Friday, September 23, 2011

A Quaker Sunday in a 'Year of Sundays'

Amanda Westmont and Joel Gunz are local, self-avowed secular, religious reporters who write an entertaining, irreverent blog titled “Year of Sundays.”

Their catchy motto is “We go to church so you don’t have to.”

And so they have gone — to a wide variety of congregations.

Eventually, the time would come for the couple and their children to visit our Quaker Meetinghouse on Stark Street. I’ve been looking forward to meeting them and learning what they might have to say about Multnomah Friends.

On August 7, they arrived at our door.

By chance, I welcomed them after they introduced themselves as the authors of "Year of Sundays.” A couple of us complimented them on their blog and its wry perspective.

I hoped they would find Quakers as intriguing and challenging as I do, even after nearly 50 years of attending “unprogrammed meetings.”

In lay terms, “unprogrammed” means we worship largely in silence and have no pastor or minister. There is not a “programmed” order of service. Much more can be found about unprogrammed Quakers HERE.

So what would these two affable, skeptical, secularists have to say about us after their visit? In mid-September, we found out.

Joel’s name appears on the post but my guess is that his impressions reflect Amanda’s as well.

I anticipated a review that might actually reflect the vitality of our meeting. For a congregation that avoids any kind of proselytizing, we are seeing astonishing growth, particularly among young people. The obvious journalistic question is “Why?”

But to ask the question, you’d have to be familiar with the history of the meeting, or at least ask, “What’s with your congregation these days?”

But Joel never asked.

In journalistic parlance, he “missed the story.”

In fairness to him and Amanda, it was understandable. Their purpose was to report on THEIR experience during a two-hour visit. The first hour was for silent worship (punctuated by spoken ministry); the second hour was for socializing.

What they detected, and reported on, was an unquestioning, even stifling, uniformity of liberal political correctness.

End of story.

I’ve seen this happen before. People seem to want to dismiss Quakers by putting them in some familiar bag. Unfortunately, we provide them with outward signs that help their cause.

I think the stereotyping also comes from the fact that, inwardly, we are scary. Quakers call on those who worship with us in silence to look within themselves. Oh-oh. You actually have to plumb unplumbed depths. You can either do it, or at least try to do it, or you can run from it.

That’s what Joel, using his glib prose, did. We Quakers simply became grist for the “Year of Sundays” mill.

What did I expect? What did I learn from Joel and Amanda’s visit?

I expected that they would see how unique we are. That we are “radically inclusive” — we are devout Christians, devout atheists and, yes, devout skeptical, pen-wielding secularists.

Rather than being unquestioning, as Joel portrayed us, our spiritual seeking is manifestly driven by questions. We call them “queries.” Each month we post one on two walls of the large, sky-lit room where we worship. Did Joel and Amanda notice? Examples: “How do we exercise our respect for the balance of nature?” and “Do we center our lives in the awareness of the presence of God so that all things take their rightful place?” and “Do we keep to a single standard of truth so that we are free from the use of judicial and other oaths?”

Three centuries ago in England, Quakers were considered a “Dangerous People.” Many Friends share the belief that, in today’s wayward society, we still must be a “Dangerous People” — “dangerous” to injustice, inequality, deceit, consumerism and the destruction of the planet.

At the very least, to folks like Joel and Amanda, we should seem, if not “dangerous,” curiously, strikingly challenging.

Apparently not.

If Joel is right and we are simply predictably liberal and politically correct, we have failed to be true to our tradition and our callings.

Clearly in the case of Joel and Amanda, we failed to convey who we are and what it means to be a Quaker.

We have work to do.

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Anonymous Peter J. DeCrescenzo said...

Hi Rick,

You're being much too hard on yourself.

I read Joel's blog post about his visit to your place of worship. He comes across as a complete wanker -- smug and self-centered. I have no interest in ever reading another word of his writing.

Be happy and carry on. Cheers.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Sam Barnett-Cormack said...

Having spoken in defence of Friends at Year of Sundays, I'm going to speak in support of their conclusion (applied to my own experiences) here. Balance in all things, as it were.

I can't speak regarding their precise experiences, and I can't speak about your Meeting. However, I know in my own experience that there are certain conformities within our communities that can lead to resentment towards those who disagree, or even those who fail to agree sufficiently. I wouldn't say it leads to exclusion, but it does cause... discomfort. My own personal experience of this has been an enthusiasm towards environmental concerns, sometimes to the exclusion of other, possibly more immediate, concerns of individual Friends. I've also not had much joy encouraging the community in question to recognise that this might be a problem, never mind consider addressing it. However, by and large we are quite good, as a community, at recognising our faults and addressing them.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a long-time Unitarian Universalist who grew up liberal Baptist and might have ended up Quaker if there were any more Friends meetings than UU churches, I sympathize with the thought of being merely liberal and politically correct - it happens way too often in UU congregations.

But why take any view seriously from someone who, in the one other post I looked at, asked
"Which member of the Holy Trinity do I have to blow to get that white couch?"

A Year of Sundays is obviously using all religion to be snarky, not to be thoughtful about spirituality.

You may have work to do, but not because they didn't see what you were about - they weren't looking. Now, if you thought you were so good that even snarkers would be won over...

3:42 PM  

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