Hello my name is Joshua Ponter. I am a member of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting in South Jersey’s Philadelphia area. I have embarked on a year-long mission to travel around the country collecting stories about the founding of different meetings and looking at the way we practice Quakerism today. I will be blogging about my travels on the PYM website. Find my latest entry below. Please email me at JPonter1@gmail.com if there is anyone from your meeting who would like to sit down with me and speak to some of your history — or if you would like more information on me or my project . Thank you!
My next stop in Maryland was the meeting house in downtown Fredrick. I decided on this one because in stark contrast to the one prior it was founded in 1994. I came here on a Wednesday evening after having spent the day driving around Fredrick. I had errands to run and needed some resemblance of a proper town to do them in. It had occurred to me it might be nice to walk around and explore this historic town on foot but opted instead to park on the street of the meeting house and evade the frosty mountain chill in the warmth of my cozy home.
When 7pm finally rolled around I bundled up and walked the whole half block to the Meeting House, sat myself down on an outside bench, and again waited to see if anyone else was coming. I was shortly thereafter let in the building by a very friendly attender, very excited for his new involvement in FCNL, and his first ever advocacy committee meeting. This is something I had tried to get involved in last year. Personally speaking I found the experience disappointing and disheartening; enough to realize that this was not my leading. Thus, I am very glad to find that others are so excited and motivated to take up what I acknowledge to be a most important cause yet one I am unable to act on at this time…
Unfortunately it turns out most of the members who regularly attend the Wednesday night worship were otherwise occupied by the committee meeting this evening. There was one gentleman who was able to worship with me and gave me some time to speak with after.
So, historically there have been older meetings in the area since the time the town was founded. Unfortunately they proved to be of an overly flammable nature. As such the town lacked a prevailing Quaker presence until 1976, when two classmates from Westtown School posted an ad in the newspaper for an Easter Quaker Worship in one of their houses.
The household Meetings grew for the next ten years until they numbered in the 30s at which time the continuation of this practice was deemed impractical. They decided to rent a room at a public building in town. As the meeting continued to grow, as new Quakers were born into the meeting, as convinced Quakers were drawn to the Society the group jumped from room to room in this building and it was decided that they needed a space of their own.
I’m told it took almost another 10 years to find and settle on the house they have now. They have what used to be an old boarding house used for troubled teens. I’m told the company that once owned the house was consolidating their business andmany of their properties in Maryland were put up for sale. It appears from the outside to be an ordinary older house maybe built in a 1950’s style with three floors and a dozen or so rooms that were turned into classrooms and alike. The room used to worship looks like it had once been the old dining room which felt rather appropriate to me.
In terms of actual practice it is much like I am used to: an unprogrammed meeting with an hour or so of silent worship. I am told they have always had a mid-week evening meeting. It wasn’t always on Wednesdays and it usually isn’t that well attended. Aside from 5 or 6 regulars there is occasionally a friend who wanders in, but they usually switch to Sunday mornings quick enough.
When I asked the question about demographics there was a pause… Much to the contrast to the overall very diverse community, the bulk of the meeting is made up of 60 to 70-year olds and is entirely white. This seemed to be an uncomfortable acknowledgement for the person I was talking to, who was indeed looking for a way to bring the diversity from the community to under that roof… without much success.
The conversation picked up when I asked about the conflicts within. The first major one they encountered was the purchase of the meeting house. There was debate on how much capital to invest in a new building, how big it should be, whether to make it in the city and accessible versus out in the country in a more rural landscape. [I had to stop him at this point to verify that we were in “the city,” as we had very different definitions of what makes a city. By his downtown Haddonfield would have been outright urban.] At the end of the decade long Quaker process it sounds like they are very happy with the space they ended up with.
The next two conflicts we talked about are fairly more elaborate and I don’t know if I can truly enumerate them in this writing, but I will try. At one point a few of their members decided to form a Quaker highschool. I am told the finances involved were dicey at best. At first the school was going to be independent but it was decided that it needed to be under the care of a meeting to have some legitimacy in Quaker practice. When the plan was brought to Fredrick meeting it was clear to some members that this was not a financially sound endeavor; however other members were very much committed to seeing this through for what I sensed were more emotional reasons. When the meeting finally decided to take up care for the school, the school collapsed in a matter of weeks under the financial burden. I also sensed that though this happened some time ago resentment from both sides of the isle still remained.
Another instance involved a man convicted of a crime. He decided to disclose his conviction so as to not have to walk around with the burden of a secret. After some debate a plan was formed to both integrate him into the community as well as provide the protection this friend needed from things that might cast doubt on his character. The plan fell through when an instance occurred which raised the question as to whether or not the said individual had repeated the offence for which he was convicted. Debate arose again and it was decided to exclude the person from the meeting. This too seems to be a continued source of hurt on both sides of the issue.
One thing my interviewee spoke about that I found very interesting was that in neither of these two conflicts Quaker process was followed through to completion. As most of the membership consists entirely of convinced Quakers, he wonders if there were questions about fear that the process would not work, fear that it would create an irreparable rift among members, and whether or not the lack of follow through in terms of the process has caused what seems to be lasting distress today.
In terms of future conflicts his concerns were something I have definitely experienced firsthand, those being the society aspect in what we call the Society of Friends. As our world at large changes people seem to become ever more independent. The fear is that this will continue to widen the gulf between Monthly Meeting Houses and Yearly Meetings both. Personally speaking, while this knowledge is evident in the way the great wall of the Delaware River creates a breakdown in communication between Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and those in New Jersey, I was very surprised when visiting Meetings in Philadelphia – just how little interaction there is among monthly meetings that are only a few blocks away. The queries then arise within me; how does this happen? And what can we do to change it?