Growing Up Quaker - Jeff Wolfe*

A while ago, my friend Micah asked me to consider writing an essay on the theme of how my family upbringing influenced my growth as a Friend.

My initial reaction to Micah’s request was reluctance. Who am I to speak on such a topic? While it’s true that my father’s side of my family has rich Quaker roots, I questioned if, with integrity, I could reflect upon what it meant to grow up as a Quaker. My grandfather pastored a variety of FUM meetings, so I grew up the son of a preacher’s kid. However, when I look back with a cursory glance to my childhood, I don’t remember being around many Quakers. I was raised in a small Kansas town that was at least a couple of hours from the closest Friends meeting. On the rare occasion that my family would visit my grandparents in Wichita, we would worship among Friends at University Friends Meeting. However, the vast majority of the time, my family attended one of the churches close by, first a Methodist church and later a Baptist congregation.

What did I know of Quakers? For a good portion of my life, my dad was one of the few Friends I knew. As a young person, I quickly discovered that Quakers were an unknown quantity to most folks in my hometown. If I mentioned my family’s Quaker heritage to my peers, I would receive odd looks and predictable responses asking if Quakers still existed and if they could be distinguished from the Amish.

As I considered putting some thoughts on paper, I kept wondering if Micah would do better to pick someone else to write an essay on growing up Quaker. I thought there surely must be someone out there better suited to the topic—perhaps an individual who spent his or her youth faithfully attending Quaker camps or yearly meeting sessions. Could I write something useful—something other than a lament highlighting how my parents neglected my Quaker religious education? What good word did I have to offer?

As I tinkered around with various ideas for an essay, what I discovered was this: at this point in my life, my identity as a Quaker is of utmost importance to me. Yes, my family attended other churches when I was a kid, but somehow amidst it all, I didn’t become a Methodist or a Baptist. I am a Quaker.

When in my early twenties I began attending meeting regularly for the first time, I had a sense of epiphany: I felt that I was home. I had grown up with a pervasive sense that something was missing in the religious communities in which I participated. While I enjoyed sojourning with other church groups, I always knew I was holding part of myself back. For years I had secretly entertained theological questions that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing. There had always been aspects of who I was that never seemed to fit. But, amidst Friends things came into focus. As my knowledge of the Religious Society of Friends deepened, Quakerism simultaneously felt shockingly fresh yet eerily familiar at the same time. There was certainly much to learn, but I was amazed to discover that without my knowledge, a foundational understanding of Quakerism had already been laid.

What I glean from this is that although it might appear that my early exposure to the Religious Society of Friends was scant, I still was picking up cues about what it meant to be a Friend. As I look back at my childhood and adolescence, I can now see that small seeds were being planted. I certainly am unable to identify clearly each and every one of those seeds, but how often in life do we not recognize that which has been planted until it comes to fruition?

Among Friends, weird little peculiarities that I had noticed in my family began to make sense. As an example, I had long noticed my father refused to clap in response to “special music” in church. When the congregation exploded into applause after a musical number, my father would sit quietly with his eyes closed. Later, when I asked him why he didn’t clap with everyone else, he simply stated that all our music in worship is an offering to God; it isn’t a performance for an audience. I understood what he meant after I had the opportunity to sit quietly in a room full of Quakers.

Growing up, I was well aware that one of my father’s favorite parts of a worship service happened in the few brief moments where things slowed down as the offering plate was passed. I now know that for my father, a Friend in exile, the time of offering is as close as he gets to open worship. Those precious few moments are his one chance to center down in a worship service intent on filling every moment. That is the one place that he is not being instructed when to stand or sit, sing or listen. Experienced Quakers might legitimately question if such a brief moment of waiting worship is sufficient for deep listening, but that misses the point. When I watched how my father acted in those few moments, I was being taught in a small way what Quaker worship was all about.

When I think toward having my own kids, I have these grand visions of how I will impart Quakerism to my children. When they are young, I imagine reading to them children’s books about peace and the great heroes of Friends. As they grow, I anticipate introducing them to social justice movements in which Quakers have participated. I will pack my kids up and send them off to camp every summer, so they can know other Quaker youth. However, even as I dream about raising my kids to be Quaker, my own experience of growing up comes and taps me on the shoulder. When I reflect back, I am reminded that Quakerism was imparted to me in little gestures. Ultimately I believe I was primed for the Quaker faith first and foremost because Quakerism was built into the character of my own family. When I finally had the chance to live and worship with other Friends for myself, I recognized other Friends as my people because I had seen them first in my family. As Friends, who knows what seeds we are planting just by living out who we are?

*Jeff Wolfe enjoys picking the banjo, reading theology, and hiking Turkey Run State Park. Jeff lives in Bloomingdale, Indiana with his wife Tonda and their cats Edgar and Megabat. Jeff, a graduate of Earlham School of Religion, pastors Bloomingdale Friends Meeting.