As the eyes of the world have been trained on Pennsylvania, it’s worth remembering that the Keystone State began as a colony founded by Quaker William Penn as a refuge for his fellow members of the Religious Society of Friends, a group with a history of waiting for enlightenment and seeking consensus on important issues.
However long it takes.
Though their practices vary worldwide, most Quakers in the Philadelphia area favor an unprogrammed worship, waiting together in silence until members of a meeting feel moved to speak.
“One of the words that we use to describe our worship is that it’s ‘waiting worship,’” said Christie Duncan-Tessmer, general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, in a phone interview Thursday. “One way of understanding what we’re doing is waiting on the Lord … being in a space of waiting and openness to be in alignment with the divine.”
"Waiting is something that we practice in worship. You’re not supposed to just stand up and say whatever you’re thinking in the moment,” but to wait for guidance, said Eileen Flanagan, a Philadelphia author, activist, and Quaker.
But does being used to waiting make the wait this week any easier?
“I feel like my spiritual practices this week have made me more patient than some of the people I’ve seen on social media,” Flanagan said, laughing. “Another Quaker principle is trying to speak only the truth, and a lot of what I hear are rumors, speculation, and that isn’t helpful.”
In addition, “the idea that every person’s vote should count feels like a direct corollary” to the Quaker concept of “the radical equality of all people,” she said.
"There’s so many ways of being in alignment with God, but one of them is this practice of being still, and being open and expansive. And at times like this when there’s so much stress and strife and concern, it’s a human thing to get less expansive, more narrow, and focus on some specific narrow concern, worry, and that space of being in worship and being able to connect to the … flow of all life and love among us is a really important part of being whole, I guess, in this kind of moment,” said Duncan-Tessmer, who’s found that attending meetings — online at the moment, because of the pandemic — to be helpful.
“One of the things for myself that’s happened is that I feel overwhelmed and exhausted and exasperated by everything that’s happening and I think, ‘Uh, worship! I can’t just sit still and do that.’ And then a community has worship, and I go, and my inner capacity expands by being there. Like the discipline of going, of having a community that expects us to go … it ends up being really essential,” she said.
It’s important to distinguish between waiting for guidance and passivity, Flanagan said. “The stereotype may be of Quakers is that we’re passive,” but there’s a history of “nonviolently resisting things that we believe are wrong."
Flanagan teaches online classes in nonviolent direct action and is the trainings coordinator for Choose Democracy, a group that’s preparing people to resist any attempt at a coup in the U.S. in the wake of Tuesday’s election.
George Lakey, one of the group’s founders and a longtime activist who’s taught workshops in nonviolent resistance on five continents, is 82. After helping to train more than 8,000 people in the U.S. for Choose Democracy, he recently spent six days “collapsing, happily,” before getting back to work.
“Part of the Quaker deal is balance,” he said. “A balanced life is helpful, rather than throwing yourself away. We lean on God, but it’s not that God is supposed to keep us going, because we do have that self-responsibility.”
The Society of Friends, founded in the 17th century in England by George Fox, was in a sense made for moments like this, he said.
“We were born in the middle of a civil war. Incredible polarization in England. A king [Charles I] lost his head … It makes our polarization child’s play,” said Lakey, speaking of the English Civil War of the mid-1600s.
“So our DNA goes back to that time, when history was going crazy. And we found a spiritual way of staying centered and staying focused and acting, and acting relevantly, in the application of social testimonies. And so we were politically active but not in a partisan way. We had social change goals, social justice goals, that we were pursuing in the middle of a very chaotic situation.”
William Penn also had something to say about moments like this, noted Ellen Ross, the Howard M. and Charles F. Jenkins Professor of Quakerism and Peace Studies at Swarthmore College.
In his 1682 “Preface to the First Frame of Government for Pennsylvania,” Penn wrote, “‘Men side with their passions against their reason, their sinister interests have so strong a bias upon their minds that they lean to them against the good of the things they know,'" said Ross in an email on Wednesday.
“While we may have a different understanding of the relationship between emotions and reason today, Penn’s insight about the ways we at times lean ‘against the good of the things [we] know,’ is one aspect of the importance of … expectant waiting,” Ross said.
Elsewhere, the colony’s founder wrote of "the importance of “stop[ping] and stepp[ing] a little aside, out of the noisy crowd and the encumbering hurry of the world, and calming tak[ing] a prospect of things,” she said.
“For some people, being in that kind of space and having that prayerful worship space is a primary thing and for some people being active … being in motion is another kind of prayer,” said Duncan-Tessmer. “So there’s an infinity loop between action and doing and stillness and centering. They both need each other.”
After all, she said, “William Penn didn’t say, let’s go to America and we can just still and worship in peace and not have to do anything. He came to this country and made there be space for freedom of religion, and really reinforced the kind of justice system that listened to multiple voices, set up public education, like William Penn Charter School, the first public school.