by: Courtney Bither
I tell people I’ve been trying to be Quaker for about a year. I keep asking how one goes about becoming a Quaker, and people keep telling me that I just declare myself one. I think the lack of real process here has something to do with not recognizing hierarchy. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not very helpful.
I shouldn’t just get to declare myself a Quaker. That’s not how these things go. I feel like I need a long-standing, birthright Quaker to recognize me as a Quaker. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.
I made some serious progress with my Quaker recognition this summer because I attended Surfside, a week on the Coast for hundreds of Quaker kids. I also learned “the George Fox song,” which I think might be the closest thing Quakers have to catechism. And I’ve come leaps and bounds with understanding Quaker lingo: “this Friend speaks my mind,” “coming to consensus,” “standing aside.” I just recently learned, “Are all hearts clear?”
And now look! I’m writing for a Quaker publication. There is a picture of my face so you all can associate my face with Quaker things.
But I’m also not kidding. Breaking into a community is hard. It feels like that, too – breaking in – especially when it looks like everyone else is well-connected. I am among people who grew up together, whose parents and grandparents grew up together, and where everyone, it seems, knows everyone.
But few people know me. No one knows my family or my background or what I looked like in middle school. People don’t know when my birthday is or what I struggle with or what I want to be when I grow up. It would be ridiculous for me to expect this sort of knowing. I haven’t done the living that leads to this level of knowing. I didn’t grow up Quaker.
But now I’m here, and I want in.
On this journey from outsider to insider, I’ve been able to reflect on what it means to be a community, what it means to be welcoming, and how one becomes integrated. I’ve noticed a few things.
First, people on the inside don’t always recognize they’re inside. It’s us outsiders who notice. My first month at Newberg Friends, I distinctly remember being afraid to sit in someone’s seat. While I didn’t grow up Quaker, I did grow up in church. And I know that sitting in someone’s regular spot is no way to make friends (Friends? Get it?). There exists a structure that helps reveal who is really on the inside and who is really on the outside: a vocabulary, a seating arrangement, an order to the service. If you’re familiar with the system, then you probably don’t even notice.
This led me to a second realization: it’s up to the outsider to become an insider. For some reason, writing that feels mean. I’m not trying to be mean. I don’t even think this is necessarily a bad thing. In my experience, this is how life works. I don’t get to declare myself something without putting in the time and work to become it. Am I really a Christian if I don’t care for the marginalized? Do I really love God if I don’t love my neighbor? Can I really just say that I am a certain type of person, regardless of my actions? I think not. Calling myself Quaker doesn’t make me one.
The work of joining a community, especially a tight-knit community, has been discouraging. I want the familiarity folks have with one another. I want to trust that when I walk into church I’ll know someone I can sit next to. I want to believe that when I’m not there, someone will notice my absence. And isn’t that a human desire? To want someone to know you? To want people to care?
This is my last realization: There are people who want to do the work of welcoming. They’ve taken me to coffee, held me, laughed and cried with me. Thanks for greeting me at the door and for moving over so I might have a place to sit. Thanks for seeing your system and for explaining it to me - for leaning over and whispering translations of Quaker-speak, for telling me what open worship is, and for singing me the George Fox song. Thanks for helping me write emails, and for looking over my resume, and for remembering my birthday. Thanks for doing the practical things, the little things, that signal to someone, “You’re one of us. You belong here. I see you.”
I’m still learning where and how I fit in community. I suspect this is a lesson I will always be learning. For now, I’ve decided that regardless of my Quaker recognition, I want to be on Team Welcome.
Sit next to me, I don’t care where. I don’t have a regular spot, either.