It was a time of war. When is it never? The Americans were fighting the British. The French were fighting the British and then there were the First Americans, fighting everyone and no-one. And in the midst of this troubled land lived a community of Quakers or Friends. They had long cleared an area in the woodland to build their houses. First, the Brits came to tell them to leave, ‘We cannot guarantee your safety, if you stay.’ And the Americans too. ‘There will be trouble, grave trouble. Best leave.’ And some of the families did go but most of them stayed for they were peaceful people, they reckoned…and they’d planted their homes in this woodland. Who would hurt them?
One Sunday morning on a lovely summer’s day, most of the families were gathered together as usual in meeting for worship. The meeting house was made out of timber. With no glass in the windows, just unshuttered and open to the breeze, in flittered a curious bee and two playful butterflies, dancing in the beam of sunlight falling across the centre table. A young girl watched all this with drooping eyelids. On the window ledge, a young robin sang for a few moments before flying through the room and out the opposite window in search of berries and insects.
Holes in the wood let the light in and through them, she could see the greenery outside, the bushes and trees. Three elders sat together on a bench, eyes closed in prayer. Meeting could go on like this for several hours in those days and the little girl, sleepy, leant against her mum, trying to stay awake. It was hard for her. The warm air lifted. Was that a blue flash passing through a bush, left quivering? She listened to the steady, slow breathing of her mother next to her, her warm body rising and falling gently. Through a knothole, she saw a second flash, red this time and rubbed her eyes. And when she peered again, all was quiet and still…
She was just falling asleep when something made her look up. In the open doorway stood a dozen First Americans, arrows drawn in their bows, dircted towards them. She noticed the long knives hanging from their belts and something else too…was that hair..? And now, all the friends in the room watched with eyes wide open and waited.
One of the elders stood and, speaking in French, palms upwards, welcomed the visitors and invited them to join them. One of the First Americans interpreted for the chief, who stared at them. He relaxed and, saying through the interpreter, told them that he and his men also worshipped their spirits in peace and would gladly join with them. They made to come in but the elder raised his hand. ‘Please, your weapons…leave them outside. The men looked at their Chief but when he took off his bow and arrows and knives and placed them by the door, they all followed. The Quakers made space for them on the benches and, together, they fell into a gathered stillness inside the meeting house in the clearing in the wood.
At the end of meeting, the elder shook the hand of the Chief and invited them all to join them for food. And they did. Much later, when they were ready to leave, the Chief took a white feather, he said, as a token of peace, and pinned it above the door to the meeting house. ‘Everyone seeing this knows you are our friends and will not harm you.’
Or so the story goes…I’ve been in touch with Easton Meeting in New York State. They told me that the old timbered meeting house of that time is long gone, replaced by a new, shiny modern one. But they still hold their summer meetings there. And they told me the First Americans in that area didn’t wear feathers in their head gear. It’s more likely that the Chief cracked an arrow in half and pinned that above the door as a sign of friendship.
Every September, the friends of Easton South Meeting gather together to retell this story and think about what truth it holds in the world today.