Wednesday, March 12, 2008


In a couple of places in the Quaker blogosphere, some people have suggested that Quaker theology should be a block to poor and working class people. The questions and answers (and the implications of the questions and answers) around this topic have been very hurtful and have made me ask why Friends don't see the assets that poor and working class people might bring to our Meetings.

So here I'll suggest some assets that poor and working class people bring to Quakerism.

Spiritual Assets

Individualism is very strong among at least Liberal Friends in part because the middle and owning classes value individualism more than community (where poor and working class people generally value community over individualism). I see this individualism sometimes in people's struggle with doing what they hear God telling them to do.

I read one example of this (and I picked this randomly, not to pick on anyone in particular or to's just an example of something I've heard lots from Friends, and it's without judgment) on Friendly Mama's blog a while ago:
I want to open myself to God's will for me. I hide behind my own self; my day-to-day life based on my will and my desires. I want to learn to be trustworthy for God, to be faithful, to mind the Light, to submit.
This isn't a unique perspective among Liberal Quakers. I've heard Friends talk about their reluctance to follow God's will for as long as I've been among Friends (since 1991). I've always felt like I was supposed to feel this way, but this hasn't been my experience.

When I feel God's will, I feel like I want to follow it, like it's my only choice. When I've spoken in Meeting, I have felt God lift me up and speak through me, and it's a pleasure and relief. I feel the same pleasure and relief when I've done a good job. I feel God's pleasure with me when I've been faithful, and I crave that sense of satisfaction.

And it's what I'd been taught to do by my working class K-12 education and my working class family and my working class friends and my working class neighbors.

Obey. Do a good job. Do a job right. Do it quickly.

So, since Friends struggle so mightily to obey, is there something that working class and poor people have to offer Friends?

(And, as an aside, for some science behind my claim that middle and owning class people are more individualistic-focused, I read this New York Times article about MIT students--only 17% of whom come from households that make under $45,000/year--participating in a study about the compulsion to "leave options open," that found that students resisted closing doors when it was the most beneficial thing to do.)

A more class-diverse Meeting can bring a life and vitality that some Friends find lacking in their Meetings.

Johan recently said it more eloquently than I could when he wrote:
I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was an Elim Fellowship pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity--racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.
Working class and poor people are generally more emotionally expressive than middle and owning class people, and, as Johan says, this can be a theological asset.

This asset, I think, will be harder to see and even harder to accept, because plain speech and direct communication is frowned upon among middle class and owning class people (and, therefore, Friends). This is a cultural difference between middle and owning class people and working class and poor people; until we recognize and acknowledge it, we won't do anything about it. This isn't because we don't want to change, but because comfort encourages inertia.

So, what of plain speech, Friends?

Community Assets

Poor and working class values can help the Meeting community. We are hard workers, we bring the perspective of the not-so-privileged to committee work and MfWfB, and we can refocus conversation away from process and toward tasks.

That last bit, about process and tasks, needs a little explanation. Many Friends acknowledge that we can talk too much about something. Sometimes, we talk about talking about issues.

I know for me personally, and other working class Friends with whom I've talked, over processing something can be frustrating. But one thing I learned in the Quakers & Social Class workshop at Gathering was that when my gifts of being task-focused were acknowledged and valued, it was easy for me to stay in the process.

I think Quakers over value process. I think I (and other working class and poor people) over value tasks. We could be a good balance to each other.

In that same vein, valuing all the assets that working class and poor people bring could be one step toward helping our communities be more diverse. This means appreciating fellowship committee as much as we appreciate ministry & nurture. Not everyone has the gift of structure and organization.

Meeting & Individual Vitality

Finally, if our Meetings become more class-diverse, we, as individuals, will grow close to God's ideal for ourselves. As Tai from the Friends of Color blog said:
I find truth in opposites. I believe that when we are faced with someone who is culturally "opposite" from us, we learn. And it's not the kind of Barney purple dinosaur learn, it's the, this fucking hurts because I'm growing learning.
And if our Meetings become more class-diverse, our Meetings might grow. Martin, quoting statistics about a decline in both Liberal and Evangelical Friends' Meetings except where the Yearly Meeting is dually affiliated with both FGC and FUM, recently said on his blog:
Could it be that serious theological wrestling and complicated spiritual identities create healthier religious bodies than monocultural groupings?
What Quaker doesn't want their Meeting to grow and doesn't want to grow personally?