Category: Quakerism

A Queer Connecticut Quaker in Pennsylvania Amish Country

I just published a piece in Liturgy journal. When the editor first contacted me over a year ago, he wanted to know if I could write about Quaker liturgy in a rural setting. It was a strange request. We Quakers are basically the anti-liturgy sect:

Quakers can be defined by what we do not do and what we do not have during our times of worship. In the Quaker meetings I have attended, we do not have a written liturgy. We do not recognize sacraments of the Christian church or the church calendar. We do not have clergy in the traditional sense or a laity; each one of us is considered a minister. We do not have a programmed worship at all but opt for an hour of silence, trusting the members of the gathering to vocalize short messages leaving pauses in between messages. Sometimes we have a complete hour of quiet with no words spoken aloud.

Thinking about the rural setting though got me reflecting on Quakerism and how the worship itself is a way of sliding into the natural world even in meetings in the heart of major cities.

Quakers in Florida worshiping with music (so rare) outside

Throughout Quaker history, Friends have pointed to two natural sources to help describe their spiritual quest. The first is the Light. Quakers speak and write regularly about the “Light within” and the process of “holding in the Light” a person who needs prayer or an important issue. Light is natural, emanating from the sun, and it is a natural element present in urban settings as well as in rural. Unlike fresh air, one does not need to slip away from an industrialized city to discover light. One simply needs to open the shutter or curtain and let it in. What we lack in cities, however, is darkness. The urban environment has so much light that the wilderness of natural darkness is obscured.

The other natural object regularly referred to in Quaker writings and vocal ministry is “the Seed.” Tiny and full of potential, the seed is usually something hidden from sight deep underground, waiting to burst forth with new life and growth. Unlike looking to trees and flowers and animals, the seed speaks to the quiet place of waiting, patiently, longingly, while believing in greater things to come.

Quakerism started in England before the Industrial Revolution, but continued to grow as the world grew louder, more mechanized, crowded, dirty, gray, and hectic. Quaker meeting houses and the worship they offered gave Friends in English cities a chance to escape the crush of the streets and the sounds of industry—to enter into a spiritual secret garden of serenity. No wonder Quakers flourished in large industrialized cities like Birmingham and London. People with less and less access to the peace and quiet of nature needed a retreat. The quiet and stillness of Quaker meeting provided this.

Writing about all this though, I continued to return to a theme that has been knocking around my head for the past few years–the complicated relationship many LGBTQ people have had with nature, particularly in rural spaces.

Like many gay men in America I originally come from a rural community that I escaped the first chance I had after high school graduation. Born in the city of Stamford, Connecticut, we moved to the Catskill Mountains in New York State when I was five, in part to help me flee the pollution of the city that routinely sent me to the hospital with asthma attacks. Coming of age in rural New York state during the HIV/AIDS Crisis and a growing organized movement to protect the church and family from what was called “The Gay Lifestyle,” I consumed secular and religious messages that told me I would be more valuable if I were heterosexual and masculine.

It was in a rural independent Bible church that I gave my heart to Jesus and determined to repent from homosexual attractions and possible future gay relationships. I began an odyssey to de-gay myself through Ex-Gay programs and ministries and through pastoral counseling. While many gay men flocked to cities where large lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities formed, I moved to New York City to join a fledgling gay conversion therapy Christian ministry. We were about forty men and women struggling with homosexual desires and also from the homophobia we experienced in our rural communities back home. We believed it was wrong to be gay, and if we prayed enough and got close enough to God, our same-sex attractions would get burned off like fog on a lake in the morning sun. I felt committed to this path and ultimately spent seventeen years and $30,000 on three continents pursuing a cure for being gay so that I could finally be eligible for Christian service in the churches I chose to attend.

If you would like to read the entire piece, check it out at Liturgy: Quaker Liturgy in a Rural Setting (unfortunately there is a paywall that I can’t get around)

The Secret Lives of Quakers Revealed

As a Quaker, I intentionally spend a lot of time in silence both on my own and in groups during Quaker meeting for worship. I can be sitting and quiet for a full hour, which might be a little too much for some people, but after years of being pummeled by words in church, I appreciate a little peace and quiet.

While it may look like I am just sitting there doing nothing, often a whole world opens up inside my head. At times I create whole monologues, solve complex problems, and work through a troubling emotional conundrum.

No doubt some of the times I am bored out of my mind and every minute drags on, but typically it is a positive experience. I decided to create a short video explaining what happens for me in Quaker worship. It is actually very much like running a utility on my computer. Yes, a defrag from my soul!

Revealed! What Really Happens in Quaker Meeting for Worship

Quaker Hell–A Definition

All those years in Pentecostal Holiness Churches I heard lots of sermons about hell with vivid descriptions of the tortures, despair, and pain inflicted upon sinners forever and ever. As Pastor Dave warned us: It is a dangerous thing to fall into the hands of an angry god, (who apparently was unwilling or unable to end the torture of the people he loved so much.)

Now I am a Quaker. Quakers don’t really talk about a future in hell. We talk about injustice today–hell on earth for many who often face relentless oppression. Quakers also talk about impending doom from fracking, GMO’s, and the Koch Brothers. But sometimes I find myself wondering what an Quaker hell might be, the place of torments that will terrify the many North American Quakers I know. Below are some possible hellish scenarios for Quakers. I’d love to hear yours.

Quaker Hell: Where there is an eternity of announcements.

Quaker Hell: Where they only serve meat, wheat, and dairy. On Styrofoam

Quaker Hell: Where there is the constant droning of a gas-p0wered lawnmower in the background, they serve Maxwell House® coffee purchased at Walmart, and you are all alone; there is no one around to criticize.

 

We do not own the world… Quaker Advice with Photos

“We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation.”

Britain Yearly Meeting of Quakers Advices and Queries, 1994, No.42

Photos taken during my recent trip to Quebec Province.

Quakers speak out about the Environment and Justice

In the Quaker world I inhabit, we talk a lot about Advices and Queries. These short statements and questions focus our attention on topics like Equality, Community, Death and Old Age, Integrity, and Diversity. Quakers in different places use different language and emphasize different points. Some Quakers refer to God and Jesus, while others talk about the Divine or leave off God talk all together.

I have been enjoying the Quaker Advices and Queries iPhone app as I click on it first thing every morning when I wake up (instead of immediately checking my emails which is such an awful jolt to my delicate system and often hurls me into a dreadful mood or gets me working in my head prematurely.)

How Quakers talk about the Environment gets covered by the app, and in spending the past two weeks sitting with these, I appreciate how different Quakers in different parts of the world raise a diversity of considerations. Below are some of these Environmental Queries and the regional/national Quaker groups that published them. Which resonate with you?

Do we endeavor to live in harmony with nature? Are we careful in our stewardship of the world’s irreplaceable resources? -Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Stewardship

 

In our witness for the global environment, are we careful to consider justice and the well-being of the world’s poorest people? Does our way of life threaten the viability of life on Earth? -Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Queries for the Meeting

 

Do we support measures to avoid pollution of air and water? Do we support measures to establish the conservation and right use of natural resources? -New York Yearly Meeting, query number 10

 

Are we concerned that humanity’s increasing power over nature should not be used irresponsibly, but with the reverence for life and with a sense of the splendor of God’s continuing creation? -Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Stewardship

 

All life is interrelated. Each individual plant and animal has its own needs, and is important to others. Many species in Australia and worldwide are now extinct and many more are endangered. Do you treat all life with respect, recognizing a particular obligation to those animals we breed and maintain for our own use and enjoyment? In order to secure the survival of all, including ourselves, are you prepared to change your ideas about who you are in relation to your environment and every living thing in it? -Australia Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, number 44

 

In what ways do I express gratitude for the wondrous expressions of life on Earth? Do I consider the damage I might do to the Earth’s vulnerable systems in choices I make of what I do, what I buy, and how I spend my time? -Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Queries for Individuals

 

We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation. -Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Stewardship

 

We need to respect, revere and cooperate with other life systems on our planet. The earth’s diverse riches are not ours to exploit. Seek reverence for life and a sense of wonder at God’s continuing presence in all of creation. Do you work to conserve the earth’s beauty and resources, both now and in the future, for the many people who depend on this planet and the many other species that share it? -Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, E14

 

Be aware of the influence humans have on the health and viability of life on earth. Call attention to what fosters or harms Earth’s exquisite beauty, balances and interdependencies. Guided by Spirit, work to translate this understanding into ways of living that reflect our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. -Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Advices

 

As a Christian steward, do you treat the earth with respect and with a sense of God’s splendor in creation, guarding it against abuse by greed, misapplied technology, or your own carelessness? -Northwest Yearly Meeting, Query 19

Quaker Environmental Advices and Queries. I got the iPhone App!

Today I am hanging out with Quakers at the annual New England Yearly Meeting way up in Vermont. After I became a Quaker Hartford, CT in 2001, I discovered the wonderful and at times quirky world of Quaker Advices and Queries. All over the world wherever Quakers have put together books of Faith and Practice (and Books of Discipline in some traditions) these short statements and questions help focus Friends (aka Quakers) on the topics most meaningful to us.D - Discipline QF&P

One of my favorite queries comes out of New Zealand and raises a useful and direct question about the practice of speaking during the worship service. As Quakers, we are welcome to stand up and share a message, but we don’t want this sharing to be a free for all. Reading the following query, I wonder if the writers of it had a particularly person in mind or they were addressing an epidemic of blabbers during the Quaker worship time. From Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, B9: 

Do you sometimes speak too often, too predictably, or too soon after someone else has spoken? 

UnknownRecently I discovered an awesome app for my iPhone: Quaker Advices and Queries created by Simon Gray. The description promises that the app provides:

A selection of Advices and Queries from around the Quaker world in one handy place, categorised according to themes. Looking for some inspiring wisdom about children and family? Poke the children and family button! Something to say about diversity, the environment, worship, prayer, or Quaker business? Likewise!

I love that the app includes multiple meetings from around the world: The Advices from the Elders at Balby (1656), Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Baltimore, Britain, Evangelical Friends Church Southwest, Friends of Truth, Great Plains, Ireland, North Carolina (Conservative), New York, Northwest, Ohio (Conservative), Ohio Valley, Pacific, and Rocky Mountain.

I don’t know about you, but when I wake up in the morning, all too often I reach for my phone, check the time, then check email, Facebook, and Twitter. Before my feet touch the ground I am already caught up in a whirlwind of work, social media drama, and news–good, bad, and banal. For the next two weeks though my plan is to turn to the Advices and Queries app instead and clicking on the Environment button. I’ll be sure to share what a find here on the blog.

This is the one I read today:

In our witness for the global environment, are we careful to consider justice and the well-being of the world’s poorest people? Does our way of life threaten the viability of life on Earth?

– Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Queries for the Meeting

 

Artwork by Deborah Klein 

Talking about a Queer Quaker Response to Climate Change

Last year I visited Guilford College in Greensboro, NC and presented the first inklings of a talk around the odd question, What is a Queer Response to Climate Change? As a gay guy, a person of faith from a Christian background now sporting Quaker bonnet and Friendly ways, I daily feel pulled in many different justice directions as my social media feed gets bloated with scores of vital worthy causes–LGBTQ Rights, immigration reform, the reform of the prison industrial complex, anti-racism work, women’s rights, and a constant stream of environmental concerns from anti-fracking to anti-wind farming (because a handful of Quakers I know are concerned about the danger to bird populations.)

So many issues, so little time.

In Quaker circles we talk about having a leading–a deep feeling, interest, fascination, and need to devote time and energy to learn and act around a particular issue. For me that issue is Climate Change with the many human rights, ecological, and political aspects connected to it. But I come to this leading through the lens of being a gay guy, interested in gender issues, passionate about transgender rights, and out of a faith tradition that informs much of what I do.

So no wonder the way I see Climate Change is through those lenses. This multi-focal world view gets revealed in an interview conducted by the Guildorian on March 8 of last year. My ideas have expanded a great deal since then, (and I have three new presentations to prove it) but re-reading the article I see the seeds already sprouting and metaphors and ideas about Queer Climate Activism forming.

The author, Josh Barker, asks, Can you briefly summarize the Queer Quaker response to Climate Change?

First I speak out of a childless gay perspective that for me climate change is  NOT all about the children. Some folks don’t have children or grandchildren yet are very concerned about the plight of the planet and lifeforms on it.  I then got on to say,

We see the world in very different ways, often because of our experiences. We know what it’s like when people tell lies about us, and there are a lot of lies being told about climate and there’s a coordinated effort to misinform people. That sounds familiar to me as a gay man.

To address the climate also means really thinking outside of the box. Thinking about future living, what will that look like. It may mean alternative families where lots of people live together with a lower carbon footprint. The gay community has been doing that for a long time where many of us create our own families and pairings of units of families.

So, there are very specific things like that, and even thinking outside of the box how we can actually partner with conservative people, because this is what is going to have to happen.

Looking at a carbon fee and dividend scheme could be a very useful thing. Using more nuclear energy, which is blasphemous to many liberal Quakers, is much less carbon-intensive then anything we have going on, particularly in this period.
So I don’t know if there is a particular queer Quaker response to this, but I think of my great, great, great grandfather Walt Whitman who had Quaker grandparents, who had an epiphany at one point in his life. And I think, “What would Walt Whitman do today?”

That gives me a little bit of guidance as I try to navigate what I’m going to do.

Who knows where a leading may lead, particularly when we experience the first inklings of an idea, the beginning stirrings of passion, the formation of an odd question, and a growing concern that may become a life’s work?

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.

Motivation–A Quaker Query

Fear, guilt, and shame–strong, toxic emotions that can motivate us to change, to move us to action or inaction. Fear, guilt, and shame can poison queer folks to live dishonestly, in the shadows, in tomb-like closets.

Fear, guilt, and shame can motivate good people, peace-loving liberal white Quakers to pursue diversity under the guise of justice, not fully recognizing the potential and quite probable exploitation of people of color in our efforts to integrate our white spaces.

Fear, guilt, and shame often has as it’s unspoken motivational statement, “I don’t want to be seen as one of those people!” (gay, racist, unevolved–fill in the blank…)

As we proceed with our initiatives, with our life choices,a helpful query might be, “Is this action a response to fear, guilt and shame or does it rise out of friendship, love, and justice? Or somewhat a muddled combination?”

My Faith Odyssey–Oh the Places You Will Go!

My religious trajectory began in the Roman Catholic Church and landed me in many of the Christian religious movements of the past 30 years.

At age 17 I left Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Lake Huntington, NY with its tinny sounding organ and hymns sung in impossible keys through the noses of old ladies, and I began to attend Gospel Tabernacle, a fundamentalist Bible Church in Honesdale, PA. This church encouraged their youth to attend Word of Life Bible Institute and Bob Jones University (Also known as BJU). After I graduated from high school, I opted for what my pastor considered a liberal institution, Nyack College, a Christian and Missionary Alliance school. While there I attended an independent Evangelical church in nearby New Jersey. They talked about grace and provided gourmet coffee in the Fellowship Hall after service.

Following a stint with the Evangelical mission HCJB in Quito, Ecuador, I moved to New York City where with hands raised and feet stomping I jumped into Glory Tabernacle, a non-denominational Charismatic church that put the happy into the clappy. We railed against principalities and powers, and in ancient pagan fashion regularly drove out evil entities ensconced in every corner of the city. (And to the god of the North, I bind you and in the mighty name of Jesus I command you to depart with your evil minions!)

Right before this Holy Ghost-filled church fell apart because of a sexual scandal between the young charming pastor and his children’s nanny (a result of The Enemy attacking The Man of God, who apparently failed to build a strong enough hedge of protection around himself or else inadvertently opened a door to demonic oppression or quite possibly both), I moved onto Times Square Church. With services held in one of Broadway’s premiere theaters I sang in their rocking Gospel choir and sat under their teaching, seasoned in a Pentecostal/Holiness tradition with a prophetic punch brought on by senior pastor David Wilkerson (He regularly warned us that North America would fall because of homosexuals who would then roam in homosexual gangs. Apparently it is part of our agenda)

Through my connections with people in the Manhattan-based L.I.F.E. Ministries ex-gay program (and unemployed Broadway actor support group), I also occasionally attended Household of Faith Ministries (now Christian Cultural Center) a word of faith non-denominational church in Brooklyn that adhered to the teachings of Kenneth Copeland, Marilyn Hickey, and Kenneth Haggin. Oh the things I claimed in faith!

Through Times Square Church I became acquainted with a small house church in Yonkers, NY called the New Testament Missionary Fellowship. Without a pastor or Sunday program, the congregants of this small assembly needed to produce the ministry themselves, which included prophecies, spontaneous original songs, dancing in the Spirit and Bible lessons.

From there I moved to the UK and Zambia where I mostly attended non-denominational charismatic churches. After my world fell apart in Zambia, I attended a small charismatic church in England that bought into the Toronto Blessing with full-blown laughing in the spirit. At one Toronto Blessing-inspired conference I endured, “God” tried to minister to me through animal noises and grunts. All very entertaining (and terrifying) but I struggled to grasp what “God” was trying to tell me. During that time in England I also attended Wednesday communion services at the local Anglican parish.

When I returned to the States to attend the Love in Action ex-gay residential treatment facility in Memphis, TN, the program leaders forced us to attend Central Church, an Evangelical mega church with a mega choir and a theater-like atmosphere that dazzled us week after week in a giant round building resembling an abandoned space ship. As a struggling ex-gay, I attended the Men’s Sunday School class and Promise Keepers while avoiding the many rest rooms. We learned by experience about the a reputation for spontaneous gay sex during the service. Those crazy straight Evangelicals and their toilets!

When I could elect to go to a church of my choosing, I attended an Episcopal church led by a husband/wife ministry team that taught conservative theology with a sprinkling of Charismatic hands-on ministry and a failed attempt at the ALPHA Course (which I guess one could term as a success of sorts.)

When I came out as gay, I attended the monthly meetings of Integrity, a gay Episcopal group in downtown Memphis and latter became an officer in that group. On Sunday evenings I walked a half-block to a campus Episcopal church led by Samson, a Kenyan pastor who created a community feel to our services and organized gorgeous pot-luck dinners afterwards.

In 2001 I moved to Hartford, CT and soon after 911 I entered a Quaker meeting house and have been a Quaker ever since. So far I have found a home of sorts among “Friends” as we call each other. Quakers are big time pacifists. I have discovered that Quakers don’t get violent, just passive aggressive. My favorite part has to be all the quiet we practice during our weekly meetings (and I have to say, for me it requires practice.)

In an upcoming post I write how some of my current Quaker experiences mirror some of my earliest Roman Catholic ones.

What about you? What does your faith odyssey look like?