When I was in middle school, we learned about William Penn and his founding of Pennsylvania. We also knew that this was done to found a state that would follow the religious principles and ideals of the Quakers. It was a good idea at the time, but short-lived.
During the Civil War, more and more non-Quakers were being elected to public office, and this caused Pennsylvania to become involved in the war. Rather quickly, and I know I am seriously encapsulating this period of history, the ideal of Pennsylvania became diminished.
I became interested in the Quakers one night at about two in the morning. When I get bored, I tend to dive headlong into that rabbit hole that is YouTube.
This particular night I was looking for parodies of popular songs. I came across a song called Quaker Off that was a parody of Taylor Swift. Until that very moment, I had no idea that Quakers existed beyond the pages of history books.
After watching that music video, I began to search for other videos about and by Quakers. During that time, I found a channel called Quakers Speak.
I watched fifty-two videos that night.
My mind was made up; I had to get in touch with them and learn about them first hand. While getting ready for my visit with the Quakers of El Paso, and while writing this article, I thought it would be a neat exercise to ask others what they knew of the Quakers.
I decided to visit El Paso Community College and see what others thought of the Quakers.
“Aren’t they the ones who make the oatmeal,” asked Donna Ramos.
“I think,” said Juan Mendoza, not even looking up from his book, “they were the ones who came upon the Mayflower.”
Martin Santiago came the closest, “They were burned at stake in Salem, weren’t they?” (Yes, at one point in their history, the Quakers were burned at stake.)
After my little adventure at EPCC, I was ready to meet with the Quakers in El Paso.
On the 3rd of September, I made my way to First Christian Church, where the Quakers rent a space for their services. They have a small room just off the hallway outside the Mustard Seed Café.
When I walked into the space, the first thing that struck me was the absence of statues, windows, or any religious iconography. Off to one side of the room was a collection of chairs arranged in a circle.
Those attending the service began to “centre down” at a quarter to ten. The room became quiet, and everyone found a chair. In silence, they began to seek the “still small voice” of God.
The El Paso Quakers have an “unprogrammed” service. What this means is there are no ordained ministers, no hymns sung before, or during the service, or any real basic outline of what is to be done, and when.
If you are used to a liturgical setting, like the one found in the Catholic Church, or the Lutheran Churches, then attending Quaker service can be a little unsettling.
As I was sitting there, in silence, I found I was left with my thoughts and my conscience. All at once, I found my mind racing and searching. I was beginning, without any prompting, thinking about my beliefs, my relationship with God, and where I fit in with His plans.
During the silence, the man sitting to my right began to speak. This was later followed by two others who broke the silence and spoke to the group. If one feels moved by the Spirit to speak, they talk.
Cyndi Rains, one of the people I spoke with after the service, said that others might even sing, or dance a message that has been received by the Spirit.
When the service ended, everyone joined in holding hands. The service was closed.
After we all shared some wonderful cookies and brownies (I liked the brownies!) and I sat down with Cyndi Rains, the clerk of the local group, Vona Van Cleef and John Russell.
“The meaning of life,” John said, laughingly as I asked who the Quakers are. It’s not an easy question to answer as every Quaker will give you a different answer that is in line with their personal views and beliefs.
Cyndi Rains suggested we talk about the Quaker spices. SPICES is an acronym which sums up a form of guidance that most, if not all, Quakers follow.
“There’s no dogma, no creed,” Vona Van Cleef began. “But, in the ’50s, one of the leading Quakers came up with this acronym, that’s been added to, so now we have SPICES.”
They all agreed that being a Quaker is more of a way of life, rather than a religion.
“George Fox,” said John, “he was eventually martyred because he felt that a real religion, nothing should come between you, your conscience, your heart, and soul. Not a bible, not a church, or an established religion.”
The Quaker religion is one that puts your conscience in control. You can establish your way of personal worship, meeting God, and serve him.
However, as John pointed out, the SPICES are guidelines that must follow.
So, what are the SPICES?
“Not having lots of worldly things,” is how Cyndi began to describe simplicity. “Just leading a simple life, day to day.” She also mentioned not living a complicated life.
A truism here is that we do tend to want the newest, shiniest things. I’m not saying that it’s so much our fault as it seems to be fed to us in our youth. Television commercials bombard us with the idea that we need this new thing, or we will lack fulfilment.
Then, the other side of that coin is planned obsolescence. Look at Apple as an example. Apple is always coming out with new iPhones and iPads. Eventually, they will stop supporting those older products forcing an upgrade on you when you may not want one. Microsoft did the same thing with Windows by forcing Windows 10 on everyone.
The Quaker service is also a reflection of simplicity. Not having a liturgy, or long prayers, the service is stripped down to you, your conscience, and God.
Working for, and towards peace is “an ongoing thing with Quakers,” according to John. There are some Quakers who are pacifists, others who are not. “That’s an individual conscience thing,” says Vona, and John agrees.
“But, George Fox, 350 years ago,” continues Vona, “He got in trouble because he wouldn’t be a soldier for the Crown.”
“We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.” Declaration of Friends to Charles II, 1660 – and what led George Fox to trouble with the Crown
The Quakers do dream of a world at peace, without war. The ultimate cost of war reaches far beyond the monetary. There is the loss of life, the loss of sanity, community, culture- the list goes on and one.
Quakers have always been fair. Historically people viewed the Quakers as a group that would keep its word, and follow through. “Whatever it is they said they were going to do, they would do,” says Cyndi.
One historical example that I like, which John Russell mentioned, is Benjamin Lay. Benjamin Lay was against Quakers owning slaved. To make his point, he decided on a bit of theatrics for a Burlington meeting in 1738.
When Lay entered the “Meeting for Worship clothed as a soldier with a sword, he gave a long message detailing the evils of slavery, and at the climax of his ministry, pierced his Bible with his sword.
Concealed in his Bible was a bladder filled with red juice that splattered onto Friends sitting near him, symbolizing the blood on Quakers’ hands for not standing firm against slavery.”
“So Quakers aren’t always peaceful,” laughs Vona.
Integrity seems to be somewhat fluid in today’s world. Look at politicians today. During their campaigns, they will say one thing, but do the exact opposite once they are in office.
“I’m not a Quaker,” says Geffory, a friend of mine in New York City, “but I follow their value of integrity,” Geffory says Quaker integrity can be summed up in the following: Treat others with respect and honesty and acknowledge our interconnectedness and essential oneness.
Today, the Quakers are doing just that by serving the community.
For me, one of the most significant aspects of the community, any community is just being yourself. When I met with the El Paso Quakers, they were just that, themselves. No pretension, no pecking order or hierarchy. It was just a group of people being themselves and inviting others to do the same.
Quakers “reflect the community they come from,” John says. Some congregations are now working on issues such as LGBT issues, mass incarceration issues, and equality. The Quakers come at it from a different point of view.
The Quakers will stand for, and be a part of correcting what is wrong in society, our community, even with the Dreamers. There are Quaker meetings that are providing sanctuary for individuals who are facing deportation.
The Quakers are not afraid to stand up to oppression within the community.
Another aspect of serving the community for the El Paso Quakers is feeding the hungry. They help with those who need food and making sandwiches and burritos for those on the streets.
And recently they participated in a protest here in El Paso, adding their voices in support of equality SB4- they do not want Texas to ban sanctuary cities.
“Everyone is equal,” says Cyndi. “Even though I am the clerk of the meeting… their ideas are just as important.” That is the thing that stood out to me at the meeting, and in meeting these beautiful people.
We all like to say that no one is more important than the next person. It seems that is something a lot of people say, and may not mean. The Quakers, however, mean it. They see everyone as equal to themselves.
George Fox believed in equality so much that he would not even remove his hat when he met the King of England.
“That’s why Quakers were sort of on the ground floor of the abolition movement,” said Vona.
“And woman rights, the right to vote, because there was no difference between races, men and women should have equal rights.”
“It’s a matter of taking care of the world, our community, and each other,” says Vona. “The early Quaker communities, if someone was in need, the Quakers took care of each other.”
“It [stewardship] was an add on,” said John. “In the last twenty years, when the environmental movement kicked into gear, with Earth Day, they went ‘stewardship’ to also be responsible for Mother Earth.”
“Taking care of your money, and watching where your money is going,” says Cyndi. They are in the process of changing banks because they disagree with the direction of Wells Fargo, and what they support as a bank.
“Being a child of the ’60s?” John says, “I always feel we should underline the spices with love.”
There are atheist Quakers, Christian Quakers, Jewish Quakers, and even Muslim Quakers. There are Quakers in every walk of life, and no two may have the same beliefs, yet they are unified.
The Quakers focus on the person, the community, and what it would take to have a better society.
“Quakers are the conscience of the community,” they said as we spoke, and I can see and feel that as I spent time with them. Take some time and watch the video above; there is a lot more that we talked about that you may find interesting.
If you would like to reach out to the Quakers of El Paso, you may or visit them on Facebook.
Author’s CORRECTION: I have misspelt Ms Rains first name in the video. Cyndi is the correct spelling. My apologies.