See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. – Isaiah 43:19
Last year, during a time of travel, I stayed for a time at a hostel in a village near Taos, New Mexico. The place had a look and smell as if decades ago, a bus full of hippies broke down on that side of the mountain and they just stayed. I worked on my novel during the day and kept a second eye on two-year-old twins that had taken an interest in me. I made sure that her kids didn’t run in the parking lot and their mother cooked me dinner. I felt myself. People listened to me. It felt easy to be understood and to share in community responsibilities. People were welcoming but not intrusive. In the evening, we all sat on the smoking porch where the staff started venting to me about the “tourists”. At that point, I had been there for two days. I felt totally myself. And felt, for the first time in a long time, that people were seeing me for who I truly am. I had stayed there for a total of 4 nights.
One night, a man from the neighborhood walked up to our group, explained that he was going to have his brother’s car the next day and asked if anyone needed a ride into town. Two people said yes and then he said he would ask the potter up the road and quietly left. In that moment, I was cured of my desire to be a member of the current Religious Society of Friends.
The gap between what Quakers claim to be and what I have seen and experienced with Quakers is so enormously wide, it has at times caused me a great deal of anxiety and emotional distress. Over time, I have come to the conclusion that this distress is not the result of my having a mental health condition, but rather has been a sane response to insane circumstances.
I continued to self-identify as a Quaker after that experience in Taos. I continued my trip and traveled as all over the US, visiting Friends & Meetings from various branches. I stayed with several Friends in homes and communities. I had a good time. My travels landed me in Portland, where I enjoyed working for a brief time at a NWYM Friends Church.
I am openly gay. I am a person who has a reputation for speaking truths that people in positions of privilege don’t want to hear. In the end, I had experiences at that Church that could be charitably described as unfortunate and unfair. What happened was jarring and so incongruent with my personal Christian-Quaker beliefs, that I cannot imagine ever taking part in a regular Friends Church or Meeting again.
Despite this experience and others like it, I remain a Quaker. I cannot just go join another religion. I am not going to join a UU Church or become a Methodist. I am a Quaker because only corporate decision making under the guide of the Holy Spirit feels sacred to me. But right now I am without an official Quaker group to belong to. I do see this as extremely problematic. There is no such thing as individual Quakerism, no matter what the people in Quaker Facebook groups might tell you.
I hope to one day be part of a Quaker community that looks more like that hostel near Taos than any Quaker Meeting or Church that I have ever attended or visited. I have been calling the idea a “Radical Quaker Meeting.” Over the last year, I have thought through and threshed out with others some details of that conceptualized new Meeting. A collective economy, the expectation that all gathered Friends would be released into ministry, and that it would be intentionally anti-oppressive come up as key features of this would-be Quaker meeting.
But even that description might be too much analysis. I want to be in a Quaker Meeting that is simply based on the commitment that we love one another and help each other stay faithful. I want to be in a Quaker community that puts the needs of the least empowered in the center; a community that lives out “the last shall be first” in all their dealings. I want to be at a “business meeting” in which the central questions are: How are we called to connect with God right now? How are we called to love each other? How are we called to welcome others into that love?
I want to be in a Quaker Faith Community that is built on faithfulness and loving relationships. There are plenty of other Quakers, would be Quaker, sidelined Quakers, “Public Friend” Quakers, Quaker Leaders and former Quakers who want this too. Quakers who have hurt me want this. I imagine that Quakers whom I have been critical of might want this too. My discernment process in the last year has been one of noticing the messages, desires and experiments of other Friends in addition to noticing my own longings. I don’t conceive this to be “my” idea. I am describing what I see as an emerging desire of many different Friends in many different places.
So what is the problem? Why can’t we just start building Quaker communities grounded in loving relationships? Why is Quakerism so crazy-making?
Across many Meetings, branches and regions I see a repeating pattern. Quakers have been disciplined to believe that a faith community based on loving relationships is not practical or sustainable. The expressed and unexpressed sentiment of many Quakers and Quaker organizations is that we are a fragile people whom could be shattered or destroyed by even ideas that are different than are own. We don’t have the time or inclination to build relationships. We need to focus on protecting our assets, time, resources and image. That is the message I keep hearing from some Quakers. Those Quakers assume scarcity.
My recent negative experiences have absolutely nothing to do with who I am as a person and I don’t think they represent the true character of the people who caused me harm. (Every single individual from that Church is welcome to come to my house for tea and a chat, if they want.) I did experience homophobia there, but the reason for their actions is not essentially about the fact that I am gay. I experienced very similar attitudes and was challenged by similar sets of oppressive behaviors in non-evangelical branches, but they presented as classism and/or ableism. The common thread is that all these behaviors and attitudes against me have been fueled by fear and the desire to control me.
The problem in that church and in other Quaker organizations is that the oppressive Quakers were not in relationship with me. Oppressive Quakers have often told me (and at times argued with me) about what my intentions are, what my hopes should be, what my personal history is, what my needs are, and/or how I should self-identify. I have often felt sized up as part of an economic equation. The central question oppressive Quakers seemed to have about me is, “How much do I have to gain or lose by this person’s involvement in my community?” They did not know me. They did not want to know me.
Fundamentally, it comes down to the idea that there is not enough. The sense of scarcity creates fear, which fuels the idea that people need to be controlled. Fears have been expressed of what they might lose if I was supported on my faithful path. Which to be frank, is totally fucking absurd, because what I want most is to be in community with Friends who are completely liberated in their faithfulness.
I think the idea that Quakers are fragile is a bunch of hogwash. The only thing that is really fragile about Quakerism is inequalities amongst us. Quaker communities can be built upon relationships with each other, regardless of available resources.
I live with a seven year old (and her family) who is also a Quaker. She has seen me sit at her kitchen table and cry over how I was treated. She knows that I am gay. She knows that unfair and unfortunate things have happened to me. Her parents have modeled solidarity and peace-making. She talked to me privately about how she stood up for a classmate that was being bullied. One day she looked at me and said, “You need to stand up for yourself!”
This child relates to me as a person. She doesn’t have a biblical analysis of my sexual identity. She isn’t repeating any liberal agenda sound bites. She is not spiritualizing me. I am not the subject of some intellectual exercise about how people with my identity should be treated or act. She isn’t referencing some kind of contrived “loving community formula” in her interactions with me.
This child also knows something that the community near Taos knows too. We have enough. There is enough to go around. It is not necessary to try to control other people. There is no reason for fear among us because everyone in this house wants each other’s needs to be met. Nobody in this house is materially wealthy and we are all in a state of transition. Regardless, we assume abundance.
Each week our household meets and talks about what our hopes are and what we might need in the coming week. This is a beautiful new way that I am experiencing Quaker Community. I hope it will expand into some kind of house church and will grow to include more Quakers. We support each other in faithfulness, strive to meet each other’s needs, and make an effort to not drive each other mad. We have enough. It is Quakerism without all the ideas and without all the fear. We like each other, we want each other to be happy each day and for our souls to each continue to be liberated over the long term. We can be Quakers together, despite not having many resources or structural supports because we have a commitment to being faithful to our God and a commitment to caring for one another. That is all that is needed.
The person in the New Mexico who had an opportunity to use a vehicle walked around the village looking for other people who needed a ride. There was no committee formed, no endless wordsmithing of a “minute of support of the promotion of economic equality”, no protest signs declaring who is to blame for wealth inequalities or judgment of the people who didn’t have a car of their own. A person who had extra space in his car shared that space with real actual people. My Friends, that is what sanity looks like. That is the kind of community that I want to be in with you.
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