I am an “almost Quaker.” While I identify myself as a convinced Friend, I have never become a member of a meeting, nor do I currently attend any. I regularly attended in the past, but I never came to feel that I belonged. That, however, is getting ahead of my story.
I was raised in charismatic, evangelical, Pentecostal, Protestant Christianity. I found that this religious training can’t be explained, only experienced. In Pentecostal Christianity, I felt that God couldn’t love me because I was so imperfect, and my teen years were full of pain and confusion. Later, as a young adult, I found that the more I learned about science and about religion, the less sure I was about what I had been taught growing up. My denomination, however, had no room for questioning.
I, in turn, had no use for a judgmental God who didn’t love every single human being and didn’t love those who fell outside the parameters set by society. I didn’t understand a God that would make someone’s favorite football team win a game but not heal a child of cancer. Intercessory prayer was confusing and the proffered answers even more so. I suspected that a lot of religion was human beings using God to explain things that God maybe had nothing to do with. A lot of churches seemed to be using God to control behavior with fear rather than love.
I needed to turn away from the God of religion before I could hear the God of love. I needed significant time to heal from the trauma that the Pentecostal idea of God had caused in my life and to let go of my preconceived notions about what or who God is and does.
When the presence of God returned, it was a quiet whisper, a feeling of presence, and an understanding that I was not alone. I encountered the I Am as the Light Within and realized that I didn’t have to define anything. It was okay not to know what God is. I have learned to be okay with the messiness of not knowing, have realized I may be incapable of ever knowing, and even accept that I may be altogether wrong.
Repeatedly, over the course of more than three decades, I had felt pulled to Quakerism. On any given day, some people might intersect with the Religious Society of Friends and continue on their way. I came to a standstill each time I inadvertently came upon the subject of Quakerism. Many times as a teenager, I had voiced my desire to be a Quaker despite not really knowing what that meant, other than that the Society was an historic peace church. Later, a homeschool book written by a Friend created a longing for a different community from what I had. A mention of Friends in a magazine article about peace churches would remind me that the peace testimony had resonated with me since I was a child. I had been curious about Friends since becoming old enough to read more than picture books. I didn’t recognize my interest for what it was: the Spirit leading me to encounter God within myself.
When I was finally still, recognized the Light, and felt God, I realized that I was a Quaker. It was like a thunderclap after the whisper of “I Am.” And so, in 2014 I attended a Quaker meeting that I had known about for two decades.
All my life I had fought the idea that I needed an umbrella hierarchy to stand between God and me; with the Friends, this wall no longer exists. I believe that there is that of God in each of us and that we all hold the Light. No one preaches to me; no one else interprets scripture for me; no one decides the nature of God for me. In Quaker worship, I learned to listen to the Spirit.
I do not have that Quaker community anymore. I am an almost Quaker. I spent five months attending the closest meeting as often as I could (weekly for the first few months). Other than in silent worship, I never felt like I belonged. It wasn’t that people were unkind, although some were certainly standoffish. Perhaps they worried that I wouldn’t commit to the meeting. I would argue that this unwillingness of Friends to reach out and warmly welcome newcomers is the prime reason many newly convinced or even merely curious do not commit.
We newcomers cannot commit to a community that doesn’t embrace us as brethren in the Light. I believe that Friends need to be willing to love fiercely right away and to welcome the newcomers as if they intended to stay forever, rather than acting as if they will leave. They will indeed leave if what they encounter is a group of Friends who don’t truly make the effort to let them in. Yes, not everyone who is embraced will stay, and that might cause pain. The pain must be risked, however, or the tenuous connections will be lukewarm and weak.
I sit in silent expectation at home, waiting for a message, sometimes wondering if it was meant only for me or if it should have been delivered to a group in meeting for worship. At the same time, I can’t make myself go back to a place where I feel so left out. A person can only try so many times: writing down my email address again and still not receiving information about other gatherings; saying hello to people after meeting, only to be politely rebuffed; and standing in a small group listening to others talk about their shared experiences and gatherings while ignoring the presence of someone new. My very best connection at meeting was with a couple who were visiting and happy that I made the effort to talk to and learn about them. They didn’t stay, and that simply wasn’t enough. My experience has led me to think that “almost Quaker” is perhaps a new identity. If so, it is one that I wish I didn’t have.