Sunday, November 8, 2009

As God Made Us

Below is an essay I wrote after being asked to write something about Quakers & social class for the New York Yearly Meeting's newsletter Spark. Their November issue is all about Quakers, class and money, and given your interest in that subject, is for sure worth a read. You can find it here. I may do a short study group based on these articles this fall in the Twin Cities.

On another note, I went to an anti-racism conference this past weekend and have a lot to chew on and write about. It'll come out slowly in the coming weeks. It'll be slow because I've submitted a query to Friends Journal for their 2010 special issue on Friends and Education. Bob Dockhorn told me that they would be interested in both of my suggestions for articles, and that I should submit them. Now it's time to write them. One will be easy for me to write and the other will take time and energy and focus that I don't generally have when I write a blog post. This means I may blog even less frequently than I already do. But we'll see. Maybe it'll bring up stuff to pass by you all very wise people.

In the meantime, here's my article. Don't skip the others, please.

As God Made Us
In other communities of which we are a part, we choose to be in relationship with the members of the community, or choose to be a part of the community itself, in order to share in the community’s identity. In the covenant community, we choose to be in relationship with God, and God gives us to one another and to the community.—From Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order by Lloyd Lee Wilson
I’ve had Quakers say to me that you need to be educated to be a Quaker. Someone else said that because working-class people can’t handle process, they of course wouldn’t fit in at meeting. Another chalked up our cultural uniformity to Quakerism’s appealing to only a very narrow demographic. If any of these were true, Quakerism wouldn’t be for me, because I grew up working class, the daughter of a woman who grew up in abject poverty. I was doing shift work, overnight at the time, when I found Quakerism. I had only a high school diploma. I’m a member of a meeting, but sometimes I wonder if I belong among Friends.

On my way to Friends General Conference’s summer gathering this past summer, I stopped in eastern Kentucky where my mother grew up and where a bunch of my extended family still live. I got to spend a brief bit of time with Debbie, one of my cousins, for the first time in about three decades. She’s a few months older than I, almost 43 at this writing, and she has four kids and a few young grandchildren.

As we stood on her mother’s modest cement porch, the sun sank behind the hills and hollers and we talked. Her nieces and nephews joined and left the conversation, and one reminded Debbie about having used a paddle to punish her. Debbie turned to me and said she believes in corporal punishment. She and her niece went back and forth about whether Debbie’s paddle had holes in it, and I slapped at mosquitoes on my legs. I didn’t see someone to be admonished, but instead felt God’s love and compassion for her. I realized then I could never take her to Quaker meeting, not because of her belief in corporal punishment but because I wouldn’t want to inflict Quakers on her, this person who is as God made her, who deserves love and compassion first and foremost.

At the Gathering in Virginia, I sat with a Friend and told this story. When I said that I felt God’s love for her, this Friend took a breath, stiffened his jaw, and suggested I take some time to tell Debbie why corporal punishment isn’t in God’s plan.

I’ve seen that stiffened jaw or heard that sharp intake of breath from other Quakers, but directed toward me, usually when I’ve been loud, direct, honest, or crude. I’ve seen the stern look when I brought processed food to potluck, when I came to meeting dressed up, when I said I watched television. I’ve internalized some of those judgments and tried to look, act, and dress like the lefty liberal middle- and owning-class people that typify liberal Quakers. And I mostly pass, except when I don’t and am again reminded that I haven’t fully understood how to act middle class. I know there isn’t anyone standing at the door of our meetings with a test to make sure everyone passes, there isn’t a conscious effort to keep out people who don’t match our idea of Quaker. But I feel like I am being tested all the time to make sure I fit in.

For a while I’ve believed my lack of understanding of middle- and-owning class ways to be evidence of my lack of intelligence. But Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book Outliers describes the supposedly smartest man in the United States, Chris Langan, who scores so high on IQ tests it’s not measurable. He got through high school by showing up only for the tests, and acing them. But he has done manual labor most of his life because he grew up poor and never learned how to navigate the cultural barriers between him and a college education. I’m not as smart as Langan, and I think I’ve figured out a few social-class rules. Therefore, it’s not my brain getting between me and Quakerism. It’s culture.

So this brings up the question Do I have to be middle or owning class to be Quaker?

I still remember the first time I walked into Meeting. It was the last time my community met at their location before beginning the process of expanding the building. We met outside on listing folding chairs. The group was small because many were off to Northern Yearly Meeting, which met on Labor Day weekend at the time. Puffy white clouds shaded us as I sat on the edge of the circle under the crisp blue sky. I closed my eyes and could immediately feel God’s presence. I fended off sleep after a long night’s work, but felt like I’d come home. I’d been seeking a faith community since I was twelve, visiting churches both with and without my parents, never quite communing with God the way everyone around me seemed to be doing. In the quiet at Quaker meeting, I heard God say Stay. And I did.

This form of worship, of silent waiting, of letting go of my best ideas of how the world should be, of releasing my anxieties and grief and disappointments, of opening myself to what God wants for my life, what God wants for my meeting, of finding it within me to be obedient to God’s will, is what keeps me coming. I can’t find this anywhere else. So shouldn’t the test, if there were one, be about how one communes with God, with or without ritual?

My cousin Debbie and I are getting to know each other after all this time. I plan to visit to do some research about a novel I’m working on. Maybe I’ll ask her to come to meeting when I’m there. Maybe I’ll witness to her the impact my mother’s belt had on me beyond the welts. Or maybe we’ll make chicken and dumplings like our mamaw did, with lard and flour and a boiled bird, and talk about each of our connections to God. That’s where I’ll find equality in the gospel order, not in our shared values or identity.


Anonymous said...

I loved your essay, Jeanne. Thank you for your sensitivity and willingness to share.

cath said...

Jeane--I've shared many of your experiences in Meeting....making cultural mistakes is how I characterize them. I used to get quite upset about the disconnect until one day I thought I would try a new strategy.

Now I am upfront about my inability to attend a planning meeting in a restaurant or participate in let's-all-go-to-a-movie-together event. I don't do it with self-pity; I just let people know that my budget is tight and that I can't participate in planned activities that require a person to spend.

I've noticed that a few people are realizing that they've made assumptions and are thinking about ways to change that. I've also noticed that more people are willing to give me rides or change plans for me. I'm grateful for that.

Not everyone gets it. Someone once urged me to attend The Gathering, and when I said I would never have the money unless it was held in my city and even then I couldn't pay for anything, this person said: "Well, there are partial scholarships if you do childcare, etc." And when I replied "It would have to be a complete to the last dime scholarship" the conversation failed.

But I've had less occasions like that one than I've had with people who want to find ways to open things up to those of us who are low-income.

So I plan to perservere in simply letting people know about my situation in as neutral a way as possible.

Maybe someday I'll be in a position to be part of a creative, alternative Gathering where money isn't an obstacle to attending--a great pitch-in, a massive caravan accross the nation, picking people up along the way to some large tent. Ah, I dream....

It's really all based on an ability to pay, isn't it?

But, I'm making small gains in my immediate circle of influence, and that's fine for now.


Hystery said...

cath, I have to say here that my experience sounds very similar to yours. Both with Friends and other groups, I have to bow out of so much because I just can't afford to go. I like your solution which is simple and honest and I'm realizing that I don't like to tell people that I don't have enough. It isn't just that feel uncomfortable but that I don't like to see them get uncomfortable. Maybe they should be.

I also have noted the "if you provide childcare" or "work on clean-up" or provide some other labor you can get a scholarship. I resent that some Friends can participate according to their own gifts and skills as thinkers, writers, spiritual leaders, weighty Friends because they have money but those of us without money are pressed into service in kitchen and nursery for the privilege of attending. Why must I play Martha while a rich person gets to be Mary?

cath said...

Mary and Martha--absolutely!

We may be veering off the topic a bit here, but I find that often Meetings and gatherings and other fellowship/convenant groups are set up with someone's idea of a structure and then people are expected to fit their gifts and talents into that structure.

I've tried this and found it wanting in my life--and often because of money issues, but more recently because it encourages me to neglect my gifts and talents (my Light within) to do things someone else has decided need to be done.

And, of course, there is the "culture of celebrity" which I feel relates directly to matters of class.

Celebrity is a class.

Has anyone been in a meeting (small m) lately where a need for a person with gifts was expressed and a person said "Let's see if we can find someone new to fill this need?" Rarely have I had this experience.

Generally speaking, once people becomes known for being experts, those people get all the good gigs. And other people with gifts and bunches of life experience but who are not able to be prominant out of town are not invited or provided with a means to attend.

ok, now I'm complaining when maybe I should be trying to be part of the solution....

One of the things I'm attempting to do on a local level is to remind people that there are folks in our Meetings with talents, and it's not outside the realm of possibility to approach them if we want to put on a program, etc. We don't necessarily need to bring in a famous person when we can look at our own group.

Who knows? The Martha in the kitchen may write beautiful songs or be gifted with the ability to uplift the downhearted.

That's not to say that there isn't something to be learned from the wisdom of those with experience and gifts AND plane fare. But a homegrown experience can be just as enriching.


Hystery said...


You truly speak my mind. This kind of thing happens at meetings of all kinds. I am surrounded by women and men who are remarkably talented and loving people who are almost always overlooked in favor of people who are, to be frank, not so very remarkable, simply because they don't have the right connections and/or don't have money. I'd like to think that in Friends' meetings, we could try hard to get to know each other and encourage each other to use our gifts. Everyone needs to be needed for the best part of who they are.

Sharon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon said...

Reading "As God Made us" and the replies reminds me of this Quote...

Learn to see things around you as they really are,
not as they were earlier,
not as you want them to be,
and not as they may become.
See them for how they are and what they are now.
~ Vikas Malicani

I have a very different view of my Quaker community at my Meetinghouse.

We have Friends who struggle financially and are *honored* for any gifts they bring whether or not they are supported financially and whether or not they give back to the community. There is no "structure" or mold they are asked to shapeshift into. One is a very dear f/Friend of mine, so I know.

I have also not seen the passing over of Friends in the my community for "Celebrity" Friends... I am *grateful* for all the gifts I experience from the Friends in my Community and those brought in.

Lastly, I am the loud, non-reserved Friend... no experience of a stiff upper lip when I speak my truth in my style.

Your Meetinghouse(s) may be different. I like to sit in silence with what bothers me.

"Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18