When I was a teenager I read my Bible with a green highlighter and, “Carry one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, KJV) is one of the passages that was marked in green. For some reason, these few words stood out to my 14-year old self.
In those days I was struggling with what it means to be a Christian. I tried to make faith my own by integrating theory and practice. There was something very significant about this verse, something that seemed key to me. Because it is the Christianity modeled by those I most respected, I believed it was important.
As an older teenager I saw what happened when a pastor’s health insurance was cancelled just when he contracted a major illness. I remember how people took collections and pulled together to share this major burden rather than abandon him to his fate.
Recently, I’ve spent a year sharing life and ministry with Muncie Friends Memorial and I saw the same commitment to help others with burdens greater than they can bear. Once a month Friends Memorial hands out groceries to more than 200 families. Additionally, the meeting supports various poverty relief ministries including an overnight, homeless shelter and providing school supplies and meals for children.
While this kind of work has seemed almost central to my understanding of what it means to be a Quaker, more recently I have come to realize that Friends have a mixed history when it comes to looking after one another. Too often we do better with strangers than with members of our own Society. When we are proud, we can see the poor as the other, an other to be pitied, but not to worship with.
The Book of James speaks of a rich man and a poor man coming into a meeting for worship. The wealthy man is seated in a place of honor, while the poor man is asked to stand or sit on the floor. James suggests that those who separated these two worshiper are, “judges with evil thoughts.” It is too easy to turn poverty into a project, yet treat the meetinghouse as a gated community on Sunday morning. James goes on to say that God chose the poor to be rich in faith. If we exclude the poor, we impoverish the Christian community.
Unfortunately, our history is as mixed as our attitudes. We know that many executive committees have inherited the name “Meeting for sufferings” and that these were named such, because their job was to look after the physical needs and sufferings of Friends who experienced persecution. However in our desire to be respectable, we have condemned people who take on more business responsibility than they are able to manage. For many generations, failing in business was not considered a cause for sympathy and help, but for disownment.
As the Religious Society of Friends became accepted, it sought to be a respectable community, and disowned what was embarrassing. Many times burdens and struggles are embarrassing. Life can be hard; people have illnesses or fall into depression. People fight and sometimes relationships fail. When there are burdens whether spiritual, physical or emotional, the burden and the cause can be deemed less than respectable.
If we disown what is felt to be not respectable, we must disown Fox and the first generation of Quakers as 17th century Quakerism was not respectable. When preaching in cities, many Friends felt called to behave in ways that drew attention to themselves, often behaving in ways that made prison a second home. Reading Fox’s Journal, we can easily see that respectability was not one of his aspirations.
Since that time we have come to the dangerous ground of placing respectability above obedience and even above the bond of our communities. If the apostle Paul speaks correctly, this cannot be. We cannot obey the law of Christ if we are too respectable to help another carry those burdens that are part of life.
• Are we willing to give up the image of respectability and show the same mercy that we hope God shows us?
• Are we willing to allow God to judge rather than being judges with evil hearts?
• Are we willing to open the doors of the meetinghouse to those whom we see as less respectable?
Michael Jay is a recent graduate from Earlham School of Religion and a member of Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, Indiana. He is originally from Kansas. Currently, he does “pulpit supply” and works in a warehouse.