My earliest encounter with religion came in a noisy preschool in Texas. There was a picture book with vivid images of Jesus Christ helping poor children, guiding a sick old woman, leading a flock of lambs. Later I associated this gentle bearded man with the Nativity scenes that decorated our neighbors' yards at Christmas. I did not understand the significance of this figure, but admired the soft, benign look on his face while also pitying him for his scraggly robes and emaciated frame. I remember believing that Santa Claus was in fact Jesus, just plumper and jollier in old age, spreading his cheer through presents and hearty "ho-ho-hos." Never attending church in my early childhood, I thought Christianity was some sort of glamorous club - Santa Claus' A-List - that met weekly in secretive conventions. I was not exposed to Christian doctrine or ritual, but saw only big shiny crosses, exotic Christmas ornaments and white-robed men. I desperately wanted to be part of it all.
When my family moved to New Jersey around my fifth birthday, my mother decided to attend a Quaker church. From the beginning, I dreaded Sunday mornings and the long drive to the small, modest meeting house when I would have to sit on hard wood benches surrounded by strange people in awkward silence. I would grow painfully bored, stifled by the thick quiet that permeated the stale room and pass the time counting ceiling tiles or observing these strange people. There were old men and women, eyes closed, wearing dull cardigans; a little boy with long hair; a petite woman with eyes that darted around the room like insects; couples holding hands without speaking. Here was a collection of some of the most liberal, open-minded and accepting individuals, but to me they were strange, odd, different. There was no priest handing out cookies and grape juice, no flamboyant hats and bright sequined dresses on fashionable women, there was not the slightest lingering scent of pricey cologne, or the doleful sound of organ music. There was only stillness broken by the occasional rustle of clothing, a muffled cough, a baby crying.
After 20 minutes, the children would be dismissed to another room. Sometimes we would discuss our morals or our understanding of God; sometimes we would take nature walks and collect objects of significance to us; sometimes we would meditate and speak to that elusive voice within. I would participate, but always as an outsider watching the bizarre rituals of a primitive culture. As I reached adolescence, this detachment at Meeting hardened into angry bitterness: the kids were typical middle-school rejects who didn't dress right or act cool, and the adults seemed to be encouraging these crippled nonconformists. I, already struggling with my own insecurities, did not want to be associated with such an eccentric group.
When the topic of religion would come up at school, I would cringe, waiting for the inevitable "You're Quaker? What's that?" My teacher, jumping at the chance to exploit diversity, would inevitably ask me to explain Quakers' beliefs. I, face growing red and hands clammy, would reply with my re-hearsed, monotone response: Quakers believe in peace.
Peace. At the time the word evoked little more than images of white doves in flight, hippies in flowing peasant tops or the two-fingered symbol that the kids would make in group photos. Peace is good; make peace, not war; let the world unite in peace - I had been bombarded with clichés, but the actual concept of peace, like the institution of Quakerism, was foreign to me. Not to mention that it was never a satisfactory answer for my class: "But do Quakers believe in Jesus?" they would ask. "Do you churn your own butter?" "Are you allowed to use electricity?" "Why aren't you wearing a bonnet?" And always the smart-aleck from the back of the room, arms crossed, smirking, "Don't you worship the Quaker Oats guy?"
In a small, upper-crust suburb, a hotbed for conventionality and conservatism, I knew that I had been raised in an unorthodox manner and instilled with values that contrasted starkly with my peers'. Thus, my religion became increasingly difficult as I found myself isolated because of my singularity of mind, principles and conduct. Frustrated by my differences, I began to believe that somehow associating with the Quaker folk had caused me to contract a horribly contagious disease that frightened others away. Every Sunday though, despite my violent tantrums, I always ended up in the backseat, having been given an ultimatum. Yet curiously, once I was at the Meeting House sitting among these strange people, I was instantly accepted. Even though I was a defiant, rebellious adolescent, here the adults would not tsk-tsk at my low-cut jeans or shake their heads at my "attitude." As much as I hated to admit it, this was a safe haven, free from the judgmental and critical mindsets I encountered at school.
Although a difficult, turbulent time in my life, I grew stronger and more confident as a result of the adversity I encountered in school. As I entered high school, I made friends, branched out, widened my social circle. I discovered interests and passions, and began that pivotal journey of self-discovery. Who was I? I found more and more that as I attempted to answer that question the response included Quakerism.
I was a Quaker. I began to explore my religious roots, discovering how the Quaker community had encountered persecution for their beliefs, had been mocked for their conscientious objection to war, and had faced oppression throughout their existence. Yet despite immense hardship, Quakers had never attempted to fight fire with fire, instead conquering hate through their persistent love, caring and compassion. These were tenets that I held dear, especially since they were so applicable to my life. I could not attempt to avenge the taunters during middle school with a retaliation of name-calling and dirty looks, but instead I passively resisted, and looked inside for strength.
I had finally accepted Quakerism. I believed in peace, the power of forgiveness and the importance of kindness. I became active in peace marches as the war in Iraq wrought bloodshed, and arranged candlelight vigils for the many sacrificed lives. I discovered my empowering ability to make a difference in the world, and for this I am immensely proud of my Quakerism, my avowed pacifism. Quakerism has taught me the value of love, the power of inner strength, but most importantly, it has taught me that sometimes it isn't the fist or the noisy protests that can really effect change; sometimes just being silent is enough.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.