My concern for outreach as such began the first time I went to Woodbrooke. We were on a Monthly Meeting weekend and we talked about the history and future of Quakerism with the help of Doug Gwyn. I’d been involved with Quaker outreach before, in that casual way that Quakers always are just by existing openly – so you’re a Quaker, huh? What does that mean?
My answers then were not deep: I was young and so were my questioners. We were not about oats and we do like peace, what more could I say?
At Woodbrooke that weekend I began to see that Quakers have something worth saying, as opposed to being a thing you are that makes you even more worth bullying than before. I didn’t mind being a Quaker, as such, before that – I enjoyed children’s meeting and some of the young people’s events and was already embracing my glasses, intelligence, marks, weight, clothing, food choices, lack of social skills, and many other things which made me an outcast on the playground. One more wasn’t going to do much harm. I think I hadn’t seen, though, that it could be something worth actively raising, rather than just a subject on which to react when others said stupid or misguided things.
Even in my mid-teens I had encountered evangelical Christianity (and to a lesser extent Islam) and I’m sure part of my reaction was “if they’re shouting, why shouldn’t I?”
Actually I try not to shout, although it’s sometimes my natural reaction. It’s not exactly Quakerly! I do think we should make our voices heard, though, rather than having a message which we keep to ourselves. Sharing things like this blog publicly, where they can in theory be read by anyone (accepting that almost nobody actually does read it!) is part of that.
In person, it can be both harder and easier to talk about Quakerism: easier because you can see and hear and know that much more about your audience, and tailor what you say to the people to whom you are speaking; and harder because the vulnerability required to share your personal experiences and journey with others is that much more when they can also see and hear your nonverbal reactions to the topic. I suppose these are the two sides of one coin, though!
At one time, I did most of my outreach by being involved in running Quaker Quest – it was actually Quaker Quest which made me resolve to come into membership, because I was standing up in front of strangers and claiming to be a Quaker, so why not do the paperwork to confirm it? These days, I do outreach less formally and more personally, mainly by persistently wearing on my rucksack strap a pin badge which identifies me as a Quaker. Not many people actually ask me why I’m a Quaker, but a lot of people read the badge that says ‘I’m a Quaker – ask me why’. Some say ‘so I am’, which is always a pleasure. Often it’s the people who are looking for a conversational starter who comment – coffee shop staff, for example. It’s just enough to confirm that it’s legible and people do read it, and not enough to feel intrusive or burdensome (worries I had when I began wearing it).
It’s tempting to ask whether any of these things ‘work’ in terms of bringing people to Meeting, but I reject the model of success which focuses on numbers. They do work to sow seeds, to remind people that Quakers exist, to make us a little more visible, and whether those seeds grow isn’t really any of my business.