A Quaker Homecoming - or, how I organized a tour of Quaker Philadelphia for Florida Friends
Have you experienced the full range of Quaker sights, historic and contemporary, in Philadelphia and the surrounding area? Herb Haigh grew up as a Quaker in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and later settled in Florida, where he joined St. Petersburg Monthly Meeting in Southeastern Yearly Meeting.
Twenty years ago, when I first passed through the doors of the St. Petersburg Meetinghouse, I was filled with a sense of deep relief. My fears about finding a spiritual community in Florida quickly passed aside. As many have said before me, “I felt as if I had come home.”
As comforting and exciting as that first visit was, it was clear to me that I would have to make some adjustments away from my experience as a Quaker in Philadelphia.
Looking around the meetinghouse, everything was unfamiliar. A fireplace right there in the room where we worship? Bulletin boards and notices were everywhere! Most surprising, we were sitting in chairs! Huh? Chairs? There was no graveyard? Of course, I thought, this is Florida, but how do we remember the Friends who have gone before us?
There was a plaque on the wall dedicating the meetinghouse at the time of its construction. My mind did a back flip; early Friends would have thought this the height of vanity; a nice gesture, but all the same… I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole.
I must say, I didn’t take these differences very seriously and by the end of that first meeting I knew they would not be an obstacle. With many years behind me, I now find the contrast between the traditions of the north and south interesting, if not a little entertaining. Most of all, I have tried to limit how many times I begin a sentence with “Up north we did it this way….”
But there are things about being a Quaker in Philadelphia that I have truly missed. I’ve missed the simple beauty of the historic meetinghouses. I’ve also recalled the fellowship that comes with having a seemingly endless supply of meetings to visit. (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has over one hundred monthly meetings.) I’ve missed the ubiquitous “professional Friends,” the ones who dedicate their 9-5 lives to Quaker endeavors: the FGCers, the AFSCers, the FMHFers, the PYMers, and the FFFs who sit with you on First Day and tell you about what their organizations are doing.
Then someone said something that reminded me that most of these differences were for the most part my secret and many Florida Friends had no knowledge or experience with these wonders of the wider Quaker fellowship. Right in front of me was an opportunity to revisit my memories and share them with my Florida Friends. I thought perhaps we should have a Quaker Homecoming.
It’s exciting when you realize an idea is do-able. I thought if we could get a group rate on a flight to Philadelphia and stayed at Pendle Hill, the cost would be reasonable and well worthwhile for such an experience.
There were two rules laid down: first, to be officially recognized as a participant a small deposit would be required; second, no one would be turned down due to lack of funds.
Money was raised in a variety of ways. First we had a garage sale. We also had people who couldn’t go on the trip but wanted to make donations. And an unexpected source of funds appeared as some people had to change plans and couldn’t go, but opted to leave their deposits with the group.
In the end, after renting three seven-passenger vans for four days, and a few other incidental expenses, our budget worked out almost to the penny.
What a blessed time we had!
On the first day we got off the plane, collected our bags, had a quick lunch, and went straight to Pendle Hill to settle in. Named for the place where George Fox had his inspiration, the spiritual energy of the Pendle Hill retreat center flows into your heart as soon as you arrive! You can feel it everywhere: in the spacious grounds, the buildings, the trees, the people, the meeting space. Everywhere you look there is the joy of being in a place that makes the journey to your own center smooth and easy.
Then we were off! Our first evening began at the Swarthmore Meetinghouse on the grounds of Swarthmore College for a taste of Quaker heritage and a little silence to welcome the next few days. Beautiful and warm, the meetinghouse is easily five times larger than anything most of us had seen before. Our entire yearly meeting could hold a well-attended plenary in that space!
You can’t imagine the fun I had as I watched these Florida Friends have their first look around. They were not just thrilled to sit on the “benches” they had heard so much about, but in front of us were those legendary “facing benches.” No bulletin boards, no plaques, no distractions; just visual silence. We were reverently breathless as we took an opportunity for silent worship.
At the rise of our meeting we were ready to see some of the college and join the students for dinner. We had a beautiful autumn stroll through the campus on our way to dine in the student dining hall. The campus is filled with architecture that sends out a strong message of permanence and beauty. These hallowed halls are filled with bright, sociable young people who benefit from a curricular emphasis on peace and social justice that has its roots in the Quakers who were its founders.
After dinner, some of us returned to Pendle Hill in time for what Pendle Hillites call “epilogue;” a time of silent worship along with a story, poem, or song. If you are thinking, “what a wonderful way to end the day,” you are right.
Next day was breakfast, plain and simple, at Pendle Hill. Afterwards we took part in meeting for worship in the renovated “Barn.” I have worshiped in many places, but none have been more comfortable and Spirit-filled than this worship room. Barns were the forerunner to cathedrals, and to me there is a surprising similarity in the way they speak to the soul.
When we arrived in Philadelphia we parked at the Arch Street Meetinghouse. We had planned on having a Quaker history tour the next day, so I was hoping to just park and tour the Meetinghouse later. But try and stop a group of Quakers from running in there the minute they see it!
We had a great tour guide; I saw 18 of the most attentive students I have ever seen. The building is so beautiful, so filled with history and the Spirit, I thought I would never get the group on its way.
The visit to Arch St Meeting was so compelling that we arrived at the Friends General Conference offices at 12th and Arch a full hour late, with apologies for the disruption we caused to the work day of the professional Quakers who are in service to us. A long-time Friend to our yearly meeting, Director of Development Michael Wajda gave us an overview, then one by one, people appeared and told us briefly about their work with the bookstore, the Gathering, ministry and worship, and efforts for social justice. The Light shines brightly out of 12th and Arch St.
Then off to the Friends Center. If there is any of the Lord’s work left undone at 12th and Arch, they do it at 15th and Cherry.
We were given an overview of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting by Executive Secretary Arthur Larrabee, followed by a description of all the organizations that do their work out of that building (the American Friends Service Committee being best known). All this while sitting on “benches” in a meetinghouse so beautiful it defies description. One can imagine the many years of messages given and the meetings for business that dealt with war, slavery, suffrage, and much more.
Then, out of the city and south on I-95 again, on to the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore. One of our members is a student archivist and he will never be the same. The rest of us stood in awe at this living record of our heritage, collected and preserved – all there for the learning. (The curator has an original Hicks hanging on his office wall; now that’s a perk!)
Returning to Pendle Hill, we had an overview of a popular basic Quakerism weekend held twice a year called “An Inquirers’ Weekend,” led this time by Jean Marie Barch and Michael Cronin. In one short hour they helped us define ourselves as Friends. I can only imagine how uplifting an entire weekend would be.
After a genuinely scrumptious dinner and mealtime fellowship at Pendle Hill, we returned to the worship room to listen to Benjamin Lloyd talk about his recently published Pendle Hill pamphlet, Turnaround: Growing a Twenty-First Century Religious Society of Friends (PHP 387, 2006). Many of us want others to know about our faith and Ben, a professional actor and dedicated Friend, has good suggestions.
Hearing someone speak about Quaker history can be as much fun as opening presents under a Christmas tree! Our Saturday began with Michael Van Hoy walking us around the historic district of Philadelphia, revealing our Quaker roots.
He included in his talk many things that an average historian might overlook. For example, did you know that there are huge elm trees at 4th and Arch that miraculously escaped Dutch elm disease? How about that empty lot at 2nd and Market (High Street to William Penn) that has been empty since the mid-19th century? That’s where the first meetinghouse was built. Why haven’t some developers built something on that beautiful location? Because the Philadelphia Quakers haven’t decided what they want to do with it yet. After all, these things take time.
Michael had a way of presenting history in context without speculating about what is fact and what is myth.
Understanding Quaker history in Philadelphia is best done on site. What better place to do this, and to take our evening meal, than where the American Revolution started, in a quaint historic Philadelphia watering hole, City Tavern. According to Joseph J. Ellis in Founding Brothers, Jefferson and Adams sat down to a libation with the one person alive who could lead the country into revolution, if he was willing – George Washington. It was the definitive,” if you’re in, we’re in,” conversation. As we all know, he was in, and for the most part, the Quakers were out. What a moment in time for Americans, Quaker or not. And there we sat, in fellowship and faith, taking all of this in.
Tired but deeply fulfilled, we returned to Pendle Hill.
First Day was our fourth day and it began for some of us as a walk on the grounds of Pendle Hill. For others, it began by joining our new–found Pendle Hill Friends in meeting for worship. (You just can’t get enough of that there!)
None of us returned to Florida the same Friends that we were when we left. At least one Friend described our trip as “transformative.”
We all had the sense that something was beginning, more than our trip was ending. We are humbled when we realize that we are Quakers, and there is so much to share.
(The Florida Friends also visited Radnor Meeting for worship and a shared forum, and spent an afternoon at Longwood Gardens.)