Weird and Wonderful Stuff out of Quiet Quaker Worship
Back in October of 2001 I walked into a Quaker meeting house in Hartford, CT to finally attend silent worship. Over 10 years before in Wales I nearly sat through a meeting during my honeymoon with my wife. We were both 25 years old, conservative, Bible-believing, Pentecostal Christians looking for a place to meet with Jesus.
Since we had arrived at the Quaker meeting house about 20 minutes before the service, we nosed around in the front room and perused the literature prominently displayed. None of it sounded familiar. The language seemed vague, shadowy to us–suspect. “…that of God in everyone…the Light of the divine…the seed within.” We understood these words individually, but the way the Quakers strung them together, they smacked of the dreaded heresy of our day–NEW AGE. We dashed out of there in search of a proper church with a proper God that we recognized.
Years later, no longer married, no longer “straight,” I felt adrift in my spiritual life. I had just moved back up North from Memphis, TN. After two years of coming out and attending a warm (though not completely affirming) Episcopal church, I wanted to find a place of worship in my new home of Hartford, CT. I tried the Episcopal churches in the area, but although they were effusively welcoming of gays, I perpetually felt underdressed among the posh and well-groomed New England Episcopalians. Also, the churches I visited felt dry, stuffy, and conservative in the restrained way the priests and their staff conducted business.
I had begun work as an infusion teacher at the Watkinson School, the first job in which I was openly gay, and a place where the administration encouraged my creativity as I worked with both teachers and students to infuse the 9th grade with innovative, and hopefully effective, teaching and learning strategies and techniques. Through working with students like Daniel, May, and John and collaborating with teachers like Christina, Jen, and Steve, I felt the sludge in my brain begin to loosen up as critical thinking and fresh ideas began to flow.
Since a co-worker, Diane worked in the Middle School, I did not have too much interaction with her. I heard rumors that she was openly Quaker. This intrigued me. I never met an actual Quaker, and here was one among us in this progressive private school. I learned that David, an Upper School history teacher was also a practicing Quaker. After interrogating Diane to find out what actually happens in a Quaker meeting, I decided I to visit.
A few weeks before terrorists had attacked the USA. I visited lower Manhattan nearly a month after the downing of the World Trade Towers and other buildings. In my early 20’s I worked in the executive dinning room on the 50th floor at the American Express building directly next door to one of the towers. On a Saturday in October 2011 I returned to my old stomping grounds, but nothing looked the same, and the fire still smoldered. Military personnel with guns patrolled. Workmen removed debris and hammered more plywood over building facades as dazed tourists walked around silently. Most businesses were closed. Everything was covered in grey ash. The scenes I saw that day in New York mirrored the emotional state of the country at the time. Citizens were shocked and stunned. Many of us felt terrorized and vulnerable for the first time in our lives.
In that state of mind a week after my visit to NYC, I entered the Hartford Friends Meeting. There were perhaps 25 people sitting on pews facing each other. The pews formed concentric squares. There was no altar, no pulpit. There were no songs, no prayers, no sermon. Just silence. Stillness. This quiet lasted a full hour.
I did not feel bored or uncomfortable, which surprised me. Instead I felt I had come home, but to a home I had never been in before. The silence surrounded me and filled me and comforted me. After years of being pummeled by words, and weeks of terror alerts, breaking news, and a quick buildup to war, the silence felt like a balm to my troubled mind and panicked heart. I sat in that silence like in a hot bath, surrendering to it.
Over the next few years I continued attending meeting for worship. I would sit there and imagine I was as an overused clunky desktop computer in need of maintenance. Each meeting I sat in silence allowing the Spirit to do a scan disc operation over all the data I had collected through the years. I imagined God conducting a defrag of my mental and spiritual hard drive closing up the gaps, removing digital junk that took up room and slowed down processing.
A year later I began writing Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House. My brain felt freer as I began to process nearly two decades receiving gay conversion therapy and ex-gay ministry. By 2004, after a clearness process with a small group of Quakers at Hartford Meeting, I decided to leave the Watkinson School and attempt to work as a theatrical performance activist. Now, nearly 10 years after attending my first Quaker meeting, I will embark on a six state, cross-country, train tour sharing my work about gender non-conformists in the Bible and my growing concern about climate change.
The practice of quiet contemplation may seem to some like a bland, heartless exercise for the rare esoteric mystic. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. I know I cannot do it for long by myself in my own study. But gathering with others in that silent place week after week, I have sifted through much inner debris. I have wrestled with my own demons. I have developed new ideas and found new direction for my work.
Read about the three weeks I just spent at Haverford College as Friend in Residence. All my worlds collide–queer, Quaker, scholar, activist.
Photos from Green Street Friends Meeting and Haverford Friends Meeting