This post is the first part of a series on how the QVS experience has shaped volunteers’ views of Quakerism.
I didn’t grow up Quaker. I haven’t spent years figuring out how to best explain that, yes, I can use electricity, and no, I don’t have strong feelings about particular brands of oatmeal. That being said, I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church, so I am used to getting blank stares when I talk about my religion. Growing up, religion came up occasionally, but I could control the situations when I would have to go into an in-depth theological discussion to times when all parties were interested in sharing about their faith.
Since I became a QVS volunteer, though, I have gotten used to the idea that questions about my faith will come up on a regular basis–from coworkers and new friends outside the Meetinghouse–because the name of our program is Quaker Voluntary Service:
“Are you a Quaker?”
“So what are Quakers?”
“Well…can we just not talk about it right now?”
Of course, that’s not how the conversation ever goes. I always give a longer answer–and almost always feel uncomfortable about it. Beyond the UU church, I come from a world of non-spiritual academics and a college that (while it does have a strong Quaker population and student community of spiritual practice) has secularized Quakerism for consumption and use by the general student body. The idea of being religious on campus–and actually using that faith to inform decisions–was not, in my experience, widely acceptable. I now live my life much more closely connected to a network of people of faith. Many of my coworkers are active in their Christian churches, but some are not.
At this point, I’m answering questions about a religion that has a lot of theological diversity to an audience that I don’t know very well, and simultaneously hoping that I don’t offend anyone and that I can actually say something meaningful and authentic about what I believe. I usually start with the testimonies:
Quakers don’t necessarily all believe the same thing, but there are five testimonies that most Quakers agree on, and that we try to live out in our daily lives. They’re sometimes called Quaker SPICE: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. A lot of Quakers are active in social justice work, and that work can be a way of living the testimonies. But everyone is going through a journey with the testimonies, so people might have different understandings of what simplicity means, for example, and be living differently because of it.
That answer is certainly not perfect, and I get much shakier from there. I frequently hear Friends use the term “inner light” to describe how we think about how each person is related to God–but I actually feel more comfortable saying that we believe “there is that of God in every person–we sometimes call it an inner light.”
And then I mention that when I go to Meeting, I sit in silence and wait. I don’t usually say what I’m waiting for–I know it by feel, but not quite in words (Friends General Conference uses these words, which sound mostly right to me). I tend to be most comfortable socially when I gloss over the experience of worship in my explanation, but it also feels wrong and incomplete. It’s like describing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as “You make a sandwich with white bread, jelly, and some other spread.” Clearly, the peanut butter is not just “some other spread”. It’s peanut butter! It’s wonderful! It’s critical to the sandwich!
I spent a few months waiting in worship before I had really any idea what I was waiting for, and another year or so before I was moved to vocal ministry. But even in those months, there was something going on in worship that kept me going for the rest of the week, and then brought me back again and again. Sometimes it was a chance to rest my brain from a tough academic schedule. And often it was that I couldn’t get the experience of worship–the silence, the calm, the community, the connection with God in ourselves and each other–anywhere else. So I want to talk about worship every time Quakerism comes up, but I don’t yet know how to do it.
Okay, other QVSers and rest of the world: how do you describe Quakerism to acquaintances and colleagues? How do you handle the balance of authenticity and comfort?