We certainly stood out. Our driver, Philemon, had taken us, four white women, to the edge of the crowd of 1,200 Kenyan youth and had us walk through to the front. We were there for their yearly meeting’s youth conference, and we stood out like four white marshmallows in a sea of dark chocolate. Watching the crowd from under the main tent, we had an excellent vantage point to hear everyone and to experience what was going on. Ruth, Emily, Holly, and I wanted to spend time with the youth, to become one of the crowd, but we discovered that was extremely difficult to do when we were the guests and treated with white, kid gloves. Being treated in such a way, however, did have one benefit: after speaking the next morning, we had the opportunity to see first-hand one of the expressions of Kenyan Quaker worship.
It started with the man who first spoke. He was a large African in a yellow, buttoned-up shirt, and he had the booming voice to go with it. If you have ever seen preaching in a gospel church—complete with the Amens and Hallelujahs and the voice flowing up and down over the ears of the listeners like water breaking through a levee—you can imagine his sermon. When he finished forty-five minutes later, the worship singing picked up where it had left off, but this time with much more verve and energy. The youth stood where they had been sitting, their hands raised to Jesus, and sang with tears running down their faces. As the music continued, some of them fell to the ground crying out Jesus’s name and shaking as they lay prostrate before us. Though I had seen something similar in a Pentecostal church, the three women with me were all unprogrammed Quakers and had never in their lives seen anything like this. Used to sitting in silent spaces, their hands in their laps, quietly listening to God, and speaking when they felt led, my three friends had never heard of speaking in tongues or being slain in the Spirit. It startled them.
For me, having helped compile and edit the book Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices, it was like seeing the stories I had read jump off the page and onto the ground before my feet. As an editorial board, we had read numerous submissions from African youth and young adults, describing how they wanted to worship in that style and how many were not allowed to do so in their home churches. Thus, it was hardly surprising that left on their own, they would move toward the worship that we were then experiencing. Once the four of us were on our own without a chaperone around (quite a feat to accomplish for any length of time when you are the guests), I explained what we had seen and what I had learned about the background to this Quaker practice.
A little more than a year later, the proverbial shoe was on the other foot. This time, I was the uncomfortable one, traveling through Europe on a speaking tour for Spirit Rising. The trip was to last over five weeks, span six countries, and center around the mission of telling Friends about the book. Before stepping off the plane, I knew the trip would be challenging. I also knew a good deal of that challenge would be spending so much time in unprogrammed worship with people whose tradition had traveled some distance from the Christian waters Quakerism was birthed in.
In the church in which I grew up (not of the Religious Society of Friends), I was taught how to stand before a congregation and share my relationship with God: what I was learning and where I was struggling, as well as praying with others about such things. Looking back, I see this not only as a strong foundation for a later career in writing and speaking, but as essential to our relationship with God. If we are the Light and know the Light, then we ought not to hide that Light under a veil of privacy and fear of judgment. Yet there are many times I’ve been with unprogrammed Quakers who quake to hear the name of God spoken in meeting, let alone Jesus. Personally, I find this disturbing. If we respect the Light in everyone, as we claim to do, should we not also let that Light speak, even if we disagree?
Some Quakers don’t believe in God but share the Quaker passion for social justice. For these Friends, Quakerism is more about a way of life: living simply, loving equality, and working faithfully for genuine world peace. I love their passion for this kind of ministry, though I know they would not call it such. These are the Friends I expected to meet in Europe. After all, though England is where the Society first came together under the leadership of George Fox and Margaret Fell and though Britain Yearly Meeting has never split, over the years I understood it had shifted into a generally non-Christian, unprogrammed gathering of Friends. I knew this from studying Quaker history, and I expected the Quakers to be much the same in the other countries I would be visiting. I expected to be craving a mention of Jesus by the time I returned home, longing for a praise-song-singing, rollicking Christian service with lots of scripture reading somewhere in the Bible Belt of America. But that is not what happened.
It started one night while I was worshipping with Friends at a meeting in London. Ironically, it was the only time I visited a meeting without also speaking afterward about the book. Sitting there along with a local friend of mine, trying to keep my eyes closed and ears open, I was startled to hear the name of Jesus mentioned. I thought that wasn’t done. I had been told it wasn’t done. I was not prepared for “Jesus.” A week later, it happened again when I was worshipping on Palm Sunday in the Netherlands, then again by me on Easter Sunday in Switzerland, and again in the north of England. By this time, my preconceived notions of European Quakerism had taken a definite hit.
Several of my notions, however, were still standing. Many of the people I met were of the quieter variety, leading simpler lives than many people I knew in America (though I realize there is also a cultural difference). Though Jesus was mentioned on occasion, it was rare, and several meetings I participated in were mostly silent.
Unprogrammed worship is hard for me: I want to move, to have conversations, and to discuss ideas. Having periods where I have to sit still and behave myself is a challenge, and needing to do this often in Europe was a test in loving endurance. I did come to enjoy these quiet moments, however, where I could let my mind wander and ponder things in between the many meaningful spoken messages. After all, traveling with such a full itinerary, quiet moments were a rare treat.
While traveling in England, I found it fascinating to see people who worship in the same buildings Quakers did 300 years ago but who hold widely different beliefs. I am sure George Fox would’ve had a hard time imagining this expression of Quakerism. I am also certain he would have had difficulty imagining what a Quaker meeting in Kenya would look like, though he would probably have been more comfortable with the quaking than we were. In the same vein, he would have had a hard time with the programmed churches in the area where I live, and I am sure with the unprogrammed as well. He would have had choice words of one kind or another for us all.
I had always imagined George Fox as a bit of an eccentric, starting out as a confused, young man who became a rebel in later years. He had certainly spent enough time in jail to earn the title of rebel. When I traveled into the north of England, I spent two nights at Swarthmoor Hall, an early center of the Quaker movement. My interest was its role in Christian history, not its Quaker history specifically. But I was excited to walk where Fox had walked, to sleep in the house where he had slept, and to view the rooms where Quakerism had come into bloom. Cuddled up in a chair in what must have been the 1600s version of a parlor, I opened up Fox’s journal one night and read some of the stories of how he was persecuted for saying and acting upon what he believed. A rebel he was, title or no, but I came away with a new respect for him. He stood up for his choices. He was willing to pay the price for his decisions, and he did so repeatedly. Margaret Fell suffered, too, while helping birth the movement, and I came away with a new respect for her as well. If not for her organization and managerial skills, not to mention the protection afforded by her and her husband Judge Fell, we would not be Friends today.
But we are Friends today, at least in faith if not in friendship. From the quiet meetings of Belgium and France to the spirited worship on the African plains, to meetings in England full of memory and hope, to the praise-singing evangelicals and the passionate unprogrammed in America, we are all Friends. In all the places I have traveled, I found there are new ways of living out Quakerism, new expressions. Because of this travel, I am often asked, “What do all Quakers have in common?” When asked this question, I bring to mind some of the Quakers in England who don’t believe in God but love social justice and work for equality, and I also recall my African friends living in a hierarchical culture who shout out to Jesus on their knees and thank him for helping them in school, finding food, and living another day. Of all the questions, this is the hardest one to answer. It’s hard because whenever I come up with a belief or idea of one group, I can come up with an example of a Quaker friend who would not share it. My passion is building bridges, but describing what those bridges are made of is difficult.
One of the reasons we put Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices together was to show not the unity of Quakerism, but its diversity. Most of my work is about living in diversity. There are many people around the world who have no idea there are forms of Quakerism other than their own, and it’s important not only to know about each other but to share friendship with those who are different from ourselves.
What do we have in common? Maybe some Friends call God by another name; maybe they use the name of Jesus or call this greater power the Light; maybe they don’t believe that God exists at all. What about our belief in the Inner Light, already a theologically loose term? Do we have that in common? I don’t think we do because there are those who think this is too close to the idea of God, and there are others, such as in Africa, who have never heard of this belief. Yet they are Quakers. What about our belief in equality, our practice of consensus? No, we don’t have these in common: there are Quakers who are very hierarchical and who take votes in their business meetings. Silence is obviously out; quaking is not worldwide; praise-singing is anathema to some.
I’ve sometimes wondered if our commonality is only our name and shared roots. But lately, I’ve started to think a little deeper than that. Truth, real Truth (such as the name of God), is past all language, past all symbols we could use to represent it, so maybe what Quakers have in common is also beyond our language, our theology, or our testimonies. Perhaps instead of saying we all believe in the Light, we can agree that each person has value. Instead of trying to unite about consensus or voting, we can agree that we are passionate about making choices that will make love more obvious today and thus tomorrow. Instead of concerning ourselves with finding a common form of worship, we can find a common purpose in living out that love and working to make the lives of those around us more filled with daily joy, whether through political lobbying in the United States or ensuring that villages in Kenya have access to clean water.
Perhaps even more than these greater underlying truths, I would hope that we all have respect and love for one another, no matter our theology or worship style. But frankly, I know this isn’t the case. Friends struggle as much as any other group with angry division and handing out harsh judgments. Though we like talking about peace and nonviolence, we often don’t live out this testimony well among ourselves.
Perhaps it’s time simply to accept that we can be different from one another, even as we share the trunk of the tree. Perhaps it’s time to see our diversity as a gift: While none of us have this whole Friend thing figured out (much less God, or whatever you do or don’t call God), we have truths to share with each other. With our branches growing in so many different directions, we are able to give shade to more of those who need a quiet or praise-singing place to rest, wherever in the world that may be. And perhaps when we do find similarity, we can embrace it in joy and then let it recede from our minds, so that instead, we may embrace the value of our Friends.