Quaker Enough

About five years ago, a professor at my first seminary asked me if I was a Quaker. “In my heart,” I responded, timidly but quickly, without any substantial hesitation.

Unsatisfied with my answer, almost impatiently, he asked, “What are you in your mind?”

I wanted to answer, “Quaker,” but I didn’t, for that was more complicated. I paused. He rephrased, “What denomination are you officially a part of?”

That was easy. “None,” I told him. “I have no official denomination.” I wanted to say something about the hallway, but I didn’t.

“Well, Quaker works then.”

It almost sounded dismissive, and maybe it was, but believing that the heart of it was good-natured, I smiled—but he didn’t see my smile, for he had already walked off.


As I was processing my recent experiences, assessing my current answer to this person’s question, I kept remembering a scene from an Evangelical youth group I attended a few times when I was in sixth grade. I remember almost nothing significant from these experiences except this one scene from this one night. I think about it all the time.

That night, the worship team decided to skip the “message” and continue to play songs because everyone was feeling it. Or because God was feeling it; I don’t know.

Rarely or never engaged in regular worship, I was even less engaged during this extended version. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I felt emotionally manipulated: the lights were off, and the band played mostly in the light of the projectors on either side of the stage; the songs were simple, romantic, even sappy; and the worship pastor’s voice changed in an attempt to create or reflect some sense of holiness in the room.

I was sitting and observing the scene silently when I noticed someone crying in a seat not too far from mine. I moved over to them in the dark and recognized a girl a year or two older who had been kind to me a few weeks back. I sat down next to her, and she lifted her head to smile at me before putting it back in her hands to resume weeping. I was confused; is she or isn’t she fine? I waited a minute or two, and then I gently asked if she was okay.

I will never forget the way she sat up and glared at me. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t need to—I heard everything clearly. I understood immediately that she was crying because “God” had “touched her”—I felt those quotation marks deep in my soul even then—and that there was nothing more than that going on inside of her. Her eyes seemed to say both “What is wrong with you?” and “You don’t get it.”

“No, I don’t get it,” I thought to myself as I leaned back in my chair, as she put her head back in her hands. I was horrified, not by her glare or the likelihood that we would never speak again, not even by the fact that I had committed some sort of embarrassing youth group faux pas. It was the sudden awareness that I was different, not emotionally in-tune with God, I guess. Not spiritual—or not spiritual like them. Not religious. Not Christian?

I still feel this way sometimes when I’m around Quakers, like there’s something I’m lacking, like there’s some significant disconnect. I don’t get it. I’m not deep enough, not spiritual enough, not reverent or silent enough (though I am not, to be clear, the least bit loud).

There is a level of cliquishness within Quaker communities, sometimes a rather high level, and I have been wondering if I will always be asking myself that question: “What is wrong with me?” What is wrong with me that I don’t think that silence is so special that it can’t be interrupted? What is wrong with me if I think that the Other, or whatever is being listened to and waited for, will speak or move anyway?

Maybe it isn’t just me—maybe every Quaker knows the feeling of accidentally walking into a silent room, of interrupting Sacred Classroom Silence with a question, or worst of all, of destroying any measure of silence with an involuntary digestion noise. On that note, when I complained to a friend recently that I didn’t feel comfortable in such silence, that I was tired of it, he asked, “Do you not like Quaker silence or does your stomach not like Quaker silence?” He had a point, but I suspect the answer is both.

I once arrived at a Quaker facility late, intentionally skipping worship, for I had a long day ahead of me and not much energy. When I walked into the building, I saw that the door to the worship area was closed, but there were a few people waiting patiently and quietly outside of it. I whispered a question to a woman near me, unsure of what to do, and she glared at me—the kind of glare that lasts—and pointed to something I should pick up. The subtext was: grab that, then sit down and shut up.

Is the silence so holy that we can’t smile at an awkward stranger and try to make them feel at ease, or at least avoid causing dis-ease? If the answer is yes, that’s fine. I get it. I respect it, and I’ll try harder to honor it—to sit down and shut up. But I want nothing to do with it.


I keep thinking about how certain I was that this would become my home.

It seemed to me that Quakerism had the potential to be the one room in “Christianity” that would allow space for a hallway-dweller like me, space for any person to be authentic about what they are and are not able to accept, about where they are or are not in their “spiritual pilgrimage.” It was more than that, like the way I substituted words like Light and Real for God years before I even knew what a Quaker was, but that was the crux of it.

I was reminded of this quality, this theoretical spaciousness, when I sat in a small group recently and debriefed with a classmate. I admitted that the class we were taking, that I loved and appreciated in multiple ways and on multiple levels, seemed to be confirming to me that I wasn’t meant to be a Quaker. It wasn’t about the professor or the course content but the practices woven into it all.

It’s too intimidating, I told her. Everything is taken too seriously. The silence is too heavy. There are too many spoken and unspoken rules—I can’t function. If I were allowed to just be a Quaker in my heart, that would be fine, but I don’t know if I can be a Quaker in community.

These are the three quotes I wrote down, bits of humorous wisdom she offered throughout my mini rant:

“You have to understand: Quakers do whatever they want.”

“If it’s Quaker to you, then it’s Quaker.”

“Quakers believe in that, changing the rules when needed.”

I asked a seasoned Quaker to rate these statements on a scale of 1-10, not so true to very true, and they were all perfect 10s (if only in theory).

What does this mean? In one sense, I am still figuring that out. At minimum, it is permission for me to continue to be a Quaker in my heart, if I want—and it is permission to view that as Quaker enough.

On Gifts

My friend Wesley used to read all of my drafts—of everything, though everything is misleading, since I mostly wrote about dying from anorexia.

The universe gives you gifts sometimes, I guess, and he was one of them. The friendship was light, bright, and casual—we giggled about dangling participles—but it was also deep—he liked to say that he had, on at least one occasion, seen my soul. And he had, I am pretty sure. I don’t know how or why it happened, but it did.

He was in my head for years—his teachings, if you will. He was love: light, bright, deep, and messy. That love saved me, though I know that when he reads this, he is likely to argue otherwise. He may know better than anyone the work I put into my salvation.

I remember using a line from “Two” by The Antlers as an epigraph in one of the documents I sent him, the documents that he claimed to love reading, though maybe he only loved me. “The choir’s gonna sing, and this thing is gonna kill you.”

He replied, like a fucking sage: “Someday, Caroline, the choir will sing, and you will diebut it won’t be because of this.” That was six years ago, or more, and I wake thinking of it still.

When I moved to Portland, the universe gave me another gift, another fucking sage. I would message him after meeting with her: “She tells me the same things you’ve been telling me for years.”

She reminded me, over and over, almost ten-thousand times, to be gentle with myself, to trust and listen to myself; she read all of my shit; but mostly, she loved me.

Her gift of love was cleaner, or not a bit messy, but just as strong and bright and deep. In many ways, it carried me—what would I have done without it?—but the props assist the house until…

I don’t know that the house ever supports itself, but props withdraw periodically, or you move away from them, and I thought that writing about it might help me grieve.


My first year in Portland, I worked at a senior-living facility. The choice was intentional—there was nowhere else I could imagine wanting to work. I didn’t care what the actual job was. I only knew where I wanted to be.

As a child, I took every opportunity to visit every aging grand-relative, often in lieu of more interesting activities. Many of these visits took place in nursing homes, and I remember thinking on one occasion that I had never been anywhere more depressing, which, I suspect, is what kept me coming back. I certainly wasn’t drawn to depressing environments in general, but neither did they repulse me.

Most of my visits were quiet. I quietly listened as my mother or grandmother asked my great-grandmother questions to test her memory, as they told stories and joked about “how they like their men” (with a little something to hold onto, apparently). I quietly went out for a smoke with my great-aunt Carol—my namesake, as she liked to say—and listened to whatever it was she talked to me about on the way.

One visit, a woman in a neighboring room began to tell me stories about her life, and I sat down and listened, but I also engaged. I engaged and listened, and I felt her brighten. Her face may have changed, or her posture—I don’t remember. I only remember the feeling: what it felt like to offer my presence and for that offering to be just what someone needed.

I suppose from that day forward, I was drawn to depressing environments—not necessarily because I liked them or the feelings they lent but because I saw that I could be useful there. It is a good fit in other ways: I am not deeply drawn to activity, not as an adult, and so I look for places where all that is required of me is my presence.

I don’t believe in calls beyond “we are all called to resist fascism”—or, I don’t know that I believe in personalized calls—but if I did, I would probably think that I have just discovered, or rediscovered, mine.

Your Christians

“When a hen is hurt, the others rush up to peck it.”

– Simone Weil

Or, the hen pecks itself, and that scares the others. That is why they join in. They want to believe that the hen that pecks itself is the only one diseased.


“He wouldn’t have made me this way if he wasn’t planning on using me this way.”

That was written in December, 2010, which explains the “He.” I was finishing college and planning to move to Jakarta to teach, and I was desperately trying to convince myself that I wasn’t too broken to be useful. Usefulness was the prize at the end, my only motivation for healing myself. I might not have recovered had I not believed in a “He” that wished for my usefulness as much as I did.

I reflected on those words again almost three years later, as I applied to seminary.

Two things happened between deciding to go to seminary and actually going to seminary: I realized rather suddenly that I was gay, or that if I was ever going to love someone, it was going to be a woman, and I went home. It wasn’t long before the same dynamics began to play out: “She just doesn’t know how to talk to people.” I can see now that, in that scene, they were angry with me for calling out their racism, that I was talking to people just fine, but is it any wonder that I never “integrated to Eight” in their midst? Each time I spoke, they crushed me.

I was quiet, contained, and controlled, but every now and then, I accidentally let out my biggest secret: my mind was burning with questions, thoughts, and ideas that were different than theirs.


I think I always knew there was something else going on, something beyond introversion, but I didn’t want to claim anything too big.

Now, when I look back, all I can see is layers and layers of trauma. I was not surprised to note that most of it connects in some way to your Christians. I cannot think of anyone who has seriously hurt me who was not also one of your Christians.

How many times have you been told that you wouldn’t amount to anything–anything good? They said you were trouble. They said you were going to infect the others. “That girl is going to get pregnant before she’s even fourteen, mark my words.”

How he kept you, even though he didn’t want you: “You’re going to be alone.” “You will never know what that kind of love feels like.” You fear, even now, that he was right, and yet you go on loving.

The Dark Night of the Psyche, the night his eyes went black and the lights went out: “You’re a snake…evil…” “There is nothing good inside of you.” You had never been so close to the edge, but you held on, and we made it through the night.

“You destroyed the community in that room.” Then, “Well, if the Spirit were in you…” It was almost like you felt it leave–it was almost like she called it out of you (so it isn’t surprising, then, that you spent the next two days shaking and sweating).

When I look at my behavior with today’s lens, I don’t see shyness or even social anxiety but post-traumatic stress.


“You burdened me with their pecking and now you burden me with your presence that bears it.”

I endured, and I went to seminary. I was stubborn enough to go but not stubborn enough to last. I left the seminary for at least two reasons.

There was a male professor who was using his position of power to pursue me, and there was no one I trusted enough to tell. Worse, he was skillfully subtle most of the time, and most of the time, I thought I was crazy.

Someone advised me, as I was already considering leaving, that I might be too “introverted” to be a chaplain. I knew then that they did not really mean that, for of course introversion is as much of an asset as extroversion is, especially for a chaplain. They meant, “You might be too broken to be a chaplain.” They were referring to my fear orientation. My corner-crouching, flinching neuroticism.


Two nights ago, as I drove home, I suddenly wept and said aloud to myself, “I have PTSD (or something like it).” Of course I do, but I don’t think I saw it before, or I thought I had no right to claim it before.

This realization was twofold. I saw also that I was going to finish my degree and press back into my “call,” even though this isn’t 2010, and I don’t believe in “calls” anymore.

Part of that is because making sense of anything is empowering. Most of that is because I can no longer think of myself as being vaguely diseased or “backwards,” as my father called me once.

Knowing what and why, or beginning to know, allows for a kind of self-acceptance that I never could have managed before, that I am going to need as I traverse the inevitable pecking of your Christians who are unable to forgive me my brokenness.

God is Resisting

“After Auschwitz, Who Can Say God?” – Richard Kearney, Anatheism

Lately,  I have found myself remembering or reminiscing about the time I thought I might be able to return to God after God.

I didn’t.

Then on on November 8th, 2016, I washed my hands of Evangelicals, too: “I will never forgive them for this.”

For if God was, God was precarious, resting in their hands.

I see now that I was wrong. God is precarious, but God can be with or without them. It was never in their hands, though it remains in ours.

Many concluded after the Holocaust that the only God possible was a weak God, a God that only is through us, a God “who wanted to come but was not able to come because humans failed to invite the sacred stranger into existence.”¹

Christians have failed in this way over and over. Evangelicals specifically, it seems, are failing now. But look at what is happening–despite them. Look at what is happening.

Heather Heyer, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and everyone else rising up to resist racism, fascism, sexism, and other forms of evil… They are inviting the sacred stranger into existence. They are showing up, allowing God to show up.

God has returned to me, through them, in their resistance.

More significantly, God is returning to us, as God resists through and with us.

¹ Richard Kearney, Anatheism, 61.