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Quakers mark New Year by praying for peace

by Amy Kingsley

Last year during their 4th annual prayer for peace, the members of First Friends Meeting lit candles and walked to the curb where Friendly Avenue meets Whittier Drive. As they prayed for the cessation of world conflict, fireworks burst aggressively overhead. Bob Plain, the event founder, said the explosions were a harbinger of things to come.

So the group met again this year for the fifth time to pray for peace in the world and at home, and they did so for a marathon 25 hours from 11 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2006 to noon on Jan. 1, 2007. The meeting held three services, the first of which kicked off the event.

Special guests Shirley and Henry Frye, the latter the first African-American justice on the NC Supreme Court, delivered a message titled “Of Visions and Dreams: A World at Peace Beginning with Me.” Before that, the congregation sang and worshipped silently in the manner of friends. Quakers traditionally hold silent, unstructured meetings where worshippers speak only when moved by God.

The Fryes, members of Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro, are among the city’s most prominent citizens.

“The Fryes are truly strong souls and gentle spirits,” Plain said.

Peace is one of the major Quaker testimonies, and commitment to it has defined the historically pacifist society since its founding in the 17th century. The scripture for the peace sermon included Joel 3: 9-10, which describes preparations for war, and Micah 4:1-5, in which weapons are transformed into farming tools.

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,” Shirley Frye read. “Neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.”

Then Henry Frye took the podium to dissect the meaning of the word that brought everyone together.

“What is peace?” he asked. “The word peace has many different meanings. There is freedom from war, freedom for conflict and an undisturbed state of mind – serenity.”

First Friends Meeting’s 24-hour prayer for peace is open to members of all faith traditions. Pastor Deborah Seuss held services at 11 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 11 a.m. on Jan. 1. In between, the congregants celebrated with simple foods like cider and soup.

The doors of the rustic church remained open in between services for those inspired to pray for peace in 2007. In his ruminations on war, Henry Frye reflected on World War II, which broke out when he was a boy.

“From the stories that came back from those battlefields, most people agreed with the person who said, ‘War is hell,'” he said. “World War III has not occurred, and for that we are thankful. But to say there has been peace would be to ignore reality.”

Frye encouraged his audience to not only work for peace in their personal lives, but also to support politicians and public servants who vote in favor of peaceful and just initiatives. He told church members to write to their representatives in the next year, particularly to praise good decisions.

In speaking of his own experience, Henry Frye encouraged audience members to also think locally.

“Let us continue to pray for peace in Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan and Somalia,” he said, “but let us also pray for peace in Greensboro.”

Plain planned the first 24-hour prayer for peace after Sept. 11, 2001 as a response to US military operations in Afghanistan. Only half a dozen people attended the first event; many others that were interested were put off by its political nature.

“What we found is that protests don’t last,” Plain said.

During the next couple of years Plain and the members of First Friends transformed the event into something more inclusive where adherents of all faiths could explore their own paths to peace. He also started inviting leaders from other area churches to participate in the event. The Fryes participated this year, and members of other Quaker meetings and the United Church of Christ have gathered at First Friends over the years.

During the past five years the event has become more than just an opportunity to focus on peace; it is an annual event that draws the diverse strains of Greensboro’s Quaker community together. Cheryl Bridges, the pastor of New Garden Friends Meeting, conducted the midnight service, which was attended by members of both congregations.

At about 12:40 a.m. the congregants filed into a basement recreation room where greeters poured apple cider and cut gingerbread. Peace cranes, origami birds that memorialized victims of the United States’ atomic attacks on Japan, decorated folding tables.

Val Vickers, the head of the church’s Peace Working Group, said the prayer tradition represented hope.

“All these things – conflict, abuse, tension and violence – we don’t have to live with them next year,” she said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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