by Eric Baker
One thing I really appreciate about this Quaker Meeting—this is my only experience of Quaker Meetings—one thing I really appreciate about this meeting is that we allow space. We just clear the table or we try to clear our palates. We are expecting God to speak in different ways because we are different people.
How I Came to Quakers from Evangelical Christianity
My name is Eric Baker. I’m a part of First Friends Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, and I’m the music director here. I grew up in a very conservative—almost fundamental—Evangelical church setting, and really my whole adult life—or let’s say the first 15, even 20, years of my adult life—was me really questioning the values, the language, the theology behind that. I was the music director at a large non-denominational Evangelical church not far from here. Six, 7 thousand people. It just wasn’t working for me. So for about 2 years, I was trying to figure out the best way to leave that and also to do the best things for me. Really, it sounds funny, but this was the first time in my life, in my late thirties, that I was getting the opportunity to figure this out apart from what I was doing vocationally.
Finding the Quakers
I was really not familiar with the Quakers at all. I had read a few authors, people like Parker Palmer and Phillip Gulley, and it really resonated with me. It’s kind of funny, at the big church where I was directing the music, one of my jobs was to make sure that everything was programmed, and now I look back and it’s sort of “entertainment church” where there’s lots of moving lights and screens and a full band and smoke and all that stuff. I walked in here, and this is a semi-programmed meeting, so we have music and a message, but there are going to be multiple times throughout the meeting where it’s just silent.
So the first time I walked in, I think the minister got up and read a scripture and she sat down and nobody did anything, and I thought, “Oh boy, how embarrassing is this? Somebody has missed their cue.” And man, it’s my first time here, I wonder if this happens often. And then four or five seconds stretches into 15 seconds, into 30 seconds, and I start to realize what’s going on, and I at first was very uncomfortable. And then I looked around, and I thought, no one else seems to be uncomfortable. Just be cool. I can sit through this. I can weather whatever this is, you know?
Embracing Not Knowing
I grew up in such a Jesus-centric environment. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. And that was used as this, like, “Hey we’ve got the answer and those people, they don’t.” So what do we need to do? We need to tell them about Jesus, whether it’s people in the inner city, or people in Africa, or the kids I go to school with.
One of the things that I just really started to struggle with, even early into my twenties, was this idea that we all had to be on the same page when it comes to what we believe. But what that does is it sends this message that if you believe this, then you’re with us. If you don’t, then either you’re not with us or you may really may need to think about coming over to our side, and I always really struggle with that. So to now say not only are we not going to make you say what we believe in this one voice—so making sure: “Hey, we’re all on the same page, right?”—we’re not going to say anything. And we’re going to allow God to speak into this.
It took a little while for me to not only learn that, but to give myself permission that that was okay. That God is not this, that our experience of how religion should be is not this, it’s this.
Recognizing the Light of God in Every Person
Recognizing the light of God in every person has been a goal of mine to try and unlearn a lot of things. Recognizing the light of God in every person that’s different than me, that looks different than me, that has a different ethnic background or socioeconomic background or sexual identity or… I don’t understand their world, but they are created in the image of God. It’s not, “I recognize that you are created in the image of God and you’re welcome into this place. Now, we need to get you in here and talk about this sin in your life.” That’s been my experience. It’s like, yeah, everybody’s welcome here. And then they can sit here and get changed until they’re just like the rest of us.
What if we don’t do that? What if I don’t purport to know exactly what a follower of God or Jesus Christ is supposed to look like? What if there’s no “supposed-to-look-like?” What if we just say, “You are created in the image of God and I am created in the image of God and I recognize that in you and the value that you have because of that and the beauty that you bring to me and my life and the perspective and the value on your ideas and your thoughts and the value that brings to this meeting.” What if we just do that? That’s what’s had such a significant impact on me.Posted on
Part One: Being Gay in Kenya
I’m looking for a new family honestly, because my family has disregarded me. They did a ceremony in the African context of when you are gay or you commit suicide, they perform a certain ritual that people don’t want to associate themselves with you. To me, they performed it. They burned my clothes. They destroyed my things. They have sold my commercial plots in town. Some of the things I have bought. They have sold my things, meaning they don’t want to associate themselves with me.
I don’t have family in Kenya. I don’t have support in Kenya. I don’t have friends in Kenya.
Being Gay in Kenya
The law of Kenya is against homosexuality. If you are gay and found having sex with a person of the same gender you are jailed for 14 years. People need to understand, you know, what we mean by sexual preference and sexual orientation. I think that is the big thing that Africans are struggling with. So if they come to the fullness of understanding what is sexual preference and what is sexual orientation I think they can distinguish that and not demonize people and I think it is just homophobic, you know.
Being brought from where—I just don’t know because people say it is a Western thing, but honestly speaking it’s not a Western thing because I have done research and I found out that in the African context we have some terms that they used to refer to people of the same sex having sex—and so it is something buried down that they don’t want to bring it up. And yet it is there.
When I came out, close friends of mine heard about my coming out and they demonized it. They started calling me—that I am evil, I am possessed—and they treat me as someone who is suffering from mental illness.
“Praying for God to lift this curse”
I can say that what Paul says, “a thorn in the flesh,” something that disturbed me for many years and so I wanted this thing to come out. But it didn’t come out. It is something that I have grown up with my entire life. The first time that I discovered that I was gay it was far away in high school. I was being attracted to men sexually—those who dress well and they look nice. It was just me.
I would go to people to ask, “I have these feelings about my sexual desires. How am I going to do it?” Most of the time people advised me to pray and fast because they were telling me that it is a demon. And so I believed maybe, you know, people who are heterosexual and they engage themselves into gay sex: it is an abomination. It is a curse.
So I was praying God to lift this curse away from me.
So it has been so difficult for me to reconcile my faith, to reconcile my culture, and my sexual orientation. People refer me to books like Leviticus: “It is wrong for people to be together, have sex with the same gender,” and then they quote so much what Paul said. But you know, they don’t look into the culture of that time. The context and the content.
Why did Paul say this? Why did the writer of Leviticus write this? They take the scriptures literally the way it is and they want to apply it. Maybe it was that time, it is not this time.
Can’t Go Home
So right now I am operating as a refugee. Not on student status, but student vis-a-vis refugee. So I can’t assure you I will be going home right now, but I do love my country and I want to go back and support my country. But I have no means of going back because of the fear that I have for my life. Sort of like, I have shifted my minds to be here and to look for the Quaker organization and work with the Quaker church to support me and to be there.
Hakuna Mungu kama wewe
Part Two: Being Gay is Just OK
Homosexual is an inborn thing. You can’t get it out of you. If it is in you, it is in you. You can’t change it. It is just like heterosexual.
My name is Justimore Musombi and I’m from Kenya. I come from Algon East Yearly Meeting of Friends Church. I was a pastor in Kenya after graduating from Friends Theological College in 2000.
Quakers are well known for peace work and in Kenya we have the tribal clashes and fighting among the people in Kenya so I thought I really wanted to work to unite my country together and I couldn’t do that unless I have basic knowledge about peace.
So I joined the Quaker church simply because I wanted to know more about peace and work towards peace in Kenya, so that’s one thing that attracted me to Quakerism.
Well I have been through rough times. I can’t say that it has been easy for me to come out openly as a gay Quaker Christian. It has been a lot of challenges in my life. Because I was a pastor in Kenya, I preached and people consider me as a very spiritual person and charismatic. Yes I am a very powerful pastor, very charismatic. Sometimes I can even speak in tongues. But now, coming out as gay, it was a shock to many people.
My Monthly Meeting wrote me a letter that was a very bad letter telling me how I am evil, I baptized children there and I held them in my hands and I was preaching there, and all that I did – now it is null and void, it is rubbish.
And so I had a clearness committee to help me sort out my way out because I wasn’t sure where to go with all of these threats and phone calls. I had to report it to the police. So talking to the clearness committee, they helped me to apply for political asylum, and I applied for political asylum, which I was granted last year.
Supporting Young People
My plan was to go back home and support the young Quakers. I’ve worked with the young Quakers for long and the young Quakers understand me so much and they love me so much in my country and I have a heart for them. These are people that we can rely on for the future generation of the Quakers and I think in Kenya it’s the highest population of the young Quakers probably in the whole world. So my main focus of coming here was to get the studies and go home and support them. I have so many young Quakers who are gay and lesbian but people in Kenya lead a double life. I wanted to go there to start a different Quaker church that is welcoming and affirming to support the Quaker young people.
I have felt so good because, for example, Earlham School of Religion is the liberal college and is welcoming and affirming. I’ve seen so many transgender, gay and lesbian people. And I felt good because they are supportive. I have been going to West Richmond Friends Church, which is welcoming and affirming.
Pastoring from Afar
I am working to write my story from the time I was born, how I grew up with my stepfather and my stepmom, how I came to know that I was gay. It will include my coming out story. So it’s going to me my life in Kenya and my life in the US, just to let people know that being gay or lesbian is just OK and God loves you just the way you are. And it’s not that you are suffering from mental illness and it’s not that you are a demon or anything, it is just the homophobic people just being afraid. But I really want to write my book so that people can read and create that awareness in the community and I think it will be a great place for people to read my story.
I’m also inspired to look forward to what articles Quakers have written about homosexuality and the Bible and I’m looking forward to translate those articles if people can give me that permission—into Swahili so that people can get that knowledge. Even though I will not be there physically, if I get my book there and some material there for people to read, I will have helped my society so much. If I don’t do it, who will do it?
I am here to sacrifice my life and my gift that God has given me to bless my community.
There is none like you my God. There is none, there is none, there isn’t one like you my God. Hankuna Hakuna Hakuna kama wewe. Hankuna Hakuna Hakuna Mungu kama wewe.Posted on
Lloyd Lee Wilson: Are Quakers Christian? Many Quakers are Christian. Worldwide, most Quakers are Christian. I’m a Christian. I’m a Christian today because there was a place for me in the Religious Society of Friends when I wasn’t a Christian.
Are Quakers Christian?
Chloe Schwenke: Are Quakers Christian? I would almost turn that question around and say, “Ok, tell me what a Christian is.” And it goes to the heart of what I think is the magic of Quakerism, which is that we don’t try to define God. We let God be God and we just experience God. Some of us including myself feel a great connection to the experience and testimony of Jesus Christ. The way that Jesus Christ brought love into the world as a tangible and important and central piece of what it means to be a human being is a very powerful testimony that many, many Quakers would feel absolutely at home with who may not call themselves Christians. But they don’t need to call themselves Christians.
The History of Quakerism
Lisa Motz-Storey: My practice is definitely Christian. But it doesn’t mean that I feel like Christianity is the only way. It’s our history as Quakers, too. George Fox would have answered, “Yes” to that question and everybody else.
David Johnson: Certainly the first Quakers were Christian. Their whole life and spirituality were centered around the light within them, which they experienced as the light of Jesus as the Christ working within them.
A Distinctive Approach to Christianity
Mark Wutka: I would say from its beginning, Quakerism was rooted in Christianity but it wasn’t necessarily the same kind of Christianity that was surrounding it. I would say one of the distinctives is that Quakerism tended to take external things and understand them from an internal perspective.
Gregg Koskela: For me one of the ways that a Friends perspective helps me to follow Jesus is probably best described for when I first walked into this room as a freshman at George Fox College: I was really moved by the attentiveness to the Spirit of God and I remember calling my Mom and saying, “These people believe what all these Christian churches I’ve been a part of have believed but not taken seriously.”
Lloyd Lee Wilson: Much of Christianity is what we might call “cataphatic” spirituality, which you can think of as a list of all the sentences that you could make that begin “God is…” Quakers have lifted up in large part an “apophatic” spirituality, which you can think of as all the sentences that begin, “God is not…” and you fill in all the blanks. Which is not to deny God but to recognize that all our intellectual constructs and our language and our words are not quite it.
Valerie Brown: This is one of the things I really love about Quakerism, is that it is so unconventional. It is noncomformist. I really appreciate that element of the mystery of Quakerism.
The Universal Light of Christ
David Johnson: The Light is a universal light, and that’s clear in Penn’s original statement, that the spirit of God is in every person. That’s taken primarily from the ninth verse of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. I’m sure that that light which comes from a universal spirit of God is experienced by every other person.
Lloyd Lee Wilson: I think that Quaker corner of the big tent of Christianity doesn’t bring anything from outside Christianity, but highlights and lifts up things that were in the Christian tradition always but have been neglected or almost lost over the millennia. One of the things is the direct and immediate and perceptible encounter and relationship with God. That idea that God pours out God’s spirit on everybody, and that’s a life-changing encounter.
Tom Hoopes: I personally identify as Quaker. I do not self-identify as Christian. And the reason I don’t choose that identity is for me, the label Christian includes a very large community of people in the world, too many of whom practice a too-enthusiastic form of exclusion and intolerance for me to feel okay with that. I do unite with many of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I specifically am enthusiastic about the Gospel of Thomas.
Jade Souza: I am a Christ-centered Friend, as we tend to call ourselves, or a Christian. It’s fine to call me Christian. I guess my question back is: why is it important for some people that you call yourself Christian when that’s a word that never crossed Jesus’s lips? I think the word Christian is really a worldly term. It’s a contemporary term that has a social meaning and can mean a lot of different things to different people.
Lisa Motz-Storey: When I first came to meeting, I called myself “post-Christian” because if I really believe that everyone has their own spiritual path, then I’m not really Christian, I’m just sort of open and seeking. That was a popular term to use within Quaker circles. But I’ve come full circle, and really embraced that I am Christian.
Chloe Schwenke: The whole labeling thing of “tell me what you believe, tell me who you are” is the antithesis of my experience of Quakerism and the Quaker testimonies. I like the fact that we don’t have a creed. We have testimonies: things we share that seem to be common experiences and ways of being as Quakers that flow from the experience of the Divine, but do not define the experience of the Divine. They’re coming the other way. You’ve got to experience it and you’ve got to stop trying to put God in a box. If we were able to put God in a box, he/she/it would not be God anymore. I mean, come on, we’re only human beings.
How Quakers Fit Into Broader Christianity
Fritz Weiss: I don’t think that this whole teaching that is captured in what we know of Jesus was about individual salvation and hereafter. It was about this world we live in now. It was about what being a people of God, being a community of God would look like in this world right now. When Jesus said, “This is what I command. I command that you love one another,” he meant now, here. How could I not take that commandment up? That is such a clear prescription for what it would mean to be living as people gathered in God’s name.
Gil George: I think the witness that Quakers bring the broader Christian family really is that one of the “priesthood of all believers” as is spoken. We don’t operate with a hierarchy because we recognize that there’s really only one boss, and that’s no human agency.
Lloyd Lee Wilson: I think Quakers remind the rest of Christianity that words are insufficient, that there is something beyond words, something beyond intellectual constructs that is there and is vital about this Christ who lived 2,000 years ago and who we say we encounter today in our worship and in our silent meditation and in our relationship with the divine.
Fritz Weiss: And I think that’s for me the heart of the controversy sometimes about, what do we mean? Do we mean being Christian means accepting Jesus Christ as my personal savior so that in the hereafter I am able to sit at the feet of God? Or do we mean that accepting Jesus Christ and the teachings of Jesus Christ informs my life here and now, in these times, in this culture, in this context? For me it’s the second. It informs how I live my life, here.Posted on