I’ve pointed it out before and I feel it’s even more important to point out with this post: This isn’t intended to be an all encompassing tool to learn about a religion. I’m not an expert on any religion, and quite frankly, I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to writing or sharing a story either. I’m winging it. What you’re getting is an account of me figuring it out as I go along. Furthermore, this post was probably the toughest so far I’ve had to write because there was so much information, and none of it really seemed cut and dry.
Prior to visiting the The Rochester Society of Friends (or Quaker) meeting house, I knew very little about the Quakers. I’ve passed the building on 84 Scio Street countless numbers of times, and never had any idea that it was a Meeting House. The square, simple, painted red brick building features one simple white sign outside indicating that had you been looking for it, you found your destination.
The Religious Society of Friends was founded just after the English Civil War in the mid-17th century by George Fox. Fox felt as though having a relationship with Christ should not have involved any type of clergy, and should have been more of a personal exchange. He traveled the area and preached his ideas to other believers, who called themselves “Friends”. The Friends considered themselves to be the true, unadulterated, originally intended Christianity and aimed to separate themselves from the Puritans of that time and their strict rules.
Just prior to persecution in 1662, the term “Quaker” was used by a magistrate who was trying Fox and his followers for blasphemy. While in meeting, Friends would actually have a physiological ‘quaking’ response to experiencing the light of their god, and being awakened to their individual struggle. At the time, it was considered a derogatory term, but it was later accepted and now commonly used to describe a follower of the Religious Society. The English Parliament eventually passed the Act of Toleration in 1689, which allowed ‘nonconformists’ to have their own beliefs. A few courageous Friends had already started the trek to the United States and began anew here in a country known for celebrating religious freedom. This is where things get very confusing.
We had contacted the Rochester Friends prior to showing up, and Kenn, the current Clerk agreed to spend time with us and show us around. When we arrived, we were let in by the person assigned to be the greeter at that time; her name was Sylvia. Everyone seems to have a different response to ‘we’re doing this out of pure curiosity, and to learn all we can,’ but Sylvia seemed genuinely happy to have us there and was incredibly hospitable. She definitely allowed us to feel at home while we waited for the morning meeting (which I guess you could consider to be the Quaker equivalent to Mass) to end.
At the end of the meeting, Friends began to filter down from the upstairs meeting room, to the downstairs community room. After the meeting, there is a ‘fellowship’ time of sorts, with coffee and food so people were beginning to gather and set up. A woman walked up to us and introduced herself as Lu. She welcomed us and soon thereafter, introduced us to her husband Kenn. Kenn explained that he was the current “Clerk”, which essentially meant he was the liaison to the public, and how it came to be that he received our initial inquiry about a tour.
Kenn started to show us around, and stopped. He looked at us asked, “So, you just want to know everything then?” We said we did, and were interested in anything he was willing to share. As it turns out, he was an incredible resource, and had been in numerous Meetings around the country and quite involved for a long time. We also didn’t realize at the time that “everything” was more than we could ever fully comprehend even if we agreed to study only Quakers for the next straight year. We ultimately ended up with a little mix of All Quakers, and Rochester Quakers.
He showed us around and told us a bit about the history of that particular meeting spot, and then spent the next two hours patiently answering our incessant questioning. Here’s what I came away with: The history of the Quakers is INCREDIBLY complex, and whatever you think you know about the Quakers, it’s probably only slightly true, if at all. The Quakers were essential to the founding of the United States of America because of their interest in activism and community, as well as their pioneering of many business practices that are still widely used. Because of their ideas on non-violence and treating all with respect and dignity, the Quakers were heavily involved in the Underground Railroad, the Woman’s Rights Movement, and numerous other forms of activism, including the currently ongoing Occupy movements.
Here in Rochester, the Friends meet weekly on Sundays. The group is what is referred to as an “unprogrammed group”, so there are all different types of Friends in attendance: Buddhist Friends, Jewish Friends, Atheist Friends, Evangelical Friends, even Buddhist Jewish Friends! (The Rochester Friends own a diagram, which shows all the many different splits, and mergers of the many different sects of Quakerism that have existed since its founding. It is a very complex and overwhelming read). The meeting consists of sitting in a room, in chairs set up in circles. There is no altar, no special decoration, no adornments, no distractions. The design is to imply the concept of simplicity, which is one of the Quaker Advices. (The Advices are a set of guidelines intended to provide a sense of direction for a Friend). During the Meeting, everyone sits in silent meditation, and when compelled to do so by the experience of connecting with whatever they’re there to connect with, they may stand and share whatever thoughts are on their mind. In the event that no one feels so compelled, the group sits in silent meditation for the entire time.
In this particular group, there is no leader, no pastor–it is a pure democracy where all peers are treated equal and everyone’s input and experience is welcomed. It was mentioned that this can often be very helpful to gain exposure to many different perspectives. However, because there are so many potential views on a subject, it can often be time consuming for a group to come to a unanimous decision. In the event that someone is looking for counsel on a particular issue, a committee may be appointed to assist in helping the individual come to an objective awareness about making the best possible decision. What I found really interesting about this, is that the group in its entirety may have an opinion on a particular issue but may arrive individually at a different opinion–and most importantly, that’s okay. There seems to be a philosophy of open-mindedness and acceptance that’s unlike any other. All are welcome to be Quaker, and if you want to be a Quaker, you can just start to show up and start calling yourself one!
In retrospect, it would’ve been great to experience a Meeting, and see the process unfold. I think we’ve agreed that returning some Sunday to be part of a Meeting would be an important part to learning more about how Quakers experience their spirituality, and how it’s shared among the group.
Many thanks to those who invited us, and made us feel at home. See you again soon!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com