I was not raised within the Quaker way, but deep within the Pentecostal church. Many Quakers are surprised by this fact; they perceive the distance between the two traditions to be so wide as unable to be traversed. There does seem to be little overlap at first, given the obvious contrast of the Quaker commitment to silence versus all the noise of Pentecostalism (singing, shouting, and praying in unearthly languages). Additionally, each faith has strongly aligned with an opposing side of the political culture war. But as an insider of both, I have found a lot in common between the two.
The similarities are especially apparent when I read about early Quakers and the embodied manifestations of presence that physically shook them, as I’ve seen and experienced these same convulsions at Pentecostal meetings. Another similarity is the way in which folks in the Pentecostal church, when overcome with Spirit, often will “give a message” from God out of the crowd, with or without the official minister’s consent. But the most striking similarity is the emphasis on direct experience with Spirit as primary to right living.
I remember that feeling after many a worship service in the Pentecostal church, where I knew that I had come face-to-face with God, and the electricity inside me was hardly containable. I had tapped into a power that made me feel limitless, that gave me an incredible inner strength and passion. In high school, I taped up a handwritten copy of a verse from Jeremiah to the inside of my locker. I felt this particular verse gave the most accurate language to what I was feeling: “Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire / Shut up in my bones; / And I am weary of holding it in, / And I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20:9).
The Pentecostal church can emphasize an otherworldly faith so there was nothing for me to do with all that power and energy I received. The only thing I felt I could do was try and recreate the experience, but with more passion and more fire. It was like revving a car in neutral, redlining the engine without going anywhere.
In college, mostly as a result of Jesus’s teachings about poverty and violence, my politics went further and further to the left. And within the political vision of the Kingdom of God, I found an outlet for the living water I had been drinking from. I committed myself to working for a radical change in this world. At the same time, the United States was escalating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Pentecostal churches I knew then gave uncritical support to these war efforts, sending me on a search for a new religious home that aligned more closely with what I understood Jesus’s vision of the world to be. Soon my seeking led me to the humble Quaker meetinghouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where I first came in contact with these peculiar people.
As I became more and more involved in the life of the local meeting, I took all the energy I got from Spirit and channeled it into the many committees and actions that kept our small meeting vital. But soon I had a new problem: too many possible ways to do good work, all the time. The world is in such need, and we’ve each been given a variety of skills to repair her. As a newly convinced Quaker, with these many opportunities before me, I found myself trying to do it all.
In that scattered trajectory, I found myself pulled apart. I was participating in and helping to build a collective housing community within the impoverished, white-fled neighborhood I call home. I was studying for my PhD in religious studies. I was involved in my local meeting and the committee work that entails. I was teaching college courses on race, poverty, and religion, and I was doing union organizing along with the other adjunct teachers. For all that running around, all that expended energy, there was little evidence I was making a real difference. The frantic activism soon led to a destructive and unhealthy personal life.
At the height of this struggle, I took a long trip to the Caribbean to get away from these many responsibilities and my own inner demons, hoping to be able to make sense of the chaos of my life. During my time away, I received an email from one of the members of my meeting. She told me about an organization called Quaker Voluntary Service that combines transformative service and intentional community within the shared story of Quakerism; the email further explained that there was an impending appeal to our meeting to take on the responsibility for a QVS house of service in Philadelphia.
Here was a chance for all my divergent ways to come together in a single effort. The work I was doing in education, community, and social justice found a univocal expression in QVS. A year later, I started working full-time for QVS, and at the end of August 2013, we welcomed the first class of Philadelphia Volunteers to their house of service.
Within QVS, Volunteers experience a variety of different programmatic elements. They do full-time service work within existing social justice organizations while living and worshiping together as an intentional community. They also actively participate in the life of the local sponsoring meeting(s), which is an aspect I am particularly excited about because the connection between local Friends and the Volunteers has the potential to lead to rich spiritual nurture.
QVS tends to draw action-oriented young adult Friends who aspire to change the material conditions of the world system. The service opportunities are exciting, combining direct service work with advocacy for structural transformation. The issues they are involved in range from anti-racism to housing and homelessness, to immigration, to food security, to education, and a variety of others.
Given our Volunteers’ proclivity for action and activism, coupled with their big dreams of a better world, I’ve been encouraging them recently to be realistic about what one person is able to accomplish during the year-long commitment. In one year, the Volunteers will have helped expand capacity within one nonprofit organization addressing a social justice or environmental issue, but this single accomplishment is a far cry from the advent of the equitable and sustainable world system we pray for. In all likelihood, the routines and relationships within the intentional community will have settled just in time for the house to break up, and the Volunteers will go on to form other deep relationships. But one tool I hope each QVS Volunteer walks away with is the skill to attune an ear to the Inner Guide, and thus set one’s self up for a full life of focused, spiritually grounded service and activism.
Now I’m holding myself to this goal, too. When I was enmeshed in Pentecostal culture, I felt as if I had no direction, no outlet for the incredible amount of energy that a direct encounter with Spirit gave me. In Quaker culture, I found a hectic, exhaustive menu of opportunities, and my energy and efforts were scattered and ineffective. Listening for the Voice then is as much about finding a venue for our spiritual energy as it is about saying no, and instead waiting, coiled and patient, so as to be the most effective instrument of peace.
During my graduate studies, I was able to study some of the world’s greatest religions. I compared and contrasted the attitudes and cultures cultivated from different worldviews. One main difference I’ve come to understand is that the Western worldview, in both its Christian and Secular manifestations, is goal oriented. The moral life is one in which we project a good into the future and spend our lives struggling to achieve it. It is a world in which our heroes are revolutionaries and prophets. In some of the Asian religions, such as Buddhism and Daoism, the moral life is one in which, instead of imposing righteousness upon the world, we attempt to harmonize our own interior reality with the external reality of the universe. This view assumes that the world is benevolent and can be trusted, and by learning to play along, by ridding ourselves of negative attitudes and attachments, we achieve the greatest good. Within our own tradition of Quakerism, we attempt to synthesize both approaches, ideally finding some sort of suspended balance in which the external goal of a righteous kingdom, free from war and inequality, can be achieved by gathering together individuals who have learned to listen to the still, small voice within.