Saturday, November 21, 2009

Do What You've Been Told Kids

Nat over at maphead has been blogging about more than maps of late. He's been pondering why our meeting has been having such a hard time making a statement about wearing scented hygiene products or perfume in our building. He posits that it's because our faith community has a hard time giving itself over to the will of God. "It is a deep and systemic distrust of mediation of any kind," he says.

I have another theory related to his.

My experience of middle class people is that they don't like being told what to do. At least when I try to lead something, I'm called bossy. On the other hand, among working class people I can easily slip into and out of leadership and people follow easily and with little or no resistance.

Conversely, a middle class upbringing trains people to manage others and be a leader. I've said so before on this blog.

I think the "deep and systemic distrust of mediation" comes not from history but from social class training.

My experience of being taught to be managed is typical of working class people even today. New York Quaker Patrick Finn wrote a book called "Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working Class Children in their Own Self Interest". His book's website has an exercise that illustrates how elite schools teach the same material a different way in working class and elite schools. It shows how working class kids are taught to think about knowledge and understanding differently from middle and owning class kids.

I'm not suggesting that the middle class way of learning is bad--I actually think everyone needs to have equal access to that kind of education.

I am saying that there might be something middle class Quakers need to learn from Quakers who are culturally working class about the joy of letting someone else (God) manage our corporate spiritual lives.

For once, I have a kind of advantage in the Quaker way of doing things. I find comfort in seeking and following the will of God because it was what I was taught to do in the working class schools I attended: do what you've been told, kids.

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.