Embracing Friends Across Class Backgrounds
A few years ago, I spent a number of hours with a home healthcare provider, while together we cared for my 102-year-old grandmother-in-law. Theresa was a kind person who tended lovingly to her patient and had a deep sense of integrity about her work. It didn’t take us long to begin talking about spiritual matters. She was Pentecostal but said she was frustrated by the hypocrisy and lack of spiritual depth she felt in any church she attended for long. She wanted a spiritual community but had almost given up on the idea of finding one. She had never heard of Quakers and was curious.
My grandmother-in-law had old-age memory loss. She was sweet and gentle but could only keep the memory of anything recent in her head for about three minutes before it floated away. Because of this, I answered the same handful of questions many times each hour she was awake. She would ask what my husband’s name was and where he was. He was at a yearly meeting, so I’d say that he was at a church retreat. Sometimes she would then ask what church we go to. She was also a lifelong Pentecostal and, as far as she was able to remember, had never heard of Quakers, so would ask what Quakers believe or the difference between Quakers and Baptists. I tried answering her in various ways until I finally honed my explanation to one that worked for her. I would say that Quakers don’t believe in baptism with water but rather baptism with the Holy Spirit. I’d tell her we believe that God speaks directly to each of us, and because of this, we don’t have a minister but believe we all have the potential to be ministers and so sit silently waiting on God until one of us is given a message to share during Sunday worship. This seemed to make sense to her and didn’t lead to a lot of other theological and memory challenges. (Conversing with someone with a three-minute memory duration can be an interesting exercise, but it can also be very confusing for everyone involved.)
Having spent several days perfecting my Quaker elevator speech, I was prepared when Theresa asked almost identical questions. Pentecostalism and Quakerism are both mystical religious traditions that grew out of Christianity, albeit with very different forms of expression. The similarities we share mean it’s not difficult for a Pentecostal and a Quaker to find common ground. Of course, there are significant theological differences, but for the sake of our conversation, I focused on the things I thought Theresa could relate to. And relate she did. She was very interested in what I told her and said she would learn more online after work. That day after Theresa left, I struggled with whether to give her info about the local Liberal Friends meeting near her. I thought she very well might have found the worship to be a positive experience. But she made it clear that she was also looking for a spiritual community, and Liberal Friends, I think, would not be a good fit for her.
It sorrows me and hurts me and vexes me to say this, but it’s true: I think most working-class and poor people, and even many rural and suburban middle-class folks, would not feel welcome at a Liberal Friends meeting. Theresa was a Certified Nursing Assistant. She had obviously not always had access to dentistry. She was friendly as all-get-out, but when she talked, it was clear she was not well-educated. I tried to imagine a scenario in which she would visit a Liberal Friends meeting and feel comfortable. First, there’s the strangeness of meeting in silence with no sermon, no prayers, no singing, no person directing anything, with maybe the sounds of stomachs growling and shuffling feet and the possibility of messages inspired by National Public Radio…for a whole hour. Next are introductions, which put newcomers in the spotlight. If it’s potluck First Day, there may be unfamiliar foods to discover. Oh yeah, and there are our weird terms and jargon: “Quakers,” “Friends,” “First Day,” and “monthly meeting” are just the beginning. All these things together can be very off-putting to visitors.
But let’s say she was intrepid and could accept all that. What might have happened had she tried to get to know the community? How welcoming might she have found it?
I come from a working-class background. My dad has an associate degree in warehouse management that he earned going to night school when I was a baby. The smell of cardboard always makes me think of him. My mom was the youngest of six children raised with a richness of love but financial poverty by a mother who worked as a waitress after my grandfather deserted the family. My extended family are blue-collar and middle class: nurses, cops, skilled laborers, career military, and cosmetologists. Very few of us earn a salary; we’re mostly hourly workers.
When I visited my first Friends meeting for worship, spiritually I felt right at home. The silence and the invitation to sink down and really listen for the voice of God felt instantly right to me. At first, I had few problems with the culture but I found the lack of typical religious jargon refreshing. I think I’d been attending Friends meeting a year or two when I was first confronted with a cultural wall. Six or seven of us were traveling by van through beautiful rural Tennessee to visit a labyrinth an hour away. I said something about being a city girl who loves the country and being torn between wanting to live in each place. A Friend I admired tremendously blithely said, “That’s why my family keeps a summer home!” It silenced me when they said it. My then-husband and I were struggling to keep up with the mortgage on our 750 square-foot house. The idea of a second home was as foreign to me as living in Swarthmoor Hall. With that offhand comment, I realized this Friend had no clue about my life nor awareness that there were members of our community without the privileges they took for granted. Since that time, I’ve had many experiences of feeling myself to be an outsider in the Friends community. It seems to me there is an assumption that all Liberal Friends are well-educated, have the financial ability to travel and attend activities in the larger Quaker world, and have stability in their lives. Because of learning disabilities that were not identified until I was in my 40s, school was an insurmountable challenge for me and I did not go to college. Until a few years ago, I never had the time nor money to attend Quaker gatherings, because doing so required taking unpaid leave from an hourly job; even when scholarships were available, I still could not afford it. For a long time, I was in an unhappy marriage, and my ex was barely tolerant of my relationship with my meeting. The longer I attended, the more of an outsider I felt. For many years, I felt I needed to keep a lot of facts about me and my life hidden in order to fit in.
At the same time, God was calling me into a deeper relationship with my community. I was active in my monthly meeting and at the meetinghouse almost every day of the week, taught First-day school, and had several close friendships with Friends. I was learning to become a leader and facilitated a number of workshops and classes with my meeting and other communities. In doing so, I was discovering that to create intimacy, vulnerability is required. Through success and failure, I intuited that when I opened and shared my authentic self, including the things that made me feel like an outsider, others also felt safe to do so, which brought us into truer communion.
It is often challenging to reveal the fact that I have acquired no higher education to Friends. The responses I’ve received have included an unjoking “Well you must go to school immediately” to “You’re very articulate and no one would ever guess” to “Really? You seem smart.” Friends! Intelligence doesn’t necessarily equal education! Education equals opportunity, that’s all. What I’ve observed about Liberal Friends is that, in large part, our communities are made up of people who grew up with the resources to ensure they could be well-educated. I have nothing against education. What I am troubled by is that, it seems to me, in the Liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends, the entire culture assumes that everyone has a base level of education and commensurate income higher than what is found among the general population of people in the United States—a base level of education and income that takes for granted its own privileges and makes outsiders of Theresa, most of my family, and me for the majority of my life.
I frequently think about how we make cultural assumptions seem like part of our religion, when they shouldn’t be. The level of education or even intelligence of a person, where they work, their ways of expression and the words they use, their zip code, their accent, how they dress, their political affiliation, or where they shop have nothing to do with their Inward Light. As I said to Theresa, “Quakers believe that God speaks directly to each of us, and because of this, we don’t have a pastor but believe that we are all called to ministry.” Early Friends seemed to have practiced a radical inclusiveness similar to that of the community that grew around Jesus. Some of the most influential early Friends were servants and laborers. Their intelligence, lack of book learning, or uncouth manners didn’t matter; what was important was that they lived up to the Light given them: they were faithful servants of God.
In the first chapter of Acts in the Christian New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples: “John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
In the next chapter of Acts, Jesus is gone, and at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on all who are present, giving them the ability to listen to one another in their own familiar languages. As the people try to make sense of what is happening, Peter replies with this quote from the prophet Joel that was so important to early Friends:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your young will see visions.
Your elders will dream dreams.
Even upon my servants, men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy (Acts 2:17-18, Common English Bible)
I dream of a pentecost coming upon us, one which allows all of us—with our own unique histories and perspectives—to feel fully included and valued in our communities. I imagine us being lit by the Spirit and sharing our experiences with one another, each using our own authentic language, whatever the cultural and theological orientation from which it arises.
I wonder what radical inclusiveness would look like for us today. What if we truly meet one another from an awareness of “that of God within”? Differences might fall away, so that how we were raised and where we were educated would no longer matter. The service worker would be as valued as the college professor and the single parent living in a mobile home could worship side-by-side with the person who owns a summer home. I end with this query: What might happen with us if we got to know one another by talking about how the Spirit moves through our everyday lives?