This story comes to us via Kristy Hamilton.
Kristy is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory, an advanced reporting class in which students produce news stories and packages for local neighborhood and ethnic newspapers and online sites.
With more than 5 million members, the Freemasons are one of the world’s oldest fraternities. Their origins are unknown, their rituals secret, and their lavish lodges are in almost every major city. For centuries they have raised eyebrows and inspired conspiracy theories for their clandestine meetings.
Now members of the Green Lake brotherhood want to modernize, open their doors and discuss their Masonic spiritual teachings. Instead of the secret society of the past, the Masons want to become a contemporary society with secrets. So who are they and what do they do?
It is believed freemasonry harkens back to 1717 at the Goose and Gridiron in London, where men from four lodges gathered to form the Grand Lodge of England. Their order grew and their influence spread from England to Europe to America.
Today in Washington state there are 170 Masonic lodges. The earliest, St. John’s Lodge, dates to 1858, only a few years after the first Seattle settlement. In Green Lake, if you walk under the Lodge No. 149 archway and through the oak doors at 307 NE Maple Leaf Pl, you will find men who band together as brothers, bonded by a common fraternity.
While the brotherhood is steeped in history, some of the members are decidedly modern, one pulling out a smart phone to check the news prior to a dinner of grilled steak, green beans and salad soaked in dressing. There is boisterous laughter and the ting of knives sawing through meat and hitting plate. At the moment, the atmosphere feels more like a fraternity gathering than a secret society. Only when the Grand Master Mason of Washington enters the room, and some of the men stand for him, does the recognition that this is an organized society snap back into place.
The current Master Mason is a small, almost elfish man, who holds a lot of power within the Washington Masonry.
“I am the ultimate authority,” says Michael Sanders, the Grand Master Mason of Washington, sitting down at the table. “Everybody in the lodge can say they want to go right, but if the Master says no, then they are going to go left.”
The elected title holds a lot of responsibility, but one that lasts for only a year. Sanders officially joined the Masonry brotherhood 30 years ago, inspired in part by his grandfather and uncles who were Masons. He then spent 12 years in various lodge positions before reaching his current title of Master Mason.
Over the years, he has seen the popularity of the fraternity diminish, their secrecy eroding public awareness of who they are and what they stand for.
“We have had 50 years of Masons holding everything really close and not telling anybody who we are,” says Sanders. “We’ve got to break that cycle. I would like to see every good man out there join the fraternity.”
So far, the Green Lake Lodge has about 150 members, with 40 who actively participate. The majority of them have white hair, which is one of the reasons they are seeking a younger generation of Masons to uphold their traditions.
“That’s always the goal, to attract younger members,” says Michael Cuadra, the Treasurer. “We’re only starting to get more knowledge out there about what masonry really is.”
To join, you must be a man of at least 18 years old, able to read and write, and believe in a Supreme Being. Apart from that, Masons vary in age, culture and beliefs: there are doctors and plumbers, young men and old, Catholics and Jews. They all, however, believe in tolerance, liberty, charity, knowledge and moral uprightness without arrogance or condescension.
“We are taking their good qualities and expanding them by constantly reinforcing time-proven principles of morality they hear in our ritual,” says Sanders. “They become better members of their community. Better husbands. Fathers. Employees. Employers. And citizens.”
As Freemasons like to say, they are taught through “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.”
The most common of symbols is the letter G in the middle of a square and compass. Each member wears a golden ring carved with the emblem as a reminder of their brotherhood code: the G for Geometry and God (any of your choosing), the square for virtue, and the compass for the strength to “circumscribe desires and keep passions within due bounds.”
“We are also a charity organization,” says Glenn Bailey, Worshipful Master of Green Lake Lodge. They are open to being approached by organizations asking for volunteers as long as “people come up to us in the proper way. Then we would be more than happy to review it.”
The Worshipful Master sits on the East side of the ceremonial room, directs all the business for his lodge, and presides over the rituals and ceremonies. The office is an elected position, although the previous year’s Senior Warden is usually the next in line to occupy the title. The designation “Worshipful” does not mean the Masons worship him; rather it is a title out of respect similar to calling a judge “Your Honor” or a mayor “Honorable.”
Worshipful Master Bailey is particularly proud of the charitable works the Green Lake Masons participate in. Currently, the lodge is helping sponsor the 35th Pathway of Lights, the annual lighting of the path around Green Lake. Other volunteer work includes raising funds for college scholarships, painting basketball courts, and funding the “Bikes for Books” reading program at the Green Lake Branch Library.
“The kids get really excited about reading the books,” says Bailey. “They know if they do well and read a lot of them, they have a chance of getting a bike. If they read 10 books, they get 10 tickets. If they read three books, they put in three tickets for the lottery.”
“And that’s only our lodge,” says Cuadra. “Greenwood Lodge does a lot of stuff for the Greenwood district. Eureka Lodge does science and education for Seattle schools, so they sponsor science fairs.” Each lodge engages with the community in a different way, depending on their focus or community location.
“We could literally change the world if we could just get out and bring people through these doors,” says Sanders, walking into the ceremonial room. “I think that with all my heart.”
The wood doors close and with them the ritual secrets.