Why I go to church

Gary Miller found a home for his commitment to peace and justice in the Religious Society of Friends

Gary Miller says that spirituality and social justice are why he goes to church.

Gary Miller says that spirituality and social justice are why he goes to church.

Photo By ANNe stokes

Gary Miller is a devout Quaker, but he assures us that he’s nothing like the man on the Quaker Oats Company cereal boxes. Miller, whose election to the Robla School Board in 1987 made him the first openly gay elected public official in Sacramento, took some time to chat with SN&R about his membership in the Religious Society of Friends. The Quakers are known for their commitment to nonviolence and social causes.

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

We believe God is that within everyone. People say that he or she stopped talking to man 2,000 years ago, but we believe that he/she still talks to each of us, and that we just have to find her or his voice within ourselves. We do a lot of meditation-like worshipping and take a lot of time to reflect. Quakers were originally known as the “Religious Society of Friends.” God has a voice, and we have to take the time to hear it.

I noticed you keep referring to God’s gender ambiguously …

God is both—and at the same time neither—male or female. This is not necessarily a Quaker belief, although many Quakers would share my belief that God is both male and female. She might even be a black lesbian—who knows? The Bible was written by men who wanted to control women. God is both strong and gentle. God can give us strength and comfort.

How generally accepting are Quakers?

There are two different Quaker branches, both of which exist in Sacramento. My branch is very liberal and universal, while the other is more fundamental and strict. In my branch, the Sacramento Friends Meeting, they are very accepting. In fact, my partner and I recently wed within the congregation, the first gay marriage within the Sacramento Friends Meeting.

How long have you been a Quaker?

I’ve been a Quaker for about 40 years now. I was raised a Methodist in Missouri.

Why did you convert?

I’ve always been very peaceful, but in college when the time came to be drafted for the war, I was conflicted because my understanding of what Jesus taught prohibited me from serving in war. Quakers generally are opposed to war and work towards peaceful means to settle conflict. The draft board determined I did not belong to a “peace” church—they didn’t consider Methodist Church a peace church, I guess—[and] they denied my [conscientious objector] claim. I had to go get my physical. It was there I admitted I was gay and got deferment that way.

As I was trying to get a C.O. status, I went to an anti-war group to ask for their advice. I asked my counselors if they knew any Quakers. I had heard they were pacifists, and I would like to talk to them. The counselors told me that I had been speaking to Quakers all evening. I was expecting them to be wearing bonnets and plain dress. They helped me with the draft board and introduced me to Quakerism as a religion.

What are some notable things that Quakers do for the community?

The Sacramento Friends Meeting is committed to civil-rights causes. Everyone deserves to be treated humanely, no matter what. It is hypocritical to do otherwise. There were never any disclaimers in the Bible that said, “Treat everyone with love and respect, unless.” We do a bit of lobbying, and we have a committee on legislation in both [Washington, D.C.] and Sacramento that help us work for social justice causes. The words of Jesus mandate that we go out and work for the community, and that’s a very important part of my religion.