Pour Out My Spirit

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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?

Mary Linda McKinney

Mary Linda McKinney is a member of Nashville (Tenn.) Meeting. One of her spiritual gifts is creating spaces where intimacy can flourish. She is the creator and facilitator of the School of the Spirit program Faithful Meetings, bringing spiritual formation grounded in Quaker faith and practices to Friends meetings. Online: Schoolofthespirit.org/faithful-meetings.

11 thoughts on “Pour Out My Spirit

  1. Mary Linda McKinney’s thoughtful and emotionally touching essay really spoke to me. Fortunately for me, I was welcome into my Meeting with such whole hearted simplicity, humility and warmth, that I felt completely at home, but I do know the other experience from other places and situations and have often thought of this phrase in her essay:
    “Early Friends seemed to have practiced a radical inclusiveness similar to that of the community that grew around Jesus”
    I think it is a most timely essay and something worth discussing at Friends Meetings. A book I read last year came to mind when I read this essay, CASTE, which, though it was about Race, rang many bells to me in regard to socio-economic demographics as well as gender. It was my great good fortune that my mother, a working class woman who hadn’t been able to graduate from high school because in the Depression her wages were needed for the family, valued knowledge so highly that she used every means available to her to provide books to us and stimulate our love of learning, so I became a reader and that formed the direction of the rest of my life. I straddled two worlds, the working class, inner city world of my childhood, and the college educated, career world of my adult life. I always see the world from these two perspectives and I have rarely seen it addressed so clearly and with such heartfelt honesty. Thank you!M

  2. Thanks for a very good article with a number of very relevant points. In the spirit of accompaniment I would sit with you on the Group W working class bench. While I have some college education I’ve spent all of my working life in “working” environments like repair shops and factory jobs. And those are all my friends. That’s where we’ve told jokes, shared stories, eaten meals together, asked for help and learned from each other.

    In a meeting I attended some year ago, someone had made a reference in a message in meeting to “beating our swords into plowshares and our Buicks into bicycles”, perfectly in keeping with Friends’ sense of the work that needs to be done in the world. But it happened that there was one man who had become a recent attender from a nearby town where he worked in one of the many industrial plants there. And he had also, only recently, been able to buy a new car – a Buick. He took the message as something of a personal insult that took some time to assuage. There was no mean or classist intent in the message and it could hardly have been accused of insensitivity, but it did highlight an invisible but real divide in the group. I would hope, with Mary Linda, for a time when we are more united in the Spirit than divided by all our societal fracture lines.

  3. I am so glad a Friend is looking at the issue of class. It is terrible.
    I was on a summer work camp program at an Indian Reservation
    in California in 1962. Most of us were from the east. No one was from CA.
    When I was a day late, I was asked why. I explained that although
    I found a ride from Pittsburgh to Cheyenne, WY, I had to hitchhike
    from there.
    Why didn’t you fly out like the rest of us?
    My father could not afford it? I asked the AFSC if I could get bus fare, but they could not afford it and knew of no other Quaker group who would help. I would have to hitchhike.
    Where did your father go to college?
    He only went to 9th grade (Lititz High) and works as a machinist for Westinghouse making steel turbines.
    I never heard of a Quaker who works in a factory and only went to 9th grade. All the rest of us have parents who went to college. Some have doctorate degrees.

    But, when it came time to do the work, I was the only one who was certified as an electrician under the Code, and the Indian families needed their new cottages to be wired. The other young men dug fire breaks. Eventually I left the group and stayed with an Indian family, but I worked every day. I hitchhiked back via Tijuana, Yuma, N. Orleans and Southern Pines, NC. I stayed at the Southern Pines jail overnight but since I was not imprisoned, I was not entitled to breakfast. The head of the jail got me a ride from the Officer’s Club at the military base there up to D.C. where I used my spending money to catch a train to PHL. I stayed overnight at Salvation Army and Good Will Industries facilities that had provisions for transients as a hitchhiker. I liked the Black Eyed Peas at the Hattiesburg, MS Salvation Army the best.

    My Dad wanted me to become a lawyer. I won a full scholarship to law school, and volunteered my time at CCCO handling courts martial for Army and Navy Conscientious Objectors during the Vietnam War. I was living in Swarthmore at the time.

    I went to Media/Springfield Preparative Meeting of Chester Monthly (Orthodox ) as a child. The elders were farmers who welcomed me with open arms. They always had tracts for us to read. “Thee should not entertain thoughts of entering the Armed Forces. Read this tract by Jonathon Dymond. ”
    Plain Speech; plain clothes of course. This was before 1955 when we combined.

  4. This Friend very much “speaks my mind.” I’m also a longtime Friend who has not yet attended college. Many times I have heard from Friends some version of “Well you must go to school immediately” or “You’re very articulate and no one would ever guess” or “Really? You seem smart.”

    At one Quaker event, the thirty or so Friends gathered decided to play “Get to know you” games. One of which included having Friends stand in a line, organized from left to right by various categories, “How far did you travel to get here?” “How long have you been a Friend?” and “What year did you graduate from college?” (Which also tells you how many children and teens were present, zero.) I ended up staying seated. “Mim! Come join us! What year did you graduate? We’ll tell you where you fit in the line.” “I’ve never attended college. I started working right after I graduated high school.” “….oh.”
    In fairness this DID start a conversation about classism and the assumptions Friends make about what “Everyone” can relate to.

  5. Thank you!

    What we have as Quakers — we are led by Spirit in community, not by leaders or by dogma — can work for anyone. That we are led by Spirit in community, not by leaders or by dogma, at this point in civilization is empirical. We like the results, compared to the alternatives.

    Our current implementation of worship in silent contemplation with occasional sharing works for a very small percentage, educated or not.

    The response I gave gotten when I raised the issue of the exclusivity of our chosen form of worship, in my Meeting and in Yearly Meeting, has been “they can go elsewhere.” That’s a direct quote.

    There are now others in my Meeting and in my Yearly Meeting who think differently. We haven’t reach critical mass yet — that’s a work in progress. Before Covid struck, SAYMA Outreach had had accepted 2 related workshops for that Yearly Meeting: one making the case for more inclusive forms of worship, and the second a live demonstration of a “next related step” variation of a more active, participatory form of Spirit-led worship.

    I have worked on this issue for 11 years, finding my way forward. This is not my first time on a path of inclusivity where there was said to be none: I did the same in my career as a psychologist doing psychotherapy. My patients most often remarked something along the lines of “Hank, talking to you is like talking to a person.” I would react like a person to that, and then we’d laugh together.

    Hence my joy in reading your article.

    Going forward, an organization led not by leaders or dogma is a radical, strange notion to many. For that reason, having an online multimedia “cookbook” of what others have done in various ways in various places seems like a next good step. Being online would make it a living work.

    Having folks like yourself who are able to connect with others where they are and can serve as “trail guides” as it were, is likely very useful.

    It’s happening, and I am grateful for Spirit moving us in a direction of inclusivity in worship.


  6. I’m in a cross-class marriage and my spouse left Quakerism because of unexamined, unintended classism. So I’ve been learning just how unintended classism shows up, especially among unprogrammed Friends. A few examples include:

    1. Disdain for “emotional” vocal ministry, whether during worship or meetings for worship for business. Owning class and middle class people tend to have been socialized to “keep your voice down,” “don’t be so angry,” “grow a thick skin,” etc.

    2. Disdain for certain foods. As Mary Linda alludes to, the collective move by Quakers away from meat-based dishes and toward vegetarian and vegan foods can be very off-putting to people of different backgrounds. And yet, I remember when my spouse and I brought fried chicken or pizza to potlucks, and how those items would be the first thing to go.

    3. Pressure to conform to certain ways of engaging in conflict, which include #1. Also being generally conflict averse; the expectation to be “rational” and/or calm, which gets to be problematic when Friends begin to explore interpersonal, systemic, and structural oppression and injustices.

    4. Over-valuing confidentiality and giving much more weight to Friends involved in Quaker institutions. In one instance, confidentiality was cited as a reason for not sharing with a Friend details about why a certain action was taken *against* that Friend, leaving the Friend powerless to advocate for themselves. In addition, wealthier and better educated Friends have more social capital than less wealthy, less educated Friends, so when accusations are made against someone who is from a poor, working class, or lower middle class background, especially if they are newer to Friends, the accused likely has less capital and fewer connections to draw upon for adequate pushback. In short, there are fewer Friends who will “have their back” when accusations are made against them.

    5. Engaging directly with others after something is shared. Professional middle class Quaker culture trains many of us to believe it is inappropriate to respond directly to something that is said out of the silence, whether it is during worship, while addressing business, or during a session of what many Liberal Friends call “worship sharing.” Other class cultures, I have learned both by some study and by direct experience, value responding immediately and directly to what is said, to the point that the conversation not only is sometimes comprised of several spirited voices speaking over one another (see #1) but also can be a way to collaborate effectively as well as a way to engage specific individuals by calling on one another to add to the conversation. One cross-class ad hoc committee I participated in included a Friend who hadn’t fully accommodated to or assimilated into middle class Quaker culture. The Friend often would say things like “Liz, what do you think about that?” and then “Well, what do you think we should do, Tom?” Because the clerk was sensitive to class differences, the Friend wasn’t admonished for how they were participating, and my experience was that the committee was helpfully knit together as a result of the full participation of all Friends in the work. Had the clerk chided the Friend, an important voice probably would have been silenced, leaving that opinion and experience out of the group’s seeking of addressing the concern it had been charged with.

    [Truncated. FJ comments limited to ~500 words]

    1. I’m in full agreement that we should be sensitive to class difference, and cultural difference as well. Our meeting has been working very diligently to be more inclusive, with gradual improvement in our openness. I do feel that there should be room for more spirited forms of expression, but in my education in Quaker ways, I learned that we don’t rebut statements made by other Friends not because it violates upper class norms of politeness, but because to do so does not allow every Friend’s sharing to be considered and contemplated equally. When replying directly, and even talking over someone is allowed, it ultimately ends up being a situation where the most aggressive and vociferous members of a meeting can hold the floor by intimidation.

      I have seen this happen in committee meetings, where our more quiet and shy members hardly ever speak up, because the more extroverted (and sometimes the more aggressive) members held the floor in an ongoing back and forth dialogue, and even in simultaneous monologue! (And when people are engaging in simultaneous monologue, only the louder person has their thought heard.)

      I feel that the committee clerks were quite right to remind Friends in the committees meetings that we speak with space between. This also allows room for our older members (which I am now one of) to be heard: as people age, their minds actually do slow down (I recently had an EEG, because I have MS and they suspected possible seizure disorder, and was shocked to be told that my brain waves were now slower than normal! The technician told me though, that this is actually typical as people age) so I have been realizing that I am one of those people who often are not being heard – I have to think a lot longer about something I’m trying to articulate, before I can get it out of my mouth. It also means that I don’t have time to think about and digest what one person said when another person comes in right on top of them. This isn’t fair to the person who gets stepped on come up but it’s not fair to others who want to think about what the first person said.

      I can tell you that being on the receiving end, never being able to get a word in edgewise, is not a pleasant experience, and has made me feel excluded from conversations at times, when quicker thinking members have been engaging in “spirited discussion”. Just because people feel spirited about a particular topic, does not entitle them to dominate, or attempt to dominate discussion in groups. No one benefits by this being allowed to take place. When people disagree, they can always take up their discussion outside of meeting for worship, or even outside of committee meetings, because to impose their disagreement on the rest of the meeting is not fair to anyone.

  7. It is wonderful that you addressed this issue, which, as you point out, many would not realize was an issue. You provide a clear vision of how we should follow Jesus’ example: “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.”

  8. I very much appreciated this article for its reminder that I can be blind to the experiences of others whose life has proceeded on a different path from mine. Thank you for opening this conversation about class and the ways that people could feel excluded in a Meeting. I also wonder about the Liberal part. I separate that from the class issue because although there can be overlap, it is not always the case. I feel like it might be easier to talk among Friends about class issues because ideas about simplicity and equality come strongly in line whereas in discussions about politics, ideas about social justice and environmental stewardship do not always align with a not Liberal perspective. Any suggestions for reframing these thoughts to be more inclusive?

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