Quakers believe in the presence of God within each person. A Meeting for Worship is time for silent, expectant waiting upon the God within. Quaker silence is not an emptiness, but a disciplined and contemplative openness to the spirit of God. Sometimes speaking may arise out of the silence, usually coming from an individual's sense that they have been given a "message" to share with others.
Several years ago, I began to consider a photographic depiction of a Quaker Meeting spiritual community and its Quaker worship. I wanted to do portraits, and also take photographs during Meeting for Worship. First I tested out my ideas with individuals in the Meeting. Based upon their advice, I spoke with the Ministry and Counsel Committee and worked with my own "Photo Support Committee." Finally I spoke with the Meeting at large via Business Meeting. Since decisions in a Quaker community are made by consensus, all were involved. There was thoughtful and prolonged discussion about the potential to disturb the sacred space of silent worship with a camera. The community gave me permission to photograph during Meeting for Worship, but with restrictions. I could not move around from place to place during the worship, I could not photograph visitors, and I could not photograph anyone who "opted out." I could photograph in only four Meetings for Worship. It was trial and error for me. By the end of four Meetings, I barely figured out which lens, which camera, which seats provided the best angles, and which camera setting worked best in the sometimes dim, and oftentimes high contrast light. So the discussions with the Meeting community commenced again, and after a lot more discussion, photographic permission was granted for a second period of time. Many members also graciously sat for portraits over this time period. I felt fully supported by my Meeting as we undertook this project together.
Eventually, I realized words would need to accompany the photos because the fullness of the silent, sitting people is so difficult to portray visually. So I asked my subjects for "haiku-like" prose descriptions of what was important to them about Meeting for Worship. Everyone took the time to think deeply about their written statements.
As I look at this body of work, I feel moved by the thoughtful written statements and by the spiritual depth and strength of my Meeting community. I felt fully supported by my Meeting as we undertook this project together.
This blog is long overdue, but I have had a difficult time writing it because I feel so sad about the New Bedford Meetinghouse. I visited there in December of 2014. It was a surprise to me because it is a huge meetinghouse, the largest one I have visited so far. It is clear that at one time it was elegant, well appointed, and a "happening" place. It is no longer any of these things and that was a surprise too. Currently, New Bedford has 9 members with an average of 4 attending Meeting for Worship. How, I wondered, do they keep up with the expense and the work of such a large, historic building complex? I know the members care about it and for it, and they are doing the best that they can.
On my day of photographing here is what I found. Because of a grant, the bricks on the outside were repointed and the roof repaired. The outside looked great. Inside, there is a very large meetingroom with white benches and green cushions. There were separate doors for men and women. The partitions between the men's and women's sides were down. The men's side is in use during the warm weather months. The women's side is a storage area. During the colder months, Meeting for Worship takes place in their community room in an attached, but separate house. There is a very large upstairs area subdivided into smaller rooms. I suspect that this area was once an overflow gallery. It all needs paint and updating. Sorry, New Bedford members, but I have to report that the building had an air of neglect.
I had a difficult time getting solid facts about New Bedford's Quaker history. There are hints of a very important story here and there. I know the history is available in documents somewhere in the town, but no one seems to have solidly pulled together the history of Quakers in New Bedford. Nor could I get any written documents about the New Bedford Meeting itself, at least not much that I could find on cursory investigation.
Here is what I do know. Quakers in New Bedford began meeting in the 1690's as part of the original Dartmouth/Apponegansett Quakers. It became a monthly meeting in 1792. The first meetinghouse was built in 1759. The current meetinghouse was built in 1821-22. At this time, there was a large and wealthy Quaker population in New Bedford. Consequently, it was a large and well-appointed meetinghouse. Some of the New Bedford Quakers came from Nantucket because of the desirable deep-water port, which was needed for whaling. They were pre-eminent whalers and businessmen in town. Quakers influenced life in New Bedford. It became a major stop on the Underground Railroad and because of Quaker belief in Equality, it became known as a place with equal opportunity hiring for all. That was very unusual for this period.
When the current Meetinghouse was built, there were 700 members. For a time (but not currently), New Bedford Meeting was a programmed meeting. The Meeting community supported the building of the first Christian school in Palestine and had the first Friends Bible School in America. Some Quakers left the Meeting because they wanted to wear fancier, more brightly colored clothes more in line with their wealth and status in town. One person told me these Quakers left the Meeting community and helped to establish the Unitarian Church in New Bedford.
There are so many tantalizing hints of a rich Quaker history in New Bedford, but I could not get beyond the hints in the little time that I had. I hope a historian comes forward who will research and write about the Quakers in New Bedford. The meetinghouse also has such great potential and such a rich history to live up to. At the moment it is not living up to either, and I am very sad about that.
The picture I have chosen was of an old collection box that I found on a back wall of the meetinghouse. If you have read this blog, the picture will speak for itself. However, I hope you will go to the New Bedford gallery on my website or on my Facebook page (Framing the Light) and see more photographs that give a more complete picture of what this grand old meetinghouse is like. It is really special.
Sometimes an object seems to us to be particularly picturesque. However, it is not the object alone that produces this effect, but it is the connection in which we see the object with that which is beside, behind, under and above it and which all contribute to that effect ~Goethe
It is fitting that my photographic journey began and ended with Framingham Friends Meetinghouse because it is my Meetinghouse, and therefore it is special to me.
It is a gem of a building. It is not a traditional Quaker Meetinghouse, but it is old, and it does exude all the peace and calm that one would hope to find in a Meetinghouse. I love worshipping in this peaceful space.
Originally, it was a one-room schoolhouse, built in 1839. It was vacant after 1915 and used as a community building for the neighborhood. Friends acquired the building in 1964 for $200.00 and moved it about 150 feet to its present location. In 1974 an addition was built for First Day School rooms and recently a larger kitchen was added.
I love the building but what I mostly love are the people who are members and attenders at Framingham Friends. This community of people is what is beside, behind, under and above the actual building. The building, as much as I love it, is just a building. The people who worship there, who are the community of Framingham Friends, are everything. This mirrors my experience at all the Meetinghouses I photographed, where I was told repeatedly that the community of people was the most important and most special attribute about their meetinghouses.
It seems so long ago when I first began to consider photographing in Quaker Meetinghouses. I wanted to portray my experience in Quaker Meeting, and I was challenged to think about what words I would use to describe it. The words I chose were: Light, simple, centered, peaceful and quiet. As part of my thinking process, I asked my Meeting community to send me their five descriptive words. These words speak of a centered, peaceful worship at the core, and of a loving supportive community. Here are all the "Five Words,", reprinted just as I received them.
~ warm, community, welcoming, stable, centered ~ stillness, gathered, presence, friends, refuge ~ still, rooted, guided ~ warm, dynamic, peaceful, taupe, varied ~ witness, stewardship, testimony, care(ing), welcoming ~ warm, inclusive, supportive, quiet, changing ~ God, Love, Blessing, Community, Peace ~ Light, Joy, Friendship, Love, Peace ~ community, consensus, patience, serene, quiet ~ Acceptance, Love, Community, Grace, Depth ~ I think of Meeting for Worship as a process (case sensitive): 1. silence 2. restlessness 3. composure 4. Spirit 5. Community ~ simple, direct, authentic, sacred, shared ~ Friendly, Peaceful, Spirit, Meditative, Tranquil ~ sanctuary, community, peculiar, covered, friends ~ history, plain, quiet, welcome, community ~ Curiosity, Humility, Seeking, Challenging, Questioning ~
These words, I believe, communicate the essence of the Quaker experience of today. Many of the buildings I have photographed have been historic buildings. They are beautiful and important to preserve. The history of the Quakers is an important piece of who we are as an entity, but it is just the beginning of the story. The words above help to communicate the essence of our Quaker experience today.
I have learned so much during this photographic journey. I have enjoyed it to the fullest, and am still enjoying it. I know much more about Quakerism and about Quakers in the world today. I hope my photographs portray the essence of Quakerism. This is my last blog and the last meetinghouse posting, at least for now. As I wrap up this final blog posting, I would like to thank all of my readers and supporters. I have appreciated the words of encouragement and support, and just plain interest in the topic. Thank you!
The picture below is found in the room in the Framingham Meetinghouse named "The Uplift Room". I think the words on the blackboard are perfect for a posting about community. Respectful listening is a basic community building skill. This sign was probably used at one time for a worship sharing group, but still remains in this little back room today. The small portrait beside it is of John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a Quaker in Amesbury. I am not sure how the portrait came to be here in this small room, but there it is.
Allen’s Neck is in Dartmouth, MA, an area that is rich in Quaker history. It is another spin-off from Apponegansett Meeting (See blog entry for Apponegansett, February, 2015).
It is a beautiful Meetinghouse. It was originally built in 1758, and rebuilt in 1873 when more room was required. It has been modernized and enlarged along the way with a large community room, kitchen, bathrooms, central heating and plumbing. It is on a large rural lot with a cemetery on the property.
The community of Allen’s Neck is undergoing transition. It is currently one of only two programmed meetings in Massachusetts. Their part-time pastor has left his position, so they are considering their future: to remain programmed, become an unprogrammed meeting, or use some combination of both. Currently, they refer to themselves as a semi-programed meeting. Recently they moved their benches into an inward facing arrangement rather than all front facing. They are holding some of each type of Meeting for Worship and deciding what is most important to them as a community.
Historically, many meetings in Massachusetts have gone through similar transitional experiences: first moving toward Joseph John Gurney and his pastoral, programmed methods, and sometimes then returning to a more traditionally silent, unprogrammed worship. Falmouth, Mattapoisett, Westport, and Worcester, to name a few, have all had some time as programmed Meetings. Many of these Meetinghouses still have some lingering evidence of programmed worship. They may have one or more of these: pews rather than benches, front facing benches, organs, and pulpits. The story is usually written in the building.
As I have made this journey through meetinghouses, one of the important things I have realized is that Quakerism is not just a historic oddity of a religion, but is a vital, fluid faith. Due to the type of decision-making process in Quakerism, change can take a very long time, but it does occur. Worcester Meeting has changed its committee structure (see blog entry for Worcester, April, 2014), and our Yearly Meeting Sessions have changed in structure since I first began attending them. I like knowing that Meeting communities can undergo a process of evaluation and change. It keeps us from getting too stodgy, and it keeps us relevant to the needs of today.
The picture is of the front of the Meetingroom. You can see the pulpit in front of the picture. On the left side of the picture, the caption says: George Fox. On the right, the caption says: Margaret Fell (AKA Mrs. Fox). When I first saw the picture hanging, I asked if I could take it down. The answer was no, and I am so glad it was. I love this children’s rendition of two important Quakers hanging in the midst of the worship room, indicating how much the children’s learning is incorporated into the life of the Meeting.
Other photographs of Allen’s Neck can be seen on my Facebook page: Framing the Light. If you do not have Facebook, the photos can be seen on this website under “Meetinghouse” on the top menu bar on the Home page. You are welcome to share this as widely as you would like!!!
When I went to the Westport Friends Meeting in December of 2014, it was one of those slate-gray early winter days. There are six tall windows in the Westport Meetingroom, and the grey sky outside the windows complemented the soft grays in the interior. There were just a few patches of color- mauve colored cushions and a few green bushes outside. It is a beautiful meetingroom, with benches facing inward. It is uncluttered, with beautiful light suffused in the room. It is simplicity itself.
This geographic area is rich in Quaker life and history. Westport was one of the satellite expansions from Apponegansett Meeting (See blog entry for Apponegansett, February, 2014). As early as 1699, meetings were held in this area, then known as Acoaxet. The first meetinghouse was constructed in 1716. The second, and larger building was constructed in 1813 and is the one still in use today. The Meetinghouse has been lovingly and carefully modernized and maintained. The Community House and the Book Shed complete the modern complex that is known today as Westport Friends Meeting.
Westport Friends Meeting is a close and loving meeting community. I was amazed by how many of this Meeting’s members contribute to the loving care, nurturance, and education of Quaker youth. I apologize to the Meeting members who, I am sure, make very important contributions to other Quaker concerns, but today I am going to write about Quaker education and nurturance of young people.
The foundation of all Quaker education is, once again, the belief in the Inner Light in everyone. This belief means that all people, including children, are equal and deserving of respect. It means that each person has the innate ability to live “up to the Light”. At its most basic level, this translates into education that empowers people to live more fully in Truth. In a Quaker education, the quality of character and what kind of people the kids are becoming are as important as their intellectual growth. The educational environment is based on values of community, spirituality, responsibility, and stewardship. In early Quakerism, this philosophy was in direct contrast to the Puritan belief that goodness had to be imposed on an innately evil being and that goodness had to be enforced throughout a lifetime.
Today, Quaker schools and colleges are highly regarded for their rigorous educational standards. In the beginning, most meetings supported a school. In the early 1800’s at least eight Quaker boarding schools were established. There are many more today, too numerous to mention. In the late 1800’s ten Quaker colleges were established. These include Haverford, Guilford, Earlham, and Swarthmore. All are still operating today. Quakers endowed other colleges, such as John Hopkins, Brown, and Cornell though they are no longer Quaker institutions.
Today, however, I want to acknowledge the important education done outside of formal Quaker school education. At First Day Schools (in ‘non-Quakerese’ known as Sunday Schools), youth retreats, and summer camps, Quaker youth workers teach our kids how to invite the Sacred into their lives and what to do with the Sacred when they find it. They encourage young people to connect this Divine Presence within to their practical daily lives. The formal curriculums are of course important, but it is the nurturance of the character of the children that is most important. Ultimately, it helps young people to make contributions to bettering the world from their spiritual centers. It is, I believe, vital to the continuance of the Society of Friends, and vital to the revitalization of our Quaker Meeting communities. So many of Westport Meeting’s members have made significant contributions in youth programs within their community, within their Meeting, and within the wider world of New England Yearly Meeting. And of course there are many workers from other meetings who do this work as well.
Consummate skill is needed to create a Quaker environment at a child’s level of understanding. It requires patience and dedication to continually encourage but not coerce. The environment must be respectful of individuals and of individual journeys. It requires sensitivity to build a caring community of youth. I personally am in awe of and grateful to all the people who run our youth programs and retreats. My kids benefitted from them. As a single parent, I benefited from the respite when my kids were involved in them. And my children were exposed to learning so much that I was not personally able to provide. My now-grown-up children are better people because of the wonderful work that these people have done. Thank you all very much.
The photo was taken in the foyer to the Wesport Meetingroom. I could not resist taking a photo of the soft toys ready and waiting for small hands to pick them for use during Meeting for Worship. Some of these toys are dressed in Quaker garb, which I loved seeing. Many meetings have soft toys available for children. The time passes more easily for small kids when there is something with which they can occupy themselves during Silent Worship.
Other photographs of Westport Meetingroom can be seen on my Facebook page: Framing the Light. Please do not hesitate to “like” the page and "share" the photos as widely as you would like. If you do not have Facebook, the photos can be seen on this website under “Meetinghouse” on the top menu bar. I love to hear comments, so thank you in advance for those!
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