Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ageism, Assumptions, Tokenism, and the Hope Beyond

After meeting this morning I was approached by a Friend (fellow Quaker) who seemed deeply impressed at my latest vocal ministry. The first question she asked was "So, how long have you been here?"

I suppose I could have taken some offense to this, based on the fact that I've shared messages regularly, with a five month break in between, for nearly a year and a half. Though we had never talked directly, I knew her face and I certainly knew her through her words and her participation in First Day worship. That it took a particularly powerful message to give her the inclination to speak to me at all is something I lament. After all, I never know what message the Light of God is going to grant me from week to week, and while certainly I am pleased when it makes a major impact upon the worship service, any message I speak is no more or no less blessed nor inspired by the Divine.

Part of what I'm dealing with, unfortunately, is ageism. In surveying a very large cross-sample of faith communities, I have discovered that they are often disproportionately comprised of the middle aged and above and sometimes comprised almost exclusively of senior citizens. To their credit, I recognize that many faith groups have taken the initiative to address this directly and have coined acronyms, buzz words, and clever titles to draw more younger worshipers into the fold. The intent is often noble, but the follow through is frequently less than a rousing success.

The reality is that when you're in an older community, it's a lot more difficult to be taken seriously as a young person. As has been evident with me, you have to really prove yourself first. So far as "young" is concerned, I'm only a few months away from 30, so I'm not exactly fresh out of adolescence anymore, but even those of us quickly entering the third decade of existence are all too often not nearly as involved or even as inclined to share vocal ministry or actively participate in meeting functions. I, of course, am different in that regard, quite deliberately so, and while I appreciate the fact that my regular participation often encourages those in my general age range to show up, I am also often the only person younger than say, 45, who feel comfortable or moved to share a message. I know that there are others my age who would not shy away from opening their mouths and sharing with the rest of the meeting their own inward, equally valid stirrings of the Light.

If only this phenomenon pertained purely to faith communities. It is true in many organizations, regardless of political allegiance, ideology, cause, or any other metric. Just as before, those who are younger than the statistical mean often have to deeply impress the regular participants before they are considered part of the whole. If they are incorporated at all, they are sometimes included merely as an afterthought or as a token member, meant to serve as the entire voice of a generation, when surely we have realized by now that one person alone can never serve as the mouthpiece for a very diverse, highly unique group of people, regardless of their superficial similarities.

I recognize, certainly, that this is a habit pattern more than any desire to exclude. It's easy for us to get lulled into submission by The Way Things Have Always Been Here™. This is why I am not particularly outraged by this sort of behavior as much as simply annoyed and inspired to speak out against it. It wouldn't take much to correct this kind of willful slumber if we were willing to embrace the idea that change is neither incomprehensible, nor threatening, nor some sort of zero sum game whereby we somehow lose what we have at the expense of someone else. We all gain from opening our eyes a bit wider and with that comes the richness of greater participation and the wealth of insight which exists when many different people contribute their own voices and their own experiences.

We might recognize then that we are made stronger and more enlightened, not less so when we see the beauty of life's pallet projected upon a canvass of our own creation. We might understand that there is more that links us together based on our common humanity than the few superficial differences exploited by those who aim to keep us separate, not just from ourselves, but also from God, who craves our collective unity as much as he loves each of us equally and without condition. If we learn these lessons, we will have that which drives us and propels us forward towards the change we know we must have.

My prayer is, as it has always been, that we will reach this point, someday.

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