Judy Fetterly is tired of telling people she’s a Quaker, and hearing them reply, “I thought you guys were dead.”
The Quakers, also known as Friends, are far from dead.
They are known for their commitment to peace and non-violence, their silent worship and their non-hierarchical structure. They do not have ministers or sermons, and worshippers speak when moved to do so. But many people often confuse them with the Shakers — the nearly extinct religious sect best known for their furniture and commitment to celibacy.
There are about 50 members of the Albany Friends Meeting in Albany, where Fetterly has been active for over a decade. “This is a hugely important part of my life,” she said. “I love sharing the Quaker message with people.”
Fetterly has been active in bringing a program that aims to teach people about Quakerism to the Albany Friends Meeting. The program, called Quaker Quest, was developed in 2002 by a Friends group in London and was introduced to the United States in 2007. This is the first time, Fetterly said, that Quaker Quest will be offered in New York.
“Quaker Quest is an outreach program designed to give a wider audience to the Quaker message,” Fetterly said. “We want to find ways to make Quakerism more available to people.”
Quakers have traditionally shied away from anything that could be considered proselytizing, and those involved in planning Quaker Quest said the program represents a new, more outgoing direction for the Albany Friends. The group has advertised the program and printed fliers about it that ask: “Are you looking for a new, contemporary spiritual path? The Quaker experience could speak to you.”
“It’s very unusual for Quakers to do anything like this,” said Dot Richards, 80, a member of the Albany Friends from Delmar. “But we feel Quakerism is a faith for our time. We have a simple faith, and we think people are yearning for more simplicity in their lives.”
Richards said she “stumbled upon the Quaker faith” while living on Cape Cod, where she visited a Quaker worship. She said she had learned about the Quakers in college, while writing a paper about Colonial women. One of the things that impressed her, she said, is how Quaker women were regarded as equals by Quaker men.
Sharing, not telling
Fetterly said that there’s a difference between telling people “that you have to be like me” and sharing one’s faith with people who are interested. Quaker Quest, she said, is simply about letting people know that the Quakers still exist, and what they’re all about.
Quaker Quest comprises three programs, each running 2 to 4 p.m. The first, which focuses on the Quaker tradition of silent worship, will be held on Jan. 29 and March 4. A program titled “Quakers as Peacemakers” will be held on Feb. 5 and March 11, and a program titled “Quakers and Continuing Revelation” will be held on Feb. 12 and March 18.
Fetterly said there’s no need to see the programs in order, and that people who miss a program during the first cycle can try to catch it the second time it’s offered. Each program features presentations, small group discussions and Quaker worship, so newcomers can see how it works.
“At some meetings, five people will speak,” Fetterly said. “At others, one person will speak.” Comments are usually brief. “People prize the silence,” she said. She said the silent meditation is essentially “a form of meditation designed to put worshippers into contact with God.” She said the Quaker tradition emphasizes truth and authenticity, as well as the belief that God is within every person.
To Quakers, continuing revelation is the idea that God’s message doesn’t end with the teachings of the Bible, but that it continues to evolve.
Quakers have also traditionally supported progressive causes. They were active in efforts to end slavery and involved in the Underground Railroad, and they support the Civil Rights movement. More recently they have welcomed gay and lesbian members, and opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The guidelines for Quaker Quest suggest using positive language, avoiding jargon, refraining from criticizing other religions and avoiding a long discussion of Quaker history. “Seekers are usually interested first in what the Quaker way has to offer them today,” the guidelines say. “Use stories to share your journey.”
Fetterly said she first learned about Quakers when she attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a Quaker school. The opening convocation for incoming students was held in a Quaker meeting house, and Fetterly was intrigued. She began reading about Quakers at the library, and was active in Quaker groups through graduate school. But then she got busy with her career, eventually returning to the Quakers in 2000.
The Albany Friends worship in a house on Madison Avenue. There are also meeting houses in the Quaker Street hamlet in Duanesburg, and in Glens Falls, Greenwich, Stillwater and Cooperstown.
The Quaker movement began in mid-17th century England, when four traveling preachers broke away from the Church of England and promoted the idea of a direct, personal experience of God.
Albany Friends member Barbara Spring, 68, plans to serve as a greeter for Quaker Quest. She said one of the group’s goals is to become more diverse, and that everyone is welcome at Quaker Quest.
“We’d love for anybody to come explore with us.”