Once, a devoted Quaker who works with the teens at Berea (Ky.) Meeting asked me the pointed question of why I identify with the Religious Society of Friends. On the spot, I didn’t have a ready answer that wasn’t novel length, and we lacked that kind of time. But now I know. It comes to me as I answer this question: What would you do if a kid threw a fork onto a ten-foot roof?
I was born into a family with a mix of religious inclinations. Even Joey, then my six-year-old brother, was probably reading about evolution on his Atari. My dad adapted his own agnostic beliefs when I was eight, joining a small Quaker meeting in Northeast Tennessee. Sometimes I went to the meetinghouse, but only for the purpose of providing childcare or, early on, waiting in the children’s room for meeting to be done. I certainly wasn’t interested in a bunch of eccentric folks levitating or meditating or whatever they called it. It didn’t make sense to me.
But when I was just 18, I accompanied my friend Anna for part of her fellowship to Costa Rica. We landed in San Jose and spent a few days exploring the woods, where we heard toucans making the funnest clicking sound. We were most thrilled by the sight of colorful birds like the blue-crowned motmots.
That first Sunday morning, Anna and I walked the dirt road to Monteverde Friends Meeting. It was the first Quaker worship I’d ever attended, and I remember being clumsy and loud and feeling awkward and afraid of sleeping. But oh, how I loved the messages! And the singing! And the dogs that walked in the meetinghouse! And the message of simplicity set bold against the background tempo of gurgling bellies.
We ate potluck food that day, most of us outside. I was drawn to some of the Friends from the start: the clerk, Lucky; her husband, Woolf; and a little boy named Abe, whose dad was camped out in the rental house that Anna had her eyes on. Meanwhile, Anna was chuckling at the Quaker children playing Dungeons and Dragons with imaginary daggers. (I admit, not the most prominent sign of pacifism.)
Suddenly the mood changed: a young child had thrown a fork up and onto the ten foot roof of a nearby building. The children stopped playing and stood still. One boy decided to climb up on the roof and retrieve it. “Just leave it,” I said and rolled my eyes. “It’s just a fork!” Then someone explained to me that silverware was a finite resource for the inhabitants of this town, that the closest place to buy forks was a long bumpy bus ride to San Jose. I looked down to the beans and rice at our table and opened my eyes to the modesty around me. It was a defining moment in my understanding of the testimony I have struggled with most: simplicity.
Because it wasn’t “just a fork.” Everything comes from something. Labor, sentiment, money, and supply are part of every material possession. There is too much discrepancy in the spread of wealth in this world, and as long as there is not enough for everyone, I will never look at a fork the same way again. I will never be the same.
It is ten years later, and I am just now understanding that moment with the fork as the opening of my heart to Quakerism. That is how spirituality happens. We aren’t born into beliefs. They occur to us in a series of mistakes and epiphanies, bound together as inseparable revelations that come to us riding on the backs of mysterious blue birds, swooping in the wind.