Clémence Overall, Camden Friends Meeting, Delaware, USA

Clemence Overall and husband Mark Wotherspoon

Clémence and husband Mark Wotherspoon

I come from Camden Friends Meeting, a 200-year-old meeting tucked away in the small state of Delaware – that little peninsula shadowed by Philadelphia and only two hours from the nation’s capital. William Penn first established Delaware, so it has a long history of Quakers.

Our old brick Meeting House was a stop in the Underground Railroad, a refuge for civil rights workers and is a sanctuary of non-violence in a country saturated by guns. Outside our Meeting House, old oak trees shade the cemetery’s gravestones dating back to the 1800s. Inside, there are the traditional straight backed wooden benches – a source of complaints and pride.

My husband and I left Camden Meeting to come to Australia because my husband was granted a position as artist in residence in Dunmoochin, a small artist settlement outside of Melbourne. Good fortune would have it that Dunmoochin is close to St. Andrews, allowing us to attend St. Andrew’s Meeting, and, consequently, Yearly Meeting here in Australia.

St. Andrew’s Meeting is so small it only meets once a month. So, I felt lucky this event fell on my first week in the area. I was also aware of being a stranger as I walked into the stone house that serves as a home and Meeting House. For an hour, we shared silence together. I felt at home in this silence and again, later, when the Members all received me warmly. In fact, it was only five days before Yearly Meeting, so they invited me to it and went out of their way to make sure I got there: Tess Edwards, the clerk, offered transport and Michael Searle was quick to register me, despite being past the deadlines. I felt so very welcomed.

Five days later, when I arrived to Queen’s College for Yearly Meeting and discovered the Friends in Stiches, I felt at home again. They reminded me of the Friendly Fibers from Camden Meeting. The Friendly Fibers knit shawls for sick friends, prisoners, or simply for people dear to them. Friends in Stiches create detailed, colourful embroideries portraying spiritual and historical events. Both use their craftsmanship as a simple, handmade effort to promote peace. When I sat down among their friendly chatter, I felt like I had reunited with a pack of distant cousins, rather than strangers in a distant land.

“This friendliness,” Gretchen Castle later referred to so succinctly in the FWCC talk, “transcends geography and ends with we have prayed together.” It was an underlying theme, not just towards me, but also throughout the gathered group of over 150 Quakers.

This friendliness and crossing of cultures was made evident by the diversity of people present at Yearly Meeting. Geography was transcended by the presence of Abel Siboniyo and his friend Marceline Minani, both raised as Quakers in Africa and advocates for the refugee community here. The Young Friends brought us into the world of Japan as they sang songs taught to them by Machiko Takada. Indigenous and non-indigenous people gathered to discuss sovereignty and resources.

WILPF, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, also represented an international voice. I was able to participate in a Margaret Bearlin’s Summer School on WILPF, a feminist organisation that has struggled since World War 1 to promote worldwide peace and the end to all wars. Margaret and some of the participants had extensive knowledge of international feminism. For example, WILPF’s exhibit of posters depicted the organisation’s evolution within a context of global feminist history.

As in the other meetings I attended, my participation with Margaret’s group was eased by the familiar process of “quieting down” and, only then, proceeding with an inclusive interaction that assumed each one of us, not just the facilitator, was a potential contributor to the subject.

This was the Quaker process in action – and because I was from the distant, hectic world of the United States, because I had the eyes of an outsider looking in – I could see and experience that process in a very different way than I do when I am at home where I am invested, committed – sometimes even possessive – of the outcomes. Here I could better experience how silence not only nurtures the spirit but also lends respect to the speaker and the listeners. I could see how this attitude was moulding an inclusive community here at Queen’s College – just as it would on Arch Street in that famous Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia.

This same attitude was so evident in the group later visiting the Muslim Museum that the Museum guides remarked upon it. The guides, young Muslim women, articulately explained all aspects of the Muslim World, transporting us into the holy mosques where thousands go to pray five times a day; through the historical span of Mohammed’s life and the spread of Islam; then through the multitude of Muslim contributions to civilisation – from the creation of the first University in the 800s by Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman, to the invention of optics and the smallpox vaccine.

They guided us through the struggles of today’s Muslims. We saw the huge portrait of the political commentator, Waleed Aly, painted by Abdullah Abdul, winner of the Archibald prize at 22 – and deservingly so. The faint red lines circling and dripping from the man’s face, along with the strokes of dark paints, spoke of the painful struggle of the Muslim world in the West. In the centre of the room were the Phillip George’s surfboards: his personal response to violence against Muslims. These surfboards, 30 in all, took years to create. The delicate and colourful patterns of inlaid wood and plastics were copied with exactitude from holy mosques, ancient paintings and books.

The guides answered all our questions and after the tour, they shared with me the impression of the group: “Many times we have people come with questions that are filled with resentment and negativity. They aren’t really questions. They are attacks. It is rare we have a group like this – curious, asking questions, ready to listen . . . and, most importantly, they seem to be looking at what ties us all together rather than what separates us.”

This was reiterated by the words inscribed in the exhibit hall, simple words that a Muslim or a Quaker could have written:

The task is not to seek Love

But to seek and find

All the barriers to it

Within yourself

I thought of these words when I returned to Yearly Meeting to participate in the afternoon worship for healing. Then again, later in the week during the Show and Tells; or while listening to the multicultural, intergenerational Concert. They lingered in my mind during the Meetings for Business, and, of course, in all the quiet socialising that occurred during meals and tea breaks.

At the week’s end, tired from a long day, I remembered the words as I went to rejoin the Friends in Stitches. I sat down with a cup of tea and watched as they carefully taped a picture to the huge window where the sun was shining through. Over this, they placed a piece of tracing paper and meticulously, using the light, began to trace the picture that they would transfer to a tapestry. Sometimes their own shadows would block the light so they would have to reposition themselves. This was the process they used repetitively in their work.

This simple process seemed to summarise how Quakers, around the world, try to remove those barriers to love that our Muslim friends were pointing out: by quieting down into stillness, getting ourselves out of the way, and allowing the Light to guide. A big lesson, taught in a simple way, to a Friend far from home.

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