It is 11 a.m. Sunday morning, and the Central Area Senior Center has been converted to a meeting house for a small branch of the Religious Society of Friends, known to many people as Quakers. Approximately 35 casually dressed members of the South Seattle Worship Group sit in a three-tiered circle of chairs absorbed in silent meditation. In keeping with the Quaker "testimony of simplicity," the room is modestly furnished with no adornments, statues or flowers. The west wall is full of windows commanding a panoramic view of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains.
Although these "Friends," which Quakers also call themselves, are wont to share hymns and traditional music at other times, their sacred Sunday worship invites no such boisterous interruptions. Most eyes are closed but others gaze softly at some self-defined space. While the hands of a simple wall clock imperceptibly nudge away at the hour, very little else happens in the material realm. Everyone waits quietly, listening for the spirit of God, also referred to as the "Light" to speak from within. This is the practice known to Friends as "sitting in the Light."
In the course of the hour some of the members, led by the spirit, may speak softly, sharing their message. Others listen in accepting silence and continue meditating. There are no ministers, sermons, or pronouncements from a higher pulpit. This lack of ministerial presence is in keeping with the Friends "testimony of equality," that all people are called to minister as led by the "Light."
At noon on any typical Sunday morning, about 15 children pour into the meeting room from their religious education classes. The smaller ones climb up on their parents' lap. Older children sit in the available empty chairs. Adults open their eyes, nod, smile, and greet one another, thus signifying that the worship hour is finished.
Patty Lyman, who is known by the modest title of "Clerk," stands and welcomes everyone. In keeping with the Friends tradition of "equality," the Clerk is the appointed person who helps coordinate the meeting. But a clerk has no more spiritual authority than anyone else. As in the Zen Buddhist tradition, this branch of friends "look to the truth within themselves as to the only lamp."
Born and raised a Friend, Lyman is well into middle age. She has a short blond haircut and the tall, athletic body of a cyclist. In fact, the bike is Lyman's principle mode of transportation and the one by which she has arrived here this morning. She says cycling is part of her spiritual practice, part of living out the Friends religious "testimony of simplicity."
After making a few short business announcements about committee work, food bank donations and the like, Lyman asked everyone to introduce themselves in succession around the circle.
With little apparent shyness or reticence, the children announced their names in turn with the adults. Next, the adults asked the children to share what they discussed in their morning classes. The children replied that they are making a timeline of Quaker history.
"Today we drew pictures of John Fox," said one little boy, referring to the 17th century British founder of the Religious Society of Friends.
According to Lyman, the South Seattle Worship Group has made a conscious decision to focus on its children.
"We put our children first," she said.
Finally Patty invites everyone to stay for conversation and to share a snack that has been placed on a table nearby. While adults converge into small groups to socialize, it is mostly the children who descend upon the snack offering, which is also notably simple. There are sliced apples, crisp raw carrot sticks around a creamy dip, and a small brown cake cut into one-inch squares.
An inclusive branch
According to Lyman, believing in God is not necessarily a requirement of their branch of the movement. The group practices a tolerance for theological diversity so individuals may have various understandings of the divine. Some may view themselves as agnostics, seekers of truth who are uncertain about the existence of God. Others believe it is impossible to unlock the secrets of the universe, only to acknowledge and appreciate the grandeur of it all.
In the 1600s the founder, John Fox, broke away from the Church of England because he was dissatisfied with its rigidity. Quakers came to America in early colonial days seeking freedom of religion and played an important role in the founding of the fledgling nation, promoting the values of religious freedom and equality upon which the country was based.
Friends were later prominent in the Underground Railroad to free slaves and in the abolitionist movement.
Over the course of several centuries, the Friends have broken into various separate branches. Now there are evangelical Friends who focus on biblical scripture and those that stress inner spiritual growth in community with one another. Examples of the latter are the North Pacific Yearly Meeting group to which University Friends and the South Seattle Worship Group belong.
Lyman explained that the tenets of faith for this particular branch of the Religious Society of Friends are expressed in several "testimonies." The most important one for many in Lyman's group is the "peace testimony," which requires a commitment to nonviolent alternatives to war. Another is the testimony of "integrity," roughly expressed as being true to oneself.
Several adults gathered on the parapet to look at the view. The sun came out, and distant snowy mountains glimmered in the light. Taking in the view on a previous Sunday one visitor remarked that the experience of looking at the view while sharing the Quaker practice of "sitting in the Light," reminded her of the words of a Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins: "The earth is charged with the grandeur of God! It will flame out like shining from shook foil."
The South Seattle Worship community of Friends holds their meetings at the Central Area Senior Center, 500 30th Ave. S., at 11 every Sunday morning.
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