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.
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.
They've been meeting there ever since, their numbers growing gradually from about 20 participants each week to 30-35.
"It must've been the right decision," recalls Jim Rose, one of the original attendees, "because 15 years later, we're still meeting."
Journeys to Quakerism
Rose, of Columbia, is typical of members of the Patapsco Friends, many of whom took decades-long journeys to Quakerism.
His father was Jewish, his mother Catholic, and he was raised Episcopalian. But Rose, 72, began to question organized religion as a youngster, finding troubling similarities between the chanting at Nazi rallies he'd see in news clips and the chanting in church.
"It kind of frightened me," he said.
Rose drifted away from religion, until, years later, he attended a Quaker wedding outside of Philadelphia.
"It was a stirring experience," he said, recalling the informal ceremony. "I decided to find out more about Quakers."
He liked what he found out, joined the Sandy Spring community, then, in the 1990s, helped launch the Patpsco Friends.
Rose enjoys the relatively unstructured Quaker style. While Quakers have national and local conferences and meetings, and the Patapsco Friends has plenty of committees (among them a Ministry and Care Committee, a Religious Education Committee and a Peace and Social Concerns Committee), the Sunday worship meetings are models of free-flowing, personal spirituality.
"It's a distinct alternative to organized religion," Rose said. "There's no creed, no dogma, no minister. Every member is a minister. … It's very liberating.
"But while it's a freedom, it's also a responsibility — for your own spiritual life."
At the silent meetings, Rose said, "If you listen, you can hear what the spirit is telling you what to do. And you can discuss what the spirit is saying to you — test that out on others."
Other local Quakers tell similar stories.
Stockbridge, who wrote the history of the local group and works as a researcher for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, has a similar story. He grew up Presbyterian, but his mother was a Quaker and he recalled attending a Quaker memorial service for his grandmother while in college, at a time when he was a religious skeptic.
"It was especially peaceful," he said. "I had an experience of a spiritual presence I'd never known before."
Another early member of the Patapsco Friends, Stockbridge, 52, said he revels in the sense of community the group provides.
"I feel supported in my spiritual growth," he said."People come here from different backgrounds. There's an openness toward exploring and speaking the truth in a variety of forms."
'I like the silence'
Sam Stayton, 76, who attends Friends meetings with his two grandsons, was raised a Southern Baptist — "quite a different style" than Quakerism, he said.
"I like the silence here, and the spontaneity," Stayton said. "There's lots of freedom of thought."
Heather Amos, who belongs to a nearby Unitarian church, has attended Quaker meetings elsewhere over the years, but, out of curiosity, dropped in the Patapsco meeting for the first time on a recent Sunday.
She found the meeting "very welcoming," she said, and while she likes the celebratory joy found in more traditional services, she also appreciates the quiet of Quaker meetings.
"It's not busy," she said. "You have time to feel the spirit — you're not always standing up, sitting down, singing. … I like having that opportunity for the spirit to settle, to feel God."
For others, it isn't just the silent, unstructured worship that attracts them to Quakerism. It's the whole package — the open-mindedness, the emphasis on social activism and on being one with nature.
Bette Hoover, a long-time, well-known peace activist who lives in Dayton, has belonged to the Sandy Spring Friends group for years. She attended the smaller, closer-to-home Patapsco Meeting earlier this month and after the meeting, said she plans to switch.
"This meeting entices me because the people are more engaged with each other," she said.
But whichever community she embraces, Hoover knows where her heart lies.
"So many of my key values are Quaker values," Hoover said. "I'm a Quaker at heart."