Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Nobody gets up on a soapbox and shouts about the comfort of his sofa and chairs. He just invites other people to sit in them.--Adam Gopnik, from "The Back of the World: The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton" in The New Yorker, July 7 & 14, 2008

How are we comforted by having most of the people in our Meetings look, act, talk, eat and have professions like we do? What of our comforts keep others away? Is God calling us to be comfortable?

I love comfort. Big cushy chairs. Salty mashed potatoes. Public radio.

The other night, we got together from other folks on our block to plan our annual National Night Out festivities at an ice cream social. Our neighborhood is historically working class but some of young professional families have moved here. Some people are living in the homes their grandparents built because they inherited them and don't have mortgages outside of equity loans.

Among the many things we do, we always have door prizes, free stuff from local businesses. And there are enough things for everyone. But we also have to ask local businesses for stuff. One person said she didn't know anyone and was afraid to ask for donations. I started to tell a story about how I recently coached someone who said the same thing and he ended up having several options when we were done including having a particular public radio personality do the outgoing message on your answering machine and lunch and movie with a local well-respected movie reviewer.

As I told the story, I realized that this crowd wouldn't be nearly as excited about those donations as I was (and as my consultee was for his event). And I was uncomfortable.

These folks wanted free beer and smokes.

I can hear your sudden intake of breath, and see you squirming in your seats. No, you don't drink. Or smoke for that matter.

Nor do I. Though when I'm around my non-Quaker friends, I do drink. Not to get drunk. Usually.

So how would I feel if I were at an event with a couple of people who looked their noses down on me for drinking alcohol, or for getting tipsy, I asked myself.

Would I want to hang out with them? Go to their houses of worship? Consider taking up their beliefs?

The people on the block have looked to us to take up leadership of the NNO planning because we've showed initiative on the block. I started a pick-up recycling program on my block for plastics that the city doesn't currently recycle (but that I take to a place that does recycle them). Liz prompted our neighbor to put together Tuesday's planning meeting.

If we do become block leaders, I think we have a real opportunity, but I'm going to be uncomfortable, like I was Tuesday night. We could live into the belief we say we hold about believing there is that of God in everyone. We could live our testimony of equality. Even folks who smoke and drink and vote Republican and love Rush Limbaugh.

No, that's not shouting from a soap box, but maybe it's better outreach than we've ever done before.


Tania said...

Actually, I do drink. I sort of smoke (medical marijuana) and used to smoke cloves "safely" (once a week and I quit when it became more than that).

But your point is valid, because this is the first time I've openly admitted to a Quaker those things.

Huh. There's been a blog post floating in my head for a while about our "sacred peculiarities" and how harmful I think they are, and this entry might have just been another nudge... Thanks, as always, Jeanne.

Allison said...

I'm a lot happier now that I'm a free agent again!

Gordon Bennet said...

Thank you. The educated middle class monoculture of Quakerism (certainly in Australia where I live) ultimately led me to resign my membership (having been a recording clerk and elder). Every culture has its blind spots; I think the two which characterise and blinker the middle class are the preference for comfort which you identify and a strong sense of entitlement. These show up in a blindness to levels of privilege, the Quaker ‘sin’ of niceness (and the dishonesty that goes with it) and deep resentment of any observations which might “upset people”. (The editors of the Australian Friend actually refused to publish a very mild article by a highly respected Quaker writer on these grounds.) The consequence in Australia, I believe, is often hypocrisy and spiritual decline.
The majority of early Friends were from craft and labouring backgrounds – hence the rural metaphors such as threshing. For these people distraint of goods could easily mean loss of livelihood – since their principle possessions were their tools of trade; Britain Yearly Meeting still has a standing committee called Meeting for Sufferings. Yet many modern Friends are not even willing to accept the mild emotional discomfort of spiritual challenge. I believe this issue is one of the major spiritual challenges facing not only Quakers, but most Westerners who claim to follow Jesus.
PS I’m a retired white male doctor who grew up in public housing in the UK; my early life made me acutely aware of hierarchy and privilege, but my adult life has been spent as a middle class WAS(P).

Jeanne said...

Tania, I'm looking forward to your next blog post about these issues!

Allison, I'm glad you're happier, and hope you find a true spiritual home.

Gordon, thanks for stopping by. I think there are more people like you (and me) than Friends know about. This is what I'm hoping to change about the RSoF. I'm so attached because of the form of worship, of stripping away everything that gets in my way to hear and feel God's love.

By being so monocultural, we're really doing God and anyone else who prefers this form of worship but who aren't culturally middle or owning class.

Hystery said...

In all the churches with which I have been associated (Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist) as well as with Quaker meetings, those attending have all been very monolithic in economic, cultural and ethnic background. The one exception was perhaps a Congregational church in which everyone acted the same but some were middle-class and some were much wealthier. :(

So although I understand that for Friends there is a special problem with lack of diversity, I think it is a problem for many other denominations as well. I found a similar problem in an interfaith group to which I belonged.

Part of this has to do with geography. Not lots of diversity in rural America where I live to begin with. But it does go beyond that and even when folks are a little different, they often pretend they are not. And when people are afraid of conflict, they miss opportunities to bring about needed change. Sometimes being uncomfortable with your neighbor is an important first step in even acknowledging that you have a neighbor in the first place! Another important step is laughter. Laughter has the power to break facades and encourages people to take chances trangressing "niceness" rules. Nice people don't laugh enough.