I’m a Pennsylvanian from birth and the Quaker movement is baked into our DNA. We are proud of William Penn who founded the original colony on the Quaker ideal of religious freedom. So to begin my project of experiencing religious traditions, I visited an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting House in DC. Quakers are Anabaptists, a group of churches dedicated to the peace movement like the Mennonites and the Amish. Although they have shared roots, I’m not sure what else these churches have in common.
Maybe it was because of my experience as a high school student in Pennsylvania, but I had a very colonial view of Quakers. I kept picturing the guy from the box of Quaker Oats in my head.
In preparation, I watched a little video about what to expect. I was a bit nervous about the silent service. In an unprogrammed service, everyone sits in silence until someone is moved (by God?) to speak. There is no singing, Bible reading, or sermon. Anyone can speak if they feel led. I’m used to slick and scheduled services so this experience was bound to be completely different.
The service started at 10:30. I arrived about two minutes late, but was certainly not the last to arrive. People kept showing up throughout the service. There were about 80 or 90 in the main service and several other events were being held in the building. Long benches were arranged in a U shape that faced one of the long sides of the the room. That side had a raised platform that looked like it might be for a choir. The seating felt more egalitarian than a typical church service. We sat in silence for about thirty minutes. Then, without any fanfare, one woman rose and spoke for a few minutes about the recent massacre of Sufi Muslims in Egypt. She drew on the connection between the Sufi tradition and the Quakers including silent worship and mysticism. Then she sat down and we returned to silence for another 15 minutes. The children entered at about 11:15 and the silence continued. I appreciated this element which allowed kids to participate in the service, but only for about 15 minutes which is probably stretching most children’s abilities to sit still and be quiet. At about 11:25, a woman spoke about having dissociative disorder and used lyrical language to describe how she grounded herself. At exactly, 11:30, the “guide” stood up and started shaking everyone’s hand. We all rose and said good morning to each other. Then sat back down and listened to the announcements. According to a regular attender, it was an unusually quiet service.
It felt both radically countercultural and quaint. We spend so much time on our phones, watching tv, or driving so to sit in silence for an uninterrupted hour was challenging, but it went more quickly than I thought. I spent a lot of time observing the room which was very plain with wooden benches and no adornments of any kind. I prayed briefly. You could hear as people moved in their seats or coughed. At one point, an elderly woman entered and asked several loud questions about the program. It jarred me and took me out of the moment. Some people closed their eyes, others kept them open. I saw at least three people check their phones at some point. No one read or wrote in a journal. Out of the 80-90 people there about 7-8 were non-white. It was pretty evenly split between men and women. I originally thought that there weren’t any young people, but later realized that the children were at First Day school (the Quaker name for Sunday school) and the teens were baking cookies for the homeless.
Although church theology differs, most Quakers are very liberal and the service is open to all. During the announcements, their activist activities were evident. We could join a couple of peace protestors or a letter writing campaign. They are also active in the homeless movement which weighs heavily on DC. During the announcements, a homeless man gave a brief statement thanking the church and identifying himself as a judgmental Quaker. The bathrooms signs used gender inclusive language.
After the service, we drank coffee and ate snacks. The baked goods were particularly delicious and people from the other services mingled. They have activities throughout the week including silent services, knitting circles, and activist groups. It felt vibrant and active. While I was trying to find a way to stay Christian, I attended a number of mainline Protestant churches with liberal theology, but I never got a strong sense of community. It was good to see the Quakers managing it.
- Would I go again? Absolutely. Even if you have no desire to be a Quaker, I would recommend seeking a service out. It was a great time to recenter myself for the week.
- What were the positives? Liberal, vibrant community.
- What were the negatives? This might seem silly, but the architecture was Colonial Revival. When I walked up, it reminded me of Pennsylvania, but the building was not built in the 1700s, but in the 1930s.