Updated Jan. 16, 9:34 am
Every other week, Connie Berry reports on the news, events, and people at Martha’s Vineyard’s various places of worship.
There’s a small but growing group of Quakers on the Island who gather for worship at 10 am on Sundays and midweek on Wednesdays at noon in their new space at the Good Shepherd Parish center in Oak Bluffs. Quakers believe that anyone is capable of direct communication with God, and there are no creeds and no hierarchy. This sort of freedom to be open to holy conversation is what brought Jennie Isbell Shinn and her husband Newell to Quakerism.
Newell is a graduate of Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., which was established by the Quakers in the 1800s. Jennie received her master of divinity degree at the affiliated Earlham School of Religion. She was working in the fundraising and public relations department of the school and Newell was working in the college president’s office when they met.
“We developed a friendship over the next four years,” Jennie said. “We were members of the same Quaker meeting, and a couple invited us both to a potluck, and we were the only two guests that showed up.”
The friendship turned into a relationship, and the couple married in 2010; they have a 2-year-old son, Jasper, and moved to the Island a year ago last August. Newell is part of the team at South Mountain, and Jennie leads yoga classes, offers therapeutic massage, and is a spiritual director. She’s co-author of the book “Finding God in the Verbs: Crafting a Fresh Language of Prayer.”
I’ve long been fascinated with the Society of Friends, or Quakers as they’re more commonly known. The Friends have a history steeped in social justice and peaceful activism. I attended my first Quaker meeting on the Island a couple of years ago, when the group was meeting in the community room at Hillside Village. The Quakers here have what is called an “unprogrammed” meeting, meaning that there’s not a set recitation of prayers or an obvious authoritative member present. They sit in communal silence, waiting for the inspiration that comes with a personal relationship and communication with the divine.
According to capecodquakers.org, the Friends “believe that the Spirit of God is present in every human being, and everyone who seeks to do so can communicate directly and continuously with God at any time and place, needing no clergy or intermediaries. Everyone also has responsibilities toward all other persons since they contain something of God. In both relationships — with God and with other humans — one relies upon guidance by the inner light which comes from God.”
My visits to both the Quaker meeting and the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center showed me just how difficult it is to quiet my inner rumblings. Random thoughts like “Did I turn off the coffeemaker? Should I make soup for lunch? Maybe I could order something new from Amazon when I get home …” continuously run on a reel in my brain. Sitting in silence with the expectation of communicating with the divine is a personal challenge.
I asked Jennie and Newell how they manage this.
“When we come to meeting we are all coming together to tune into that Spirit,” Jennie said. “The worship is about time set aside to listen inwardly for God, and also the presence of God in other people who are with us.”
She said that one of the most important aspects of her own Quaker practice is that they wouldn’t be able to come together with silence as the “centerpiece” if it wasn’t for that expectation that God can be heard in that silence. “It’s a holy relationship that we come to cultivate,” she said.
I told them that my preconceived notion about Quakers was really focused on their ability to obtain some kind of unattainable inner peace that I find alluring. Thankfully, Newell reassured me that Quakers aren’t perfect.
“It’s not about pursuit of a perfect, sterile silence,” Newell said. “It’s about stillness and carrying that stillness into the craziness of the world. I think of my prayer life and faith as a sort of gravity that brings me back to that center. Sometimes I get away from it — having that center doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed and I don’t act out on my emotions, but I always know there’s that deep reservoir of stillness that I can return to.”
The Isbell Shinns are committed to raising Jasper in the Quaker tradition, and they said there are plans underway to include children’s programming during worship at the local meeting.
“The experience of Quaker worship is the center of our lives as individuals and as a couple,” Newell explained. “It’s very important to me that Jasper gets to experience it. Our new worship space does have room for a children’s program.”
Newell said that Quakerism does have a radical quality to it. “There’s nowhere to hide, there’s no priest, no pastor who tells you what to believe. No one else to take responsibility for carrying on God’s work. On Sunday morning we show up for worship with no back-up plan, no prepared words. We wait in silence for what, in that instant, the divine holds for us.”
Jennie described her faith in terms of what Quakers often refer to as “the Light.”
“Quakers often use the word ‘Light’ to describe God. For me in daily life, I’m not understanding light as just a metaphor,” Jennie said. “The Big Love is light — and that light sometimes overcomes darkness in my day; sometimes it illuminates a dark corner in my heart. Always that light, that illumination, brings healing.”
She said that sometimes people in the congregation will share a message that inspires her, other times that message is “written on your very own heart.”
Quakers consider themselves seekers, and seekers are welcome to come to the Quaker meetings in Oak Bluffs, no matter where they’re coming from. For more information, visit Newell’s newly constructed website, quakercloud.org.
Next Sunday, Jan. 8, kicks off the Federated Church’s free lasagna luncheon, held every Sunday afternoon, 12:30 to 2, until March 26. Whether you’re hungry for food, companionship, or spiritual nourishment, the luncheon is open to everyone. The Federated Church is at 45 Summer Street in Edgartown, and is held at the church’s parish house.
The winter Mass schedule for Good Shepherd Parish is 4 pm on Saturdays, with a Portuguese service at 7 pm. Mass is held on Sundays at 9 am and 5 pm. There’s a daily Mass Monday through Friday at the parish center in Oak Bluffs at 8:30 am.
If you have news for Have Faith, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.