Speaking from the Silence at the Friends of Alexandria Meeting

Speaking from the Silence at the Friends of Alexandria Meeting

Quaker Friends at Woodlawn experience the continuing revelation of history, community, spirituality.

A few minutes before 11 a.m., the greetings and conversations in the hallway are petering out and the Friends of the Alexandria Meeting at Woodlawn are slipping into the meeting room to begin worship. Despite the faint hum of voices still audible outside, the silence within the room envelopes each friend as he or she steps through the door into the stillness.

The room is either 155 or 140 years old, depending on which side of the room the question refers to. Its white walls with dark wood paneling are interrupted frequently by windows, and the sunlight streams through the clear panes. A wood stove still sits on one side of the room, but on this clear and cold March morning the warm air is flowing from modern vents. The wooden benches face towards the center, parallel to the walls behind them. They are constructed simply and solidly. Some bear graffiti left by the bored hands of idle men. They are the name of people and places, Union soldiers temporarily hospitalized or picketed on a long patrol, leaving a record that they existed, that they had a home.

The worship meeting has begun, though no one has begun it. The stillness folds inward.

“Quakers believe that they come into worship to wait on God. We believe in continuing revelation, that God directs us. By sitting in this silence and listening we receive that direction and support,” said Linda Spitzer, the clerk of Woodlawn Quaker Friends Meeting, a position that, like many aspects of the Quaker community, resists definition but is essentially an elected executive who serves a three-year term.

“You’re there with your own thoughts,” said Meghan Evans, a Friend in the meeting.

“Holding things up to the light,” added Christine Fernsler, who is a teacher at Sidwell Friends School.

Meeting lasts one hour. It is possible the entire hour may be spent without a word being spoken. More commonly, a Friend will be moved to stand and make a statement, putting into voice thoughts engendered by the meditative silence. These statements are usually brief and infrequent. Even a “talkative” meeting will contain more silence than speaking. But words dropped into stillness are heavy, and the ripples they leave in people’s thoughts last long after the speaker has taken a seat again.

“When people speak out of the silence, we often hear that of God in them … It’s not a canned sermon, what bubbles up is what’s on people’s mind,” said Spitzer.

“What’s coming out of meeting – spoken and unspoken – is perspective,” said Holly Mason. “It changes your priorities — what’s really important or less important. That’s what all religion really does … Meeting is the format that works for me to worship … it puts a lot more responsibility on you, on the individual. The ministry is not the responsibility of some overarching priest or clergy, but from within and from each person.”

THE ALEXANDRIA FRIENDS MEETING at Woodlawn was founded by a group of Quakers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They moved to the area in the late 1840’s for two reasons: to find oak timber suitable for selling to Northern builders of clipper ships and to start a plantation that would employ free blacks and prove that it was possible to make money without slave labor. “You see how practical these people were,” says Jones.

Quakers find diverse ways of bringing the spirituality of meeting into their lives. During the announcements after the meeting, Mason stood up and offered to teach people how to make soap. “I just want to fill my house with people I make soap as a hobby and I want to invite people over,” she explained.

“Most of us Quakers … think it’s really important to put into action what we believe in any way that we are gifted or led. Even though it is a mystical religion, we get involved in the world … the mix of mysticism and practicality is why it appeals to me,” said Nancy Jones, the meeting’s liaison to Ventures in Community, a coalition of social services and faith-based organizations along Route 1. “If God is in every one of us – when I say God I mean the spirit, life, there are so many names and they’re all inadequate – if that presence is within everyone, that leads to certain ways of relating to other people and the world – animate or inanimate … I’m comfortable with one-on-one interactions with people. So I find myself situations where I get to relate in that way … That’s one of my strengths and gifts.” One way Jones expresses her gift is by being a chaplain at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. She also has volunteered, along with other Friends, with the Hypothermia Project, staying overnight at Rising Hope’s temporary shelter for homeless people during the cold months.

Glenn Elvington describes how Quakers view the business and budget decision-making process as a “spiritual exercise.” In earlier days, “One of the few reasons to be read out of a meeting was to go bankrupt,” he said. “The way Quaker spiritual practice blends into everything we do in interacting with the real world is through business meetings. Business meetings held with a sense of worship.” During these meetings the clerk attempts to “get a sense of the meeting” in order to reach a decision. The sense is based more on a spiritual intuition of compromise and agreement rather than on winner-take-all votes or autocratic executive decisions.

“Sometimes people think Quakers are maybe naïve,” said Fernsler, “but it’s a really thought-through seeking to nourish what’s good in others. I know it’s not so easy sometimes.”

QUAKERS ARE AND HAVE BEEN active in movements for prison reform, abolition, equal rights, and peacemaking. In the 19th century, many Quaker homes were stops on the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves reach free states. In the 21st century, Quakers have been prominent in the anti-war movement. Tom Fox, who was taken hostage and ultimately murdered in Baghdad, attended the Woodlawn Meeting until the mid-1980’s. Some of his family members still attend the meeting, and many Woodlawn Friends shared strong bonds with Fox.

“That’s where the peacemaking is rooted, in building fellowship between people,” said John Stephens, who has helped manage a memorial Web site for Fox. He was discussing Quakerism’s identity with Christianity and its philosophical roots in the bible. Stephens cites the letters of Paul, which describe the Eucharist as the simple act of sharing a meal and bringing people together. “That is really what Tom [Fox] was most involved in,” Stephens said, “sharing meals with people and building civility on frontiers between friend and enemy.”

Gordon Roesler describes the meeting’s participation in the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “One of their primary goals is increasing peace and opposing war … Peacemaking of course is more than just anti-war, much more.”

“And more than just legislation,” Stephens adds.

“We believe that peacemaking is very local as well as international,” Roesler said. He explains that the meeting works closely with United Community Ministries, a local non-profit. “We view that as peacemaking.”

Stephens added to this. “What Tom’s example reveals to us is that peacemaking is not so much laying demands on the others but enduring sacrifice to serve others …. Much of peace activism [as practiced by other entities] is making decisions for others.” But “Christian peacemaking emphasizes serving rather than dominating … With Christian peacemakers, most of the work involves accompaniment, being with groups under attack.” But, Stephens said, Fox and his colleagues found that in Iraq their presence often exacerbated violence. So they “had to reinvent” their role. They “trained a Muslim peacemaker task force” and on how to navigate the bureaucracy of the different governing organizations that hold power in the country.

TOM FOX’S DEATH brought his work to the attention of the country, but the Friends at Woodlawn remember a life dedicated to small acts of fellowship. Warren Treuer’s lasting memory dates from two decades ago, when Fox knew he would be moving to a new meeting. “One of the last things he did was crawl under the building, in the mud, to wrap insulation around the pipes,” Treuer said.

As this recollection suggests, maintaining the historical continuity of the Woodlawn Friends community and the building that shelters it is a practical expression of spirituality. This means that the meeting house’s location within the grounds of Fort Belvoir has created concern for many Friends.

“It’s hard because here we are, a peace activist church, sitting on the edge – surrounded by – a military base,” said Spitzer. “We have a lot of members who feel very strongly about peace.” In response to Sept. 11, a military checkpoint was built at the intersection with Route 1 that controlled access to the meeting house as well as to the base. Some Friends refused to pass through this entrance because of their pacifist beliefs. Belvoir worked with the Meeting to build an alternate drive. On Sunday mornings, the army allows Friends to pass through without entering the checkpoint.

Jim Nations, clerk of the Trustees Committee (which is comparable to a non-profit organization’s board of directors) says that he is appreciative of Fort Belvoir for giving them Sunday access and letting them tap into the fort’s water system.

Although Spitzer says some soldiers do attend the meeting, many people on the base, as well as in the wider community, know little or nothing about the small white building tucked in among the trees near Woodlawn Gate. James Cartwright was stationed at Belvoir until he retired in 1992. “The first time I walked in here and sat down for worship I knew this was where I was meant to be.” That was 12 years ago. But when he was stationed at Belvoir, “I didn’t even know it was here. I drove past the building a whole lot and didn’t even know what it was.” He said he hopes new signs will make that more clear.

“There’s been a lot of disagreement among Quakers” over their relationship with the military, Cartwright said. But Quakerism hasn’t changed his perceptions of his own military service. “My perception was changing before that, which is what led me to find them.” Cartwright had protested Vietnam, but was drafted. He agreed to join voluntarily only if they would allow him to enter the medical corps. He began as a corpsman and worked his way up to respiratory therapist, the trade he practices today.

Cartwright said the meeting has a lot of appeal for its youngest members. “We have families that come here because their kids bring them back.” Children say “this is one place they could always come and feel totally accepted for themselves … We treat children with respect. We treat them as equals. We’re on a first name basis. They call me James … We don’t put any conditions on them, on how they look or dress or be or believe … It’s a very warm, loving community … You see the teenagers interacting with the little kids. You see little kids sometimes walk into meeting and instead of sitting with their parents they sit with someone else.”

Rachel Messenger brings her daughter to meeting, just as her parents brought her. She has been attending meeting “since I was two years old.” She remembers when the building had pit toilets and the Friends met only once a month. “It was a lot smaller then [in the 1960’s]. It’s really evolved into what it is today,” she said. “I find it different than the rest of the world. I find it a lot more loving, more accepting, more tolerant … I wanted to raise my daughter in a loving environment.”

LIKE MANY AMERICAN COMMUNITIES, the Friends of Woodlawn are confronting the gaping holes that war tears into the fabric of daily life. Tom Fox heard something in the silence that called him across the earth to bring simple acts of fellowship into a war zone. But during the Civil War, Woodlawn itself was a war zone, caught in the no-man’s land between North and South.

Chalkley Gillingham, one of the meeting’s founders, kept a journal during this period. During the battle of Bull Run, he wrote, “while we sat in meeting we heard the noise of war and roar of battle.” Later he recorded that “we continually hear the din of drums and guns.” At various times, the meeting house was commandeered as a picket for soldiers, officers’ quarters and a field hospital. But throughout these disruptions, and true to his Quaker sense of practicality, Gillingham maintained the workings of the farm as best he could. May 13, 1864: “Nearly done planting corn; also very busy about the nursery and tree planting … our milk business changed the first of this month into an ice cream business – the [Union] hospitals [in Alexandria] have got someone else to serve them [milk]. We buy all the cream we can get in the neighborhood, say 20 to 50 gallons, and make ice cream. [We] sell it at one dollar a gallon.”

Gillingham’s tombstone can be found in the small graveyard behind the meeting house. The names of Union soldiers are carved into the walls and into the benches of the building itself. The Friends of Woodlawn are sitting in the silence.

A friend is moved to speak. He recalls an article in the Washington Post detailing how scientists studying the background radiation of interstellar space hypothesize that 13.7 billion years ago, in one trillionth of a second, our universe sprang into being from the size of a marble. The Friend reads a quotation from the “Tao Te Ching,” seeking to understand the deepest origins of science and faith. In this historic, wood-paneled room, with its lantern brackets and iron stove, it is this searching, the silence and the speaking from it, that is the strongest link to Gillingham and the meeting’s past.