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Philadelphia's Quaker DNA continues to impact the city in ways big and small

Skyspace in Chestnut Hill

In the 1680s, William Penn decided that the spot between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers would be the perfect place to realize his Quaker vision of "brotherly love." Philadelphia, and the territory newly known as Pennsylvania (for Penn's British admiral father), attracted thousands of diverse, religiously tolerant settlers. Since that moment of origin, Quaker culture has been integral to the city's fabric. But what about now, over 330 years later? Are Quakers still a part of Philadelphia's twenty-first century heartbeat?

The answer, in short, is "Yes." Whether its through educational institutions, community activism or deeply ingrained cultural touchstones (that many Philadelphians would never know came from Quakers), this city remains informed by its founder's faith.

Past is Prologue

George Fox, the founder of Quakerism (also known as the Religious Society of Friends), preached a Christian faith without a particular creed or symbol, devoted to living principles of social justice, equality and community participation. William Penn, an early disciple, landed in and out of jail for his beliefs, where he wrote many of the Friends' core texts.

While practices vary from congregation to congregation (known as "meetings"), Quakers are distinct from many other faiths for their belief, as current Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) clerk Jada Jackson puts it, that "what we need to be in communication with God, we already have been given." So one Quaker tradition, perhaps strange to other worshippers, is gathering in silence and waiting for the spirit to move members to speak. 

Jackson says keeping history in mind is crucial when visiting local meetinghouses. ("A lot of them were built before we were a country," she explains.) But Quakerism is modern, too. Jackson points to a tradition of progressive attitudes toward things like mental illness, women's rights and abolition (Germantown Quakers made America's first anti-slavery petition in 1688).

PYM is actually an umbrella organization that comprises 103 different meetings of various size in eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, western New Jersey, and all of Maryland. According to general secretary Arthur Larrabee, membership numbers have been stable since 1998. 

As for the city itself, there are seven Quaker meetings with membership ranging from just ten people to about 400 at Germantown Meeting. Central Philadelphia Meeting, which Larrabee attends, has about 250 members.

But the number of people who come into contact with the Quaker faith far exceeds the meeting rosters. The newly renovated Friends Center near City Hall offers community gathering rooms, rents office space and houses non-profit organizations (including members of The Exchange, a co-working space covered by Flying Kite in April). The Philadelphia area is also famous for its plethora of Quaker schools, from the elite Haverford College to William Penn Charter School and many others. Year after year, they churn out future civic leaders.

Larrabee notes that the number of practicing Quakers enrolled at these institutions typically hovers around five to ten percent of the student body, "but the schools thrive, because people are attracted to the culture of the school." 

Quaker schools welcome everyone with a secular atmosphere founded on Quaker tradition, while deeper spiritual practice takes place in meetings. 

Friends schools are crucial to the continuation of the faith, says Jana Llewellyn, editor and co-publisher of Philly's newest Quaker publication, The First Day. She appreciates Quaker education's "emphasis on creativity, imagination and art."

Local leaders like Llewellyn have a desire to engage a larger community -- though sometimes, that's a challenge. For centuries, friends "defined [themselves] as being different from the rest of society," explains Llewellyn. "Quakers are quirky." 

One of those quirks has become a statewide phenomenon -- the Penn-founded tradition of "Quaker marriage," or as it's often called today, "self-uniting." In observance of the clergy-less Quaker tradition, Pennsylvania is one of the only states in the U.S. where couples can get a marriage license that needs no certified officiant -- just signatures from the couple and at least two witnesses.

Secular couples have won the right to choose this kind of license, and for Gail Whiffen, it was the perfect choice for her and her non-religious fiancé, who will tie the knot in June.

Whiffen, the associate editor of Philadelphia's Friends Journal, noted that her marriage license cost $10 more than a typical one, but wasn't difficult to obtain. She appreciates how easy that option made it to plan a personalized non-traditional ceremony. 

"When you don't have a shared common religious foundation between the two of the you…a self-uniting [wedding] removes religion from the equation," she says, explaining that her ceremony will still be a "Quaker-inspired" one with a non-ordained officiant to keep the service running smoothly (and accessible for non-Quaker family). 

Looking Up

Meanwhile, local meetings continue to look to the future. The Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (CHFM) opened a brand-new, environmentally-friendly meeting house in September, designed by James Bradberry Architects; it replaced a 1931 facility. The building's "Skyspace" has brought international buzz. It was designed by contemporary art and architecture icon James Turrell, who incorporated specially designed lighting and an opening in the ceiling that lets the sky in.

In 2013, it was "nice to be known for something besides being 300 years old," notes CHFM clerk Meg Mitchell. Over 2,000 people have already made a reservation for the room's silent sunset experience. 

"With some other forms of art you might need historical knowledge to understand what's going on, but with light everybody can appreciate that," she says of Skyspace, open to all at dawn and dusk. "Everybody can experience it." 

While the Skyspace isn't itself a place of worship, it is central to the CHFM mission. 

"In order to build a new meetinghouse, we needed the support of the community," says Mitchell. For locals without their own house of worship, the space is an option for "faith experiences," such as memorial services.  

"Three months is not very long in the history of a Quaker meeting," she says of measuring Skyspace's impact so far. But one thing is certain, building it (with the help of a Knight Arts Challenge grant) and opening it to the community has reinforced the meetings' inclusive principles. 

"We're more so ourselves," says Mitchell.

New Media

Outreach is also important to Llewellyn at First Day; the publication launched last summer.

"A lot of Quaker organizations that are doing good work are often just talking to other Quakers," says Llewellyn, who wants to spark conversations with other faith traditions. "I decided that another fresh voice was needed for the Quaker community."

Developed as a journal with a spiritual, literary and artistic focus, First Day is currently online and working towards publication of its second quarterly print issue.

At Friends Journal, new outreach efforts are also underway. Videographer Jon Watts wants to overcome what he sees as a Quaker tendency to keep quiet in the greater culture. 

Friends are "mostly allergic to self-promotion," he says. They can forget "how exciting our faith tradition really is…We don't hear about other Quakers elsewhere doing really courageous exciting stuff with the same material."

His new YouTube channel, created in partnership with Friends Journal and scheduled for a March 2014 launch, hopes to change that. The QuakerSpeak Project will feature weekly interviews with notable modern Quakers.

According to Watts, a Quaker YouTube channel is perfectly in line with the Friends' historical DNA. 

"Quakerism was built on new communications technology" like the printing press, he explains, and "confrontation" with the faith mandated by the era's rulers. "Today the new technologies have changed, and so has the empire that we are called to confront. But the need is no less, and the power of the internet dwarfs that of the printing press."

A preview video for the project has garnered nearly 200 subscribers and 700 views as of January. "I expect us to have at least a thousand folks who are following the channel faithfully," says Watts. 

Others define successful outreach and engagement a bit differently.

Jackson says appealing to non-Quakers is not necessarily a matter of growing the congregation. Not everyone who decides to try a meeting will stay, but she hopes they'll find something valuable to take back to their own lives. 

In one case, a new member ceased coming, and when Jackson bumped into her at the store, she asked how she was. The visitor said trying the Quaker meeting had helped her realize that she wanted to return to the synagogue she'd left. 

"I was excited, because we helped her in her clarity of her path," says Jackson.

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.
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