A circle of Quakers gathers on a bright, crisp April morning in the meetinghouse on Orrong Road. We sit on grey vinyl chairs in silence, in a large circle in what was once the lounge of a private home. Because the day is cool, several of the electric wall heaters are turned on, mostly for the elderly attendees of whom there are many. I glance quickly around the room. I see Jim, the meeting secretary; my friend Anne; Dorothy, an octogenarian poet; and about 30 others. Not a large turnout for Easter.
Jim is the first one to stand and speak. "I read an article this week in which the author pointed out that ‘silent’ is an anagram of ‘listen,’" he says, "I find that incredibly profound." ("Wow," says an anonymous voice.) Jim’s stutter, present when he gives the announcements after meeting, never intrudes on his ministries, as if his words here are borne on light-er wings than everyday speech.
Ten minutes pass. A woman rises to her feet and talks about Jesus on the Cross, and how he died to atone for our sins. She is not comfortable with the word "atonement"; she says it sounds too negative. She has read somewhere recently that "atonement" can be spelled as "at-one-ment" and she finds this interpretation more revealing. She finishes speaking and sits back down in the silence.
A short while later, Dorothy gets up to recite an Easter poem. In her lilting, Hartfordshire accent she describes Christ’s torment in his final days and his agony on Calvary. I know that Dorothy is thinking about the Second World War, as it is often a backdrop for her poetry; she converted from the Anglican Church during the dark days of 1938. Dorothy was seeking a religion that, she says, wasn’t so heavenly focused that it was of little earthly value. Many of the older Friends, who lived through the war, express both urgency and despair as they witness the current rise in global tensions and military incursions into the Middle East. In Dorothy’s poem, there is something that pricks my conscience. The words are gone so quickly that I cannot recall them, but their effect reverberates like a bell in my head. I am continually astonished when another’s ministry speaks directly to my own condition. As Quaker Robert Lawrence Smith writes, "Each meeting is like a gamble with the human spirit, a wager that more will be brought out of the room than was brought in, more depth, more insight, more truth, more knowledge, more growth in each and among all."
As I sit here in this room flooded with midmorning sun, I am overwhelmed with a profound sense of how my life has been directed by my faith. I remember with startling clarity the first ministry I ever heard, 25 years ago. Suddenly, my heart is pounding as if I’ve raced up a steep flight of stairs. There is a sinking feeling in my stomach. My knees start to quiver. I don’t enjoy public speaking, but after all these years, I recognize my unique physical signs that herald a ministry. I agonize briefly over the flow and rhythm of words that are coalescing in my head, but it’s too late; I’ve made my decision, and suddenly find myself standing. Another lesson I’ve failed to learn yet is that words are most inspirational when they come from the heart, without preparation. I glance at the clock. Five more minutes and I would have avoided the whole ordeal altogether. However, Quaker tradition maintains that if a member feels moved to speak, and does not, he or she keeps from the group a vital insight that might benefit others. My experience of the power of Quaker oration is the basis of my own ministry today.
Twenty-five years ago, I was attending high school in Washington, D.C., and was briefly courted by not just one, but two, intelligence agencies. As I loved studying languages, I was seriously considering a career in this line of work. I mentioned these developments to my then best friend, Tracy. She simply looked at me and said, "I think you need to come to meeting." I agreed to go although I knew little about her faith. I remember sitting in the silence of the meetinghouse on Dupont Circle the following Sunday on a hard, uncomfortable wooden bench beside a girl who had showered that morning with a strong deodorant soap. My nose was smarting. I was restless and bored, waiting impatiently for the end. Then a man rose to his feet and began speaking in a measured London accent and my life changed forever. The Englishman spoke of coming out of an air raid shelter at dawn after a night of intense bombing during the Blitz. Next to him in the street walked a woman with her small son. The boy turned to his mother and asked if the sun would rise that morning. The man’s voice trembled as he recalled the impact of those words on him. He spoke about the necessity for peace. Listening to his ministry, I lived the horror of war and the despair that life could ever be secure again and felt tears leaking from my eyes. I realized I had found my spiritual home.
Today I find myself telling the meeting how becoming a Quaker has shaped my life beyond measure, and how a seed planted a quarter of a century ago in my mind by an unknown Englishman has begun to bear fruit. I say to them that I cannot even begin to imagine how different my life would be today if it were not for the words I heard spoken on that far-distant Sunday. As I speak, I gaze out across the room. Anne is looking straight at me, she is smiling, and her eyes are shining. May the circle be unbroken, I think to myself.