Among Friends: How Hospitality Works

Readers of this column may remember me admitting to something shocking (it’s in the April 2012 issue, if you’re curious). Like many others of my generation who were raised Quaker and came of age in a highly mobile, some might even say nomadic, society, I let myself come unmoored from my meeting membership.

About a year ago, I was feeling increasingly like something was missing in my life. I began attending a different Friends meeting, further away from where I lived, hoping that I’d have an experience that would make me want to come back.

Although I was by no means new to Quakerism, when we walked into the meetinghouse that winter morning, my wife and I had our two-year-old son, Thomas, with us, and we were new to bringing a kid to meeting. Despite the fact that there were no other kids as young as our son there that day, a few Friends immediately offered to show us where the First-day school room was, where they would be delighted to welcome Thomas.

We settled into silence with 30 or 40 others, on long wooden benches with worn red-upholstered cushions, in a venerable meeting room with a crackling fire. Vocal ministry was infrequent but varied and insightful, with nary a reference to the morning’s National Public Radio stories or New York Times headlines. Before we knew it, we were hearing the creak of a dozen children and teenagers escorted down the stairs, stage-whispering to each other in that special quiet-noisy way of which Quaker kids seem to have a unique mastery.

Thomas ran over to us and was not quiet. He wanted to tell us about what they’d done in First-day school and to let us know that he’d rather not be quiet or still. He snuggled, squirmed, and decided to climb on the benches and pull at the cushions, which I was sure were not childproof. Sweat started to bead on my brow, and I looked around to see how close we were to wearing out our welcome. To my surprise and delight, no one seemed anything but charmed by Thomas’s disruptive energy, and a few folks, noticing my unease, gave me the universal knowing nod and two-palms-down gesture for “Don’t worry, it’s cool.”

At the rise of meeting, we were welcomed heartily. Running around and shaking a bunch of hands? To Thomas, that was a lot more fun that being still and silent. The first thing anyone said to us was that it was so good to have us and our child’s energy. We signed the guestbook and got a cracker or two before having to chase Thomas out to the jungle gym outside.

A handwritten card arrived two days later, in which an elder in the meeting described what she thought made this particular meeting special and boasted of the delicious breakfasts and lunches regularly scheduled, inviting us back and thanking us for coming. And the next Sunday morning, for the first time in a long time, I was eager to go back to meeting. That feeling hasn’t gone away.

At this meeting, hospitality is a state of mind that seems to be shared by everyone. Friends realize that to welcome newcomers requires a generosity of energy, love, and care that eschews any immediate need of repayment. It means letting no one who darkens their door go unacknowledged. It wasn’t a hard decision to say that this is where I want to be, and I am overjoyed to be able to welcome newcomers now to our meeting. To invite, to welcome with open arms, to give of ourselves, to listen patiently and with tolerance and willingness to be changed…let us do this for others as we, in the Quaker tradition, do for the Inward Light.

Yours in peace,

Gabriel Ehri

Gabriel Ehri

Gabriel Ehri is executive director of Friends Publishing Corporation and a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

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