Thursday, October 11, 2007

Guest Post: Bill Samuel

Bill Samuel added this in comments to my last post on education and I felt it important and relevant enough to post on its own (after getting permission from him). In part, I wanted to highlight his post because my next posts will be about my experience of class and culture in Meeting.

You can read more about Bill here and here.

From Bill Samuel:

The class homogeneity seems most acute among liberal unprogrammed Friends. Other varieties of Friends seem more diverse.

I remember one year when I visited the yearly meeting sessions of Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region. The Friends Action Board (their social concerns group) reported on a new Federal program to allow churches more involvement in training for those on public assistance. The differences between my home yearly meeting and Eastern Region were very evident when they presented it as a way to help people within their churches. In my or other liberal YMs, it would have been presented as a way to help "them" not us.

I have a theory that the class homogeneity among liberal Friends is related to their lack of a clear spiritual center. It has been my experience among Christ-centered Friends and other Christ-centered churches that class is less of an issue, because the uniting factor is Jesus Christ. Without a clear, explicit uniting factor other than something like class, a group tends to gravitate towards becoming a club more united by socioeconomic and cultural factors.

And in fact many are seeking that their meetings be such a club. When I have engaged in conversations with liberal Friends about the issues of lacking racial, educational and economic diversity, most of the time eventually something along the lines of "if have many of them come into the meeting, it will change the character of the meeting" comes out with the clear assumption that such change would be bad.

I belonged to a meeting that was in an area which had undergone significant demographic change since it started, but the meeting had not. There was a newspaper article which highlighted the issue for me. It focused on a couple of other churches in the same area. They had seen the change, done work to understand the needs of the people coming in, and changed to be a welcoming and helpful place for the new population. Both the other churches and Friends recognized changing the demographics in the congregation would mean deeper changes. The other churches embraced change; Friends rejected it.


earthfreak (Pam) said...

This idea is intriguing to me, and not knowing much at all about evangelical Friends, I don't know how much I can say about it.

I am intrigued though, in light of the sort of common perception that sunday morning is still the most segregated time in the US.

Certainly most churches have a jesus focus, and they are still largely segregated (I'm not sure if that's true of class as well, though. The episcopal church I went to as a kid seemed to have mostly rich people)

So if christocentrism saves Friends, but not presbytarians or baptists or lutherans, from class (and race) divisions, that would be very interesting indeed.

I do understand that reference to a "social club" and fear that some liberal meetings have become just that. There IS perhaps a greater danger of falling into thinking that "quakers" are people who follow certain cultural norms (like going to elite schools and driving priuses - essentially nothing more than wealthy liberals) rather than defining ourselves by some spiritual center.

HysteryWitch said...

I'm not sure what the term "spiritual center" means. Perhaps it refers to a shared symbol, like Christ, that is meaningful to all the members of a community. As a PK, I have my doubts. My experience in the Methodist and Congregational churches tells me that even when all in a group say "Christ" they do not all mean the same thing. Certainly, being "Christ-like" does not seem to prevent Christians from tearing each other apart. We found distressing classism which resulted in malicious behavior, back-stabbing, and general cruelty. Wealthy members lorded their power over others and poor members scrambled to please the rich (who happened to be their employers or community leaders in the secular world) Ugly.

Perhaps liberal Friends lack a spiritual focus. This doesn't bother me. I like to think that in our most authentic hearts, we share a common center which is sometimes called Christ, or Buddha, or God, or the Light, or Spirit, or Goddess, or Good, or Peace. Our words to describe this sense differ because our experiences differ. I like finding the Divine in Diversity. I love being delighted and even astonished by the unexpected holiness emerging from my neighbor's difference from myself. This opens the way for a kind of spiritul love-making between Friends, a merging and testing of ideas, a mingling of blessings that enriches (and challenges) us all. As the Divine is infinite, so too must be its manifestations in our human hearts.

Michael Bischoff said...

I share Bill's theory that class homogeneity among liberal Friends is related to our lack of a clear spiritual center. I think a spiritual center can take different forms, but it needs to be something powerful enough to compel us out of our tendencies to isolate based on our cultural and class comfort zones. It can be a strong focus on service; it can be a living, compelling theology; or it can be other things.

My main faith home has been among Friends for many years, but I still do a lot of visiting other other congregations, and I tend to visit congregations that have a high level of class and racial diversity. I've been most consistently impressed with the diversity of class and race in Muslim masjids. The clarity and task-oriented nature of Muslim practice and theological interpretation seem to make this diversity easier. And some Pentecostal-oriented Christian congregations that actively point and invite people into a shared spiritual experience, also seem to be able to embrace a wide range of diversity.

I don't think that a clear, shared theology is likely to be what makes class diversity possible among liberal Friends. But a shared spiritual experience and shared commitment to service can be this core that is strong enough to push us out of our comfortable social circles and patterns. I'd love to hear more stories of liberal Friends Meetings that have succeeded in doing this.