Cara Detwiler discovered Quakerism two years ago through an online quiz. It came at a time in her life when she was searching for spiritual community. She found her way to Patapsco Friends Meeting in Maryland, and felt on her first visit that she had found her home. Cara, 34, teaches fifth-grade language arts and social studies in the Baltimore public school system. “I love teaching,” she says. “I think it’s the greatest profession; I cannot imagine doing anything else.” She is pursuing her PhD at Notre Dame of Maryland University. She lives with her husband, Will, who is also a teacher, and her dogs, Spring and Fozzie, a Jack Russell terrier and a poodle-wolfhound mix. She sings in Egyptian Cotton, an acoustic cover band, and runs the a cappella club and fifth-grade musical at school.
Jon Berry: What were your early experiences with religion like?
I grew up going to a United Methodist Church with my mom. I loved my church. I went every Sunday. For a while, when I was 14, I thought I wanted to be a pastor. We had a female pastor who was really great. She was a wonderful role model. When I went away to college, I started questioning things. But I never had bad feelings toward the church.
But the church started to change. The pastor I loved left; she’d been there ten years. We started to have a lot of turnover with pastors. We had a new pastor every two to three years.
Then my mom passed away. My mom had been the heart and soul of the church. I was really discouraged about how it was handled by the church. I was only 31; I’d never lost a parent. The church did not feel like the right fit for me anymore.
I joined a grief support group through the hospice that had taken care of my mom. And that got me thinking. I didn’t want to go back to my old church, but I felt a need for community. My husband and I went to a United Methodist Church near our house. But it felt like the same thing I’d grown up with. It was a fine service, but it was very clear to me that it was no longer what spoke to me.
Then I took a quiz online called “What Religion Should You Actually Be?” on a site called PlayBuzz. I came out Quaker. I remember thinking that that was interesting. I looked up Quakers online, and I went to a meeting in Baltimore. Then I went to Patapsco Friends Meeting. On the day I went, there were no messages. It was silent for the entire hour, and that was just really what I needed. After meeting, I talked with a few people. I realized that what I’d been thinking a faith experience should be like—that I thought I was just making up—was happening in the Quaker tradition. It’s like the moment when you meet someone who is a soulmate. All my life I’d wanted things to be like this, and it turns out this exists.
Jon: What kinds of things?
The idea that there isn’t necessarily a leader. That everyone’s meditation is as important as everyone else’s. The quietness. I’d always felt uncomfortable joining in with call-and-response prayers in church. I understand that for some people, ritual is really important. For me, sitting in silence is perfect.
The peace testimony is huge for me. I’ve always very naturally been a pacifist. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 11. It’s nice to find people who aren’t afraid to be political in their belief system but do it in a way that is not oppressive. To find all that, for me, was like coming home.
I also really liked how warm everyone was at Patapsco. There wasn’t pressure to join something. If I didn’t show up one Sunday, no one would question me or make me feel guilty. There was acceptance with no expectations. Whatever you bring is enough. I have a busy life. I’m a teacher, and I’m in a PhD program. So that was a great comfort.
Jon: Are you involved in the meeting?
I serve on our Peace and Social Concerns Committee. We’ve done a lot of things. We’re involved in a soup kitchen. We have a lot of collection drives. A lot of my concerns are in issues of race, equity, and justice; it’s also something I’ve been studying for teaching.
Jon: How do you see Quakerism working in your life when you leave meeting?
It’s really informed everything, particularly social activism. Before, I would think that something was really awful and something should be done about it. Now, because I have a community of supportive people, I feel much more empowered.
The meeting has also introduced me to meditation. The meeting has a meditation group. As a teacher, I find meditation incredibly useful. I fully believe it has made me a much more peaceful person. It’s also helped with my grief about my mom. I have a respect for silence that I didn’t have before.
Jon: What is meeting for worship like for you?
Many Sundays, I sit down and first clear my mind of clutter. I let the thoughts run through my head, like the to-do lists, and let them work their way through. I tell myself, “Okay, yes, after this, I will do this and this and this.” “Power down” is the best way I can explain it. Then I can clear my mind to hear what’s really going on. With more practice, it goes faster. I use a mantra; it’s God-centered but more from a universalist, Creator-centered tradition. I usually come to a thought or word.
What’s strange and wonderful is that many Sundays, the word or thought going through my head is echoed in what people stand and share: like forgiveness or appreciation of the life we are given. I think there’s a spiritual energy in the room that connects us all. Other times, meeting is just a good time to slow down.
I tend to come into meeting a little late. I’m probably overly optimistic about time management. I slip in; sit down; and focus on my breathing, making sure my breath is deeper and slower. I generally have my eyes closed for most of the hour. We have a few windows, and the view is quite beautiful. When I close my eyes, I have visions that I think are from the light dancing through the windows. It feels like an invitation or opening. It signals to me to hear things and look at things more clearly.
There will be times when I get distracted by something, or someone, or a sound, but instead of getting upset, I try to incorporate it into worship and find what’s joyful in it.
Jon: What are you learning about Quakerism?
There are things I’ve always thought but didn’t know were part of Quaker tradition, like that we each have God within us—Light—and we should all honor that. It’s why I became a teacher. I wanted to honor the Light in children. These were all things I was thinking ten years before the PlayBuzz quiz. When I speak of God, I speak of that Light, celebration, and power to make change in peaceful ways. As I’m learning more about Quakerism, I’m impressed with the history, how long Quakers have been here quietly pushing peaceful progress in the world.
Jon: Do you talk about Quakerism with your friends?
I absolutely do. When we had a meditation workshop, one of my friends came, and she said it was really helpful. I’ve invited people to meeting. But 10:30 on Sunday mornings is a little hard for some of them. They know where I am and that they can come if they want. When I talk about Quakerism, it’s sometimes met with a laugh. People think of the Quaker Oats guy, or they confuse the Quakers with the Amish. When I explain what Quakerism really is, people say, “Wow, I could really use that!”