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!
Center Friends Church – Iowa
I really wanted to visit another FUM Church before the end of this journey. Unfortunately, they tend to be clustered together and never seem to be on my way to or from anywhere, but now I was passing through Iowa on my way to the FGC gathering and I found I had a number to choose from. I picked the one that looked like the oldest in the pictures and that is where I headed this Sunday.
They did not have any contact information on their website and their Facebook page seemed defunct. I had tried to visit a Meeting in Central City, Nebraska the week before that seemed equally historic. The day and time of the meeting were different on every website, and all the phone numbers posted were disconnected. I was not incredibly surprised when I got there, on the day and time posted on their Facebook page, that nobody arrived. I was suspecting a similar situation at this church Newton. My suspicions seemed that much more justified after my GPS informed me I had missed the turn for the road the church was on. I circled back around and drove slowly along the shoulder till I found the weathered and crocked street sign informing me that the narrow dirt path to my right was indeed the road I was looking for. GPS said it was only 2 miles down this lane so I figured I would drive a little way and turn around if I run into any puddles.
Soon enough I did come upon the old wooden structure and parked around back on the grassy lawn beside a few of the other cars there. Before service started, they were scheduled to be having a bible study group. My detour caused me to get there late. Not wanting to interrupt I waited in the car for another 15 mins or so hoping another car would pull up and its passenger about to direct me to which door to use. This never happened, so 10 minutes before worship started I got out and walked around the building trying each door until I found one that opened. I had heard talking within so I was somewhat more hopeful at this point that there was indeed a service to be joined inside. There was, barely.
So, Center Friends Church started around 1856. At the time, it was one of the only major buildings in the area and was the center for all the major community activities. I am told that even up to 30 years ago it was a thriving religious community. The story of big corporation buyouts and running little farms out of business so that they can build giant industrial farming complexes is not a new one, but it has hit this community very hard. The few family-owned farms that are left have very little in the way of resources and the offspring of the families who farm the land invariably leave for better living and working conditions as soon as they are able. Thus, the few remaining members willing to drive up the long dirt road to their place of worship every Sunday are at an age that will soon render the church unsustainable.
It is a very simple and charming building. Their programmed Worship takes place in a small chapel-like room with forward-facing benches and a podium. An I-Phone has replaced the piano for the hymnal singing, and there is a constant back and forth dialogue between the pastor and the few members seated. Most if not all of said members formerly took part in military services and left various other faiths, as they were attracted to our testimonies of peace. They have no committees and they vaguely remember their last business meeting being sometime a few years ago. Despite this, or maybe out of necessity, everyone has their part to play in worship and the 20 mins of open worship was dominated by complete silence.
While it is hard to watch and hear about the decline of this singular church, I can understand why it is happening. The evolution of our faith is a continual process, both within ourselves and among each other. Like the flow of a stream or a bolt of lightning, the spirit tends to move through the path of least resistance. We can’t always decide where that current will take us but we can make the choice to channel that energy, to direct that flow, and to live the lives we are given through our God, our light, and our Friends.