It was great to bump into you last week at Union Station in D.C. What a happy surprise after all these years. I also loved our talk. As brief as it was, I was touched by how quickly we started speaking about the deeper spiritual concerns and yearnings in our hearts these days. I am very happy to answer your questions about the Quaker movement, which has been my primary spiritual home for over 40 years now.
To begin, let me share a little about how I first started attending Quaker meeting as a teenager. I was not born into a Quaker family. As a child, I sometimes attended local Episcopal church services with my mom, and I also occasionally went to other churches and synagogues with various friends and neighbors. None of these religious services or communities ever fully engaged me, however. My strongest spiritual identity growing up was as a Scout. You may laugh, but for many years the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts were the closest things I had to an ongoing spiritual community.
I loved the weekly Scout meetings, the simple rituals, the service projects in between meetings, the time spent camping outdoors, and the regular fellowship and fun I had with other Scouts and with the volunteer Scout leaders who guided us. I also loved the Boy Scouts’ core values; they mattered to me. Being a Scout meant that I had pledged to be trustworthy, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, thrifty, brave, moral, and reverent. It also meant doing my duty to God and country. Those were things I took very seriously and still do.
By 1968, I was 13 and, through my mother’s encouragement, I had already found a model in Martin Luther King Jr. with his call for a nonviolent revolution to end racism, materialism, and militarism in our nation. As I saw it, my duty to God and country was to help our nation become what King called a “Beloved Community” of peace, justice, and equality. It turned out that my scoutmaster did not see it that way.
Our difference of opinion came to a head one hot summer day when our troop was in the town square of Galesburg, Illinois, for our annual Boy Scout Jamboree. As I finished my scheduled tasks that morning, I noticed a small, silent peace vigil at the edge of the square with folks holding up signs opposing the ongoing U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam. I had never before seen anyone stand up against the war in my town and I was torn. I wanted to join them, yet I also felt some fear and hesitation about walking over and taking a public stand smack dab in the middle of my town.
In that moment of indecision, I thought of King’s daring speech at the Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. In that fateful speech, which I heard about from my college-age brother, King first voiced in public his opposition to this unjust war. He called on all hesitant people to follow him now and end their own silence about the war. Given that King was my hero, I decided to follow his example on that hot summer day in Galesburg. So, I screwed up my courage to walk across the town square and join the silent peace vigil. It was my first overt act of social activism, and I was glad to have taken this step. I was no longer just admiring King; I was following him. This felt good and right to me.
My sense of inner peace was short lived, though. Almost instantly, my scoutmaster spotted me standing in my uniform as part of this silent peace vigil, and he was furious. He ran over, grabbed me, and physically dragged me out of the vigil line. He started shaking me by the shoulders and yelling at me that I was a “communist,” a “traitor,” and a “disgrace to the Boy Scout uniform.” He shouted that I was no longer welcome in his troop and that he would make sure no other troop in town would ever let me join. He then abruptly pushed me away and stormed off. I don’t think now that his action represented the views of the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America, but I had no way to know that then. I stood there stunned and abandoned. Blessedly, an elderly woman from the vigil came up to me, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Young man, I’m sorry that happened to you. Just know that you will always be welcome at a Quaker Meeting.”
At home, later that same day, I asked my mom about the Quakers and she shared with me what she knew about the Religious Society of Friends. She also told me that as much as my Dad disapproved of religion, he was a financial contributor to the American Friends Service Committee. She said he admired both their peace advocacy and their international relief work. My mom also said that it would be fine with her if I wanted to attend a Quaker “meeting for worship” instead of going with her to our regular church services the next day.
Later that night, I worked up my courage for the second time that day and called the number in the phone book under the listing “Galesburg Friends Meeting (Quakers).” I was touched that the woman who answered the phone was as welcoming as the woman at the vigil—even though I was a 13-year-old kid! I asked her where and when they held their services and what to expect. She gave me the address and said that the Quakers in Galesburg sat silently in a circle expectantly waiting to be touched and guided by the Spirit of God, which many of them often called the Seed, the Light Within, the Inward Christ, or the Inward Teacher.
This woman also said that their worship started when the first person sat down in the room and “centered down” into silence. The rest of the worshipers joined this person in silence until all were assembled. She added that anyone who felt moved by the Spirit during the meeting would stand up and offer a vocal message or a song to the whole group, then sit back down, and the group would return to silence. She said there was no pastor or priest, and anyone could be moved to give ministry, including men, women, and children. I had never heard of a worship service like this before, and I loved the sound of it.
I also asked this woman what Quakers believe. She answered that the core Quaker belief was that every man, woman, and child on this planet has the spiritual capacity to experience directly God’s love, presence, and guidance in their lives, and that if we open our hearts to this sacred Light Within it can transform our personal lives, our families, our communities, and our world. She said that over three hundred years experience of attending to the Light Within had taught Quakers the value of encouraging each other to lead lives of integrity, simplicity, equality, compassion, stewardship, and community activism for peace and social justice. She called these the “Quaker testimonies.” I loved that answer, too.
Well, the next day I went to my first Quaker meeting for worship with a group of seventeen or so Galesburg Quakers. We sat together in a big living room belonging to one of the local members. It was odd at first, but I found it both challenging and exhilarating to sit quietly in the deepening silence, open to the touch of Divine Presence. Sure, my mind wandered a bit, and I was not really sure what I was “supposed” to be doing, but pretty soon I actually felt something happening inside of me that I had never experienced in any religious service before.
I felt actively engaged in deep spiritual seeking, and sometime during that very first meeting for worship—and many times since—I felt as if I was directly breathing Spirit in and out, directly breathing compassion and wisdom in and out, directly breathing love and justice in and out. This experience was immediate and powerful. I was not just thinking about what other people in the past had said about God or religion. Instead, I felt profoundly moved by glimmers of direct connection and attunement to the Spirit, the Inward Teacher that the woman on the phone had mentioned.
As we all sat together in the prayerful silence, a few worshipers stood up at different times and offered brief spoken ministry. I particularly remember that the woman who talked to me at the peace vigil spoke haltingly, but movingly, about how the call to defend the Vietnamese people nonviolently from our government’s violence was an outward expression of our deep inner faith as Quakers. She felt it was God’s will that all the faithful in our country should take up this task even more strongly than we had to date. I felt particularly stirred by her heartfelt ministry and loved the fact that in the Quaker movement, women were encouraged to be ministers. I knew my mom would approve.
After a little over an hour of silence and short vocal ministry, the Galesburg Quakers closed their meeting for worship by shaking hands. I was welcomed as a newcomer and one person, who described himself as the clerk of the meeting, made a few announcements. We then got up and talked informally over snacks in the dining room. Somebody mentioned to me that not all Quakers met in people’s houses and that most Quaker meetings around the world had built simple meeting houses for their congregations. Another woman spoke up and said that she had worshipped both in meeting houses and living rooms, and she most enjoyed the intimacy of the small “house meetings.” Another Quaker said her favorite meetings for worship were the ones she had attended that were held outdoors.
I asked my new acquaintances if there was anything I could read to learn more about the Quaker movement. One man took me to the meeting’s “library,” which was a couple of shelves in the living room. He pulled out a copy of a book called Faith and Practice. He explained that it was an anthology of many different statements about the Quaker movement written by different Quakers throughout history, and that it also included a lot of recent material about Quaker practice written by a committee of the Illinois Yearly Meeting, the regional association of Quakers that included the Galesburg Friends Meeting. He explained that most yearly meetings around the world create their own guidebooks, which are reviewed and updated every twenty to thirty years as part of a spiritual consensus-building process within each yearly meeting. As he put it, “We believe in continuing revelation.”
While reading this book at home later, I found a particularly interesting section called “Advices and Queries,” which included a list of questions designed to help Quakers think more deeply about their own day-to-day faith and practice. It addressed personal conduct, home and family, environmental stewardship, vocational choices, social responsibility and community engagement, and peace and reconciliation. It also addressed how we prepare for meeting for worship and how we engage in the spiritual life of the meeting community. To me, all these questions seemed like some of the most important questions we could possibly ask ourselves.
The “Advices and Queries” also included a set of questions about personal spiritual life that went something like the passage below, which is taken from my current yearly meeting’s book of Faith and Practice:
Do you live in thankful awareness of God’s constant presence in your life? Are you sensitive and obedient to leadings of the Holy Spirit? Do you seek to follow Jesus, who shows us the way? Do you nurture your spiritual life with prayer and silent waiting and with regular study of the Bible and other devotional literature?
Now, I did not yet know what my own answers to these questions were, but I was intrigued about reflecting on each of them as part of my spiritual journey.
I was particularly struck by the query about following Jesus. I had always thought that being a Christian meant believing a specific set of doctrinal beliefs about Jesus so you could go to heaven after you died. But all these Quaker questions focused on our lives here and now, and none of them mentioned any specific belief that you had to hold about Jesus to be a Quaker, except that his life “shows us the way” and it is wise to follow in his footsteps.
Just a few days earlier, I had followed in Martin Luther King’s footsteps, and King, in turn, was certainly following in the footsteps of Jesus in his work for peace and justice. I now felt somehow closer to the source of something wonderful and powerful, something I could read and think about, but also something I could now directly experience, just as I seemed to do in my very first Quaker meeting for worship.
While there was much more to think about and to learn, of course, I already knew that I loved the experience of Quaker worship, of sitting in silence with other seekers trying to be open to wonder, possibility, love, challenge, guidance, and deep inner peace. Returning to this little band of Galesburg Quakers each week for group worship was a spiritual practice that nourished and excited me. A couple of years later, when I read a book by Robert Barclay, an early British Quaker theologian, I found that people had been having experiences like mine for over three hundred years. As Barclay put it:
When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed.
While I might have said it a little differently in 1968, my first experience of Quaker worship was astonishingly similar to Barclay’s.
I now look back on my first Quaker meeting for worship with deep gratitude. It felt like coming home. This, I said to myself early on, is my spiritual community and this is my spiritual path. Today, as a member of the Putney Friends Meeting in Vermont, I still feel the same. In my decades of participating in silent Quaker worship, I have found that it is often possible for those present to become aware of a divine love and spiritual fullness that far transcends ordinary existence. This sense of living communion, in turn, has a way of healing, transforming, and guiding our daily lives.
The intimacy, openness, and mutual responsibility of our way of worship also influences our character as a spiritual community. We regularly come together for more than meeting for worship, as powerful and as central as that is in our spiritual lives. For example, at Putney Friends Meeting, we describe ourselves on our website as “a Quaker congregation that meets in Putney, Vermont, for worship, fellowship, education, and activist support.”
We eat potlucks together, delight in our kids, offer them creative religious education, have intimate conversations that matter, share our faith journeys, read and discuss books together, watch movies or bring in speakers, organize healing circles, and go together to larger Quaker gatherings. Some of us join nonviolent action trainings to prepare to commit civil disobedience in an attempt to persuade the State of Vermont to close an aging and leaking nuclear reactor nearby. We cry and laugh together, share our joys and concerns, rent out our meeting house at very low rates to a network of home schoolers and AA groups, and at our business meetings, we discuss if, when, and how we should put solar panels on our meeting house roof.
Quaker congregations like Putney Friends Meeting are participatory, volunteer-run, spiritual communities led by committees and coordinated by rotating officers as well as by our monthly business meetings. These meetings are open to the entire community and are held to discern together the will of God in our affairs. Our decisions reflect a spiritual unity that we can all acknowledge, rather than a count of votes. This radical approach to “church government” is very common in the Quaker movement. Ours is a first-hand, do-it-yourself faith community. This is something I have long treasured about the Quaker way.
I hope this helps answer your question about how and why I began my spiritual journey to the Quaker movement. Is there anything else you are wondering about? Does any of this resonate with you?
3 thoughts on “Letters: My Journey to the Quaker Movement”
I very much like the two sentence, one paragraph statement of what Quakers believe. How succinct and powerful!
I really like this whole book, and intend to add it to our meeting resources. Steve is so open and so honest, and so thorough in his approach to the Quaker religion and its richness and meaning. I was interested that the Boy Scouts provided so much structure and meaning to his young life, and was most sorry for his bad experience with the Scout master — redeemed by a kindly Quaker lady, who steered him in a different direction. He was not one of those who felt totally at home right away, and we needed to hear about his course as he became a committed Quaker. Thanks, Steve!
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