First Friends Church, the founding Quaker church of Whittier, is located at the heart of the Uptown district. With its dark wood paneling and courtyard open to the street, it is hard to miss. There are solar panels on the roof of its meeting hall. The Pride flag is displayed in its courtyard, making First Friends the only church in the area to do so.
On the First Friends website, the words “Open and Affirming” are placed directly below the church’s name. This decision, as well as every decision surrounding the church’s appearance, infrastructure, and message to the public, are considered and approved through a democratic process unique to Quakerism: The Quaker Process.
Historically, Quakers hold the belief that all people, regardless of background, differences, or faults, have “the Light” in them—a bit of God’s message that they have the ability and the right to communicate. It is due to this belief that Quaker meetings will avoid decisions if they silence the opinion of an opposing member. Every opinion is valid, as it is considered a personal interpretation of the Light.
Lynda Ladwig, Minister of Christian Education at First Friends, explains that this policy relies on each individual’s personal responsibility to the meeting. It is expected, she says, “that each person will consciously invite God into the meeting, listen to the spirit and if led, will speak up and contribute toward ‘the Sense of the Meeting’ upon which we will base our decisions.”
In the Quaker church, the process is a spiritual act as much as it is a method of decision-making. The sense of the meeting is a spiritual understanding amongst Quakers that forward movement is entirely unified, or it is held off until unity is reached.
Member Candice Ryder adds the additional expectation that each member will “enter in to the process with an open mind and heart.” In other words, they must be willing not only to hear but to truly listen to all present voices.
When debating issues and making decisions that will impact the church and meeting as a whole, the Quaker Process seeks to grant every member of the congregation an equal voice and equal vote. It requires that the entire meeting come to a unanimous decision regarding the issue.
Pastor Loletta Barrett explains that the Quaker Process “is not about negotiation or compromise, does not come from a majority vote where the minority is left out, and it is not about consensus.” If even a single member of the meeting opposes an idea, the topic will be rediscussed and voted on again after further consideration.
This method of decision-making, while undeniably fair and equal, has its downsides. Anathea Woirhaye, a long-time member of the church and young advocate for social change, says that “the process is…great for preventing majority faction control, but it means change is much slower and requires a lot more convincing and discussion to reach agreements.”
The truth of the matter is that the Process makes quick decisions impossible. Rarely does an entire meeting instantly agree on the topic at hand, even if the solution to an issue seems clear. However, through this method, the main goal of unity among the entire congregation is realized every time.
Despite the time and effort these decisions may take, they are still effective in bringing about change. After years of debate and discussion, the congregation unanimously voted in 2013 to release an “Open and Affirming” minute and display the Pride flag—a message to Whittier that First Friends is accepting of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental ability, faith background, age or socio-economic status.
This decision has led the church to involve themselves in LGBT+ advocacy, the most recent instance being a letter to the City of Whittier and the church’s presence at the 2019 July City Council meeting regarding the approval of Whittier’s first Pride celebration. This action was taken due to opposition from other Whittier organizations towards the event.
First Friends members, along with other LGBT+ supporters, were successful in aiding the approval of Whittier Pride, and its inaugural event was held in September 2019. In August of 2019, an LGBT+ mixer was held in the First Friends Fellowship Hall, an event attended by about 60 community members.
Another long-debated issue in the church was the installation of solar panels. The discussion took years and cost thousands of dollars in savings, due to the high cost of continuing to use conventional methods to power to the entire church. However, in 2018, the meeting reached a unanimous vote to install the panels and now, in 2019, the church is powered by solar energy.
Though the Quaker Process may be a lengthy and, at times, grueling one, it is unique in its ability to involve every member of a meeting. It proves itself an effective tool: While the process may seem maddeningly slow in its progress, with time, dedication, and avid discussion, First Friends has utilized it to become one of the most progressive churches in Whittier.
Photo: Caroline Balderston Parry introducing the Quaker Process by Mike Gifford.