Friend, Please Hold the Nuts in the Light

20110706-173618.jpgThis week I have the privilege and pleasure of attending the Friends General Conference (FGC) at Grinnell College in Iowa. This is the annual gathering of unprogrammed Quakers in North America. We are the Quakers who sit in silence when we worship (well until someone shares something they feel compelled to say.) I have attended this same conference on and off since 2004. It was actually at the 2008 FGC that I met my dear, sweet, wonderful partner, Glen Retief.

I don’t feel I can accurately say what happens at a typical FGC because so many people have different experiences here based on their identity, their age, family demographics, involvement on committees and in groups, and their energy level during the week. The week is PACKED with all sorts of opportunities to worship (much of it silent but not all,) play (Broadway singing and a variety of dance opportunities are popular as well as the unofficial wear a sarong day,) and engage in conversations about any number of serious issues like torture, the environment, racism and white privilege, and lobbying congress and the president about issues important to Quakers. For a group of peace-loving, anti-war, de-militarizing advocates, I always find humor in the intergenerational Capture the Flag activity. To spice it up I have suggested they fight over me and rename the game Capture the Fag.

Friends are encouraged to sign up for week-long workshops on a plethora of topics. Glen and I opted for the Couples Enrichment Workshop for LGBTQ people. There is a also a general Couples Enrichment Workshop for any couple regardless of orientation, gender identity and presentation, but some Friends recognized the need for a couples workshop specifically for LGBTQ folks. I imagine the more general one offers many of the same activities and tools, but being with five other queer couples provides Glen and me a chance to talk about our experiences with folks who have some shared experiences. While I am sure we would have had a worthwhile time with heterosexual couples, I value the time to be with just the queer folks this time around.

LGBTQ Friends are present and active in every part of the gathering–child care, plenary speakers, committee members and heads, performers, and representatives of Quaker organizations. The Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns remain highly visible each year hosting a well attended worship service every afternoon, and the wildly popular Cabaret and Silent Auction. I will not speak for the transgender and gender queer Friends among us about their experiences, but I hope some will provide comments here. I would like to see more gender neutral bathrooms on-site.

If you have a scent allergy or special food need (gluten-free, nut allergy, vegan) FGC staff and participants make efforts to create a safe and inclusive environment. Again I cannot speak for other people and their experiences, so I will not comment on how effective these efforts have been. I am no longer a proper vegan (I now eat eggs and some fish,) but I know that vegan deserts vanish quickly, most likely consumed by non-vegans who covet our animal product-free confections. I did witness some drama though around the gluten-free counter. After a day or two when Friends without a sensitivity to gluten chowed down on the limited supply of gluten-free food on offer, a gluten-free Quaker police force patrolled the area and effectively cowed the rest of us away from their supplies. Some strongly worded announcements in the Daily Bulletin didn’t hurt either. I know that vegans can be forceful about our dietary needs and preferences, but these gluten-free folks are delightfully militant in their efforts to protect themselves from potential medical harm. I stay out of their way.

Quakers are a peculiar people, and from my experience quite easy to offend. You never know which strongly felt issue will trigger a Friend and inspire gentle (or not so gentle) “eldering” often prefaced with the gravely articulated word–“FRIEND…” It is like when my mom carefully pronounced my first, middle, and last name to alert me that I was about to get disciplined. Try doing comedy among Quakers–it can be a minefield!

But mostly I find Quakers to be thoughtful people, willing to think deeply about issues, and to listen to another. Amidst the quirkiness, the complexity, the sometimes annoying reactionary conversations, I find an uncommon wisdom, spiritual leadings, conviction to question everyday realities, and people who value integrity, simplicity, peace, equality, sustainability, and social justice.


This post has 7 Comments

  1. Iain Strachan on July 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    What else can I say but: FRIEND: …. good to hear from a Quaker the other side of the pond from me! I can’t say I’ve found Quakers over this side difficult to offend, but I have found many kindred spirits.

  2. Joe G. on July 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    This is all well and good, but when are you going to put my (remember? “Joe G.”) as a tag on a post? Why, you ask? “Joe G.” is not as prominent as, let’s say “NARTH” or “Quaker”, in the tag cloud. Please rectify at your earliest convenience.

  3. Anonymous on July 9, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    It’s not quite accurate to describe FGC as the unprogrammed Friends in North America since Conservative Friends also avoid programmed worship. That said, I do know members of conservative YMs who like to go to FCG.

  4. Mia on July 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I love the image of a “gluten-free Quaker police force!” I can picture it now. Thanks for this post describing the Gathering. My family has never managed to make it to one yet, although we think about it often. So I appreciate hearing about them.


  5. spandrella on July 13, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    your experience with quakers in the dining hall sounds a lot like my yearly meeting, though the vegans have not yet been reduced to forming a militia. we have in the past attempted to do things like isolate the vegan food at another corner of the dining hall, and given vegans wildly colored nametags, on the perhaps generous assumption that people were taking vegan food by accident, or not realizing how finite the supplies were. sadly, this has given the dining staff a heavier workload, but has not decreased the number of vegans complaining about portobello mushroom shortages.

    i can (and have done) write whole rants about quakers in the dining hall and how i think we act profoundly unquakerly when we’re there. but this is not my blog. 🙂

  6. Mary Ellen on July 14, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Sigh . . . now I am REALLY sad I didn’t make it this year – you paint such an attractive picture of my traveling home-town that magically reappears each year!

  7. Earl C. on August 27, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I was very excited to find like – minded people on the planet. New to the Quaker community but was always a Quaker just never knew what to call the faith which I always believed. Attended the Lutheran church and , dedicated in the Brethren as a baby. I received the Holy Ghost not in a church but praying alone in silence. I felt filthy and unawares of what was happening then the Holy Ghost touched me and comforted me and for over 30 years has been my guide. I had urges to speak at meetings but it was not a proper thing to do in the Lutheran church and felt ashamed of quenching the spirit. I told my wife of my feelings and we took a break from church. My preference would be to have a period of silence to wait on the Lord along with some testimony or scriptural reading. Not sure if that is what Quakers do but would like to find out.
    My beliefs have always been that God gives a message if we wait upon Him through the Holy Spirit. We just had a large family picnic and many of my church going relatives expressed feelings of emptiness. I always was open about my views and felt inner peace. The peace that Christ left us is precious and I would never sacrifice that for a religious practice. I just need to know how to transform this inner peace to outer peace, sharing with others would be a good start. My way of expression has always been through poetry and I write under the name of saint eule. Served in the vietnam era in the US Coast Guard and spent years on the pacific islands in bible study and prayer- and jumping into shark infested waters helped with the desire to be prepared.
    I always believed as a christian but also was fascinated by the wisdom of buddha and when he found enlightenment.He no longer isolated himself but returned to his family and shared his beliefs. At the time he believed in inner peace as also did Jesus Christ , a peace that passes all understanding which he left to the apostles in the book of John. Peace be with you.

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