My Journey among Friends

I found the Religious Society of Friends when I was in middle school. An unpopular, misunderstood, "sensitive" child, I didn’t identify with the conservative culture. My parents were secular, military Democrats. I found solace in books and in fantasy role-playing games. It was during one of my habitual "bathroom" breaks (I always sneaked off to the library) when the librarian gave me The Witch of Blackbird Pond to read. I identified so closely with the Puritan girl who befriended the elderly Quakeress; it made me want to know more about the Quakers. Thanks to my librarian, who took me to books on the Underground Railroad and world religions, I found a people who I instantly admired for their strong Christian beliefs that were radically different from the culture around them—a culture that even at that age I knew to be strikingly similar to that of the Southern Baptist-dominated town in which I lived.

I imagine that it’s a lesson they learned after the fact, but my parents’ shock that I would pick a Christian pacifist "cult" and their subsequent refusal to let me attend Friends meetings only emboldened my quest to find out more about Friends. I am not exaggerating when I say that I read every book on Quakers that I could find in the public libraries from the age of 12 until I was 15 years old. To appease my parents, I also called every denomination in the Knoxville phone book and asked for their literature, and I made theological comparisons—comparing everyone to the Quakers. Finally, my parents relented, and when I was 15, I visited First Friends Church and West Knoxville Friends Meeting.

I was nonplused with the Friends Church. Their worship was too similar to the Church of Christ that my grandmother attended. It didn’t seem anything like the Quakerism of the books. The unprogrammed meeting had some wonderfully sweet people who attended, but the worship was so quiet! Where was the prophetic ministry? I wondered why no one spoke of Jesus. I prayed diligently for ten whole minutes and was left without anything else to say to God, so I just sat there bored to tears—literally wiping them away as I yawned for the rest of worship. There was something there, though, I thought to myself, and it seemed to me that I was missing it. The second time I came back, I remember sitting in the silence, and this time being in some other space and time. I wasn’t asleep and yet it felt like I was dreaming. There was some vocal ministry, and then silence, even in my own head. Then there was the voice: "Speak." Shocked, I looked around. No one. "Speak!" commanded the voice in my head. I protested that I had no idea what to say! No way was I going to speak in front of all of those adults! (There were no children my age in the room.) I began to argue with the voice until, weirdly, I realized that while my thoughts were going through a yes/no struggle with the voice, my mouth had already begun moving. I was saying something! My mind rushed to catch up with my mouth, but it was too late. I was finished. I had no idea what I had said. I was drenched in sweat.

I was amazed. There is a God! Friends meeting was where I belonged.

It was only after attending for a year or so that I realized that my overtly Christian theology, which I had thought was universally accepted, was in fact bothering Friends. I felt decreasingly safe both as a child and also as a Christian in the meeting. I confess to a hefty amount of teen-age "know-it-all" attitude that probably didn’t help. Yet I was frustrated that my only options were an unprogrammed meeting that seemed strongly anti-Christian, stuck in what seemed to me to be some sort of "we don’t wanna grow" funk with an attitude of "don’t say Jesus because we are religious refugees," and the programmed meeting, which had very little Quaker distinctiveness at all.

What kept me at the unprogrammed meeting was nothing other than a leading to be there. In that worship I felt God. I felt that what happened in the Scriptures was occurring in my own heart, that the God of Jesus and Elizabeth and Ruth and Moses was "alive" and speaking to me. The unprogrammed worship seemed especially appropriate. In my own readings of Scripture, our worship seemed the most biblical of the alternatives I had. While the content of my vocal ministry rankled some (innocently arrogant, I was crazy in love with my new-found religion) there were those who encouraged me, especially my First-day school teacher. When, at 16 years old, I felt called to gospel ministry, I approached my meeting for a clearness committee, which they appointed. I wasn’t comfortable that there were non-Christians with me in the group (one of whom was a lesbian), and yet at the end, they affirmed my calling to ministry. When I asked what to do next, they responded, "Wait on the Lord." I was so frustrated! How? I felt dismissed even while I was affirmed. One Friend learned of my calling and took me aside one day and said "Kevin, Quakers don’t have ministers. Perhaps you’d be happier with another faith?" It got to the point that my mother pulled me from the meeting. She began to believe that even this liberal group could behave similarly to the conservative ones she rejected. It took Friends meeting with my parents and with me before my parents would allow me to return. Return I did, and I worshiped every week with these Friends until the day I left for Guilford. They sent me off with a party and lots of hugs.

My spiritual relationship with God is what made me quake. The experience of early Friends, whose writings I read daily and regularly, spoke to my very condition at the time and so I didn’t feel alone in that Southern Baptist culture of "believe or be damned." While my friends (Quaker and not) in high school turned to every alternative religion, including Satanism, Wicca, evangelical Christianity, and atheism, I delved deeper into my own tradition, finding great power in Friends understanding of Jesus, the Light, and the power of prayer and faithfulness. The Jesus of Quakerism was no less alive and present than in any other Christian faith. I never saw Jesus as one who judged, hated, or condemned, but as one who spoke the Truth to our souls, showing us the darkness in our hearts and helping us to clean house. Even though I was frustrated with my meeting, I saw the beauty of Quakerism as a whole and longed for the power in my own life and my own meeting that was prevalent in earlier times. I wanted to be transformed into what God wanted me to be; I wanted to be a "true Quaker."

I have been blessed as a young adult to have been a regular member at several other meetings: programmed, unprogrammed, Friends United Meeting, Friends General Conference, and aligned with both. Guilford College was crucial to my staying a Friend instead of completely abandoning my faith for a secular life based on gay pop-culture. My freshman year, I came out as a gay man, and came out so forcefully I blew down doors! I was involved in the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the largest student group at Guilford at the time. When I helped to found the queer student group, and we celebrated National Coming Out Day, it didn’t go over too well. Intervarsity set up a booth in the student union protesting homosexuality and blaming the spread of AIDS on homosexual men. When I told them that I came out to God in the rose garden by Mary Hobbs Hall and instead of taking his Light away God anointed me with love, they told me I was listening to Satan. The resulting argument left Intervarsity in shambles, and Gay Lesbian Straight Alliance stronger (later "Allies" and "Transgender" were added). Personally, my faith was shattered. I was no longer a Christian. I turned to paganism and the Goddess for comfort.

Nor did it help that I had transferred my membership to North Carolina yearly meeting, Friends United Meeting. I was not and have not been terribly involved in the Young Adult Friends community. Partially this was because the YAF community in North Carolina Yearly Meeting was anti-gay and cliquish. My FUM-affiliated meeting at the time seemed unable to help a gay man grow in ministry, let alone come out (though the people there are fantastic!). When I tried at the Gathering to be involved, FGC-YAF seemed no less cliquish and more about fun than anything else—perhaps YAF was a continuation of relationships from Young Friends, but it was hard for me to break into nonetheless. I wanted to talk about God and my faith struggles, but that sort of talk seemed to cause tension for those who I knew weren’t interested. Talk about activism seemed to be accepted. And again there were very anti-Christian, prejudiced remarks by some who were active in YAF. I just didn’t have the energy left to be in such a place. I didn’t want to be around anti-anything!

That was then, and through my experiences in paganism, agnosticism, spiritualism, and now again a very unorthodox Christianity, the Quaker tradition has remained my rod. I leaned on it heavily and the Light was the energy that kept me walking in those very difficult times. The meeting of my childhood could have been an impediment to my growth, but since the meeting only created a youth program because we created one ourselves and we clearly needed adult supervision, I had a choice of either swimming with the big dogs or getting out of the water as it were. I think the best thing my meeting did, though maybe unintentionally, was to include me fully as a member of the meeting, with all the responsibilities therein, and putting up with a zealous teenager and later a young adult.

In retrospect, perhaps I stayed with the adult community due to my initial experience in a small, relatively new monthly and yearly meeting. There just weren’t enough Quaker kids nearby to bond with, so I was always with the adults. Even when I began attending Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC) there weren’t many Young Adult Friends there, so I was with adults older than I was. It was the adults who watched me grow up, in all of these meetings, organizations, and Friends churches. Often exasperated with how pushy I was and could be, many saw through that pushiness and my being opinionated was a sincere excitement and desire to serve the Religious Society with my call to gospel ministry. Some reached out, whether at Guilford, FLGBTQC, my brief stint at Earlham School of Religion, or my local meetings. Others reacted negatively (though the worst part was that it was never to my face; I always learned of others’ displeasure through someone else! Not too encouraging for a young Friend trying to find his way).

Amazingly, through all of this, God has found the way into my thoughts. Sometimes it has been through the image and spirit of Jesus, other times in no distinct way. Each time I have hit a roadblock, because of my own choices or the actions of others, God has provided a detour, bridge, tunnel, or a place to rest and wait. In answer to my question about what to do with my call to ministry, which seems to always wax and wane, Friends would be there to answer my question in some way, though rarely directly. Through interacting, worshiping, and struggling with Friends of like and different minds, God would find ways to say, "See, here’s an opportunity to minister or to receive ministry."

Some Friends in my current meeting have been hesitant to support my call to ministry. I’ve been reminded several times that "Baltimore Yearly Meeting does not record ministers," to which I’ve responded, "I’ve never asked." Others have quietly encouraged me to be faithful, to listen, to not be discouraged. Nonetheless, I have always been fully included in the affairs of my monthly meetings and Friends General Conference. Sometimes that has damped the quaking, because being innocent to Quaker politics was a blessing, but it has definitely helped me to grow up and value the people and practices of our Religious Society.

In November 2004, my beloved partner of seven years passed away, and no matter how much I reached out to God to be with me, no matter what songs of praise I sang to God, I felt nothing. It was as if there never had been any loving Spirit in my soul. I knew only the void that my partner had left when he passed, and I felt that it was only his living spirit that mattered. In this time of immense pain, Friends from around the country reached out to love and pray for me. Just as my current meeting and the meeting where I first came to know Friends had married the two of us a year prior, they were there to mourn his loss with me. My childhood meeting was there when I met him, when I wed him, and when I buried him. Friends all over have supported me as I battled to keep his grave where it is, though his parents would move him against his written wishes. Friends prayed for me, brought food to my house, visited me, and welcomed me with smiles after I returned from skipping worship, a place where his physical absence seemed most real. They’ve listened to my confusion about God in the wake of loss and offered their experiences tenderly and carefully. No one batted an eye when I spoke of my return to pagan ritual to try to keep grounded as I struggled with my beliefs. My current meeting even saw fit after all of this to put me on Ministry and Worship, an honor that still humbles me and a responsibility that I still worry that I’ll not well fulfill.

Now that I’m no longer a "Young Adult Friend," I look back and realize I don’t know who’s done the most growing, me or my meetings, but I can say that I have been blessed over the past 20 years to have them in my life, with our combined flaws and numerous gifts. The meeting where I grew up, which I have known for two decades, the meeting where I currently am a member, and the meetings and churches in between where I’ve loved and known the Divine have all had their role in shaping me to be in love with the Religious Society and the Divine who embraces us. As I look around and hold Friends in prayer, I know that I’m part of a blessed covenant, that Jesus loves me and is faithful, and that I am part of a blessed society of f/Friends.

Kevin-Douglas G. Olive

Kevin-Douglas G. Olive is a member of Baltimore (Md.) Meeting-Homewood, and attends Seton Hill Worship Group in Baltimore. A French teacher, he is a member of Friends General Conference's Advancement and Outreach Committee.