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Photos ©Joanne Clapp Fullagar.

Growing Faith in Blessed Community

Photos ©Joanne Clapp Fullagar.

Photos ©Joanne Clapp Fullagar.

More often than not, people who haven’t spent time with Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC) just don’t understand the impact this community has on my spiritual life. When I refer to FLGBTQC, many Friends tend to respond with questions narrowly focused on same-sex marriage, gay rights, discrimination, or why each word is included in our name. While these issues are important, I’m frustrated that such conversations so rarely offer the opportunity to share what most deeply touches me about FLGBTQC: its ongoing role in my spiritual transformation. So, with an insistent nudge from Spirit, I now attempt to share the important role this community has played in my spiritual life.

It is within the context of FLGBTQC that I best understand what Thomas Kelly meant in his 1939 essay, “The Blessed Community”:

When we are drowned in the overwhelming seas of the love of God, we find ourselves in a new and particular relation to a few of our fellows. . . . Some men and women whom we have never known before, or whom we have noticed only as a dim background for our more special friendships, suddenly loom large, step forward in our attention as men and women whom we now know to the depths. Our earlier conversations with these persons may have been few and brief, but now we know them, as it were, from within. For we discern that their lives are already down within that Center which has found us. And we hunger for their fellowship, with a profound, insistent craving that will not be denied.

I love the people I have met through FLGBTQC more than I can justify given the limited time we have spent together. As Lloyd Lee Wilson adeptly describes in his 1993 publication Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, we are in relationship “with one another through our common bond to God.” If someone were to ask me how FLGBTQC has influenced my spiritual life or why I so fiercely love these spiritual friends whom I see so infrequently, I would likely respond with a personal story that, for me, exemplifies the words of Kelly and Wilson.

About a decade ago, while listening to a Nominating Committee report in an FLGBTQC meeting for worship with attention to business, I was feeling irritated by a general confusion regarding the number of open committee positions and their respective lengths of term. When Friends were later asked to contact a member of Naming Committee if they were led to serve on Nominating Committee, I felt a small nudge from Spirit, a nudge that grew over time. Within the year, I began serving on the Nominating Committee.

One of my first challenges as a member of this committee was getting to Illinois for the 2002 Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering that summer, which serves as one of the two annual meetings for FLGBTQC. I had recently moved from my home in Madison, Wisconsin, to an artsy neighborhood in Seattle, Washington. I had precious little income, and the cost for me to attend (a long flight plus the normal registration fees) was high. Where was I going to get the money to go to Illinois? Soon I received an email from the FLGBTQC co-clerks saying that funds were available. I called one of the co-clerks, swallowed hard, and blurted out the ridiculously large sum it would take to get me to Summer Gathering. Without hesitating, she offered me the standard travel grant FLGBTQC was able to provide at the time, but it was still far less than I needed. Then this co-clerk, who didn’t know me well at the time, said, “Please ask your meeting for funds, and we’ll work on finding a way. We want you to be able to come.” Around this time, out of the blue, another FLGBTQC Friend offered to send me a personal check for $50 to use toward my trip. Her spontaneous support and generosity left me completely speechless and $50 closer to my goal of going to Illinois.

Next, I set out to follow the co-clerk’s advice by requesting financial help from my meeting. But which meeting? I had left Madison Meeting, where I had been for seven years, with no expectation of returning, and I had been sojourning at Salmon Bay Meeting in Seattle for less than a year. How could I ask either of them for funds? I prayed, and I listened. I grew clear that my discernment was about whether I was led to attend and how much funding I needed. It was for the finance committees of Madison and Salmon Bay meetings to discern how they wanted to use their funds. I requested equal amounts from each meeting, identifying in both cases all the persuasive reasons I knew why they might not want to grant the money to me. Madison discerned that their funding priority was to support the spiritual development of currently active members, whereas Salmon Bay discerned that they were so grateful for my presence that they wanted to fund not only their portion of the request, but Madison’s as well. I was stunned. Things were coming together. I checked back in with the co-clerk of FLGBTQC, and she reported that they had found more money for me. Way had opened for me to go to the FGC Gathering, attend FLGBTQC events, and serve on its Nominating Committee . . . but I did not yet know what was in store.

Eager to not repeat the prior confusion around nominations, I re-created a long-lost document that specifies who is on which committee, how many openings there are for each committee, and when committee terms begin and end. I created an agenda, presented it to the committee, and recommended that we begin by identifying who would clerk Nominating Committee. The members responded by naming a reality I hadn’t yet realized: the committee already had a clerk. It was me. When I expressed some nervousness and reservation about not having clerked a committee before, two dear Friends immediately stepped forward to be my clerking support.

We had a lot of work to do as a committee. We used the nominating process of Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, California (“Spiritual Discernment within the Nominating Process,” FJ Dec. 1999), which begins with silent worship out of which committee members speak the names that rise in them for open positions. We met during Gathering week and had multiple conference calls in between meetings. There was one coast-to-coast conference call at 6:00 a.m. my time during which we had flabbergastingly deep gathered worship, a worship that will forever be etched in my memory. That powerful experience notwithstanding, when it came time to nominate a new female co-clerk, though we had asked several people, no one accepted. (We have since dropped the specific gender designations for our co-clerks.)

At our next gathering that winter, with the wise counsel of Friends on Nominating Committee, I stood in front of the gathered body as committee clerk and reported:

Friends, your Nominating Committee has been working hard. We have had several conference calls between gatherings. Our worship has been deep, and we feel we have been faithful. We are aware that our incoming co-clerk needs to be nominated at this gathering in order to start her term on time, and yet, we have no names to bring forward at this time. Friends, please! If you have any leadings about who should be our next female co-clerk, we ask you to please share your Light with Nominating Committee.

One Friend rose to speak: “This report is further evidence of the good work of our Nominating Committee. I want to appreciate their faithful service.” What? I was confused. Hadn’t I, as Nominating Committee clerk, just publicly admitted failure? I was trying to be faithful, but it just didn’t seem to be working.

At this point, I’d like to provide some context regarding where FLGBTQC was during this period in our ever-evolving journey of naming ourselves. The group now known as Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns started out as a group called simply Committee of Concern in the 1970s, a time when letting others know exactly what we were concerned about felt just too risky. As we began accepting more risk, we became Friends for Gay Concerns, and subsequently, once women became more involved, Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. When it became clear that our group also includes beloved and quite active Friends who are transgender and bisexual, we started using the abbreviation FLGC and a carefully discerned paragraph explaining who we were. But we soon knew that this too was insufficient to accurately speak our Truth.

We contemplated a name change over time, but our inertia was slowed by concerns ranging from the burden of speaking long names to outright opposition to explicitly including bisexuals and transgender people. The agendas of two gatherings devoted substantial time to the worshipful consideration of how to name ourselves. The culmination of this two-gathering process occurred at the aforementioned meeting for worship with attention to business soon after the Nominating Committee report I presented. Friends spoke of the power of explicitly being included as a member of an oppressed group, and of the power of witnessing the importance of inclusion across the full range of sexual orientation and gender identity. Several Friends rose to speak of how they felt none of the words—lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender—included them: One woman, who had identified as lesbian until her partner came out as a transgender man, spoke in favor of including the word queer. A young adult Friend concurred, saying that her generation prefers words that do not presume two discrete fixed gender categories. A Friend in her 60s united with them, “I am a straight woman married to a gay man, and I think that is pretty queer”—indicating that the word queer is necessary if she is to feel included. Out of the tender worship that followed, a Friend rose and suggested the following: “Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns. Isn’t it beautiful?” She spoke with the radiant expression she has when channeling Spirit. Shortly thereafter, we reached unity on our new name.

That night, Nominating Committee met. One member reported that ten people had come up to him after meeting for worship with attention to business with the same name for female co-clerk. The named Friend was a transgender woman. It all made sense now. If the words we used to identify ourselves did not include her, how could we ask her to be our co-clerk? Nominating Committee had been faithful; I just hadn’t known the whole picture. And when I couldn’t predict where we were headed, I figured we must be off-track. Spirit had been leading us to spin our wheels until we were corporately ready to bring the right Friend’s name forward. Our organizational name change opened the way to nominate this transgender Friend. The committee had immediate unity.

For her part, the Friend we were led to nominate was a little more hesitant. After some discernment, she said, “I am not led to step forward as co-clerk, but to listen to my community.” That was my cue. I called her to share the enormity of this story in my spiritual journey, including the most important lesson it had taught me: We don’t get to know the whole picture; we need to be faithful and trust in Spirit. This Friend, did, of course, become clear to be nominated, and the quickness with which the gathered body approved her nomination was slowed only by our community taking a moment to celebrate the approval of our first transgender co-clerk.

Through my experience serving on the Nominating Committee, I learned several valuable spiritual lessons. I eventually became grateful that I had seen a lack of organization on the committee. It was precisely that perception that invited me to join. I received more Light when I was true to the Light I had been given. Following the nudge to put my name forward for Nominating Committee, way opened for many new spiritual leadings and gifts. I received the love, welcome, and generosity of Friends who did not know me well—part of spiritual hospitality. I learned to clarify what discernment is mine to do, and what discernment I need to leave for others to do. I experienced others recognizing my gifts, and I received loving support—often without even asking—when I took on a new role. I learned that Spirit is able to navigate technology better than I knew, and that incredibly deep worship can be had across time zones and long distances. I heard Friends speak their faith in Quaker process when mine was faltering. I came to know the subversive effect of a focus on measuring personal success rather than following the leadings of the Spirit. I also learned about God’s time.

This is only one of the stories of faith-building that I could have shared. There are many other ways through which members of the FLGBTQC community practice, model for each other, and sometimes fall painfully short of “radical love and inclusion.” Again and again, Friends within this community have challenged me to be more faithful, to become who I am called to be. Accompanying an FLGBTQC couple as one partner was dying helped prepare me to be more spiritually present for the passing of my father. Witnessing the intensely expressive dance performance of a Friend who uses a wheelchair brought the limitations of my own assumptions into sharp relief and showed me that sometimes my biggest limitation is my inability to perceive all the possibilities. Being gifted with spiritual hospitality from FLGBTQC Friends shed light on my own stinginess and substantially raised the bar for my own behavior. One Friend literally gave me the shirt off his back. Another, who couldn’t quite picture who I was, offered me a place to stay with her family for months after I moved across the country. Many more examples come to mind. Far from focusing only on sexuality, safety, and justice concerns specific to LGBTQ people, Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns shakes me to my spiritual core and affects all aspects of my life. It seems to shake others similarly. It is in this crucible of blessed community that we come to know and love each other surprisingly deeply and rise to the challenge of living more faithfully.

Get to Know FLGBTQC

FLGBTQC is a North American Quaker faith community that affirms that of God in all people. We are learning that radical inclusion and radical love bring further light to Quaker testimony and life.* We are currently focusing on increasing accessibility, welcome, love, and inclusion across the spectra of race, class, age, physical ability, and religious perspectives.

Please consider coming to our next Midwinter Gathering this February 14–17, 2014, in Portland, Oregon (registration closes January 15), and if you attend the FGC Gathering in the summer, consider joining us for meeting for worship and our Cabaret and Silent Auction. All Friends and fellow spiritual travelers who hold lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks close to their hearts are welcome!

Visit our website (www.flgbtqc.quaker.org) to register for the 2014 Midwinter Gathering, receive information on future gatherings, help someone attend our gatherings who yearns to but can’t afford to, or check out our resources, such as same-sex marriage minutes, minutes welcoming and affirming transgender people, epistles, testimonials, and delicious recipes.

*Statements adapted from FLGBTQC’s corporately approved self-description in 2001.

One Response to Growing Faith in Blessed Community

  1. E Grace February 18, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    Quite simply — thank you.

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