Quakers Getting on the DOWN Escalator

Recently I read the amazing account of the Great Black Migration from the South, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson.

It’s a fine, fine book, and its relevance here is that, paradoxically, until it was well underway, there was no such thing as “The Great Migration”; that is, no one named or organized it, no one “joined” it.

Rather, there were individuals & families fleeing for their own survival: seeking escape from the personal costs of official southern racism, grinding poverty and unrestrained violence. Only after such private decisions were acted on by hundreds of thousands, over  decades, did scholars & writers come along to christen, study and begin to chronicle it.

Yet while “spontaneous” and unorganized, the Great Migration was indeed real and momentous, with national impact that’s still being felt.

A change equally unorganized & unheralded, potentially as momentous at least for us is, I believe, underway in the U. S. liberal Quakerism I discovered in 1965 (after ditching pre-Vatican II Catholicism).

This change does not necessarily involve moving from physical places, but rather from one economic and class location to another.

When I found it, Liberal American Quakerism was a solidly middle class “sub-subculture,” nearly all white, with a heavy academic/educational tinge. (I acronym it “EMCWAQE”–“E” now as in “Ex-,” or as vocalized, “EmQuake.“)

I don’t name EmQuake to flagellate anybody (or myself). After all, everybody & every group is conditioned/limited by its surroundings, so let’s just skip the trendy guilt-trips, which don’t fool anybody anyway, except sometimes us.

However, now in my 53nd year in this group, I see more & more of what’s been well-documented by economists/pollsters, etc. on a broader canvas, namely that these segments (the middle class part of EmQuake) are in a steady slide of downward mobility. We are not leaving our economic & class “homes” voluntarily, but like many of those in the Black Migration, being forced out.

This slide lacks the epic scale and the moments of high drama that Wlkerson’s book captures so well. (I mean, her story had lynch mobs, terrorist sheriffs, and years of field labor under a punishing sun. But who’s going to write an un-put-downable memoir about being stuck with student loan debt for most of their working years?) Besides, in the Great Migration, the pilgrims moved with hopes for improving their situation, which many did.

This reverse follows almost 50 years of post-World War Two expansion of EmQuake jobs, income, and seeming influence. And if current Congressional plans come to pass, this slide will take a DEEP new dive for most of us outside the upper middle.

Besides erosion of income & security, another big manifestation of the decline is loss of TIME: people are working more (both spouses in such households); it takes more concentrated effort to keep households together & kids on track to the higher ed that used to maintain middle class status & income, etc. The “weekend” shrinks, even as ever more is crammed into it.

But as in the Deep South, both this downward economic mobility & the time-crunch are experienced & perceived mainly as individual or single family issues –that’s how we’re taught to think & perceive in these Individual States of America. It’s hard for very many of us to see past this tree to even the edge of the forest, or admit that we’re part of it.

What does this shift from the UP to the DOWN class escalator mean for “voluntary associations” (aka churches)?

That too has been well-documented: it makes their old middle class patterns increasingly squeezed & dysfunctional. Church was once central to many families and their communities.

Now it has to compete with work, school, family pressures, politics, invasive media, plain old fatigue, discrediting scandals, and so forth.
Thus [with some interesting exceptions which we don’t have time for here] church, along with many other former social pillars, is increasingly being marginalized for many.

What’s the remedy here, especially for Meetings & Friends churches? That’s not so easy to see.

I hear a lot about new church marketing plans, ways to tweak & repackage the old patterns to corral more of the Squeezed folks and that magic group of their offspring, The Millennials; but I don’t see many results–the slide continues. And it looks to me particularly serious for EmQuakes: our “secure middleness” is gone-with-the-wind, but it seems still baked into our institutional & cultural Quaker bones. The baking started well before 1945, and I’m not at all sure American Quakerism, especially the liberal branches, has a vision of survival without it.

One suggestion, though: what if we could begin to reimagine EmQuakes as a no-longer “solid” middle class group? I don’t think there’s even a name for this condition yet: “ex-middle class”? “Newly-Almost Poor”? “Sliders”? “The Emerging Precariat.” Other ideas?

By whatever name, though, how do non-prosperous folks “do church” (or meeting)? Are there non-prosperous segments of American Quakerism (past or present) to learn from?

And what about the psychological/emotional work such a rethink would involve? To be sure, EmQuakes have always been “concerned” for the “disadvantaged”; but that whole outlook is 100% philanthropic. that is, it moves socially from “above” [i.e., more affluent/powerful] to “below”: We-the-prosperous, aiding Them-the-deprived (particularly the “deserving poor”).

Again, I’m not interested in flagellating ourselves about that; EmQuakes have done a lot of good work for a lot of people in this mode, Thank Thee Very Much. It is what it is.

Or at least, it was what it was.

Yet the point remains that it’s a huge shock (trauma is a better word) to go from one side of that transaction to the other. And that’s where I think many (most?) of us are headed.

Dealing with the impact (PTSD — Post Traumatic Spiritual Distress) will involve more than economics; it will be a heavy-duty religious task. It means the recalibration of our outlook on both our Religious Society & its work in the world.

As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem like most EmQuakes are well-prepared for any of this, in which case one would expect a time of confusion, grieving, and internal disorder. Which, if you look beyond the diminishing cozy Quaker bubbles, is already plentiful in U. S. Quakerdom.

Where these musings are pointing is toward internal work: seeking & threshing about “American Quakerism During The Big Slide.”

Such labour is not to be confused with the current thrusts of outward Resistance. That must continue (except for those who have arranged not to get old, disabled, de-careered, or sick); yet this internal work is distinct, with its own imperatives. And, to be plain, its own addition to the Time Squeeze. It might start with discussion & study, as well as learning how to minister to each other through such periods. And recovering a once-vigorous practice of mutual aid.

I realize this is not much of a detailed program. It’s like correctly noticing that a thick fog has descended all around us in an already gloomy forest: knowing that is useful, but doesn’t shed light on the winding path in and through the gloom. But maybe it’s a starting point.

One younger Friend (younger than me, at least) has just published a kind of manifesto for such deliberation: Scot Miller, of upstate Michigan. His book is Gospel of the Absurd.

I’m planning to discuss Scot’s book with him at Spring Friends Meeting here in North Carolina, on Seventh Day (Saturday), Second Month (February) 24, beginning at 10 AM. Y’all come.

Scot argues that the way forward for EmQuakes (tho he has his own peculiar terminology: he calls them/us Christians), is to embrace the slide, embrace the stripping of our liberal dreams of affluence-that-underwrites-influence, turn all that stuff upside down, and replace it.

With what? With the absurd. Or at least practices that sound absurd to the  well-conditioned declining middle class mind. Such as:

With a communal, small-scale, deliberately marginal set of “ministries,” especially alongside those suffering directly from current injustices. (He lives not far from Flint, Michigan, and works often among the many there who are still without safe water). And he wants this all to be regularly marinated in ongoing Bible study and serious accountability to the group. (Serious = their way or the highway.)

If this sounds to you like something close to the Amish, or maybe the Catholic Worker, or various monastic efforts — then you’re on the right track.

Scot himself dresses plain, runs a dairy farm, and hopes to start one such agriculture-based community on his acreage. He’s a hybrid, Quaker and a Brethren church minister, about equally attached and ticked off at both.

Scot Miller at work (holding the books).

And he’s come to this proposed program, both through a turbulent personal journey, and after a tracking his way through seminary. There he tackled a stack of dense theological tomes, on postmodernist, womanist, social gospel, Yoderian, Cone-ian, Hauerwasian, Derridadian & Macintyrian approaches to theology. (But if you don’t know these names, don’t worry).

Do his ideas make any practical sense? Are there additional unconventional approaches we need to articulate and wrestle with? (Other than the fallback, “More of the same”?)

Personally I’m not at all sure his plan will work for Quakers. But I can’t deny we’re in a tough time, in need of some renewal of thought and discernment, and I respect his thinking and determination. Plus, I have friends in the Catholic Worker movement, and the outsized impact of their version of this approach over 85 years is not to be gainsaid.

Yet, could such an approach really get any traction among the hardened individualism and obsession with formal political activity that preoccupy most American Friends today?

Among those who still feel secure, probably not. But for the EmQuakes, Friends who see their future, and that of their children and grandchildren, riding on that escalator — for those of us who are beginning to realize we may be part of another unwilling, gathering “Great” Migration (downward rather than to one of the compass points), it’s worth at least a serious look.

Spring Friends Meeting, Snow Camp, NC. (It won’t be this green yet on February 24.)

9 thoughts on “Quakers Getting on the DOWN Escalator”

  1. I agree with you completely (although I DISLIKE this window’s insistence that “yep” is too short to post).

  2. Having been solidly working class all my life, I cannot say whether the meetings I have attended gained or lost anything through someone’s middle-class-ness. I have been in an MFB where someone said that everyone in the room was middle class. A large percentage of us looked at each other quizzically while searching for two dimes to rub together. I do have two observations. One, the entire US population is going through this slide, with one respected magazine article recently saying the bottom 80% and the top 20% (economically) no longer have anything in common. The two groups have no contact or reference points because their lives are completely separate from cradle to grave. (This is not true in, for example, the UK.) Why would it be any different for Q’s and why would we need to do something about it separate from acting politically to stop the poor from sliding off the deep end? Second, if one is looking for a model for “churches” that are not middle class, one need look no further than the aforementioned black people. Many black churches are full of working class folks. The ones I have known are very active in their communities. Ask them how they make it work.

  3. Thanks for thinking about this, and writing. Years ago a Unitarian friend told me politics was the new religion. Neither, I think, is doing very well under the “our way or the highway” banner. Hard to know what to do to stop the financial slide and simultaneous time crunch or how to behave gracefully while it’s happening.

  4. Chuck, I think you need to look at a calendar. It’s 2018. If Millennials are the offspring of the people being targeted for outreach, then the people being targeted are Boomers. Maybe they’re feeling this squeeze, but I’m pretty sure it’s us Millennials (adults in our 20s and 30s) who are feeling the effects of lifelong student debt. Don’t target our parents. Target us. Don’t continue to talk about us and treat us as the children we were 15-20 years ago. Why would we stay somewhere we’ll only be condescended to?

    Now, to the rest of it:

    Church attendance among the lower classes is far higher than among the upper classes. Generosity is, too! You are correct about individualism being a barrier. That individualism prevents real community, where we share our real problems with each other and help each other directly. Your problems are yours. My problems are mine. About them we shan’t talk. That is a very wealth-privileged way to think about things.

    If we learn not to be snobs and do become comfortable with the meeting being composed more heavily of people with less income, I think we will become more attractive to others. Learning not to be snobs is the tough part.

    I think pride is the primary sin here:
    – Pride says, “I can take care of myself without relying on the community.”
    – Pride says, “we must save everyone else and do not need saving ourselves.”
    – Pride says, “the way we do it is objectively the best.”

    Humility is the antidote to pride. And I don’t mean false humility. “Oh, we’re overall pretty low income. I mean, we tend to have jobs like teaching, with steady hours, salaries, and retirement benefits!” doesn’t impress someone who works 50 hours/week between two part time jobs.

    I sometimes long for a communal form of Quakerism. The way the Bruderhof live looks wonderful—except for the strict gender roles.

    1. Hi Mackenzie,

      I think I’ve noticed the year. But I’m not sure I understand all you’re getting at. I don’t operate an “outreach program.” I write things that feel important to me, and put them out there, or rather, here. Some are read by many, some by few; I never know which it will be. This post was read by pretty many. I don’t do much market research to break out the ages, genders, educational level, incomes and pride levels etc. of those who read it. But I pay close attention to the feedback that shows up here, like yours.
      I’m also not part of any “outreach committees”; the ones I’ve bumped into were mostly not, as they say, a good fit. (Words like silly and ridiculous also occurred to me.) I have checked on some of the many “evangelism” efforts of the late North Carolina YM (FUM), which consumed lots of money and time, over the last 20-30 years. That was when the membership numbers dwindled by half or more, so I’m pretty sure they were a succession of failures too. Then I’ve also seen numerous pieces by “outreach experts” peddling magic potions guaranteed to persuade wandering millennials to come rushing back to church; but the available followup numbers thus far suggest that these aren’t working very well either. (Here’s what seems like good current research underlining that continuing exodus: https://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-poll-nones-atheist-leaving-religion/)
      There’s also no shortage of wannabe jeremiads by self-appointed millennial “prophetic” types, denouncing churches, and especially my generation in them, for being too much of this and/or too little of that, and blaming us for why they’re leaving, etc., etc.
      Most of these leave me shrugging and remembering my teacher Koheleth: “Still nothing new under the sun,” I think he’d say after reading these, probably adding “Dude,” to be hip.
      Really. Believe it or not, there were LOTS of good reasons NOT to be a Quaker when I joined up 50-plus years ago; maybe not exactly the same list, but with much overlap and still with plenty of counts for a damning indictment. And on one point you’re dead right, pride is the “deadly sin” underneath it all. It was then, and as far as I can see, it is now.”
      But if all that was true 50+ years ago, and I sensed it, then why did I want to stay? It wasn’t for the money; or for the “power”; the best I can figure out is that I stayed because I felt called. And not called because either I or Quakerism was perfect or even nearly so; but both were called anyway. Called and given some work to do (work which can also change.) And that “frame,” of Quakerism being a called or (some find it more safely genteel to say “gathered”) people still works for me. So when I survey millennials, or any other group, I wonder who among them might be called. And I figure that if I do my best to speak and write what’s given to me, it can be used to deliver a call to some, a few, or maybe even one, and thus do its job. (To examine the sources for this, begin with Matthew 13.) That’s not the same as “outreach.”
      Even after 52 years, that still makes the most sense to me: those who come and stay in Quakerism (or grow up in it and stay) will, at their best, stay because they feel called, and have work to do under the gray umbrella. And while I like to spread the word about Quakes (I’ll put my track record of that up against whoever you want that’s living), I also feel this calling work will not be improved by adopting MBA-style “marketing” plans, because that stuff is about selling products — which is not a bad thing, except Quakerism for me is not a “product.”
      And here’s one more thing about pride: it’s very inclusive, way ahead of all the anti-racism and cross-generational outreach programs I’ve come across. A few of the millennial Jeremiahs have got a pretty good bead on some of the many failings of my crowd; I hope (sometimes) that I’ll stay around long enough to see some of them face up to their own versions of it, which is not the same as ours, and yet close enough; pride is pride is pride.
      And here’s a twinkle of it; you thought my paragraphs about downward mobility were all about condescending and geezersplaining to millennials? Try again. Plenty of it — right now I’d say most — applies to Boomers and even older ones (I’m a pre-boomer myself). My lugubrious Acronym “EMQUAKEs” can stretch forward to millennials struggling with student loan debt, but definitely works backward to include many who are now on Social Security, e.g., myself. One of the nudges that got me writing the post was a piece about how medical costs for elders, beyond what Medicare covers, are steadily encroaching on and eroding the value of Social Security income. And this is a phenomenon that is happening to me, right now, as well as many others. (The article is here, in case you missed it: http://bit.ly/2Gwcjyt) My reflections were definitely “targeted” for them, as well as for those at the other end, with student loan debt.
      I wonder where you got the report that church attendance is higher further down the class ladder; I’d like to see that. And I was bemused to read of your yearning for a Quaker Bruderhof. That’s another idea which was very much in the air when I showed up 52 years ago. I met a number of Friends (all gone now) who had joined it, to slake their need for “community.” Have you heard the proverb: Be careful what you wish for? What a disaster that turned out to be for almost all. One of them, Lee Kleiss, ended up in Fayetteville NC while I was there; after her death, we prepared a pretty detailed memorial minute which outlined her traumatic and oppressive experiences at the
      hands of that “community.” (The memorial, which could have been much more lurid, is online here: http://www.ncymc.org/fayetteville/Lee_Kleiss.pdf ) She also worked for many years afterward with a large network (hundreds of) Bruderhof expellees, obliged to rebuild their lives from scratch afterward. “Rigid gender roles” are only the beginning of sorrows. (Here’s another piece about that exile network: http://www.perefound.com/em-s_sp.html ) You speak of the sin of pride? Have a look at what demonic forms it can take in “community.” You want it, you can have it.
      Yet I also agree with you that the “remedy” for pride is humility. With what I’ve learned about the Bruderhof and other such calamities, group humility often looks to me like a small Quaker meeting, limping toward a never-quite solid enough “sense of the meeting,” and occasionally getting there, for a bit. But not long enough for the pride to get too deeply ingrained. Outwardly, this may not seem very dramatic. For me, it’s usually close enough, or even more.

      1. I know you aren’t the one running marketing efforts. You’ve been quite clear that you think they’re a waste of time and we should all just accept there will be no more Quakerism in the US past this century.

        “you thought my paragraphs about downward mobility were all about condescending and geezersplaining to millennials? Try again. ”

        No, I don’t think that at all. The first part of my comment, which mentioned condescension, was 100% COMPLETELY about this sentence:

        “I hear a lot about new church marketing plans, ways to tweak & repackage the old patterns to corral more of the Squeezed folks and that magic group of their offspring, The Millennials”

        I was saying that if their marketing efforts are hoping to get adults who then bring along their millennial children, they’ve missed that boat by 15+ years, since millennials are adults. And acting like we’re not is condescending as all get-out. It’s a form of condescension that is very common among Friends and reminds me of what Martin Kelley wrote 15 years ago about how Gen X was driven off. I don’t think it’d hurt to learn from that era.

        Regarding church attendance and income, I know for sure that the book The Unchurched Next Door (which has so much evangelical-ese in it, you might want to throw it out the window) breaks out the frequency with which people say they’re open to accepting an invitation to church by their income level, and that was very much skewed against 6-figure incomes.

        But just in case, I just dug around. Pew’s Religious Landscape shows 35-37% weekly attendance under $100k and only 30% over it. I admit the numbers below that are not what I expected based on the “would accept an invitation” numbers. It’s all very even. 35% under 50k, 37% over for weekly, and 33% a couple times a month under 30k while 34% over that.

        1. “No Quakerism in the US past this century?” Nope. You’re confusing me with some other doom-sayers. I don’t know if it will rain tomorrow, and I don’t know where Quakerism will be in 2100. “Predictions are hard,” said the great seer Yogi Berra, “especially about the future.” Things are changing, though; I just finished reporting on the self-destruction of a 320 year-old yearly meeting, once one of the largest. I reported it, didn’t predict it, and really didn’t expect it.
          Around here the doom-saying comes mainly from pastors whose jobs are in increasing jeopardy as overall attendance (& donations) keep slipping. I think they’re right to be worried, and I have no remedies to offer them except to find another occupation. And meetings without paid pastors is not a doomsday scenario to me; it’s a tradition waiting to be renewed.
          On the unprogrammed side, when I hear such talk it’s often from some who want church jobs, of which there have long been mighty few in liberal Quakerism. And I hear a variation from a kind of Neo-Orthodox perspective, yearning for the good old days when elders & ministers were in firm control & other Friends knew their places. I’m no friend of that scenario either.
          What I like is to see Friends finding their own leading & getting on with it.

      2. Oh, and I focused on student loan debt as a feature of the demographic to which you refer and not medicare and social security because look at your post. You only mentioned one of those: student loan debt. That was your writing.

        “But who’s going to write an un-put-downable memoir about being stuck with student loan debt for most of their working years?”

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