by Carol Graffeo
What impact does silence have in a modern-day worship space? At the Birmingham Quaker meetinghouse, silence plays an integral role in the overall worship experience. Located in Avondale, a gentrifying neighborhood east of downtown Birmingham, the Birmingham Friends Meeting seeks to promote peace and reconciliation.
The Birmingham Friends: A Brief History
The Birmingham Friends began meeting regularly in September 1973, according to a historical essay by Johnathan Harwell. Until May 2000, the group met in various secular buildings, including the Downtown YMCA building, and the Girls Incorporated building in Crestwood. After raising funds for twenty-three years, the Friends moved to their current location in Avondale (4413 Fifth Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35222). The house is documented as part of the Avondale Park Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places as a two house structure built around 1900 with a “front facing gable roof…[a] single leaf entrance, [and a] full width wraparound hipped roof porch supported by classical boxed columns” (p. 37).
Avondale was an attractive neighborhood for the Friends because it was affordable, racially diverse, centrally located, and within the city of Birmingham. The Birmingham Friends are a group of non-creedal families and individuals that meet for an unprogrammed and silent worship hour each week. Business meetings are conducted once a month. The Birmingham Friends Meeting is associated with the Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association and through it with the Friends General Conference. As Avondale continues to evolve, the Birmingham Friends plan to stay rooted and involved in promoting peace, simplicity, and social justice.
A Quaker Service: What to Expect
At this meetinghouse, the Friends meet for a Silent Hour each Sunday at 10:00 am. This hour consists of silent prayer, meditation, quiet reading, or simple contemplation. The focus of the worship itself is found in the silence. If a Friend feels called by the Inner Light, they might stand up and speak to the meeting. These speakers are unplanned and the entire service is unprogrammed, so each week differs in terms of the number of Friends standing and sharing. After the Silent Hour concludes, there is a time for community announcements and light refreshments in the kitchen. Friends supply the refreshments and prepare for their weekly forum discussion. In the following hour, a Friend or a member of the community speaks about a current event or topic of interest, similarly to an informal and interactive lecture. Friends are encouraged to contribute and engage in asking questions and interacting with the speaker in the close-knit meeting space. After this hour of discussion time, Friends are welcome to stay at the house and chat or go along with their day.
A History of Quakerism
Quakerism traces its beginnings to England in the 1640s during their Civil War as a movement to reform the Church of England. In the 17th century, Quakerism spread throughout England and into North America. A key leader within this Quaker movement was George Fox. In 1647, Fox had a supernatural experience where he heard the words “There is One, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.” After hearing these words, Fox discovered his Inner Light as an interior voice that offers essential authority and wisdom. After this revelation, Fox began spreading his Inner Light message to his English community, declaring that ultimate authority does not come from outside powers, but within one’s own heart. For Quakers, God speaks not from a source of authority, but from the voice and Light within. For modern-day Quakers, George Fox’s revelation and legacy lives on, as Friends seek to lead lives based in peace and reconciliation. This goal is evident in the mission of the Birmingham Friends Meeting: “To nurture spiritual growth within our community, and to foster our Quaker values of peace, justice, equality, simplicity, integrity, and care for the environment within the larger community of Birmingham, Alabama, the Nation, and the World” (Birmingham Friends Bulletin 2019).
For more information about the Quaker movement and its presence in the world today, visit: https://quakerspeak.com/popular/
Opportunities and Resources at Birmingham Friends
Outside of the meeting space, the Friends provide a community library, bookstore, and an outdoor library station. These resources are for Friends and members of the Avondale community alike.
For more information regarding projects, worship times, and Quaker resources, visit: https://www.fgcquaker.org/cloud/birmingham-al-friends-meeting
The power of silence in a hurried and noisy world
The Birmingham Friends Meeting is the only Quaker meeting in the Birmingham area. Open to friends from all paths of life, lifestyles, and doctrines, silence is element that unifies this religious group. As the main form of worship, Birmingham Quakers seek to experience God (or, the Light) in the realm of silence. In an urbanized and quickly evolving modern community, quieting one’s heart and mind is increasingly important and challenging. For these Birmingham Friends, silence is the powerful and life-changing link to experience God’s presence and wisdom, and they pursue this form of worship each week. For more information about Quakerism and the Birmingham Friends, see the additional links and information below.
Birmingham Friends Meeting
Address: 4413 5th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35222
Congregation Organized: 1973
Current Site Opened: 2000
Affiliation: Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association of the Religious Society of Friends
Hamm, Thomas D. 2003. The Quakers in America. New York: Columbia University Press.
Harwell, Johnathan H. 2004. “Birmingham (AL) Friends Meeting- History.” General Website. Friends General Conference. 2004. https://www.fgcquaker.org/cloud/birmingham-al-friends-meeting/pages/history.
“Alabama SP Avondale Park Historic District.” 1998. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. National Archives Catalog. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/77836496.
Watts, Jon. 2019. “QuakerSpeak – A Quaker Video Project by Friends Journal.” Friends Publishing Corporation. QuakerSpeak. 2019. https://quakerspeak.com/.
Carol Graffeo ’20 is an English and religion double-major in Samford University’s Howard College of Arts & Sciences.
Published October 31, 2019