Two weeks ago, I was invited to talk with a class of first graders about my work as a Quaker minister. First graders ask awesome questions—“how does it feel” questions and “when did it start” questions and “why is it like that” questions, and perhaps best of all, they have no idea which sorts of questions don’t have answers, so they just go right ahead and ask everything. If you’re looking for insight into a difficult situation, I highly recommend attempting to explain it to a first grader.
I’ve worked a lot with this age group, so their reactions didn’t surprise me much except for one part, when we got stuck on the question, “Who picks you up at the airport?”
Me: …and then, when I get where I’m going, somebody picks me up at the airport and takes me to the conference center or the meetinghouse or wherever I’m supposed to be.
Kid #1: Who picks you up at the airport?
Me: Well, somebody who’s a local Quaker does. It’s different every time.
Kid #2: Do you just get in a random person’s car?
Me: Well, no, I usually have the person’s phone number or something ahead of time. And I send them a text message and say something like “we’ve landed, and I’m coming downstairs now, and I’m wearing a black jacket and carrying a blue backpack.” And they say, “I’m the bald guy in the gray car with the blue bumper sticker that says “Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions).”
Kid #3: And then they just drive you to where you’re going?
Kid #4: Why?
Me: Because they know I need to get there.
Kid #5: Is it ever not a Quaker who picks you up at the airport?
Me: Um, sometimes it’s a person who’s a friend of Quakers, but usually it’s a Quaker.
Kid #6: How do they know you’re coming?
Me: Usually somebody who’s a Quaker that I know reaches out to them and says “Emily is coming on Saturday and she needs somebody to pick her up at the airport and take her to the conference center” and then the local Quakers talk to each other and figure out who can do it, and that’s how it happens. Not just for me, but for other visitors, too, if other people are coming.
Kid #7: So they just pick you up at the airport? Just because you need somebody to pick you up at the airport?
Me: They do. See, being a Quaker is kind of like being part of a big family. So even if we don’t know each other, we know we’re kind of like family and we try to take care of each other.
And that’s when it clicked. A sort of general murmur of ohhh went through the group, and we were able to move on. But at the end of the thirty-minute conversation, guess what was the one specific thing that the first grade teacher commented on as I left the room? “I love that idea, that you’re all like a family.”
Sometimes I forget how counter-cultural this idea can be, and I forget how surprising it can sound and how difficult it might be to understand. For a group of six-year-olds in a secular school, I used the word “family.” A more complete description would be “a covenant people.” Friends are a covenant people, a group given to one another by God with the assignment to build the beloved community.
It’s important to recognize that we are not the only covenant people; there are other groups who understand themselves this way, and it’s my feeling that God probably recognizes them that way, too. It’s also important to recognize that being a covenant people does not imply that we are perfect. To be a covenant people is about the nature of our relationship with one another and with God; it has nothing to do with the degree to which we are successfully living out that relationship.
There are lots of ways in which we’re falling short. And our failings are worth talking about—not feeling guilty about (which is frankly counter-productive and spiritually destructive)—but recognizing and talking about so we can learn and grow and do better. But just this once I don’t want to talk about our failings. I want to talk about the potential. What does it mean, that we are a covenant people?
It means that we are inexorably connected to the Divine. You will be my people, and I will be your God.
It means that we can experience division, but we can never be truly torn apart. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? . . . And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
It means that we can learn from one another—and praise God with one another—across cultures and nationalities and languages and theological differences. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
And it means that we pick each other up at the airport. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
I’m so glad to be among you. Thank you.