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For Cincinnati Friends congregation, silence leaves room for spiritual connection, meaning

Quakers work quietly to change selves, world
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jun 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-27 07:00:08-04

INDIAN HILL -- It’s 11 on a Sunday morning in June, and in most churches, it’s time for the musicians to start playing. From here on out, aside from a silent prayer or two, sounds will fill the sanctuary.

Not so at the Cincinnati Friends Meeting (the Friends are more commonly called Quakers) in Indian Hill.

Ushers don’t hand out bulletins that list the order of worship, because there is no order of worship.

No one welcomes the congregation and leads an opening prayer.

Instead, the worshippers sit down in silence, and remain silent. They are waiting for the spirit of God, which they believe is present in everyone, to speak to someone.

When that person feels led, he or she will stand, take an offered microphone and speak, or perhaps request a hymn.

So it goes, for an entire hour, at the other local Friends meetings, the Community Friends Meeting at 3960 Winding Way and the Eastern Hills Friends Meeting in Anderson Township.

Those groups hold “unprogrammed” meetings, which means there is no sermon or paid clergy. At the Indian Hill meeting, there is a paid minister – Jim Newby. At some point in the service, when he feels led, he will preach a short sermon.

Until then, it’s just the worshippers and the silence, broken occasionally by the sound of throats quietly clearing. Some sit with their eyes closed, some leaf through a hymnbook or a Bible.

The only things moving are three fans hanging from the ceiling.

Even so, it’s not perfectly quiet. There’s the whisper of the cooling system’s fan, which raises its voice slightly when the air conditioning kicks on.

It’s at times like these you realize how rare silence, real silence, is in our world – as well as how much noise your laptop makes when you type.

After 10 minutes of no one speaking, Newby steps to a lectern in the middle of the room, surrounded by pews. Newby comes from a long line of Quakers, and he recently rejoined the Indian Hill group after serving as pastor there in the 1970s.

He reads from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is quoted as saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

His teachings on peace are at the heart of Jesus’ message, Newby said. “It’s not just a footnote,” he said.
Quakers have a long history of conscientious objection to war that dates back to George Fox, who founded the movement in England in the 1600s.

“We live in a day of terror and fear,” Newby said. “We are living in a world where the United States is in a continuous state of war. It has become a way of life.”

After every mass shooting, gun sales spike, he said, until “we are a society armed to the teeth. There are emotionally disturbed individuals who don’t mind using these guns against the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

There are things we can do to effect change, he said, like supporting the work of the American Friends Service Committee to stop gun violence. Also, “stand with LGBT people when they experience violence merely because of who they are.”

He sits down at 11:20. There is silence again, and time to notice how straight and tall the trees are outside the meeting house. Time to notice bicycle riders speeding down Kemper Road in bright yellow riding shirts.

Time to miss surfing the Internet. Does the building have a Wi-Fi connection? It does, but it requires a password.
Time to notice that the offering envelopes in racks on the back of the pews don’t all face the same way, and to think of how nice it would be to arrange them so they do.

Time to wonder, “When was the last time I was in a room with so many people not saying anything for such a long time but who were not watching television?”

At 11:55 Eric Hatch stands up and says seeing the Westboro Baptist Church picket the funerals of Orlando shooting victims disturbed him.

“To use this as a springboard for bigotry makes it really hard for me to find a level of peace,” he said. “I want to pray for those Baptists.”

A local theatrical group, dressed as angels, put themselves between the picketers and the grieving families. That seemed like a pretty good bit of peacemaking, he said.

(Hatch, 70, of Loveland, has been a Quaker since 1978, when he attended a meeting and was impressed with the silence. “That silence was alive,” he explained. “There were things happening in that silence. You could feel it. So I hung around.”)

At 11:59, Melody Gongwer stands to say Hatch’s comment reminded her of a song about angels she heard recently that she really liked.

At 12:01 Hatch’s wife, Nan, takes the lectern and asks if any visitors would like to introduce themselves. “It’s not required,” she adds.

She ends the service, a few minutes later, by inviting everyone to fellowship in the fireside room, where there are refreshments.

This was a good meeting, but not a “gathered” meeting, said Mary Ellen Krisher, the Indian Hill meeting’s clerk. In a gathered meeting, the friends experience a special feeling of being drawn together.

“It’s more of an intense spiritual connection,” Gongwer said. “Sometimes words don’t adequately explain it.”

After a service like this, you realize something else about silence. When few words are spoken, the ones we hear carry more weight.