A yearning for a spiritual community spurred my husband, Jerry, and me to a Quaker meeting three decades ago. Though I’d grown up in the Lutheran church and Jerry had been brought up as a Baptist, we both had questioned those traditions as college students.
In our late twenties, we’d found each other – and a more relevant church home in an intentional ecumenical community in the inner city of Evansville, Indiana. Mutual friends had started the community, and they introduced us and nurtured our spiritual lives, our social justice consciousness, and our relationship. In 1979, two community members, ordained United Methodist ministers, had married us in the living room of the small house our group used as its base for neighborhood ministry and worship.
Two years later, Jerry and I recognized we needed more education to pursue our respective careers; Seattle offered programs for both of us. By that time, I was pregnant and due in July. We moved in the spring, hoping to settle in before the birth and the start of fall classes.
Part of our settling in included hunting for a church home without the formality of traditional worship services and one that was involved in peace and justice work. Quaker Meeting had made our list of places to check out. At that point, our only acquaintance with Quakerism, more formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, was through the American Friends Service Committee. We’d handed out anti-war brochures from the organization a couple of years earlier in Evansville when registration for a military draft had been re-instituted.
One Sunday in April, we made our way to University Friends Meeting. We paused in the doorway of the worship room, scanned the rows of molded plastic chairs arranged in a circle, then chose two seats near the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Called Meeting for Worship, this hour of sitting in silence with no minister, no liturgy or sermon, no hymn singing or scripture reading, and no kneeling and standing, was nothing like the Lutheran services of my youth. Neither did it much resemble the house church we’d attended in Evansville, with folk songs accompanied by a guitar and communion with homemade whole wheat bread and a common cup of wine.
At first I fidgeted, wondering when someone would say something. Eventually I closed my eyes, focused on my breath, and blocked out the sounds of crows skittering across the skylight and the whoosh of bus doors opening and closing at the Metro stop on the corner. I don’t remember if anyone spoke that day, but I recall I found comfort in the quiet presence of a hundred others doing the same.
Jerry and I talked later about how we both had felt at home in that simple space and service. A sense of “being at home” is commonly expressed by people when they talk about their first time at Quaker meeting. In fact, those are the words that Scott Holmes used to describe his first meeting in the recent episode of QuakerSpeak – My First Time at Quaker Meeting: “I felt like I had been wandering around a long time and had come home.”
Charlotte Cloyd explains that during her first time she was preoccupied, just as I had been.
“The first time I went to Quaker Meeting, I didn’t know how to listen, and I sat and was uncomfortable and noticed the silence and was too analytical of what the silence meant… I had to work on the process of figuring out: what am I listening for? Am I listening to myself? What’s going on? What is everyone else listening to and how does that affect the community and me?”
After our “first time,” Jerry and I attended University Meeting regularly. We were welcomed by other couples having babies, as well as seniors and singles who, when our baby unexpectedly turned out to be twins, became surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
We came to recognize that Quakerism was our path. For me, it was a place that not only allowed, but encouraged, my questions about God and faith. Anthony Smith found solace in the questioning he experienced at Quaker meeting, too.
“What impressed me about it was that there were people struggling. Not that they had the answers, but that they had questions and difficult questions that they were wrestling with, and they were trying to do so in a spiritually informed, but also very intelligent way.”
After many more times at meeting, Quakerism affirmed my belief that my faith, my work, and the way I live my life are all of the same cloth. It also gave me a vocabulary—such as the terms leading and calling—as well as tools and to open to a source of love and wisdom outside of myself to discern what I’m meant to do with my life. I remain grateful that my “first time” was a homecoming.
If you’ve found a spiritual home—at a Quaker meeting or elsewhere—what was your “first time” like?