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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Quaker community fits Vermont culture

For Quakers of the Middlebury area, Sunday morning began with a song. Launching into the last verse, they sang, “’Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be, ’tis the gift to think of others, not only think of me.”

Written in 1848, the lyrics to “Simple Gifts” have not lost significance to the members of the Quaker faith. Indeed, its members find it just as relevant in a contemporary context.

“Our process stems from the 17th century,” explained Jean Rosenburg, a member of the Middlebury Friends Meeting. “But it still serves us in the present time.”

Founded in England in the mid-1600s, Quakerism, also called the Religious Society of Friends, was established at a time of religious turmoil as a branch of Christianity.

“The Quakers were a radical sect,” explained Rosenburg. “[They] believed that anyone has access to a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, without any particular mediation. You don’t need a priest and you don’t need any particular rituals.”

These beliefs met opposition in England, where the Society of Friends faced persecution. Seeking immunity in the American colonies, the Quakers discovered a particularly useful ally in fellow Friend William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. Aiding in the pursuit of religious freedom, Penn chartered the colony in 1681 as a “holy experiment.”

Since then, the Quaker community has established a global reach, drawing from over 60 countries for a population of nearly half a million. Middlebury joined this phenomenon just 40 years ago.

“The Middlebury Friends Meeting was founded about 1969 or so by some faculty at Middlebury College and other community members,” said Rosenburg. “We’ve been thriving and growing ever since.”

This growth is due partly to the appeal of the structure of worship.

“I liked the idea that it was silent and that there was nobody who ran the meeting or spoke to you,” explained Paul Nowicki, a Friend since the late 1980s. “That seemed very sensible to me.”

Nowicki refers to the silent meetings, a process that the Quakers call “unprogrammed worship.”

“We meet on the basis of silence,” said Rosenburg. “People come in and we sit in a circle, and we have essentially a silent meeting. People open themselves to experiencing the presence of the Spirit. And many things can happen. Sometimes someone will feel compelled to share a message in what we call vocal ministry.”

“I’ve never been to a meeting that’s been completely silent yet,” said. Olivia Grugen ’12. “I’m sure those exist, but often four or five people will each say a few sentences. Sometimes they’re very personal, sometimes they’re more based in scripture.”

Nowicki compared his experience with vocal ministry in Middlebury to the meetings he used to attend in Hanover, N.H.

“Here there is less vocal ministry because it’s a little smaller,” said Nowicki. “In Hanover you might get up to 100 people on a Sunday, and in that group there would always be more people who spoke, which could be both good and bad depending on the particular Sunday.”

Nowicki observed that the size of the Middlebury meeting is more conducive to building relationships within the group.

“It’s very easy to get to know people — friends are pretty friendly,” Nowicki joked.

This sense of community is an integral part of the Quaker lifestyle. Awareness of their part of a larger, global community lies at the core of the Quaker value system, manifesting itself in events like the intergenerational apple festival that will take place later this month. The festival will call friends of all ages to contribute in the making of pie filling, which will then be put in Thanksgiving baskets donated to local families by HOPE, an Addison County community action group.

“It’s really important to me to have a connection with the community outside the College campus,” Grugan said.

It is a feeling of belonging that Quakers hope to foster at a young age.

“I think knowing what it feels like to be loved and supported by a community,” answered Cheryl Mitchell, when asked what she hoped her children, now grown, had taken from meeting. “There were direct relationships with so many of the adults here.” Mitchell emphasized the importance of “grow[ing] up with a peer group that shared a lot of the same values around peace and nonviolence and helping each other.”

Nowicki noted that a town like Middlebury might be more open to this particular dynamic because of its connection with the college.

“A lot of times Quaker meetings are very strong in college communities,” observed Nowicki. “College communities, I think, tend to be more on the liberal side. There tend to be a lot of people who are socially involved to begin with.” In this case, Nowicki speculated, that energy might expand beyond the borders of this college town. “I think the people in Vermont in general are more aware of social causes and trying to bring about change.”

It is an effort that the pacifist religion has not abandoned in the face of current challenges, such as war and economic recession.

“I think you just feel reinforced that it’s so important that there is a solid ground,” said Mitchell. “That people can connect to what’s good in all of us.”