by Beth Lopez
I was raised Catholic. I remember kneeling beside my mother reciting a decade of the rosary before bed every night. At 14 I thought of becoming a nun. When I was 16, I realized that the church claimed to have answers to all the important questions but I didn’t believe their answers anymore. There was no room for alternate answers in the church and I needed to go looking for my own.
For many years I was happy without any religion. When I was 22, I was dating a man who was attending the Kitchener Quaker meeting. He invited me to join him for meeting and one summer Sunday I went. Kitchener meeting rented space in the Unitarian House in the winter but met in members’ houses over the summer. That Sunday, we met at a Friend’s home in Guelph. I had no experience with silence or meditation. For my first meeting I made the mistake of sitting on the fireplace stone hearth. That was an hour of hard stone and summer heat, one member falling asleep and snoring, another member playing quietly with the family cat and no ministry. We had a pot luck lunch after meeting and I enjoyed the group but felt no need to return.
December came and he invited me again because there would be a Christmas party at the rise of meeting. In the winter, meetings happened on Sunday afternoon since the Unitarians used the building in the morning. It was a regular practice to have a pot luck supper. For the Christmas “party” there were fancy paper napkins and I think someone brought a cake. But it was basically the same pot luck as every week.
At least this time, I had a chair to sit in for an hour, but the silence was empty and long for me. After the meal a Friend from meeting offered us a ride home. On the way, he asked me if I enjoyed working with children, knowing I was a teacher. He then asked if I would be willing to teach First Day School for the month of January. There were several children in meeting, pre-school and elementary aged children. I said I’d be comfortable spending time with the children but had no idea what to teach them since I knew nothing about Quakers. He suggested that I could just sing some songs and play some games with them. No Quaker content needed. And I said yes.
That’s how I was tricked into being a Quaker.
I went to meeting for the four weeks in January, spending 45 minutes of the 60 upstairs playing with kids and then joining the group of people for a pot luck meal. Fifteen minutes of silence was easy to handle, I had fun with the children and over the month of pot luck meals, the people became friends. I learned about their values, their passions, their beliefs. And I realized that I’d found a home. I became a regular attender.
A year later I was married under the care of the meeting. The next year, my daughter attended her first meeting at 6 days old. I became a member not long after.
So, that’s the How I became a Quaker. This is the why.
Quakers gave me room to question, to find my own way while supporting me with their knowledge and their love. One of the most important things in life for me is learning. I want to gather skills as some might gather precious jewels.
I have learned so much with Friends. Shortly after becoming a member I asked if I might be recording clerk. I wanted to take minutes so I could learn about meeting. It meant I attended every Meeting for Worship for Business. I was allowed to ask questions for clarification and Friends helped me hone minutes to reflect what they really wanted to say which helped me understand what they believed and how they lived those beliefs. Friends generously accepted my attempts and helped me become a better recording clerk
I have learned so much with Friends. I learned to cook for large groups because Friends handed over the camp NeeKauNis kitchen to my care and trusted me to feed them. They accepted my missteps with humour and generosity and they allowed me to become the cook I am.
I remember in my early years in Kitchener Meeting, Canada was writing a Bill of Rights. Canadians were invited to make presentations to panels collecting submissions for things to be included in the new bill. One Friend in the meeting wanted to make a submission asking that the Bill of Rights should have supremacy over other laws. The meeting approved, a committee was formed to draft the submission and I agreed to serve on the committee because I looked up to this Friend and wanted to learn from her. We wrote the presentation, got the Meeting’s approval and went together on the evening for presentations. As it came to our time to present, she handed me the paper and told me to go up and read it. She was the one with the PHD; she knew all about presentations to formal bodies, she was the one with confidence and ability. But she trusted me to stand up and read it and to answer any questions they might have. It’s a big memory for me, again a Quaker trusted me to give me a chance to learn.
I’ve also learned the joy and the skill of working with other dedicated Friends, learning their styles and learning how to work with and accept others. I have served in many ways: Kitchener’s ministry and counsel. Kitchener’s nominating committee, Yonge Street half yearly meeting organizing committees, Yearly Meeting nominating committee and Camp NeeKauNis committee.
Friends helped me raise my children. They grew up surrounded by people of integrity and spirituality. NeeKauNis is a place where children feel safe, where everyone is trusted to put a band aid on a knee or to listen to a child’s fears or triumphs. It’s also a place to find God. Taking my children to weekly meetings was like taking them to visit with family on Sunday.
One more important gift from Friends came outside of Meeting. I was married to a man from a Mennonite family. Visiting his family at Christmas one year, I went along to a church service. As I sat in the pew, I felt so out of place- this was a foreign country (Goshen, Indiana), a strange setting full of such different ways of doing things. As the minister talked I closed my eyes and centered myself in meeting, looking around the circle of the people I met with every week. I looked at their faces in my mind and felt comfortable and at home. As I opened my eyes again, I looked across the church into the face of a woman. She had round rosy cheeks, wore a white covering on her head and a long plain dress. And looking at her I was filled with a sense of love and connection that I recognized. It was what I felt looking at my baby. It was profound. And it came out of the centered silence.
I have taken my Quaker lessons outside. The things I learned taking minutes for Friend’s business, I took to our union meetings where I served as our local’s secretary. After learning how Friend’s conducted business, I hated Robert’s rules of order. But it was good to learn Friend’s business before getting hit with Robert’s rules since I knew there were other ways of doing things. I brought some of Friend’s awareness into those union meetings. I spoke against the adversarial style of opposing positions that led to one winner and one loser. I suggested that all sides in a debate had value and we had to recognize the truth in each position find a solution to honor those truths.
I’ve since cooked for many groups beyond Friend’s gatherings. I bring what I learned in the kitchen at NeeKauNis about the joy of working as a team. I’ve enriched other gatherings and they have enriched me.
And I am responsible for bringing one colleague to Quakers. I mentioned I was a Quaker at work, she asked me for a get together over tea to ask some questions. She became a member and served Yearly Meeting for many years.
I feel like I’ve lead a rather small life in Friends. Marshalling big events or bringing about big changes wasn’t my gift. I rather relate to Martha in the bible. I love to serve quietly in the background.
Friends allowed me to question, to seek, to learn, to make mistakes and fail and try again in an atmosphere of acceptance and support. For me, the silence of meeting is a place of safety and sanctuary and growth.
I’ve come to a place in my life where I rather like the person I have become. I accept the mistakes I’ve made and feel proud of the things I have accomplished. I don’t believe I would be this person if it weren’t for Friends.