By Galen Hamman, Director of Friends Education
We often teach students about the importance of rituals and symbols in our teaching of religion and spirituality at Moses Brown. Wednesday’s topping-off ceremony provided an opportunity for students, faculty, staff, and parents to participate in a ritual that has deep meaning for the tradespeople who are building the Woodman Center. We often define rituals as symbolic stories acted out. In this case, Adam Bellevance, foreman for MAS Steel, explained that topping-off ceremonies grew out of 8th-century Scandinavian home-building traditions, which would conclude by gathering the community who volunteered to provide laborers and the homeowner for a community celebration with food and beer – though at Moses Brown, we opted for hot chocolate and cupcakes.
Bellevance shared that one element of the ritual is a tree placed upon the final beam of the structure as a symbol of good luck and continued growth, and that here in the U.S. when Native Americans were employed to build skyscrapers, they infused this tradition with their own belief that no building should be taller than the trees.
These ceremonies often use a tree which is discarded after the ceremony, but it felt important for Moses Brown to include a live tree. Several trees were removed in the building process, and the tree from this ceremony, which will be planted on campus, represents the continued commitment we have to the stewardship of our earth as we begin the work of replacing them.
In general, Quakers try to avoid symbols, as they are representations of the truth, but not the Truth itself. This is why our meetinghouses are usually plain, with a focus on turning in and seeking the Truth. It is also often the case that Friends Schools avoid flags. However, as we planned this ceremony, it was evident that we needed to have meaningful cultural elements from both the workers and the Moses Brown community. Thus, Shawmut chose to place a U.S. flag on their crane, and Moses Brown affixed a string of student-made peace flags to our new building.
It is our shared hope that this ritual ensures the blessing of this new community building, those who will gather, perform, and worship in its walls, and all those who have made it possible.