Over on her blog What Canst Thou Say?, Robin M explains what she wants her children to learn in First Day School (which is Quakerspeak for Sunday school). While the post raises many important issues, the line that jumped out to me was this: “I want them to learn how to be a Quaker.” Given some things that happened this weekend, I’m wondering just what an education in “how to be a Quaker” might entail and if it’s really what I want for my children.
First, I thought of my thirtieth Friends’ Central reunion this weekend, where I talked with another one of my classmates who became a Quaker as a result of attending a Quaker school. (Given that many people think of FCS as just an elite Main Line prep school, it’s interesting to me how many members of my class have maintained some connection to Quakerism.) This particular F/friend told me how he had been attending meeting for worship since his freshman year of college, but had never fully felt at home in the Religious Society of Friends, partly because he is an engineer, and that didn’t seem to fit some model of how to be a Quaker. This man has been nourished by Quaker worship and has striven to live his values in his daily life, including refusing to accept military money in a research field where that is extremely unusual, yet he felt he didn’t quite fit in.
This conversation reminded me of an essay read Thursday night at the Pendle Hill launch party for Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices, the new book published by Friends General Conference which includes writing and art from young Quakers from across the theological spectrum. A young African American man read of his yearning to welcome brothers from North Philadelphia into Quaker worship, and I found myself thinking of what a wonderful thing that would be and wondering how our present meetings would need to stretch our stereotypes of ourselves to make it possible. The book itself, which I haven’t read yet, seems to be aimed at stretching us, and I think that’s good.
I was still lamenting how narrowly we define ourselves Sunday morning during a meeting for worship where the sometimes dueling messages revealed the range of beliefs in our community and tensions we often experience because of them. (I initially posted this with references to specific messages, but I’ve had a persistent doubt about whether that is really “rightly ordered,” so I’ve edited those references out.) I had been missing my mother than morning and left meeting feeling drained, rather than refreshed.
Have I mentioned lately that I love my meeting? I love that we were the first united meeting in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting—meaning that when Quakers had a big fight (partly) about theology, we were part of the healing of the divide, a history that I think we still feel in the air. Today you can come to our meeting and hear messages across a pretty wide theological spread. I also love that our meeting includes artists and scientists, lawyers and full-time peace activists, and a cartoonist, among other many other things. We certainly could be more diverse in terms of class and race, but our life experiences are more diverse than they appear on the surface. Of course, our differences are part of the struggles we are currently having over how to spend our money, which leads me back to wondering how we would go about teaching “how to be a Quaker” in a way that embraces the full range of possibilities without falling into meaningless drivel.
None of this is meant to negate Robin’s very valid quest to have her children learn something meaningful in First Day School. Perhaps my situation is complicated by the fact that my husband is Roman Catholic, and my children are growing up attending both meeting and church, but when I asked myself what I wanted my children to learn in their religious education, the answer that came was the line from Micha:
“And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Would that be a fair definition of what it means to be a Quaker?