I look out among the faces in front of me and am in awe of their compassion and protectiveness of one another. The people gathered together care deeply about one another’s well-being, especially those who are typically disenfranchised or whose voices aren’t heard as loudly as those better represented in our community. We stand up for each other, firmly and with alacrity, making sure everyone is respected and given space to bloom. I love them and their loving hearts so much.
Our yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting, is not yet even four years old. Created after another yearly meeting decided it would not include any LGBTQ+ inclusive church, we decided at the very beginning—even before deciding we were a group—that we were passionately inclusive. The meeting has since proved those words time and time again.
As co-presiding clerk, I’ve learned that any business involving such a group, whether it is with our youth; people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ+); or people of color, is going to take time to discern and discuss. With each person bringing something to the table, the group wants to make sure we are putting our energy and money into helping the people who have typically been on the sidelines. At a recent quarterly gathering at which we discussed youth events for an upcoming annual gathering, several people asked that more stipend money be given to the person planning events and recruiting volunteers. It is a typical consideration for this group, and yet, I am consistently blown away by their generosity and by their defense of those whose voices may not have been heard in the past.
I remember sitting in that room when the meeting decided to take its inclusive stand before conducting any other business, and crying tears of relief and joy as the enthusiastic word “Approved!” reverberated around the room. Even now, as I write, I cry with that same joy to have a place among Friends where I can be fully me. In the years leading up to that meeting, I had kept my own sexuality quiet as our yearly meeting split apart. I was not the only one keeping that secret. But then, instead of only having a safe place at the side of a friend, the whole room transformed into freedom. Instead of finding a safe person here and there, I knew I could finally be myself in every corner of that community with all these people. They would protect me and give me space to grow. It is a relief to know that in my yearly meeting I will no longer hear the unkind words uttered in past business meetings.
Now, almost four years later and in my second year as co-presiding clerk, I want to protect others. I especially want to protect those people who, like me, were not listened to and had to hear words of hate and rejection again and again. One of the jobs I see among the clerks’ responsibilities is to maintain this safe space for all, to give space for everyone’s voice. Within such a passionately inclusive group, I know that responsibility is shared. Still, I have vowed to myself to never let such hurtful words have space on our yearly meeting floor. After feeling so unheard, it is a healing relief to me to know I now have the power to take a microphone away if I must. I know the rest of the clerking team would do the same (if those in the seats didn’t get to them first).
We are not a perfect people, and I am not a perfect clerk. I certainly make mistakes as I learn and grow. But I love this group. I love their kind spirits, their generous hearts, their vulnerability with each other, and their desire to be together as a yearly meeting. It is an honor to help lead them and to listen while watching their faces. From up in front with the rest of the clerking team beside me, I have the best seat in the house. I will do what it takes to care for our community and help us go forward.
With such a publicly inclusive stance, we have, thus far, not had to consider anyone applying for membership who does not share our inclusive viewpoint. Whether applying for membership as a meeting or as an individual member, being inclusive remains a basic requirement.
For a group so passionately inclusive, what do we do to include those who will not be inclusive themselves, who can’t even see how non-inclusive they are? Do we even try to include them at all?
I never thought much along this line, though, until the day after our last quarterly gathering when I was picking up a carton of ice cream from a friend whom I’ve known since childhood. Baptist in faith, her family has gone to the same conservative Baptist church for the last 27 years. Although the church advertises that they welcome everyone, I know that doesn’t actually include people like me. I know this not only from the church’s website, but also from personal experience: when I told the family that I was engaged to my girlfriend, my friend’s dad took out his Bible and read me verses supposedly against the LGBTQ+ community. Coming out to my friend’s mom nearly two years before and to my friend herself hadn’t gone much better.
I limit my interactions with this friend’s parents. They have never met my wife and have never seen my house, though I live within walking distance. They are not safe people for us. None of them were interested in coming to my wedding, and we have not invited them into our lives. Though I know my friend doesn’t approve of my sexuality, she is friendly toward my wife and does make an effort to stay friends, and this has meant a lot to me. I still love her parents, so on the rare occasions when I do see them, we chat for a few minutes.
On the day after quarterly gathering, her dad and I were chatting, and I mentioned that my Quaker yearly meeting had gathered the day before. I have always been vague about this part of my life, but he kept asking questions and pressing for details. I told him I didn’t think he would like our yearly meeting. When he asked why, I told him it was an inclusive group, and that I knew he was not inclusive. I had to spell out what “inclusive” meant. He asked about the Bible and the Word of God, and I told him Quakers—at least this type—don’t share the stance he takes on the particular text used to exclude LGBTQ+ people. He brought up Jesus and sin. It was as if we were speaking two entirely different languages.
He then asked, hypothetically, about going to our yearly meeting. I restated he wouldn’t like it. When pressed, I added I wouldn’t invite him, for people have been hurt enough, and it was part of my job to protect them. It hadn’t even occurred to him that, to me, he wasn’t a safe person or that he had hurt me in the past. He didn’t comprehend how I would not trust anyone who uses the Bible as a weapon. He answered by accusing me of not being inclusive of all types of people, including him.
What do you do with people who have such firm ideas of who is accepted by God? For a group so passionately inclusive, what do we do to include those who will not be inclusive themselves, who can’t even see how non-inclusive they are? Do we even try to include them at all?
I drove home angry and frustrated, wishing I had left far earlier. After ranting to my wife (who wondered why I went there at all), I texted a friend in the yearly meeting who also identifies as LGBTQ+ and asked if she would invite someone like that to our gathering; she replied that she would not. I then asked the same of our assistant clerk, a straight, White man, and he said he wouldn’t invite him either; people like that can’t imagine there are places they don’t have the right to be.
We try so hard as a yearly meeting to include anyone who wants to be there, but I am learning there has to be some boundaries to that inclusivity. You can’t stand for someone when they disagree with your most basic value. We want to be a group who says yes. but we also have to say no.
At our last yearly meeting, when we were discerning affiliation with larger Quaker organizations, some people wanted to know why we were discussing a group that limited LGBTQ+ participation. As clerks, we explained that not everyone knew about its non-affirmative policies and that decision-making power was not with the clerks, but with the floor of the yearly meeting. I felt that the yearly meeting needed to practice saying no. Our LGBTQ+ community needed to see the yearly meeting defend its commitment to equality through action. It surprised me how much I also needed to see it.
I am grateful to be in a yearly meeting that doesn’t draw a line between people but instead is passionate about drawing a circle bringing people together.
People like my friend’s dad are more focused on drawing the line of who is in and who is out; they are focused on themselves. By telling me I am outside of “God’s plan” and drawing the line between us, he is really defending his own right to membership in the “in crowd.” It is a theology based in fear of a vengeful God, and that’s neither how I work nor the language I speak. That isn’t the line I draw, and I would much rather spend my time trying to erase such lines.
I am grateful to be in a yearly meeting that doesn’t draw a line between people but who instead is passionate about drawing a circle bringing people together. We can differ on theology and our choices, but those aren’t things we allow to divide us. We treasure the people and God’s light inside each soul.
If you are dedicated to drawing lines in the name of God of who is in and who is out, we don’t want your participation. We know who we are, at least in that, and that is enough for right now while we grow and learn what it means to be a yearly meeting. We know we love the questions and aren’t so concerned with having the answers. We love having people different from ourselves sitting next to us, for we know we each make up a part of the whole. We may even invite you to take a chair, but if you are known to be someone who does not respect our togetherness and the equality we all share in that circle, then, I am proud to say, I know there are people in our yearly meeting who will protect everyone’s safety and freedom by kindly escorting you out. We respect your freedom to believe what you do, but we will not allow you to hurt our community in the process. Sometimes to protect a circle and those within it, you have to kindly refuse those who would draw a line across it.
In the meantime, I’ll continue here in this role, looking out at and protecting a beautiful community full of mutual respect, love, and equality—a community who delights in protecting each other while knowing we all share the Light. If you think that’s not being fully inclusive, so be it. Our inclusivity does not include hate. We are going to draw our circle with love.