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Tuesday, December 23,2008

Run silent, run peaceful

The Quaker tradition continues in Lansing

by Nathan Harris
The sound of Quaker worship is not loud or brash. There is no organ, guitar or choir; no liturgy, preacher or homily. The sound of Quaker worship — as great American philosophers Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon once put it — is the sound of silence.

The Red Cedar Friends Meeting, a local Quaker congregation, assembles  at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Edgewood United Church, 469 N. Hagadorn Road, in East Lansing. The worship ceremony begins with an hour of silence. The meeting takes place in the church chapel; it is a small room where several rings of chairs seat about 30 people. Some look deeply focused and sway gently with eyes shut. Others sit casually with eyes wide open.

“We worship in silence, but we get a lot of strength from thinking about how to change the world we’re a part of,” said Becky Payne, the meeting clerk.

The room fills slowly over the silent hour; worshippers trickle in until about 45 minutes after the listed start time.

Toward the end of the time, several attendees speak briefly, sharing concerns or news. The meeting then agrees to “hold them in the light” — a statement stemming from the Quaker idea of an “inner light” associated with a personal spiritual experience.

Silence, and the official meeting, ends with handshakes and later juice and crackers.

The meeting has no staff or clergy, so administrative work and some duties during the meeting fall to the clerk, who is elected for up to three one-year terms.

Payne listed off some of the ways the meeting and individual Friends (the Religious Society of Friends is the proper name for Quakerism, and a Friend is a member) work to “change the world” around them: Friends are part of the Greater Lansing Network Against War and Injustice; the Safe Action Network, which brings together lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith; the Peace Education Center; and the American Friends Service Committee, a national Quaker group.

Quakers have a long tradition of pacifism that in this century is being used to spread awareness.

A recent example was Michigan Eyes Wide Open, an anti-war exhibit staged Nov. 12 at the Ingham County Courthouse in Mason. Members of the Red Cedar Friends Meeting set up 154 pairs of combat boots on the courthouse lawn, which is one for every American soldier from Michigan who has been killed in Iraq. Two hundred pairs of civilian shoes were set up to represent the estimated number of Iraqi civilian casualties for each American death.

The exhibit was put on in partnership with the AFSC, which has set up a similar exhibit on a national level and is helping to organize state-specific Eyes Wide Open exhibits nationwide.

During the exhibit, curious pedestrians and county workers milled through and read the nametags attached to the boots or the personal notes left by soldiers’ families. Eyes Wide Open was staged to be appreciated by all people, whether they share the Quakers’ anti-war beliefs, said Joann Neuroth, who helped to run the exhibit.

“It’s sobering us all,” Neuroth said.

Payne said many Quakers would consider themselves “refugees” from other churches, attracted by the ideas and the activism of the Red Cedar Meeting and other congregations. She said Quakerism is open to a wide spectrum of thought in its members, as long as they subscribe to values like pacifism.

“We find our own truth and not everyone agrees,” Payne said. “And that’s fine.”

Kathy Booth, who attends the Red Cedar Meeting, said she feels she has always been a Quaker even before she discovered the denomination. Nothing else lines up with her beliefs like Quakerism, she said.

Booth said she considers the idea that there is “some of God” in each person central to being a Quaker. It is a belief, she said, that changes how you think about people and helps pacifism make sense.

The Red Cedar Meeting has been being held for nearly 100 years, and there’s a lot of history to tell: the struggles and written testimonies of historic Quakers, the new meeting house being built by the Red Cedar Meeting and the group’s hopes to help in the growth of the Old Town area. But it is involvement in the community and actions toward peace like Eyes Wide Open that speak clearest for a group so characterized by silence.

Payne neatly summed up the aims of the Meeting.

“We look to see the good in people,” she said.

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