How the Quaker Teens Blew Up My Heart: NEYM Day 1

Well, technically the New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) of Friends starts tomorrow, Saturday, but since I am a Resource Person (RP, it’s like a camp counselor plus something more) for the Young Friends (high school Quakers) I arrived a day early. The first RP meeting is at 10 am tomorrow.

I have decided to write daily about this year’s NEYM to share some thoughts, observations, “found poems,” and news. I hope that both Quakers and non-Quakers will appreciate these updates.

I first attended this gathering of about 700 Quakers from all over New England in August 2002. I had only just begun attending Quaker Meeting in the fall of 2001 soon after 911. In August of 2001 I moved from Memphis, TN to Hartford, CT, a refugee of sorts having just emerged from the Love in Action ex-gay program for wayward husbands and hounded homosexuals in fall 1998.

I felt leery about getting involved with another faith community, particularly if they were going to treat me as a second class citizen. I most recently had attended an Episcopal church in Memphis where when I informed the relatively friendly priest that I was gay, he responded, “Yes, I have known people with that problem.” I shot back, “I didn’t realize we were talking about a problem. Oh, it’s not a problem, at least not for me, not anymore.” But it remained a problem for others even in Christian churches that strove to be accepting.

I moved to Hartford for a position as a teacher in a private school, the first job where I was openly gay, albeit very tentatively and selectively initially.  By this time in my life I had comprehended that I was gay and that I was also wired for God. Although much of my experience up until that time  told me that I had to choose one identity over the other, I knew it would be madness if I denied either of these realities. In late fall 20oo1 I first attended Hartford Friends Meeting after one of my fellow teachers told me she was a member. There must have been about 25 or 30 people present. For an entire hour no one spoke. We sang no songs. We heard no sermon. No one uttered a prayer.  We sat in silence and what felt to me a profound stillness.

Just because it was quiet with no programmed activity didn’t mean that it was stagnate, not for me at least. I experienced what I have since come to call the “scanning of the Spirit.” It’s like my body is a computer and my soul the hard drive. The Spirit then does a scan disk (and sometimes a defrag) going into the various pockets and corners of my soul, shining the light, comforting, challenging, guiding.

It was at that first meeting where I understood that I didn’t need to say anything. What could I even say to a deity who knows everything, my inmost thoughts, knows me better than I know myself, knows the desire of my heart hidden behind all the words I stammered in prayer?  I sat on that bench and opened my whole being to God, the God I knew from when I was little, the God who I felt wooed me and drew me in my teens. (That was before I began to listen to ministers instead of God, trusting that these straight men of God knew better than me.) In that Hartford meeting for worship I let God scan me, and I felt peace. I felt I had come home.

During that time opening up to God honestly felt liberating; opening up to the folks at Hartford meeting was another matter altogether, one that I relentlessly avoided for the next two years. I came in most First Days (Sundays) just as meeting started, and then as soon as announcements were complete, I gave them the slip before anyone could talk to me. I didn’t even sign the guest book.

That was until summer of 2003 when I first RPed for the Young Friends teen program. I had done lots of youth work before and had met loads of young people who were excited about their faith, but I had never experienced anything quite like this Young Friends group before (I have seen it replicated since). These young people valued their time of silent worship, jealously guarded it and kept it deep and meaningful. They conducted their business in a centered worshipful manner. And in the midst of the worship and meals, snacks and games like Wink and Spanking Yoda they expressed a genuine and thoughtful love for each other, listening to each other, comforting, encouraging, challenging each other. christmas-grinch

I saw them with their open hearts and with a faith they could barely articulate yet one they put into practice skillfully and joyfully.  I felt like the Grinch when after he attempted to steal Christmas and he looked down on Whoville and the Whos, young and old, singing their songs, enjoying each other and Christmas without a tree and the trimmings, without the Who Feast, without the roast beast.

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,who christmas
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came with out ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day!

grinch smileWatching the young friends in action, true love in action, my heart melted, and it was then I decided I would join Hartford Friends Meeting and become active in this faith community.

This evening I wrote to my partner Glen, who stayed behind in Central PA to work on his book, about why I keep coming back to NEYM and why I most likely will continue to do so even if I move away from CT one day.

What I appreciate about NEYM is how loved I feel. I mean these Quakers seem like my people in many ways, even if my faith in Jesus, the way I see God seems like a cultural oddity for some. They knew me before I had done much Homo No Mo stuff, when I was just a high school teaching sorting himself out. We have mostly a pre-performance history. It’s comforting. Feels like coming back to one’s hometown, a good hometown where one has had many good memories and feels pleased to see everyone again. It’s not quite family always, but homey all the same and safe.

What do I look forward to this week?

  • Worship and Business Meeting with the Young Friends
  • Impromptu talks at meals, walking to meetings, sitting on the grass
  • NOT having a performance to present

This post has 11 Comments

  1. Sharon Elliott on July 31, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Thank you so very much for sharing your life and passion with us. It is difficult to express what it’s like to read your blogs, notes, ruminations…. But I am extremely grateful that you open your heart in your writings and allow us to peek in. I look forward to your book.

  2. Christopher on August 1, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Oh I am extremely happy to have come across your website!

    I was 17 when I came out to my family, and a very loving family involved in the NPYM (I was a pal of their daughter) invited me to start attending the quarterly and yearly meetings at such a vital time in my life.

    I think that the relationship that I have built with God as I see him, thanks to what I learned from those gatherings was and still is extremely powerful. In the lowest points of my life, when I wondered if perhaps God had died, I was thankful to know when I came out of it all (drug addiction and a + diagnosis) I was still welcomed back with open arms.

    I’m glad you’re out there doing what you are!

  3. Sheria in South Africa on August 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Peterson, even if I don’t agree with you on certain issues, I found your post really moving and beautifully written…I love what you say, ‘Watching the young friends in action, true love in action, my heart melted, and it was then I decided I would join Hartford Friends Meeting and become active in this faith community.” Yes, communities need true love in action in order to heal and reach out…maybe there wouldn’t be so much suicide, alcohol and drug abuse etc. Beautiful words, and thanks for letting us have a glimpse in ‘the story your life…”

  4. p2son on August 1, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Sheria in SA, so glad you found this post moving. I thought of you when I wrote it and imagined you would appreciate a window into the new world I have found since leaving Zambia. Thanks for your comment.

  5. p2son on August 1, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Christopher, that is a lovely story! Thank you for sharing it. I will be sure to check out your blog.

  6. Sheria in SA on August 1, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    I appreciate your post Peterson, believe me. For once, I stopped listening to what I believe in, got absorbed in your post and reminded myself that this is a human being like me rising above life’s challenges…And thanx for thinking of me in your life’s journey. My best to you…

  7. e2c on August 1, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Peterson, what an encouraging post! You’re beginning to make me think that there really *is* a place for me in some kind of church/faith community… that it’s a matter of continuing to keep my heart and mind open to new possibilities. (After going through some tough times with churches + coming to terms with some other issues, one of them being how LGBTQ people are received – or, more to the point, not received – in so many US churches.)

    As for the kids, enjoy! Sounds like they’re pretty wonderful. 🙂

  8. p2son on August 3, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    haha, well, I am not trying to lure people into Quakers Meetings, but they can be wonderful.

    These kids are amazing. So kind to each other, genuinely so. Sure they push the boundaries, they are teens after all, but they are a very special community.

  9. e2c on August 4, 2009 at 4:16 am

    Oh, I hear you (about “not trying to lure people”); the thing is – you found a good place, which gives me a great deal of hope that I will, too, even though I realize it might take a while.

    As for the kids, I’d be worried if they didn’t act their respective ages! 😉

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