by Katelin Ryan
I submitted my application to the Quaker Voluntary Service nearly a year ago. Responding to the questions challenged me to consider my experiences, discern what I wanted to share, and articulate it in a way that represented me well. Apparently, I did that successfully because here I am, now, half-way through my year of service as a QVS volunteer.
As I was completing my application, I struggled to answer one of the questions. I have returned to that question and responded to it again in light my experiences as a volunteer.
What is the role of faith, prayer, and spirituality in your life? What experience, if any, do you have with the Quaker faith?
Before coming to the Quaker Voluntary Service I had a very limited understanding of Quakerism. Most of my thoughts about Quakers were based on stereotypes and a hopeful desire to find a faith community that aligned with how I wanted to express my Christian faith. I wanted to find a faith community that would allow me to ask hard questions about God and the world yet boldly live the way Jesus did.
Upon my first interactions with real, live Quakers, what I learned surprised me. I discovered through conversations at QVS orientation that there are Quakers who don’t believe in Jesus; some Quakers are Jewish, some Buddhist, and some are non-theists. I quickly learned a number of adjectives used to describe different kinds of Quakers – conservative and liberal, programmed and unprogrammed, Evangelical – that did not mean what I thought they did. On top of that, I kept hearing all these acronyms Quakers like to use – SPICE(S), FUM, FGC, AFSC, FCNL, FWCC – and I was completely lost in conversation! I was immediately asking myself what I had gotten into, yet I remained assured that QVS was the right “next step” in my life.
I came to QVS as a spiritual seeker. My past church experiences had left me frustrated and filled with ideas about how people are supposed to “do” church. I was fed up with all of the prescribed methods of faith expression and spiritual fulfillment. Daily Bible reading, praying in the Spirit, and evangelizing were practices that held no meaning for me and left me feeling unfulfilled. I was nearly ready to leave organized religion behind and join the many people of my generation who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
I hated the “hypocrites” I observed in church and was worried that I was the biggest hypocrite of all.
In the past few months, I have learned that the difference between saying and doing is not really a faith problem. It is a human problem. People are not easily put into boxes, or labeled, and “Christian” is a label. People are complex and the more we get to know a person, the more we realize this to be true. People are not this or that; usually they are a little bit of both. Failure to meet intention with action does not happen because our belief is not strong enough. It happens because, as Christian human beings, we are constantly trying to conform to Christ which means surrendering to something contrary to human nature. We are constantly failing, falling, relearning, and redefining ourselves as we try, again and again, to be more like Jesus.
What my experiences in the Quaker world of Portland have taught me so far is that no one has it all figured out. We are all spiritual seekers. Practicing silent worship has taught me how to listen for the Divine/Light/God. More often than not in recent months, I have encountered the Divine not by turning outward or trying to fill myself with sermons, scripture, prayer, or worship music, but by turning inward. This quiet act of searching my own heart has revealed that of God within me.
Even though I am still searching for something, I no longer feel aimless. I have learned what those Quaker adjectives mean, and I have even started to use those acronyms. (It would take a while for me to explain it all though.) I am continuing to live deeper into my questions.
The difference, now, is that I am aware of the Light within myself, and that Light constantly illuminates just enough of the path ahead that I am able to take another step.