Another of the Quaker Testimonies is Equality. We all know what this means, right? We’re all equal: none are “higher” than others. Fits very nicely with the whole “one person, one vote” ethos upon which democracy is founded. In America, we don’t have social hierarchy like those countries formerly governed by monarchies and in Liberal Friends meetings, we don’t have hierarchy like those other institutionalized religions. Why, we don’t even have paid ministers! We’re sufficiently enlightened that we believe we’re ALL ministers, each with our own unique gift of ministry. We’re so into equality that we believe there is “that of God” in every person. We feel so strongly about equality that we go around espousing the belief that God is directly available to everyone.
Yesterday, I was looking for a video clip of Quaker hip-hop artist Jon Watts to put on my facebook wall. There are, I don’t know, 10 videos of Jon performing before a number of different Quaker audiences and the thing that struck me was who comprises the audiences: Mostly middle aged, middle class looking white folk. Pictures in Quaker magazines and publications? Same thing. On-line Quaker presence? Same thing. Quaker organizations? Same thing.
I love unprogrammed meeting for worship. I love that transcendent, indescribable experience of being fully engaged in a gathered meeting for worship. I love the history of Friends, the activism, the obedient people who have responded when God has called them. I love how individual people struggle to live a God-centered life. What I don’t love is how we say we’re committed to equality but how our meetings for worship sure do not reflect it.
If we really believed that God is available to everybody, we’d have a diverse, dynamic body of worshippers. I love my fellow Friends but we’re neither diverse nor particularly dynamic. I’m 45 years old and I think it’s pretty weird how often I am the youngest person in a room with other Quakers. And I’m fairly certain I’m the only adult Friend in Nashville Friends Meeting without one or more university degrees.
Here’s what I think: If we really, really believed in equality, we’d welcome everyone with open arms just like Jesus did. I don’t think we do. I think we welcome folks who are like us because we’re comfortable with that. Poor people, working class people and those, like me, who have no formal education beyond high school may fit in but only if they pretty much dissociate from their cultural norms and embrace the social values we espouse. If ya wanna worship with the Quakahs ya gotta act like us first or you will not feel comfortable enough among us to get to know Spirit in the silence. God is available to you, but only after you’ve run the liberal Friends gauntlet to get to the Holy Presence.
When I’ve asked the question of why our meeting doesn’t have poor or working class people among our attenders I’ve gotten several variations on the theme of “they just don’t get it”. I’ve heard people say that uneducated people prefer to be told what to believe, that they wouldn’t understand with the implication being that it takes a certain level of intellectual awareness and curiosity to be able to make sense of freaking SILENT worship. Over and over again I’ve had dear friends express surprise at my lack of education because I fit in so well as if every working class person is somehow intellectually and socially inferior and I, somehow, am not.
Nashville Friends Meeting is my spiritual community and I love it dearly. I certainly do not mean to pick on NFM--mainly because I do not think our meeting is anomalous in our lack of socio-economic, racial or ethnic diversity. I’d say, given what I’ve seen and read, that we’re par for the Liberal Quaker course.
Wanna know what else I think? I think our meetings for worship are filled with people who are just like us because it’s safe. I think that we ultimately want our meetings to be safe and comfortable. Bring some people in from the wrong side of the tracks and who the hell knows what might happen? Oh my gosh—what if they spoke in tongues! What if they gave some OT messages (off topic and/or Old Testament)? What if…what if they expressed EMOTION during meeting for worship?!
I think that if we didn’t just call it meeting for worship but actually worshipped God, I mean really WORSHIPPED, like “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” worshipped…like “Amazing Grace” kind of worshipped…if we, I don’t know, really called to God with our hearts and minds and beings, in the silence and out of the silence, maybe if we did that, we could learn to sincerely embrace every seeker, every stranger, every diverse person who comes through our door no matter their background or baggage or level of intellectual understanding of “Quaker process”. It seems to me that if we are pure in our desire to be the body of Christ on Earth, to serve God through each person we meet, we need to be showing it. To show it, though, I think we need to learn it, first.
I haven’t read many of the writings of the first generation of the Religious Society of Friends of Truth but it is my understanding that the early Friends, rockin’ their little house meetings for worship, welcomed everyone, haves and have nots alike. England was much more socially stratified than our society is now; serfdom had only been abolished for half a century when George Fox was born. Not only did the haves have but they also had almost complete life and death power over the nots. So, for haves to open the literal doors of their houses to everybody was an incredibly powerful witness to equality. I would say the gap in intellectual understanding would have been pretty great back then but it seems to have not stood in the way of the Light being available to all. We’re not The Religious Society of Friends of Gnosis: We are Friends of Truth--a Truth available to everyone. Our approach to God is not through esoteric knowledge gained or skills mastered but through silent waiting which can be done by anyone, anywhere (excepting, perhaps, those of us with Chihuahuas living in our heads). For us to think or assume or presume or surmise or project otherwise is our own elitism and classism and downright snobbery talking which pisses me off when I think about it hard enough.
I think if we can come together on Sunday mornings and hold true meetings for worship, unifying ourselves into a body of believers (yes, I said it), submitting ourselves, allowing God to form us and transform us so we become secure in our awareness of ourselves as the embodiment of God’s love on Earth, then we can truly accept and embrace everyone we encounter.
To reinterpret the second chapter of James (from the New Testament):
My dear Friends, don’t play favorites as you practice the teachings of Jesus. If a stranger comes to meeting for worship with silver bangles and an organic hemp dress and another with pantyhose and hairspray and you pay attention to the first one and let her know about potluck after the rise of meeting and offer her a seat on the comfy, padded chairs but ignore the other and leave her to find a seat on the hard pew, have you not become judgmental, intolerant and manipulative? Listen, my beloved Friends, does God not love us all equally? When you do not welcome the people who are different, you dishonor them and in doing so, you are going against God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself”. When you show partiality, you are not living up to what God expects of you. Don’t judge others but have compassion for them. What good is it to say you believe in God if you don’t act out of love for others. If someone shows up at the meetinghouse hungry and cold, how would it help them for you to say, “Go in peace, stay warm and eat well” but don’t give them food or a coat? Telling them you believe in the testimony of equality does not help them in any way. Saying you believe without acting on your beliefs is worse than useless. Like a body without a spirit, saying you believe something but not acting on it is dead.