Searching for Silence in a Loud World

FLUX Radical Silence Quakers

Images by Lila Lee

In Mānoa Valley, a devout gathering of Quakers meets to hear the divine from within.

From the outside, the house at 2426 Oʻahu Avenue looked like any other in the neighborhood: large front lawn, lava rock detailing, covered lānai. Inside, however, it was full of oddities. The living room, largely empty, was furnished in a lopsided fashion with two chairs, a couch, and a bookcase all shoved to one end. And in the hall, where one might expect family photos, a bulletin board was cluttered with clippings of upcoming community events and peace protests. 

The house is the home of the Honolulu Friends Meeting, a congregation of the Religious Society of Friends that was founded in 1936 and has been meeting in Mānoa since 1957. You may know the group by another name: Quakers.

Nearly every week for the past 83 years, a small group of Quakers, or Friends, as they often refer to themselves, have gathered in Honolulu for worship. About the only thing Quaker worship has in common with that of other churches, however, is that it takes place on Sunday morning. At the meeting for worship of the Honolulu Friends Meeting, there is no music, no liturgy, no communion. There are no baptisms, no sermons, no rocking in seats or speaking in tongues.

Mostly, there’s no speaking at all. An unprogrammed Quaker meeting is silent. For roughly an hour, attendees sit in a circle and wait to hear a message from the divine, or “the light within.” Sometimes, maybe once or twice a meeting, a person will receive a message they discern is meant for the whole community. Only then will someone speak.

FLUX Radical Silence Quakers

The reason for the silence, David Foster told me, is to better hear what Quakers refer to as the “still, small voice,” a reference to the Bible’s book of First Kings when God is revealed to the prophet Elijah. David and his wife, Jenny, serve as the Honolulu Friends Meeting’s “resident couple.” They live in the back of the meetinghouse and take care of the property and also arrange accommodations for occasional visitors.

David first attended the meeting in 1981, when he was a visiting professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Later, he and Jenny moved to Molokaʻi, where Jenny worked as Molokaʻi General Hospital’s first nurse-midwife. In 1988, the Fosters returned to the continent, eventually moving to Atlanta, Georgia. When Jenny retired from her role as a clinical professor at Emory University in 2018, the Fosters returned to Honolulu to serve as the meeting’s resident couple, a two-year post that will end June 2020.

Honolulu’s meeting is not the only Quaker gathering in Hawaiʻi. Maui, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, and Hawai‘i Island all have Quaker meetings, though some meet only once a month, or in people’s homes. The Honolulu community is by far the largest and most active. On Easter Sunday in April, approximately 40 people sat in a circle in the spartan living room. It was quiet, almost disconcertingly so. Some people had their eyes closed, others open. Some nodded their heads as if in silent conversation.

Silence has been at the center of Quaker practice since it emerged as a faction of Christianity in the 1600s (though not all Quakers consider themselves Christians). Quakerism represented a rejection of the institutionalized hierarchy of the Church of England. The movement’s most well-known leader, George Fox, believed that everyone, not just priests, could receive divine inspiration. “His thing,” Jenny explained, “was that people put too much stock in buildings—the churches, the cathedrals—and even in books, when really what was divine was within.”

Fox’s ideas were radical, if not blasphemous. Quakerism’s embrace of equality represented a threat to both the Church of England and much of Western society. “Right from the get-go, in the 1600s, they gave women the same status as men in the church,” said Michele Shields, who spent most of her life as an ordained Methodist minister but now attends the Honolulu Friends Meeting. “They abolished the priesthood and ‘elevated the laity.’”

The movement was enough of a threat that in the 1660s, Quakerism was briefly outlawed in Boston, and over the span of two years, four Quakers, including a woman named Mary Dyer, were hanged.

Shields, who most recently served as the director of spiritual care at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, said that Quakerism’s acceptance of all people is as radical today as it was 350 years ago. In many mainline Christian denominations, women and queer people are still prohibited from becoming ministers or serving in leadership roles. Shields left the Methodist Church when it became apparent the denomination was becoming more conservative. “Theologically, the Methodist church moved away from me,” she said.

Shields began attending the Honolulu Friends Meeting when she retired two years ago. “I’d always liked the mystics, you know, Julian of Norwich and Saint John of the Cross,” she said. “They believed in seeking God directly through individual experience and not through a priest or from scripture.”

On the Sunday I attended worship, Shields sat on a low couch next to her husband, Jim. I waited for someone to speak, though I knew no one might. A longtime member had told me, “Right now, our meetings are fairly quiet. We don’t have people give messages too often.” But I was curious what sorts of messages were shared, so I found myself selfishly wanting someone, anyone, to break the silence.

After 20 minutes, no one had. I decided to try meditating. Quakers are among the more mystical branches of Christianity, and in practice, they share more than a few similarities with other mystic sects, including Zen Buddhism. Bob Stauffer, a historian and longtime member of the Honolulu meeting, compared Quakers’ “expectant waiting” to Zen meditation. “From a Zen point of view, you try not to be cluttered with the mind,” he said.

Eventually, I settled into the silence. My mind quieted, and I entered that deep, interior realm that exists somewhere below the superficial world of thought. In some wordless form, I recalled my own encounters with the light within.

Then a woman spoke. “John Woolman said, ‘The place of prayer is a precious habitation. I saw this habitation to be safe, to be inwardly quiet, when there was great stirrings and commotions in the world.’”
Was that it?
That was it.
No one said another word until the meeting ended a half hour later. I spent most of it trying to remember the woman’s—or rather Woolman’s—words.

As a small, rather obscure religious sect (of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world, 380,000 are Quakers), I had expected Quakers to be insular, with long family lineages. But nearly everyone I spoke to had converted to Quakerism as an adult. Becoming “convinced,” Quakers call it. Kay Larsen, a longtime member and former school social worker who now spends her time driving for a blind social club, was raised in the Church of the Brethren. David Foster grew up Presbyterian.

“Sometimes people come to Quakerism having been somewhat wounded by other denominations,” said Jenny Foster, who grew up “secular Episcopalian.” “They come seeking a refuge because they have felt oppressed by certain kinds of dogma or practices.”

The Honolulu meeting is what’s known as an open and affirming community, meaning it is explicitly welcoming of LGBTQ individuals. In general, Quakerism allows for a diversity of beliefs. Shield’s husband, Jim, is a practicing Buddhist, but even he attends the meeting on Sundays.

FLUX Radical Silence Quakers

In place of a lot of doctrine, Quakers try to live by five shared values: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. They have a long history of activism and civic engagement, both in Hawaiʻi and abroad. Among the founders of the Honolulu Friends Meeting was Catherine Cox, an educator and early environmentalist who helped found The Outdoor Circle and the Honolulu Museum of Art, serving as the latter’s director from 1927 to 1928. During World War II, members of the meeting helped raise funds and find jobs for families of interned Japanese residents.

In a time of renewed civic engagement, particularly among marginalized groups, Quakerism feels as relevant as ever, a model perhaps for a more equal society. And yet the number of Quakers around the world is dwindling. Kara Wagoner, a data analyst at Kapi‘olani Community College, told me that she’s among the younger attendees of the Honolulu meeting, and she recently turned 40.

Shields is hopeful that others will discover Quakerism. “You do have to have a mystical bent, and you do need to read and study,” she admits. “It’s sort of the opposite of the authoritarian approach, where you follow one charismatic leader and get told what to believe and who to vote for. That’s not Quakerism.”

Instead, Shields said, Quakerism is “trusting that each person has the ability to follow the light.” Over the years, she has found herself spending more and more time in contemplative prayer, or complete quiet.

“Less talk,” she said. “More silence.” It was hard to imagine anything more radical.

One of the most famous Quaker-led protests took place in the Pacific in 1958. Eisenhower was president, Hawaiʻi was a U.S. territory, and the United States was detonating nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands. To protest the nuclear testing, a group of Quakers decided to sail a yacht called the Golden Rule from San Diego into the restricted testing area. The crew was restrained upon federal order in Honolulu, but several crewmembers continued the journey anyway, only to be intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and sentenced to two months in jail.

Earle Reynolds, an anthropologist who later become a Quaker, picked up where the Golden Rule left off after hearing the crew’s tale, sailing his yacht, the Phoenix of Hiroshima, with his family from Honolulu into Enewetak Atoll, part of the testing area, in July 1958. They were caught a few days later, and Reynolds was sentenced to six months in prison.

Both sails received national media coverage and generated public support for the passage of a 1963 treaty that outlawed the above-ground testing of nuclear weapons. “It really engendered a national debate,” said Honolulu historian Bob Stauffer. Now, the Golden Rule, which for years languished in Humboldt Bay, California, is returning to Hawaiʻi.

Later this year, a crew including Dan Lappala of Hilo and Connie Burton of Kauaʻi plan to retrace the yacht’s 1958 route as part of a pan-Pacific voyage to promote peace and nuclear disarmament. Although the yacht isn’t crewed by Quakers, many Hawai‘i Friends are excited to see the Golden Rule return to the islands. The boat is scheduled to arrive on Oʻahu where, 61 years ago, it helped change the course of history.

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