Profiles of Quakers

The Religious Society of Friends of Pittsburgh
4836 Ellsworth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Map to Meeting House

There are many interesting Friends (Quakers) in Pittsburgh Friends Meeting.

This is a beginning at spreading some of their stories.

Debby Hollingshead

You grew up in a Quaker family. How do you feel that has changed your life?

Debby HollingsheadThere is a common cultural expectation that church includes a minister and some ceremony, this is completely foreign to me. The model is used in a lot of cultural events and I just don’t relate.
I also grew up with the concept that religion is about seeking. I think many religions are about answering. In Quakerism, you have to figure out your beliefs for yourself. That is different from where a lot of vocal people of faith come from. Of course, not having been both Quaker and “not Quaker,” I may not even know what the differences are.

Formative Experience

I thought of an experience which really had a profound impact on how I approached the world spiritually, and other people and things that are going on around me, was foster parenting a special needs pre-teen for the year-and-a-half to two years that he was living with us. It was certainly transformative. It's hard to put words to the ways that I changed from that experience but I feel that it really changed the ways I deal with difficult situations.
I may have a story to tell other prospective foster parents but I never figured out the words to start. To start to put it into words is to open myself up to misinterpretation, so I don’t.

The Best Thing I Ever Did

The best thing I ever did was decide to be a parent. And in general, parenting has been a transformative experience, and an awakening, and a positive experience. Parenting Milton was one kind of experience, and parenting Emmet has been a different kind of experience, very positive in a lot of ways.
My father said that you grow through your kids. I see that - the experiences you are opened up to, coordinating whatever is going on for your kids, brings you in contact with so many different people, things you might not have done, people you might not have met otherwise.

Quakerism in Daily Life

I am more conscious of listening. The social norm is that people don't listen very well. It's very common to interrupt and talk over each other and really just be intent on getting your own point out there, not listening to other peoples' points of view. I think that being raised Quaker and being involved in Quakerism helps me to understand the importance of listening to all the points of view. I am often the person who can listen to two people in a meeting when they're not really talking about the same thing but think they are. I'm usually the person who can see that and explain it to them so they can coordinate their thoughts..

All Quaker world - How Would It Be Different?

I think it would be more boring. Certain things would take a really long time to get done. Theoretically disagreements would be negotiated to a more equitable solution for all involved. I don't know if human nature allows for that to happen because certainly in Quaker meeting there are times when things don't really go according to our theory, and people walk out feeling they haven't been heard or somehow have been stomped on.
There are things in this world that are very difficult to work out through Quaker process. But I also think the world is aided by the variety of points of view.

Why is Quakerism so Unpopular?

What makes you say it is unpopular?

We're not very good at advertising ourselves. There are a lot of people I talk to who are very interested in Quakerism, they don't know much about it. They say they might come by, but I never see them turn up at the meeting. A lot of that comes back to that issue that Quakerism is for seekers, and a lot of other religions are for finders. When I had recently graduated from college and was on a bus in Boston, a guy struck up a conversation. He was in ministry of some sort, I don't know what kind of church, but we got into religion pretty quickly. I was telling him about my religion and the Queries, and the fact that we have guidelines and then you figure it out on your own. You're discerning your own path, what the spirit is leading you to do, it's not really your path, but you're discerning things individually. His response was "Oh, I wouldn't like that, I like my religion to tell me what to do."
I think that's it. People want their religion to be very clear. "If you believe this, everything's OK." "If you do this, engage in this series of activities, you're going to be fine." There's a lot of uncertainty in Quakerism.
What Attracts You to Quakerism?

Being raised a Quaker and having the idea of a minister be so foreign to me means that any other religion would feel very uncomfortable. I like that being active in Meeting brings me into contact with people with whom I share a basic understanding. It creates a social network of those people. I don't work with any Quakers. I don't have contact with people with the same idea of our place in the world, our spirituality, our faith.


My parents and grandparents. My mother is still in touch with someone she was in middle school with. She has this way of keeping up with people. I admire that but somehow it just doesn't happen for me. They have been active as Friends, had a large impact on a variety of social service and political organizations over time. Both sets of grandparents had similar ways in the world, they came together on that. I know I have other heroes and heroines but I can't think who they are right now.

Is There Something You'd Like To Do Over?

High school. I liked Westtown, certainly better than public school, intellectually and socially, but I was struggling with issues of sexuality at that time. I had some rough times with it.
If you don't have any hard times you don't learn anything.
Sometimes I wish I could go back as a 50 something mentor to my teen self and give her a little bit of smarts to approach things a little better there.
Everything else has been good -- I've been very lucky in life.

What Do You Like Best About Pittsburgh Friends Meeting?

I like the size of Pittsburgh Friends Meeting and the sense of family that I have gotten from here. I know others have come as first-time attenders and had difficulty fitting in. But the first time I came to meeting I got involved in a discussion with Lila Cornell and Diana Forsythe about something with the ministry. That was a connection with people with a similar world view. That was part of it. And feeling very much welcomed and part of the group fairly quickly.
The size of it - it's big enough to have a diversity of opinions and it's the only meeting for miles around so you have to figure it out. But it's small enough you do get to know those people with different viewpoints. In a really big meeting you might only talk to the people with same views.
As a recent college grad, I was living in Boston, and I tried both Beacon Hill Friends Meeting and Cambridge Meeting at different times. Part of it was I wasn't really ready to go to meeting. But Beacon Hill had like 5 friends every week and maybe 3-4 visitors, and it was all too small to feel like you could break in and meet people. If you stood around not talking to people, you felt like you stood out like a sore thumb.
And Cambridge was just enormous. There must have been 200 people or more in the meeting room. It was the opposite problem. You weren't talking to anybody and nobody noticed, because they were running around, they had some kind of project going and everybody was involved. You were left standing wondering how to get into things or who to talk to.
With Pittsburgh, it just fit.

What Other Groups Are You Active In?

AFSC - and that's Scilla's fault, entirely! Peripherally, various soccer groups, to support Emmet, drive him around, school soccer teams I did some stuff for, some professional organizations, but really AFSC and meeting takes up pretty much all the time there is.

Essential Quakerism

The concept of the light within and continuing revelation. And everything else that follows. If you really believe that, then this other stuff has to follow. That's the core of it.
The seeking, if you really believe that each individual can be in touch with the divine -- and I think it's an important distinction to say that each individual CAN be in touch with the divine, it doesn't mean you ARE. Just because you're doing something it doesn't mean it's divine, it could be something that you want to do.
If you believe in that, then from that follows the Quaker decision-making process, meeting for worship without ministers, volunteer congregation-based no-paid-ministry pastoral care, running the meeting ourselves, it all follows from that beginning premise.
I think it's something that gets skewed. There's a lot of people who come to Quakerism who think it means "anything goes." I think it doesn't. I am coming to a better understanding of the concept of group discernment and testing in our meeting. We have gone to a very individualistic place of Quakerism. What I was raised with was the sense that internally you test your own leadings. I've done a lot of that. I don't bring in other people very often. But I think there's an important place for testing your leadings with members of your community and getting the hard questions asked.
It's a really hard thing to do because people don't want to ask you the hard questions. That's important. People should use discernment committees and clearness committees more than they do. One of the problems is that when I ask for a committee, by the time it gets formed, I've made my own mind up. So even though they ask the hard questions I'm not really likely to change my mind.
That's the key to it.

Do You Believe in Jesus?

Not as God, but probably as a historic figure.
I did not have very good Bible training. First Day School concentrated on other things. I know the basics of the stories. My background is not heavy on Christianity with Christ and Jesus as God.
Obviously somebody was around. There was some movement that changed the world. Christianity is so big. I don't know what parts of that story are true. There was obviously something that happened 2000 some years ago that changed the way people were viewing religion and the world and community. I don't think Jesus was God any more than anybody else. Everybody has something of the divine and has continuing revelation. Assuming Jesus was one person, he was really good at that, good at speaking and passing along his insights.
I think that a lot of people who say they actually believe in Jesus are pretty far from what was the pivotal changing concept that Christianity began. When you look at the Old Testament - New Testament difference, the Old Testament was about community survival at the expense of anybody who couldn't keep up. In the nomadic tribe, if somebody can't keep up, we'll just leave them be and the tribe will go on. The shift for Christianity was more about an inclusive community and finding a way to take care of the people who can't go along. The tribe will stop and rest for a few days in this place while the person tries to get better.
There's a balance there.
Modern Christians seem to have a more Old Testament view. "If you don't believe what I believe, I'm going to ..."
Not all of them. I've heard stories of right-wing Christians whose rhetoric is very exclusive and yet whose actions are very inclusive. I've also seen the opposite. A new friend told me about somebody who was supposedly moving toward Christianity and refused to help my friend in a way that was very very hurtful. They had been friends for a number of years. My friend said "Jesus would have helped." The woman turned to her and said, "No he wouldn't have." But yeah, he would have! This was about including and caring, so that's really gotten lost. It's strange how language and people do that.

If You Could Talk to Any Historical Person Who Would It Be?

Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was a kid, I loved those books. Grew up in the country and thought that I wanted to be Laura Ingalls.
I would have loved to sit down and find out how much was embellished and what other stories she'd have. Let me try on her bonnet. I've tried to make so many bonnets.

What Is A Central Principle of Your Life?

I would go back to the listening. To strive to listen to what other people have to say, and to apply it to myself. And listen to myself. To strive to understand myself, to know myself, so I can identify what's really motivating me when I get upset. And listen to when I rile somebody, to hear what it really is I've done and be up front about taking responsibility for that and trying to adjust my behavior. After all, mine is the only behavior I have any control over.

Jo Schlesinger

JoMy first exposure to Quakers was my participation in an AFSC program at age 15. I, along with others teens from the Pittsburgh area, traveled by bus to Decoy, Kentucky in Appalachia. We taught literacy skills while the adults installed plumbing. I was instantly drawn to these folk-singing, “simple” people who seemed committed to the common good.

My parents were secular Jews and heavily involved in social activism. My mother volunteered with the UN Association, the League of Women Voters, and many peace-related organizations. My father was the Judge of Elections in his voting district for over 40 years and president of Shadyside Action Coalition. There was a family ethic of standing up and giving back.

As I grew up, I was involved in the anti-war movement (my first husband was a Conscience Objector) and then with reproductive justice. I was involved in many anti-war demonstrations and escorted patients at local women’s health clinics.

My retirement three years ago released a flood of energy to pursue my leadings. My current work is as the Western PA Community Organizer with the Coalition for Peace Action. I’ve recently worked on nuclear disarmament and war prevention legislation and advocacy. Being able to partner with FCNL and AFSC, while being able to live out my testimonies for peace and social justice, has allows me to experience my life as congruent.

I value the egalitarian structure of Meeting and the community of people who are drawn to it. I relate strongly to the queries, testimonies and the Inner Light. In 2006 I contributed to Godless for God’s Sake, a book on contemporary non-theism which allowed me to explore my faith more fully. I am continually grateful for the way Meeting allows for growth through the Clearness process, participation in committee work, and support of involvement with Quaker organizations.

Long before I entered into the Meeting room for Worship, I danced in its space (International and English Country Dancing have used the Meeting room for over 30 years). I realized that in addition to Silence, singing and dancing recharge and deepen my connection with Spirit. As I continue evolving, I continue “seeking” and am happy to have found a spiritual home at Pittsburgh Meeting.

[Jo has 2 sons Noah (37) and Jacob (34) and a husband, Allan
Willinger, who attends Trenton (NJ) Meeting.]

EricEric Starbuck Profile

How did you come to Quakerism?

I grew up in a Quaker family. My father was born and mother convinced. She brought a great deal of culture to our family - music, literature. I have rich memories of singing, piano and other instruments, and records (predating CD or tape).

Dad brought a quietness and dedication to anti-racism. He made it a point to befriend blacks in the small town where I grew up.

I stopped going to meeting as a teen but started again as an adult. It met a need.

What was one of your formative experiences?

I went to Olney Friends School in my teens. It was paradise. I was closer to people than ever before, living in a dormitory. I felt more acceptance there than anywhere else. After graduation, went looking for a similar community. Pittsburgh came closer than most.

What is the best thing you ever did?

My older sister was brain-damaged at birth. She couldn't walk or talk - knew a dozen words, maybe. One day I got mad at her and decided to experiment. Through trial-and-error, I learned what she found funny. I was able to make her laugh pretty much whenever I wanted. It was the first time I chose to do the work to love someone well.

How does Quakerism affect your daily life?

I once gave a talk about Quakerism to some Lutherans. One fellow asked, "Don't you wish you had someone to answer the tough questions for you?" I was shocked, and to gain time, asked if anyone else had an answer for that. Another fellow tried: "It's important to work things out for yourself." The original fellow thought that was uncomfortable and difficult. However, I feel more comfortable thinking about God and evil and my own motives. Better and more fitting answers that way.

How would the world change if everyone was Quaker?

I don't think it would change much. Humans are human. Quakers concentrate on the light, but the dark is still there. Most people are pretty good, but there are bad apples, and always will be. Everything balances. Your habits, life choices, and luck will give you more of the light or dark at various times.

Why is Quakerism so unpopular?

It's difficult! An hour of silence is impossible for lots of people. To enjoy it takes something special. Our style doesn't suit many people. And some people want an authority to tell them what to do. Many find it uncomfortable to examine their own lives and morals and choose what's good and what's not.

What attracts you to Quakerism the most?

It's a good community where I am accepted. My skills are of value. It gives a rhythm to the week that is important to me.

Who are some of your heroes or heroines? Why?

Theodore Sturgeon wrote books about being more fully human. So do Emma Bull and Nancy Springer. Try Sturgeon's More Than Human or Dreaming Jewels. Bull's War for the Oaks and Springer's Larque on the Wing are fascinating stories which show different ways to be deeply human.

If there is one thing in your life you could do over, what would it be?

Marrying. I wasn't ready at the time. May not yet be ready, but closer than before. I have a better balance now than when I tried before. Some of the lessons have been learned.

What do you like most about Pittsburgh Friends Meeting?

Good people doing good things. A Community which accepts me. Opportunities to help in ways that suit me.

Do you feel a person must believe in Jesus? Why or why not?

No. He may be a son of God, but so am I, and so are you. We may not be as inspired, but similar insights are available to us.

I have experienced "openings" like George Fox, and so have you. I think it's part of the human condition. We grow and change. Or choose to avoid it, and that's one way to do evil.

What is one of the principles you live by?

Balance. If I get angry at something someone did, 90% of the time it's really anger at myself for doing that. If I can acknowledge such projections and forgive others their peccadillos, it feels much better. I also accept leadings when I can discern them. How many beliefs have methods for testing God's will? The tests I have learned from Quakerism have come in handy many times.

Profile of Brian MacWhinney

Brian, A Weighty Friend

How did you come to Quakerism?

When I was a child in second grade in Riverside, California, my father decided to attend Friends' Meeting. My father, coming from an Irish Protestant background, had been brought up in the Presbyterian church. But he said that the Presbyterians did not reflect his views. The Meeting in Riverside was quite small, with about six members coming from the nearby town of Redlands and six from Riverside. It was clerked by a friendly, solid fellow named Mr. Chapman. For many years, my sister and I were the only children in Meeting, but we were good children and enjoyed the silence. The other occasional child visitors were Mimi Baez, who was close to our age and sometimes her older sister Joan. After several years, the Meeting decided that, when we met in Riverside it made sense for my sister and me to join with other children and young people in the Unitarian-Universalist congregation that met in a church only a minute away from where the Friends met. In some ways, this took me away from Quakerism. But, when I reached teen-age, there were more programs in the larger area for youth and I joined in Friends youth group meetings in Pasadena and eventually a six-week summer trip with young Friends to Hawaii. That was quite an experience. We stayed in old Army Quanset huts outside Hanalei on Kauai, caught fish in nets, made poi, climbed rainy mountains, and helped the locals prepare a luau. And we had lots of silent meetings.

What was one of your formative experiences?

The trip with young Friends to Hawaii was certainly a formative experience. But I don't think there was ever one particular moment in which I felt that I was suddenly converted to Quakerism. It just seemed natural that I would be a Quaker, given my acceptance of Quaker practice.

What is the best thing you ever did?

Once I decided to take a hiking trip for about 4 days on my own through the Sierra. I guess it was a bit foolhardy to hike alone, but I must say I enjoyed it. It made me feel as if I was following in the steps of John Muir.

How does Quakerism affect your daily life?

Above all, Quakerism helps me to keep things in perspective and to seek out the inner light in everyone. I don't do a fantastically good job of this, but I try.

How would the world change if everyone was Quaker?

I think sometimes that it is too bad that this did not happen four centuries ago. I think that Quakers would have never allowed the ongoing wars and the destruction of the planet. I hope it is not too late.

Why is Quakerism so unpopular?

I believe that humans are evolutionarily adapted to work in social groups that are organized for war against their neighbors. This is a sad fact of Darwinian selection. These groups organize through charismatic leaders that tell stories about another world and solidify their religion and belief through chant, dance, drama, myth, and song. We Quakers maintain the belief in something else, which we call the light, but we make no use of all these other pieces of the religious package. This is a great strength in terms of purity, but it makes Quakerism much less accessible. In this sense, it compares with Zen Buddhism, although it has a much stronger social message.

What attracts you to Quakerism the most?

For me, the most important aspect of Quakerism is the linkage of meditation to the social group. I believe that silent worship along with vocal ministry allows us all to sense the importance of our collective spiritual strivings.

Who are some of your heroes or heroines? Why?

My top hero is the Greek Aristarchus who figured out the planetary movements and measured the distance to the Sun with some accuracy. His work was basically ignored, but it was great. As an academic who avoids pushing my own ideas onto others, I admire those academics who pursue the truth without regard to the fashionableness of their findings.

If there is one thing in your life you could do over, what would it be?

I can't see any major thing I would do over. Every path has myriad unknown consequences. In the end, life is the path itself. But I would say that it was a mistake not to wear better respirator equipment when I tore down the old lathe loaded with coal dust in my basement ceiling. My lungs cleared out finally, but perhaps I should have been more careful.

What do you like most about Pittsburgh Friends Meeting?

I like the people. And it is great to have a reliable meeting house that is so accessible.

In what other groups are you active?

I am a typical over-committed academic who spends long days working and lots of time at conferences and meetings. I had been active in the Democratic Party for some years, but a bit less so now.

What is the most essential thing about Quakerism?

The most essential thing is the way in which it joins meditation with active social commitment.

Do you feel a person must believe in Jesus? Why or why not?

I think we have to respect all of the great teachers. Jesus lived at a very difficult time and was forced to make difficult choices in ways that I would not have done, but he left a great legacy of truth and love. I worry sometimes, however, about the idea that believing in him will set brother against brother. For me, that is too Old Testament and I wonder if Jesus himself ever said this.

If you could talk to any historical person for an hour, who would you pick?

It would be a choice between Jesus and Aristarchus.

What is one of the principles you live by?

My personal goal is to produce new methods for understanding how people share ideas in conversation. I view this goal as driven by my Quaker beliefs.

Tell me about the best thing you ever witnessed.

Bolts of lightning striking around me in a pass in the Sierra Nevada.

Rosemary and grandchildren

Profile of Rosemary Coffey

I'm not a birthright Friend in the traditional sense, but I've never been anything else. In the fall of the year when I was 10 years old, my mother started taking my two younger brothers and me on alternate First Days to the Scarsdale (NY) Friends Meeting, which at that time met in the Girl Scout House not far from our home. On the other Sundays we attended the local Unitarian Church in a nearby town. By spring, Mom had decided in favor of the Quakers, and we were all admitted as members.

Being a Quaker has affected my life in many ways. I take the testimonies seriously, to the point where I have led workshops at the FGC Gathering on the testimonies for many years. The testimony on Equality was a part of my decision to adopt a mixed-race child; that on Peace, an impetus to work to resolve conflicts in my family and neighborhood; that on Justice, the rationale for my support of many charitable organizations through the years. I was lucky, perhaps, in that I never wanted "things" with any passion, so I have always been glad to donate time and money to causes I believe in. At the present time, I serve on our local House and Personnel and Building Use committees, plus the Publications and Archives Committee of Lake Erie Yearly Meeting (as clerk, which means also serving on the Executive Committee); Finance Committee of Friends World Committee for Consultation (as clerk); the Board of Right Sharing of World Resources (as recording clerk, which means also serving on the Executive Committee and the Search Committee for a new General Secretary); and the Board of Global Solutions Pittsburgh (along with two of its committees). I've finally bought a telephone with a speakerphone option in order to be able to take minutes comfortably during myriad conference calls!

One of the appeals of Quakerism to me is its diversity of beliefs within a commitment to action. I find the admonition to "let our lives speak" to be very meaningful. I truly don't care if one believes in God, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or the Easter Bunny: what interests me is what one does with one's time, energy, and money. Some may find inspiration in the supernatural, in human history, in the natural world, in a sense of oneness with all humanity: it doesn't really matter, as long as we do what we can to make the world around us a better place. I can trace this conviction all the way back to the Quaker-run Farm and Wilderness Camps in West Bridgewater, VT, which I attended as a teenager; our instruction whenever we broke camp and moved on was to leave the site in better shape than we had found it.

As for Pittsburgh Friends Meeting in particular, it is my community (another of the testimonies!) and has been so for more than 40 years. I think I've been on nearly all of its committees over the years. Whenever I consider leaving Pittsburgh ‒ perhaps to live closer to my grandchildren ‒ that's what gives me a pang. We aren't always perfect ... we're not even always right. But we try to live up to our principles, and most of the time we manage to do so. When my children were in their twenties and eager to tell me about the mistakes I had made during their childhood, my son eventually observed that I had "done one thing right." He asked me to guess what it was, but I couldn't. Then he said, "It was bringing us up as Quakers." What a testimony to our Meeting!

Sometimes, I know, we wonder why there aren't more of us. Well, liberal, universalist Quakerism as practiced in Pittsburgh Meeting takes a lot of time and energy. I sometimes describe Quakerism as a "do-it-yourself" religion. We can recall Margaret Fell saying, "All He has is thee." Indeed, all Quakerism has is its adherents, doing their best as often as they can and promising themselves to do better when they don't. The people who are attracted to Friends generally do their part, whether or not they eventually become official members of a Meeting.

As I look back on my life, I have many regrets, but many sources of satisfaction and delight as well. Yes, I would do some things differently, but certainly not all. I try to share some of my hard-won learning with young people just starting to bring up a family, mostly by asking thought-provoking questions rather than telling them what I think or what they should be doing. Maybe that's a good lesson for us all.