My 25th Quaker Anniversary

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
God who?
What do mean, God who? Your Creator. The plan for the rest of your life, The Ground of All Being. 
God who?! I tell ya, kids these days...

Today is actually the 25th anniversary of my first Quaker meeting. I know it is today because the first time was in 1991, on the weekend of the Michigan-Notre Dame football game, in Ann Arbor.

That’s more than half of my life now. It almost didn’t happen.

Twenty-five years ago, I had just graduated from college. I spent the summer working on campus, awaiting my internship with the Fourth World Movement to begin in October. One day in early September, the head of the department said to me, “You’re interested in the University of Michigan for graduate school, right?” I said yes, maybe, sort of. She offered me her plane ticket for that weekend because she was sick and couldn’t go to some professional meeting in Ann Arbor. Another professor in the department suggested I could stay with her in-laws who lived there. I worked up the courage to call these people and ask and they said yes, I could stay with them for the weekend. I tried calling different departments, and didn’t get any answers, but I decided to go anyway. (This was before the internet was accessible to folks like me.)

On Friday morning, I woke up late because something was wrong with my alarm clock. I nearly gave up, but a housemate suggested I call the airline right then and see if they could reschedule me on a later flight. Turned out, if I left right then, there was a chance I could catch the next flight from DC-Detroit. I got all dressed up and took my briefcase, hoping I could pass as "Dr. Beth Soldo." (This was back in the days when you didn’t usually have to show ID at the airport.)

In Ann Arbor, I finally realized why none of the professors had returned my calls. It was the weekend of the Big Game and students were rioting in the streets. On Saturday morning, I walked into a dress shop and my eyes started watering. The saleslady said it was probably the lingering tear gas that had been used the night before to get the students to go home. The university was closed down and most of the professors were out of town.

On the Saturday night, Mary, the lady I was staying with, asked me if I would like to go with them to Quaker meeting on Sunday morning. She was very nice; I didn’t have any other plans, and I had been on a spiritual search for some time. So I said yes.

On the bedside table in their guest room was a little book, “The Faith and Practice of the Quakers” by somebody I’d never heard of (Rufus Jones). I decided to quickly read a little bit so I would know what I was getting myself into. I was intrigued. The book said that Quakers believed in non-violence, simplicity of life, and the equality of women, including preaching in worship. And their whole central practice was about listening to God. Not just for the radical fringe, but for everyone.

In the morning, Phil (Mary’s husband) said he had decided not to go to meeting that morning because he was getting ready for an audit by the IRS. I said something sympathetic and he said, “It’s okay. It’s happened before.” I was shocked. Audited more than once? That seemed terrible, I hadn’t heard of that before.

So anyway, I went to Quaker meeting, and I had a profound experience in worship and a good time at coffee hour, and I was hooked.

When I got back to DC, I looked for the nearest Quaker meeting and found that I lived within walking distance of the meetinghouse. Which was a good thing because there was no bus that could get me there early enough on a Sunday morning. I had actually been near it many times, but if you’ve ever been to Friends Meeting of Washington, you know it’s on this little side street and you’d never know it was there unless you were looking for it on purpose.

From then on, I discovered that I could get up on Sunday mornings with no problem. And I’ve never really looked back. Other stories have come and gone in my relationship with meeting for worship, but I’m still going, pretty much every week, and sometimes more often than that.

Also, when I got back to DC, I mentioned to my co-worker that I felt badly for her in-laws, what with being audited repeatedly and all that. She laughed and said, “Oh, it happens every year. They are war tax resisters and so they don’t pay their taxes and the IRS comes and takes it from them anyway.” That was the first I had heard of such a thing.

A few months later, I was a regular attender at 15th Street Meeting in New York City, and dating another attender. :-) One day I was in the little library/bookstore at the front of the meetinghouse. I have the idea that I was just standing inside to get out of the cold. But at least I was browsing the shelves while I was standing there. I happened to notice the surname of the couple I had stayed with in Ann Arbor on the back of one of the books. I looked more closely and sure enough, it was the same: Phillips Moulton, the editor of John Woolman’s Journal. My brush with Quaker fame, and I didn’t even know it. Later that year, I wrote them a second thank you note to thank them for taking me to meeting for the first time and changing my life forever. For them, it was just a simple, natural gesture of hospitality. One of many, I am sure.

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