"Mariah, come to the office! You have a letter!" My boss was as shocked and excited as I was. It was the only letter I had received in the seven months I had been in China. As I rushed to the office, I wondered whom the letter was from. I was pleased and surprised to discover that the letter was from my meeting.
I have attended Quaker meeting since before I was born. I went to meeting because of the creak of the furnace and the smell of the re-melting wax of candles from ceremonies long forgotten. I went to meeting to count the panes of glass and feel my mind relax away from the sunshine and falling leaves. I went to meeting when it meant crawling out of my dorm room half dead from a night of parties. I went to meeting when it meant traipsing around cities where I couldn’t even ask directions. I went to meeting again and again and again.
When I moved to China, it was simply not possible for meeting to be part of my life on a regular basis. The nearest meeting was over 1,000 miles away in Hong Kong and, if I wished to return home after going to meeting, I needed to get a permit from the Chinese government to reenter the Chinese mainland. For the first time in my life, I stopped going to meeting. I received no communication from FWCC or any of the individual Quakers who had promised to stay in touch with me. My spiritual community vanished overnight.
The letter from my meeting was a welcome epistle. It read something like this:
We are sorry that we did not receive a contribution from you last year. The time has come again and we hope that we will receive one this year.
Below that was a handwritten note from the treasurer saying that she hoped I was well in China. The wording of the letter surprised me, as I did not know I was a full member of the meeting. Still, I was pleased that it occurred to the treasurer to include me on her mailing list. Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to send money to the meeting. Most of my income was legally blocked from leaving China.
Even exchanging and wiring the permitted amount required a great deal of pleading and seemed to only happen because my boss once worked at the bank. I did want to support the work of my meeting, but receiving this letter made me wonder if they wanted to support me. Why hadn’t they asked me if I even wanted to be a member of the meeting? Why did they spend the time and funds on mailing me a bill when they hadn’t even bothered to send me a spiritually nurturing e-mail?
I am not a Quaker scholar. I have not read the writings of early Friends or even modern Friends. I have not attended seminary. I just grew up Quaker. For me, being Quaker was going to meetings—meetings for worship, meetings for business, young Friends meetings, potlucks, and other forms of sharing in community. Without the presence and support of other Quakers, religion simply ceased to be a part of my life. By springtime, I found myself asking again and again, "Does God even exist in China?" I certainly didn’t feel God in my life. Instead, I felt empty and frustrated. I was angry, not with God, but with my religion.
Why had Quakerism only given me one way of fulfilling my spiritual needs? Why didn’t any Quaker make sure I actually got the support and spiritual nourishment that I had asked for during my time in isolation?
Due to the outbreak of SARS in 2003, I returned home in May instead of July. I realized that this meant that I could attend Friends General Conference, and after eight months of isolation from Quakers, I was eager to do so. The application process was my first indication that the Gathering, far from being a refreshing homecoming, would be a harsh challenge. Not a single workshop listed addressed any of the political, economic, or international topics that filled my thoughts. I could not attend a workshop anyway as the cost of attending the conference for a week, transportation not included, was almost as much as I made in two months. Instead, I worked with the Junior Gathering in the mornings.
The shock that I experienced with my readmission to FGC Quaker culture was the greatest I have ever felt. I found myself irritated in meetings that lasted forever due to lack of preparation by leadership and what seemed to be an extreme concern for planning for unlikely emergencies. Once familiar comments now irritated me with their use of acronyms and vague Quaker terms, which I could see confused and excluded many, especially new attenders. I could hear a manner of speaking toned with political correctness as just another form of censorship used to dodge issues of race and class with a curtsey. I kept imagining all of the other things that I could be doing with the money that was being spent there. There was such a stiffness around the culture of FGC that I noticed people looking at me disapprovingly when I clapped instead of shaking my hands. Really, who cares how we choose to show appreciation for what is being said? Finally, I was uncomfortable with the number of white people around me. Where were the Asians? Did I really want a spiritual home that was so economically, racially, and culturally uniform?
Working with the Junior Gathering was a very good experience, but this positive experience with young adults did not carry over to a positive experience with adults. I went to FGC feeling spiritually tired and hungry, and I left feeling just as empty as I felt when I arrived—if not more so. My concerns about international relations, international development, and communicating through cultural differences had only deepened. I wasn’t even sure I was Quaker anymore.
The university where I had been teaching asked me to come back for a second year. I was afraid to return because I knew I couldn’t handle that kind of spiritual emptiness again, but I didn’t know how to have a better experience. I talked to my meeting and to my friends, but I didn’t want to leave relying on their support. After all, it had been promised and not given the year before. Around this time, I attended Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting where I heard a sermon by Dan Kasztelan that ended with: "We start at the place where we start. But if we want more God, we explore the other paths also." It seemed that for me, Quaker meeting was the place to start, but it was time to explore new paths. With the conviction that I could nourish my spirit without meeting and without support from home, I returned to China.
During my second year in China, I knew that Quakerism as I understood it was not able to fill my spiritual need, so I began to reevaluate Quakerism. I had learned about Quakerism by absorbing scattered lessons as I grew up rather than through careful study. As a part of this process, I wrote the following list. What I have labeled "Quaker idea" is what I think older Quakers were trying to teach me. What I have labeled "Quaker myth" is what I actually learned. What I have labeled "My idea" is what I have been thinking about recently and how that was part of my experience in China.
Quaker idea: We are all ministers to each other.
Quaker myth: Ministers aren’t important.
My idea: It is important to cultivate and appreciate everyone’s ability to minister, especially those around us with a gift of ministry. Though I am still definitely an unprogrammed Friend, I believe that my first year in China would have been better if there had been someone in my meeting who was focused on spiritually nurturing the community. It was far too easy for me to be forgotten by a bunch of committees with ministry as a sideline to their other work. All members, especially in unprogrammed meetings, have the role of minister and need to follow through with spiritual nurture and support to other members. Furthermore, the meeting can be especially enriched by maintaining dialogue with isolated members. Isolated Friends may learn a great deal from their experiences and may have quite a lot of ministry to share. Dialogue between meetings and isolated friends can minister to the condition of both.
Quaker idea: It isn’t good to follow a book dogmatically.
Quaker myth: Religious books aren’t important.
My idea: It is useful to read spiritual and religious writings, both Quaker and from other traditions. I enriched my second year in China greatly by ordering Friends Journal and, eventually, with the mailings from FWCC. However, it was in reading the Qur’an that I found the most peace and solace. Though it may seem obvious that you can learn a lot from reading religious books, as a young Quaker I was not taught this. When teaching children about Quakerism, we are often vague and disorganized. Perhaps this seems preferable to adults scarred with memories of strict Sunday school. However, religious education for children is important. It is possible to read religious texts and discuss them with children without insisting that they believe them. You can teach skills and methods of reaching God without traumatizing children. The more ways that we teach our children to reach God, the more likely they will be to find some that appeal to them and that can sustain them in times of need.
Quaker idea: Coming together to follow the leadings of the Spirit is enriching.
Quaker myth: Sitting in silence in a room and listening to people talk is the way to come together.
My idea: Sometimes, especially when interacting with people from other cultures, coming together means doing things you thought you would never do—like studying a martial art, drinking rice wine, or spending the afternoon gambling with middle school students. All of these activities deepened my connection with the community around me in China, and this connection left me feeling more spiritually whole. We worship in many ways. It is the worship that is important, not the way.
Quaker idea: A community of Quakers can bring us a special spiritual fellowship.
Quaker myth: Spiritual fellowship is found only with other Quakers and people who choose to worship with us.
My idea: It is important to seek out and create spiritual fellowship with other people. "Isolated Friends" are just that. Isolated from Friends, but not isolated from a spiritual community because that can be found and created anywhere through patience and perseverance with people of a multitude of religious ideas or lack of them. In my second year, I was blessed to share my kitchen with a family from Yemen, one from Iran, and one from Egypt. Though they were all Muslims, just having a faith community around me was very strengthening. I was also more able to communicate on a deep level with my Chinese friends. Though they were not religious, they taught me many lessons. I think that my life will be greatly enriched when I understand how they care for their spirits without religion and without a belief in God. Even when not in isolation, we can remember that the Testimony of Community calls us not to build community within our meeting but to build community with everyone around us.
Finally, I realized that it was not the Quaker religion that wasn’t able to nourish me in China, but my Quaker culture. The Quaker religion is something that can be practiced anywhere by anyone, with or without a community of other Quakers; but the specific practices of North American Quaker culture are not always transferable. When we see these cultural rituals as our religion, then we are inflexible to growth. We cannot spread as a religion to new regions, or to different racial, ethnic, and economic groups within our own country; and we cannot reach the greatest possible level of personal spiritual growth. Growth in all these ways comes from traveling other paths to God.
This does not mean that we should give up the testimonies that are central to our faith, but that we should examine carefully the relationship between our beliefs and our practices, and separate our religion from our culture. One place to start this process is to learn about Quakerism as it is practiced across the globe. Building friendships and working together with Quakers who are very different from ourselves can help us not only to deepen our own worship, but also to share our religion with more of the community in which we live.
With these realizations, I was able to fashion my own "Quakerism for One," which sustained me through the rest of my time in China. I developed my ideas further through a series of interviews with Friends on their individual spiritual practice that I conducted during a year I spent as a student at Pendle Hill. As a result, I have the following simple suggestions for you, if you are facing time as an isolated Friend:
First, develop a daily spiritual practice. This usually takes the form of reading, yoga, mediation, art, music, or one of many forms of prayer. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated by the thought that you have too little time for such a practice; even a couple of minutes is enough. It might help to read William Taber’s Four Doors to Meeting for Worship.
Second, develop a spiritual friendship. It does not matter if the spiritual friend is Quaker or not, or if he or she is close or far away. For more information on Spiritual Friendship, there are short books and a Pendle Hill Pamphlet available.
Third, formalize contact with a meeting. If you have a meeting, ask for a support committee. If you do not have a meeting, make an effort to get to know one. Make a specific agreement with that meeting about what kind of support they will give you and remind them to actually do it. Remember that contact goes both ways. The more that you enrich a meeting with your experiences, the more likely they are to remember you.
Finally, participate in local spiritual activities. This does not mean convert, but it is often refreshing to have contact with other people of faith, even if they do not share your faith.
These practices have enabled me to continue to travel in a spiritually healthy manner. I have also been nourished by my further travels with Friends in Germany, South Africa, and Kenya.
As I anticipate returning home, I am still searching for answers to the following questions:
- How do I deal with the feeling of alienation from U.S. Quaker culture that comes from a deeper understanding of another culture? How can I share this understanding with Friends in a way that might diversify our culture and enrich our religious experience?
- How can I deepen my connection to God? How can I prepare myself for future periods of isolation? How can I support others who are currently isolated?
- Do we educate our children to know God in as many ways as possible? Do we teach them ways to worship without community? Do we make them aware of the rich variety of belief and practice within the Quaker faith?
As I continue to travel and worship with Friends across the globe, I will be constantly seeking other paths; constantly seeking ways to grow myself; and constantly seeking, with my solo wanderings, to bring growth to Quakerism through deeper tolerance, understanding and interconnectedness.