Benjamin Camp, Children’s Religious Life Program Coordinator, reflects on his transition from membership of Norristown Meeting to one closer to his present residence. As with entering any new, innately idiosyncratic community, the headline “Quaker Meeting” doesn’t give many clues about what we’ll actually encounter within. Like transferring from one branch to another within the same company, the culture, attitudes, and people are different for each local iteration. Benjamin finds that newcomers of whatever level of experience with Quakerism, per se, need to be intentionally encouraged. What makes a meeting truly welcoming is more than extending a hand and a smile.
It’s not the easiest thing in the world to get into a new meeting.
I grew up at Norristown Monthly Meeting, where I’m still a member, but I haven’t been there in years. I was recently called by someone on Norristown’s Care and Council Committee who asked me in the friendliest way, “are you ever coming back?” I was grateful for the call. It wasn’t a push, it was an inquiry into my spiritual journey and a message of support, no matter where I was headed.
So it was time to transfer my membership to somewhere closer to where I’m living now. I’ve visited a few meetings. I was raised Quaker, I know how meeting works, but, if I didn’t, it might be a challenge figuring out what was going on. There wasn’t a lot of information about what might be expected of a newcomer.
Mainly, I could have used some help with the post-meeting social hour. I know how to do meeting for worship, because I’ve been before. Yet standing around coffee and snacks, not knowing many people while members conversed with their friends was hard. I was new so I didn’t know who else was new. I know all about Quakerism, but it turns out I, and we, will always need help learning about the unique local Quaker communities that make up our Religious Society.
I’m a program coordinator, so I quickly wanted to write out what I would do to solve this problem, if it were up to me.
Firstly: Signage. A sign that says: “Are you new?” with someone standing under it and extra nametags at the ready. I’ve been told at large meetings it’s hard to know everyone, and you don’t want to offend a regular attender by asking them if they know where the meeting room is. With signs, people who want the extra attention can self-identify.
Secondly: More than a welcoming. Each meeting I visited had a greeter. This was nice. However, it is not very useful for orientation. Sometimes the greeter was positioned in the same room as the worship, which isn’t a great place to ask questions or have them answered. The greeter needs to extend more than a hand and a smile. “How familiar are you with Quaker worship?” would be a useful question. Then there can be a brief explanation for the complete newbie, or a contextualization for someone more experienced. For example: “This is an unusual meeting for us; it’s the summer,” or, “What brings you here today?”
Finally: A buddy. After the greeter establishes a visitor is new to meeting, the greeter needs to follow up after worship ends. “After worship, if you’d like, I’ll be here, and I’d be happy to introduce you to some Friends at coffee hour.” Then the greeter can continue to guide a visitor into social contact, answer questions, or find someone who can. A good goal would be finding a connection with another member or attender through shared interests.
I didn’t feel unwelcome at the meetings I visited so far, not at all. But even as an outgoing person, actively seeking a new Meeting to call home, it was a little challenging to find my way in. I could have used a little more guidance; something slightly more formal that indicates, “The door is this way, and it’s open for you.”
I am undeterred, and I look forward to finding the right meeting for me. Hopefully, these thoughts can be a useful perspective on the process.