Simple folk, big-deal building

TERRY FOSS Chestnut Hill's Quakers and their artistically noteworthy new digs
TERRY FOSS Chestnut Hill's Quakers and their artistically noteworthy new digs
Posted: October 21, 2013

A NEW QUAKER meetinghouse doesn't come around every day. In Philadelphia, it's been more than 80 years.

So even without its very big deal art world connection, the new Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse on Mermaid Lane (it's one lot down from the old one) would be noteworthy.

The artsy big deal is the building's "skyspace," a retractable skylight that's designed as one of contemporary light artist James Turrell's "groundbreaking explorations of perception, light, color and space."

We borrowed that description from the Guggenheim Museum, another noteworthy building that has hosted one of Turrell's skyspace installations recently. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, also has a Turrell skyspace in its collection.

The Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting is inviting everyone to come experience its building's subtle show of L.E.D.-enhanced color and light at sunrise and sunset every day this week, weather permitting, starting Sunday. (Bring a jacket - the retractable roof hatch opens completely to the sky.)

A few things you might like to know about the congregation and the Quaker faith before you go:

Who we are: The Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting was founded in 1924 - old by some standards but a relative newcomer in Quaker terms. Societies of Friends have been meeting in Old City, for instance, since 1684.

The Chestnut Hill congregation has about 200 members. (Full disclosure: Daily News editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson and her family are congregants, and are among the driving forces behind the new building and its skyspace.)

Where we worship: The meetinghouse is at 20 E. Mermaid Lane. The weekly Sunday meeting for worship is at 10:30 a.m. (No skyspace activity during worship.) After this week's grand opening, the skyspace will open for sunrise viewing Tuesdays and Thursdays and for sunset viewing Tuesdays and Sundays, weather permitting. Reservations at

How we worship: Like many Quaker congregations, the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting doesn't have a pastor or a liturgy. Congregants sit together in silence, in sections of pews that face each other, waiting expectantly for what they call a "Spirit-led message" to enter their hearts.

To some, the divinity sending the message is God, while others think of the sender as Christ, the Light Within, the Inward Teacher or something else along those lines. Anyone who feels strongly moved can stand and share a message out loud, although an entire hour-long meeting for worship can also pass in total silence.

At last Sunday's gathering, five people shared brief messages over the course of the hour.

What we're known for: "We've got a history of being welcoming," said Meg Mitchell, the member now serving as the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting's administrator (always a temporary post).

In the 1930s, the Chestnut Hill Friends opened their doors to Jewish refugees. In the 1980s, they hosted families fleeing civil war in El Salvador.

Since the 1990s, they've been part of the Hospitality Network, an interfaith effort to shelter homeless families temporarily in places of worship. "We don't want people to be sleeping in church basements," Mitchell said, "but it's better than the alternative."

What we believe: Some Quakers believe in heaven and hell, others don't. Some read the Bible, others don't. Most but not all are pacifists. In daily life, some of the main Quaker values - Quakers call them "testimonies" - are equality, peace, integrity, community and care for the earth.

Many Quakers are Christian, but others aren't. You can hold Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other beliefs and also be a Quaker, although Mitchell said you can't join the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting unless you give up membership in that other faith.

God is ... Within us all, as Quakers see it. They believe the "inner light" can speak directly to each person - no pastor necessary.

Quakers don't have sacramental ceremonies like baptism and communion, although they do celebrate weddings and mourn together at funerals.

Big moral issue we grapple with: One that's been persistent at the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, Mitchell said, is the question of "how much of our resources to use for the well-being of our community, and how much to use for the well-being of the world."

Quaker census: At last count, there were roughly 90,000 Quakers in the United States.

Quaker consensus: At congregational business meetings, votes are not tallied. Rather, there's a give-and-take until participants come to what feels like a satisfying consensus. "Sometimes we know right away," Mitchell said. "Sometimes we say, 'We have to give this another month.' "

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