Thursday, May 1, 2008

How I Became a Quaker

I have probably been saved more times than anyone else you have ever met. And by "saved," I mean "accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior." I think the first time was when I was about six or so. I remember talking to my parents about wanting to have Jesus in my heart and we all prayed about it. It was great.

The only problem was that people at our church were constantly prophesying the return of Jesus. These were the end times and we all had to be prepared. At six, I had finally realized a lifelong dream of being cast as a mouse in the local production of the Nutcracker and I was pretty worried that Jesus was going to come back before I could be in it. So I prayed a lot that he would just wait a while before his triumphant return. Then someone at church mentioned that no one could predict the day or hour of Jesus's return. So I started predicting all the time; I figured this would keep him from showing up. I got to be in the Nutcracker, but I felt vaguely guilty for postponing the rapture.

Maybe that is part of the reason I started getting saved all the time. I was worried that I wasn't quite saved enough, so I would double check by accepting Jesus into my heart whenever it occurred to me. And every time was an alter call at church or a youth event, I would go up and get saved again
. Once a youth pastor asked me why I did that, but he never followed up when I didn't answer. I guess he thought it couldn't hurt. I really liked the feeling of confessing that I was a sinner and being made pure, although I think the analogy of being "washed as white as snow" didn't quite have the same significance for someone born and raised in Anchorage.

I was very involved in the youth group in middle school. This was partly because the youth pastor's daughter was one of my best friends and partly because I had a crush on a guy in the youth group (we ended up going on one extremely awkward date and I recently heard that he got married a few years ago). It was also because I loved how into God everyone was. We would sing and testify and people would cry, they were so filled with love. All of this culminated for me
in a mission trip to the inner city of Chicago, where I stayed with Jesus People USA and helped build a playground.

Then I went to high school and everything fell apart. (In terms of my faith, at least. Otherwise, high school was pretty great.) Now, this is the part of the story where I am usually pretty vague. Usually, I say something fairly benign about my crisis of faith, such as that I stopped believing in Hell, or I just met people who were different from me. While those things are true, the whole truth is much simpler: gay people made me want to stop being a Christian.

This sounds very bad, so I should probably clarify. I do not mean that any individual gay person convinced me to stop going to church. I especially do not mean that gay people made me gay and that caused me to stop being a Christian. I was, and I remain, about as straight as humanly possible. It was more the fact that gay people existed that made me want to stop being a Christian. Once I had a few gay friends, I found it impossible to believe that their attractions to people of the same sex was a sin.

The last straw for me was a discussion section I read in my Teen Study Bible. It was somewhere in the Old Testament, a half-page description that tried to make biblical rules more accessible to teenagers. I am paraphrasing greatly, but the gist was that although God does not expect us to follow all of the silly rules in the Old Testament, the Bible is very clear that homosexuality is wrong and engaging in homosexual practices is a sin. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but I had been raised to believe that every word of the Bible was the literal word of God.
The hypocrisy overwhelmed me. I put the Bible down and I have not seriously engaged in reading it again until about a week ago.

About the same time, the State of Alaska was going through its marriage initiative, ensuring that marriage could legally only occur between a man and a woman. It was very disturbing to me to see nice Christian people from my church acting downright gleeful at the prospect of keeping others from sharing the benefits they enjoyed in marriage. It was pretty clear that this was not a community I wanted to be a part of. I kept going to church, but I was very uncomfortable with the mix of politics and religion there.

Fortunately, this was also about the same time that I left for college. It was pretty easy to not go to church in Santa Cruz―it seemed like the primary religion there was surfing. College was also the first time I met people who had grown up religious, didn't go to church, and weren't conflicted about it. Most of my friends from high school had rejected their religious upbringings, but were tormented by guilt.

I don't think I ever really stopped believing in God, but I definitely didn't give him a lot of thought. I was pretty distracted by school and jobs, boyfriends and breakups, and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I still went to church with my parents when I was home, but we pretty much had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with regard to my churchgoing habits at school.

When I studied abroad in Chile, I started going to mass every once in a while. I think it helped that the services were Catholic (I didn't have many bad associations with Catholics) and in another language. I had a great conversation with a woman there, who assured me that it was ok if I didn't know if I believed in God, as long as I believed in Mary.

I returned to California, things pretty much went back to the way they had been before. But then I went to law school, and I seriously needed a church. My roommate Jessica felt similarly, so we started checking out local churches. Neither of us had much interest in the denominations we grew up in, so it was all pretty new to us. We were like two Goldilocks of churchgoers. We liked the music at the Episcopalian church and the proximity of the Lutheran church, but none of them were quite right.

One Sunday close to finals, we stumbled into Freedom Friends Church. Honestly, I don't remember a lot from our first visit. I was pretty wrapped up in my first semester of law school at that point. I think there were probably about five people there, including Jessica and me. I remember Peggy being a very good hostess and checking to see if the room was the right temperature, and I remember discussing the relative merits of different brands of travel guitars with Alivia, but that's about it. They both seemed very Midwestern and that was comforting (I had good experiences with a boss from the Midwest during college).

I just kept going back. Jessica had decided law school was not for her, so I was on my own, and I felt like Freedom Friends was a place where I could breathe. And then I started talking during silent worship and I felt like I couldn't stop.

After I had been going to Freedom Friends for about eight months, Peggy decided to hold a Quaker 101 class. I don't think many of the regular attenders at that point had any previous experience with Quakers, so we all needed some education. I missed most of the classes, but I made it to the last one, where we were reading Freedom Friends Church's Faith and Practice aloud.

Before we started, Peggy said (I think as a joke) that she was going to have an alter call at the end of the class. I had a very strong negative reaction to that―I had been to enough alter calls and I wasn't interested in any more. But as we read through the Faith and Practice, it dawned on me that this was a community I wanted to be a part of. I fiercely believed in the things I was reading and I really wanted to be a member. I did not hear the term "Convinced Friend" until years later (it's a term Quakers use to distinguish converts from "Birthright Friends," who are born into the Religious Society of Friends), but in that moment, I was convinced. So that afternoon I wrote an email requesting membership, a little while later I met with a clearness committee, and here I am.


  1. It's the story of my life! Well, everything except the Nutcracker part. This is why you are my alter ego.

  2. What a great journey! It's similar to mine in some regards, except that the ever-present expectation to be saved never felt good or worked for me at all. (And this in a Quaker church! Who'da thought?)

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Your early experiences sound so similar to mine! Ah, the ever-present altar calls! I felt like I had to make a public (really public) commitment but I was so shy I couldn't bring myself to walk to the front of the church or retreat or wherever I was. So I think that's why I was saved over and over and over again - if you don't do it "once and for all" in front of everyone, you have to do it silently, secretly all the time.
    It is crazy the ideas we get as kids.
    I remember also feeling that the rapture was very imminent. There were times I prayed desperately for it because I didn't want to give some speech or take some test. There were other times I thought it was very unfair because I wanted to live my life and have different experiences and it was fair if Jesus was going to come back and take all that away!

    Jeremy and I just watched Jesus Camp a few weeks ago. Very disturbing documentary. It might be interesting for you - or it might make you angry/sick/or something...

  4. Thanks for sharing this.

    Jesus Camp was gut wrenching more me. I often feel that if you had God in your heart, that would make the "impending doom" and "missed opportunity" factor, (in sales we call it the "impeding event close") of Jesus 2nd coming a moot point. Relationships are about open hands, not pointing fingers, being vulnerable to each other, and "making or finding opportunities."

  5. For some reason I cant get the word ABOMINATION out of my mind. You might want to ponder and meditate on this and take it to the clearness committee.

  6. Anonymous - This is an old post and I had no idea anyone was still reading it! I'm touched that you read and commented.


  7. A comment from Liz O:

    Hi Ashley! It's now 2013 and I've just come across this post... because Mark Wutka linked to it from an old post of his too.

    I wish I had read this piece when you first wrote it, as part of my getting-to-know-you-through-the-internet process.

    Since I wasn't raised in the Christian tradition and I've had little reason to ask questions about one's Christian upbringing, I had no idea that kids either prayed for the rapture or prayed "against" it! But the child's innocence behind such prayer is very endearing.

    Liz, The Good Raised Up

    1. It's nice to hear from you, Liz! Yes, I think the rapture loomed large for a lot of children in certain parts of Christianity. It's a good reminder for when I am feeling anxious because people are fear-mongering for whatever reason (environmental catastrophe, economic collapse) that I don't have to take whatever doom they are preaching at face value.

  8. Look what came up when I googled, "Why I became a Quaker." (Hello from Candler Suzanne)


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