It took me four times to make it to Meeting for worship.
The first two times I didn't even make it out of the house. As that mopey, hungover daze of Sunday mornings ticked past noon, close to Meeting's start time, I decided sleep was more important.
The third try I started walking towards 48th Street, where West Philadelphia Friends Meeting is held. But somewhere around 43rd Street, I felt that tell-tale pressure in my chest that precedes a particularly powerful wave of anxiety, and decided to turn back.
I almost chickened out again the fourth time. With trepidation, I snuck through a rusted gate, squeezed my way down a narrow walkway lined with overgrown weeds, and turned towards the short stack of steps leading to a shadowed basement door.
I spent the 15–second journey wracking my brain for another flimsy excuse. Nothing. Hesitantly, I crept just one, tiny step past the doorframe, planning to peak inside, get a mental picture, and then try again next week.
But my step wasn't tiny enough. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, they met a pair of glasses, worn by a woman with graying brown hair and a soft smile. The room around her held chairs, scattered, mismatched and mostly empty.
The woman leaned out further, and smiled.
"Welcome!" she said.
I looked at the door, longingly.
Lately, I haven't known how to answer when people ask if I'm a Quaker.
The question itself isn't unfamiliar. I attended Friends' Central, a Quaker high school just outside of Philadelphia, so it's not the first time I've been asked. Before this year though, my reponse came easier. "No," simple and decisive.
But recently, I've been stumbling over my answer. What started in August as an excited, "yes, I'm becoming one!" (despite the fact that there's actually no formal conversion process) has since turned into an unsure, "yeah, I guess."
Regardless of my answer, the next question is nearly always the same: "um...what exactly is Quakerism?"
It comes out hesitantly, sometimes stuttered, accompanied by an embarrassed, apologetic smile (perhaps directed more towards our neglected mascot than me).
In some ways, this question is easier. The basics, having been drilled into my head for seven years, come out like bullet points:
- Quakerism is a form of Christianity
- Rather than going to church on Sunday, they attend something called Meeting for Worship
- Most Meeting for Worships are "unprogrammed," meaning there's no priest or pastor and no sermon. Instead, members sit in silent reflection for about an hour, only speaking if they feel moved to share a message.
- Their core values (also known as "testimonies") are usually some combination of peace, community, service, simplicity, integrity, and equality.
These are the facts, bite–sized and digestible. The problem comes when I try to explain with a little more depth—when I try and elaborate further on Meeting for Worship, or when I throw around common Quaker phrases like "inner light" or "divine guidance." Or, simply, when I mention God.
These statements are never met with any outright judgement. But still, as soon as it's brought up, the conversation is fused with an almost palpable edginess. Suddenly, we're both doing a verbal dance around religion, tiptoeing around anything that might insult or offend.
Part of that is certainly on me. I've always been a little uncomfortable with religion. But I don't think I'm alone in that discomfort. While most people seem comfortable asking the basics ("are you religious?"), anything that goes beyond that feels almost inappropriate.
Sitting near tears in Hubbub last December, a few days before my first college final, I googled "meeting houses in west Philly." All semester I craved the calm after Meeting—but even though the link for West Philadelphia Friends Meeting popped up instantly, it took me six months to even click on it, ten months to decide to walk there, and four tries to actually go.
I suppose it's because engaging in actual Quakerism at Penn is strange (part of me blames that on the geotag proclaiming, "Go Quakers!").
I certainly felt that weirdness walking into Meeting a few weeks ago. An hour later, that feeling wasn't gone completely. It still felt strange to walk back towards campus, towards 10,500 undergraduate Quakers, some of whom aren't entirely sure what that mascot means.
But I felt other things too. I felt calm and centered, despite the mountain of homework waiting for me. I felt well-rested. I felt appreciative of the one message that had been shared: take time out of your busy schedule to do the small things that help your spirit.
Mostly, it felt like, finally, I had my head on straight. That might not seem like much, but for me, at a school like Penn, it might as well have been a minor miracle.