I’m a 26-year-old African American Quaker. There are parts of my life that seem typical to the lives of young Friends, and others that make me wonder if I am the only young Friend who has had these experiences. I’d like to share some of my experiences here, and I hope that there are some that you can connect to and others that we can learn from together.
I was born into a Quaker family in Southern New Jersey. When I was two, my parents moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, to teach at Oakwood Friends School. I lived there until the age of nine or ten, where I acquired a solid foundation in community living and a connection to the importance of silence, which has permeated my entire life. After Oakwood we moved back to South Jersey where my parents both taught at Friends schools. I attended Moorestown Friends School and regularly attended meeting for worship and First-day school. But without the Quaker community of Oakwood, I found it much more difficult to stand in my pacifist and Quaker way of life amongst peers who had never heard of Quakers and saw my pacifism as an easy target for bullying. Even at my Friends school, bullying seemed to be a way of life. The older kids bullied the younger kids, the cool kids bullied the geeks, and I became convinced that the only way to keep myself from being bullied, both in my neighborhood and in middle school, was to be the bully. I don’t think that I was unique as a young Friend when, at 14 years, I began to walk away from Quakerism because I felt that it had no more to offer me. My meeting felt stuffy and boring, and I was tired of being the only young person in my meeting, the only pacifist on my street, and the only young black Quaker I had ever met. What does feel unique is that I chose the path of the Baptist church and asked my parents to send me to an Assemblies of God school.
My parents were both brought up in the church and believed in Christ, but they were very liberal. In fact, I can’t recall them talking about God very much at all. I almost felt as though the first time I had ever heard about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was when I was invited to go camping with a church group in Philadelphia by a friend. I had been on these trips before, but most of our time was spent trying to pick up girls and playing volleyball. However, the summer after 8th grade was different. My parents had just announced their divorce a month earlier, and for the first time in my life I was deeply depressed. My usual outlets for fun held no solace for me. So when I heard the story of Jesus Christ, coming to this world to spread love and healing and receiving such a cruel and painful death, my heart shattered; I wanted to know everything about him. My peers and elders began to tell me all the advantages to being a Christian, but I was most attracted to the concept of having a friend who was always present. That first experience felt a lot like the openings that so many Friends have written about in Quaker journals; it was pure and filled with a boundless joy and wisdom. My joy soared when I found a huge family of young people just waiting for me to join the ranks of their "Christian army." It was only months later that the constant struggle to keep my soul out of hell began to dominate my entire Christian experience.
At first, my Christianity was all about learning as much about God as possible and fellowshipping with brothers and sisters in Christ. I attended a Baptist church with my friend on my street in South Jersey. At this church I wasn’t the only young person; in fact, there was even a youth group! I was able to worship with people my age who were having thoughts like mine and searching for different ways of living that were relevant to my life. When I started attending my school, Fountain of Life Center Academy, I was absolutely ecstatic with the prospect of being surrounded by young people who were all Christians. For the first time in my life I thought I had found a group of people I could be a part of that didn’t make me different from everyone else around me. It seemed that everyone in this country was a Christian, so finally I was just like everyone else.
My church was dynamic; we’d sometimes worship for three hours, singing and weeping hysterically at the altar, and having hands laid on us for spiritual or physical healing. In my school, we’d have a sermon every Wednesday, and then at night there was a youth group with live music, food, and games. At school sporadically throughout the week we would abruptly stop so that we could all gather in a big room and sing songs to God. Once a year we would have Spirit Week, when we would go to chapel every day. One year the spirit moved so strongly that Spirit Week went on for a month; some kids would go straight to the school chapel and pray there for the entire day! This wasn’t only allowed—it was encouraged. At my church, I was baptized and became an integral part of creating and building up its youth group. I was so enamored by this new Christian life that I became a model Christian, and took on all of the difficulties and confusion that went along with that title—which would eventually lead me to a new understanding.
The guilt that I experienced was subtle at first. I found that I didn’t want anything to do with the non-Christian world and got rid of music and friends. Then, when I entered a new Christian high school, I found that my zeal was not welcomed amongst my peers, who felt that Christianity was a chore. It took me three months to make a friend in my new high school, but I saw it as the Cross I had to bear; I saw myself as, quite literally, a soldier. I went out and worked for the Lord, preaching on street corners and in front of abortion clinics. I preached so much about the fires of hell that I began to fear for the lives of my Quaker family. And finally, when I went to a secular college in Philadelphia, I began to learn lessons that my high school omitted. I was so sick of my beliefs that I struggled for some time, and still struggle, to regain a faith in the Spirit. But that journey has led me through the loss of almost all of my Christian friends, and it has led to a Lakota vision quest and a degree from Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired school. Now I am just finishing a year-long internship at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center in Wallingford, Pa., and my long journey in and out of Quakerism has given me quite a bit to think about and share.
This year at Pendle Hill I have been working with youth in Chester, Pennsylvania. Chester is a predominantly black city with high crime and poverty rates. It’s the kind of place that people outside talk about with fear and never enter. I’ve been working with junior high youth after school in a church/community center called Chester East Side Ministries. In my work I’ve been disturbed, but not at all surprised, at how often youths will set the goal of making as much money as possible. And since unemployment rules in their communities, and their schools often do not have enough books to teach them, their best opportunity for making money is often drug dealing, which necessitates a lifestyle of violence. When I talk to them about peace, I remember my own attempts at pacifism in my youth. I let them know that peace is hard, much harder than fighting; you will be made fun of, and most of your peers aren’t going to look up to you for not fighting. Not enough people told me that when I was younger. Not enough people told me to look for others my age who could support me in nonviolence. Furthermore, I just wasn’t getting the support I needed from the adults around me. Young people today need elders who are not so quick to condemn when they get into a confrontation. We need people who can see all sides of an issue.
My time as a student at Pendle Hill has also caused me to question a lot of what we call "unprogrammed Quakerism." After my time in a Baptist church, it is confusing to me how a worship service that starts and ends at a specific time could be called "unprogrammed." Worship is supposed to be the Spirit’s time, and the Spirit does not end according to our time. I don’t think any Friends would dispute this, but shouldn’t we practice what we know? What would it mean to not have ending times in meeting? Perhaps introductions and announcements should begin before meeting for worship. Perhaps there should be a network of Friends who call one another to have meeting at any time they are so moved. Perhaps in our Friends schools we could pause throughout the day for silence when the Spirit seems to call for it. Not having a set sermon for meeting for worship is central for unprogrammed Friends, but not programming our time together is just as essential.
The possibilities are infinite; one reason I know this is from talking to other Friends and realizing how diverse our experiences are. Because we are not bound by creeds and denominational policies, we have the ability to create the most imaginative and healthful communities and occasions for worship. But will we allow ourselves? I think of my own experience of worshiping in a charismatic Christian community. Even though I was raised as a Quaker, I still find so much that I wish could be included in meeting for worship. I then think: How many people would love to belong to a meeting except they just can’t connect to our style of worship? How much does our style of worship influence the lack of cultural diversity and young people who attend meeting? What would it mean to revitalize our meetings? We will not lose our Quaker center by transforming meeting for worship; rather it can nurture us, because experimentation is a part of our Quaker roots.
What we need is nothing new; but what I believe needs to be lifted up at this time in our community is radical acceptance. I know Friends have wrestled for a long time (and continue to wrestle) with the acceptance of Queer Friends. We need to continue to search out how we can accept everyone within our communities. As a young person, one of my biggest obstacles is feeling accepted by those older than me. And, although I cherish and respect my fellow youth and young adult Friends, I think that the majority of young Friends who regularly attend Quaker meeting and gatherings are from Quaker families and meetings, and a great number of my Quaker and non-Quaker peers (myself included) simply find it too hard to imagine how our values, beliefs, and practices can fit into the Quaker community. This simply cannot be. It is one thing to shun the values of a dominating and exploitative society, but many of the values of freedom and individuality that my generation seeks are subjects of taboo. My generation has had the values of the ’60s hippie generation shoved in our faces as if we missed out on some great Utopic Age.
Drugs and sexual experimentation are some of the many ways that we have attempted to emulate that era. Attempts to initiate social revolutions and peace movements are others. In both cases, I believe that our generation has learned a great deal; and the fact that we are not willing to give up our search for freedom and shifts in consciousness shows me that we are on the right path. But too often we have felt condemned for our viewpoints and life choices, when what we really need is to hear the experiences of our elders who have been learning about life for many more years than we have. We can learn a lot from a book or a sermon, but we can learn more from experience. And if you’ve had experiences that might inform those searching, please share them, and also, please ask to hear others’ experiences so that you might grow as well.
I have never forgotten what it was like to grow up in that first Quaker community. Compared to the rest of my life, it seemed like heaven. Because of that foundation, I’ve never lost hope that we can live as a human community through peace and harmony no matter what our beliefs, nonbeliefs, disagreements, or differences may be. Throughout my life I have been working to get back to that place of harmony. Because of this I have been called a dreamer, an idealist; but I know I’m not alone. What those of us who differ from the status quo need is not to be called unrealistic; we need inclusion, support, and the sharing of wisdom in the inevitable evolution of our world.