There Is Hope

james-bannerWhen I was a kid, I thought that God lived in the meetinghouse. I believed that God came to us in the silence of meeting for worship. My mother, Bernice James, was a very active Quaker at Woodbury (N.J.) Meeting, where I grew up. I loved all things Quaker. We attended sessions for Salem Quarter and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM) regularly, and I was a part of PhYM’s Young Friends group. I also went to the Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering a few times as a teenager. I knew that God was in me and in the others who came to meeting each First Day. I came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for high school and went away to a historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia.

In my early 20s, I moved back to West Philadelphia. My young son and I went to Central Philadelphia Meeting a few times. I loved being a Quaker kid and wanted to give that experience to my son. On Sunday mornings I took him to meeting at Fifteenth and Cherry Streets hoping to give him that same feeling, but I never felt welcomed or accepted there. I felt other—too young, too different, too something that prevented the people at Central Philadelphia from seeing that of God in me. Perhaps I fulfilled too many of their stereotypes to be welcomed into the fold, so I stopped going. Because I couldn’t fit in, my son was not raised Quaker.

Almost 20 years went by before I stepped into another meetinghouse. In the spring of 2007, my husband and I bought a house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. I was unfamiliar with the area and would take walks with my young daughter, Mozelle, to explore our new neighborhood. On one of our walks, I spotted a meetinghouse. I decided to come back with Mozelle on the next First Day. I showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at Germantown Meeting at about 10:15 a.m. The first thing I noticed was that there were no children present. A Friend offered to take Mozelle to the kindergarten room to let her play during meeting for worship. When visitors were asked to introduce themselves at the rise of meeting, I stood and said that I was new to the area and was raised Quaker. During social hour I was asked by multiple people if I had been to Green Street Meeting located only a block away. I didn’t know there was another meeting nearby, and was surprised by the unwelcome push-off from the Friends at Germantown. It felt like Central Philadelphia all over again but 20 years later. Again I was other; again I was too something that was obviously blocking my Light from shining through. I was confused: why were the members of this meeting asking me if I had been to another meeting, insinuating that the other meeting would be a better fit? I thought any meeting would be excited to welcome a young family into its community.

james-jjThe next First Day I went to Green Street Meeting. Wow, what a difference a block makes! First of all, there weren’t fences in front of the building silently saying keep out. There were children playing in the playground, and there was a real First-day school program. After my awful experience at Germantown, I felt like I was in heaven—a real Quaker meeting. Many people welcomed me during social hour. There was food to eat and tables to sit at and Friends enjoying each other’s company. A few weeks later I received a handwritten letter in the mail welcoming my family and me and inviting us to return. Mozelle and I were regular attenders for about six months. Then I got a new job, and my schedule was too busy. I left meeting for about a year.

In that time my mother was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and passed away. Her memorial service was held at Woodbury Meeting. I hadn’t been there since I was a teenager. Going into the meetinghouse brought back a flood of memories. I walked upstairs where we used to have First-day school. I went to the cemetery where I used to play and read the dates on the old gravestones. I was overwhelmed with good thoughts and feelings. At the memorial many old Friends shared pieces of my mom’s life and Light with us. I recognized their faces, now wrinkled with time, and they hugged and comforted me. It was bittersweet seeing all of them again and finding out who had passed on. I knew that if I didn’t go back to meeting, my children would never have such warm memories. So as I recovered from the loss of my mother, I returned to Green Street. People there remembered my daughter and me and welcomed us back with open arms.

I planned on being an attender. I knew what it meant to be a Quaker from watching my mom, and I didn’t think that I had the time or energy to be a member. I didn’t want to join and not carry my own weight. Some Friends asked me where Mozelle was going to go to school. She was only three at the time, so I hadn’t thought about it too much. They encouraged me to apply for her to attend Greene Street Friends School, a private, Quaker school located around the corner from the meeting. Mozelle was accepted into the pre-kindergarten class, but I was worried about paying tuition for private school. A member told me to ask for financial help from the meeting, which I did.

I was so surprised that the meeting would help to pay my daughter’s tuition that I started to think seriously about joining. I joined committees and made friends—real friends that I hung out with. We had dinners, drinks, went to the movies, and watched football together, and our children had play dates. I was astonished that I actually liked and loved people at this meeting. After attending on-and-off for about two years, I wrote my application letter for membership. I was accepted with joy and welcomed wholeheartedly into the fold. I had found a spiritual home for my children and me. I found myself happily doing committee work and volunteering for all types of extra activities.

Over time I was asked to be the meeting’s representative on PhYM’s Nominating Committee, the group responsible for recruiting, evaluating, and recommending candidates for the yearly meeting’s leadership positions. I was flattered but also nervous. Like many Quakers, I was happy in my meeting bubble; did I really want to go out into the bigger Quaker world? I knew that meant interacting with Quakers like the ones I had met at Germantown and Central Philadelphia Meetings and probably worse. I had been rejected by those meetings, and there was no love lost between us. I asked my meeting if they were sure that I was a good choice. They enthusiastically said yes, they want me to represent Green Street in PhYM. So with the love and support of my meeting, I joined Nominating Committee as our rep, meeting once a month, and also began attending interim meeting as an alternate representative.

At first, it was very difficult for me to go to interim meeting month after month—to be around old, white, suburban Quakers stuck in their ways, stuck in white, middle-class tradition that they use as a guise and call it “Quaker tradition.” I felt lost and ignored. I went back to my meeting with my reservations, and I was eldered: they encouraged me to say what I knew to be the truth, my truth. I was empowered to speak my truth, to push and be led by the Light to fight for change.

My meeting empowered me to be a servant leader. They put me in a position to speak my truth to the Quaker power structure, and I did. Now it is years later, and I have gone to FGC Gatherings and PhYM annual sessions many times. I am still supported by my meeting and empowered by the members’ trust and faith in me. I have elders that I go to with questions and concerns. I have friends that I love. I have a true spiritual home, and my children know the love that I felt as a child. Each First Day I seek the Light in a loving meetinghouse with some of the best f/Friends that I have ever known.

Author chat with Gabbreell James:

The mother of two great kids, Gabbreell James is a lifelong Quaker from Woodbury, N.J., and a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. She serves on Friends General Conference’s Central Committee and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Nominating Committee.

Posted in: Features, October 2014

9 Responses to There Is Hope

  1. Viv Hawkins October 7, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

    City & State
    Wallingford, PA
    Gabbreell, thanks so much for sharing your experiences among Friends. I enjoyed learning more about you from this article. I regret that Central Philadelphia MM (CPMM) did not feel welcoming to you ’cause I’d love to share membership with you there. As a member of CPMM’s Committee on Racial Healing and Wholeness, I can surely testify we’ve got some serious work to do related to race and look forward to the progress I pray we’ll continue to make. I’m deeply grateful that Green St MM helped you feel at home. Thank you for the many ways you seek to create a more welcoming Religious Society of Friends. I’m sincerely blessed to know you and your family, friend. I look forward to the good work we and others will do to create a healthier and more whole Religious Society.

    • Tom Brisson October 27, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

      City & State
      Visalia, Ca.
      This is a generous respons. People at that meeting must have really good hearts …

  2. George Lakey October 10, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    City & State
    Dear Gabbreell,

    I so appreciate this article and the multi-dimensional character of it. I have gotten to know you a little bit and, like Viv, now know so much more because of your generous sharing. As a long-time member of Central Phila Monthly Meeting I, like Viv, regret that we were so unwelcoming. I’m afraid the trouble goes deep and will take more struggle to change than white members may be aware of; I’m afraid it’s classism as well as racism and therefore double trouble that we make. Your honesty and clarity about yourself and what you want set an example to follow, and I know it is our work to do.

    Thanks again.

    George Lakey

  3. patricia walsh fingeroff mrs October 19, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    City & State
    phila pa. 19118
    Gabreell dear,

    THIS is why I recognized you and Mozelle. Great article, and I just read it again.

    I don’t live too far from Green St. Friends, and I’d like to hit a meeting there.

    Very best wishes, and hoping that Mozelle is enjoying her orchids. They sure matched her outfit!

    With my love,

    Pat Fingeroff (Abington Friends)

  4. Tom Brisson October 27, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    I feel a bit second-class!

    Is it true that only actual members of a meeting are real Quakers? I attend our meeting and try to conduct myself. I consider myself a Friend but perhaps I should not? Am I really out when I hoped I was in?

    • Gabbreell James October 27, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

      City & State
      Philadelphia, PA
      I did not mean that only members are Quakers. I meant that when you are around Quakers it should feel like it.How I was treated made me wonder about the people at the meeting , and what did they think it was to be Quakers. I could not tell that they saw that of God in me.

      • Tom Brisson October 29, 2014 at 8:47 am #

        I understand — thank you for your insights.

  5. Molly Francis October 27, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    City & State
    Chicago, IL
    Dear Gabrieell,
    I am not Quaker and you have just shown that many people still struggle with racism. I just wanted to say your “Light” was shining all along. The others just had their sunglasses on and forgot to notice. I will continue to make an effort in my life to make others feel welcome. Bless you.

  6. Monty Williams October 28, 2014 at 8:38 am #

    City & State
    Rockford, Michigan 49341
    As a life long Quaker, I was fascinated by Gabreel’s story and it was a good reminder that Friends are not so different from all the other white churches in America: we all have a long way to go to create the Peaceable Kingdom here on Earth! I liked George Lakey’s comment that “Classism” was likely part of her experience in different Friend’s Meetings as well as racism, maybe even more so. I’m glad that Gabreel was encouraged by her Meeting to speak Truth to Quaker Power and that this is an ongoing dialogue. This engagement brings out the Light in all of us!

    I simply loved Gabreel’s childhood memory that God lived in the Meetinghouse!

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