Just Friends

Jim Rose, of Columbia, a founding member of the Patapsco Friends, chats with fellow member Rosemary Davis after a Sunday meeting. Raised as an Episcopalian, Rose called the less-structured Quakerism, which has no ministers and no creeds, "a distinct alternative to organized religion." (Photo by Phil Grout, Patuxent Publishing / August 14, 2011)

It's a sultry August Sunday morning, and inside the historic Mt. Hebron House, a sturdy stone structure owned by the Mt. Hebron Presbyterian Church next door, some 30 men and women are worshiping like tens of thousands of others in Howard County.

Well, not exactly like tens of thousands of others.

This is a Quaker meeting, and there is no minister and no choir. There is no sermon, no singing, no mass recitations of creeds or prayers.

Instead, the men and women sit in silence on rows of straight-backed chairs, all facing the center of the room.

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

After perhaps 15 minutes, a woman stands up. "I think all of us are quite tired of national contention," she says, then goes on to urge the two sides, presumably in the national debate on controlling the deficit, to recognize the flaws in their own arguments and the attributes in their opponents.

The woman sits down. More silence. About 10 minutes later, a man stands up.

"I'm thinking of the word balance," he says, then talks for a minute or two on the need for balance in politics and in personal lives. He sits down, and more silence ensues.

And so it goes. During the next half-hour, a half-dozen others stand up and, in measured voices, talk of a work project that is trying to capture the essence of people's lives, of song lyrics that use only two-letter words, of the need for Quakers to "stop doing and start talking."

When the hour of worship is almost up, the meeting clerk asks participants who they would like to "hold to the light" and several mention sick or needy friends, after which the participants stand up and shake hands, new people introduce themselves and announcements are made.

The meeting is officially ended, and it's time for fellowship in the kitchen, where a spread of salad, fresh bread, peach cobbler — and an hour of lively conversation, a stark contrast to the preceding service — awaits.

Welcome to the Patapsco Friends Meeting, the latest incarnation of centuries-old Quaker tradition in Howard County.

Quaker roots in England

Perhaps best know for its emphasis on peace and social justice (Quakers were early and vocal opponents of slavery), the Quaker movement was started in mid-17th Century England by a group of like-minded spiritual seekers who felt God's spirit is within each person.

Originally known as the "Friends of Truth," members eventually were called simply "Friends." The term "Quaker" was originally a derisive label, used because adherents supposedly quaked with religious fervor. But it has since become an accepted term, even among Quakers.

Persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, some Quakers moved to the New World in the late 1600s, perhaps the best known being William Penn, who helped create the colony of Pennsylvania.

According to the Quaker Information Center, there are about 360,000 Quakers worldwide, with the largest concentrations in North America, especially Philadelphia, and Africa, especially Kenya.

Quaker groups are scattered throughout Maryland — in Baltimore, inMontgomery County's Sandy Spring, in Baltimore and Harford counties, inAnnapolis.

In Howard County, Quaker roots date back to the 1700s, according to a local history written by Ken Stockbridge, a Columbia resident and early member of the Patapsco Friends Meeting. The Elliott brothers, originally part of William Penn's colony, moved to Maryland and started a flour mill on the Patapsco River in the late 1700s and also established a Quaker meetinghouse and Quaker school.

That community, as well as another in what was then known as Elk Ridge, eventually petered out. But another started in Columbia in the early 1970s, when Quakers in the then-new community, unhappy with paying the spiraling cost of gas to travel to worship at Quaker meetings elsewhere, decided to establish a community closer to home. They met for awhile in their Columbia homes, and later in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center and the Phelps Luck Neighborhood Center. But after a few years, that small group died out as well.

The current Howard County community is an offshoot of the large Friends community in Sandy Spring. It dates back to 1996, when a handful of Friends from Howard County began meeting at the Columbia Art Center in Long Reach. In January 1997, when Mt. Hebron Presbyterian moved its Sunday School out of the 200-year-old Mt. Hebron House on Calvin Circle in Ellicott City, a stone's throw from the Patapsco River and Patapsco Valley State Park, the Quakers moved in.