Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Where are the Quakers?

I often become frustrated with Friends because we not only hide our light under a bushel, we often also hide the bushel in a closet! This week was for me a particularly painful example of Quaker invisibility.

An Interfaith Peace Walk and Shoe Drive took place in Pasadena in which 200-300 people of diverse faiths showed up--Muslims, Jews, Bahais, Buddhists, pagans---but I was the only Quaker. I was also one of the organizers and had talked up this event a lot among Friends in my meeting, so it was especially painful to me to be alone and unsupported by my own faith community. (I asked for support but it was not granted. "We are already doing too much," was the reason.)

This is not usual. Quakers seldom show up at peace and interfaith events in Pasadena or in the LA area. Many Quakers feel that they have done enough for peace and justice if they write a letter to their elected officials from time to time.

As a result, Quakers have become an invisible church, a relic from the past that many associate with the Amish. My wife, who is a community organizer here in Pasadena, and knows or has worked with virtually all the area's religious congregations, barely knew that Quakers existed.

The spiritual fire and prophetic witness of Friends is in decline, and that saddens me deeply. I love Quakerism, and so does my new wife, who is an Evangelical Christian. She sees us as a prophetic faith, and that's what we are at our best.

However, I have experienced a  lack of prophetic fire among Friends for many years, and that's one of the reason I turned to the interfaith movement. The interfaith peace movement is what Martin Luther King called "the beloved community," and it's in this powerful spiritual movement that I encountered kindred spirits--people who care so passionately for peace and justice, and for God, they are willing to make personal sacrifices to witness to their faith and vision.

Where are the Quakers? is a question I keep asking myself. It is also a question that came up repeatedly during the World Conference of Friends in Kenya whose theme was "Being Salt and Light in a Broken World."

Addressing this theme, Esther Mombo, a Kenyan Friend, spoke of the terrible injustices and problems in the world and asked:

Where are the Christians? It was John Salt who said, “if the world is rotten don't ask why the light is broken. Ask, where are the Christians?”So if our contexts are rotten, we need to ask ourselves, where are the Quakers? Where are the Quaker Christians? People need to see the work of the salt and people need to see the work of light in us. The Christians amongst you are known to be Christians by the way they love one another, not by the way they talk about one another. As salt and light, Christians are called to be involved in the society.
Being "Salt and Light" means making the Quaker presence known in the world.

For me, sharing the good news of Quakerism is a joyful experience but also often a very lonely one.

When I go to the annual meeting of Progressive Christians Uniting, I am the only Friend. I feel a little sad about this because this organization is one of the most inspiring Christian groups I know. They need and deserve all the support they can get!

When I go to the annual "Giants of Justice" breakfast sponsored by Clergy and Laity for Economic Justice, I am the only Friend. This is also sad because this interfaith group fights for the rights of low-income workers in our community and does great work.

When I go to demonstrations opposing torture, drones, etc. I am usually the only Frend.

When I went this year to the annual meeting of ECPAC, the ecumenical service organization here in Pasadena that helps the homeless, I was the only Quaker present. (My meeting supports ECPAC but no representatives came to the annual meeting.)

When I went to the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast in Pasadena last year, I was the only Quaker.

You get the picture. Quakers don't make their presence known at these public events where people of other faiths gather to show unity. Most Quakers see no reason to do so.

When Philip Clayton, Provost of Lincoln Claremont University, came to speak at our Meeting about the interfaith movement, he made it clear why it is important for Quakers to take part in these interfaith efforts. When people of diverse faiths get together to support a cause, there is a great moral and holistic power. The whole is greater than the sum of individual parts. 

I would add that when Quakers are absent, they are making a statement. They are saying: this cause is not important to us.

I was asked by a Friend what gives me joy in my work. What gives me joy is using my gifts and talents for a cause that's meaningful and worthwhile. I can think of no cause more worthwhile than working for peace and justice.

The great Catholic theologian Hans Kung said:

"There can be no peace in the world without peace among the religions.

There can be no peace among the religions without dialogue.
There can be no dialogue without a common ethic."

I would add that there can be no justice in the world unless religions work together for justice and for peace. The Quaker voice and presence is urgently needed.

That's why I go to these events. They inspire me to do the work that God is calling me, and I think all of us, to do: "to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God."

And I love the people I work with.  They are on fire with a passion for justice, peace, and God. And they are truly alive!


  1. In my part of the country, Friends are very supportive of the military and I think that may be why they don't speak out much on the peace testimony. I support the protection and survival of our troops and pray that they don't have to hurt or kill anyone. But my greatest support for them is to sue for peace so that they may come home.

    The organization in our state that was the successor to the old Council of Churches is being laid down, in my opinion, because people are so busy in their own denominations that they don't see the need to spend time, energy and money in ecumenism. If we're unwilling to support Christian ecumenism, then I don't see how we can get the churches to support wider interfaith interests. This is sad and I feel I am as guilty as anyone for not pursuing this.

    And I just wonder if Quakers as a whole are all that interested in peacemaking any more.

    I pray that the Holy Spirit sends a revival among Friends that renews our passion for the testimonies that need to be boldly expressed.
    -Chris Wynn

  2. Dear Chris, I'm sorry to hear that Friends in your part of the country support the military. Which part might that be? While Friends don't seem to be very active in the local community efforts to promote peace and justice, at least here in my area, we do excellent work at the national and international level through AFSC, FCNL and the Quaker UN. Ecumenical organizations are becoming interfaith since they want to include everybody as equals. That's wonderful news, and very Quakerly. I wish that Quakers would realize how important it is to suppor this movement since it is deeply spiritual and incredibly rewarding. God is gathering together God's people for something new and powerful, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy:
    "My house shall be a house of prayer for ALL people...."

    1. Dear Anthony, I'm in Indiana. We do have some good peaceloving people but part of our regional ethos is to support the military. I guess we all want the troops to know we love them. It's just that we don't seem, as a strong Quaker witness, to support the peace witness in some of our local meetings. I remember one meeting years ago where a prominent member was a retired military officer who, when a peace issue came up in a meeting, said disparagingly, "peaceniks." That really hurt me. However, there are a number of individuals in the area whom I believe can and should be brought together to support local peacemaking discussions and ideals.- Chris

    2. Dear Chris, I'm wondering if Glen Stassen's "Just Peacemaking" approach could help awaken Friends for the need to do all one can to prevent war, even if you believe that war is sometimes justified. It might be helpful for some Indiana Friends to know that there are bible-believing Evangelicals such as Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Tony Compolo et al. who are anti-war for biblical reasons, and are not "peaceniks."

  3. Though your article relates some disappointment, it actually inspired me--seeing how you are living out Jesus' vision relating to many different people, working for peace and justice. Very inspiring. It's an encouragement to those of us who are in times of struggle.
    As for Friends not being so active, keep in mind, that except for the great movement in the 1600's, Friends 'as a society' have tended not to be at the forefront
    of social action. The great abolitionists of the 1700 and 1800's from Woolman to Coffin actually had to go against their meetings! in order to promote peace and justice.
    But this isn't just in the Quakers, most Christian denominations, though they 'talk' peace and justice, even make resolutions...when it comes down to action, tend to stay in their chairs. I think this has many causes, some sociological as H. Niebuhr showed, some personal, and some bad ol' mild selishness.

    But seeing you, and Micah Bales, and Liz Opp, and Convergent Friends living on the healing edge gives me hope that friends of Jesus are reaching forward, even if Quakers as a denomination (no matter how much they talk and write statements) aren't.

    On a different issue, I find it difficult to work with those I strongly disagree with on key faith issues. But you seem to manage to hold to your own faith strongly yet dialog deeply and work for social change with many other faiths--wonderful...
    Maybe you could write another article on how you deal with this. For instance, how do you deal with the Muslim view that Jesus didn't die on the cross? Or their view toward marriage or their belief in just war?
    ( I used to live in the Middle East for a while.)
    Or Buddhists some who think there is no ultimate truth?

    My wife thinks I'm too theological for my own bad;-)

    Daniel Wilcox

  4. Hi Anthony - this is a great post. I think things have changed among Friends. There are a number of Friends here, who are Peace supporters and work in various ways but we do not work as a group, or show ourselves as a group at the local peace vigil. The Meeting is supportive of those of us who are lead to witness for Peace. We are active in the interfaith group on the University, so we are known in the community. I remember as a child that in Denver the Friends always participated in an interfaith service at Thanksgiving. It was an important event to me. Keep on with this dialogue it is an important one.

    Vickie Aldrich