Bio of Liz
Liz Ohle is the convener of the local Quaker group. She came to Newfoundland from the USA in 1995 and is delighted to have found her forever home!! Liz had a career as an educator, but in nontraditional places. Teaching carpentry and wilderness skills at summer camp with children, and adults lasted for 25 years, and then she helped develop a unique instructional program at the MUN Medical School for 15 years. The vast majority of her paid work was with not for profit organizations which is reflective of the values she learned in childhood. Liz is now retired from paid work and continues her service by organizing women’s hockey and the Out In Faith group.
My Quaker Journey
Hi everyone, Thank you so much for this opportunity to be with you and share my life journey through a spiritual lens. The last time I stood in front of a church congregation like this I was in High School.
My parents were devoted church-goers, and participated fully in the life of their church. They were very moral and ethical people, and believed that being of service was a high calling. Numerous aspects of their social lives were born out of the church. Women’s service society, potluck dinners, their bridge club all originated in the church. But their specific religious beliefs weren’t part of our family life, except as demonstrated in a few rituals including saying grace before dinner and saying bedtime prayers with my dad when I was young.
For us kids, the church also became a focal point for activity. It wasn’t bible study or prayer services, but a place to hang out with our ‘church’ friends. In fact, as a young person, what mattered to me most were my interactions with my peers. I don’t remember a single sermon, or many Sunday School lessons. But I loved going to church for different activities. I sang in the choir with friends, went to youth group with friends, and we had our own peer conversations about racism, the Vietnam war, the hypocrisy of some church goers, dating, taking on ethical leadership. This is what I valued about church on Sunday morning, Youth Group on Sunday evening, and Choir rehearsal on Wednesday evenings. It was all about spending time with people that were experiencing life at the same stage that I was. We were all grappling with the same issues.
I do recall a few key Sunday School lessons. In High School, we had two guest speakers representing different religions. One was from the Church of Christian Science. We were fascinated by the concept of believing one’s faith strongly enough to pray rather than have medical treatment for illnesses. (My apologies for my limited teenage understanding of the Christian Science religion.)
The other speaker I recall was from another religion I’d never heard of. He talked about having Conscientious Objector status and doing alternative service rather than fighting in the army in Vietnam. I remember that the boys had discussions after that speaker about whether they should join that church. Exactly what did it take to prove that you believed in peace and not war? Was it too late for them to adopt that ‘conviction’ and avoid the draft? This speaker was Quaker.
What impressed me about both of these speakers was that their religion permeated their lives, not just when they were in their church building. They lived with conviction, trying to be true to their religious beliefs. When I think back to that pulpit I spoke from in high school, and the message our youth group often had for the adults, we spoke frankly about the ways it seemed that grown-ups stopped thinking about living a faithful life when they drove out of the parking lot. How could church members call themselves Christian if there was unaddressed poverty or racism or inequality in our city and neighbourhoods?
What was missing for me in my church was a belief system that allowed for questioning, for searching for personal answers to difficult questions, for looking critically at my life and how to bring it in line with my ethical beliefs 24 hours a day. The way the Christian Scientist and the Conscientious Objector spoke about their lives and their faith stuck with me.
Sometimes a journey makes more sense when you look back at its path, rather than following along a specific road to get to a destination. It is in looking back at my early church years that I can see these threads, the seeds that were planted, unbeknownst to me.
Given that conversing with long time church friends was what I loved about church, it is no wonder that when I left home at age 17 to attend university, the new church I went to one Sunday morning was sorely lacking. I didn’t see people there that I could envision as friends. After that one Sunday, I never went back and didn’t feel a spiritual emptiness without church.
The next years at university were filled with all kinds of upheaval, in society and within me. The Vietnam war carried on with all of the associated campus protests, the sexual revolution was in full swing, feminism was unfolding in public demonstrations of bra burning, and I discovered a new definition of relationships and of family within the lesbian community. I fully embraced these ideas and concepts that were so very new to me. My main connection with spirituality at this time was being touched by acts of human compassion and by the miracles I could see when out in nature. I never thought I would be connected with an organized religion again in my life, but it is not surprising that when I did find a church, it was one that had space for all of these new ways of thinking and being.
At the age of 24, I began working at a New England Summer Camp called Farm and Wilderness. My sister was working there and invited me to join her. Somewhere in the application process, I learned it was a Quaker camp, but had no idea what that meant. My sister was pretty cool so I figured that a Quaker camp must be cool. And it was! This began my official Quaker journey. I spent 15 summers at Farm and Wilderness, some of them as director of the girl’s camp. It was about 6 or 8 years before I searched out a Quaker Meeting at home during the nine months between summer camp sessions.
There are a couple different forms of Quaker Worship, but the form most common in North America and Europe is unprogrammed worship. It involves sitting together in silence. We gather together and actually listen to the silence, each person open to the possibility of ‘hearing’ a message with their heart. It could be a message so powerful and insistent that it begs to be shared verbally with the group. In the course of an hour, one or two people might speak such a message. Or it is possible to sit the full hour with no verbal message at all.
In a summer camp with 120 youngsters, there isn’t a lot of sitting perfectly still. And our Meeting circle of benches was outdoors in the spectacular Vermont mountains. Though surrounded by fidgeting and squirming of 9 to 14 year olds, the gathering in the circle was peaceful and powerful. It held a quiet sense of purpose that grew on me. I loved having the daily experience at camp acquaint me with a spiritual practice I have carried with me ever since.
Quakers have no ministers or clergy. All people are equal in the church and everyone is just as likely to ‘receive’ a spiritual message from God and be moved to share the message during Meeting for Worship. Quakers have just one core belief: there is God in every person. It seems so simple, but the implications are enormous. If there is God in everyone, every human life is important and precious. The Peace Testimony of Quakers is born out of the one single belief that there is That of God in Every Person. This is what the Conscientious Objector in my Sunday School class had been talking about, a belief so strong that he could not lift a gun towards another person, even to fight for his country.
There are other implications of this core Quaker belief. Equality of all people. Simplicity in living, Integrity in how we conduct ourselves, Community sharing and caring, and Stewardship of the earth and all material things in our lives.
These 6 characteristics, or as Quakers call them, Testimonies, are not dogmatic beliefs. Each of us finds our way, finds our answers, finds our truth. We determine how we will live our values and other Quakers can ask questions to help us contemplate our choices and decisions. It is very personal and we all choose our own ways of living lives faithful to these Testimonies. Not all Quakers make the same choices, though we do tend to lean in similar directions!
I have mentioned God a few times. Quakerism developed as a Christian faith in the 1600s. I am not a theologian or a historian, but I know that Quakerism has broadened considerably over the centuries. There are now many Quakers who are also Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and Buddhist. Most find that because Meeting for Worship does not include shared prayers, or scriptures, or sermons, it is welcoming of those with other religious beliefs. Many understandings of God are welcome, often referred to as the Spirit or the Light.
I had been part of Quaker communities in 4 cities before I came to Newfoundland in 1995. Without the wonders of the internet and search tools, it took me two years to find the Quaker Meeting here in St. John’s. They had been here for quite a while, meeting in people’s homes, and I was very glad to finally make that connection. As many in that group moved to other provinces, I have had a role in continuing to convene the local group.
Over the past four years, we have been moved to take public action by establishing the Out in Faith group, a multi-faith committee that organizes several annual events for LGBTQ2S+ people of faith, or formerly of faith. These are opportunities to celebrate the meaning of personal faith and also the hardships that have been experienced by many LGBTQ2S+ people in religious settings. We also reach out to local churches to grow the presence of faith groups in the Pride Parade. It is great that Cochrane Street United Church has been in the parade in recent years.
Your work and activities here at Cochrane Street United Church are so important. We all do our part to provide safe and meaningful places for people to come together. And as individuals, finding a place that fills our heart spiritually, and inspires us to be our best selves helps us to live lives of purpose. Finding Quakerism provides that for me
Thank you for this opportunity to share my journey.