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.

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Read about the three weeks I just spent at Haverford College as Friend in Residence. All my worlds collide–queer, Quaker, scholar, activist.

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Photos from Green Street Friends Meeting and Haverford Friends Meeting

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This post has 18 Comments

  1. David Holdt on April 12, 2013 at 5:09 pm Reply

    You carry your peace with you, and you share it with everyone you meet who is open to trusting, who recognizes your gift as a Friend and an Artist of the Spirit.

    • p2son on April 13, 2013 at 7:52 am Reply

      Thank you, David. I must say I miss the Friends in Hartford although I am happy in my meeting in Pennsdale, but it is small and. It established in the same way.

  2. Iain Strachan on April 12, 2013 at 6:22 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this, Peterson. There is so much that I can relate to in it. I started attending Quaker meetings in 2009, also feeling the need for silence in worship. I suppose many Christians might regard it with suspicion, as you did in your twenties. There are no fixed dogmas, and no requirement to follow any party line. And yet, I have found that in those silent meetings, my Christian faith has not been diluted, but in fact has deepened in many ways. It seems almost that the space given in Quaker meetings has helped me to understand why I am a Christian.

    I loved the analogy of defragging the hard drive! I also often leave the meeting with the feeling of things inside my brain having been set in order. Do you experience, as I do, that wonderful feeling of coolness and settled-ness inside your brain after Quaker worship?

    • p2son on April 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm Reply

      Iain, I have been to the Oxford meeting a number of times and have performed there at least twice. It is a lovely spot and I like their courtyard.

  3. glo on April 13, 2013 at 10:42 am Reply

    I only attended one Quaker worship when I visited the Greenbelt festival here in the UK last year.
    perhaps it was too late in the evening or too many later-comers distracting or the floor space being uncomfortable … but it didn’t ‘do it’ for me.

    Would love to try it again though, if I get another opportunity. Your blog has encouraged me! 🙂

    • p2son on April 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm Reply

      Haha, Greenbelt Quaker worship doesn’t really count. I have been too, but it is not typically centered and mostly populated by overtired, non-Quakers for whom it is the first time. I think you need to try a proper Quaker meeting sometime.

      • glo on April 14, 2013 at 3:35 am Reply

        “Mostly populated by overtired, non-Quakers for whom it is the first time”

        LOL. That’s EXACTLY what it was like!

  4. forrestwife on April 13, 2013 at 7:45 pm Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience with honesty and humor and for , well, for just being.

  5. dearfriends on April 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm Reply

    Isn’t it amazing how many people say they’ve found “home” when they experience a silent meeting? Thank you for your wonderful words of your personal journey. If you ever decide to go further than “six states” come out our way–would enjoy your visiting our little place on the Pacific Ocean. Blessings, Barb

  6. Thuli Mbete on April 15, 2013 at 5:29 am Reply

    I felt inspired with your ministry. Thank you David. I will be holding you in the light as you carry on blessing others!!!!

    • Thuli Mbete on April 15, 2013 at 5:34 am Reply

      I felt inspired with your ministry Petersen. Thank you so much.

  7. Meg on April 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm Reply

    If you want to credit the sculptor in the top photo, she was Margaret Levy. The figures are at Chestnut Hill Meeting

  8. Tina Coffin on April 19, 2013 at 11:30 am Reply

    Peterson, I am the editor of a small magazine for Quakers in Arkansas called “The Carillon” . I would very much like to reprint this piece in one of the next issues. Would you give me permission to do so?

    Tina Coffin

  9. markdanielruss on April 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm Reply

    All the best with your cross-country train tour! Your description of your journey with Friends really captures the transformational power of the Quaker tradition at its most dynamic and empowering. Shalom!

    • p2son on April 23, 2013 at 11:41 am Reply

      Thanks Friend! I hope I get to see you again one day soon.

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