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Discussions on Quakerism with Young People

I recently attended Ashlands Primary School to speak to their Year 4 class (8 and 9 year olds) on Quakerism, as part of their Harmony and Diversity week. I will admit that this prospect, at first, seem daunting, to be faced with the honest questioning of young people collectively observing without filter.

How do you explain Silent Seeking to a child? How do you discuss Testimony and principled actions in a society where the young are already aware of social media influencers and have an acute awareness of the reaches of technology beyond any generation before. Can the idea of sitting in Silence for an hour compare with the lively stimulation from a hand-held gaming device? No, probably not to an 8-year-old who has not grown up in a Quaker home, and even then it is not easy!

So, when planning my talk, which was to be a brief 15 minutes followed by a question and answer, I focused on Quakerism as a way of life, and the principles of Simplicity, Sustainability and Peace. I did talk about how a Meeting looked and felt, but for the purpose of the talk, I spoke about what Quakers did.

On the day I arrived at the unsettling hot classroom and was greeted by near 60 pairs of inquisitive eyes, as they sat on small chairs and cross legged on the floor. I began. I announced loudly, arms spread open, that I was a Quaker! Did anyone know what a Quaker was? I spoke very briefly of the religious wars and the start of Quakerism, but moved swiftly to what made Quakers different. That it was a lived religion, that we demonstrated our belief through activism, standing up for what we believed, like Peace, anti-Slavery, workers’ rights and more. I told them about the Cadbury’s and Rowntree families, appealing to their sweet tooth, and how Quakers of old hadn’t been allowed to go to university because they would not swear an oath, so these bright people started businesses instead, Barclays, Oxfam, Amnesty Internation too. I tried to keep to what the child might already know, thereby grounding Quakerism in the familiar. I touched on Conscious Objectors lightly but the message of doing what you believe when everyone else is doing the opposite was pressed.

As I talked, little hands flew into the air, but I held firm until I reached the end of my bullet points on my note pad. Then question after question came. Do you believe in God? Are there biscuits after Meeting? What does the White Poppy mean? Have you ever spoken in Meeting? Why did people choose to go to jail instead of war when they could still visit their families? Do Quakers go to Heaven? Can anyone be a Quaker?

I was overwhelmed by their eagerness, their interest, the thoughtfulness of their questions and their response to my answers. We talked together for twice as long as was intended and I am so glad that we did because to hear their questions allowed me to see our faith afresh. They were bright, engaged and the experience was not only positive but affirming. These young people understood the Lived aspects of Quakerism because it makes sense on a practical sensible level. See something wrong, say no or try to fix it. Pick the rubbish up in the woods. Don’t hurt people. These are messages we teach our young as a society, in most societies. And Quakerism has kept these messages as a way of practicing our faith.

Photo by Shreyak Singh on Unsplash

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