This I Believe…
I did not grow up as a Quaker. I actually grew up as a Boy Scout. For many years, the Boy Scouts was the closest thing I had to a faith community. I loved the weekly Scout meetings, our rituals, and our service projects. I also loved how the Boy Scouts had core values that mattered to me. Being a Scout meant that I had pledged to be friendly, trustworthy, helpful, courteous, kind, thrifty, brave, moral and reverent. It also meant doing my duty to God and country.
That’s something I took very seriously. By 1968, I was thirteen and Martin Luther King was my hero. More than anything, I wanted to answer his call to help end racism, poverty, and militarism in our country. As I saw it, my duty to God and country was to help our country become what King called a Beloved Community of peace, justice, and equality.
It turned out, however, that my Scout Master didn’t agree. One summer day, I was at the town square in Galesburg, Illinois, at the annual Boy Scouts Jamboree. When I finished all my tasks for the morning, I noticed a small, silent peace vigil at the edge of the square opposing the US war against Vietnam. I had never seen anyone in my town stand up against the war and I was moved to walk over and join the protest. My Scout Master spotted me within minutes and bodily dragged me out of the vigil. He shook me and shouted that I was a “communist,” a “traitor,” and a “disgrace to the Boy Scouts uniform.” He then told me that I was no longer welcome in his Boy Scouts Troop. I stood there stunned as he stormed off. Soon, an elderly woman from the vigil came up to me, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Young man, you will always be welcome at a Quaker meeting.”
This moment began my conversion from the Boy Scouts to Quakers. I called the number for the Quakers in the phone book that night and asked about where and when they had their services. This woman was also very welcoming—even though I was a thirteen-year-old kid! I asked her about what to expect in their weekly service, which she called a “Meeting for Worship.” She said that the Quakers in Galesburg sit in a circle with a shared attitude of silent waiting with the expectancy of being touched by God’s Spirit. She then added that if anyone felt moved by the Spirit, they would stand up and give their message to the whole group and then sit back down into the silence. I loved that idea.
I then asked the woman what Quakers believe. She said that the core belief of Quakers was that God gives every man, woman, and child on Earth the spiritual capacity to directly experience God’s love, presence, and guidance in their lives and to do God’s will in the world–if we just open our hearts to God’s Spirit. I loved that answer, too, so the very next day I went to worship with a group of about a dozen Galesburg Quakers in a living room belonging to one of the local members. A few people gave spoken ministry out of the silence that day and one of these woman spoke about how her work to nonviolently defend the Vietnamese people from our government’s violence was an outward expression of her inner faith. She experienced it as God’s will that all the faithful should take this up task even more strongly than we had to date. I had clearly found my spiritual home.
A few weeks later, I asked one of the older Quakers about what it meant that Quakers seemed to put their central emphasis on following Jesus rather than on believing the specific thing about him most people defined as Christianity. The man laughed and said that he’s read the Bible several times and had noticed that whenever Jesus was asked about how to live a faithful life, he never answered, “You must believe that my mother is a virgin and that I am God.” Instead, Jesus would always answer such questions with teachings like “be loving, as God is loving.”
This gentleman then added, “I don’t think it matters whether we view Jesus as a great spiritual teacher, a great prophet, the Jewish Messiah, or the Only Begotten Son of God as long as we focus on learning how to be his friend and disciple.” For this man, following the way of Jesus–including turning to the Spirit of God for continuing revelation–is the very essence of the Quaker faith. After forty years among Quakers, I’ve grown to agree with him. I, too, now see Jesus as my spiritual Rabbi.
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