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!
I have found the best measure of time on the road is by the unit of miles. This is how I found myself at 1316 miles in Herndon, my first Virginia Quaker Meeting. Again, I had every intention to visit a different meeting, closer to Washington, DC, but the Herndon meeting’s website mentioned singing before worship, and I couldn’t resist. One of the major dilemmas I had in packing for this trip was making the decision of which instruments to bring. A convenient factor about traveling with a camper is you can indeed pack the kitchen sink, though there are still some limitations. I ended up bringing my homemade baby banjo to live in the car and her big sister to live in the camper. Unfortunately about a day into the drive I dropped a propane tank and in doing so put the ring finger on my left hand out of commission for the time being. Thus I had been going through an uncomfortable level of musical withdraw for a while before I got to Herndon.
I ended up arriving during the last 15 or so minutes of their meeting for business and as to not interrupt I took myself for a tour around the property. Again, it is gloomy and misty (I am really starting to understand why people would choose to live in the desert) but is in what very much feels to be a much more “down-town” area than either of the meetings I had visited in Maryland. It is warmer too. I was taking that as a sign I’m heading in the right direction. [Full disclosure- about a day after I visited, there was about a foot and 1/2 of snow immediately south on me.]
I came inside as the meeting for business was finishing up and was visited by the same warm greetings I have come to expect at these gatherings. I am reminded of the passage, “Where two or more are gathered in thy name…” One thing I was not expecting to find was about a half dozen people from New Jersey including several who had associations with Haddonfield and PYM. One of whom, a man named Harry was volunteered to be the expert witness for my interview. Unfortunately his grandfatherly duties took him away immediately following worship but we were able to correspond via email. This is what he said:
Can you tell me some stories about how your meeting was founded?
“In [a]nutshell…. An informal group of three women from Langley Hill Friends met in Reston starting in the early 70s, meeting once a month. About 1978, three families who had been going on Langley Hill but who lived in Reston decided that we would make a serious effort to create a meeting. Each of these three families had children. About 1982 our worship group decided to take the steps to become a monthly meeting. Our adults became members of Langley Hill committees to learn how to move in the manner of Friends and we became a monthly meeting. One prompt was that a person wanted to join Friends but had to go through a clearness process with people from Langley whom they did not know. We rented a variety of places until 1995 when we purchased the current building [a former library] and extensively renovated it.”
What can you tell me about the practices or worship in your meeting?
“The practices probably reflect what is done elsewhere. We have a range of beliefs expressed in the vocal ministry. We have people comfortable with the Bible and traditional language and those for whom these baselines are not as important as the mystical experience of meeting for worship. Messages tend to begin with some event in the person’s life and that experience is squeezed to discern some higher meaning. Seldom do we have a meeting that is entirely “blessed with silence” as one member used to say.”
How would you describe your meetings demographics? How do they differ
from the surrounding area if at all?
“We were certainly younger when we started forty years ago. Now most attenders are over 50 but we do have 15-20 kids of school age. So we are aging and likely older than the surrounding area.”
What would you like to tell me about your community? (both within and
without a Quaker context)
“Our largest ministry is what I call the “Food Ministry.” We make sandwiches for the local homeless shelter and collect food for the local pantry, make Thanksgiving baskets and collections for Christmas gifts. Our budget has a significant contribution to Cornerstones, the local multi-faith service organization.
We also established the Fairfax County Peace Awards for high school students. We started with the local high school and now are involved with over twenty high schools and about a similar number of sponsors from other faith and service organizations. We’re spinning off the awards program now so it is not so tied so directly with us. The Frederick Meeting that you visited had adopted this approach and we hope other meetings do as well.
And we started an FCNL advocacy team that has been quite active. Individuals often have their own social outreach activities. Fifty years ago this area was mostly dairy farms which are now gone, replaced by high tech firms.
We’ve done a number of green things with regards to landscaping and the internal systems of the building.
A number of individuals also have special social concerns that they support.
We consciously try to be a welcoming meeting. Accepting people as they are and welcoming them on their spiritual path wherever they may be. Our meeting should be a safe spiritual home. At the same time we are aware of the old Quaker adage that meeting is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
What can you tell me about some conflicts you have had in your meeting? How do you deal with them?
“In the early nineties we had a number of sessions about visioning the future. It took a while to come together on the importance of having a property (“service” versus “bricks and mortar”) but it has been critical to the development of the meeting and has also increased the likelihood that the meeting will exist after the founders are gone. We’ve also been more active in service than we were before. And, surprisingly, the messages in meeting depended after we got the building.
It took several years to hear all the concerns about the types of marriages we would support but we did arrive at a statement that we would officially marry any two people if one of them was part of our community and the couple went through the customary clearness process. We do have LGBTQ individuals active in the life of the meeting who have found our community refreshing and supportive.
Most recently we had a challenging person, a former UU minister who was approved for membership, who felt that we should all follow her. She also felt that it was fine to swear in her messages. She repeatedly indicated that our leadership was severely lacking. Individuals reached out to her and there was a clearness process. She finally decided that we were a family-oriented meeting that was not interested in being on the cutting edge of activism and stopped attending.”
What conflicts if any do you foresee arising in the future as our
country and societies change?
“The demands on the time of individuals with families will continue to be significant which decreases the likelihood of having younger families participate in the life of the meeting. I think we have to be keep focused on being welcoming and being of service to the larger society. And we have to keep hope alive that faith-based change is possible. Something that is not a conflict but is important is that members of the meeting realize that a successful meeting relies not only on service but also on financial contributions.”