I was blessed to visit with Friends on the day the world calls Easter – last First Day.
As you may know, I have felt led to visit Smithfield Meeting many times in the past 7 years. Their meeting has been through much transition, with various pastors, gains and losses of membership, passing of many of their seasoned elders.
Through it all, I have felt a sense of Presence and comfort there in their love of God and each other, and desire to meet in that which is both eternal – and hopefully that which can also get the meeting house opened with a message each week.
Ron brought an inspiring message of the presence of both suffering and Joy – and began the service with the words of George Fox, speaking to that effect. There were a number of children, who felt comfortable enough to get up and move a seat, or go to the restroom as needed, in between listening and watching. There were two significant times of weighty silence, one for sharing joys and concerns, and one more open worship. In this time, Friend Rhoda, who had happily returned after absence due to extended illness, shared a message that remembered the past but noted the current joy – and how glad she was to be back in the light of the windows of the meetinghouse that gave her the ability over so many years to be both safe within, and look out upon the world in contemplation and hope.
Afterward there was a lively time of catching up, welcoming a new visitor (a mom and her young son who were happy to be there), and being glad to be together. There were fresh flowers and some candy treats for children. It seemed a simple acknowledgement of the Easter season. We headed downstairs to sit for coffee and talk in a large group at their table, which always feels like a family dinner to me somehow.
I share this joy in light of an awareness of this meeting’s current struggles. Like many churches in this time, they have felt the significant loss of their elders, and their benches have not filled again the way they might have in the past. I believe this is cultural, and not unique to this church. There is an overall sense that dwindling numbers are a reality – and that presents an unknown for their future as a meeting. This can feel scary and confusing. It is a real and deep concern.
This meeting is adapting. They have a weekly email that goes out with news and updates to all members/attenders – and a clear ask to let one member know if they will be present on Sunday. This allows the meeting to make sure the meeting is opened, and a space held for unprogrammed worship, to welcome anyone new who may come. Ron continues to offer planned messages at various times, and they are announced (and promoted) well in advance. On those days, members who may not be able to get to meeting each week make a special effort to attend. Potluck lunches happen more easily on those days as well, and a few Friends come from further afar (myself included!). Ron also provides thoughtful and helpful musical selections around his messages – sometimes all will sing, sometimes Friends will listen and the messages carried in song will seed messages in the silence later on. Ron considers the music a deep part of the ministry he offers to this community.
There have not been more regular meetings for business of late – scheduling has not permitted it – but the meeting does get together after worship to hold and share any pressing issues, and consider upcoming events. The meeting continues to offer its facilities to local groups as needed, and is aware that outreach to the community has been and continues to be an essential role of the meeting. Since the meetinghouse has now been renovated, this is easier to offer a welcoming space. Ron continues to plan to offer spiritual gatherings and discussions on days besides Sundays. An occasional wedding is also held at Smithfield – although it can be a bit overwhelming, Smithfield welcomes the opportunity to hold anyone from the community in the light in their space. The meeting continues to have a few members that serve on various NEYM committees, and there is an awareness of being connected helpfully to our wider NEYM community of Friends. I spoke on that day with a member who is feeling led to visit and support some of the Catholic churches in the area – as their three churches consolidate to one, and there is pain in the Catholic community over this. Smithfield Meeting feels it is a part of the wider religious concerns of its neighbors and community, even as specific activities in that direction have dwindled.
Smithfield meeting does have some basic outreach tools in place. They have a new website, have renovated their space, and have a Facebook and instagram account. The meetinghouse has current information about Quakers for visitors, including children in worship. They have a sign board welcoming all to worship out on their main road each week. The grounds are well-kempt and the church looks “alive” to passers by (not merely a historic building). Their cemetery will have a community clean-up day in a few weeks, and it is well cared for.
The meeting is being cautious about intentional initiatives and outreach to the wider community. They know that inviting in lots of newcomers means their meeting will have to step up and provide more consistency than they may be able to support right now. I believe this is wise – they are open to growth, and emphasizing the easier and organic ways of meeting growth that are uniquely theirs to do right now. They have talked often about more intentional social media campaigns, and more visibility in a greater number of community events. They add each step to their plate intentionally when they are clear to move forward with energy. They know that current members also need pastoral care and support, and new initiatives can sometimes tax a meeting beyond their available capacity long-term. They have not felt clear to support a full or part-time pastor. Ron’s messages, well discerned and deeply welcomed, hold a place for the pastoral tradition that has been central to Smithfield Meeting. They are still very much a programmed meeting, appreciative of the tradition of a shared message from a Quaker pastor. They are easy with first day gatherings of primarily waiting worship as well. They are inviting God to show up in whatever way that happens.
I intend to continue to visit these dear Friends, and will bring a message in the future as well. For me, much of the end of my journey there is on the “Quaker highway” – rt 146a that was actually used (in rudimentary form of course) by Quaker traveling ministers of years past. I feel that this meeting’s faithfulness has invited new Quakerly travel along that old highway somehow. As they explore new forms and calls, and at times even wonder if “their” meeting will exists in years’ time – Smithfield continues to embrace the root of our tradition, openness, faitfhulness to the Spirit as it shows up in current daily form, and an assurance that even in the darkness of not knowing what is to come there is a Light accessible to us all.
I look forward to being the invited representative for Smithfield Meeting at the upcoming NEYM/NYYM Pastoral Meetings retreat, and carrying the Love and awareness of their faithfulness that has been written on my heart to our wider community of Friends.