Why Do Friends Need Diversity?

The discernment of God’s will is not easy. A person’s hearing of the "still, small voice" in silent worship is vulnerable to corruption by limited experience, biases, and emotions. We seek support for individual discernment in meeting for business where Friends seek direction for the meeting by sharing different ideas, and in clearness committees where one person receives input from several Friends of varied experience and outlook. We believe these group processes help us discern a purer Truth and come closer to understanding God’s will.

It requires maturity for someone to recognize the need for help with discernment. Some people can’t distinguish between what they have experienced and a broader perspective, between their feelings and objective reality, between their aspirations and God’s leading.

Our predominantly European American meetings have a similar problem. The majority of our members are white, college-educated, and comparatively comfortable financially. Like individuals, our meetings have biases. A diverse membership would provide a broader perspective and help us more nearly approach God’s Truth.

Those of us who belong to dominant groups often don’t recognize our culture’s limitations. Our ethnocentricity blinds us, much as personal factors can skew the perceptions of individuals. The white middle class has a particular problem recognizing its biases because it produces the majority of writers of textbooks, editors of newspapers, and those who decide what merits media coverage. We are the people whose prejudices become institutionalized. Quakers vary in some ways from most people in this larger group—our adherence to the Peace Testimony is a good example—yet we are part of that culture. We live in the world, and the world leaves its mark on us.

Those of us who are European Americans tend to believe we are the norm. We are the standard against which we measure others. When I lead antiracism workshops, I often recount the story of a relative who traveled from his home in Illinois to New Mexico. When I asked him about his trip, he said, "The people we met were really interesting. About a third of them were American Indians; about a third were Mexicans; and about a third were [pause] you know, regular people." We think other people are interesting and possibly worthy of respect, but we are the "regular people."

I invite you to do an exercise I ask of workshop members: list three words to describe yourself, words that would help someone recognize you in an airport. (Do it now, before you read on.)

Almost always, people of color mention that they are African American, Hispanic, Chinese American, or whatever else they might be. It seldom occurs to European Americans to mention their ethnicity or color. Again, this group thinks it is the norm, the given.

A major current within antiracism work today is the study of whiteness. What does it mean to be white? What particular attitudes and beliefs are specific to the dominant culture? As this group gains awareness of its idiosyncrasies, as it views itself as just one of many cultures, it will recognize that it has biases and needs help with discernment.

So how would diversity improve our discernment of Truth? Several examples might help:

  1. In my business meeting, we considered a minute in support of affirmative action when hiring someone to cut the grass, plow the snow, or audit the accounts. Some Friends questioned the need. The presence of an African American Friend heightened our sensitivity and commitment to fairness, and we adopted the minute.
  2. Most members of our meeting are relatively comfortable economically—unlike Friends in the early years, who were drawn from a wide range of occupations and social classes. (While William Penn and others in London traveled in the highest levels of English society, many of the Valiant Sixty were drawn from the poorer, agrarian classes of Northern England.) If we attract people from a range of socioeconomic classes, we might develop a different and perhaps better-informed perspective when facing fiscal decisions.
  3. African American churchgoers often touch me deeply. Their culture, in my opinion, incorporates the teachings of Jesus to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Certainly I see charity among Friends, but seldom the same deep commitment to help our brothers and sisters in need. People who grew up in African American churches could deepen our understanding of the Gospel.
  4. Recent national legislation limits our freedoms in the name of security.
    As we balance security and personal freedom, the input of Japanese American Friends who were interned during World War II would enrich our
  5. A Friend of color told me how deeply she is touched by the idea that there is that of God in everyone. It touches me too, but because of her experience of being treated as a lesser being,
    this belief goes right to her heart. God within is a very basic precept of our religion, and she brings to it a deeper dimension.

Diversity may come at a cost. Many of us are attracted to our meetings not just because we find God in the silent worship but also because we are attracted to a community of people who think and act like we do. Many Friends vote Democratic, de-emphasize meat in their diet, and dress casually. It is very comfortable to share opinions and customs. I find this gratifying myself. If the meeting incorporates people with different tastes, habits, and sensibilities, it may shift the comfort level. I honestly don’t know how much diversity a community can embrace and still hold its center. We will have to learn as we go.

However, we are called to be a spiritual community, joined together in that which is eternal. If some of us like tabbouleh at potlucks and others prefer teriyaki or tamales, that certainly can be an asset rather than a detriment. If some like to dress up on First Days and others love to wear jeans, we can learn to live with that difference. But a respect for our traditional testimonies and a commitment to seeking God’s leading in silent worship are basic to who we are.

We will be challenged to consider what is essential to our faith and what is merely a difference in preference. Making that distinction is a worthwhile exercise anyway. In fact, people considering membership should be clear they are attracted to a community of people sharing life in the Spirit, not just to a comfortable social gathering of like-minded folks.

Quakerism is not for everyone. Some people find the Spirit in silent worship and embrace our testimonies. Others are more deeply touched by music, ritual, and a creed. However, these personality characteristics know no racial or ethnic boundaries. We seek individuals whose hearts leap at the possibility of encountering God in silent worship, those who find the testimonies liberating.

If white Friends are truly open and free of the arrogance that they are the "regular people," and if a meeting is known throughout the community, those who hunger for what Quaker worship offers will find it, and they will bring knowledge and perspective that will enrich Friends’ ability to discern God’s Truth.

Many Friends are working for more diversity. I believe God is calling us to be inclusive communities in which people with a similar spiritual longing are able to worship and seek together while learning to be comfortable with differences. Exciting times lie ahead. We will be challenged, and we will be better for it.

Patience A. Schenck

Patience A. Schenck, who recently completed three years as clerk of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting, leads antiracism workshops among Friends. She is happily retired from paid employment.