a town where few knew the “old Orion.” It is humbling. I have faith that there’s a path of grace in all this, a new vocation rooted in being over doing.
I cannot thank CFSC enough for how compassionate and generous they’ve been with me on this journey. Sadly, it’s not the norm when this kind of thing happens. When I tell people about it they’re stunned at the care and responsiveness that my employer has shown. I’m extremely grateful for my time at CFSC. I grew in more ways than I can name. There are so many incredible unsung heroes I’ve worked with – staff, volunteers, partners, donors – who taught me so much and who gave so much to CFSC. It has been a deep pleasure to work with these f/Friends on issues large and small, and I’m leaving with lasting friendships.
Jane Orion Smith served the second longest term in CFSC’s General Secretary role, behind only Fred Haslam, the first General Secretary in 1931. Matthew Legge conducted this interview in his role as CFSC Communications Coordinator.