Quaker Universalist Conversations

Emblems of Religious Identity: from Ashes to T-shirts

by Rachel Stacy, QUF member

Each year on Ash Wednesday, I have to consciously resist the urge to tell someone that they have something on their face. It’s a yearly moment of feeling like an idiot that quickly passes and is accompanied with a reminder that the Lenten season has begun. While I grew up in a predominantly Catholic community, most people went to church after school and received the ashes on their foreheads in private. However, during college, time schedules were not as fixed to public and private spheres. One year, I had a chemistry lab on Wednesday nights and when my chemistry professor came into the classroom with ashes on her forehead, I breathed a silent prayer as a classmate commented on Ash Wednesday before I made a fool out of myself.

Emblems of identity are curious to my plain Quaker background. Aren’t they against the Quaker testimony of radical simplicity? I was taught that Friends did not celebrate holidays because they believed that every day was holy and they did not wear symbols of identity because of their fierce testament to equality and to simplicity.  One member of my meeting once had the audacity to comment of my wearing of (homemade) earrings; he remarked that early friends would have restrained from such frivolous things. Yet early friends certainly stood out in their plain clothes!

In college, I journeyed through a long discernment concerning the wearing of a cross. When I did wear the simple silver symbol, I felt as if I had to constantly explain myself. “Well, I’m not that kind of Christian…” I would begin. In the end, I adopted an emblem of a peace dove. Why though do I feel like I need to associate with a symbol? There is something powerful there that I’m still exploring.

Recently, while waiting on the bus to travel down to Blacksburg, Virginia, a young woman approached me and said:

“I don’t usually do this, and I know it’s a strange request, but since you have a Quaker bag, I was wondering if I could borrow your cell phone for a quick call?”

In my travels, I have been carrying my thesis materials in a bag designed by Betsy Black, a North Carolinian Quaker devoted to her leading into sustainability and creation care. It’s a simple enough bag. On one side is a picture or an apple with a heart cut out of it and her (Betsy’s) company logo (Eco Everyday). On the other side is a quote from my dear friend Billy (William) Penn: “Let us then see what love can do.”

Most of the time I figure that people see the bag and think it’s some erotic suggestion. But perhaps I sell Mr. Penn short. Some people see the quote and probably think “hmm… interesting.” While others may recognize its Quaker origin or just contemplate deeply on its suggestion. I hope that the quote makes at least a few people smile and think “Yes… Let us then see what love can really do!”

What does it mean today to wear an emblem of your faith? During my travels through the Middle East many people wore crosses or stars of David. There were moments where I had emotional reactions to the emblems; I felt attacked by the prominence of their presence. “Do you really have to shove that in my face? ” I would think. Yet, I personally wear a wooden dove and several of my friends have tattoos with quotes from John Woolman and George Fox. In doing so do I unconsciously make others defensive? Is that good or bad?

When I think about how I read people, who I would approach to borrow a cell phone and who I would not, I know there are several factors involved. The symbols that people where to identify a part of them makes me think about how that part of their identity affects my interaction with them. Military uniforms, plain dress, and orthodox garb are all examples of emblems of identity that make me think twice about approaching. Yet, if someone had a Quaker t-shirt, I would definitely strike up a conversation. Would you?


This is the second in a series of Lenten blogs by Rachel Stacy, who attended Earlham School of Theology and is a member of QUF. Her remark about t-shirts reminded me that after editing a book called “Compassionate Listening” by Quaker peace activist Gene Hoffman, I created and wore a t-shirt that said, “Real Men Listen.” This t-shirt elicited a lot of interesting conversations, especially from women! Inspired by Stacy, I have also posted some Lenten reflections on my blog at laquaker.blogspot.com.—Anthony Manousos

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