Keeping the faith

Quakers who wait quietly for God are also outspoken for peace.

Published July 15, 2007

TAMPA - Chirping birds, passing cars and the low hum of a refrigerator each pierce the silence inside the Quaker meeting house.

Unmoved, the worshipers remain focused. They sit hoping to hear from God. In this Quaker meeting, there is no clergy. Anyone can connect with the divine.

Those gathered perfect the discipline of centering down or settling themselves to wait in silence. Sometimes their Inner Lights shine brightly and the worshipers have much to share. Other times, stillness reigns.

After about 30 minutes on a recent Sunday morning in June, God sends a word.

His eyes aloft, Tom Blackburn launches into an extemporaneous talk about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.

When Blackburn finishes, the room falls silent. Then, in rapid-fire succession, a woman speaks of distress at work. Another shares her appreciation for God and her fellow Quakers during an extended bereavement period.

The Quaker meeting, or Religious Society of Friends, in central Tampa offers no interpretation of such messages. The Friends also don't sing, play music or recite Bible verses, though the holy books sit in racks on low-slung pews.

Theirs is a little-observed worship style in an age of rock-style praise bands, megachurch choirs and multimedia sermon presentations.

"The Bible says to sit and wait on the Lord, and that's what we do," said Franko Triscritti, a Wesley Chapel massage therapist. "Sometimes, something will just really come over you and you have to speak. Sometimes, it's like someone set you up as a target. And other times it has nothing to do with you, but you accept that maybe it has a message for someone else. We're a very open group."

The Religious Society of Friends has a long history in the United States, where the tradition flourished by the late 1680s because of its commitment to egalitarianism, lack of hierarchy and a safe haven in Pennsylvania.

In Florida, home to about 1,000 Friends, the tradition remains vibrant, if small. The Tampa meeting house has about 30 attendees on a typical Sunday morning. It took in its last new member nearly two years ago.

The group's tiny numbers and unassuming manner helps fuel misunderstandings about the Quakers. Many people have never seen the interior of a Quaker meeting house because some conservative groups prohibit photographs or video recording in their sacred place. Some Quakers expressed disappointment that journalists were allowed to photograph services at the Tampa meeting. Still other, more liberal Quakers welcome the public's queries and hope to clear up the notion that they are cloistered or Amish.

"We're very much of this world," said Karen Putney, 55. "In some ways, you can't tell (who we are) although many friends do keep to simple dress. ... Three hundred years ago, we may have looked like the guy on the Oats box, but that was 300 years ago."

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Though still largely composed of Caucasians, Quaker meetings around the country boast a diverse group of attendees and members. In Tampa, the membership includes children, retirees, singles, gays and married couples. Attendees also include two former pastors of other faiths.

Dustin Lemke, a former Southern Baptist preacher and self-described onetime fundamentalist Christian, finds the tradition's lack of authoritarianism appealing.

"In silent worship, I feel that I can explore religious thinking without somebody telling me what to do," said Lemke, 31, now a public speaking instructor at Hillsborough Community College. "Quakerism gives me a chance to be honest and ask questions and to have doubts and to explore what I think religiously. I'm fine with not knowing the answers."

Billy Lee, who is African-American, began attending the Friends' meeting in part because of the church's longtime stance on racial issues.

"The Quakers have no history of slavery," said Lee, a former Marine who attends with his wife and two children. "They were abolitionists. That's very important to me. I just had a difficult time (coming) into a religion that has never really apologized for its role in slavery."

Others are lured by the Friends' almost universal embrace of social activism. More than a mandate -- there are few in the Quaker tradition - many Friends say they feel a personal call to serve as an extension of their faith.

"There is something about Quakers that you should go do something about these things, that talking about it is not enough," said Cecilia Yocum, who grew up Methodist but has been a Friend for 25 years. "Like Gandhi was saying 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' Quakers really believe that you should be that change and not just tell everybody else to change."

A psychologist, Yocum says her call is to provide trauma healing training in Rwanda and its southern neighbor Burundi. She's made several trips to the war-torn nations.

Closer to home, John Arnaldi speaks out for peace and communication among enemies in a violent world. As part of that call, Arnaldi, 56, spoke out on behalf of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian. The Quaker attended Al-Arian's 2005 trial, stood with protest signs in front of the courthouse and even visited him in jail.

"We want the government and the courts to realize that there are Christians in the country who think that the Al-Arian case is unjust," said Arnaldi, who coordinates training in ethical research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "That there are thoughtful, concerned Christian people that are saying we want justice here."

The trial long ended, Arnaldi now protests the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan on his Web site, www.jesusprinceofpeace.org. "It comes down to faith," Arnaldi said of his activities.

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On that Sunday in June, the Friends' meeting ends as quietly as it began. They shake hands. A clerk asks those present to share their joys, concerns or sorrows. Some people speak. There is laughter and promises to hold concerns in the light.

Amy Souza, a former Pentecostal who lives in Lakeland, looks forward to the Quaker meetings.

"You just move into that quiet place," said Souza, 54. "I literally walk someplace with God."

The Friends gather in a circle and pray in silence before they dig into a potluck lunch.

They eat together and talk before silently slipping out into the world.

Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

600,000 Approximate number of Quakers around the world

269,000 Approximate number of Quakers in the United States

1,000 Approximate number of Quakers in the state of Florida

About Quakers

Origin: English preacher George Fox founded the Religious Society of Friends in mid 17th century England. They're called Quakers because early followers often shook with religious fervor. In the United States, William Penn founded the state of Pennsylvania as a refuge for Quakers and other religious minorities.

Worship style: In unprogrammed meetings, Quakers wait for the Holy Spirit to speak, believing God puts an Inner Light in every person. Programmed meetings are very similar to many Protestant services, often with a sermon and music.

Central tenants: Traditionally, favor plain speech and dress; oppose war and slavery; refuse to swear oaths; and possess a strong social ethic.

Prominent Quakers: Susan B. Anthony, women's rights advocate; former Presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon; actors James Dean and Judi Dench.

For more information: contact the Religious Society of Friends Tampa Meeting, 1502 W Sligh Avenue, 813-253-3244 or www.tampafriends.org.

Sources: Beliefnet.com, Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches 2007, Southeastern Yearly Meeting