Stomach for the Fight
I live in a place of tension, at least in my spiritual life, as I have worshipped within a community of evangelical Quakers for more than twenty years. In the broader public consciousness, both evangelicals and Quakers have distinctive reputations that have little to do with each other. My friend Mike noted that evangelical Quakers are a bit like satyrs and sphinxes—the incongruous conjoining of incompatible beings. But, he continued, evangelicals and Quakers are united in the belief that Christ has the desire and the power to completely transform individuals to become more in God’s likeness. This, at least in theory, is more powerful than any differences, and many Quakers in the U.S. are, in fact, affiliated with evangelical meetings.
Quakers are also rightly noted for certain beliefs and practices that are, or have been at times, at odds with mainstream society and, in particular, mainstream Christianity. Since their founding around 1650, Quakers have believed gender and race pose no barriers to full participation in the life of the church, and our history has been blessed with outstanding leaders reflecting this diversity. Quakers took up the cause of abolition around 1770 and played a key role in convincing the broader Christian community that slavery is incompatible with Biblical teaching. Quakers of all stripes continue to hold a strong peace testimony that remains unacceptable to the majority of Americans today.
Quaker discernment regarding same-sex relationships and, more broadly, LGBTQ equality has followed a more uneven and difficult path. Some Quaker meetings, often those less Biblically oriented, affirmed LGBTQ equality more than twenty years ago, while others needed more prolonged discernment to find the Light on this matter between the leadings of the Spirit and the words of the Bible, and still others see Biblical prohibitions against same-sex behavior to be so clear as to preclude consideration. My own meeting, West Hills Friends, falls in the middle of this spectrum, spending a decade in discernment before reaching unity in affirming committed same-sex relationships in 2008.
At first our affirmation went unnoticed by Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends (NWYM), the broader community of evangelical Quakers in our region, but as the political tides in the U.S. began to shift on this topic, West Hills Friends became a focal point of conflict within NWYM. Our position was deemed “shattering” to the Yearly Meeting and, after two years spent seeking a path of reconciliation that would restore a sense of unity, we were “released”/removed/expelled in late July.
Throughout our discernment process and the subsequent conflict, many friends and family have said to me, “I don’t know how you find the stomach for this fight. Why don’t you just leave and affiliate with people who believe as you do?” The same question has been posed to our meeting by well-meaning outsiders. I think this is a tremendously important question to consider, as it transcends LGBTQ equality and speaks more broadly to what it means to live in community.
First, a central tenet of Quakerism is that God’s Light is in each person, but each person only holds part of that Light—it is by sharing our Light in community and learning from the Light of others that we come to a more complete understanding of God. As a consequence, every time we choose to separate ourselves from people who see things differently, the full breadth of understanding available through living in a diverse community gets diminished for everyone. However strongly I may disagree with someone in my community, I believe we have greater potential for learning and growth by remaining in a community that embraces the tension of conflict than by going off to our own echo chambers of like-minded individuals. The key to this in any community is respect.
Second, my experience convinces me that there are LGBTQ people within all of our communities—whether community is defined by place of worship, work, or living, or whether LGBTQ orientation manifests itself as out, questioning, closeted, or in denial. Our testimony as a meeting has brought life-giving light to many evangelical Quakers and other Christians in our region, helping them to affirm and grow their faith despite the hostility and rejection they may have felt in other churches. I have seen how important our witness is to so many outside of West Hills—eight other NWYM meetings and, separately, more than 220 named individuals have appealed our expulsion—so I am not willing to walk away from these dear friends, especially with the increased sense of vulnerability caused by our expulsion. After all, NWYM is their community, too, irrespective of the action of some in leadership. We need to protect those who are wounded from further hurt, but not abandon the fight.
More broadly, I’m staying engaged because this is where the fight needs to be fought. I understand the intent behind the statement “I don’t believe you change hearts—you change laws,” and I’m grateful for the recent progress in changing laws, but I believe changing hearts is important, too. Much resistance to LGBTQ equality today is centered in groups that identify as evangelical Christian, and their resistance is not going to be reduced by screaming at them from the other side of the barricades or by pulling away into our own separate bubbles. As a straight person, I feel less vulnerable to hurt from those who are not loving and respectful toward LGBTQ friends, and I feel like I have a role to play in building bridges with unconvinced evangelicals.
As an evangelical Quaker I believe Christ can transform each human being, but I also accept that true transformation comes from God working within each of us. As my friend Mike noted, we need to leave room for people to tap into a power that is beyond our control. We have now been asked to take our Light outside of the tent of the Yearly Meeting, and perhaps by stepping outside we can help provide that room. But I plan to stand just outside the door of that tent, so that our Light stays visible to all within that seek it, and so we can remain in dialog with those for whom our foundation of shared values and beliefs are stronger than our disagreements. And I think I will have the stomach to stand there for a long, long time.