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?
In mid-December, Mission Year sponsored an event where their executive director, Leroy Barber, spoke with Atlanta faith-based volunteers about neighboring and gentrification. He discussed the importance of building reciprocal relationships within the communities we serve, and the impact that gentrification has had on certain Atlanta neighborhoods. We really appreciated being able to come together and talk as a group about these issues, especially considering that all of the QVSers (and most of the volunteers from other programs) are newcomers to Atlanta. Read More…
I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since we all moved to Atlanta to start QVS. In some ways, it feels like we’ve been here forever–we have routines in place for cooking and cleaning, we’ve figured out how to get to work on time, we know which days to gather for house events–but at the same time we’re still learning how we fit into our new lives here. I don’t have a car, so I’m definitely still working out how to get around Atlanta.
At work, I am also starting to settle into a routine. I love my work at the Frazer Center, a community for adults and young children at all levels of ability and disability to “gather, learn, and flourish.” I spend my time in the children’s program as a floating assistant teacher. That means that every day, I show up to work and find out which classroom I’ll be assisting in. Classrooms are grouped by age, not ability, and we have multiple classrooms at each age level. On any given day, I could be working with infants (the youngest at the Center are six weeks old) to five-year-olds in Pre-K. It’s a great experience to get to know so many children and teachers and begin to develop relationships with them.
Just because I have routines established doesn’t mean that life is getting easy. I’m definitely starting to feel the physical and emotional strain of working a 40-hour week with young children who are sick with lots of different kid germs, while still trying to stay connected and engaged with the community that’s forming here as well as the community I left at home.
I was talking with Becca after work today about the kinds of challenges we’re starting to feel in a very real way now, and I remembered saying–before I started QVS, as I was thinking about the program from my home in Philadelphia–that this would all be an adventure. Moving far away
from my family would be hard, and living in community would be a rewarding but time- and energy-intensive process, and I just wasn’t going to know in advance everything that would happen.
I think of adventures in the abstract as exciting times of growth and change and discovery, and I had to some extent forgotten that my adventure wasn’t just going to be the highlight reel. Still, I feel like QVS was set up well to help us work through our challenges. There are a number of people who I think to talk to immediately–Christina, my spiritual nurturer, QVS Board members, my supervisors at work–but something that’s unexpectedly wonderful is the support of Atlanta Friends Meeting. Every time I come home, I see a physical reminder of the love and care with which they set up this beautiful space for us. Every time I go to Meeting, I talk with Friends who care about this project. I feel like I have a lot to grow into, but I am as excited as everyone else in our extended community to see how the adventure unfolds.
Allison Letts graduated from Haverford College in May 2012 where she majored in Linguistics and minored in Educational Studies. Allison has worked in the public school system in Philadelphia and has worked in a variety of educational settings. She worked for several summers with an organization called Achieving Better Control Diabetes Clinical Self-Management. Allison lived in Quaker House, an intentional Quaker community for students, for three of her four years at Haverford, and served as co-clerk for the student Quaker community (QuaC). As co-clerk, she managed budgets, organized and implemented programs and events, and provided spiritual grounding for others. She was also a member of the Nurture and Care Committee. Allison will work as an Assistant Teacher in the children’s program at The Frazer Center, a community of children and adults with developmental disabilities. The Frazer Center is an inclusive community where people at all levels of ability and disability gather, learn and flourish together.