On Tuesday, I was trying to talk with my Spanish teacher about something or other and my reply to one of her questions identified that I went to church. She asked me if I was Christian and I replied yes, but not Catholic. To that answer, she inquired to what group I belonged. “Quakerismo” I replied. “Cuaquerismo?” she asked inquisitively.
“Pero, No hay cuaqueros en Nicaragua. Cuaqerismo esta avena.”
For those of you who don’t know, I’m in Nicaragua for two weeks trying to learn some more Spanish. I’m traveling with a friend of mine from work and living with a family in Granada, Nicaragua. My Spanish teacher promptly identified Quakerism with Quaker oats. In broken Spanish I tried to explain that there were a small group of Quakers in Managua, Nicaragua and many Quakers in other parts of central and south America. She just laughed shook her head.
“Avena. Esta avena.”
About a week ago, I wrote a story about hearing a student of mine use the term Quaker as a derogatory term. You can read more about it on the post “Stop Being Such a Quaker!” With that post, I asked around. What do non-Quakers think about being Quaker? “Ask a stranger what they think a Quaker is… or what they think Quaker means and get back to me.”
Here are some of the responses I received:
- All Quakers are white
- You must be born a Quaker to be one
- Quakers don’t drink or party
- Quakers all dress like the Amish
- We make awesome furniture (like the Shakers)
- Quakerism is an ethnicity
- Quakerism is an obscure religion
- No one is a Quaker anymore
- Quakers are the sweetest people ever
- Quaker Oats Man (apparently in Nicaragua too!)
- We don’t have electricity
- We don’t have sex
- Quakers are extinct
- Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon
Well, it’s not a great list F/friends. While I think Quakers are also often thought of historically with regards to the underground railroad… we’ve done (individually and collectively) quite a bit since then.
Growing up Quaker, I feel like I learned about what Friends have done through history and since my father was the FCNL rep for my meeting for many years, I got a healthy dose of what Quakers were doing this part of the century. Even now, as an active young adult Quaker, I hear so many beautiful stories about how Friends are living out their values, their beliefs, and their queries in their individual as well as communal lives. However all that’s information for those of us part of the “tribe.”
Still, most of all that is behind the scenes even among our own communities. Its been the Quaker way for a long time. When I was a teenager, one of my mentors handed me a quote from Lao Tzu (who for those of you who don’t know, he is not a Quaker!) which read “A leader is best when those who are being led do not know he exists. So that when the people succeed, they will say that they did it themselves.”
This quote is the foundation for the leadership that I’ve explored and with which I have experimented. I struggle with the selflessness of the concept in several ways: For one, Quakers are so unknown that we are dwindling in number in many places in the world and not empowering each other to continue to create the kingdom of heaven here on hearth. In other places we are so unknown that we are unknown to each other! How then do we continue to live our faith, our practices, and our queries in the world?
Yet, the ‘behind the scenes’ work that Quakers have done over time has primed Quaker and non-Quaker communities alike to consider things like collective decision making; undoing oppression work; and analysis of the effects of international development (to name a few)…
It’s a sense of presence with which I struggle. To be or to be and to be known?
Still, it would be nice to have people know a bit more about Quakerism. At the very least that we exist and we aren’t oatmeal.