Atlanta Quakers Contemplate the Significance of Silence

December 2, 2000

Source: The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

On December 2, 2000, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported that "it is Sunday morning at Atlanta Friends Meeting House on Howard Street in Decatur. The Friends, better known as Quakers, gather here each week for their special form of worship, a comfortable togetherness interrupted only if the Spirit moves someone to talk. Some weeks no one speaks at all. As churches across the country begin the almost constant activity of Advent and Christmas from musical programs to pageants to parties, the Quaker meeting seems to be a serene escape from the season. Quakers advocate simplicity in lifestyle and worship, and this philosophy extends to celebration of holidays. But the absence of Christmas festivities also is influenced by the fact that some Atlanta Quakers do not consider themselves Christian. 'Our meeting is at the very end of orthodoxy,' said Harry Lefevre, 68, who teaches anthropology at Spelman College and refers to himself as Christian. 'We have Jews in the meeting, agnostics, seekers and New Agers. Some people are very explicit about not calling themselves Christian. The meeting is quite divided on that. Many people get around in terms of language by talking about the Great Spirit and using language like that.' Lefevre was raised Mennonite, along with the Quakers one of the historic 'peace' churches. There is no definable connection to any Scripture or doctrine in the speeches on this Sunday, or First Day, as it is known to the Quakers. One speaker talks about why the Georgia state flag should be changed, one recites an esoteric verse, and two, paradoxically, talk about the importance of silence...It is not the silence itself but the expectation that is worthwhile, says Julia Parker Ewen, a 'birthright' Quaker, as those who are born into the faith are called. Quakers rejected signs, symbols and rituals because they 'stood between us and the expectant waiting on God,' she says. 'But I think sometimes the silence has been elevated to sign, symbol and ritual. When we use the silence in this way, are we any different from the steeple houses? I think not.' To Friends, she says, silence 'is not so much a tool to bring God in where God has not been as an acknowledgment of the living allow God to say to us who he is. We become teachable in the Spirit within the silence of our souls before the presence of God.' Since the first group of Friends gathered in Atlanta in 1943, the Spirit has moved members to become involved in poverty relief, civil rights, anti- war efforts, and equality for gays and lesbians. Their former home, the Quaker House in south Druid Hills, was one of the first facilities in the city to host integrated classes for children. They were attended by the sons and daughters of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr...Positions on social issues and changes in meeting governance are adopted during business sessions. Rather than an up-or-down vote, Friends try to achieve consensus or 'a sense of the meeting.' Some subjects have dragged on for months with no agreement. But the fact that the Quakers are willing to tackle difficult social issues has drawn converts from other faiths...Quakerism began under the leadership of a British Puritan named George Fox as a religious protest against overly ritualized worship --- hence the absence of liturgy and homily. He claimed to have had a series of religious experiences that led him to recognize an 'Inner Light' of Christ in himself and every person. About 1652 he founded the Friends of the Truth, which later became known as the Society of Friends...But even the peaceful Quakers developed differences of opinion on theological and social matters that led to formation of different factions, some conservative, some liberal. The Atlanta Friends are part of the Friends General Conference, a national organization of more than 500 meetings with more than 30,000 members. It is primarily a service organization. By 1989, the Atlanta group had outgrown Quaker House in Druid Hills. In the early 1990s, they built their present facilities with a large worship space often used by other groups. Although they are still small by the standards of some other groups, they have continued to grow."