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It’s OK to Talk about Quakerism

Donald W. McCormick
On Normality (July 2022)
Healing the World

Sometimes we are reluctant to talk about our Quakerism with friends, neighbors, and co-workers. In my (so far unpublished) research on expressing Quaker spirituality in the workplace, I interviewed one person who said that when a co-worker found out he was a Quaker, he was stunned. “I worked next to you for five years and had no idea you were a Quaker.”

In Mark Read’s dissertation research on Quakers in the workplace, he reported one Friend telling him, “It feels harder saying I am Quaker to people than it does saying I’m gay.” Another told him that it was “like saying you’ve got two heads.”

Many of us feel anxious when it comes to talking about Quakerism. But it shouldn’t be any more difficult than talking about being a Girl Scout Leader, a person who loves to knit, a father, a union steward, or any other activity that makes up part of your identity.

Some of us worry that if we talk about the Quaker part of our life, we’re proselytizing. But that comes from confusing two very different things – mentioning something about Quakerism and trying to convince someone to become a Quaker. Simply talking about who you are with people is not proselytizing.

There are lots of ways to talk about our faith that don’t involve proselytizing, but many of us hide our Quakerism because we don’t know how to begin. Ironically, I discovered some non-proselytizing ways to talk about faith with others by reading Clayton Christensen’s book on proselytizing, The Power of Everyday Missionaries. One way is to simply mention in everyday conversation the Quaker-related things we do – just as we would any other activities. Here are some examples:

“Please excuse my yawning. I was one of the adults supervising a group of Quaker teens at our annual retreat and was up pretty late last night.”

“One of the things we do when things get tense at the Quaker meeting I attend is to ask for a moment of silence. How about if we try that in this meeting?”

“When I was participating in an anti-war demonstration with people from my Quaker meeting . . .”

Mentioning Quakerism or that you are a Quaker creates an opportunity for a conversation about Quakerism. Many people won’t be interested, but some might be. If someone tells you something like, “That’s interesting. I didn’t know that you’re a Quaker,” you have some choices about how to respond.

You might start by saying that yes, you are a Quaker, and then say something about what you find interesting or meaningful about Quakerism. But a better choice might be to say, “Yes, I am. I’m curious, though; why do you ask?” That way, you are less likely to wind up talking about things the other person doesn’t care about and are more likely to find out what interests them about Quakerism. You might find that they are interested in the mix of spirituality and activism in Quakerism or what a silent meeting is like.

Also, after talking a little about Quakerism, you might want to ask about their spiritual life. Then the conversation becomes more mutual. Many people want to talk about their spiritual lives with their friends, neighbors, and co-workers. And they want to learn about other people’s spiritual lives as well. Ian Mitroff and Elizabeth Denton’s study of spirituality in the workplace (1999) is some of the best research on this topic. One of the study’s conclusions is that “Most people wished ardently that they could express their spirituality in the workplace.” I often heard this sentiment expressed in a college course on Spirituality in the Workplace that I began teaching in the early 1990s and taught for nearly fifteen years. I found that many people find it very fulfilling to talk about their spiritual lives with their co-workers. Their mutual interest in learning about each other’s spiritual life leads to deeper connections between co-workers and an appreciation of the many different ways that people conceive of and express their spirituality through their work.

Talking about your life with others is something everyone does. We don’t need to avoid mentioning the part of our lives that is Quakerism. And sometimes doing that can lead to fulfilling, two-way conversations that deepen our relationships with others – at work, in our neighborhoods, and among friends.

Don McCormick trains mindfulness teachers. He is interested in the integration of mindfulness with Quakerism. (See: “Mindfulness and Quaker Worship,” Western Friend, Nov/Dec 2016.) He is a member of Grass Valley Friends Meeting (PacYM).

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