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Albany Quakers: A Passion for Peace

May 3, 2011

by Wade Abbott

Albany Quakers at weekly Wednesday peace vigil, April 2011. (Wade Abbott)

It is not just the postal service that can lay claim to an all-weather reputation. Whether in rain, snow or sun, a group of Albany Quakers holds a Wednesday peace vigil at the state Capitol, and they have done so nearly every week for the past nine years.

On a typical Wednesday, six or more members of Albany Friends Meeting, a group of Quakers located in the Pine Hills, stand quietly on Eagle Street with the Capitol as a backdrop. Participants – a mixture of retirees and downtown Albany workers on their lunch breaks – hold signs, pass out literature, and engage passersby in gentle conversation. The vigil first started in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War and lasted six or seven years. The current peace vigil began almost 10 years ago – a week after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, said Patricia Beetle, a member serving on the meeting’s peace and service committee.

“We do have a high proportion of our members who are active in the peace movement these days, against the war in Afghanistan or to prevent a war,” said David Easter a 30-year member from Delmar.

When they are not at the Capitol, the group gathers in an 1890s Victorian home turned

Albany Friends Meeting – 727 Madison Ave. (Wade Abbott)

meeting house on 727 Madison Ave. Visitors arriving at the meeting house might notice a peace pole in the front yard with the words “May Peace Prevail On Earth” painted along its side. A small yard sign reads “war is not the answer” and provides the URL for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a nationwide Quaker lobby. Similar signs can be found stacked on the back porch, ready for use in a peace vigil. “We have a very strong testimony against war and the need to work for social justice and equality in our society,” said Easter.

Advocating for peace extends beyond vigils against war. “Quakers have also been quite active in prison work. One of our programs, the alternatives to violence program is used in prisons and also in other places around the world where people are trying to learn nonviolent ways of relating to one another,” said Easter.

Meeting members, including Beetle, have facilitated workshops at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, about 25 miles south of Albany. Three-day workshops focus on improving communication skills, building self-esteem, improving conflict resolution abilities, and building community, said Beetle. These workshops are experiential in nature and are not limited to use in prisons. They can also be conducted for schools or other community groups. On occasion, they have been held at the meeting house.

The meeting house served as a doctor’s office and a college dormitory for University at Albany students prior to its purchase by the Quakers in the 1960s. A large meeting room, two smaller meeting rooms, a library, a kitchen, and children’s rooms take up the first two floors. A caretaker’s residence is located on the third floor. The backyard contains a playground for children. Paula McConnell is a member living in the meeting house. She maintains the meeting’s web site and serves as the building’s caretaker. She invests about 20 hours of upkeep in the building weekly, she said. In addition to the regular maintenance, the meeting just completed the first portion of a three-phase capital campaign to improve the facility. The campaign seeks to raise $52,000 to fund a variety of building repairs and upgrades. These include fixing the roof, replacing windows, refinishing floors, painting, replacing appliances and repairing plumbing. The capital improvements are functionally necessary, but not extravagant. “Quakers tend to be very pragmatic,” said Edward Cady, a member from Cohoes who serves on the meeting’s advancement and outreach committee.

A simple meeting room for quiet worship. (Wade Abbott)

Worship services reflect that pragmatism, and they are distinctly different from those in other religious organizations. Attendees sit in a room where rows of chairs face each other. The walls are bare, and the room contains no decorations with the exception of a large fern sitting in a window. “We meet in silent worship,” said Easter. “Sometimes during our meeting no one speaks. Other times there will be five or six people [who] speak with a message that has come to them during the meeting.”

Unlike most churches, there is not a paid clergy person to lead worship, and there is no pulpit in the meeting room. It is a direct reflection of Quaker beliefs on equality. Worship service attendees “don’t have to go through a minister to be in touch with the Divine,” said Carol Barclay, a member from Wynantskill. Leaders of the meeting and its various committees are called clerks. The clerk of the meeting, the role most similar to a pastor or priest of a church, changes every two years. Members take turns ministering to each other, said McConnell.

Most members were not raised as Quakers. The meeting welcomes outsiders, calling them

Peace pole. (Wade Abbott)

seekers, and invites them to join regardless of their previous religious upbringing and experiences. Anybody is welcome to attend worship services, peace vigils or other activities taking place at the meeting house. Worship services at the meeting house take place Sunday at 11 a.m. Peace vigils occur at the state Capitol from noon to 1 p.m. every Wednesday. More information is available on the meeting’s Web site:

Sitting outside by the peace pole as she waited for a bus, Cinda Putman spoke with passion and humor about Albany Friends Meeting. “We welcome all seekers, even journalists writing about us,” she said.


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