Val Liveoak, co-clerk of the “The Friends Meeting of San Antonio,” begins her description of local Quakerism by explaining that there are no organizational or liturgical structures as typically found in a traditional church. This means there are no rituals, no order of worship, and no official prayer book.
The Friends Meeting of San Antonio is an “unprogrammed” Meeting within the Quaker tradition, Liveoak explained. There are also programmed Meetings of Quakers throughout the world that provide traditional, church-like services and a sequential order of worship.
Unprogrammed Quakers have neither hierarchy nor clergy. “We Quakers didn’t eliminate the clergy, we eliminated the laity,” quipped one of the local Friends interviewed for this article.
If there is structure to be found in unprogrammed Quakerism, it would be in the role of a Quaker clerk. Liveoak and Gretchen Haynes are the co-clerks of the Friends Meeting of San Antonio. Administrative issues are handled by the congregation through a service called Worship with a Business Intent. Committees are also formed when needed.
When asked how business gets done without an authority structure, one member responded with a broad smile and a laugh, “Carefully. Sometimes slowly.”
Hearing the Divine in the Silence
Quakers believe that all people have attributes of God within themselves with which they can connect, if they become attentive enough. For them, attentiveness is enhanced by the silence.
An unprogrammed Quaker worship service, as practiced at the San Antonio Meeting, begins with those assembled first quieting themselves. This is followed by sitting in silence waiting for the Spirit to move those present to speak – or not.
“We have some worship sessions when no one will speak at all. Sometimes we sit quietly for about an hour, then we adjourn,” Liveoak said.
“There are other times when maybe one or two are moved to speak. But there are also occasions when many speak and themes develop. There is no structure to our worship, other than we convene at a specified time.”
The Friends Meeting of San Antonio counts about 40 regular members, but services often have more when visitors attend, which is most Sundays. Other Friends Meetings are located in Austin, Kerrville, and Georgetown. As of September 2016, there were about 400,000 Quakers worldwide, 76,000 of those in North America, according to Quaker Speak, which is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee.
Although they had roots in other faiths, Quaker worship appealed to Peggy Dial and Stephen Shearer, who have been married for 25 years. They joined local Quaker worship a year ago.
Dial, a former Episcopalian who considers herself a lifelong spiritual seeker, said that she had been exploring paths to deeper spirituality when she spotted a DVD about Quakers while visiting the Landa Library. She watched the video at home with her husband, Stephen, who was raised Catholic. “I would have to say that [through the DVD] it was the Quakers who found us,” Dial said.
“We were immediately attracted to Quakerism by just watching the video, so we came here to the meeting house to get to know them,” Dial said. “What we noticed from the very start was the warm welcome and acceptance. It wasn’t like we were being sold something. It was a quiet sense of, ‘We’re glad you’re here with us.’”
“This is so different from the top-down religion I experienced as a Catholic,” Shearer said. “For Quakers, God is in all things and we can determine God’s will for us through his Spirit moving within each of us individually.”
Shearer said he misses some parts of Catholic life, particularly the rituals and the physical sense of sacred space.
“There are aspects of Catholic art and architecture, the chant, the visuals of candles and stained glass, and the aroma of incense that evoke memories,” Shearer said. “But here we are in charge of our own spirituality, not through an intermediary.”
The first Quakers came from England to the U.S. in 1682 to escape religious persecution, settling in the colony that William Penn established to allow religious freedom for all. When they attempted to move to other colonies, Quakers were often viewed as dangerous heretics and were imprisoned, hung, or deported as witches.
Deep concern for the rights and welfare of others, which is foundational to Quaker life, had its start among those earliest Quakers who experienced persecution.
Quakers were advocating for women’s rights and equality more than 170 years ago. Documents on display at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., include the Declaration of Sentiments, which was ratified at the first Women’s Rights Convention in July 1848.
Reading much like the Declaration of Independence, but specifically for the independence of women, the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted by Quaker women and presented at the Women’s Rights Convention, which itself was planned and organized by Quaker women.
Quakers began to openly oppose slavery immediately after the Revolutionary War. Quakers were not only prominent in the political fight to abolish slavery, they were active supporters of the Underground Railroad.
Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, wrote of the broad involvement of Quakers in helping those who escaped slavery: “Any fugitive who had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and appealed to a Quaker for assistance was either aided or directed to someone who could supply that assistance.”
Some Quaker congregations were among the first religious denominations to issue position papers advocating respect for same-sex relationships. In 1963, British Quakers published a book, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, which stated, “Where there is a genuine tenderness, an openness to responsibility, and the seed of commitment, God is surely not shut out. Can we not say that God can enter any relationship in which there is a measure of selfless love?”
In modern-day San Antonio, Quakers have been active supporters and participants in helping and supporting immigrant families who have been detained and placed in the detention facilities in South Texas. Working with other faith groups, San Antonio Meeting Quakers donate their personal money, time, and resources to provide physical comfort for refugees and to support the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).
“In many cases it is the social justice aspect that first appeals to many who consider becoming a Quaker,” said Gary Whiting, a clinical psychologist in private practice who is a Friends member. “Many of us have careers in the social sectors such as teaching, service work, healing, and care such as those in medical fields. We see God in all things – everywhere.”
“If I had to sum up the essence of what Quakerism is, I would use two words: practical mysticism,” Liveoak said. “Our mysticism comes from within, from the internal spirituality we experience through our direct sense of the Divine. The practical part is what we do with that experience.”
That internal experience informs what Quakers do in their public lives, determines how they express what they believe, and helps them discern the changes they want to work for in the world.
These are expressed in the Quakers’ testimonies – how Quakers choose to live and act following God. They call them the SPICES.
“Simplicity – focusing on what is important and letting other things fall away.
“Peace – seeking justice and healing for all people; taking away the cause of war in the ways we live.
“Integrity – living as a whole people who act on what we believe, tell the truth, and do what we say we will do.
“Community – supporting one another in our faith journeys and in times of joy and sorrow; sharing with and caring for each other.
“Equality – treating everyone, everywhere as equally precious to God; recognizing that everyone has gifts to share.
“Sustainability – valuing and respecting all of God’s creation; using only our fair share of the earth’s resources; working for policies that protect the planet.”
A Place of Simplicity and Peace
The San Antonio Quaker Meeting House was designed by Lake|Flato Architects of San Antonio. Partner Ted Flato consulted with members of the Meeting and designed a meetinghouse that has won several architectural awards.
“Prior to starting the process, I attended one of the Sunday worship services, sitting in silence with the Quaker congregation,” Flato said. “It was an incredible experience with warm and lovely people.
“Over the many years I have been an architect, I have visited numerous historical Amish and Quaker meeting houses. My partner on the project, Bob Harris, and I wanted to bring that simplicity and practicality of the traditional spaces forward into a modern space that we would create that would be new and adapt to the challenges of the land.”
“Working with the Quaker congregation was a delight,” Flato said. “Any group such as this will have lots of ideas and opinions, but I recall that everything moved very smoothly. It was really inspiring to be able to be a part of this.”
In describing her experience of the Meeting House, Haynes, the co-clerk said, “Every time I enter I sense ‘the cloud of witnesses’ that have been here before me. This helps me to settle into the silence.”