If you drove west on the Chapel Hill-Greensboro Road through Snow Camp, North Carolina on Sunday, November 1, 2020, at about eleven AM, you would have passed a white chapel-looking building on your left. A few cars were parked outside, on the grass under the big old trees, which are shedding their wrinkled brown leaves after a hot green summer.
That was Spring Friends Meeting. From the outside, it looked quiet, secluded, and almost deserted. Easy to miss amid the wooded stretches and dairy farms of southern Alamance county.
But inside, it was none of those. Yes, just a handful of Quakers, or Friends, were sitting, widely-spaced and mostly masked, on its long benches. And they weren’t loud. But a lot was going on.
Pepper spray and guns will do that: liven up what’s meant to be a mostly silent meeting. As will being in national headlines.
Besides, in fact almost twice as many people were “present”; this year Spring has gathered for 30-plus weeks via Zoom, with quite a few weeks likely yet to go.
Zoom makes things different, but most of us are used to it now, and resigned to the likelihood it will be with us for months to come. The many familiar faces on laptop or tablet screens, and the cellphone video view of the much-cherished meetinghouse showed that it’s still Spring. And Zoom extends our reach: several times we have had Friends from Africa “here” too. And for many, including me, who have difficulty getting there, it keeps us connected.
For that matter, while Zoom is new, disruption is not. Spring has been a Quaker meeting since 1761. That’s 259 years, which is ten generations and 13,468 Sundays (called First Day in Quaker jargon).
That’s a lot of weekly meetings for worship, even after subtracting several score for bad weather, various wars, some years of decline — oh, and that earlier pandemic, the one a century ago, when the building was pretty new. This meeting house is the third on their property, across the road from a small cemetery.
Spring once had a pastor, but not anymore. The role of worship leader is now filled by volunteers, and the worship follows a loose, minimal program. Worship leader this First Day was Sarah, a schoolteacher who lives nearby. The monthly routine calls for this first First Day of the month to be mainly “open worship,” which is to say sitting in gathered silence, with no prepared “message,” only what people are moved by the Spirit to share.
Sarah started out asking for announcements (there was only one, about a committee meeting, which I’ve forgotten already); read a short poem, and then moved on to inviting mention of what we call “Joys and Concerns” (“Concerns” being Quaker jargon for sorrows or problems).
That’s when it would have gotten interesting for a newbie. Elizabeth stood to share a Concern; definitely not a joy. It was about a march the day before about voting in the upcoming election. In it 200 or so people, unarmed and peaceful, walked to the Alamance County courthouse in Graham, about fifteen miles north of Spring.
They wanted to encourage early voting (which was happening nearby), remember the lynching of a black reconstruction activist near the courthouse in 1870, and then hear from a relative of George Floyd.
But the marchers were met and stopped near the courthouse by police and a line of sheriff’s deputies, who told them to disperse. When the group hesitated, out came the pepper spray, and a dozen marchers were arrested. Headlines followed.
Among the marchers was Elizabeth’s husband Ron. He wrote about the march experience on Facebook:
While the marchers were peaceful, the Graham Police and Alamance Sheriff’s Department were not. After we stood or kneeled silently for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of George Floyd, and received a prayer for peace and justice, and with scant notice and no significant provocation, some officers deployed pepper spray/teargas on the crowd.
One moment, we are walking down North Main with police and State Highway Patrol escort. The next, we are in Court Square being showered with chemicals. I got a sufficient enough taste of the stuff to know that I don’t care for it.
I wish the GPD [Graham Police Department] would invest as much in a PA system and de-escalation training as they apparently did in these unnecessarily aggressive tactics. It was only after the police/sheriff provocations that some of the march attenders turned vocally (but never physically) belligerent (Several deputies suddenly emerged from inside the courthouse, some brandishing weapons and in riot gear, with gas masks).
The degree of response by the Graham PD and Alamance County Sheriff’s Department was uncalled for, and a sign of the sad state of affairs in our community. I know, for I was there.
Most of us in the meetinghouse, or watching, had heard about the march and the assault on it. None of that was a surprise. Nor was Ron’s presence.
Ron is a mild-mannered polite, law-abiding Quaker, with a strong interest in Quaker and racial history. Through this he has come “under the weight” (Quaker talk) of the need to help lift up the long, mostly ignored history of slavery and racial terror in the Alamance County area, where his family has lived for generations.
We listened to Elizabeth and took in the report, but didn’t discuss it. The march wasn’t Ron’s first foray, nor will it be his last.
We also heard from Dan, who grew up at Spring, about his Quaker family in the area which included an elder who used to sit in the back row near a window, which he propped open, so he could spit tobacco juice out of it during meeting. Dan agreed that this practice would likely be frowned on today, but growing tobacco had long been a part of life around Spring and across Carolina.
Before we settled into “open worship,” Sarah turned to what we call the Children’s Message, which is sometimes a story, sometimes a lesson.
She was prepared for it, she said, even though we had no children with us. There aren’t many at Spring, which is a small group; and they have been even scarcer during these Zoom months.
Sarah was undaunted. She had brought a story to read, she said, which she often read with her students. And under the circumstances, she thought she would read it anyway.
“But whenever I read it,” she said, “I have to explain to my third graders that the story makes me cry. So they shouldn’t be upset, and you shouldn’t be either.”
The book was called Granddaddy’s Gift. It was published in 1998.
It’s about a young Black girl in Mississippi years ago, who tagged along with her farmer Granddaddy Joe Morgan, whenever she could.
One day Granddaddy takes her down to the old courthouse, where he tries to register to vote. The registrar calmly refuses him, says he should stick with what he’s got, and besides there’s a tough test about the Constitution which he couldn’t pass.
His granddaughter doesn’t understand all this, but knows they’ve been rejected and humiliated.
GrandDaddy doesn’t give up, though. A lawyer helps him study the Constitution, and soon he passes the test and gets registered.
Some people don’t like that and harass him, and even burn down the church he goes to. But Granddaddy stays registered, and he votes, and others soon join him.
His granddaughter remembers this, as the years pass and some things change. When she turns eighteen, she walks into the same old courthouse with Granddaddy and registers herself. This time there’s no test, and no one harasses her.
The book’s writing style is calm, almost subdued and doesn’t shout Granddaddy’s closing advice to her that there’s still a long way to go. The illustrations, which Sarah shows us, are vivid, though watching from 30 miles away, I have trouble making them out on my small IPad screen. (Doesn’t matter tho.)
Granddaddy wasn’t famous like Dr. King or John Lewis. Their town had some trouble, but didn’t have a landmark like the Edmund Pettus Bridge to cross. Even so, Granddaddy’s gift of quiet courage was shared by many thousands like him and his granddaughter, in hundreds of towns across America.
And Sarah, true to her word, has to pause her reading it to us and wipe her eyes several times before she finishes the book, and her voice cracks a couple of times too.
When she closes the book, she sniffs and says something about us voting and the big election coming up soon, being careful not to mention any politicians’ names. I only caught part of that, though, because I was wiping my eyes, like all the rest of the superannuated third graders who were listening.
After that, the fifteen or so of us settle into the Quaker quiet, til the hour finishes. While sitting, I wonder how many of the others were like me, mixing up pictures from her book with cell phone images from the Alamance County courthouse. The one showing the little white country church burning sticks with me. Seems as if Granddaddy’s gift is still needed, here at Spring Friends Meeting, in Alamance, and lots of other places too.
Yes, just another gathered First Day meeting (#13,469, or thereabouts) at Spring Friends Meeting. With or without pepper spray or headlines.