By Bethany Carlson
A group of worshippers gathers in the Corvallis Friends Meeting House on a sunny spring Sunday. Their ages range from college student to white-haired elder. They sit in silence, most with eyes closed. There is no scheduled worship music, no pastor preaching from a pulpit raised above his audience; the worshippers sit in two concentric circles and there is no planned sermon. The woman who greeted new arrivals at the door explained that the group waits and worships in expectant silence. Anyone may feel free to share insights they feel God places on their hearts during the meeting, but most days the worshippers remain quiet.
Near the end of the hour, the children’s group rejoins the adults. A tiny blond girl tenderly tucks a blanket around her stuffed animal, waiting quietly while the meeting continues. After the meeting there is a time for announcements and sharing of personal joys or concerns. One member asks for volunteers to help with spreading a load of wood chips and other gardening tasks around the meeting hall property. The adult leader of the children’s group reports that the seedlings they planted are ready to be sent to a food bank. The meeting adjourns to a potluck, that staple of faith communities everywhere.
The Corvallis Friends are members of the Quaker faith, something we might associate only with pious New Englanders dressed in grey (or possibly oatmeal). It’s evident, though, that this is a relevant and flexible faith, as well-suited to 21st century issues of social justice, personal reflection, and stillness as it was concerned with challenging the hierarchical, monolithic church of the 1600s. Founded in England in the mid-1600s by George Fox, the Quaker faith, “was the logical extreme of personal interpretation of the Bible: the only authority is your connection to God—that’s where George Fox went. So it was considered a radical sect,” said John Selker, an OSU professor who is the clerk of the meeting. The Quakers faced persecution as heretics both in England and the New World.
“The Bible says each person has the spirit of God in them, and [the Quakers believe] that means each person can speak. We minister to each other, rather than having one person who ministers to all,” said Brigid Bonner, who’s been attending the Friends meeting house for six years. She was introduced to the Friends while attending a qigong class at the same location. Bonner, who grew up in a structured, rules-based Catholicism, said, “At some point I felt, ‘I’m old enough to decide this for myself.’ Because not every situation can be defined by a set of rules.” She works with the children at the Friends meeting house, and said, “There was a certain point when working with children when I’ve realized if we want our children to vote, participate in society, make choices, that we need to train them to make decisions and use discernment. You can’t do that by teaching them to obey rules.”
Selker said, “I think the real key is the word community. People find a place here of others who they can share their spiritual journey with in a variety of formats. People tend to find a level of energy and a level of focus that’s hard to find elsewhere, for them to do their personal explorations.” He said that the people at the Corvallis meeting represent spiritualities from Christian, Buddhist, and atheist belief systems. “The Religious Society of Friends—that means religious in the broadest sense of the word. We don’t restrict based on people’s interpretations of that word.” He explained that in the early days of the Quaker faith, people could be “read out of meeting” if they didn’t conform to Quaker principles, but, “Now we strive to accept anyone who finds this format of worship helpful.”
Selker continued, “This idea of God in each person leads to the peace testimony, the idea that you can never justify killing others.” Pacifism has been a hallmark of the Friends since their inception. They officially opposed the American Revolution, disowning some of their own members who fought against the British, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Their pacifistic beliefs did not make them popular with many of the other inhabitants of 1700s America, and probably led to their declining influence in Pennsylvania, which was originally established as a Quaker haven.
Historian William J. Whalen reports that Quakers were also concerned with proper treatment of Native Americans, and “By 1780 all Quakers in good standing had released their slaves. Later Quakers were active in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement.”
David Meade, who moved to Corvallis after working as a writer for the religion section of a Chicago newspaper, said he appreciates “the concern they have for everybody—as a community, and with the larger community. They’re concerned with social justice, and justice for individuals.”
The Corvallis Friends have a variety of literature from Quaker thinkers. One of their pamphlets, “Friends and their Spiritual Message” by Howard Brinton, emphasizes spirituality for the Quaker as something experienced both in relation to God and to other people. Brinton explains that while the Friends’ beliefs may seem individualistic, there is in fact a focus on the entire group’s insight. Spirituality in religion is seen as essentially “a genuine expression of an inward state.” The contemplative form of most Quaker meetings encourages authenticity and sincerity.
Selker said of the deep introspection engaged in at meeting, “This is the toughest part of my week. You’re not so much going in order to get something, as with pulpit-based Christianity,” but rather to develop one’s own faith.
A collection of statements from attendees of the Corvallis meeting described what they appreciate about the meetings. One statement said the unprogrammed meeting “has brought me closer to my Inner Truth and Light of God than any sermon, Mass, or structured religious ceremony ever did.” Another read, “I don’t have to ‘park my brain at the door’ to participate…it is a place where I can deepen and merge my inner spiritual journey and my external peace-making work. I find among Quakers people who measure their lives by qualities of compassion and action.”
Max Afshar, an OSU student who grew up with ties to the Quaker community, said that when he came to Corvallis, “I thought it would be a good community base for me—the non-violence, the space to be myself and be safe, and bond with people whom I care about. The most unique thing is there’s no doctrine—you are free to discover your own truth. People are very supportive of each other.”
In some ways, the Friends’ simple practice of faith can be seen by some as just as ground-breaking now as it was at its founding. Selker commented, “How difficult it seems for the world to accept each other. But here we are going into our fifth century.” And this may explain the contemporary resonance of the Qaaker faith; values of non-violence, personal spirituality, and the prioritizing of concern for others can seem quite vital in the current era, a time of increased polarization among the religious and the secular. If the Friends’ past history is anything to go by, they’ll be around for a long time to come.