It is 9:58 a.m., and the room is settling in the minutes before worship officially begins when I hear it: click, click, click, click, click. I sit a little straighter and flick my eyes toward the door, waiting to see who is walking into worship wearing heels. The sound—rare in a Quaker space—is music to my ears, and I am excited. When a family enters the worship room, I realize that it’s a child wearing tap shoes to worship, not someone flaunting against the unspoken Quaker convention of sturdy flats. I feel a little silly for being excited over such a small thing before returning to centering into worship.
I was not raised in a Quaker meeting and found Friends in college after a journey through several churches and worship experiences. I found a home in the theology of a pared-down faith and practice that made a raw, personal connection to the holy. I have grown a lot as a person since my convincement. I have journeyed deeper into the heart of justice and come to understand my testimonies as powerful, lived expressions of faith. These people are my people, and I am theirs. But I am still alienated by the painful cramp that is the shoe creed.
You may be asking: “What shoe creed?” “This sounds like a joke,” you might sigh. “What Quakers are you hanging out with if this even comes up?” you may wonder. It is real, dear Friends, that we love showing off our practical attire from our heads to our toes. Quakers sport sensible hats in winter and sturdy sandals in summer. It is as if we are ready for a hike at a moment’s notice, or could join in a 5k run if the urge to raise money for an animal shelter seizes us as we walk out of the meetinghouse on First Day. I am not sure it comes up in the affirmative: “Look at these new shoes! They are guaranteed to last until my children go to their forty-fifth college reunion! They have every practical feature and nothing frivolous like decoration or color!” But commentary almost always comes up in the negative: “How unpractical are those! Can you run after a child? Can you jog around the block? Won’t you twist your ankle just by standing? They seem flashy.” Nor are we shy about sharing comments on the fashions around us.
One of our Quaker tendencies is our commitment to speaking all of our truth at all times. We often say more than is helpful when we could instead be curious to listen to and learn from people making different choices. As a convinced Friend who has spent most of my life living and working outside of the deep saturation of Quaker enclaves and institutions, I retain many social norms at odds with our niche culture.
One of our Quaker tendencies is our commitment to speaking all of our truth at all times. We often say more than is helpful when we could instead be curious to listen to and learn from people making different choices.
Some of these norms are charming (I’m always surprised by the speed with which Quakers can set up a potluck), but some put me at odds with my faith and identity. This “shoe thing” is a place where I am painfully outside the norm.
It seems minor, I know, to call “Thou Shalt Wear Sturdy Shoes” an unofficial Quaker creed, but it doesn’t feel minor to me. It is a barrier between me and worship. It is a source of fear and frustration when I travel. It is the line between “I would visit here again” and “That was uncomfortable; no more.” It is one of those pains that seem trivial only because it has never occurred to most of us.
I knew this was a bigger-than-me moment when I complained during a social event about not being able to wear most of my shoes to meeting and three other voices in the room piped up with the same sentiment. We shared our fears and frustrations around getting dressed for worship, and I felt a comfort that I didn’t know I was missing. Inspired by that conversation, I’d like to share three reasons why the Quaker uniform of sturdy shoes does not serve as a welcoming creed.
Joy of Gender Confirmation
Adulthood meant I could finally embrace my gender identity by name and fully lean into it. I could clothe my body with the trappings of my gender experience and fully delight in them. I could be wildly and completely myself at church without my parents leaning over my shoulder, reminding me of what was forbidden in God’s house. But for many trans and genderqueer people, dressing to our gender expression is unwelcome in Quaker meetinghouses because it is too formal, too fancy, or too feminine. My day job requires certain shoes and clothes for safety reasons, so weekends are a time when I can dress in a way that expresses my gender. That often means a rotating lineup of glittery heels, candy-colored suede driving loafers, patterned wedges, and eye-catching espadrilles.
First Day is the day when I pick up the shoes I want to wear to meeting, try them on, then realize that I cannot face another snide comment about rolling my ankle (which has never happened) or misplaced joke about being taller than my wife (not a concern in our marriage). I usually put the shoes back with a sigh. I compromise with a pair of shoes that leave me feeling less than whole. More than once, I’ve put on work shoes to go to meeting because nothing else matched—besides the three pairs of black dress heels I knew wouldn’t be welcome. One week I had no matching flats and a commitment to volunteer after worship. I didn’t have time to change again without making us late to worship so I went barefoot. The whole hour was spent keeping my humiliated sobs silent, robbing me of a worship experience.
A trans woman told me about her joy in wearing fashionable pumps to worship, something she couldn’t do during the workweek. She also shared her heartbreak when a member of her meeting remarked on the pumps with a sneer, suggesting loudly that perhaps “formal trappings weren’t the right fit for Quaker meeting.” Meeting was a place where this trans Friend could bring her whole, dazzling self, and that was taken from her because another Friend insisted that conformity of comfort trumped her validating gender expression. I’ve heard from several genderqueer and non-binary Friends who say that the pushback they see cisgender women receive over shoe choice has been enough to keep them from wearing the shoes they crave at meeting. I don’t blame them. I’ve been humiliated for a lifetime by Quaker commentary on my shoes. I ache for a place where my gender expression is as celebrated as the liberation of my soul.
CAYA Not CAWA
The acronym CAYA (come as you are) is a popular way to describe church services in the liberal religious tradition. This slang is a way of saying, “You don’t have to dress up or do your hair or get all fancy to do church with us.” Sometimes, it’s also a way of saying, “You don’t have to be less gay to worship here.” Quakers are proud of our open attitude to how people come to worship—until someone comes dressed up too fancy, with beautiful but impractical shoes. Then the meeting turns into a “come as we are” (CAWA) environment. We are desperate to grow our numbers, but we are also hung up on the outward trappings of expression.
This attitude is challenging for many convinced Friends. My wife was raised Quaker and has never known a formal church environment. I am glad that she can be fully present, dress comfortably, and enjoy worship. But I was raised differently and know different norms. Some of these inform how I want to present myself for myself. By expecting Friends to buy new wardrobes just to suit the sartorial whims of the meeting, we close ourselves off to the gifts that come from those Friends. A Friend’s suit does not mean the meeting is sliding into a dress code more suited for corporate America. Another Friend in a smart pair of spectator shoes does not mean everyone must buy three-inch heels for the following week. Our doors are open to seekers and searchers, but are they also open to those whose First Days are a day for starched dresses, crisp slacks, and shiny shoes? Although Quakers have long chosen fashion as a medium for some of our testimonies, modern Friends observe a diversity of dress. We are not united on the subject of fashion in the twenty-first century. But when we cleave to these narrow interpretations of what a First-day outfit looks like, we draw a line that says very plainly that we value outward appearance more than gifts of the heart.
It seems a strange hill to die on, to be honest. There are so many ways to be a peculiar people in this world, including taking a stand against injustice and the rule of law. Insisting on sensible dress and humiliating others for differences of style is a waste of energy when there are bigger callings. When we insist that everyone must conform on the outside, we miss the chance to bring hearts together and grow toward a deeper faith. We have driven many people out of our doors over something almost comical. My aunt always says, “Keeping your mouth shut is free. Speaking rudely is costly.” In this case, our judgmental attitudes are costing Quakerdom the gifts of many seekers.
I Am Not Your Own
My mother loved to quote the First Corinthians 6:19–20 to her children on an almost daily basis as a cue to assess what choices we were making:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
This call to action from Paul will look different for everyone, just as every temple looks different. Even among Friends—who eschew the outward decoration of our worship rooms—we exhibit a great variety. The placement of windows, benches, and flower arrangements create a unique tapestry of meetinghouses around the country: just so with the temples that are our bodies.
My relationship with this verse is clear: I want to bring my clean, pressed, and styled best to my weekly date with Spirit. So many layers of my identity have informed my church clothes, including the high church traditions of my grandparents and the evangelical leanings of my parents. I am femme. I am Southern. I am one of four children in a busy, wild family. I am the child of a pair of white-collar workers. All of these pieces come together to form my relationship with what I should wear to worship no matter where I am worshiping. Your own layers and history inform the story of your presentation at worship and in meeting. Yes, the culture of the meeting means something. But my own personal leading does not dictate yours. Conversely, yours should not dictate mine.
We are looking to be welcomed. We want to be here. Is there a place under the bench for our different-yet-comfy shoes alongside yours this First Day?
Friends who are called to give themselves rest by slipping into a comfortable shirt and their favorite jeans are following a leading. Friends who are called to spend intentional time putting together a more complex outfit are also following a leading. My choice of shiny patent leather heels is not a reckoning on your favorite scuffed tennis shoes. It is a gift to find comfort and rest by following what we know to be true about our presentation. We are not yours. We are not holding you to our standard when we pick out a lovely pair of heeled boots that probably have rolled a few ankles along the way (but not ours).
Every time the creed “Thou Shalt Be Comfy” pushes me further out the door of the meetinghouse, something is lost in the life of the meeting. I want to be a Friend in community, and I want to be seen as a whole person in all my joyful sartorial energy. Denying our meetings the vibrant love and worship of those who find comfort in a snappy pair of wedges is denying our meetings untold gifts. We are knocking. We are looking to be welcomed. We want to be here. Is there a place under the bench for our different-yet-comfy shoes alongside yours this First Day?