I Quaked for a little over a year. There’s a meetinghouse just up the street from me.
I grew up in a very loud, holy-ghost-lovin’ Pentacostal church. So I found the Quakers to be the direct opposite of that. Because I didn’t like church as a kid, I believed I had found the best thing in the world short of not going to church at all.
The things I liked:
-Silence. You sit down in a pew and just wait to be inspired to speak. You can sit piously, like a sage on a mountain top, or you can do what I would often do and just look at the other people staring out into space. We would do this for an hour and then whoever the announcement reader was (they have a name for this person and I’m drawing a blank) would stand up and welcome visitors and read the announcements, which sounded like your typical churchy announcements (potluck’s downstairs, bible study’s on Wednesday, etc.) And then that was it. I really liked the lack of rituals or performing.
-The emphasis on education and self-exploration. There was a library full of books written by Quakers and other deep thinkers. I took a seven-week long class on Quakerism, where we learned the history and “what’s it all about” from the Meeting’s elders. It was kind of like, “Gather around, my children, and I will tell you a great story” stretched out over the course of two months. We would talk about the values of Quakerism (simplicity really resonated with me) and what they meant to us personally. Everyone would get their turn to speak, and you could tell people would really listen to what you were saying. There would always be a moment of silence at the beginning and end of class. It makes me think of yoga and how we begin and end with relaxation poses.
-A sense of genuine friendliness that I have never felt in any kind of church. I haven’t surveyed all the denominations–and even within denominations churches are different–but I still think the Friends are one of the best at knowing what true fellowship is about. I served on the hospitality committee (lordy, why do I always sign up for food-related activities when I don’t even cook!) and the people on that committee worked like a team to get the potlucks set up, with no tension or stress. We’d set the tables and wash the dishes just like a family would. Sometimes I would feel snatches of belongingness. People would purposefully try to sit next to me during potlucks, just to get to know me, and I wouldn’t feel bothered by being remembered and “known.”
-A sense of justice and care for society’s welfare, rather than their morality. Because we didn’t have a preacher and there was no sermon, nothing was ever crammed down our throats. And when people would be led to speak during the service, rarely would their testimonies be political. If they were, we were all reminded afterwards by some stern elder to censor ourselves. HOWEVER, we all knew that there were committees you could join that had social activism at its focus. Announcements would inform us about vigils whenever a prisoner would be executed by the state, and that the meetinghouse would be represented at any war protesty event.
Things I didn’t like.
-The silences. Yes, I liked them but found them hard to bear after awhile. I was “inspired” to speak a few times, and people were always moved by what I would say (or so they would say). But they never felt like “divine” messages. No, they felt like they were driven by boredom…a need for me to shake things up and make time go by faster. You can go weeks to a meetinghouse before anyone is led to speak. Imagine sitting in a church in complete silence for an hour EVERY Sunday. Sometimes I would just feel lost. What am I supposed to be thinking about? God? Jesus? Am I supposed to be praying? Meditating? Sometimes I would doze off, and I wouldn’t be the only one. It was very hard to keep up with, which may mean it was spiritually a good thing (like eating vegetables). But I guess I needed more stimulation.
-The lack of diversity. I was amazed to find out that most Quakers are actually African converts, because my local meetinghouse was 99.9% white. There was me, this other black person, and an Asian dude. And all three of us were “off and on” attendees. And you could tell everyone was kinda crunchy-granola, well-educated, and not bad off financially (although there were a few people who had more distinguished and off-the-beaten trail lives, whom I’m now remembering fondly). There have only been a couple of churches I’ve ever visited where there was not stark homogeneity, so the Quakers definitely don’t have a monopoly on this. But for me personally, I thought it was a bit sad, given the focus on social justice and reaching out to other communities. Other people expressed similar feelings.
-The lack of dogma. Actually, I’m feel more ambivalence than dislike about this. We were told in the Quaker 101 class that we did not have to believe in anything to be a Quaker except 1) Jesus was divine (which does not require believing he rose from the dead) and 2) that everyone contains a seed of divinity within them. OK, I can get with those things. Except, what does a divine Jesus mean? And how could I reconcile that with my agnosticism? No one was ever pressured to reveal their beliefs, so I could have been fellowshipping with someone who was a devil worshiper, for all I knew. That doesn’t really bother me, but it does seem like it was too “easy”. I dunno.
-All decisions had to be made through consensus. There was a business meeting every month in lieu of a regular service just to handle matters of the Meeting. Like whether the Meeting should accept an endowment from a philanthropist and if so, what should we do with it? Or the water heater is broken, is it alright to fix it? Or, should the Meetinghouse take a stand on gay marriage? Most things would pass on through, but other issues could be held up for months or years simply because a consensus hadn’t been reached by the congregation. We associate Quakers with slave-rescuing, but most people don’t know that for years, Quakers were some of the biggest slaving people around! Because they were often well-to-do and trying to fit in during a time when religions were being persecuted (the “freedom of religion” thing didn’t happen until much later in our country’s history). It took almost 100 years before a consensus was reached that slavery was immoral. And get this! It wasn’t immoral because it hurt the slaves, but because it tainted the soul of the slavemaster! So, at least initially, they were abolitionists for self-centered reasons. I didn’t lose any respect for the Quakers after learning this, but it did remind me of the “revelations” the Mormons received during the 70s in regards to black people. I actually asked about this long period of slavery tolerance in one of the education classes. One of the elders was honest enough to say, “Sometimes we get things wrong” instead of laying the fault on God for not inspiring them soon enough.
Overall, I give my experience with the Quakers an “A”. Why am I not a Quaker, you ask? Because it seemed uncomfortably incompatible with my agnosticism, and I felt like a fraud going there every Sunday, even though I know others felt the same way. Also, I’m just not a joiner and I felt them trying to get too close to me in a way I was not prepared for (but remember, I’m abnormal). Also, I was finding it to be impossible to sit still during the services. But it is not a cult (how in the hell can someone brainwash you when they don’t even speak most of the time!) I think it is a great thing if you are seeking a spiritual place with kindred spirits and you’re tired of more traditional paths of understanding. Outside of Sunday (first day) meetings, in other forums there were intelligent and thoughtful discussions about religious beliefs and personal journeys. If you’re into talking about those kinds of things and hashing them out in your mind rather than having someone tell you what you should be believing, then Quakerism might be right for you.