I began exploring my spiritual path through Buddhist meditation in my early twenties. Since that time, I have attended five weeklong, silent, Buddhist retreats. These were pivotal to my spiritual growth and developing self-awareness. My last one was in December, and I realized two things. First, to be in silence is a practice that gives me the space and grounding I need to seek authentic wholeness and to strive to align my life with a higher purpose. Second, I realized that because I knew no one at these silent retreats, I was essentially surrounded by strangers, and I left with unsettling feelings of emptiness. In the last decade, I have grown to love the continuous community of Quakers. Recently, I have been feeling more guided to keep my spirituality contained within Quakerism, as it is my home.
When I first went to graduate school, I attended my first monthly meeting, and a few months later, I attended my first Quaker yearly meeting. That was when I finally found my people. That was where I discovered I was a Quaker, discovered that I always had been a Quaker, even before I knew they existed. Becoming a convinced Friend was more of an affirmation than a convincement for me.
I became active in wider Quaker circles, learning about Quaker community and searching for other young adults. One organization I have focused on is the Friends Committee on National Legislation. That involvement has been pivotal to my spiritual growth. I am constantly inspired by, sustained by, and even in awe of some of the most beautiful souls I have ever met, these Friends who work with FCNL, these people who have dedicated their lives to the causes of social justice and peace.
So over the past seven years, I had been going ever more deeply inward with Friends, and I have been actively discerning my purpose in life. Quakers have helped me integrate those two practices, and have pushed me to prioritize social justice and peace concerns. Quakers have given me the financial and spiritual support I needed to travel to large Quaker gatherings. Last year, I worked with Youth Spirit Artworks, an organization that supports low-income and homeless youth; this project was sponsored through a Quaker leader fellowship, and local Friends housed me and offered me spiritual support. Today, I am part of a monthly meeting where I am beginning to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of being a part of something bigger. This year, we formed a civic action group and have been holding public meetings for worship, focused on causes that concern us.
However, even though I feel very much “at home” with Friends – or maybe because of it – I also feel continually irritated, annoyed, and hurt by them. I often feel socially awkward when entering new communities. Each time I enter a new Quaker gathering, I feel like I do not belong. In my own monthly meeting, someone is always doing something wrong – they don’t show up in the way I want them to be or need them to be, or they are being too judgmental. (Yes, I see the double standard.)
Also, I have been challenging myself personally for many years to examine the ways that my own attitudes and actions are linked to classism, racism, and sexism; and I am trying to see the ways that I remain ignorant of my own privilege. Partly because of this personal work, I become infuriated when I notice Quaker attitudes or behaviors that reinforce inequalities linked to wealth, race, and gender; and I feel infuriated by Quakers who remain ignorant of their own privilege. Such attitudes and behaviors break down the safe and inclusive spaces that we are attempting to build.
My own experiences of being “the other” in Quaker spaces are generally linked to misogyny, age, and income. I frequently find myself talking with older (mostly white) men who seem to love talking about themselves, who seem to view me as an empty vessel. That I might be an intelligent young woman with a life full of experiences seems to be a concept outside their grasp or comfort zone. However, actually coming out and saying that hasn’t seemed very Quakerly to me (or maybe too Quakerly), so I just smile and ask more questions about these men’s lives. Which they are happy to answer.
Income inequality is another area of “otherness” for many young adult Friends – a big one. My generation has little hope of ever being able to buy our own homes, especially in California, unless we become hugely successful capitalists or we inherit wealth. The income disparity between older Friends and young adult Friends (YAFs) leads to other inequalities. Quaker programs are becoming more expensive to attend, and there seem to be few actions taken to ensure equality in terms of attendance. Quaker committee meetings are too often scheduled during regular workday hours; but retired or self-employed Friends don’t see that obstacle either. While Quakers have helped me personally to overcome financial obstacles, the fact remains that financial obstacles limit the participation of most YAFs in Quaker community, and this concern is only increasing.
Bringing these issues up, repeatedly, is tiresome. But it is from my love for Quaker community that I do so.
The fertile, leading edge of my own spiritual growth now seems to involve developing an ability to reconcile myself to the problems I find in Quaker community and then challenging those problems in ways that might stimulate positive change. I am learning to recognize problems as they arise (not only in hindsight), name those problems, acknowledge the rage that arises in me without being driven by it, and determine a safe course of action in response. I am learning to determine whether it is safe to speak – whether someone is present to connect with me and hear me – and whether I actually feel able to follow through at that moment.
I am actively trying to remember my own latent classism, racism, and misogyny when I encounter those failings in others. I am trying to use my own failings as a source of compassion for others.
The Religious Society of Friends will look significantly different in the next fifty years. We need to do more now to welcome and include the people we currently scare away or leave out. We need to do more to heal the rifts among different branches of Friends. We need to remove financial obstacles to entry.
In recent years, one of my main spiritual grounding rods has been the Western Young Friends’ New Years Gathering. We play, worship, cook, and sing together. I love the deep friendships I have made there. For the upcoming gathering, my fiancé will be a food coordinator and I will be a co-coordinator for the overall program.
YAFs are having discussions about cultivating a sense of responsibility among young Friends. Despite the deep closeness we feel together, not too many people volunteer to do the dishes. I wonder if some sense of responsibility is missing, or maybe it is just something that I have felt missing in me. It’s something I want to cultivate, so the Religious Society of Friends, which I care about, does not disappear.
Overall, in a home, there are intimate relationships. When we love something, we recognize the dark as well as the light. Quakers are my home, and they are not in any way perfect. At times I feel loved and accepted, and at others, I feel pushed away and unseen. I want to help develop a Quaker community that is open to people of different economic means. I plan to continue working with FCNL, helping to create public policy to push towards more equity and peace in the world. I have a lot of love for this community, and I hope that we all may grow together. ~~~
Julia Thompson teaches engineering students at San Jose State University to direct their skills towards community development projects. She serves on the General Committee of FCNL, is a member of Lafayette Friends Meeting (OVYM), and attends Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM).