Why Being Told I Wasn’t a Quaker Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me

Yesterday my co-minister and partner in crime Maggie posted a blog entry entitled “YOU’RE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one)”

The post has provoked some great discussion and obviously real feelings from some of the (many) visitors to the post in the past 24 hours. As you might imagine, some of the reaction is indignance at the suggestion that one Quaker can judge another’s Quaker-y-ness. Didn’t we do away with all those elders and the practice of writing Friends out of Meetings?

Beyond pointing out the obvious (Maggie simply wrote a blog post about her opinion, she can’t kick you out of your Meeting, everybody stay calm), I thought it might be worth posting the story of:


Just kidding. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Listen in…

Being Cracked Open

In my Sophomore year at Guilford College, I was struggling with a feeling that I didn’t fit in and that I wasn’t happy with or fulfilled by the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. I brought my concern to the director of the program, a man who I respected deeply as a mentor. I suggested that perhaps I should get more involved in the program, perhaps become the clerk. Then i would feel more well-used and could also effect some cultural shifts instead of just complaining about the lack of coherent community in the program.

Instead of encouragement, I was surprised to find that my mentor (who genuinely liked me, by the way; I trusted him to be on my side) was not only not excited about the prospect of me as clerk, but began to question my involvement in the program itself.

At the root of his questioning was my relationship with Quakerism. He distinguished two categories of Quakerism: practicing Quakers and cultural Quakers. Those who are practicing Quakers have a personal relationship with God. Those who are cultural Quakers know the language, the codes of conduct, and all the outward forms of the religion but have not cultivated their own connection to the divine.

…and then he suggested that I was the latter.

Friends, I was floored.

No… I wasn’t floored, I was pissed.

Okay, I was floored AND pissed. This man just had the nerve to tell me… me, Jon Watts, Quaker extraordinaire, camp counselor at Shiloh Quaker Camp for four years, assistant clerk of Baltimore fuckin’ Yearly Meeting Young Friends, who has been a Quaker since the first day of my goddamned life – that I wasn’t a Quaker?!


He needs to get a new job, because that was pretty damn unQuakerly of him.

Not Knowing #1

I left Guilford the following year. It wasn’t until later that I put together the significance of this conversation with my mentor in my decision to leave, but I realized that I had gone to Guilford in large part seeking the same closeness that I had found in my friendships in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends Program, and now The Man In Charge was telling me that I wasn’t going to find it here and that he didn’t condone me cultivating it.

I distinctly remember him saying “Community is very important, Jon, but there is no ‘C’ in ‘QLSP'” (which in fact stands for Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, for those keeping score at home). Part of his analysis of cultural Quakers was that they had left God out of the picture and now worshipped community instead.

In the year that I spent away from Guilford, I don’t remember thinking about that conversation with my mentor once. I most certainly did not go on a ‘quest for God’, whatever that meant (my only context for that particular word, by the way, was crazy right-wing Christians and Monty Python movies).

Not Knowing #2

We live in a culture in which we possess knowledge. We want to corral the truth and contain it for ourselves so that we can say that we own it. Knowledge is a valuable commodity and we are rewarded for being a knower of knowledge. No one is rewarded for not knowing. So poorly judged is a not-knower that it behooves us to make up answers to questions that we don’t know the answers to rather than admit a not knowing (or maybe I’ve just been watching too many of the Republican primary debates).

Such is the environment in which the Truth has been so deliriously shrunk and contained and pinned down until it is just this… a tv ad, a political campaign, a slogan on a sign, a blog post. A collection of symbols that causes your brain to retrieve pre-memorized sounds that represent a one-dimensional concept. God.

But really, your computer screen is made up of a billion particles of stardust which is the stuff of your lungs, the stuff of water, the trees and aurora borealis. The sun is burning it. You drink water that was once drank and urinated by a brontosaurus. The universe is like this. Not some shrunken, disheveled elf on your doorstep knocking loudly until you answer. Not a big imaginary white guy in a cloud, playing us like that sim ants game from the 90’s.

That’s not God. None of that stuff is God. Or rather, it all is. God is the culmination of every. single. thing I just mentioned, including, also, this weird symbol that I just found on my keyboard: ß . Including, also, the word ‘exluding’. Including all the tubes and shit in my television that lit up to display that comic book Monty Python White Guy With a Beard in the Sky to me when I was a kid in a Snuggy, waiting for the pancakes to be done. (is that when I used to watch Monty Python? Hm, probably not I’ll get back to you)

Not Knowing #3

I went back to Guilford. I hadn’t had some big revelation. I didn’t suddenly have a personal relationship with God or even have any clue what that meant. Honestly I kind of just wanted to get my degree and move on. But here’s what had shifted:

I knew that I didn’t know.

All of my knowing that I was a Quaker – heck, all of my knowing what Quakerism was – was flattened by this one mentor-who-seemed-to-care-a-lot-about-me-yet-said-this-really-shitty-thing-that-pissed-me-off. So now I mostly only knew that maybe there were a lot of things about being a Quaker that I didn’t know yet. Like, maybe a whole lot of things. Like, maybe the most important things.

So curiosity got the best of me. I went on a life changing investigation of the early Friends that led me to the life changing experience of writing the album that would change my life. And it changed my life.

“A Few Songs Occasioned” combined all of my seemingly unrelated gifts into one. It launched me on a vocational journey that has been simultaneously heartbreaking and unbelievably miraculous, and most importantly, it baptized me.

It convinced me of Quakerism – a convincement I never would have sought out or welcomed if I had remained stuck in my idea that being born into Quakerism, clerking a committee and playing a lot of Wink was enough make me a Quaker, I guess.


“Birth-right” Friends… maybe you’re not a Quaker!
Once-a-year Gathering-ers… maybe you’re not a Quaker!
Seminarians… maybe you’re not a Quaker!
My-Grandfather-Knew-Rufus-Jones-ers… maybe you’re not a Quaker!!
I-clerked-such-and-such-high-fallutin-committee-ers… maybe you’re not a Quaker!!!!

(You can yell at me all you want in the comments, but ultimately it’s between you and God. I just wrote a blog post. Talk to God.)

And on a last note:


peace OUT!

28 thoughts on “Why Being Told I Wasn’t a Quaker Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”

  1. Three cheers for eye-opening a*******! Back in my young adult Friends organizing days I tried to bridge the gap between cultural Quakers who took their Quakerness for granted because they knew the rules to wink and the newly-convinced Friends like me who wore their Quakerism on their sleeve because we had read through Faith and Practice. Both camps were missing some essentials the other side possessed. I tried to figure out how to speak both languages, but most of my peers on either side didn’t care much. I think this is the #1 reason most of the Philly YAF community circa 1995 never took.

    FWIW, I’m not noticing enough mixing in the YAF circles these days though it looks like your ministry with Maggie is bringing interesting circles together.

  2. “Those who are practicing Quakers have a personal relationship with God”
    I do not have a personal relationship with God, because I do not conceive of the Universe in that way. Perhaps I’m not really a Quaker either. I do believ I am walking the Quaker path as best I can, however, so maybe someday I will actually become one. Meanwhile, I try to avoid getting hung up on labels (which is not easy, because our culture practically demands them).

    1. Hi Amy!

      Thanks for your response. I actually had a really similar response to my mentor regarding the language he used… I was so surprised to hear someone that I respected using language that I associate only with superstition and delusion!

      So I’m curious… what does it mean to you when someone uses the word “God”? What does it mean to you when you say that you don’t have a personal relationship with it?

  3. Thanks to Amy Brimmer as well as to Jon for these inspiring confessions.
    In a similar spirit, I offer all readers of this site two additional resources to try out for themselves, because these communications can Deepen and Clarify one’s experience of reality (both “transcendental” and “mundane” sides of reality)–
    (1) http://www.adyashanti.org/index.php?file=listenonline (you can ignore the quotations on that page; my suggestion is instead to skim down the list of topics and then listen to the one(s) that call(s) to you most strongly, by clicking on the “mp3” or “wma” in their particularly row(s).
    (2) http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Thomas+hubl&oq=Thomas+hubl&aq=f&aqi=g1&aql=1&gs_sm=s&gs_upl=58393l59775l0l64209l7l7l0l0l0l2l288l1514l0.3.4l7l0

    In the spirit of George Fox, William Penn, and Howard Brinton…
    Wishing you the best.

  4. Jon,
    Thanks for this. I found that your personal story made Maggie’s assertions feel more real, her call more attainable. I agree with both of you, and both of your posts have been on my mind since I read them.
    The topic of community is what has stuck in my mind. My faith community is very important to me, and its presence throughout my life has enabled me to feel supported throughout my spiritual struggles. Because I knew that I would be held by them, loved by them, and accepted by them, I was able to come to a place where I can now confidently say that I am a Quaker – I experience a personal relationship with the divine, and I aspire to be transformed everyday by that relationship.
    But. If someone had told me at 17 (when I really started struggling with this) that I wasn’t a Quaker, I’m not sure that I would have had the fortitude that you demonstrated. I might have cut and run. I appreciated the space that my faith community gave me to figure it out on my own time, through my own exploration.
    So my questions are these: Through having a explicit expectation of what it means to be Quaker, do we inhibit or encourage friends to meet their full potential as Friends? Can we at once challenge and hold members of our community as they struggle with this? What if someone simply isn’t ready to answer this call, do we wait with them?

  5. “Part of his analysis of cultural Quakers was that they had left God out of the picture and now worshipped community instead.”

    SO, SO True!

  6. I had my baptism of sorts in a sweat lodge at FGC 1995. I’ve never been the same since that moment. I look back on my writings over the years and my conversations… they all point back to that one moment when it was just me and God.
    But just the same, I think it is dangerous to say to someone who wasn’t there that, because of their absence from something that was pivotal to my awakening, that they have not found God.
    I know that is not what you’re saying Jon, but that’s the vibe I get from Maggie’s piece.
    I know so many folks who have not gone to meeting in years, but live more Quaker lives than I ever could. I also know of people who have done unspeakable things but remain in good stead with the Quaker community.
    In the end I think it has everything to do with following that of God within us, and being open to the leadings of others as they follow that of God within themselves.
    As we follow our leadings and walk with others who are following their own leadings we need to be mindful of casting doubts on the value of one person’s experience over another.
    I fear that some who have responded affirmatively to Maggie’s piece are being quick to judge others based only on the spiritual equivalent of a Facebook profile. We are each more than how we look, how we dress, how we carry ourselves, our consumer choices, our romantic partners. We are complex, we are each children of God. We are not perfect but that’s okay.

  7. Excellent piece. Your mentor at Guilford was speaking to your condition, something that we are generally too afraid to do in modern Quakerism. A dear departed Friend in my Meeting used to regularly wonder whether we were a faith in God community or a faith-in each-other community. The latter is comfortable but will not lead to pulling down the pillars of the world. I’d like to see Friends return to the original practice of holding threshing meetings for Friends and others who wish to attend to address how we feel about some of the central Quaker heresies, e.g. the call to perfection. The blessed silence might be covered more often if we were lovingly winnowed a bit more by each other.

  8. How wrong can I have been? I thought the dang problem was that people have been taking to much of themselves to the God stuff and not enough to the community stuff. Thanks for setting me straight.
    Meanwhile, I understand the plight of the widows and orphans is still worth a thought or two.
    But go on, God really needs to listen to your directions.

  9. Very interesting discussion, causes me to wonder about my own relationship to being Quaker. I love the community part, and the activism part, but often go my own way for the Godde part….and get impatient when Quakers act like those in other churches and start arguing about matters that seem about form, or structure, or even dogma. The wounds of being raised Catholic are still there for me, and it feels claustrophobic when that happens…I’m outta there!

  10. My opinion is that “God” and ” Jesus” are words people use to establish their superiority and to exempt their opinions from argument and logic testing. It sounds like that’s what your mentor was doing. Something triggered a dominance response (your youth, your confidence, your insulting the program, whatever). Because it wasn’t culturally acceptable to put his teeth around your throat, he insulted you, and invoked the “God” immunity clause.

  11. The spirit is moving among us. I have heard the same messages have been lifted up recently in FGC committees, and at my local monthly meeting. I am so happy to read this. It fills me with hope that we can come together in spirit and light and engage in the spiritual work to revitalize the Religious Society of Friends. But only if we do it lovingly.

  12. What I like most is the way you describe your mentor. Even though you were upset, I appreciate that your dedication to LOVE kept you from expressing malice in your description. I will send this article to our youth group!

  13. Thankyou Jon for reminding us its not about inheritance but becoming and Thankyou Amy Brimmer for ‘I do not have a personal relationship with God, because I do not conceive of the Universe in that way. Perhaps I’m not really a Quaker either’.
    By building on our experience rather than scripture, custom and practice we walk an exhilarating Quaker path into the future, not clinging to the wreckage of the known world.

  14. “Part of his analysis of cultural Quakers was that they had left God out of the picture and now worshiped community instead.”

    I’m so glad you have shared this, Jon! Both yours and Maggie’s pieces are raw, wise and needed. Remember when you came to stay a week with us? After living in “the community” and being a “Professional Quaker” I was so exhausted from the demands of the culture that all I could do was rest and hope for refreshment. I was shocked to discover that my connection to God was frayed and tattered, and that my prayer life was broken. This was not a life of faith! Where was God? We finally had to leave and return to a place where we could regroup and find our way. Well, guess what! I returned to Plain Dress, bought a new study Bible, attended a church down the road and started talking to God and Jesus in a whole new way. Yes, I was getting naked! But somehow, not only did I become a Christian (something I never thought I was) but also strengthened that inner Quaker too. And – I almost don’t believe this – I’m going to be really baptized! So here’s to the experiences that open and connect us.

  15. Jon, Even birthright Quakers have to become convinced – and it sounded like you had to discover that camp does not = convincement. Neither does going to Guilford or being part of the QLSP program. Most young Friends enter Quakerism through the door of Quaker camp or Young Friends and it all feels really groovy, but you are still riding on the coattails of someone else’s convincement. Perhaps the most important thing that George Fox said was that each of us has to EXPERIENCE God personally, not by word of mouth. That’s a very big experience and it takes a while for people to understand what that really means. It’s possible to be so a part of the Quaker scene that you don’t realize you have missed real convincement. It’s even possible to go through your whole life in this not-yet-convinced-but-still-pretty-comfortable state. Convincement is not about being comfortable and being part of a group or feeling good about ourselves. It’s about earthshaking, total transformation. Hallejulah!

  16. Wow I loved this! Baptism is so important but I think water is a needless sign. Aurelius boberick a catholic monk is trying to get post convince ment baptism into his community too.

    good eldering, good response to eldering, good nakeding to explain.
    Thank you so much.

    I, m not likely related to Patricia barber by the way.

  17. Your faculty mentor at Guilford had every right to decide you were not the right kind of Quaker to clerk QLSP since Guilford is sponsored by FUM (Richmond Declaration type) churches and meetings, and his perspective is understandable, considering his background and employer. I believe he overstepped in saying that you were NOT a Quaker, since you were not his kind of Quaker and did not fulfill his theological criteria.

    You rather flippantly tell readers to relax, because Maggie can’t turn them out of their meetings, but sadly, if this philosophy of theological exclusion spreads, ultimately, good people, sincere seekers, will be excluded from FGC Meetings both formally, and simply because they have ceased to be a welcoming place for universalist and other non-Christian Quakers.

    I suspect young FGC Friends are unwittingly succumbing to the most vitriolic prejudice in America and cloaking that prejudice in pious talk. There are examples of seasoned Friends all along the spectrum of Friends, from evangelical, to programmed, to liberal, universalist, to overtly agnostic, and I suspect that these Friends can work together for common cause and relate to one another more easily than we might imagine, sensing what unites them, beneath the semantic differences. Unfortunately, truly seasoned Friends are rare, through out the Quaker spectrum.

    I value being a part of a diverse, liberal Friends meeting and think that it is an important laboratory for practicing the peace testimony. If there is a personal God, perhaps it is presumptive to presume that only those who engage in “God talk” have a meaningful role to play as members, and to assume that there is not value in Meetings serving as a place of healing and genuine theological inclusion? As a now deceased, but very seasoned, Friend once said to me, “Every Quaker Meeting needs at least one good atheist to keep them honest”–She was a devout sort of theistic Friend…one who I would suspect might share my concerns in reading these well intentioned blogs.

  18. I don’t know what Wink is either. Sometimes one just needs to go as the Spirit leads. A useful question (at least I have found it so)is: How does the proposed course of action make things better for the least of these? I’m not certain labels are either necessary or helpful. Just my 2c.

  19. My hope is that Quakers are mystics within the western tradition, but sadly many Quakers are hardly mystics at all. How many modern Quakers are ‘enlightened’? How many of the original Quakers were ‘enlightened’? My hunch is that fewer modern Quakers are enlightened than early Quakers. Why is this? Perhaps ‘community’ and ‘right ordering’ have become sufficient in themselves for some Quakers – spiritually a low bar. I do hope that Quakers can be a home for modern mystics who don’t want to be Buddhists or Sufis or Yogis, and I wonder if that is a realistic hope. Perhaps it all depends on ‘awakened’ Quakers standing up and insisting on the primacy of spirituality over community.

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