Like many people, I came to Quakerism as a kind of spiritual refugee.
I grew up in the Presbyterian church, and was into the whole thing pretty seriously... Vacation Bible School, singing in the choir, mission trips with the youth group, etc. etc. I can still rattle off all the books of the Old Testament with very little effort.
But right about the time that I started kissing girls it became clear that my church of origin and I were going to have to part ways.
While in college, I bounced around a bit, sometimes attending the University chapel, sometimes the Unitarian church at the edge of campus. Maybe once or twice I made it to Quaker Meeting, and remember both times being somewhat unsettled by the silence. (I am not a naturally quiet person.) (My friends are chuckling at the depth of that understatement.)
When I moved to Philadelphia in the early 1990's, I felt a renewed sense of urgency about my on-again, off-again quest for a new religious community to call home, and since Philly is in many ways the cradle of American Quakerism, it makes sense that I would try Meeting once again.
Quaker Meetings, at least the ones I am familiar with, are communities of spiritual seekers, and because one of the central tenets of the Quaker faith is the belief that we are each in a direct and individual relationship with the Divine, people are wary about expressing an opinion about where anyone "should" be on their spiritual journey.
It is not unusual for someone to be an "attender" at an unprogrammed Monthly Meeting for years before taking the steps necessary to becoming a member, so I was in very good company as a long-term attender at Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting.
Eventually, someone suggested to me that I might want to sit in on a Meeting for Worship with attention to business, where, as the name suggests, the members of the meeting consider the business of the Meeting (requests for space rental, requests for clearness committees, budgets, planning special programs, whatever comes up). And it was my attendance at these Meetings that finally made it clear to me that I needed to move from being an attender to requesting membership in the Society of Friends.
What I saw, in those meetings, was an inspiring combination of individual ability in the form of some incredibly talented clerks, and a deep and rich tradition of corporate discernment. I can't remember now the specific topics at hand that evoked this response in me (although I'm pretty sure one of them was gay marriage), but here's what I do remember:
I remember feeling as if I should probably remain quiet during the meeting; since I wasn't yet a member, it seemed more appropriate for me to just be quiet and listen. I remember finding it difficult to be quiet because the issues at hand were so interesting, and the discussions so full of life. And then I remember feeling incredibly grateful and a little awed when, on several occasions, someone else spoke out of the silence in a way that absolutely resonated with what I had been thinking and feeling and working not to express.
When I hear the traditional Quaker phrase, "That Friend speaks my mind," it is these early moments in my life as a "convinced" Friend that I most often remember.
I felt such a sense of joy and peace, to not only be supported in my own individual spiritual journey, but to know that I would not be alone, that I would not have to be the "ball carrier," even on those things that mattered most to me, that I could trust in the work of the Spirit through people, and that the important work would go forward, no matter what.
I still feel that way. And I depend on my Quaker community – still predominantly that of my Meeting, but widening now to include Quakers to whom I am connected only through cyber space – to help keep me rooted, committed to a life that is increasingly Spirit-led. I feel that I live in a society that is sometimes punishingly secular and, in places, inappropriately religious; I need a faith community to help me work out what my path will look like going forward.
This is something the internet can help with, I think. No matter who you are, no matter what your experience, there IS someone else out there whose experience can speak to yours. Until recently I'd been thinking about this mostly in terms of those rare connections that can be hard to find in the physical world (e.g. hey, I can find all the other grownups who still love Lego now!), but now I'm realizing it doesn't only have to be about the hard-to-find connections. I can work towards having my cyberlife mirror my realworld life in all its dimensions, and so here I am, connecting with writers and Quakers. It's a good time to be alive.