I’m not going to lie: our meetinghouse is not gorgeous. Built in the 1970s and retaining the same now-retro but worn-out green speckled carpeting and greenish-yellow pew upholstery, the worship space’s dark wood and decidedly un-Quakerly stained glass windows in geometric patterns do not exactly appeal to the senses. And yet, this space holds joy and welcome. It’s a place where we can be ourselves: spilled coffee, crying babies, and all. Besides that, we have increasingly claimed not only the meetinghouse as our sacred space but also the property on which our meetinghouse is built, and we invite the rest of our community to enjoy it with us.
I go to North Valley Friends Church in Newberg, Oregon. It’s a programmed Friends meeting with an unprogrammed worship gathering right before the programmed one. On a given Sunday morning, around 150 people gather for worship, about a third of them under the age of 18. The pews are arranged in a crescent moon around a raised platform, where the worship leaders and message-bringers rotate among our released staff and other members. The kids participate in worship with the adults for about 20–30 minutes, during which time we hear many stage whispers between grade schoolers, watch with amusement as parents dash after their escaped toddlers, and listen to the babble or hungry cries of infants. We sing together, share joys and concerns, and hear the week’s announcements. When the kids are “dismissed to their places of worship,” there is a mass, stampeding exodus as all the children and the week’s teachers flood out of the room. The burbling joy of the family-oriented time begins to settle into the centered spaciousness and depth of story, word, and stillness.
About once a quarter, we move all the pews out to the perimeter of the worship space and hold a folk dance, complete with a bluegrass band and callers. Kids get to join in the first hour, learning the dance steps and getting swung around the room by parents and other adults. We decide who does which part of the dance by saying that the “tall” person does one part of the dance and the “short” person does the other part so that when we switch partners, there will always be an adult for every child and we won’t get completely messed up (sometimes we get completely messed up anyway, but we can’t blame the kids!) We laugh and clap and move in our worship space, welcoming whoever wants to participate.
In the last decade or so, we have become more intentional about using all of our property, not only the buildings. In coöperation with our city, we built a paved trail around the 20-acre property. It’s three-quarters of a mile, or a whole mile if you do a figure eight through the parking lot. People from the community come to walk or run the trail: some with their dogs, some with friends, some alone to get exercise and enjoy the natural setting. Perhaps many of them are worshiping through communing with one another and with the Creator as they spend time on our grounds. Several benches are strategically placed to enjoy the best views.
Some Friends thought up the idea to make this into something we call the Peace Project, and so we placed 12 peace poles around the trail. They say “May peace prevail on earth” in English and Spanish, plus another language, and each pole displays a peace quote. One of the peace poles doubles as a prayer flag holder. We put prayer flags in a box near the pole every once in a while, especially if there has been a recent major tragedy. People walking the trail can write or draw their prayer and hang the prayer flag out to flap in the breath of the wind, symbolizing the Spirit, a correlation from Hebrew. We have also created several meditative booklets that people can use as they walk the trail: one where participants can read about the peacemakers who said the words that are quoted on each peace pole, and can meditate on a query while walking to the next pole; one where participants can use the 12 poles to meditate on their addictions, using the format of the 12-step program; and one that allows participants to meditate on different aspects of shalom or holistic peace. (You are welcome to use these booklets, too! They can be found at peaceproject.northvalleyfriends.org/resources.)
Another element of our Peace Project is a 60-foot diameter labyrinth with a beautiful marbled patina and black painted lines. The labyrinth is available to the community at all times (except for the occasional wedding). A few times a year, we host a labyrinth night walk, with candles placed to mark the pathway, sometimes bringing in many community members who do not come to our normal worship times. We placed native plants around the labyrinth, and they are growing into a berm enclosing the space with fragrance and beauty. Around the trail, we also planted a number of new trees, which are growing into their spaces and will continue to provide beauty, shade, and climate regulation to the land and its inhabitants.
One more thing that makes our space a worship space is food—lots of it. We share a meal together each Wednesday night during the school year, and of course we wouldn’t be Quaker if we didn’t have regular potlucks. These meals offer informal communion, times to reconnect throughout the week. A couple of Friends opened a bakery in town two years ago, and they bless our community by bringing their day-old goods to share on Sunday mornings when their shop is closed. We never know what treats will await us when we come to worship! Maybe there will be cinnamon rolls, maybe cupcakes; maybe we’ll even get to take home a loaf of bread.
In the last couple of years, two of the ministries that occur in our space have been resurrected just when we thought they had died. One of them has to do with food, and the other with clothing. Since I’m talking about food already, I’ll start with the community garden. There used to be a garden, but energy for it dwindled and died, and the space became a bit of an eyesore. Then, a few years ago, some members hit on a new idea: those who already have gardens could participate, too, and those who don’t have space or know-how can garden on the meeting’s land (with at least one Friend who knows what he’s doing). Now each participating family is assigned a crop to grow in their backyard garden, and others work the land on the meeting property. We bring the produce to worship on Sundays, doling out some to each participating family or individual, and offering the rest to others who come for worship. In this way, we participate in the production and distribution of that which sustains us, communing with the land and with the Creator of the land, relishing the grace and mystery of the food that appears when we plant a tiny seed in the soil and wait. This process is so similar to Quaker waiting worship: nourishing, sustaining, teaching patience and stillness, opening us up to mystery and metaphor, drawing us together as a community, offering our loaves and fishes and seeing them multiplied to feed the whole gathering.
Last year our produce tables overflowed with so many squash, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, and other edibles that we had to figure out ways to get it to others who needed food. We hope to have this problem of bounty again, and to be better prepared to get the food to the rest of our community. Sometimes I go to worship with my little offering of some produce from my backyard garden, and I come home with the abundance of my community in my heart and in my arms, as I carry vegetables, bread, and even clothing home with me.
That brings me to the other resurrected ministry happening in our space. For years we had a clothing ministry that started with a couple who had a heart for helping the migrant farmworkers in our area. When, due to various laws and policies, it became impossible to distribute clothing at the farms, they ran a clothes closet from their home and eventually this ministry migrated to our meetinghouse. Energy for the clothes closet dwindled, and it became part of a larger network of ministries going on in our town. Individuals had to have a voucher from that organization in order to pick out clothes. This ministry wasn’t going particularly well, and we received more used clothing donations than we could handle. The leaders became worn out and ready to give up.
About this time, a Friend had a vision for a clothing ministry and organized other Friends to help. This group made the former clothes closet into a little boutique: they painted red the outside of a glorified shed, painted the inside, put up art, and procured gently used clothing racks, so the space looks like a little store. Anyone can now shop at ReThreads—no voucher required. Those of us who go to North Valley Friends drop off our used clothes, and pick up new items from time to time. Rather than this being a ministry where “we” (privileged, benevolent, ones who have) give to “them” (the poor, the needy, the ones who do not have), this is a ministry where we contribute, we receive the benefit, and we invite people to join us in both giving and receiving. We worship in this space through sharing what we have, using our resources wisely, and creating a space where we all recognize our neediness with simultaneous gratitude for abundance in community.
Our Quaker space is not perfect. We are still mostly white, middle class, and well educated. We are located on the outskirts of town, so we recognize that it requires a level of privilege just to reach our space. Because of all the kids, I sometimes think it’s hard for single people to feel like they fit in, and sometimes it’s a challenge for families to break into the circles of friends who already have their community card filled to the brim with connected relationships. We acknowledge that, in this town settled largely by Friends at the end of the nineteenth century, the land was acquired through the death and displacement of the native Kalapuya, and though it has been “ours” for a half century, its history is less than pristine. But we’re in a good season right now, a season where we’re trying some new things as led, and they’re bringing us a lot of joy. We’re in a season where we’re working to think holistically about land and buildings, people and ecosystems, our worshiping community and our civic community, and we’re working toward reconciliation in the best ways we can.
We’ve talked about updating our worship space: changing out the ragged carpet, making a skill-share day of re-upholstering the pews, and opening it up to natural light by adding windows or brighter walls. We’ve worried new people entering this space may judge us by our color scheme. We discuss often how important aesthetic beauty is in connecting us with the Divine, and we’ve tried in various ways to add artistic and beautiful elements to our worship gatherings. We’ve noted how sometimes it’s easier to worship in a beautiful space than in a dark and unstimulating space.
We’ve also recognized that we’re Quakers, and we value simplicity and stewardship. We value functionality of spaces, and we value people. We value the Spirit who draws us together in one body when we come to worship together through sharing, eating, singing, listening, speaking, growing, reflecting, dancing, or lamenting. And we trust the Spirit will speak beyond the drab colors, and will appear vibrant and alive in our community to those who walk through the doors, looking for a new worshiping people. Though our building’s meeting space is not beautiful, it is what we have, and it still works. It is the Spirit-filled community that makes it beautiful.