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LI Quakers looking for new Friends

Annalee, Georgianne and Rick Jackofsky, of Rocky Point,

Annalee, Georgianne and Rick Jackofsky, of Rocky Point, sit prayerfully during a morning service at the Conscience Bay Friends Meeting in St. James. (March 20, 2011) Credit: Ed Betz

Summer on Long Island is a time to get out and see new things, meet new people and explore something different. It also means hitting the sand, surf and shopping -- for a new religion, one Long Island congregation hopes.

Finding a new house of worship may not be on the season's to-do list, but the St. James-based Conscience Bay Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, is brushing off its welcome mat in hopes of attracting anyone looking for a new church.

The process is easier said than done for Quakers, a low-profile religion whose members worship in silence and are unaccustomed to self-promotion and membership drives. But they are facing issues confronting churches across Long Island and the country: dwindling attendance, older congregations and a dearth of young members.

Conscience Bay, which has about 20 members and is one of the younger of the 10 Friends groups on Long Island, celebrated its 50th anniversary this month with a "get to know us" craft festival with live music and a potluck dinner.

"Historically, Friends don't proselytize," said member and co-clerk Elaine Learnard. "This has been a problem that all Quaker Meetings ponder how to solve."

But the challenge goes beyond a lack of information, according to Tom Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, which promotes interfaith understanding and serves Long Islanders in need, with offices in Riverhead and Hempstead.

"What has been happening nationally is beginning to escalate on Long Island," Goodhue said. "There are several parts to this challenge. There are demographic changes in every community. Faiths and congregations must adapt or die. You have to address questions such as who lives in the community, what their needs are, how old are they? The difference from 10 or 20 years ago is the pace at which that change is accelerating."

This is a particular problem as congregations attempt to retain the interest of regular attendees while also having to preach and teach to those hearing doctrine for the first time.

While silence is an important part of who Quakers are, members locally and nationally realize that silence is not golden when it comes to membership.

"We haven't done a good job telling people all the wonderful things about Quakers," said co-clerk Barbara Ransome, 56, a member and owner of the Ransome Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Port Jefferson.

A few things come to mind when most people think of Quakers: the guy on the front of the oatmeal box; the Shakers, who were often associated with the Quakers and whose houses of worship now are mostly museums; and the religion's silent services and advocacy for peace, including conscientious objectors.

Quakerism was founded in 1650 by George Fox, as explained in the group's primer, "What is Quakerism?" by George T. Peck. Its guiding principles, also known as testimonials, include simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. There's no voting. Decisions are made by consensus. Maybe not always the quickest system, but it works -- most of the time.

"It took two years to decide on ceiling fans for the Meeting House," Learnard, of Port Jefferson, recalls, with a laugh. "We couldn't agree, so we just didn't get one."

While a few Quaker groups have more conventional meetings with a pastor and singing, most are served by a clerk like Learnard and Ransome; the rotating administrative position is responsible for various organizational and Meeting tasks. The group has two other co-clerks, Joy Weaver and Carolyn Emerson.

There are some differences visitors and potential converts will notice right away.

If you show up at Conscience Bay at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, you won't be greeted by an usher pointing you to an open seat. You won't be instructed to pick up a song book and turn to a hymn. You won't hear a minister, rabbi or other religious leader reading from a good book. And you can keep your wallet in your pocket -- there's no collection.

What you will experience is silence. Weighty silence. A full hour of silence. 

Waiting on the inner light
At a recent Sunday Meeting, Conscience Bay members were joined by a number of guests to celebrate two new members -- Learnard, who was officially transferring her membership to Conscience Bay; and Wells Tipley, 34, of Port Jefferson, who recently began attending.

As the smell of a potluck cheese dish slowly drifted into the room, members and visitors began to settle into the silence. There was much shifting to find a comfortable position. Some leaned back, others forward. All started with their eyes closed. Breathing became rhythmic. Shoulders slowly relax.

Minutes pass in the clock-free room. About 30 minutes into the silence, someone speaks, then another.

After a little more than an hour, Emerson, 57, from Setauket, says, "Good morning, Friends," to signal that the time of silence has ended. Members go to each other and to guests, extend a hand in friendship and give each other a warm welcome.

Now those attending can freely discuss anything that was said during the breaks from the silence. There's also a time of discussion when anyone can comment on anything that has been said.

Co-clerk Weaver explains that speaking should not be a conversation between members. Instead, others are discouraged from responding to whatever is said.

"We had some guests who didn't quite understand the purpose of the silence," Weaver said of what she refers to as a popcorn meeting, where people repeatedly pop up and speak and reply to previous comments. "We don't want people not to talk, or to talk. We want people to be moved to talk. Words do not break the silence but arise from it and return to it." 

Remaining relevant
Members of Conscience Bay agree that they have two pressing goals going forward: to attract more families with children and more people of color.

Attracting new members when you have no doctrine and no minister isn't easy. That's putting a lot of pressure on those potluck dinners. Even so, people do find their way here.

"I didn't grow up religious," Tipley said. "I came at it academically."

He said he was doing some research on subjects that troubled him, and the more he delved into the questions he was having, the more the Internet led him back to the Society of Friends.

"I decided to check out a Meeting," recalled Tipley, who has been attending less than a year. "I liked their non-hierarchial decision-making process. To my surprise, I took to it and the silence."

Goodhue said Tipley is typical of many who are searching for a religion. "We're seeing a secularization of Long Island and other areas," added Goodhue, 62, whose personal denomination is United Methodist. "You have people who come to a congregation without knowing anything about the doctrine or about religion."

Although a younger member of Conscience Bay, Annalee Jackofsky, 23, has often had to explain Quakerism to others.

"Growing up, acquaintances often confused my faith with being Amish," said Jackofsky, who has been a Quaker nearly all her life. She, her parents and her sister, Erica, 26, have been members at Conscience Bay for 19 years. "They expected us to drive around in a horse and buggy."

Conscience Bay meets in a former carriage house in St. James that was sold to the membership by member Bill Huntington nearly 50 years ago.

When you walk into the Meeting Room there are long benches, some nearly 100 years old, each with cushions, blankets and backrests. The windows look out onto a horse paddock and wooded areas.

In the backyard is a labyrinth. Learnard, who is sort of the labyrinth guru, explained that they hope members and guests will walk it either before or after the Meeting to help them focus and find the inner spirit.

"It is not a maze or a puzzle," said Learnard of the meditation tool. "It isn't designed to make you focus on it. Rather, you should be free to focus on other things as you walk along its paths."

Weaver added that the search for one's own light and the inner light in others is what drives their belief in peace and nonconfrontation.

"We believe that there is 'that of God' in all of us," Weaver said. "Therefore, it follows that you will not do violence to another."

She added that Quakers still oppose war and are active in prison ministry and conflict resolution. "We believe in nonviolence in all aspects -- bullying, verbal and physical abuse," said Weaver.

"These are threads that run through us as Quakers," she explained.

Like the labyrinth, all things circle back to the inner spirit and finding one's own peace.

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