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New York's Roadside Attractions

Society of Friends Meeting House

Society of Friends Meeting House
Credit: Erik Bryan

Most of what is truly historic in New York has been pushed to the margins of the city. As the city grew outward from Manhattan, the modern world (of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries) covered or dismantled the foundations laid by New York’s earliest European inhabitants.

My trips to view historic sites, then, have taken me deep into Staten Island, just north of the Bronx, and this past weekend to Flushing in northeasternmost Queens, where the Quakers’ original Meeting House stands today.

I called to confirm the house would be open and tours would be available. I certainly didn’t want to schlep all the way there only to find the house locked and empty. The woman on the other end of the line assured me the house would be open for services and tours would be available starting at noon. I asked her when the service began, and she told me 11, then asked if I’d ever been to a Quaker service before. No, I hadn’t. She explained that Quaker services are “silent”—there is no program, no predetermined speakers, but should any participant feel the spirit, they speak. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I figured I’d learn soon enough.

Unlike my previous visits to historic sites, I didn’t invite anyone to accompany me to the Friends Meeting House. I guess I’m just not comfortable asking my friends to go to church with me. This wouldn’t be a bunch of re-enactors playing dress-up, after all. At the Meeting House we would only find real people genuinely enacting their faith. I figured that I should show at least some respect, especially since I was going into their house of worship, and I’d be more inclined to laugh at things if I brought someone.

I took the 7 train to Flushing, the last stop on the line. I curiously noted that I was pretty much the only white guy in the whole crowd at the station. Once topside I noticed that, much like Chinatown on the Lower East Side, all the signs were in Chinese. Not that that matters; I just hadn’t realized Flushing was such a thriving community for Chinese immigrants. Just one of those things you have to learn by going somewhere. It was only about a five-block walk to the Meeting House, which I noticed upon arriving has a sign out front in English, Chinese, and Spanish, in that order. I noted the Mobil station across the busy Northern Boulevard, sandwiched between Flushing Town Hall and a Wingate Hotel.

Credit: Erik Bryan

After taking a few pictures of the exterior, I entered and found a small group of five people sitting around a table listening to an older woman read from a tome. I sat down at a nearby table and tried not to disturb anyone or draw attention to myself. “We’re just reading some William Penn,” she informed me. I would later learn the reading was in a book called The Quaker Reader, edited by Jessamyn West (not of Metafilter). Penn, of course, was the founder of Pennsylvania—literally “Forests of Penn”—a colony he’d intended to be a haven for religious tolerance. Penn had converted to Quakerism as a young man, whereupon his father disowned him and the Quakers took him in. The woman continued reading as Penn recounted several tenets of Quakerism. I honestly had little knowledge of the Quakers beforehand, but they are fascinating.

The Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, are a religious organization founded in England by George Fox in 1647. Then about 23 years old, Fox hadn’t intended to start a new sect of Christianity, but had merely begun preaching his beliefs publicly. He had spent the preceding years on a spiritual journey, both meditating on divinity and approaching all the religious leaders he could access, ultimately finding them lacking. His grand epiphany was Protestant in nature, but he took it to a further conclusion than Martin Luther et al. While Fox recognized that God’s authority did not lie in the excessive rituals and hierarchies of the Catholic church, he saw that there was no need to replace those rituals and hierarchies with others. To Fox, God is directly accessible to all persons without the need of an intermediary priest or ritual.

Naturally, this pissed off anyone who had a vested interest in maintaining their earthly authority via an institution of religion (specifically the Anglicans, in Fox’s case), and the Quakers were compelled to leave England to practice their faith without interference. While the Dutch had recently settled the colony of New Netherland, English were welcome so long as they followed Dutch laws. Flushing had been settled in 1645, mostly by English families, and they’d received a charter from the Dutch government shortly thereafter. Originally many Quakers had tried to settle in Boston, but Boston was still being run by the Puritan theocracy, and its leaders had the Quakers shipped back. By a circuitous seaward route, several of these Quakers ended up in Flushing, an Anglicization of the Dutch “Vlissengen.”

The Dutch colony of New Netherland supported the practice of the Reformed Dutch Church exclusively, and Governor Peter Stuyvesant threatened fines and imprisonment to anyone who harbored Quakers in their homes. He’d already had one Quaker preacher, Robert Hodgson, jailed and beaten. (Hodgson delivered what is considered the first Quaker sermon in the colonies from his cell.) Stuyvesant’s edict had provoked the English settlers to organize, and in December of 1657 they drafted the Flushing Remonstrance, which is generally viewed as the first demand made for religious freedom in the American colonies, and sent it to the governor. It includes the following: “Our desire is not to offend…whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, or Quaker, but [we] shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them desiring to do unto all men, as we desire all men should do unto us, which is the true law both of church and state.” It’s widely acknowledged that the Flushing Remonstrance at least indirectly influenced the drafting of our First Amendment.

Stuyvesant had the town clerk and a few others who’d signed the Remonstrance arrested and banished. In other words, he didn’t go for it. Quakers continued to practice in Flushing in secret. One, John Bowne, opened his house for meetings. His house, built in 1661, still stands a couple blocks from the Meeting House today. Bowne’s crime was eventually discovered and he was subsequently banished. On the same ship sending Bowne away from New Netherland, Stuyvesant included a letter to his superiors back home explaining the situation. His superiors at the Dutch West India Company replied immediately with a letter stating, “The consciences of men at least ought ever to remain free and unshackled.” So in 1663, religious freedom had come to New Netherland. The English took over the colony in 1664, and more or less carried on the same tradition, though they would occasionally fine or imprison a Quaker who refused oaths to the monarch or military service.

Bowne, who’d by then returned to the colony, hosted meetings in his home until 1694, when the Friends Meeting House was built. This makes the house the oldest continuously standing house of Christian worship in New York City, and some claim North America, but I think there’s probably a Spanish mission or two that would predate it. Due to the rapid growth of Quakerism in the area, an addition to the house was added in 1717, tripling its size. Except for modern conveniences added in the 20th century (plumbing, heating, and electric lights) the house has remained in almost the exact same condition ever since, and except for a period of occupation by the British during the Revolutionary War, Quakers have met there for worship ever since. It bears mentioning that the Quakers do not call the building a “church,” because they believe their church is the whole body of worshipers, not the building itself.

Joan, one of the older women listening to the reading, told about some of her coworkers asking about her Quaker beliefs and if they had a “leader” of any kind. She recounted, “I just told her, ‘We have a clerk?’” Some of us chuckled at that. It was nearing 11 o’clock by that point, and others had arrived and passed by those of us seated around the table to get to the main hall. Cheshire wrapped up her reading and announced that it was time for the service to begin. I followed them into the hall and picked out a lonely pew somewhat out of everyone’s sightlines. Immediately my brain started shrieking to me, “How are you gonna sit for an hour in silence, idiot! You know the internet has ruined me for you!” I have to admit he had a point. My iPhone felt heavy in my pocket. I was supposed to be meditating on the God I don’t believe in and all of His love for me during this service, but I would have really liked to catch up on Tumblr about then. There was a flyer next to me that explained the Quaker service. It said that they sit silently, “Waiting upon the Lord” to reveal “His Light” to them. All I could think of was Waiting for Godot.

I looked furtively around the room. About 15 people were there in all, and I was surprised by the heterogeneous mix. I mean, it was mostly old white ladies, but there were some Asians around my age, a Latina mother and white father with their small child, and what I’m almost positive was a middle-aged couple of gay men. And they were all just sitting there, thinking about God or the Bible or whatever. I was raised in a religious family and was conscripted into attending church every Sunday. I lost my faith before I’d turned 13. I don’t know exactly why, except to say I never felt like anyone was listening when I prayed. What a lot of my family and friends may not realize is that I miss having that faith, of believing the universe and its inhabitants serve a divine purpose, and that there is a loving God in control that we can trust to set everything right in the end. But no amount of meditation on the subject, or reading of scripture, or listening to the testimony of others has ever persuaded my conscious mind that this is the case. Plus I have serious issues with a lot of the common bigotry associated with several of the mainstream faiths, so I can’t say I miss going to church much at all.

What I thought about instead, while I sat there in a pew under a 300-year-old roof, was how I lost my faith at such a young age, but have never really looked back, and is there something wrong with me? (I don’t think so, but how would I know?) I thought about how loud the roar of Northern Boulevard was just outside the windows, and how much quieter (and therefore holier) it must have felt in this room a century before. I thought about the initials carved into the pew in front of me next to the pictures of what looked like the boat from the movie Jaws and what was either a robot or a child’s approximation of the human form. I thought about singing “100 Bottles of Beer” to myself and immediately discarded the thought because of how tedious it would be to me. I thought a great deal about the Zelda game I’m currently working my way through and how I would have preferred to have been playing it right then. I wondered how often someone farted audibly in one of these meetings. I thought about cracking my knuckles, one of my nervous habits, but refrained due to the attention it might have drawn to me. I listened to the HVAC kick in and clang as it struggled to heat the old hall. I thought about the novel draft I’ve been revising and doing research for, and how terribly tiresome it all is, and what a cheap hack I am, because I like to punish myself. I thought about all of the family I saw over Thanksgiving, and how dearly I love them, and how tragic was our loss in September when our grandmother passed. I thought about her faith as a Southern Methodist, and how little she ever tried to convince any of us to believe as she did and how either strong or respectful that was on her part. I thought about my other grandma, who’d helped raised us after our parents’ divorce, and how she passed back in 2004 and how I wish I’d been closer to her as an adult. I thought about the space left in our family by her absence and how I’ll feel it again when I’m home for Christmas in a few weeks. A hundred other thoughts came and went just as blithely as I sat there in the uncomfortable silence around me.

I thought about the programmed Sunday services of my childhood and how this actually was somehow less boring than listening to someone speak in a monotone about things that you don’t believe concern you at all. Then, at 45 minutes into the service, the father of the small child, who wore a jean jacket and had a noticeable middle-aged man-gut, stood and, keeping his eyes closed, declared, “In the darkness of night…the owl hunts in silence…” and I thought, “Oh buddy, here we go!” I mean, that was some seriously Twin Peaks-esque shit to start with, right?

“The rustle of leaves…gives away the location of the field mouse…so it is with us…why we sit in silence…waiting for the Light of Christ to come to us.” He continued in this manner, extending this curious metaphor, turning what could have been a truly Lynchian moment into a reinforcement of Quaker belief. He talked for another 10 minutes, and I felt like an asshole for preferring the previous silence to all the mystic ramblings, most of which were ironically about the spiritual resonance of silence. Shortly after he sat, an old lady in one of the front pews asked, “Do we have any further ministry to share today?” When no one replied, she stood and turned to her neighbor and they shook hands saying, “Good morning.” Everyone got up and did the same, and I also shook the hand of every person there, as they did, and said, “Good morning.” The group then moved into the next room for coffee and something called “fellowship.”

I located the woman who’d adjourned the meeting because I thought she might know something about the tour. Her name is Nancy, and she explained that she’d be happy to give me a tour. She took me upstairs to see a large playroom that’d been added at some point, and to point out the old ship’s knee joint securing the main beams. It was not exactly the most informative tour, because she then brought me back downstairs. I decided to get a cup of coffee and mingle.

I approached Joan, the older woman who’d been at the table before the service, and she asked if I was a Quaker. I explained I was unaffiliated, but was researching a series on historical sites in the city. I told her I’d never been to a silent service before, but that I’d actually found it kind of refreshing, which I’d realized by then was true. She told me there are usually more acts of ministry in the services, and how the Queens branch refers to the Manhattan branch as the “popcorn” service for how regularly people pop up to preach. Joan was pretty funny. I asked if anyone else usually gives tours, partly because I felt a little short-changed. I told her that I’d called ahead and someone had guaranteed a full tour that day. She told me that the number listed on the website goes to a member’s home phone, likely someone who hadn’t shown up that day.

Credit: Erik Bryan

I decided to head out. I thanked them for the coffee and for the experience and left. I walked in the graveyard out back for a few minutes. The autumn leaves had all but covered the modest tombstones. Apparently the old Quakers had been so intolerant of personal vanity that the tombstones set before 1835 didn’t even have the names of the interred. Only a few of the tombstones I saw with writing had anything but a first and last name.

I called up one of my friends who lives in Astoria to see if he wanted to grab a bite, seeing as I was both nearby and hungry. He agreed, and after lunch we caught a matinee of The Muppets. It’s pretty good, but I had a few issues with it.

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan, though originally from Florida, left New Orleans in 2005 for higher ground. He occasionally enjoys a game of croquet, a glass of gin, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan