For the second year in a row there was a Quaker stall at the Hay Festival, and, as last year I (Peter Hussey) put in a stint of assisting. Last year I had done two sessions on one day which I had so enjoyed that this year I volunteered to do six sessions, two a day over three days.
All the volunteers had put forward the days that they could offer, this was done quite early on in the year, which meant that having offered various days I had to be careful about filling them as we waited to hear which days we were needed on. When the days were notified I found that I had a day which I had not offered, but which, apparently fewer Friends had offered, this was one of the first two days which are mainly directed at school children. While later days can feature wonderfully deep conversations with adults, these first two days are mainly devoted to handing out hundreds of gift bags to the passing children, and teacher packs to the accompanying teachers. Later in the day people were coming to the stall saying "I've seen these bags being carried by everyone on the site, can I have one, please!". There were adult gift bags as well. The bags contained book marks, leaflets and introductory booklets. The bags are very popular early in the Festival, but very soon most of the passers have as many bags as they can carry anyway. OK, so I have done my stint of bag issuing, next time I make sure that I am only helping on the "adult" days.
There will not be a Quaker stall at next year's Festival because it coincides with BYM. This year the stall had been supported by the Friends House Hospitality team as well as the Outreach team. This gave the stall a much different appearance with a range of Fair Trade goodies and reusable and recyclable coffee mags, leading into the book range. This arrangement worked well. The Fair Trade fudge and the coffee cups being strong sellers. Gill Sewell also told me that it had made the staffing of the stall easier too.
The role of the volunteer, as I have seen it and tried to do it, is to be at the entrance to the stall and to be prepared to catch the eye of passers, giving them a smiling greeting or a bright "good morning". They may well say "Quakers" to themselves, which provides a way into conversation; and sometimes they will accept the invitation of the greeting to begin a conversation. I was too slow witted to realise the background of an early enquiry "Do you have any porridge oats?" to pick up on their misunderstanding of which sort of Quaker we were, but the more experienced Gill was quick to point out what of Quaker reputation had led to the oat company using the name.
The conversations that develop are of two types, the shallower one of "several of my friends are Quakers, so I know who you are", to the really deep ones in which individuals explore with us their deepest feelings about God, the practice of religion and the challenges of walking into a new group for the first time. These are the conversations, possibly only one or two in a day, that make the experience of supporting the Quaker stall so rewarding and enjoyable, also, as one Quaker commented to me, the Hay Festival is rather like BYM with more books!