Traveling Meeting Houses
By Deborah Fisch
Most people driving on Highway 59 in the northwest corner of Iowa never notice the white, wooden building sitting by the road south of Primghar. And unless they are from the area, those that do notice it would never guess that the unassuming building is a place of worship. For nearly 20 years now that little, old meeting house has been my spiritual home, and for nearly 100 years it has been the home of Paullina Monthly Meeting. Before that it was the meeting house for Hopewell Meeting in southeastern Iowa. When that meeting was laid down the building boards were numbered, disassembled, shipped by train nearly 300 miles to northwest Iowa and then reassembled to replace the smaller meeting house that Paullina had outgrown; perhaps one of Friends’ early callings to recycle!
In my work with the FGC Traveling Ministries Program (TMP) I have had the opportunity to share with others how the old latch on Paullina’s meeting house door always makes a little click when it is opened, no matter how slowly and carefully one tries to release it. (I think the click is a way of announcing late comers to the Silence of the meeting.) For me, Paullina Meeting house is a holy place. Friends share with me that they find their meeting homes to be the same for them.
I have been blessed in my travels to worship with Friends in all kinds of facilities. Friends have long held that it is not the ornate structure, but rather the presence of the Spirit in the hearts of those who worship there. When their numbers were small, early Friends met in their homes. As attendance grew it became necessary to find other accommodations. Today many older meetings still worship in some of those historic, original buildings. And as in the past, many small worship groups and meetings gather in homes. Friends seek discernment and unity when a change in the size of their meetings indicates a need for either smaller or larger facilities.
One of the benefits of meetings and worship groups having more opportunities for spiritual connection through visits from traveling Friends, is that we learn about how similar we really are. We have learned through the TMP that many of our monthly meetings and worship groups are experiencing difficulties in discerning what kinds of accommodations will allow them to worship together in a simple setting, and yet meet the needs of their members. Some groups have been renting and think the time has come to own their own property. Some meetings find their numbers growing and find themselves needing more space. Other meetings find their numbers decreasing and must discern whether to give up their beloved meeting house or find other ways of using the building to help meet expenses. At times the weight of these choices threatens to cause splits within meetings, at other times decisions have to be deferred for years as the meeting struggles along in a facility that is not suitable for its needs.
Meetings and seasoned Friends who have been through discernment processes concerning their facilities can provide important insight for others who find themselves frustrated or in danger of losing members and attenders. There are seasoned Friends who can help meetings move toward clearness. Meetings who feel they might benefit from a visit from a seasoned Friend are invited to contact the TMP coordinator. Meetings who have had experiences in buying, remodeling, or building meeting houses are also invited to share their stories with the coordinator.
A meeting house should not be regarded primarily in terms of bricks and mortar, or merely seen in relation to potential site value. Its real value derives from the worship and service of the meeting. Even so, our meeting houses no less than our own homes deserve our care, attention and imaginative thought, so that they may be attractive both to ourselves and others.Britain Yearly Meeting Quaker Faith and Practice 15.14