Until this week, here is what I knew about Quakers:
1. That guy on the oatmeal container is a Quaker.
2. Quakers often get confused with Shakers, the furniture folks.
With our 18-year-old son, Will, deciding that he wants to go to Earlham College, a liberal arts school founded by Quakers in Richmond, Indiana, I turn to Pam Wolfe, who has been a Quaker for 50 years. Wolfe handles inquiries for the Downers Grove Friends Meeting, which has been around since 1951 and draws Quakers from throughout the Northwest and Western suburbs. I tell her that Will loved the vibe at Earlham.
"We call it Quaker sensibility. We want everybody to feel heard," says Wolfe, 72, who lives near the Quaker meeting House in Downers Grove. "It is a Christian faith, but we have a number of people who are agnostic or atheist. We don't ask."
Unlike most suburban churches, temples or mosques, "we have no priest, no minister, no secretary," says Wolfe. "Everybody is equal." There is no opening prayer, no scripture reading, no sermon, no communion, no offering -- and sometimes, not even a whisper -- when they gather at 10:30 on Sunday mornings in the Meeting House at 5710 Lomond Ave., Downers Grove.
"What you do is sit in silence and wait for inspiration from God," Wolfe says, explaining how a typical meeting might draw 30 to 50 Quakers, who sit on office chairs or on one of the handful of old, wooden pews (one of which has a Jewish Star of David carved into its design), and remain silent unless someone feels compelled to say a few words.
"It was years before I ever said something," Wolfe says. "Sometimes I'll speak three weeks in a row, and then it might be a year before I'll say something."
After about an hour, one of the veteran members will shake hands with a fellow Quaker, signaling others to do likewise. That ends the worship part of the service, and people are free to air joys and concerns about a sick mother, a granddaughter's birth or some other news, before the group moves into a room that looks out on a lush garden while they eat a potluck meal.
Handmade quilts hanging above the windows show animals and people in the "peaceable kingdom." Members copied the design from murals painted by high school kids in the old farmhouse meeting house that was torn down to make room for this modern, handicap-accessible building.
A tapestry donated by a Quaker immigrant features Korean writing that translates as, "We meet in stillness to discover a deeper sense of God's presence."
Known as the Religious Society of Friends in the United States, Quakers got their start in 1647 in England when George Fox, not satisfied with religious options in the wake of the Reformation, said he had a vision, and that everyone should look for the "inner light" in communications directly with God. The word "Quaker" was used pejoratively after Fox allegedly told a judge to tremble and quake before God, but the term stuck.
While associated with the Amish in the United States because both groups originally preferred plain clothes and promoted peace, the Amish withdrew from modern society while the Quakers vowed to change it. Quakers led the move to abolish slavery a century before the Civil War. Quaker homes that produced women including Betsy Ross, Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams led the push for women's rights.
The 1947 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a pair of Quaker aid groups that promoted peace and cared for the victims of war. Quakers rally behind environmental causes.
"We are socially very active," says Wolfe, a retired Willowbrook High School science teacher who once applied to be the first teacher in space. "I started (with the Quakers) in college during the '60s and Vietnam and the civil rights era. I remember thinking, 'Is this a real church?' By the time I decided it was, I was already in it."
She and her husband, Bruce, do what they can to keep the Meeting House running smoothly, but the local Quakers have no paid staffers. "Nobody ever asks for money," Wolfe says. "We have a donation box, but it's in an office, and you have to go find it."
Other suburban Quaker groups meet in Woodstock, Oak Park, Evanston and Lake Forest. The Upper Fox Valley Friends congregation generally draws about 10 Quakers on Sundays at a Montessori school, 3013 Country Club Road in Woodstock, but it is looking for a new location, according to Alice and Bill Howenstine, who have been Quakers since the 1950s.
"We're holding our own," says Bill Howenstine, who hosts a corn roast Quaker gathering on his Pioneer Tree Farm north of McHenry.
There are several branches of the Quaker religion in the U.S. and many come together for regional meetings.
The "unprogrammed service" and "expectant waiting" sounds easy at first.
"You can sit in silence and your mind can wander," Wolfe says. "But sometimes you sit there for an hour and nobody says anything. That takes a lot of discipline."
Rarely does anyone violate the unwritten rules about speaking more than once or going on too long.
"You just sense that it's not appropriate. There is something very spiritual that goes on," Wolfe says. "It runs on trust. It's like a trust in something greater. We trust in the group."
And just so you know: On Jan, 2, Sister Frances Carr died, leaving only two remaining Shakers as that religious group moves toward extinction at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. And the guy on the Quaker Oats box (modeled after Quaker William Penn but not affiliated with the religion) got a makeover in 2012, making his face a bit slimmer, his skin more radiant and his hair a little neater.