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?


MartinK said...

Just a obvious observation about communality and class: individuality isn't always an option when you're poor. If you can't afford a car then you're going to have to take the bus. On my block every household owns their own $1500 lawn tractor that gets used for 20 hours a year; it'd be so simple to set up a coop but that's not the culture around here and no one's quite so poor that they can't at least scrounge a used machine.

I'm not sure plain speech is quite so closely correlated. If you're struggling you're going to hold your tongue and not tell your boss what you really think of him or his grandiose plans. Still, there is a certain kind of B.S. language that's very upper class.

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Jeanne said...

Martin, when I was growing up, no one in my neighborhood had a complete set of tools because we always borrowed each other's. We had the only band saw in the neighborhood, and it got a lot of use.

In addition, when one household had an abundance, they always shared some of it with the neighborhood. For instance, when one family would go to the shore and go crabbing, they'd always have a big party for the block and invite everyone. And everyone brought beer or dessert or side dishes. And we always shared rides to the grocery store or department store, though as I got older, that happened less and less (and I think the neighborhood got more wealthy).

I don't think plain speech is a one-to-one correlation like the individualistic/community thing, but for me it's VERY strong. When I grew up (on the east coast, in Delaware), you always knew whether someone liked you or not. This hasn't been my experience among Friends. Even east coast Friends. And Al Lubrano talks about it in his book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. So I'm not the only one for whom plain speech is a class issue.

Ann said...

Would be nice, too, if they could see the value of people with disabilities too, especially mental ones. There is just so much elitism in Quakerism.

Bill Samuel said...

This last weekend I attended the Everything Must Change Tour in Vienna, VA. One thing Tour events feature is exposure to people living out the gospel in the local area.

There was a panel of folks from a ministry of Church of the Saviour in D.C. called Spiritual Support Groups, which they consider "a new form of church." A special feature of the ministry is that in forming groups, they match people so that there is considerable economic and ethnic diversity in each group.

They believe, correctly IMHO, that there is a spiritual richness you get from such a diverse group supporting each other in their spiritual lives that is missing from more demographically homogeneous groups. And the participants on the panel testified to the power that has had in their lives.

Each Group raises funds, half of which is used to support needs within the group, and half used to support needs of those outside the group. From what they said, apparently the process of discerning the right use of these funds contributes significantly to the value of the groups.

I found this approach encouraging.

HysteryWitch said...

My comment is not limited to class diversity but to having more diversity of experience, condition and ability and health.

Those who have lived in some need often give in a different spirit than those who give out of wealth. And when in need, it feels different somehow to receive from a friend who has been where you are and therefore does not judge you..and can even laugh about it with you. I have felt the release of worry and shame when someone who has also suffered turns to hold me up. I take courage from that and more importantly, I learn how to give in my turn. Those without material wealth have much to share in the knowledge of how to share a burden.

Paul L said...

Maybe the east coast working class is a better sort of people than those I grew up with in the middle west.

"Obey. Do a good job. Do a job right. Do it quickly." Characteristics of working class folks? Not those I grew up with.

"Do as little as you can get away with. Don't work too well or quickly or they'll lay someone else off. Take the company's tools home with you if you need them. Sabotage the line if it gets going too fast" was more like it for the auto, packinghouse, and factory workers in the urban neighborhoods in Iowa and Ohio I grew up in and worked with. They were fine people in many ways and many (though not most) had a limited kind of class solidarity, but few had any use for authorities -- at work, in governmnet, the military (with some exceptions) and in the family (i.e., "the wife").

The one notable exception to this generalization I remember was some of the Catholics who respected their priests and church in a way us Protestants never understood. Obedient was is the last word that would have occurred to me to describe them.

And I'm talking almost exclusively about men and boys; I'd concede that more women I knew and worked with were conscientious and "obedient" in their work in ways that men weren't, but there were many fewer of them then and I've always believed their obedience was more to their sex than their class.

Public school was the same way. The "good" students were ridiculed, the "bad" boys and girls were idolized by those who had no interest in or expectation of college.

And valuing community over individualism? True of some of the union people who knew something of shared sacrifice -- but only among their own -- but not in any general way. Most were take it before someone else takes it from you. This was especially true in inter-ethnic situations (Polish v. Italians, for example, or whites v blacks).

The obedient ones I knew were the better off ones, the one you'd call "middle" class -- supervisors and managers, store and shop owners, salesmen, etc. We were taught obedience at home, but as a religious value that was deeply counter to the working class culture all around us.

I don't know whether the people I grew up with were more plain and forthright in their speech than the middle class folks across town. They were certainly willing enough to sass back at the teachers and bosses, but with each other I'm not sure they were any more honest in general.

Maybe I'm betraying a more cynical view of people in general than I should -- I didn't see a lot of admirable traits among the middle class folks I knew as a kid either.

All I know the people I've admired have almost always been exceptions to the stereotype of what their class is supposed to be -- kind of like you, Jeanne.

Jeanne said...

Hystery, you make an excellent point, and that's been my experience too. When I was diagnosed with leukemia and had no disability insurance, I had to ask for money from friends and family to survive until SSDI kicked in. The biggest gift I got was from someone I knew who made only $6/hour (he gave me $1,400) and one of the smallest gifts I got was from a doctor ($10). I still tell this story to people to make the point that one not need wealth to be generous (and I was a fundraiser for ten years).

Paul, Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your Light to the discussion. The more we add, the closer we'll all be to Truth.

I experienced some of the things you did! But I think you and I see them differently, perhaps.

I saw adults snubbing their noses at authority, but that was mostly when they felt entirely powerless and were, in the best way they knew how, trying to take some power back. It can be profoundly disempowering to blindly do everything you're told.

When I talked about learning to obey, I was talking about what we're taught in working class schools. It's not necessarily what we do in our every day lives.

I was one of those "good" students who was ridiculed for being so, even sometimes by teachers, amazingly. I take this as the system reinforcing itself: stay in your place, be the robotic working class person the system needs you to be and no one will get hurt. Too much anyway.

I also saw the overt "otherism" that was perpetuated--in my neighborhood it was Italian vs. Polish vs. Irish vs. Black vs. Catholics and above everyone were WASPS. But this exists in the middle and owning classes too; it's just not as overt anymore.

And it's still my experience today that folks who were raised middle class are the least hard-working bunch when you get working class and middle or owning class together in a big group GENERALLY (although, as you say, there are always big exceptions to the rule).

Perhaps, Paul, you see me as an exception to the rule because until recently I've valued middle and owning class values over the ones with which I'd been raised? I can usually pass pretty well; at least until you get to know me well and I can have a chance to say something completely inappropriate to you.

Thanks again, Paul. You've made me think more deeply about my experience. Without your take on things, we won't get anywhere near the Truth.

Friendly Mama said...

I'm not disagreeing with your general premise that Quakerism will benefit by being more diverse-I agree completely. I'm a little concerned that you seem to use your experience of growing up working class as THE experience.

I was raised by working class parents who had grown up POOR. They aspired to better their lives and were very strict in rules of conduct in our household. Both of my parents believed that a woman's greatest aspiration should be mother and homemaker and I was groomed for that role. I began rebelling, not following, at a very young age. Both of my parents have strong personalities and, for me, it was either comply and get swallowed up or challenge and have a voice.

I find it ironic that you would use a quote from my blog as an example of owning class values when I would say my individualism is a product of being working class. I never really fit with my family, my church of origin, the other kids in my school and still don't fit with society in general. I was raised in a working class neighborhood by parents who were more frugal and much more religious than the other parents (and, I would add, very submissive to authority). I learned that no matter how hard I tried to fit in, I wouldn't, so to not worry about it and to do my own thing. Doing my own thing has lead me all the way 'round to finding God and wanting/needing to learn to submit.
In peace,
Mary Linda

Timothy Travis said...

I'm having a hard time understanding what you mean by "theology."

Example 1 is in the beginning when you write that Quaker theology is a barrier...what do you mean by theology?

Example 2: you say that the emotive style of the working class could be a theological asset to Friends.

Can you tell me what you mean by using that word in these contexts?


Bill Samuel said...

Actually you said that folks have said Quaker theology should be a barrier, not is a barrier, as Timothy indicated in his comment. Did you mean that they are saying that Quaker theology should keep folks out, or simply that it does?

And here do you mean contemporary liberal Quaker theology or Quaker theology through the ages?

Jeanne said...

Mary Linda, thanks for stopping reading my blog and adding your Light to the discussion.

I can relate to how your experience as growing up working class led to your more individualistic tendencies. My experience of being the smart kid and an outsider, in part, led me to wanting more than my education and life seemed to offer: a job at the Ford plant.

This is one way I'm an exception to the general experience of working class folks.

As you point out, there is no one experience of growing up working class. Just like there's no one experience of being lesbian or being black or being a woman.

What I state comes from my experience and has been validated by talking with other Friends who grew up working class and feel like an outsider among Friends; and it comes from books written by other people who've grown up working class and who've tried to fit-in with middle and owning class folks.

This is the main point I'm trying to get at because that's the tension among Friends--the generalities of working class and poor folks conflicting with the generalities of middle and owning class folks.

If I focus on the exceptions, I don't think I'm going to get anywhere toward helping Friends understand that we have cultural barriers that keep us from our Meetings becoming more diverse.

I appreciate the irony you see in quoting you, but, as I said, it wasn't personal. It just represented well what I've heard from lots and lots of Friends. I could have taken it from a lot of other blogs, but I happened to be reading yours and other things in that post spoke to my condition. And I bookmarked it.

It must be synchronicity, because now you've added your Light here. And the more Light we have, the closer we can be to the Truth.

Timothy & Bill, I was quoting other bloggers who have suggested that modern liberal Quaker theology either IS a barrier or SHOULD BE a barrier to working class folks. They, not I, are suggesting that our lack of class diversity is from our modern theology, and that our theology is just fine.

I don't know what they meant by theology, but I go by the definition I found for "theology" in the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. a. The study or science which treats of God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with man and the universe; ‘the science of things divine’ (Hooker); divinity.

I'm assuming that when those other bloggers were writing, they meant traditional liberal Quaker theology.

cath said...

As someone who has almost no discretionary income, I first thought the title to this blog entry had to do with finances. :)

I find worship to be a great equalizer among all of us with our various amounts of tangible assets. When I am opening myself to the Holy Spirit and when I feel others doing the same, our position in the outside world doesn't seem to make a difference.

But that's an hour on Sunday.

However (and I know this is a big off topic), there are so many things in the Quaker world (gatherings, conferences, etc.) that a person like me can never attend. And these things are the networking places. How do those of us on bottom income rung meet other Friends?

I am happy to have the blogs as a way of connecting with Friends. But since ownership of a computer and internet access are mine only through the kindness of others, that is a tenuous connection as well.

My dream is to someday organize a gathering that is free to all, including travel and lodging.

I know it sounds fanciful, but I would love to see it happen, anyway.

In fact, I believe that's the only way we can have a conversation about class and Quakerism that has the highest level of integrity--one in which there are no financial barriers, no tiered level of participation.

Of course, then there would be the disparities in clothing, cellphones and laptops--but at least anyone who wanted to discuss and worship together could actually be together.


Bill Samuel said...

Cath makes a good point about the cost of gatherings frequently being a barrier. I know some meetings have funds specifically to provide members who can't afford the cost of a gathering scholarships to gatherings. This got to be a rather large fund at a meeting where I used to be a member.

Gatherings do cost money, and the costs have to be covered somehow. Gatherings can be provided at no cost if there is a benefactor(s) who cover it. Most of the costs of the Everything Must Change Tour stop at a Latino center in the Bronx was picked up by a wealthy suburban church, for example, so more people in the community where it is held could attend.

Jeanne said...

Cath,thanks for stopping by.

I also experience a kind of equalizing during Meeting for Worship. It's what keeps me around and hoping, so I appreciate you bringing up your take on it.

And I can appreciate your longing to go to regional and national gatherings of Friends. The cost of getting together is always a bugaboo among Quakers.

But as someone who grew up working class, who worked in working class jobs for over half of my life, and who now has owning class financial privilege, I can say definitively that social class and classism isn't ALL about how much money you make or have.

A free gathering of Friends will still have lots and lots and lots of middle and owning class people and very few people who are either truly working class or poor, in part because time is an issue.

When I first heard of FGC's summer Gathering, I was like, "There's no way I'm taking a week and a half or two weeks of vacation to be among Friends. I only get two weeks a year."

I got to go to my first Gathering because of scholarship money from FGC and from my Meeting. And I went when I was working very part time and on disability, so I had some flexibility in my schedule.

If I'd had kids, or worked full time, I don't know if I'd have ever made it to the Gathering.

I have a F/friend who has a family and she ONLY gets to Gathering by volunteering to work full-time at the event for the kids program. She wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise. She grew up working class.

Jeanne said...

Bill, you were posting your comment just as I was.

I read your comment and thought, Friends would reject doing something like this because they think that poor, working class, and people of color can't access Quaker theology.

I know. Not generous. Not loving. But why aren't liberal Meetings generally in poor neighborhoods but instead generally located in solidly middle class areas, close to colleges, or on the edge of elite neighborhoods?

(I know, I know, now that I've made a generalization, you all are going to tell me of the exceptions to my statement and grumble that I make too many generalizations--but the exceptions to the rules don't negate the rules entirely).

Bill Samuel said...

Well, generally because that's where the folks who establish them live and work. In many cases, the neighborhoods change, but the meetings don't change with them. I think that has a lot to do with so much that is ingrained in them which reflects their class and education and racial background.

They may not generally be explicit about this and it may often stay in their subconscious, but I've found when I've tried to really talk with Friends about the lack of this kind of diversity, it usually eventually comes out explicitly in what they say. In the end, what I usually got out of Friends was some variant of, "If a lot of them became involved, the meeting would change. And I like the meeting the way it is."

I belonged to a meeting which was in an area which changed from primarily white to very diverse. There was an article in the newspaper about a couple of churches in the area, and how they had changed. They took the attitude that since their neighborhood was changing, they needed to come to understand the needs of the new residents and adjust accordingly. The article had beautiful stories about how services provided and how the very character of the worship changed. And the oldtimers were clearly very happy about the richness that brought to their churches.

But my meeting underwent very little demographic change. At the heart of it, IMHO, was that the meeting members didn't want to change, and feared what would happen if "they" came into the meeting. There is a rigidity about certain things that is a barrier to different kinds of people. I do think that rigidity is breaking down in many parts of liberal Quakerism in response to other things, and maybe it will eventually show itself in more demographic diversity, I don't know.

cath said...

Jeanne said: "But as someone who grew up working class, who worked in working class jobs for over half of my life, and who now has owning class financial privilege, I can say definitively that social class and classism isn't ALL about how much money you make or have.

A free gathering of Friends will still have lots and lots and lots of middle and owning class people and very few people who are either truly working class or poor, in part because time is an issue."
And I would have to agree. Time would be an issue for me as well. And for anyone who works a job where taking time off is not an easy option or has other time-related obstacles.

Actually, time restraints might be an equalizer in some cases. An ER doc would be earning so much more than I do, but may well have less ability to take time off at a specific time. I know college professors who can't get away during certain times in the semester.

So maybe we can reframe the issue of gatherings and conferences:

How do we make gatherings more inclusive, more accessible and more eqalitarian? No only does this question speak to getting people there, but also to what happens once people get there.

Who pays for lodging?

What happens if a person is a member or attender of a small Meeting that can't afford to send them to gatherings?

How do we combat the "celebrity" factor? (e.g., people who have been able to get to many gatherings and therefore are known).

How do we avoid having the "known" people be the speakers and take risks of having sessions facilitated by unknowns?

What would happen if the keynote speaker was chosen randomly?

Of course, people would have the right of refusal, but suppose, just suppose, there is an unknown person out there who can't get around much, isn't known in the wider Quakeer world for his/her spiritual leadership outside of a 25-member Meeting in a cornfield where s/he has been delivering inspired vocal ministry for years and has lived the Testimonies and is truly of the Spirit and could motivate us all?

I would love to meet any person who can uplift me and help me be a better person at a gather, and I would love to meet the person I just described.

Spiritual assets are not truly shared if there isn't a way to distribute them.


Adso of Melk said...

Martin's observation about "B.S. language" is well put. I struggle between my desire (and personal nature) to speak frankly and the culture of the place I work for; I try to walk that delicate line between being offensive and being dishonest. Interesting post.