Being a Quaker is my primary identity, and I consider my monthly meeting to be my primary community. My devotion to Quakerism has been steadily growing for the two decades of my association with it. Yet, for several years now as a Quaker I have felt like the flappers in the Island of Laputa in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: the minds of Friends often seem turned so inward or upward that they must be roused "by some external tactation" to bring their attention to the realities of the here and now.
I firmly believe our community is "peace-able." Firstly, it is an intentional, divine-centered source of energy directed toward the spiritual growth of all within it and of all those in other communities with which it intersects. Secondly, this centeredness is able to be self-aware and respectful of the diversity of core beliefs and values within the community and, as well, is able to be aware and respectful of the diversity of appearances and behavior found in both friends and strangers among us. And finally, I believe this community is willing to engage, "with laughter, love, and sorrow," in the labor that can bring these abilities to the fruits of right action.
My concern is to continue and redouble my mission of being one of the instruments of the return of the Religious Society of Friends of Truth to its path of truth-seeking. Northern Yearly Meeting and Quaker educator and trainer Niyonu Spann were the messengers who provided the most recent reminders to me. But for some time now I have believed that truth is co-created, amongst us and with the Divine, in an ongoing dialogical process.
Seven queries have aided me to reflect on our meeting as a community (see sidebar). In the rest of this article, I state some of my own views about the first query: What would I like to see changed in the meeting concerning issues of diversity?
During a recent dialogue within our meeting about the "back/black bench," as illustrated in Margaret Hope Bacon’s Sarah Mapps Douglass, Faithful Attender of Quaker Meeting: View from the Back Bench, we asked ourselves the following question: what plays the role of the back bench in our current Quaker culture? That is, what structures of our culture today marginalize people of color and other politicized groups? And further, are we willing and able to change these structures so that no group is marginalized by our meeting?
I believe that an essential first step in a positive, co-creative dialogue for change is acceptance and self-love. This is no less true for a community than for an individual. Yet, along with that sense felt by many that things are "exactly the way they should be right now" and that this is a beautiful community filled with love and caring, I feel there is also a great deal of ignorance and lack of skill in cross-cultural interaction. The ignorance is not total. Those of us who have been marginalized in this community, whether it be because of age, a hearing impairment, or because some of our beliefs and values do not coincide with those of the most vocal majority, are aware of the underlying Quaker culture that produces spiritual harm to some people sometimes.
When I identify our community as peace-able rather than peaceful, the dissonance I sense does not stem from our ideals. I am not speaking of Quaker testimonies or about the extended texts about our faith and practices that are found in yearly meeting publications. Rather, I speak of the deep cultural beliefs and values that drive our everyday behavior in our meetings. Texts are interpreted through both corporate and individual lenses, and the interpretation and the situating of them within our particular lives, as we live them together, drive our decisions. I believe we need to be as intentional about this deep community lens as each of us is about our personal lens. In that way, in addition to reveling in both personal growth and in the joy of being in community together, we can work together to make the changes that allow us to grow as a diverse community.
In my belief, self-knowledge is difficult for a community to the degree that the community shares in the mainstream of its society. Initially, and in many ways, Quakers seem not to be in the mainstream; yet in protesting mainstream values out of our feelings of desperation, we may inadvertently further them. Our recent tireless quest for peace is a pertinent example. My meeting community feels great anxiety and unrest with the current imperialist activities of the U.S. government. We do stand out as peace-lovers, even among other peace-lovers of Madison, Wisconsin, because of our insistence on the essentialness of nonviolence—in all senses of this word—in any action to which the meeting puts its name. We seek to align ourselves with the divine power that takes away the occasion for war. But then, much of the work in particular antiwar movements has seemed to me a distraction from this Quaker testimony because energy used to protest this war thereby takes away from the energy we need for constructive peace action in our own neighborhood. Through our underlying fear of conflict, we may react to the mainstream intention of perpetuating international violence and neglect to discern the need to minister to hunger, want, and ignorance in our own backyard. Are we afraid that this face-to-face ministry will expose us to conflict? But these unsatisfied needs of our nearest neighbors are likely, in turn, to drive them to seek violence as a solution. Our neighbors are being deserted by us, the "peacemakers."
This means that in our fear-based reaction against the mainstream we simultaneously serve its ends in being unconscious perpetrators, through negligence, of much that fuels war in this world. I see some evidence of this in what I regard as underlying Quaker attitudes towards many sorts of difference. Fear of certain sorts of difference and of sinking to the level of this difference may lead many of our Friends to join the rat race, "seeking the best" for their children, for example—less noticeable, perhaps, because Friends usually do so in a quiet, restrained manner. I believe this kind of attitude still may feel "peaceful" to us, exactly because we move with the flow of competition and help it along. Moving differently from the mainstream, when we let go of our considerable privilege and refuse to take advantage of it, is likely to feel uncomfortable.
I see us draw into our Quaker communities and support Quaker groups, such as American Friends Service Committee and Friends schools—practices I personally agree with. But when we as a meeting run out of money or become overly judgmental about the cultures of "outside" organizations, we send the message that we protect our own and those we choose to protect, but have nothing more than kind feelings for the many who suffer on our very doorstep. For example, I believe that the public schools in Madison, as in many other places in the United States, are destroying the lives of most of the children of color who go through them. Do we, as a meeting, speak truth to the power that perpetuates this system? Or, do we content ourselves with sending "our own" to Quaker schools or local private or parochial schools?
I do not have space here to detail the specifics of the experiences that have led me to read our underlying Quaker culture in the way that I do. I invite you to read what you can from the descriptions below and also to examine the specifics of your experience of the culture. My choice of what to name in the vision below identifies what I see as lacking in our culture currently. Many may be so situated in our Quaker community that it seems so wonderful now and should not change a jot. From my bench, it seems wonderful now and it has a lot of growing to do. Here are some of my concerns.
Us and Them
I would like us to make no distinctions among people that imply our valuing them differently. Members of our own community are the friends we know personally. I would like us not to expect that the issue put forth by them is likely to be of greater value than an issue put forth by someone outside this community. This does not mean we have to share our material resources with everyone, of course. If these resources are material, then they are limited, and it makes sense to share them first amongst ourselves when there is need. But because spiritual support comes from a bottomless well, we need not discriminate in providing it.
Margins and Center
In a similar way, I would not like us to have the expectation that someone who is of long standing in our community or who comes with the "right" credentials from another meeting has better issues than someone we know less well. Deep listening must be practiced with those with whom we are less familiar in a much more intentional way than with our recognized leadership.
We are equal to each other in our divine spirit but vastly different in our capacities. Inequality is essential in the running of any large community, for we have different responsibilities that accord with our abilities. Similarly, our needs vary. If we plan to practice the maxim, "From each according to one’s abilities, to each according to one’s needs," I believe we have a corporate responsibility to discern both needs and abilities with cultural competence. And (this being of supreme importance) we discern without positive and negative judgment. I would like us to strive toward the goal that no one feel a better human being because one’s needs are less or because one contributes more—and that no one feel inferior as a human being because one contributes less or needs more. I do not think that we will do this without great effort, for we seem to partake fully of that mainstream U.S. individualism that rewards performance because we believe that winners "deserve" to win, rather than realizing that anyone who "wins" does so in great part because of privilege and because of feeding on the misfortunes of others.
I want everyone in need to receive not only our compassion, but also our love—where this includes our commitment, trust, and respect. To the degree that we have space, time, and material resources, we would share them with those who make themselves known to us.
My meeting’s mission statement for religious education notes that spiritual growth is a lifelong process. We would foster that growth in all that walk with us, not just in a select group. Opportunities for learning would be available to all. We in the mainstream would go out of our way to make this a truth in our community.
In the age of information, communication seems to be our greatest challenge. I would like that we constantly strive to hear what others are saying, not just what we want to hear, and that we strive to communicate our own ideas as clearly as possible, with attention to the similarities and differences among our hearers.
Clearness and Flexibility
Being more intentional in our conducting of business requires us to be good listeners to the inner voice and to the meaning of others. We can be as the water lily: well-rooted in our own faith and traditions and able to move freely in response to present circumstances.
Being a Friend of Truth means that our examination of our basic assumptions about people, places, and things should be tireless and ongoing. Inquiry rather than self-righteousness should be our principal mode of becoming.
People would not need to prove that of the Divine in themselves. We would take it as given and, when the divine spirit is not evident to us, accept that this is at least as much our responsibility as that of the person under scrutiny.
We would conduct our corporate labors for the sake of the Divine and do them in love and openness rather than in reaction and fear.
I ask Friends to address this and the remaining six queries, in order to join with me in identifying aspects of our Quaker culture that stifle the spiritual growth of some persons within our community and some of the strangers who come to our doors.