Silent Meetings Hosted by Students to Revive Quaker Traditions On Campus

Prior to the pandemic, Quaker worship in Oberlin was in-person and intergenerational, bringing residents and students together for community-led silent gatherings and religious events. The most popular Quaker meeting, Oberlin Friends Meeting, was held in the educational multi-purpose room at Kendal at Oberlin but moved to Zoom in early April 2020. Although a few students participated in virtual worship, College involvement dwindled as the retirement community and the school implemented new, isolating COVID-19 precautions. Now, younger students are revitalizing Quaker values on campus, hosting silent meetings, and promoting spiritual introspection.

The foundational tenet of the Quaker faith is a belief that God exists within every person and that all people have the potential to experience the light within. Ann Francis, a Kendal resident and leader within Oberlin Friends Meeting, explained the significance of seeing that of God in every one.

“The basic underlying principle of Quakers is that we believe in the goodness of every single person,” Francis said. “The huge principle of our meeting is that in order to do this, you connect with moral principles and Quaker testimonies of peace, justice, love, simplicity, stewardship, sustainability, and equality. But not only do you believe them, you practice them and you take action to ensure that these are the ways that lives are led and institutions operate. We believe that through meaningful worship, we can gather together as a community to foster that kind of support.”

The meetings sought to provide students with the opportunity to sit in silence and reflect for one hour a week. Meetings are “unprogrammed,” meaning they have no formal structure other than this silent, reflective period. If participants feel inclined to speak, they can stand and offer their thoughts, although the majority of the meeting is quiet and contemplative.

“People can talk a little bit or say something, but usually there’s just a lot of silence,” Francis said. “That peace, after you’re rushing around and going to class or doing whatever — it’s really nice. It’s an opportunity to gather and to center deeply and connect with spirit, to connect with God, and to connect with one another in trying to follow the path [of] peace, justice, and equality. It’s a space where you can be nurtured. Then out of that, the Quaker meeting may take collective action to do something in the community. But also it encourages people to have their own conversations on how to bring peace and justice and love and simplicity to the world.”

The meetings were hugely important to the Quaker communities’ identity on campus. When the pandemic hit, the group’s close-knit dynamic was upended.

“Both the College and the Kendal community totally shut down,” Francis said. “There was no way to meet. It was a very difficult time, because for [those] two or three months, it was just so uncertain. And lives were being lost. It took us a while to get back on track — it was just so much more difficult to connect. Also, many of the key students with whom we had formed that deep connection with had graduated. There was nothing to offer for that relational part. But hopefully now we can all connect again. It’s wonderful for students to know that there is a meeting here and that it’s not just the retirement community, but it’s a meeting which connects to the wider Quaker world.”

When she got to Oberlin, College second-year Yana Levy went in search of a Quaker community to practice with. She was raised with Quaker education, as she attended a Quaker school from the first grade through high school and was used to sitting for weekly silent meetings. Levy says she searched the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life website for a student organization practicing Quakerism, but was disappointed when she couldn’t find anything. College second-year Alice Jacob also had some background in Quaker education from a summer camp that involved daily silent meetings. The two agreed that the void needed to be filled, and at the end of their first year they began practicing together.

“We went to Mount Oberlin, four of us,” Levy said. “We sat there at sunset for 45 minutes. That was the first silent meeting. Since then, we’ve done it every Sunday.”

The two spread word of their silent meetings mostly via informal routes and maintained a loose movement between locations, often holding their meetings at the Clark Bandstand in Tappan Square.

“The only way people found out is word of mouth, or through our Instagrams,” Jacob said. “But we’ve had a lot of people we didn’t really know at all come.” 

Ultimately, the two are hoping to expand these personal, informal silent meetings into something associated with the College.

“Our Winter Term project was to make a Quaker club, and we’re in the process of making that an official thing and making the silent meetings something that we get space and funding for,” Levy said. “I feel like Quaker values are something that not a lot of people know about; people think about Quakerism as this weird offset of Christianity with those weird hats and the oats guy, when the Quaker values really are in line with a lot of spiritualities that a lot of people align themselves with here. … What I would wish is that people would be open to it; it’s a space of community for people to come to and feel held.”

The two hope that the club will involve more than just silent meetings, and would like to use it as an opportunity for students to learn about and understand Quakerism beyond stereotypes.

“Once we establish a club, I think we will have other things outside of silent meetings,” Jacob said. “I had the idea to have Quaker tea, where we sit and drink tea and eat cookies and talk about the values of Quakerism, as a way to have people understand what they’re practicing and the history of it.”

Levy noted the perception of Quakerism as being fundamentalist, exclusionary, or just a branch of Christianity. She says that’s not the case in modern Quakerism.

“What I find really powerful about our silent meetings, especially when it’s a bunch of random people, is that you can feel that moment where it settles, and people are being present with that light without necessarily doing anything,” Levy said. “It’s about accessing the good and being present in that good. Part of what I want to implement in these meetings is more Quaker education, more people understanding where we’re coming from.”