Masked teacher teaching elementary school children.
“Why do you make this trip?” Friends Council Quaker Pilgrimage: One Educator’s Reflection

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By Denise Coffin*

Earlier this summer, I traveled to the north western part of England, often called 1652 Country, to learn more about the beginnings of Quakerism. I met up with a group of people who I would join on this pilgrimage, and the first thing one of my fellow pilgrims asked was, “Why do you make this trip?” 

We began by boarding a bus at the Manchester airport and heading north to a small town between lakes and mountains called Grasmere. As we drove on, the cities became smaller, the roads turned from highways to roads to narrow little lanes, lined with hedgerows and stone walls, and the landscape opened up. The green fields somehow grew greener, sheep were scattered on the hillsides, mountains became the background, the sky became bluer, and the clouds were enormous and fluffy. We left "today" behind and entered yesterday’s small villages of stone buildings and old shop fronts. This first “step” in our pilgrimage might have been a metaphor for the journey we were taking. Grasmere, apart from the hikers with telescoping walking sticks and waterproof gear, is a village back in time. We could envision early seekers going about their own journey here.

Why do I make this trip? I am drawn to the story of Quakerism. I am curious about the people who were so sure about their faith and the way to access it, at great risk to themselves.

I am a teacher, and I feel called to learn about those people and the events that led up to and played a large role in this story. I make this trip so that I can take the story back and share it as a spark for my young learners and the part they’ll play in their own journeys. The trip itinerary provided us with the opportunity to do just that. 

We began by hiking Pendle Hill. I have hiked this hill before and George Fox is right in describing the walk up as “so very difficult.” To me, that’s an important detail, one that I connected with more on this year’s climb than on my past climbs. We were dropped off near a farmhouse at the base of the steep part of Pendle Hill. For Fox, the climb would have begun farther down the hill. For me, the climb began with a swift pace. The group initially climbed together with some pilgrims opting to stop at an early plateau to take in the views. The rest of us continued towards the top. 

It’s difficult to hike straight up. I found my pattern of climbing for a bit, stopping to look up at the distance I had yet to climb, and then turning around to gasp at the incredibly beautiful view!

Squares of green fields outlined by tiny stone walls, dotted by tiny sheep, mountains rising and dipping, all of it surrounded by the biggest sky. I did eventually summit (last) and joined the waiting group where we took seats along a stone wall for a brief and spontaneous Meeting for Worship. How could we not?! The wind was fierce and invigorating. The sun shone. We were joyful and amazed.

For George Fox, this was a tough hike. He was drawn to Pendle Hill for some reason that we may speculate about but do not know the real reason why. He tells us that reaching the top is a bit of a transformative experience. He tells us that what he needs to do next is revealed to him on Pendle Hill. I feel similarly inspired. The beauty is remarkable, and the terrain is green brush and grass, rough stone paths, and the driest, dustiest dirt. In the past, I always looked out at the view, but on this trip I also looked down as I walked. There were wild blueberries growing, and, at the advice of a fellow pilgrim, a few of us hiking together ate a handful “for our health.” Another pilgrim picked up trash on her way down. A few of us stopped just feet away from a sheep who looked up at us with the sheepiest of smiles. I held a rock in my hand and noticed that it was jagged and dusty and warm. You can feel history here. For me, Pendle Hill was magical, the best way to launch our journey. 

One of my favorite parts of this trip was visiting many local meetinghouses. At every meeting, local Quakers shared the history of their meetings, of their meetinghouses, of their members and membership. As a teacher of young children, I get to share the practice of Meeting for Worship with them and their families each year. Many grown ups believe that it must be difficult for young children to sit quietly for such a long period of time. The truth, however, is that I find the younger students much more able to sit and listen to their still small voices than the older children and than their grown ups! My kindergarteners and I have Meeting for Worship in a variety of places, and we often try to notice the character of the silence. Is it a fidgeting, moving of legs, breathing kind of silence? Is it an outside kind of silence with birds, passing cars, wind? Is it a very still silence with barely a noise at all? We reflect on what kind of silence suits the emergence of what kinds of messages. We check in with our hearts, bodies, and brains around which silence works best for each of us as we hear our inner voice (however we define that in our respective faiths) and let those messages settle in for our growth. 

Experiencing the silence of each of these meetinghouses, some new, some old, some very old, was powerful for me. At Brigflatts Meeting, the silence had already begun as we entered. The meeting room at Brigflatts Meeting is incredible. Old wooden floors, windows set in deep stone walls, wooden benches, some with cushions and some without, a second level balcony. The elder benches are on a riser between the windows and the door. Early members brought their dogs when the meetinghouse was first built in 1675, and there was a place for them to wait while their people worshiped. A table in the center stood with a beautiful vase of flowers. George Fox had come here. Everything was old, dark wood, stone, worn with time, uneven, beautiful.

The silence was somehow old, too. It was impossibly still. The messages were beautiful. They were full of the joy of the large gathering of Friends. There was a connection to the troublemaking that early Quakers were known for and the need to make good trouble again for the sake of today and the future. Why do I make this trip? I make this trip because the intersection of joy and social justice and action and community are so important for and needed today.

I traveled to England in order to bring that back for my own community, for my students, and for myself. So that I can reflect upon what that might look like for a group of elementary students at a Quaker school. 

Every afternoon, we gathered as we wished for afternoon tea and shared our impressions on the day’s experiences. We connected, laughed, shared, supported, asked questions, and became friends. This pilgrimage is more than a tour of Quaker history. It is the group that makes the pilgrimage as much as the places we visit; maybe more so. We stood in the churchyard in Sedbergh and heard the story of George Fox preaching to a gathered group while being encouraged to go into the church because “that is where the preaching happens.” Fox replied that “church is in the people, not the buildings.” It was perhaps a necessary belief for Quakers who did not and could not have buildings. For me, that idea was even more meaningful as my fellow pilgrims quickly became my teachers, guides, supporters, and friends. Notifications from our shared text chat group continue to pop up on my phone throughout the day as a friend shares a resource, an idea, a message, some photos. Messages that my new friends shared at Meetings, along with ideas that were talked about during our bus rides, fill my journal. We were a group of seekers. We might have each answered the question, why do you make this trip? differently, and that is what made the trip even more valuable to me.

Why do I make this trip? Our group was able to meet and hear from local Quakers at each of our stops. We heard about what life was like in that part of the world at the beginning of Quakerism from Ben Pink Dandelion and Wendy Hampton at Clitheroe Meeting. We met David Boulton, the author of a fascinating history of Quakerism at Brigflatts Meeting where a Friend shared a bit more about George Fox and the early seekers as they traipsed across the fields and headed to Firbank Fell. We heard from an amateur/expert embroiderer at Kendal Meeting where we learned of a special Quaker stitch created by Anne Wynn-Wilson for the tapestries that are on display there at the Quaker Tapestry Museum. During our visit with Lancaster Meeting, a local Quaker shared her research around the role of Quakers in the history of enslaved people and the truth about whether and how Meetings might have benefited. 

The ideas and history that she presented, along with her driving mission of providing reparations, became a call to action for all of us. In what other ways have Quakers participated in or benefited from such harmful practices? How can I/we repair relationships, provide reparations, and change systems that continue to reinforce these inequities and injustices? I make this trip to hear from Friends about what is being revealed to them and how they are continuing to answer these questions and take action. 

I am still marveling at the ways in which this trip tended my brain, body, spirit, and heart. My brain is full with stories, new friends, and action-provoking ideas. My body is stronger (and a bit wearier) from hiking, walking, and carrying my gear. My spirit is grateful for the opportunity to travel as a seeker, not completely sure of what I was looking for, but now knowing that I found so much. My heart is happy to have found a new community, to have been given the gift of this pilgrimage. I feel a renewed call to the Quaker education and identity of my school. That is why I make this trip.

*Denise Coffin is a Kindergarten Teacher and the Clerk of Lower School Quaker Education Committee at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.  Summer 2023 was her third time as a pilgrim with Friends Council.

This summer’s 2023 FCE Quaker Pilgrimage included 19 pilgrims; nine current or former Friends school educators were among the travelers. Friends Council has sponsored the Quaker Pilgrimage since 2008. It was organized and coordinated this year by Associate Director Deborra Sines Pancoe (Abington Meeting, PA) and Irene McHenry (Chestnut Hill Meeting, PA) with assistance from Brenda Esch (Richmond Meeting, IN) and Denise Coffin (Bethesda Meeting, MD).

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