Yes, I’m a Quaker. Here’s what it means.
Especially these days, especially in New England, it seems out of favor to talk about religion. Or to not have one. I’m often apologetic. “Well, Quakerism is about the most easy-going, liberal, non-conformist religion there is,” I find myself saying. Or, “Well, as a Quaker, you can believe in pretty much anything you want. Some Quakers don’t even believe in God.”
Indeed there is a vast range of Quaker beliefs. Quaker meetings around the world think and do things in many different ways. Yet it seems to me that all Quakers have in common this one belief: that there is God in every person. Sometimes it’s called “the light within.” This simple belief has big implications.
For one thing, I’m not obliged to follow someone else’s instructions about what God wants me to do. Rather, I’m encouraged to look within. Only I can know what’s right for me. Related, no person has any more of a special connection to God than anyone else. There is no head Quaker. There are no cardinals, no priests. We all have direct access to God, the light within, equally available to each of us. I don’t have to do special things or wear special clothes or say special words to access God.
For another thing, because God is in you, to harm you or disrespect you would be to harm or disrespect God. This is why Quakers oppose war and all forms of violence. This is why Quakers have always treated women as equal to men. This is why Quakers have a long tradition of helping people in prisons, and all those less fortunate by virtue of birth or circumstance. Because God is in you too, there is no justification for me to feel superior to you, no matter who you are or what you did.
When Quakers gather, called a Quaker Meeting, we listen in silence for what God wants us to do. If someone thinks that they have a message from God worthy for the rest of us to hear, they stand and speak. It’s pretty simple. Oh, that’s another thing about Quakers. We have traditionally valued simple things: plain dress, plain words, few possessions.
I became a Quaker because the things I value as a meeting facilitator are about the same things that Quakers value: that no person is more important than any other, that the best idea for the group can come from anywhere, that I don’t know what’s best for you. Until a few years ago, I hardly knew anything about Quakers. As I learned more, I got drawn in.
I’m a Quaker today because, well, honestly, it’s a good brand. Quakerism represents a set of values that I can get behind; that I’m honored to be associated with. Further, I wish more people had the live-and-let-live ideology that Quakers live by. And I’m idealistic enough to wish for world peace. Quakers stand for peace. I consider myself a peacemaker, especially in my work.
As a practical matter, Quaker Meeting and the Quaker practice of silent seeking within calms me, restores my soul, and brings me answers to vexing problems. Having a place to go for such answers – having a way to access deeper wisdom – is a great gift.