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Let’s Grow Together Interview with Marjorie Herbert

Marjorie Herbert became a member of the Society of Friends two years ago at the age of 77. She decided to join Kendal Meeting about a year after she and her husband, Walt, moved to the Quaker-founded Kendal at Longwood retirement community in Kennett Square, Pa., in 2014. Growing up in east Tennessee in a large family—“I had seven brothers and sisters”—she recalls religion being an early presence in her life, due to the promptings of her parents and her own curiosity with a spiritual life.

Marjorie and Walt both come from a Methodist background, and they met while attending Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the early 1960s. Later in life, after graduating and getting married, they became Presbyterians while living in Georgetown, Texas, “which is a pretty conservative little town,” says Margie. They started attending an “extremely liberal Presbyterian church,” and the pastor was a leader in social justice issues in nearby Austin. However, that church was marginalized by the larger Presbyterian organizational structure, and so was something of an outcast in the Presbyterian hierarchy. “When we came to Kendal, we thought the likelihood of finding another extremely unusual, liberal Presbyterian church was rather small.” So they immediately started attending meeting for worship at Kendal, which is unprogrammed.

While Margie eventually felt strongly led to join Kendal Meeting (after a process of reflection and discussion about commitment), Walt continues to hold membership in the liberal Presbyterian church, although he still attends worship every Sunday with Margie.

What were your early experiences of faith and religion?

My earliest exposure to religious experience was in a Nazarene church, which my mother took my siblings and me to. It was a small church, and I was fascinated by the intensity and passion with which people prayed and preached and sang. I think that I began to have trouble at a rather young age, because the description of being saved from your sins was something that I took very seriously, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked, how I was going to be saved from my countless sins and infractions as a young girl. I was about nine or ten years old at the time.

I began to question the stories that I was told in the Bible. Fortunately for me, my father didn’t attend that church, and my mother had promised him if he ever wanted to join a church that she would join him and bring the whole family. So when I was about 11 or 12, my father announced that he had found a men’s Bible study or class at a Methodist church in our community, and he thought he could become a Methodist. This was fortunate for me because becoming a Methodist ended up exposing me to, first of all, a more tolerant view of religious experience and, secondly, to church camps and to conferences of Methodist youth in which more sophisticated theological thinking was espoused. Also questioning was really encouraged.

I was very active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF), then went off to college and began to attend the Wesley Foundation. There I met a campus minister who would hold fireside chats for us to talk about faith experiences and faith questions, and he also had us reading some contemporary theologians. That opened my mind more to religious experience not being confined to a particular set of beliefs. But I think I received from that fundamentalist exposure the conviction, which I honestly have never wavered from or lost, that somehow at the core of our being is a spiritual life, and to attend to that life, for me, has been extremely important.

How did this new thinking influence your life after college?

I went from college to Union Theological Seminary in New York and got a bachelor’s degree in divinity—what the contemporary MDiv degree is now. I studied theology there and became very, very interested in possibly becoming a pastor. But being a woman and graduating in 1963 and not having stayed within the confines of a Methodist conference—and that’s a different story. It’s just that my Methodist pastors at my home church were very upset about my going to Union, which they thought was way too liberal and perhaps communist. So they did not report to my home conference, even though I had been a youth leader for many years in that conference. And because I was not reported as going to seminary, the conference took absolutely no professional responsibility for me.

I went off to seminary and had a wonderful time. I loved being there and did various fieldwork, but when I got out and tried to find a job, I didn’t have a home conference that identified me as a seminary student. I married and went to California and worked various odd jobs freelancing with an Oakland inner-city parish and the Pacific School of Religion. I was always a very active layperson in a congregation, but over the years my own social justice criticism of the churches—the traditional, mainline, Protestant church—and most especially of the theology that local churches espoused or didn’t explore in order to maintain a loyal base of believers and donors, made me feel increasingly alienated. And actually that’s what led me to become a Quaker: I’ve always believed in ongoing revelation. I’ve always believed that women were equal to men. I’ve always believed that consensus decision making is much healthier than hierarchical, top-down decisions. And I’ve always had an extremely keen and passionate interest in social justice.

What was your knowledge about Quakerism before moving to Kendal?

My daughter went to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and through a trip organized by Earlham I traveled with Quakers to the Middle East a number of years ago. I was astounded that the Quakers were talking to all sides of those very painful conflicts, and that commitment to listen and talk to all sides struck me as a more hopeful way of seeking social change. I was profoundly moved by the openness to the conflict instead of a polarization. There was a witness within that group of Quakers of hearing Palestinians and hearing rabbis and hearing bridge builders. It was the first experience I’d ever had of that.

But that was my first exposure to the way the Quakers worked internationally. When I was in college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I dated a Quaker from Philadelphia; he was the first Quaker I had ever met. And he took me to an Appalachian mining town to visit some Quakers who were working there. I met a young, married couple living in a tiny, little house in this very impoverished-looking little town, and I was profoundly moved to see the dedication of their lives to a structural issue. They were living a very different kind of life, and it was a kind of life that looked quite fascinating and appealing and frightening.

Years after that, when my daughter became engaged to a fellow Earlham student—he was a Quaker—we would sometimes go to Quaker meeting with them when they were visiting us in Georgetown, Texas. And then when we started visiting them in Massachusetts, we would go to Cambridge Meeting. So I’ve had some exposure to Quaker meetings, always unprogrammed. I tremendously like unprogrammed Quaker worship.

What is meeting for worship like for you now? What do you find in the silence?

I have been doing Buddhist meditation for almost ten years. All of my life I’ve had some form of a devotional spiritual practice, and it just came to where I could no longer feel it was a reality for me to quote “pray to a God.” The issue of prayer was something of a great crisis for me because I had always prayed. I had started looking into Buddhist meditation as a way simply to become quiet, and it has been a very, very helpful and fruitful spiritual practice for me. When I go into Quaker meeting, I do not do or attempt Buddhist meditation, but I have learned what it is like to be quiet. I believe that quietness is opening myself to the mystery of being, and that mystery of being is a place where I can be healed and receive guidance and develop compassion.

Occasionally but rarely, I’m led to say something with a devout hope that I am saying something that will nurture others as well as myself. But I love the quietness of a meeting. And I like the assumption that there’s not someone there who should be telling us what to think. Around 40 to 45 people attend meeting for worship at Kendal, and the average age might very well be 82 or 83 years old. So I’m sitting in the room with some people who have been lifelong Quakers. I’ve learned the term “weighty Quaker,” and I have profound respect for the lives that are reflected in that room. They have been lives of commitment and sacrifice and profound spiritual growth. There are people who have spent time in prison for civil disobedience. There are people who have been real leaders in social justice movements. There are people who are Hindu. There are people who are Buddhist. There are many, including myself, who are nontheist. And there are others who are theist and very profoundly Christ-centered.

Tell me more about your nontheist perspective in a Quaker context.

I go back and forth because I am so profoundly steeped in biblical material that I will say to myself, what does it mean there is that of God in all humans? For me, that means there is this spiritual reality—I referred to it earlier as the mystery of being. There is this hunger for meaning, this hunger for compassion and caring and community. And this hunger, if nurtured in the right way instead of abused and manipulated, can allow people to flourish into caring, sensitive people. A nontheist position for me means I do not think there is an extant spiritual reality apart from this energy that’s in all humans. And so I don’t pray to a quote “Father God”—that’s a term used among many fundamentalist Christians. I try to open myself and be quiet and wait. That opening and that waiting, for me, is the most nourishing and fruitful way I can worship.

Could you talk a little about your decision to apply for membership?

When we moved here, we really wanted to commit ourselves to life in this community and to find out what that meant. In my last years of life, I honestly feel led to serve this particular meeting. My desire to become a member was based on my tremendous feeling of being at home in unprogrammed worship and the concepts on which Quaker worship is based—that is, equality, continuing revelation, consensus decision making, concern for all human beings regardless of what they believe, think, or do. These attitudes that are fostered and encouraged are ones that I very much admire and want to hold.

What are your hopes for Quakerism in the future? Where do you think the growing edges are?

I don’t see a more important witness of Quakerism than through the educational institutions. I really feel that, through the kind of education that Quakers understand and can provide, people become—whether they become a Quaker or not—they become a more whole human being. I now live among many, many graduates of Swarthmore, Haverford, and Earlham; their education has made a huge difference in their lives. And so I really hope so much that supporting Quaker educational institutions is a major commitment.

The other thing is that I believe we have such a horribly polarized political atmosphere now, and organizations like Friends Committee on National Legislation offer a different approach. That to me is a tremendous source of hope: there are people who are quiet and compassionate and able to listen and able to build just enough basic mutual respect that something else can happen. I hope so much that, whether people are Quakers or not, they can be like Quakers and be agents of reconciliation.

This interview was conducted by associate editor Gail Whiffen. Our Let’s Grow Together series profiles those who are newer to Friends. Do you know someone we should interview? Reach us at [email protected]


Posted in: Conflict and Controversy, Let's Grow Together

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