My father was well into his twenties before he left South Africa for the first time, and he tells me that even now, some 50 years later, there are still mornings when he wakes up in his home in Norway to a snow-covered landscape and his gut reacts with a “What the ….? Where the h**l am I?”

My reactions are usually not quite as strong as his, because the area of North America where I now live, is about as similar to the southern Norway of my adolescence and early adulthood as any place I’ve ever seen. But I still have my moments of culture shock, even after 14 years in this country. They are often followed by homesickness for Norway and then the sad recognition that Norway never really felt like home, either, since I spent my childhood in Botswana. Nor was Botswana home, because we knew we were just guests. So then I do another round of grieving that no place has ever felt like home to me. I’ve always felt lonely, homeless (though not without a physical structure called “home”), like an outsider. This is a common feeling for people who grew up the way I did – raised between cultures, but not in one. (Professional literature refers to us as Third Culture Kids, TCKs.)

What does this have to do with Quaker musings? I just had a “waking up to snow” experience among liberal Quakers. 

Since I was 6 months old, I have lived among people working for a more just society. In Botswana, I always lived in an international mix of people, Batswana, South African refugees, Peace Corps and aid workers from a variety of countries and cultures. In Norway, when I was with my anti-apartheid buddies or just dancing the night away at the Club Tropicana in Oslo with people from every part of the globe, I was made to feel welcome. Mainline Norwegian culture was harder to adjust to, and part of what brought me to Quakerism was that Quakers were the first group of regular Norwegians that didn’t look down on me because I didn’t have the right label on my jeans. The sense of healing was powerful!   

Among people working for change, I have almost always felt welcome. Simply showing up to do the work was enough to gain me acceptance, and I didn’t even have to say that I was friendly to the cause. That was understood. I wouldn’t have been there otherwise. People working for justice are often quick to recognize the gifts of the TCK – if the TCK isn’t too damaged by living in a constant state of spiritual and emotional homelessness. At our best, we have the ability to see things from everyone’s point of view and we don’t take any social structure or custom for granted. We can imagine a better way of doing things, and change is relatively easy for us. We can be change-makers and bridge-builders between groups. (Barack Obama is an example of what a TCK can be at his best. Thomas Merton is another.)

Here in the USA I have been accepted with complete warmth in the homeless community and among the mentally ill whom I serve as a spiritual director, chaplain, and advocate. Just showing up to do the work seems to be all they and other spiritually based activists need to know about me to accept me into their movement towards a better society.

My “waking up to snow” experience has been that, among liberal Quakers, showing up to work for a more inclusive and diverse society and/or Religious Society of Friends is not enough. I had a taste of it when I first came to the USA at the Earlham School of Religion. I would talk about “Black” people and “White” people, because that was the terminology I grew up with in the anti-apartheid movement. After a few months, I accidentally discovered that some people had determined that my use of language was evidence to them that I was racist. In their minds, I should have been using “People of Color”. Having grown up within the anti-apartheid movement, you can imagine my bewilderment! If they had talked with me and given me more information on how things are done in this country, I would have welcomed it. Instead, they talked about me and made their decisions about me without engaging with me. There have been other situations since then among liberal Quakers, when I felt rejected as “not good enough” to join in the movement towards a free and just society. In each of those situations, I would have welcomed a friendly conversation and some suggestions. But instead, it seemed to me that they made their decision about me and who I am based on a few words I said, without trying to get to know me. I have had the experience of being found unworthy because I ask the kinds of open-ended, conversation-stimulating questions TCKs like to ask (to be worthy, I hear that I am supposed to ask questions that establish the justice agenda). When I am found unworthy by American liberal Friends – of all people – it is hard. Yesterday it finally amounted to a “waking up to snow” experience for me. It makes me want to go home. Except I have no home.

I want to make it clear that, as a survivor of an abusive relationship and as a chaplain, I know the power of naming one’s experience and telling one’s story to heal. That was my mode of healing and is my mode of healing ministry. I am also very much aware of the power to do great harm by labeling people as inferior and discounting their experience. I understand the importance of building trust beween people, especially for those of us who have been harmed by being labeled or defined as inferior. It’s appropriate to look carefully at someone’s use of language if they want to run a support group for survivors of a particular injustice or to work as a chaplain. So I’m not suggesting that we discount language. Nor am I saying we should be accepting of Apartheid, Neo-Nazi, or White Supremacist words.

But consider this: the anti-apartheid movement in Norway welcomed everyone who showed up, without question, knowing full well that some of them might be South African government spies who would endanger the lives of some of the South African refugees in the group. At least once, a regular participant in our meetings did later turn out to have been a spy. Those South African refugees didn’t give out their phone number and address, but they did welcome anyone who showed up to paint banners, write for the newsletter, go to rallies, and petition the Norwegian parliament to boycott South Africa. No questions asked.

I worry, too, that as wonderful as the internet community can be, all we have by which to know each other is words. And not everyone who uses it is North American. I had forgotten that myself, as joyful as I was in my first few months of discovering the joy of the QuakerQuaker community and putting my joyful energy into trying to fit in, as community-hungry TCKs usually do. George Bernard Shaw once said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I’d like to see us use language to build bridges, not as a tool to judge Friends’ worthiness.

Query for prayerful consideration: How important is it for liberal Friends to assess people who show up to work for the kind of society Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about? Is colloquial American use of the English language the best reflection of a person’s character? How does this relate to the Quaker concept that each one of us is to be accountable to Christ at work within us, not to human customs and conventions?