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To Be a Quaker

Local group marks 10 years at Herndon meetinghouse.

Quakerism is "Protestantism all the way out there," said Ione Taylor, a long-time Quaker. Quakers have no ministers, no sacraments, no baptisms, no structured church services and no church steeples, she noted.

The Herndon Friends Meeting recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its use of its meetinghouse. A month after this celebration some of its members talked about what it was like to be a Quaker both in general and in modern-day America.

Most Quaker meetings — the Quaker equivalent to church congregations — do not have ministers, particularly in the northeast United States. Because of this, in Quakerism, "there can be an immediate accessibility to the spirit," said Herndon Friends Meeting member Harry Tunis.

When Quakerism started in 17th century England, some people complained that Quakers had gotten rid of the clergy, Taylor said. But Quakers said then what they say today: "We haven’t done away with the clergy; we’ve done away with the laity," she continued.

Every Sunday morning about 50 to 60 Quakers gather at Herndon Friends Meeting for worship. The service starts with about 15 minutes of religious hymns.

The participants sit quietly and try to "center" themselves, opening themselves to religious inspiration. "The wind is always blowing," Tunis said. "We only have to raise our sails to bring it into our lives."

At times, members may feel that a religious inspiration or question has come to them. If they think it to be appropriate, they will rise and share it with the others. Others may simply reflect on it or occasionally they may respond to it.

In Quakerism, "what attracts me is the seeking after the truth, not having it," said Herndon Quaker Meeting member Meg Wallace.

Over the course of a one-hour meeting there may be anywhere from zero to 10 messages shared, said Herndon Friends Meeting member Mike Marquardt, a professor at George Washington University. On average there are usually four to five.

At the Herndon Friends Meeting, the children generally participate for 10 to 15 minutes and then leave from Sunday school.

QUAKERS HAVE a broad range of views. Some in Herndon Friends Meeting view Jesus as a messiah, said Herndon Friends Meeting member Catherine Wilkins. Others see him as a wise man, she said.

Some Quakers, particularly in the American Midwest, South and in the Third World, have ministers and structured church services, said Taylor, who works as a federal manager.

Quakers see the Bible as human beings’ understanding of God at particular times in the past, said Herndon Friends Meeting member Shelly O’Foran, a writer.

Quakers have historically worked for progressive social causes. For example, they were important to the struggle against slavery in the United States.

While Quakers have played important roles during certain periods of American history, Quakers are a small minority among American Christians.

According to the 2006 edition of the "Statistical Abstract of the United States," there are about 217,000 Quaker adults in the country. In the Washington, D.C. area there are 13 Quaker groups who meet at least weekly for worship, according to the Quaker.org Web site.

As a part of a small minority in society, "one winds up being a representative of Quakers, whether one likes it or not, and I don’t," O’Foran said.

Some people do not understand what it means to be a Quaker. When O’Foran’s children identified themselves as Quakers to their teacher, their teacher told them they could not be Quakers because Quakers were extinct. Their teacher had confused the Quakers with the anti-technology celibate Christian sect the Shakers, which has now just a handful of adherents.

OVER THE LAST few decades, as society and many religions have become more conservative, Quakerism has not changed, Marquardt said. Quakers have only changed how they engage in social action. With new social issues to deal with, they are active on new fronts, Marquardt said.

The Quaker "fight for human rights" is ongoing, agreed Wilkins, who works as an elementary school teacher. A Quaker belief in the value of every person’s life has led Wilkins to strongly support the controversial Herndon day-labor site, where jobs are offered to people regardless of whether they have the legal right to work in the United States.

However, for Wallace, Quakerism mostly influences her life through how she treats her family.

For Quakers, "how active can the spirit be in your daily living" is the fundamental issue, said Tunis, who works as a director of publications for a nonprofit.

When six Herndon Friends Meeting adults were asked what brought them to Quakerism, they offered three main answers.

Some are like Wilkins. Quaker parents gave birth to Wilkins and raised her in Reston. Wilkins has been involved with the Herndon group from its early years in the 1970s, when it met at various sites in Herndon and Reston.

Others joined after being exposed to a Quaker institution and being drawn to Quaker beliefs. After graduate school Marquardt, then a Catholic, did volunteer work with the American Friends Service Committee in Europe.

Before going to Europe, AFSC Quakers trained Marquardt and the other American volunteers. Marquardt also attended Quaker services at this point. He was impressed with both the Quakers and their services.

When he returned to Northern Virginia Marquardt believed Quakers were more active in peace and social justice issues than Catholics were. And some of the Catholics who were active in these areas were active despite the church’s leadership. Marquardt became a Quaker in 1974.

Others turned to Quakerism without any prior institutional experience of it. O’Foran also was raised in Silver Spring as a Catholic. When she became pregnant she knew she did not want to bring her child up within Catholicism because of its teachings, particularly those concerning women’s place in society. So she started attending Quaker meetings and ultimately became a member.