Quakers stress silent prayer, nonviolence, service
When the subject of his Quaker faith comes up in conversations with non-Quaker friends, there is some confusion, says Wolfgang “Wolf” Faust, 12, of Rochester.
“They relate us to things like the Quaker Oats man,” says Wolf, who is a seventh-grader at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton. “I had one kid ask me how we live without electricity — confusing us with the Amish. I’ve had kids ask, ‘Do you quake because you are shivering?'”
Wolf finds it all mildly amusing. He knows that to many people, Quakers, known formally as the Religious Society of Friends, are something of a mystery. He is happy to explain what it means to him.
He’s most proud of the Quakers’ commitment to “caring for the earth and being peaceful.” They also believe in living simply, he says, noting “most Quakers are not quite this adamant about it.” But to the Fausts, “it means not buying things new. It means we don’t have a lot of fancy stuff, no Internet or cable; we don’t have a huge TV.” And it’s important to live peacefully, he says — consistent with the Quakers’ Peace Testimony, which decries violence and war.
If Quaker beliefs and practices aren’t well known, it’s because there are very few Quakers and because, for the most part, they oppose anything that looks like self-promotion or proselytizing.
The Rochester Friends Meeting (Quakers use the term “meeting” in reference to worship services and as a substitute for “church” or “congregation.”) has about 95 members and associates (regular attendees and supporters who have not formally joined), and Sunday attendance ranges from 30 to 50.
Quakerism has four main branches. Conservative Quakers are the most scripturally based and Christ-centered and are closest to the original Friends. Friends United Meeting, which includes the Farmington Friends Meeting in Ontario County, has a pastor, sermons, a choir, but also time for silent worship. Evangelical Friends, prominent on the West Coast, resemble an evangelical Protestant church.
The Hicksite branch, which includes the Rochester meeting, has no ordained clergy, no prepared sermons, no music or sacraments. Meetings designate “clerks” who facilitate meetings and other business.
Quakers believe that “there is of God” in everyone, that the Spirit can and does speak through each human being. This is the origin of Quakers’ belief in the absolute equality of all people — hence their historic opposition to slavery and support for women’s rights, and their opposition to war and taking of life.
Because they believe in ongoing revelation and each person’s direct relationship with God, they have developed a simple egalitarian structure. At Sunday morning meetings in downtown Rochester — at the Friends Meeting House, 84 Scio St. off East Main Street — worshippers gather in silence in the second-floor meeting room. The raised ceiling is a pyramid with four large skylights that fill the room with a light that symbolizes the light of the Spirit.
“You can see the earth turn,” says Karen Reixach, 64, of Rochester, co-clerk of the Rochester meeting. “As the sun moves across the sky, the light moves around the room.”
The only commentary comes when someone feels that the Spirit is asking them to deliver a message. Sometimes there is near total silence for an hour or longer.
It is a somewhat different scene at the Farmington Friends Meeting, which has a pastor, Ruth Kinsey who delivers prepared messages or sermons. “We believe that God can speak to us in the (pastor’s) study as well as on Sunday morning,” she says. The worship includes scripture reading and a choir singing traditional hymns. Still, Kinsey says, “we’re low church, very informal, and we do incorporate silence into the service.”
The Farmington meeting, with 70 to 75 weekly attendees and a membership double that size, is the oldest in this part of the state, dating to 1789. The meeting house is located at the intersection of County Road 8 and Sheldon and Allen-Padgham roads. All three of the families whose names grace the road signs and who were among the meeting’s founders are still in the meeting.
Quaker business meetings, typically held once a month, resemble the worship meetings. Friends again sit in silence until moved by the Spirit. Decisions regarding building renovations, community events and the like are reached when it is clear that there is a shared sentiment.
Silence is golden
When she was a student in the Boston area in the late 1960s, Reixach, who was raised Presbyterian, attended an American Civil Liberties Union meeting one Sunday night in a Quaker meeting house. “I tried it. And that was it,” she says. “The silence was what I was looking for.”
Silence is a tough sell in a culture that fills every quiet moment with programmed noise or awkward chatter. But for those who find their way to the Society of Friends, it is a huge plus. While there are few “birthright” Quakers (born to Quaker parents) in the Rochester meeting, most of the adults are “convinced” members — the Quaker term for converts.
“In silence, you are listening to God, rather than talking to God,” says Ruth Hyde, 79, of Brighton, a member for more than 20 years but an attendee for much longer. “When you feel God is saying something important at a meeting, you can stand up and share it. You have to get the garbage out first — your job, your family issues, your bills.”
Mark Moss, a 50-year-old dentist who now lives with his wife, Mary Kay Glazer, in Ticonderoga, Essex County, but is still an active member of the Rochester meeting, describes the appeal of the silence: “Think about stopping in the woods and listening and waiting for a chickadee sound or animals moving that you wouldn’t notice. The woods are alive; that’s kind of how I think about the silence. A living silence.”
In addition to silence, Quakers also value the experience of an intimate spiritual community, inclusiveness and commitment to justice, which comes directly from the belief of the divine in everyone.
Grace Mullard, 56, of Fairport, co-clerk of the Rochester meeting, has been a Quaker since the age of 4. People are drawn to the Friends, she says, because of a “sense of inclusion. … We are fairly free of dogma and in our branch we are theologically diverse.”
Birthright Quaker and documentary filmmaker Pacho Lane is 70 and still, he says, “a seeker.” Lane, of Rochester, is a Texas native who once took instructions to become a Roman Catholic. He studied Sufi mysticism, with its emphasis on a relationship with the Spirit.
“It’s the Quaker direct experience with the divine that keeps me coming back,” Lane says. William Barclay, the 17th century Quaker theologian, “said in this church are included all people who believe in the light. That could be Catholics, Protestant, Jews or Buddhists,” Lane says. “There is no need to convert to experience the spirit. Quakerism is a method of being open to the spirit.”
The Quakers offer “Clearness committees” — support groups to help a newcomer decide whether to join, for example, or to help a member deal with a crisis.
A Clearness committee is “designed to help you think something through,” says Reixach. “They will reflect back to you and help you be sure of the decision you make.”
Peace, justice, serviceQuakers as a group “feel called to service in some way,” says Grace Mullard. “We are always looking for the greater good.” In the Rochester meeting, she says, “we have a long sense of frustration as a corporate body that we’re not doing enough.”
It is difficult, because of the size of its membership, for the meeting to commit to long-term social justice initiative. But the imperative to seek justice and peace remains, says Sue Regen, 66, of Penfield, the newly selected clerk of Friends General Conference, the national organization for unprogrammed meetings — such as the Rochester meeting.
In its earliest days, the Rochester meeting was active in the abolitionist cause and later in women’s rights. More recently, Rochester Quakers worked for civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War and the military draft. With some reservations, the meeting supported eight activists who formed the Flower City Conspiracy and ransacked draft board files in Rochester in 1970 as an act of civil disobedience.
The Friends lent office space later to the Rochester Bail Fund, which raised money to get the pre-trial release of indigent defendants. They participated in the 1980s Nuclear Freeze movement, opposed the death penalty and supported — with other area churches — sanctuary for Central American refugees seeking political asylum.
Today, Quakers continue their justice work, often finding partners in the larger community.Sue Halley, 66, a retired elementary school teacher, began working with prisoners 20 years ago, in a program called Alternatives to Violence. “We do 22-hour workshops in Albion with women,” she says, “emphasizing communication, cooperation, community building, and conflict resolution. I don’t go in with answers, but a call to the good in all.”
The work, Halley says, can be transforming for inmates and volunteers. “I see it as my ‘faithing’ — living my faith. I’m a doer. It’s the doing part of being a Quaker. Our worship is a quiet waiting for insight. But that’s not enough for me. Quakerism is a 24-7 religion for me.”
David Bassett, 80, of Pittsford, a retired physician, moved to Rochester in 2005 to be closer to his daughter. His wife, who died last year, was Japanese American and was interned with her family during World War II.
Quakers provided some assistance and care to families in the camps, leaving a lasting and favorable impression on many Japanese Americans. Bassett was a conscientious objector to the Korean War and, rather than serve in the military, did alternative service in rural India, working with the American Friends Service Committee — a Quaker-based organization involved in many poverty and justice causes.
The Bassetts joined the Friends in 1960 and, after opposing what they consider to be an unjust war in Vietnam, began devoting time and energy to the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund — which advocates for the right of citizens who oppose war to have the portion of their taxes that would otherwise be dedicated to military purposes placed in an alternative fund to be use only for peaceful programs.
But since legislation to create that fund has never passed Congress, he and his wife decided to take two approaches, Bassett says. They continued to work for the peace fund and “did not pay that portion of our taxes that would go toward current military expenditures. We did not want to withhold support for veterans programs, for example.”
It is a quiet, personal protest. They have never been prosecuted, but each year the government takes their taxes, plus a fine, from their bank accounts. They wind up paying more than they otherwise would, but Bassett says it’s a matter of conscience.
Conscience is an important element in Quaker activism. While they would all agree on the primacy of seeking peace, they have sometimes taken different approaches.
“Everyone has a personal journey and struggle,” says Pacho Lane. “We have a clear testimony against war, but what counts is your individual learnings of the Spirit.”
As a young man, Lane, because his Quaker opposition to war is recognized by the U.S. government, had no problem being classified as a conscientious objector by the draft era Selective Service System.
But he visited Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 separating communist East Berlin from free West Berlin.“I met with East German Quakers who had a very tough life. I asked myself if I’d be willing to fight the Russians if need be and I said yes. So I went back and got my status changed to 1-A (eligible for the draft). Then I went into the Peace Corps; I was in the second group to serve. I served in Colombia.”
The great thing about Quakers, he says, is that “we accept and support each other on the journey.”
Friends have traditionally rejected creeds, but today’s Quakers generally agree on these tenets:
· There is “That of God” in all persons, often called the Seed or Christ Within or Inward Light, which can guide and shape each life in accordance with the will of God.
· God is directly accessible to all persons without the need of either an intermediary priest or ritual. God speaks in a manner that is personal, direct and certain — a continuing revelation. This discernment is clarified through collective worship.
· The Scriptures can be understood only by entering into the Spirit that produced them. Divine revelation did not end with the publication of the Bible but has continued through history and remains available to the person or worshipping group open to receiving it.
· True religion cannot be learned from books, set prayers or rituals alone, but comes from direct experience of God.
· The infinity of Divine Truth cannot be confined by a creed or dogma. To do so would trivialize it and deny the importance of experiencing it directly.
· Friends continually work to remove the causes of conflict and war, striving to trust in love rather than to react in fear.
· God’s creation should be respected and preserved. Concern for the environment and right sharing of resources are evidence of this respect.
· God’s power and love is over all, erasing the artificial division between the secular and religious. All of life, when lived in the Spirit, becomes sacramental. Quakerism is thus a way of life, putting faith into daily actions.
Source: Society of Friends, Friends Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Lu and Kenn Harper of Henrietta hold hands at the end of worship at a Rochester Quakers meeting. (JAMIE GERMANO staff photographer)
Quakerism boils down to core values such as simplicity and nonviolence for Pendle Marshall-Hallmark.
“For a lot of people my age and young adults, materialism is a really big part of society,” says Pendle, 16, of Rochester, a creative writing major at the city’s School of the Arts. “It’s hard not to be interested in materialism,” she says. But Quakers “don’t spend $200 on a purse.”
“I think the peace testimony is incredibly unique to Quakers,” she says. “I have a lot of friends who don’t spend much time thinking about conscientious objection or whether war is wrong. Traditionally Quakers oppose any kind of war. I am honestly grappling with that. I don’t know if every kind of war is wrong.”
She has learned to appreciate the long period of silence that characterizes Quaker meetings. “My whole life I’ve been raised in the silence,” she says. “My friends really don’t understand how that’s communicating with God, but I have no problem with the idea that God can speak to an individual, but for me that
experience is incredibly rare.”
Still, she says, “it’s a time to relax, to calm down, to think about the state of the world. It makes you a calmer person.”
Elizabeth “Libby” Stewart
Libby Stewart was first introduced to Quakerism during World War II, while she was a student at Swarthmore, a Quaker college, near Philadelphia. She found it very appealing but had some reservations.
“I had the idea that the only way to stop Hitler was to defeat him militarily. So I was not a pacifist at the time; that kept me from becoming active in a Friends meeting. However, when we dropped the atom bomb, I had a change of heart. I recognized that war could poison the whole world.”
Stewart and her physician husband, David, moved to Rochester in 1948. Stewart, now 84 and a city resident, joined the Rochester Friends Meeting in 1950. “The day I was accepted in the meeting, I was in labor giving birth to our first child,” she says. “So I missed it.”
A retired preservation specialist for the Landmark Society of Western New York, Libby Stewart has written a 20th Century history of the Rochester Friends Meeting and is the go-to person for all questions regarding the meeting’s long history of social activism from the civil rights movement to the anti-Vietnam War movement, to support for people of all sexual orientations and prison outreach work.
Although Quakerism’s origins were Christian, Stewart says she “is not really a Christian as most people would define it. I’m still a seeker.”
“I was raised in a family that was not only not religious, but where it was a family rule that you couldn’t have a religion until you were 18,” says Callid Keefe-Perry, 26. “But it was required that you learn about religion. We had to write a paper about temple, a paper on what an imam is. I hit college and was firmly in the areligious camp.”
In time, Keefe-Perry says, he visited the Rochester Friends Meeting hoping to find opportunities for teaching nonviolence to young people. “I hit a rough patch in my life,” he says, “and the one thing I knew would help was to work with youth.”
He and his wife, Kristina Keefe-Perry, both teach in a charter middle school in Framingham, Mass., but they expect to return to Rochester soon and consider the Rochester meeting their spiritual home. One weekend a month, they faithfully drive to Rochester for worship.
“We leave at the end of the day on a Friday and then on our way back, hit a motel on Sunday night, and drive to school Monday morning,” he says. “We’re doing what we need to do to keep ourselves grounded.
Quakerism doesn’t work unless you are a part of a community. We can do nothing else. It is very important to us to make that connection.”
A Buffalo native, Ken Maher was raised Roman Catholic, but 40 years ago he had an unusual epiphany.
“I woke up in the middle of the night,” he says, “and I decided I wanted to be a vegetarian and a Quaker. I went the next Sunday to the Quaker meeting in Buffalo and it just felt like a spiritual home for me.”
Maher, 63, is the administrator of the Family Medicine Residency program at the University of Rochester’s Highland Hospital. “Quakers believe in continuing revelation,” he says, “that truth is holier than the book.”
In the Quaker tradition, he says, “there’s no distinction between men and women. Even the role of the clerk is not an authoritative one; it is a facilitating role. Everybody participates democratically. No one controls the truth. No one should tell others what to do.”
The Quaker dilemma, Maher says, is to find a way to reach out to those who might find a home in the meeting without aggressive proselytizing, which conflicts with the basic Quaker belief that the divine is in everyone.
“Quakerism is a spiritual taste for a very small number of people,” he says. “We have a lot of visitors; it doesn’t do it for most of them.”