There are few things as rewarding for me as driving down a country road and finding an old building, secluded among the trees. In Upstate New York, where I’ve lived for the past 30 years, there are many of these off-the-beaten-path treasures that one wouldn’t normally find unless they heard about it from someone else.
One such place is the Hector Meetinghouse, which is just outside of Ithaca, N.Y., and is only open during the warmer months since it has no electricity or running water. Since 1978 Ithaca Meeting has owned and maintained the building, and now hosts worship there every Sunday from Easter to Thanksgiving (the meeting’s primary meetinghouse is in Ithaca). With the help of some local Friends and historians, I recently discovered that the original meetinghouse was built by Hector Meeting around 1826 in the Town of Hector, N.Y. (part of present-day Schuyler County). Following a Wilburite-Gurneyite separation some years later, the Wilburite Friends relocated the building down the road. The current meetinghouse, the one I visited, was erected on that same plot in 1903, decades after the original building collapsed.
So I had heard others talk about the Hector Meetinghouse, but I’d never seen it. Finally, one Sunday morning I decided to attend worship there. As I drove down the road, I passed a big cemetery, and found myself in a peaceful, wooded area on a dirt road. On the right was a stunning, white clapboard, church-like structure surrounded by lovely trees.
I took my time strolling the grounds. It was a beautiful summer day. The temperature was quite pleasant. The sky was blue with white, fluffy cumulus clouds. I was in a place of serene beauty and tranquility. I could indulge in a walking meditation before anyone arrived.
The first thing that caught my eye was the carriage porch on the left side of the building. This is where families would have arrived to get out of their horse-drawn buggies. There was a very large front yard, so I could imagine it being filled with horses, buggies, and hitching posts.
There was a simple porch with white slats underneath and a railing that I’m sure was helpful for elderly members. In my mind’s eye I pictured rambunctious little children running around on the porch and on the grass, getting in their last burst of ebullient play before they entered the meetinghouse, where they knew silence was the rule of the day.
In the front of the meetinghouse are four steps, painted brown. As I looked at them, I imagined how many times those steps had been trod upon, by Friends seeking and anticipating an experience of communal spirituality.
When I entered the door in silence, it felt as though I was walking into a sacred space—a space where I can open my heart, mind, and soul to receive whatever message may be given to me. All distractions disappeared as I was in the here and now. Soon other worshipers joined me, about ten in all. The wind of silence filled the air, and it moved throughout the room, quieting our every thought so we could be open to the Spirit.
One of the things that has always amazed me about Quaker worship is how someone would be led by the Spirit to stand up and speak. The message that they would bring forth, like a mini sermon, would often be exactly what I needed to hear that day. I certainly can’t explain it, but it’s as if the message was meant just for me. That’s the power of unprogrammed worship: no minister, no scripture reading, no organ music, no choir. However, someone may possibly be inspired to sing a song on occasion. That’s the Spirit moving within each person to use whatever gifts they have to offer.
The equality in Quaker worship is striking. All people—regardless of age, race, gender, or background—are equal. They become the clay that the Spirit molds and shapes. And out of their mouths come words of inspiration, faith, encouragement, and guidance. When we commune together in this sacred serenity of quietude and vocal ministry, it is ineffable.
When the speaker has finished, they sit down on one of the old and worn, squeaky wooden benches. I think about the craftsmanship that went into constructing each bench. These benches encourage us to sit upright. They remind us to be attentive to our bodies and to be present in our minds.
When I opened my eyes, I was drawn to the light. The sunlight streamed through the simple form of the wooden window frame. I noted the patina of the wood, which has aged over the years, like a piece of driftwood from the ocean. I was enthralled by this place of reverence.
We Quakers have an expression of “holding someone in the Light.” This means we are praying for that person and lifting them up in the Spirit toward God, the Light within all of us, that divine spark in every human being.
Looking through the wooden framed windows of the meetinghouse is like looking through a lens of grace. I think of all those who came before me and what they left behind in this space. The windows reveal years of forgiveness and compassion to me. They don’t have the stained glass of the famous English cathedrals. These windows are plain. The clear glass is handmade, perhaps with tiny bubbles, and it allows us to look out onto nature and into our souls.
As the service ended, we greeted each other, caught up on the week’s activities, and left uplifted and transformed. The meetinghouse was filled with laughter and vibrant conversations.
Walking out I experienced awe upon seeing the carpet of lush, verdant grass and the beautiful forms of the trees; feeling the breeze of fresh air, brushing against my cheeks; and hearing the birds singing in the background. It was a picturesque setting and made a lasting impression on me.
I felt privileged to be in this space where many have brought their tears and laughter and were blessed by the presence of others. This is what it’s like to be part of a building that has a history behind it, where the presence of those who came before can be felt in the benches on which we sit. We see what they saw but in a new light now, as revelations continue to unfold!