Last year at New England Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions, the Faith and Practice Revision Committee reported on membership guidelines. They strongly recommended that when people join a meeting, they should relinquish formal ties to other faith communities. I responded viscerally: I feared yet another door slammed shut on people not raised Quaker, yet another instance of our tendency toward insularity that limits our numbers and, more significantly, our vibrancy. And I heard loud and clear that among some Friends, I am not welcome.
So that day at yearly meeting I stood up and spoke to the many streams that guide my faith. My active involvement with Friends goes back some 60 years: the Quaker-led vigils on the Boston Common against our country’s growing military involvement in what was then called Indochina; borrowing documentaries from the American Friends Service Committee library for class presentations; sharing deep silence and a communal meal at young adult Friends gatherings; and foremost, corporate worship each First Day. After college I moved to New York and naturally sought out a Quaker community. But a racist encounter when I first walked into the meeting slammed the door shut for several years. I ventured a few blocks to the Riverside Church, an interdenominational and interracial congregation committed to social justice that offered multiple opportunities for worship and spiritual development. I was to eventually attend seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Over 15 years ago when I retired from full-time ministry, I became active in my local Quaker meeting, joined, and have served on many committees including Ministry and Worship.
I bring my training and work as a minister to my presence at Mount Toby Meeting in Leverett, Mass., as I, in turn, integrate Quaker worship and testimonies into my formal work as a UU clergy person. When I met with the clearness committee regarding membership, they asked if I would let go of being a minister. I did not hesitate to say no. First, I can think of no other profession that so deeply roots me in my African American heritage. It offers a connection and a responsibility that is unique. Moreover, it is such a privilege to walk with people of diverse ages and backgrounds through the valleys and over the peaks. I feel truly blessed. And this sense does not in any way diminish the strength of the Quaker witness that we all are called to ministry and to see the Light in all beings.
We are complex, drawing from multiple sources. I am grateful my meeting welcomes Christians and humanists, Buddhists and pantheists, Jews and agnostics. Our worship is all the more precious. On occasion I can be found at the local African Methodist Episcopal Church breathing in a vibrant tradition and appreciating the beautiful brown and black faces that reflect me back (a gift Friends cannot offer). And I am not the only Quaker at Grace Episcopal’s Christmas Eve service. And at least once yearly I sit a week-long Buddhist retreat. How bountiful is my interfaith and interracial family! Yes, the sacred is expressed in many hues and tones, and no one religion has a monopoly on truths. I seek communities that celebrate “both-and” and “both-and-more,” not a monochromatic “either-or.”
The Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation I selected for my high school yearbook photo continues to resonate: “Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley.” I encourage all of us to open our hearts to the many manifestations of the sacred. Yes, Quaker testimonies inform our understandings, but may we also embrace other rich expressions bearing gifts perhaps unfamiliar but no less powerful. There is space for all. Bid welcome.