Sounds Of Silence

Seeking inner voices at a St. Pete Quaker meeting.

click to enlarge TO A TEE: Herb Snitzer says the Quakers live up to - the slogan on his shirt. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
TO A TEE: Herb Snitzer says the Quakers live up to the slogan on his shirt.

In Sunday morning's post-Dennis drizzle, Herb Snitzer stands outside the Quaker meetinghouse, waiting to greet the Friends. His gray hair is slicked back, his green shorts hiked high, with a white T-shirt reading "Peace Begins Within" tucked neatly into the waistband. "That's basically what I live by," says the 72-year-old photographer, after dolling out a few welcoming hugs. "The Quakers come as close to that [goal] as any religious group. They walk the walk."But they don't do much talking. At least not at their hour-long silent Sunday meetings, which have been taking place in this small building on 19th Avenue S.E. since 1941. For a first-timer, the service can be jarringly unfamiliar; that's why instructional pamphlets are kept next to the door. The Religious Society of Friends is not led by a minister, a preacher or a rabbi. There are anti-war leaflets on tables in the back, but no bible to read. You won't find a stained glass window, a cross, or anything else on the blank white walls except a plaque above a dormant fireplace:

"Mind the Light."

The saying is attributed to George Fox, the 17th-century Christian mystic who founded the group originally called "Friends of Truth." Considered a heretic by many, Fox was often hauled into court, and once told a judge he should "quake" in the presence of God. It landed Fox in the slammer, and gave his group a new name.

Most Quakers focus on Fox's idea of an "inner light" - that God is in everyone, and everything. Guided by that light, says Friends' Society Clerk Lin Jorgensen, Quakers pride themselves in a commitment to peace and social justice. That is their "service." What goes down on Sunday mornings is just a meeting, and while attendance has grown both in St. Pete and around the state since the war in Iraq began, each member of the eclectic group has a personal reason for showing up.

Snitzer comes for the Quakers' consistent commitment to peace. Martha Loyd, a self-described "seeker," comes to further her spiritual quest, and for her two little girls; "It teaches them to sit quietly and to feel the power of silence," she says. Greg Stemm and Mark Grantham, both gay men, come in part for the society's progressiveness on LGBTQ concerns. Both have been met with condemnation from other sects. "I was told by a Presbyterian Church that I was free to worship - as long as I didn't make my sexuality an issue," Grantham says. At the meetinghouse, the "issue" is welcomed.

There's no official start to the meetings. Friends arrive around 10:30 a.m. and sit in a semi-circle of mismatched chairs around the fireplace. Most close their eyes, some bow their heads. This is a time for meditation, for looking within. "My life is like 700 TV sets turned all the way up," says Stemm. "And when I walk through those doors, they all shut off. It recharges me."

The lights are dimmed, and the silence, paradoxically, allows you to hear more: the rain dripping from the roof outside, and the wind blowing through the small crack between the double doors. A car passes. A child whispers. A stomach growls. But not a word. Not for 45 minutes.

And then Linda Hubner, a local activist and Friend for 24 years, stands up. She's in a long blue dress, her hair falling well past her shoulders.

She says it's clear to her that Bush and Blair believe different lives have different values - that a Londoner is more important than an Iraqi. The eyes around the room stay closed. "We must be outspoken no matter what the circumstance, no matter where, no matter who," Hubner says. She pauses a beat, and sits back down.

At any point during a meeting, anyone can stand and speak if so moved. These "messages" are meant to come from the heart, and are often political. They can be spontaneous, lively calls for action or simple prayers. But the messages are not to be discussed or debated. The meditation is a private time in a public space.

With a few minutes left in the hour, a clerk softly speaks and opens the floor to joys, sorrows or advice for prayer. Then she turns and shakes her neighbor's hand. The Friends follow her lead, and suddenly the silent room is alive with voices, a post-meditative cocktail party of "hellos" and "good mornings."

For many, it's the first time they've spoken since walking in.

Most at the meeting today are there in some part because of the Quakers' belief in social justice. In addition to programs in Nicaragua, the St. Pete society supports several PACs and activist groups in Tampa Bay. "If you see demonstrators on the street corner against the war," says Jorgensen, "you can pretty much assume there are some Quakers around."

Though they may agree about the war, not everyone at the meeting is a Quaker.

"There's no litmus test here," says Peter DeVeau, who's been coming to meetings for 12 years, and isn't a member. "Nobody questions your beliefs. They just accept you as you are."

"You walk through those doors and everyone's equal," says Snitzer, who, like DeVeau, is not a member but an "attender." Snitzer was raised Jewish and says he is still connected to his heritage, but doesn't go to synagogue. And he's not a Quaker, but he goes to meetings and respects the principles.

"Most other religions are external," he says, "But with Quakers, it starts from within. Everyone here has an equal opportunity to voice what they want to voice. And I think that's unique."

There are 18 meetings in Florida, and four in Tampa Bay. Each is on Sunday morning, call for more information. Tampa: 813-854-2242; Brandon: 813-654-0969; Clearwater: 813-854-2242; St. Pete: 727-896-0310.

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