March 23, 2023

The Quaker corporate community and technology

When I began serving on a large Quaker meeting's Ministry & Counsel Committee (M&C)--the meeting had three Meetings for Worship (MfW) a week--I had an inward sense that it was important to at least visit each of the other two that I had never participated in previously. After all, the committee served the whole meeting and not just the Friends who attended the largest worship. In addition, it seemed odd to me that occasionally during Meetings for Worship for Business, some Friends would speak about what occurred at "the 8:30 worship," at the "midweek worship", or at "the 11:00 worship." Each subgroup of Friends seemed to be experiencing something different, despite being all part of the larger Meeting.

Granted, I had enough flexibility in my life to attend more than one MfW a week, and my visits to the "other" meetings helped me know experientially what it meant to be part of one body. My life, committee service, worship, and f/Friendships were enriched unexpectedly, because of all the additional Friends known to me back then who were actively seeking Truth and striving to be faithful to the Guide. They simply did so at different times on First Day and during the week. Had I stayed only at the worship where I was most comfortable and what was most convenient to me individually, I would never have appreciated the other parts of the body that were just as indispensable as the one I had been attending.


I raise this story because recently I read several articles and comments within the March 2023 online edition of Friends Journal, focused on the impact of the first 2-3 years of the Covid-19 pandemic. There were expressions of deep loneliness and of gratitude, seemingly caused by the technology that arose out of a need to "keep our meetings" and to stay connected to our social networks when so much else around us was on short- or long-term lockdown. For some of us, the screens brought greater emotional distance; for others of us, they brought us together in unexpected ways.

Many of the writings seem to propose one of two paths forward as the Covid-19 pandemic evolves to becoming endemic, each of the two main proposals being on opposite sides of the coin:

    Continuing to use video conferencing technology* helps us, therefore continue the use of online and hybrid meetings


    Continuing to use video conferencing hurts us, therefore discontinue hybrid meetings and restore only in-person meetings.
What we lose sight of, though, in the debates of hybrid worship vs in-person only; to mask or not to mask is that we are still part of one larger body, regardless. It is a form of spiritual violence to hold disdain toward someone who yearns to belong and to be in deep community with others and then to press them to conform, change, or go away. It is a form of spiritual generosity, on the other hand, to express care for someone who yearns to belong and then welcome them into deep community with us. This is one part of acting as if we truly are indispensable to one another:

As a corporate body, gathered by the Shepherd,
    we have to become willing

    to be willing

    to change the culture of our worship community

    in order to be wholely inclusive.

But more directly as a result of this particular issue of Friends Journal, I found myself wondering about how earlier technology may have impacted the peculiar people called Friends; and how did Friends stay in community... or did they? I draw on these questions because one principle of Quakerism is that there is Truth based on direct experience, as well as Truth written into sacred texts. Is there something that we can learn and test from other eras of Quakerism?


My thoughts quickly turn to the printing press, which made the Bible more widely available to many in Europe, especially to those in the middle class; and Quakers began publishing their thoughts as tracts and pamphlets. In the back of my mind, though, I wondered about illiterate Friends and seekers who might have been attracted to the faith:

If ministry and testimony weren't accessible by the written or printed word, wouldn't worshipers and traveling ministers rely more heavily on recounting what they knew from their own direct experience of the Divine, in addition to what they remembered having heard? Did those early Quakers have conflict about whether the printed word -- being able to read and write -- was supremely valuable in helping Friends feel "nearer to Thee"? Further, did wealthier, better educated Friends like George Fox and Margaret Fell extend any sort of welcome intentionally to illiterate seekers?

It's a wonder I've had for a while. I'm not a historian, so these questions just float in my brain as I seek to connect the dots and learn from the past. And of course I count on other Friends whose gifts and knowledge include sharing Quaker history and related tidbits.


I want to stop and also consider the automobile and its impact on Quakers. I imagine that having mobility among at least some of its members--those who could afford a car as well as its maintenance--may have changed the nature of the worship community. Wouldn't access to a car mean access and opportunity to attend meetings a bit farther than a few hours walk or buggy ride? Did cars begin to fracture meetings as a result? Or did meetings expand because more Friends were able to participate on First Days and even visit among one another during the week?

Did increased convenience interfere with or aid in preparing heart and mind for worship? Did cars intrude on an individual's or household's sense of simplicity, given the need for maintenance and gasoline? For my rural midwestern yearly meeting in the U.S., I imagine that families had much discussion, discernment, and tension around whether to support growing children who might wish to leave the farm for higher education or for better work opportunities, now that they could with relative ease.


I had a dear older Quaker friend who had been asked to co-clerk a large committee in the late 1990s for a North American Quaker organization. She cautiously accepted, making it clear that she had no intention of communicating by email for committee work, despite how convenient and widespread email had become by then. Apparently there was much frustration expressed by others on the committee and by some personnel on staff, but my friend held her ground. The committee got its work done very effectively, as far as I know, with thanks to phone calls, letters, and the occasional face-to-face meeting.

My friend's experience became a lesson for me on how to stay connected, especially when serving our meetings, when not everyone has the same access to or comfort with the technology that is available. I've clerked a handful of committees for my yearly meeting and monthly meeting, as well as other ad hoc groups, being mindful of when a Friend is dyslexic, can't afford a computer, or is neurodivergent. It remains important to me to demonstrate "equal concern for one another," and so I spend a few extra minutes in preparing for a committee meeting with a variety of accessibility needs, like making calls ahead of time in addition to sending emails.

I'm also thinking about vocal ministry that has arisen in my rural yearly meeting, and ministry that I have been witness to from Friends who were raised on farms or who have done manual labor. Some of those messages have centered on metaphors of farming or of the trades, like the importance of measuring a piece of wood based on an initial "master" piece, in order to make other pieces the same length--and needing to go back to the orginal piece, the master piece, from time to time instead of relying on the secondary pieces... being certain we are listening for the Truth and not for some substitute of it.

My yearly meeting's culture is such that these messages ground us in some ways that more abstract messages cannot. And yet, I more often hear messages that allude to the value of college degrees or white collar work, or how our intention of being welcoming or inclusive comes across as being paternalistic rather than out of a reciprocal relationship. I struggle to put my finger on what doesn't sit well with me...

My yearly meeting's culture includes some oral history and personal experiences of how Friends have dreaded the idea of not being in unity when the tension at a Meeting for Worship for Business is terribly thick and palpable. ("dread" is the word I am using). The struggle to keep all of us in the Fold despite different beliefs and differing values seems to touch all of us eventually. And that includes moments when we ourselves may feel that we do belong, as well as moments when we may feel that we don't.


Although I am not steeped in Scripture, and I don't identify as a Christian Quaker, I have known experimentally the discipline required to live into what Corinthians 12:22-26 requires of us:

    ...those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.

    But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

    If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.


*My yearly meeting has a practice that we not name specific corporations, businesses, or brands, lest Friends be misunderstood as somehow supporting a particular company.

March 11, 2023

Witness & Testimony on Gender Expression

Content warning: This post has references to hate, genocide, the Holocaust, queerphobia, and LGBTQ+ issues.

No links are included to news reports nor to other online items that amplify hate and trauma.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

These days, creating legislation that calls for the suppression or repression of behaviors that don't conform to a person's perceived gender, and calls for the complete eradication of trans people seem to be current ways for some hurt, fearful people in power to be seen as being among the cool kids on the block. Being anti-trans and making threats or bullying anyone who appears to be crossing what used to be considered "normal" gender boundaries is quickly taking hold across the United States.

To say that it's frightening or unsettling would be a severe understatement. This soon-to-be legalized way of oppressing an entire group of people based on who we are and how we show up in the world is dangerous.

Globally, we've been here before--think The Final Solution in Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe; the calls for removing the "savage" indigenous people in Turtle Island; the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda; and modern-day Uganda, where there are ongoing open calls for death to anyone who is gay or lesbian.

In the U.S., when I was an adolescent in the 1970s, homophobic language was about as ever-present and blatant as today, but without the viral nature of social media. Nevertheless, the homophobic language and explicit fears in mainstream America were frequent enough and widespread enough that they reached me, and I questioned and doubted myself in my own uncertainty:

Was I a lesbian? How would I know? Would that mean I had a mental illness? If I were mentally ill, what would happen to me?

As a result of today's increasingly hateful, psychologically harmful, and dangerously inciteful rhetoric, memories of my own self expression as a child, a pre-teen, an adolescent, and a young adult seep into my consciousness. I feel a nudge to bear witness because if anyone comes for my transgender friends--some of whom have lived with me--then they also are coming for me.


Query: Did you ever have a time in your life when you wanted to dress and act the way you wanted, even if it was different from how you were raised or from how your peers were dressing and acting? What was that like for you?

I have a twin brother and a brother two years older than us. Growing up, I knew my body was different from my brothers'; I remember thinking at times how I wanted to be like them. I didn't have words for it back then, but it was more an inward response to the restrictions that I saw my mother and her mother living into: they were the cooks, the cleaners, the homemakers, the stay-at-homebodies. And they didn't express a lot of care for each other, either, just misery and bitterness for the life they weren't living, or so it seemed to me as a child. Why would I want to aspire to that life for myself as a woman?

Growing up with two brothers meant I was exposed to a lot of things that boys typically got to do: play outdoors, be loud, aggressively smash Lego bricks against each other, do some home-based science experiments, go to ballgames with Dad. Thankfully, I was frequently encouraged to "go play with the boys." It was one way my mother could grab some peace and quiet after schooldays and on weekends...

...except when my grandmother, Grandma G, came to visit.

She didn't seem to like how much time I was spending outside, learning baseball, football, and frisbee. She didn't seem to like how many pairs of pants I had and how few dresses, and she let me know it. I still remember the bright afternoon when she and my mother stood at the back door overlooking the backyard where we kids were playing--I must have been about 10--and my grandmother called out, "Liz, come inside and put on a dress!" My heart broke. I don't remember if my mom intervened or if I acquiesced or if I stayed put. I don't know if my brothers heard my grandmother--how could they not?!--or what they made of that command.

Come inside and put on a dress!

My grandmother was a force. She had other commandments, more often expressed as loaded questions:

Why don't you put on makeup? You'd look so much prettier.
Why don't you put your hair up?
Why can't you wear a skirt or a dress more often?

But my grandmother was also generous and often took me shopping -- for clothes. I must have gone with at least one of my brothers each time, because she never steered us into the girls' section; we spent a lot of time in the boys' section (back when the gender binary was on full display). I gravitated toward shirts with broad stripes and durable fabric. Nothing frilly or pink or tailored. Surprisingly, after just a single "Don't you want to look at dresses...?," my grandmother would just let me be and paid for the "boys clothes" I had picked out. To my mom's credit, she never criticized me and never made my grandmother take the clothes back. I was reasonably comfortable; I was me as best as I could be back then.

I was a girl-child who liked playing sports with boys and liked wearing comfortable boy clothes. And in my specific case, I also knew inwardly that I was a girl, not a boy. In school and at home, the word "tomboy" was tossed in my direction, and I never minded. But I want to make this point clear right now:

In my own life, I always intuitively understood that I was a girl; I was female. That congruence was and still is right for me.

Much later on, during my coming out process in my 30s as a bisexual woman, I knew experimentally that who I was wasn't a choice I made; it was a matter of wholeness that I affirmed. Similarly, now as a 60-year-old woman looking back at my childhood experiences, I understand that back then, I was seeking my own form of gender expression, an outward expression of my inward self, through what I wore, what activities I participated in, what norms I valued. And I understand experimentally that being transgender -- or cisgender -- isn't a choice. It's simply about being who and how we each are in our respective wholeness.


Query: In what ways is your sense of wholeness, physical well being, and mental wellness affirmed and cared for? What services, relationships, and activities do you regulary participate in that affirm who you are and how you live?

I want to point out that all my life, I have been receiving gender affirming care. I've had ob-gyn appointments. I've purchased and been given supplies to deal with my monthly cycles. I've had mammograms and related imaging done. I've had a hysterectomy for my own health and general well being. I've had haircuts to my liking and rebuffed efforts to get me to buy and use hair product. I get pedicures; I look for ways to address my facial hair as I age. I wear clothes that make feel comfortable in my body. I cut my nails how I like them and occasionally wear nail polish on my toenails.

All of this is care for myself that affirms how I view myself along the gender spectrum.

To me, the idea of disallowing gender affirming care is repugnant. Why does one group of people believe they can decide what is right or acceptable for another group of people? Colonization, patriarchy, apartheid, white supremacy, misogyny... these are all parts of the dynamic of oppression and


I share all this because our personal experiences matter. Sharing our stories of who we are help us demystify and humanize the strangers that we don't know yet: our queer neighbors, our gay or lesbian family members, our transgender friends and fellow worshipers.


Query: Do you know anyone who didn't feel they could be their whole authentic self? Do you know how they felt at the time, or what they thought of themselves?

Testimony is about both how we carry ourself--our "carriage" and letting our life speak--and about the words we use; there should be a consistency between both. Quakers live into the Truth as a way to be a pattern, an example of faithfulness. Living out the wholeness of who we are, what we believe, and whatever our Given measure of Light is a form of embodied preaching that testifies to the Truth of the Divine Principle. George Fox provides a definition of testimony that resonates with me:

    Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them...

That is why I share my own experience of how I transgressed--crossed over a line regarding certain gender norms around dress and behaviors as a young person and how I continue to do so as a 60-something aging Friend.

To be clear, I don't actively push against conforming to gendered dress codes or heteronormative roles for the sake of being rebellious or anti-establishment or counter-cultural. I dress as I do and act as I do and pursue justice as I do because it is my expression of wholeness as I know it. When I am in my wholeness, I am happiest. I am able to walk cheerfully over the earth.


My journey to accept myself as I am--my gender as an athletic, boyish girl/woman in a patriarchal society--was more straightforward than my journey to accept my fellow worshipers, neighbors, and friends as transgender. Being trans used to be as unfamiliar a concept to me as a girl wearing pants and boys' tops was to my grandmother. She couldn't wrap her mind or heart around it at first, but she still saw me as her grandchild. She went on loving me as best she could over the years and eventually stopped criticizing me for who and how I was in the world.

This is how I have come to welcome and love my transgender kin. It's the only way I know to grow, weave together, and strengthen the Beloved Community, by getting to know each other by spending time together. Sometimes it requires intentional changes in my own behaviors, like choosing to be more welcoming outwardly in my day to day life. Sometimes it means I have to educate myself about concepts I wasn't aware of before. Other times, it is by Divine Assistance as I feel my way into an openness and acceptance I hadn't known before-a wordless and mystical exercise between my heart and the Inward Teacher that changes me for the better, opening myself to know a greater slice of humanity I didn't understand or acknowledge before.

Building meaningful relationships with people who are different from ourselves helps us demystify the ways of strangers, and our hearts widen so we may know that Love is the first motion--inclusion, not bullying; love, not fear; welcome, not eradication.

Query: Was there a time when you felt you didn't belong, or when you worried if you would be welcomed into someplace new? What and who helped? When in your life were you made to feel truly safe enough to bring more of your whole self forward over time? Are you doing that for other people? If not, what is getting in the way?

Are there other ways that we can be in the world, encouraging the Good to be raised up?