Thanks to the use of computer technology this past year, Westtown Monthly Meeting has known a sense of joy and excitement, expanding involvement and diversity among local and distant members and school alumni from across the country. We routinely welcome from afar 10 or more individuals who join our Sunday meetings for worship. As many as 200 joined us for our family Christmas Eve Gathering; people from Florida to Prince Edward Island, from Alaska to Maine. At the end of this letter we attach a list of cities from which F/friends have joined us to illustrate how our meetings for worship have been enriched.
As one member shared:
Let me be frank with my observations. I think Westtown Monthly Meeting has grown incredibly since we got evicted from the Sunday Westtown School MFW nest. In the past, we so valued worshipping with students, but alas the school had other ideas about how that can happen with the students (and we were not included in the resolution). I feel as if Westtown Monthly Meeting has come into its own deeper sense of who it is—a group of worshipping adults who do so in a meetinghouse on a school campus. There was a mourning period when we lost the students’ presence, but then we got over it, looked up and saw how amazing the adults are who remained. We are an intentional worshipping community who enjoy and appreciate each other’s company. Our backgrounds vary, but our core is solid and cohesive.
I think Westtown Monthly Meeting is like a moth who has just come out of its cocoon and realizes it is now a beautiful butterfly. Rather than worry overly about how to connect with students and be present for them, we are now paying attention to each other and supporting each other in ways we never did before, in my opinion. It is a treat to come to meeting. We do not take ourselves too seriously but take our collective spiritual journey quite seriously. Ministry is strong, and so is the spirit of our membership. It does not surprise me that new folks want to join. Who would not — given the nature of welcome and what they experience in worship?
I think we have removed the girdle of our former thinking and understanding of what it means to be a Quaker and a member of the meeting. We have shed old definitions and are open to reformulate what it means to be a Quaker in the 21st Century. We are less stiff than before and more flexible, and that, in itself has attracted membership. Our conversations with one another are candid, deep, varied, and always respectful. The activities we have engaged in have helped us to lighten up and brighten up. We seem to love each other. Am I being too optimistic, positive, and Pollyanna? And we now know how to laugh. Quakerism chez nous/with us is not so heavy and somber as in the past.
And then COVID-19 hit in 2020. What a gift. With tech help from Carl Beehler, we pivoted into online and in person worship with amazing success. The Class of 1983 injected us with vitamins that invigorated our worship, enriched our attendance, and diversified our body. Alumni from afar started to join us, as well as former members who simply could not before because of geography. Our two-clerking approach is a real plus. Each one has his own gift and collectively they shine.
I feel as if I want to attend meeting each week. And I want to be present at Meeting for Business and at Committee Meetings. The Meeting feels younger at heart and more vibrant than ever. Yes, there is so much more we can do, but we do more of what we can “in the fullness of time.” The struggle has been removed. Maybe it was my own inner struggle, but I think not. Can I put it another way?—In short, we are no longer old farts! Amen to that!
Yes, there is so much more we can do, but let us breathe in deeply and do the work a step at a time. Let us take the struggle out of our advocacy. Let us just be present, and see what happens when we do. Like Vatican 2, we seem to have opened the windows to let the fresh air in. And the space needed fresh air. Maybe we did so for COVID-19 reasons (proper ventilation, but the impact has gone deeper than that.)
Another member wrote:
This year, Westtown Monthly Meeting has meant all the world to me. I was born into it and raised in it. Through Zoom I have been reunited with my social and spiritual community “in person.” I am so CONNECTED to everyone through corporate worship and communal living at Westtown School. I cannot be dissevered from my home and spiritual community through distance or time. I have always been and shall always be connected to it. It is where I BELONG and I feel deep cultural comfort when I am there because I FIT IN, effortlessly. That is a big deal for someone who is self-identified (with) ADHD.
Before going to Meeting at Westtown was possible on Zoom I would go through periods of homesickness. I would cry on beautiful days here, imagining what it was like at Westtown on beautiful days. I used to visit Westtown for about five days at a time every year, once in the summer and once in the spring. One fall I went over Veterans’ Day weekend because I could not stand the pain in my heart any longer. Once, during the first summer of the pandemic, (the school) gave me permission to come onto the closed campus and spend the day up in the Pine Forest and in the North Woods, at my home, where it is so easy to connect with God. I also connected with my father, who used to walk the cross country trail every morning before school, and who took beautiful nature photographs out in the woods. I “see” his pictures in the woods.
I am grounded at Westtown. I grew up within sight of the Meetinghouse. I have discovered the location of the abandoned quarry in Broomall, (where) the stones of the Meetinghouse came from and have pieces of it at my house. It has been so very reassuring to be able to go to Meeting for Worship at Westtown during the pandemic, when many things have seemed so uncertain, and see the inside of the Meetinghouse. Early in the pandemic, after Meeting when everyone had left, I would stay online and just look at the inside of the Meetinghouse. I teared up the first time I saw it on Zoom. I could practically smell the room!
In addition, I was able to interact with my elders this year. Spiritual practices and knowledge are passed on at Westtown from generation to generation through messages and by silent example. I need to be with them, and everybody. I am reconnected to the flow of life that I need to be part of. This is MY culture. I cannot find it anywhere else.
The silence in Meeting for Worship is the time where I open my heart to God while others do the same, and we are all vulnerable to each other in a spiritual way. I am once again able to share silent spiritual intimacy with my home spiritual community. It is the WEEKLY practice of this which has been missing from my life, and which I have mourned and sought. I have had some deep experiences in Meeting on Zoom. Before the pandemic I developed spiritually every time I visited Westtown, whether I was able to go to Meeting or not. Now that development is constant, fed and supported by Meeting.
Ministry and Worship Committee meetings I have attended are helping me develop into my idea of an elder–the older Westtonians I have looked up to all my life, including my father. That would be a person who takes time to listen, and takes time to think before speaking. All the work on ways to listen has helped me do this, which is hard for me because of my impulsivity from self-identified ADHD, and some lack of being able to read social cues. It has helped me remember to connect to God (He’s always there; all I have to do is connect) and to be present where I am so I can focus on the other person (because I am not important; the Light I share with the other person is important). I have learned that overcoming these obstacles is not a matter of overcoming them, but of focusing around or beyond them–of redirecting my attention, then keeping it there.
Surrendering is not giving up. It is letting go. As one member said in his message about the burning of Notre Dame cathedral, “Nothing in this world is permanent.” So nothing is important. My house will eventually belong to someone else, as will my car and all my possessions. My husband will die. (My dog has died. My parents have died.) My siblings will die, and I, being the youngest, will be left, the last of my family, but by no means alone, because what is important, God, and my connection to God, will still be there. In Meeting I let go of all the unimportant things and just am. And where I am, God is. “Be still and know that I am God.” It is not doing. It is knowing — and knowing is being–being with. And eventually, I will die, and I will let go of life, but still, I shall be connected to God.
We entered the pandemic with the loss of Westtown student participation. Our three existing committees, Worship and Ministry, Pastoral Care and Concerns, and Peace and Social Justice each creatively reflected and developed new life and activities. Peace and Social Justice as reported by Paula Kline, clerk, wrote:
In 2020, the Peace and Social Justice Committee has met monthly, but has had a far more limited level of engagement than other years. Members were actively involved in promoting voting and wrote support letters to our County’s election board to appreciate their efforts to conduct a fair election. We did a rapid response action in coordination with other local Friends. We were pleased that we had robust attendance at the virtual FCNL Lobby weekend in November. We are currently conducting a discernment process to consider what we as individuals, as a committee and a meeting are led to do live our commitments to anti-racism and forms of climate change mitigation.
The Pastoral Care and Concerns Committee as reported by Susan Waterhouse, clerk, immediately created two ongoing, weekly Care Groups. With the guidance of a volunteer facilitator in each group, 16 individuals are continuing to share and support each other through the pandemic.
As the founder of the care groups reported:
An invitation went out to all the members last Spring (2020) asking if additional support was needed, announcing that care groups were being formed. Over these ensuing months the groups have met weekly. In the group I was in, topics were picked for each gathering. It was a way of our getting to know each other in a unique way while giving and receiving support when and if needed. We met for an hour each time. We talked about poetry, books, parents, grandparents, trips, childhood memories, etc. It has been a terrific addition each week to our worship sharing on First Day. Seeing Friends more than once a week, albeit via Zoom has made this year of a Pandemic, bearable and spiritually enriching.
Susan Waterhouse further noted:
The forming of care groups has created a space for social and spiritual connection for some members and attenders of our meeting during this pandemic time. Having students not worship with us, has created some sense of loss of the opportunity to have extra young people around us in worship, but has also made space for the meeting to grow, explore options and respond creatively. Allowing attention to focus on our members, attenders and families during the pandemic has worked well for the meeting, I think. Pastoral Care and Concerns Committee has engaged in a fair amount of the pastoral and care type work (and had fewer meeting details of coffees and suppers to plan). Members of our meeting continue to experience the joys and losses that life brings, as normal (maybe with extra fear and loss), but we are glad for marriages, while we also support members struggling with COVID.
As one young person shared:
I have found a lot of peace in being able to attend Meeting for Worship remotely. It has reminded me that I remain forever connected to my faith and the Quaker values and have a supportive, positive community to lean on during good and bad times. It was incredibly moving to hear from others while experiencing the trials and tribulations of the past year. I am getting married in a few weeks and thinking about having a family and embarking on this new chapter in my life has led me to want to return to the meeting. The support that I have felt from my oversight committee and clearance committee has been invaluable to me throughout this process. Going through clearness also brought my partner and I closer together and exposed him to my faith. Faith and religion are important to me and I think it was important for my partner to be exposed to the Westtown Meeting in getting to know that side of my life. I am excited for the next chapter of my life and see meeting for worship and the Westtown meeting continuing to be a part of my life.
Worship and Ministry chose as its goal in May 2019 to strengthen the diversity, inclusion, life, listening, and communication within our meeting community. We have focused on listening. Alan Wright, co-clerk has written:
My family and I joined Westtown Monthly Meeting in 1999, when our children were students at Westtown School and my wife and I were teachers. At the time, Sunday meetings were dominated by the presence of 150-200 Westtown School boarding students. I found the presence of so many people of such a wide background of cultures and ages stimulating. In the past year, with the onset of COVID, the school has gone virtual and our physical meetings have been limited to a handful of brave individuals, with the remainder of attendees and members gathering by Zoom. One year ago, I feared for the Meeting, unable to imagine how we could preserve the sense of togetherness while sequestered in our homes, gathering only virtually.
We are now one year into the experiment and I am happy to report that in my experience the Meeting has never been more vibrant. This week alone we had over 40 individuals gather on Zoom from around the country, while another 10 were physically in the meeting house. The messages shared were authentic and powerful.
Meanwhile, Worship and Ministry has launched a practice of community building, using a number of listening practices (Imago Dialogue; Clearness; Faithfulness Groups; Worship Sharing) twice per month, to give members a place to share their callings, leadings, faith journeys and any issue that may be speaking to them. The committee has fifteen regular attendees. To our delight, the goal of community building is being achieved as people share their deepest truths and receive a warm embrace of acceptance.
As a monthly meeting, we created a committee this year to address the meeting’s need for new meeting co clerks. In the process of identifying a co-clerk — Joe Marchese has documented:
The Nurture & Coordination Committee (has sought) to approach the traditional functions of a nominating committee in a more holistic fashion. The committee meets regularly to talk about the intersection of Westtown Meeting’s ongoing leadership needs with creating an atmosphere where participation is an opportunity for self exploration of one’s gifts for personal growth and service to the Meeting community. To these ends, we seek to nurture a sense of belonging by having conversations with members and attenders about how best to support them in their spiritual journeys and to seek their input on how to strengthen the Meeting’s collective spiritual growth.
As Westtown Meeting engages in our discussions on the theme of belonging, we will include such queries as:
- How do I become involved?
- How do we become more comfortable in speaking our own truths in the Meeting?
- How do we promote a better understanding of what your place can be in the Meeting and what do you have to bring to the meeting?
- This approach aligns with PYM’s membership discussion queries:
- What does membership mean in your monthly meeting?
- What does belonging to a meeting mean?
Susan Waterhouse added:
(The) process of setting up a nurture committee has allowed us to begin identifying talents in Friends who have not been as fully engaged in the committee/ business meeting aspect of Westtown Meeting and made space for important conversations with individuals who have carried the weight of the work.
One of the outcomes of the Nurture and Coordination Committee has been for Jonathan Evans, co-clerk of the meeting, to facilitate monthly Faith and Practice: Planting Seeds, Growing Leadership workshops held shortly after the rise of meeting on Sunday. As Jon Evans has written:
In January 2021 Westtown Meeting began a multi-faceted, spiritually-grounded monthly series that seeks to deepen our understanding of Friends testimonies – both how we practice them today and our aspirations for the future. The “Faith and Practice: Planting Seeds, Growing Leadership” sessions have been intentionally designed to be accessible, meaningful, and productive for relative newcomers and long-time members/attenders alike, and to offer to the Meeting community resources that include both people and reference documents, including PYM’s Faith and Practice. To date, we have considered the following topics: the history of Quakerism and of Westtown Meeting; clerking (committees, the monthly meeting, and other Friends organizations); and membership. The spiritual grounding and energy around the first three sessions has been very positive and participation has been strong. In May and June we will turn our focus to addressing racism/promoting equity and racial justice.
In summary, Westtown Monthly Meeting has had an extraordinary year of spiritual growth. We are filled with renewed life and energy. The depth of our worship, listening, and sharing is very special.
As another member explained:
Over the past year, Westtown Monthly Meeting has proven remarkably agile and adaptable to the challenge of keeping together and connected even as the pandemic necessitated that we do so from a distance. Although we all missed eating potlucks in the Meetinghouse basement and sharing Lake Suppers together, we had unexpected benefits, such as being able to match names to faces in zoom boxes, becoming acquainted with each other’s pets, and perhaps most importantly, seeing members who had not worshipped with us for decades “return” to join us in our virtual space. The Westtown School Class of ’83 especially has found some community in our gatherings, and we have been enriched by their presence. Virtual worship also seems to have increased the racial diversity of our worshippers, which given the racially charged upheavals of the past year in the United States has been a great gift. Finally, the work of our committees has brought us programming outside of our worship time that seems especially valuable and has built community as well as our understanding of various practices.
Overall, I think the Meeting will emerge from this stronger, with greater connections than before. We will also have the challenge of deciding to what degree we will continue to emphasize hybrid worship once the pandemic is over. Will we have a full Meetinghouse and a small contingent of people still online from their distant locales? Will the experience of coming online continue to feel like it has integrity if most of our community is in person? These are interesting questions, because we do not want to lose the new ways we have discovered community this year, and yet in some ways we are all aching to return back to some sort of “normal.” Post-pandemic, normal will certainly mean something different than it did before. One thing I am certain of is that we will discover and discern our way forward together as a stronger community.
As co-clerk of the committee charged with recommending to the meeting how to blend online technology and in person meeting for worship during post pandemic times, it seems important that we find ways that all of us, near and far, can continue the “Holy Experiment — the Beloved Community” we have created together this year. We cannot leave out Hymn Sing and First Day School. Cheryle and Elson Oshman Blunt sing and accompany us on piano and cello for 20 minutes before we settle into meeting for worship. Ann Marlowe Byerly, one of our professional musicians, plays usually one hymn on her flute each week. We enter into worship often having sung via our muted Zoom box or now in the meetinghouse itself, such hymns as: “Teach me to stop and listen” or “Ubi caritas.” Monthly, one of our two First Day School classes shares the readings and activities that have been important to them. We want to convey to you, as members and representatives of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the joy and life we have known this year.
Submitted in faith and love,
Ginny Sutton, Co-Clerk of Worship & Ministry
F/friends were welcomed this year in worship from the following locations:
- Orland, Portland, Scarborough, and Saco – Maine;
- Williston, Vermont; Brookline and Cambridge, Massachusetts;
- Windsor Locks, Connecticut;
- New York City, NY;
- Moorestown, New Jersey;
- Bryn Mawr, Dushore, Irwin, Kennett Square, Landerberg, and Media Pennsylvania; • Arnold, Point of Rocks, and Silver Spring, Maryland;
- Washington, DC;
- Alexandria and Charlottesville, Virginia;
- Durham, North Carolina;
- St. Simons Island, Georgia;
- Fort Lauderdale and High Springs, Florida;
- Oberlin, Ohio;
- Elkhart, Indiana;
- Chicago, Illinois;
- Tiburon, California;
- Seattle, Washington;
- Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (Canada), and
- Soldotna, Alaska.