Cat and I spent a good chunk of this gathering participating in a three-day workshop on what it means to be a Quaker missionary. The woman running it, Eden Grace, is a field staff worker (a.k.a. “missionary”) in Kenya. She’s an FUM Quaker and an evangelical Christian. We signed up for this workshop specifically because it would be challenging, would push us to deepen our understanding of the current controversy over the FUM personnel policy that has been threatening to schism NEYM, and (at least in my case) broaden my perspective on what it means to be Quaker.
Eden began the workshop by doing something I can only describe as headbutting the hornets’ nest. She passed out index cards and had each of us write down to things that came to mind when we heard the word “missionary,” then she collected them, shuffled them, passed them out again and had each of us read out loud the two we got. (We were, remember, a room full of liberal New England Quakers teetering on the edge of severing all ties with FUM.) I felt a little mean at first for writing on my index cards, “The vanguard of colonial empires in the 19th century” and “The destruction of indigenous religions, languages, and cultures,” but about half of the cards around the room carried the theme of cultural imperialism and it was clear that Eden wanted to draw out these responses up front. The other half of the cards spoke of things like helping the poor, living in partnership with the people, sharing the Good News, and such. Eden and her husband Jim were clear about how the historical baggage of missionary work as cultural imperialism is something that any missionary today has to own and live with. She confronted us with some of our own missionary-ish impulses: “What about the good news that God loves everyone, regardless of sexual orientation? What about female circumcision? Is that a part of indigenous culture that we should respect and value?” Even the most well-meaning mission work, work that is purely humanitarian, can have a manipulative quality to it as wealthy westerners come parading into very poor communities dispensing largess. All of these are issues that missionaries today must face and come to terms with. Mission work, when it is rightly done, has the missionary becoming part of the community (“You wear the clothes and eat the food.”) and when you “share the Good News,” you do it through knowing and being known by the people you are serving, and it is reciprocal. Eden spoke of her own spiritual life and religious identity being profoundly changed by the Kenyans she works with—at least as much as they have been affected by her. On the last day of the workshop, the blackboard was covered with words that described what missionary work should be, what it really is when it’s done responsibly and in a spirit of love. Among the words and phrases on the board were John Woolman’s quote, “Let your life speak,” and the word “risky.” Missionaries take risks. Their work is not always safe.
I went from there to the library, where I went on line, found the first of the comments on my previous post (from Zach Alexander) and wrote the first draft of my response. I didn’t publish it, and I’ve been wrestling with that decision for the last 48 hours. I’ve censored myself, and in so doing, I have failed to live up to Eden Grace’s example.
As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, NEYM is going through some very painful discernment over the place of queer folk (the GLBTQetc’s) on the one hand and Christ-centered evangelicals on the other. Can we worship together? Work together? Can we remain part of the same religious body? One of the things that came out of our laboring with this issue is the realization that those of us opposed to FUM’s personnel policy need to “get our own house in order.” We are outraged by what we feel is a narrow minded and hateful stance FUM has taken on sexual ethics, but we have never come to any unity ourselves—have never even considered—making a statement of our own about sexual ethics. NEYM did not withdraw from FUM this year, and did not withhold our annual contribution (though both were suggested at times during the week). What we did do is draft a Minute expressing our continuing support and affirmation of our GLBTQ brothers and sisters and also a Minute of Commitment in which we promise, among other things, to
- Engage in conversation about the deepest meanings of family, marriage and committed relationships and explore what it means to have all of these under the care of meeting.
- Support the work of our Ministry & Counsel Working Party on Sexual Ethics and Spirituality. We need to articulate our sexual ethics and the spirituality of sex.
I have wrestled a great deal over the last two days about how much I can safely participate in that conversation here in this blog. After I wrote the first draft of my response to Zach Alexander’s comment, friends at my lunch table became an impromptu clearness committee. Their advice: Don’t post it. People are just nuts when they’re talking about sex. You’ll get hate mail. What if your students read it? Or their parents? Or your principal? The draft was damn good writing, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, faithful to spirit, could be incredibly valuable if read by a queer student feeling all alone in the universe, and could get me fired.
That afternoon, I emailed it to Zach privately (He was two carrels away in the library. I suppose I could have just dragged him over to read it off my screen) and the next day I posted a truncated, bowdlerized version.
I cannot in good faith stop there. But I have not yet discerned what to do next.