Experiencing a Quaker Meeting
Last Sunday my friend and I attended a Society of Friends of Poughkeepsie Meeting, in order to gain insight on what it is like to attend a Quaker meeting.
The Poughkeepsie Quaker chapter was founded in 1925 after breaking away from the larger sect of the Dutchess County Quakers in 1921. The Meeting House was built in 1922 on the corner of Hooker Ave, and today, 95 years later, it remains standing. For a building that is over 95 years old it was in great condition. The lawn was freshly cut and a new coat of paint added to the main door gave the building a sense of liveliness. The Meeting House maintained an aged atmosphere: the indoor architecture, the carpet, the ceiling, and the creakiness of the wooden floor all emphasized how old the building had been.
Entering the building I was greeted by Enoch Caryle, who was the leader of the Friends Meeting. Enoch introduced himself, and asked us to sign in as guests. As we walked into the main meeting room we were greeted by the smell of baked goods and coffee. An older man named William was setting up the food for after the meeting and discussing with a woman about how he needed to head home early to take care of his wife, who woke up not feeling well. The room was a pale eggshell white, with a tan carpet and old paintings on the wall. It was very plain and simple. I found it interesting that here was no religious imagery on the walls. In the center of the room, was a circle of chairs around 15, for members of the society to sit in for their meeting. In the center of the circle was a microphone for when people felt the word of god.
“It is hard to describe.” said Ruth Rosen who works has the clerk for the Society Friends of Poughkeepsie, “it’s just one of those things a person must experience themselves in order to gain a full understanding of it.”
On the outside of the circle were one pews on each side of the room which is where I sat, both pews were facing the circle. There was an old piano to the right of me that had to be over 50 years old, and a guitar lying on the ground next it. The piano just added to the old style feeling I got out of this place. Little by little members started walking in and taking their seat. It was interesting to note that no one spoke, but instead nodded hello to each other. All members wore name tags, so everyone knows each other’s names. It was a casual atmosphere in the room; no one was dressed fancy or dressed to the nines as the old expression goes. Overall there seemed to be a presence of older people there. There were two children, with Ruth though who happened to be her niece and nephew. Once taking his or her seat, the member would close their eyes and begin the process of trying to connect with God, and reach inner tranquility by surrounding themselves with a white light.
“The reason we sit in silence in the circle until someone speaks is in order for everyone to focus on reaching the inner light and connecting with God” said Rosen. “It is tough at first you have to train yourself to listen, to tune out the noises around you and just focus” Rosen went on to say.
By 10 a.m. everyone was in their seats. It was quiet, all I could hear was the deep breaths people were taking, and the churning of people’s hungry stomachs. There was no introduction, no music, and no opening prayer; just people sitting in absolute silence. The more the minutes passed, the deeper in a state of what seemed like meditation each person went into. I tried it myself but found it difficult not to be distracted by the outside noises of cars passing by, rain drops hitting the window, a plane flying over the building, and the chirping of Swallows flying overhead. I noticed that some people started to rock back and forth or put their hands on their hand as if they were connection with God. Within a half hour, a woman named Victoria Andrews stood up and walked over to the mic.
“This day has an interesting history for us. As a child and as an adult it was called Columbus Day, and we celebrated the discovery of America. We would learn later that we had certainly not had discovered anything, as there were people here before us. The European history is not a proud one concerning what the early settlers did when they got here. We should celebrate those that have not harmed others, and their actions which have enriched and made us better as a society. I am grateful for this place and you good people. Thank you god for the good blessings of this day and every day.”
She then sat back down in her seat and closed her eyes again going back into a state of deep meditation. I noted how she brought up one of the tenets or themes of the Quaker Religion: do no harm to others. Before I could write down my initial reaction, a man named Adam Allen stood up and started to sing a song. His wife walked over to the piano and started to play the instrumental version of the song he sang. The song dealt with a shepherd finding his lost flock of sleep after a bad storm. As the song came to an end, Allen remained standing, and proceeded to share his thoughts.
“I was thinking this morning of the huge storm in the gulf, this peaceful Quaker hem, and the present political situation. We are in a state of wasteful consumption, which depletes the Earth of her natural resources, which promises to cause of the extinction of the human race. Events like Hurricane Matthew, shows us that we have no control over mother nature, and no matter what mother nature will prevail with or without humanity’s presence. Given that none of our politicians have promoted or advocated for any laws that call for a simpler society, one which respects the Earth, one calls for better education and an emphasis that focuses on saving our environment.”
I found it interesting to note that this deep mediation gives them a time to reflect on current issues that matter to them. When these people speak each member listens attentively, focusing on what each person has to say. Unlike some other religious and places of worship I have been to, there is no one person in charge, and no one person dominating the conversation. It was all about just expressing what God said to you. I found it refreshing to be in place where everyone accepted each others opinons.
The meeting came to an end by 11 a.m. with everyone shaking hands with the person next to them. It ended with the leader Enoch talking about upcoming events, discussion about the book everyone is currently reading, and finally introduced myself and my friend to the members of the meeting. Enoch then asked if anybody wanted to discuss more in depth any of the topics that were brought up in the meeting. A few people raised their hands, and reflected on what was spoken adding their own insights and thoughts.
Everyone was extremely kind and more than willing to talk about their experience with being a Quaker. But one person stood out to me was an older gentlemen named Richard.
“One of biggest misconceptions is that all Quakers are pacifists, and that we all believe in the same thing. In fact, there are many different types of Quaker sects, each one having their own diverse group of beliefs. We are more of a mainstream sect here,” said Richard Andrews, who has been with the Poughkeepsie Quakers for over 60 years. Richard who went to Vassar College, joined after finding his old religion just wasn’t doing it for him.
“Joining this group was one of the most enlightening moments of my life, it not only gave me a new way to see the world and experience a connection with God, but also introduced me to my wife Victoria. That above all is what I am most thankful for.”