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On Membership and Being in the Light

Sharon-Drew Morgen
On Freedom (January 2022)
Inward Light

On December 14, 2018, I walked into the Multnomah Friends Meetinghouse for the first time. I felt enveloped in a circle of Light, at one with it and with everyone in the room. I had been searching, longing for this my entire life. I was Home.

As someone with Asperger’s, crowds – anything more than two people is a crowd! – terrify me. Over the years, and by necessity, I’ve learned the rules to conventional discourse; I’ve spent years practicing normal social behavior and now show up (mostly) like a neurotypical (NT). Indeed, when I told one new Quaker friend I had Asperger’s, she said, “I thought you were NT.” “Stick around,” I replied.

As a child of violence and abuse, feeling safe is not automatic for me. But that first day, in the Light, I felt safe. And from that first moment I’ve been a Quaker. I discarded my uneasy Buddhist mantle and put the Light softly around my shoulders where it fit just right.

I then did something I’d never done before: I began the work of becoming one with the community. I tried every group to feel where I fit, even going to the singing group one night. (My singing voice is so bad I used it as a punishment for my young son.) I taught teens and adults at a Quarterly Meeting. I took care of kids monthly at Parents Night Out. I joined the book club and led discussions. I cooked for Thanksgiving, where I had a real family to share Thanks with. I held a Black Lives Matter sign every Sunday with other Quakers. And when I was ill, the community held me in the Light, and Friends, all improbably named Jeanne Marie, brought food to the hospital.

As part of Multnomah Friends, I was peripherally aware of a minority of people who seemed to run everything, made especially clear when one of the committee leaders told me that he was impressed with the level of responsibility I take on even though I am “merely an attender rather than a member.” What did that mean?

In my thinking, “membership” implies there’s some sort of organization with formal rules that confer acceptance and rejection, which an applicant is judged against – a classist concept that has no place in a group that seeks the Light for all.

I’ve been a member of several clubs and organizations during my life, but I’m not familiar with a religion imposing “membership” to belong or be “accepted.” I had the blessing of caring for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for three hours during a Buddhist ceremony and wasn’t asked if I were a “member.” I even spent a week taking Bodhisattva vows without needing to “apply” for “membership” into the Buddhist faith.

Mystifying. And what does “membership” mean when it comes to being a Quaker in the year 2021? And does being in the Light require membership? I thought the only qualification for being a Quaker was the willingness to show up and do my part to make it possible for anyone seeking the Light to find it.

I decided to find out what this “membership” thing meant. I asked our Care and Counsel Committee and was told to write an essay on my desire to be a Quaker (But I AM a Quaker!) and then I would be interviewed. (Um . . . To chat a bit about our interpretations of the Light?) Then, as I remember it (feeling so outside my comfort zone my memory might be wrong), my name would be passed on to another committee for further review (?), and a recommendation would be made to the Meeting for Business (According to what criteria? Because I’m “suitable”?), where I would be accepted as a “member” after a month of seasoning.

Wait, what? There’s apparently some unknown hierarchy of rules against which I’m going to be judged. And I’m not a Quaker (only an attender!) until I get “accepted”? But I’ve already been “accepted! I live in the Light daily! God already put her arms around me! Surely it can’t be true that I’m not really in the Light because I’m not a “member.”

I had assumed Quaker practice involved love and the God in us all, so I’m confused: how did judgment, classism, approval, and human-made rules get involved? I understand there was a compelling reason for membership decades, even centuries, ago. But isn’t it time we put this relic behind us?

I looked up Quakerism on Google. It said we were “united by a belief in the ability of each human being to experience and access the Light within or see ‘that of God in everyone.’”

Seems to me this set of seemingly unwritten (and somehow accepted) rules and policies go against what we believe in, what we fight for. I think it’s alienating and a human-made artifact of something else – certainly not the intention of Quakerism today.

And why do so many otherwise kind people buy into this process? One Friend says membership feels to him like “like a marriage, a covenant, a commitment.” Can he not have those feelings about the Quaker faith without calling himself a “member”? I certainly do.

What about the folks being alienated? As I reached out to discuss my ideas with other Friends, I found many who were annoyed by this same issue. One says she’s “Quaker adjacent” because she’s not gone through the “membership” process and can’t call herself a Quaker; one found the “membership” process intimidating and wouldn’t abide; one said that although she’s been attending meetings for many years, she “isn’t really a Quaker” because she hasn’t “applied for membership” but feels, inside, as if she is one.

This membership process seems to alienate people who choose not to follow these artificial, unspoken rules. It doesn’t trust that whoever shows up is here because they’re drawn to the Light – the same Light within us all.

I am a Quaker. I am in the Light. I am a responsible, giving, active, loving member of the Multnomah Friends community. Being in the Light has no adjudication; it’s the only value I will ever judge myself against. I humbly ask that Friends consider getting rid of this antiquated, classist membership nonsense. We’re above it.  ~~~

Sharon-Drew Morgen is an original thinker, author of nine books, and inventor of systemic brain change models that put spirit into business. She has trained her models in many Fortune 500 companies globally. Sharon-Drew is currently working on a new book, The HOW of Change. She lives on a floating home in North Portland.

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