Not since 1921 have Quakers regularly worshiped at the Meeting House in what is known to natives as "Old Town" Baltimore. On Labor Day weekend, a small, simple group of people who call each other "Friends" resumed their quiet form of worship without fanfare.
Ever since I moved to Baltimore in 2000, I would drive by the meeting house, located 2 blocks from the main post office on Fayette Street, and imagine having meetings in there. Somehow, I knew I'd be worshiping in that space one day.
Backing up a bit, about a year and a half ago I began hosting worship in my home. I attend an urban, established meeting in Homewood, the neighborhood surrounding Johns Hopkins University's main campus, once the estate of Charles Carroll Jr, a gift from his father who signed the Declaration of Independence. I've developed some solid relationships and have grown quite a bit since attending there. This meeting married Russell and me and was there when he died, and its there where I have tried to learn to serve Friends more humbly and faithfully. However, all along I've always wanted something different. My heart longed for a deliberately Christ-centered worship.
I've always longed for "old time religion" that was still relevant. Quakerism is that, but I longed for a place where I could center on Christ with others who were doing the same thing. "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them," so Jesus says according to the Bible. Whereas "new and modern" seem to be what hooks many, I find that "new and modern" usually mean "trendy and entertaining." I can get entertainment any number of ways. I don't need to be entertained at church. I need to be stretched and pushed, challenged and held accountable. I want to grow emotionally and spiritually, to mature and learn to be a loving, charitable person with myself and others, to know a joy and peace that carries me through any trial or tribulation.
I know that this may sound like a daydream, but it's a promise to those who follow Jesus' way, and it's a common experience of those who have dedicated themselves to the manner of Friends (Quakers). It's rough at first, as should be expected. It's not been easy really admitting that I, too often, give in to temptations that aren't constructive but rather destructive. It's not easy admitting that I'm not self-sufficient in a time where self-sufficiency, rather than faith, is seen as the mark of being educated, mature and having arrived. What people don't understand, they often dismiss, deride or fear, and this goes for some who are not religious. I get it, trust me. I'm not judging. I've been there.
But to get this judgment of Christ-centered [traditionally Quaker] language from Quakers tends to become and albatross. To constantly have to explain one's faith to those who aren't really interested in it, but who seek only to make sure that I'm not trying to convert them or judge them when using Christian terminology, is taxing. I've been running in liberal Quaker circles most of my life, and at some point I had to start thinking of how I could best grow in Christ so as to achieve my own salvation, my own peace. It wasn't happening at Homewood, nor at any other Quaker meeting I've attended in years. I was learning to live in a very diverse environment, I was learning more patience, I was coming to better understand people who did not consider themselves Christ-centered and listen to their experiences. I am a better person for it, but I needed more.
So, I finally began hosting people at my house for an invitation-only monthly worship group. We soon moved to the local Metropolitan Community Church across the street and after a year began meeting twice-monthly. Our community grew spiritually, a small core group committed to meeting regularly, we lost a few attenders, and gained a couple of new ones. Our worship was focused on the presence of Christ. Our studies have been on the earliest message of Friends. We sing sometimes, study the Bible, laugh, talk, confide in one another. We are several races, male and female, well-to-do and flat-ass broke, highly educated and not-so-much, Gen X, Gen Y and retired. We sought unity in Christ, and our unity brought diversity.
I don't know exactly why the worship is different. Maybe some would not feel any difference if they were visiting us. We do things a little differently, but not that differently from any other Quaker meeting around here. We have pre-meeting (class) at 5pm. Again, we've been studying the Early Quakers' belief summed up simplisticly as:
Religion is deeply personal in that we each are connected to the God. God calls to us to turn to God. There is no real chasm between us and God. That which separates us from God is not physical but mental; we separate ourselves from God by what we do and our mindset. We each have a day of visitation (day = moment, year, span of a lifetime, who knows?) in which God actively pursues us and tries to break into our hearts/minds/psyche. However, just like a real day, our Day of Visitation can pass. However, unlike some of their contemporaries who saw God as angry, vindictive, jealous, dominating, Quakers saw God as loving. As a member of our worship group put it, whereas Puritans said to fear God because of the threat of hell and damnation, Quakers feared God as anyone would naturally respond to something that is so awesome and magnificent yet so mysterious that our simple organic minds can't really grasp it. God is something so powerful and intangible that language can't even explain it, language can't touch God. Language limits any communication of an experience of God. Whereas some Christians said that there was an Elect, that some were predestined to be saved and others not, whereas some said that authority was from the Bible as the Word of God, and others said authority was in the Church/tradition, Quakers said authority was within, internal, directly revealed to each person by the Light which comes from the Living Word, Christ Jesus, who points us to God, who gives a face and a context to that otherwise unexplainable mystery.
When God finally breaks through and we notice God, (for some that in-breaking may be a charismatic experience, for others it may be almost so subtle that they could easily rationalize the experience away) it can be a really unsettling experience. Friends saw that Christianity had become largely empty. People were Baptized and took the Lord's Supper but didn't often show that their lives were changed for it. They wore crosses around their necks, but lived lives which "persecuted Jesus on that cross." Friends believed that if God broke through people's "walls" that the Light that comes from God would shine on and expose the sin in peoples' lives. Skeletons in our closets were exposed (to ourselves). We couldn't hide from that which was destructive in our lives. Frankly, this isn't the most pleasant experience, but to recognize this and then to submit to the Light and allow it to show what needed "fixing" and then "how to fix it" was liberating. Whereas most Christians taught and believed that we were doomed to be sinners, Quakers rebuked this mentality. They called it "preaching up sin." They believed that when we learned of something that must be changed in our lives, we were to not look upon the sin and focus on it. Otherwise, we would give in. Rather, we were to keep focused on the Inner Light which would let the Good in us rise up, and the destructive forces pushed down. The power to not yield to temptation would ultimately prevail. Quakers' experience dictated that community was essential to continue to live up to the Light so that more would be given to them. This path to perfection was derided by many, but Quakers experienced this spiritual baptism as real and the communion with God as real as well. This was true religion. The Law of God was no longer something to be read from a book or taught by the Church, but was accessible directly from the Inner Teacher. Men and women equally could speak Truth as revealed to them directly. God didn't stop working in history at the end of the writing of Revelation. Christ is HEre to teach us NOW, DIRECTLY. Compare this to the rest of the Christian faith: The hypocrisy was so rampant, religion so idolatrous (focused on forms and books and people rather than transformation) that Quakers began to openly challenge conventional wisdom and religion. If we were all Christians, why were we bowing to one another? Why did the poor have to bow and doff their hats to the rich? Quakers refused. Why pay taxes that go to priests who professed Christianity but who weren't transformed themselves? Quaker refused. Why meet in churches with steeples that are supposedly consecrated and holy when our bodies are temples and the gathering is the church not the building? Again, Quakers refused to meet in "steeple houses." Quakers sought to move away from religion which is about form, and puts authority in perishable things (tradition, positions and books) and formed a religion that was based directly on experiencing the Divine, through Christ. From this religious practice, they began to be led into what would give them their reputation: abolitionism, prison reform, suffrage, concern for minorities and immigrants, peace activism, fair business practices, universal ministry, honesty and integrity in dealings with all people, etc. What Quakers became known for was due to their experiential religion, their direct experience of God, their understanding of the need for transformation and the diligence of faith that requires commitment to community.
There is another component to our group. As Early Friends also knew, this personal transformation (which can take a lifetime for some and not long at all for others) often resulted in mission work. This mission work meant sharing the message to others, of trying to create more opportunities for people to experience God (to again quote a member of our group). Social reform and activism are a huge part of Quaker mission work. There is a difference between telling people that they have to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal savior (which puts one's salvation in their power, it's their initiative rather than a response to God) and caring for the marginalized. Jesus didn't run around, as far as we know, healing lepers and Roman centurions' [probably] gay lovers then telling them to become Jewish or go back to temple. He healed people and spoke to their spiritual condition. He had religious conversations but didn't try to convert. Early Friends would worship with Native Americans and not try to convert them. They recognized authentic religion. It wasn't the outward religion that counted. It was the inward reality that mattered. So, our new group feels called to also actively reach out people in our town. We don't know how we will do outreach, but we feel especially called to be faithful and wait for opportunities to arise where we may bring people to Christ within themselves and leave them there to discover what awaits within. We also hope to be led into ways to feed Christ's sheep, to help the hungry, the naked, the lonely, the addicted, to challenge power and privilege and bring those people, too, to Christ and the freedom from being prisoners to our own Egos.
Finally, this Summer, those of us who more or less held to this understanding of religion and Quaker practice began talking with the McKim Community Center which manages the now City-owned meeting house on Aisquith St @ E. Fayette St.
Yesterday, we met, seven of us, in the old meeting house. For the first time since 1921 (the meeting had met continuously from 1781 to 1921), Quakers began worshiping regularly at Aisquith Street Meeting house.
Scores of people were outside in the old cemetery playing foot ball. Their cheers and clapping came through into our worship. The setting sun came through the West windows shining directly on the circle of chairs where we sat. After our study meeting, we introduced ourselves, no longer saying what meetings we come from, just our names. For some of us, this IS our home meeting, now. We like to do introductions first so that we know who we are as we worship. We then shared our joys, sorrows and concerns. This way, we know each other's conditions before entering into worship. There is something good about this order for us: we greet each other in the beginning and we pray for each other and people we don't know before we wait on God for the rest of the hour. The meeting was completely silent for the last half hour or so, and it was a sweet, tender worship. I couldn't really center. I had a lot filling my head. But to be surrounded by those who could, and to know that the Spirit of Christ was there guiding us, surrounding us, ministering to those who could hear, was enough to satisfy me. After we began our new tradition of breaking bread together (potluck). Over dinner we got to know each other better, and started to form our new community in our new spot.
I don't know where God is taking us. It's still a bit weird for me to go back to using such language after a few years of not even being sure I believed in God anymore. Russell's death was hard, after all. But, it seems that while we change, and when we go through our highs and lows, God is constant. In any event, I'm glad I at least stayed engaged in my faith community while I went through a period of doubt and spiritual dryness. What is emerging is a new me; someone seeking to finally commit to submitting to Christ, who finally realizes he can't and doesn't NEED to control everything. And, I have a faith community which also understands this, and whose love is tangible.