Progress 2018: Chesterhill Quakers lean on quiet reflection, traditions

By Joy Frank-Collins

Special to the Times

Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. a small group of people enter a meeting house along Ohio 555 in Chesterhill and sit in silent contemplation, waiting for the Lord to speak.

“Sometimes we will sit for an hour in silence, sometimes we’ll have something to say to each other,” said Bob Rothwell.

Rothwell and his wife, Kathleen, are Quakers and they worship at the Chesterfield Meeting House along with six to eight other “Friends” as they are also known, in the same building Quakers constructed in 1839. In total the meeting has about 15 members, some of whom commute from Columbus for occasional worship.

According to Richard Wetzel, another member of the Friends, the Quaker movement was founded in England in the middle of the 17th century by preacher George Fox. While William Penn ranks among the most prominent and well-known leaders of the religion, Margaret Fell also played a large role in forming and reforming the movement.

Quakers are Christians and revere the Old and New Testaments, Wetzel said, and while they respect the beliefs and rituals of others, they adhere to their own traditions and customs, which sway far from the common concept of a religious service.

“Worship at Chesterfield (the Quakers kept the original name) is un-programmed. Attendees speak, pray, sing, or read scripture as they are led by the Spirit,” Wetzel said. “Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone, and they do not employ a preacher.”

Meetings are not led by any one person in particular and do not follow any pre-determined guidelines.

Instead, they enter their meeting house, they do not call the building a church, sit quietly, and center down (put worldly things aside) and “wait for the Spirit to speak to them,” Wetzel said.

He’s been a member for around 20 years and joined after taking a “step back from ‘organized religion,'” he said. “I needed time for quiet reflection.”

The Rothwells joined in 2000, after stepping away from religion all together, said Bob Rothwell, who was raised Catholic. It wasn’t planned, their drifting away from religion, he said, it was just something that happened as their lives got busy with work and their children. A rough patch brought them back to God and to the Friends, he said.

“We were going through a crisis in our lives and felt that maybe we needed to go back,” he said.

A friend, who was a “birthright Quaker” brought them to the Chesterfield meeting.

Quakers are known as pacifists and “treasure what they call the peace testimony,” Wetzel said.

“Some families in the Quaker Meeting had relatives who were conscientious objectors in recent wars,” he added.

While Rothwell embraces the concept, he served as a Navy corpsman and Marine medic during the Vietnam War. His and Kathleen’s son also served in the military in Afghanistan.

“If I had been a Quaker at the time I signed up I don’t know if I could have served,” he said. “But I don’t think that the meeting would condemn someone for not being a conscientious objector.”

At 72, he came to the church later in life, but the fit was easy.

“I guess a lot of my personal philosophy fit the Quaker way, it was an easy transition for me, I didn’t have to adjust my way of thinking,” he said.

It wasn’t a hard transition for Wetzel, either.

“I believe in Quaker principles regarding peace, gender and racial equality,” he said.

Aside from their views on conflict, the Chesterfield Quakers stress simplicity in all things, but do not do so in ways that call attention to themselves.

They encourage life-long education, support the arts, work for equality among people of all creeds, colors and races, and they have a deep respect for nature, all creatures, and the environment, Wetzel explained.

Additionally, early Quakers were abolitionists and the Chesterfield meeting was a “station” on the Underground Railroad. Recently, the Chesterfield Quakers contributed toward establishing the Multicultural Genealogical Center of Chesterhill on the corner of Marion Street and Ohio 555. The center preserves records and histories of African American families in the area, Wetzel said. Members of the center host meetings to conduct business, share family histories and to hear guest speakers.

For several years before the MCC had its own building, it met in the Chesterfield Quaker Meeting House, he added.

Another misconception about Quakers is that they are very staid and stoic in their worship. While meetings are time for silent reflection, the meeting gathers at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month for a hymn sing, Rothwell said.

Wetzel, an accomplished pianist, accompanies the singers on the baby grand housed in Chesterfield Meeting house.

Rothwell laughed that traditional Quakers might raise a few eyebrows at that.

“We have a good time,” he said. “It may not mesh with the Quaker way of life, but we’re able to enjoy each other’s company while still following the tenants of our religion.”

The Chesterfield Quakers Meeting for Worship is held each First Day (Sunday) at 10:30 a.m. at the building on Ohio 555. Lunch is shared following the meeting.

Visitors are warmly welcomed.