Two Post-Valentine Quaker Stories: One True, One (Maybe) Fiction

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2020, the Washington Post ran an engaging story of two independent-minded women who faced down the CIA and won. That’s our first story:

The two women were Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood.

The Post: Five thousand square feet, wide windows, a grand staircase, a front porch with a panoramic view of nature. The year was 1933, and Northern Virginia was still the countryside, even with Washington just across the Potomac. So it was the ideal retreat for Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood, two pioneers of the American labor movement who defied the gender expectations of their time.

“Florence said, ‘Of all the houses we looked at, this is the only one I would care to live in,’“ Scattergood recalled years later. “That was pretty final.”

Were they a couple? No one knows. But they lived there the rest of their lives, Thorne til 1974, and Scattergood until her last illness in 1986. They worked for the American Federation of Labor in Washington, in the days when unions had clout in the capital.

So when the feds came looking to take their property in the 1940s, to fold into the site for some expanding federal agency, they mobilized their friends in high places and drove a bargain: the government could take the land, but they got to stay in the house for life.

Scattergood was a Quaker, who joined the new Langley Hill Meeting when it took over a former Methodist chapel nearby. I knew her there in her latter years, as a diligent meeting archivist, and a quietly persistent advocate for many social causes.

By then one of her targets was the agency which had won the scramble for the surrounding property,  and built a sprawling but tree-concealed headquarters: the CIA

To [Scattergood], the agency was an affront to her values. After retiring from the AFL, Scattergood dedicated herself to civil rights. She’d written to Martin Luther King Jr., funded affordable housing efforts in the District and fought swimming pool segregation in Virginia. She was also a staunch pacifist, and as the CIA grew, she lobbied Congress to reduce the budget of the U.S. military and intelligence operations.

“I remember her saying the one thing she’d like to do is stop World War III. She had small aspirations, you know,” said Sylvia Blanchet [a] great-great grandniece. . . .

With their aunt, they attended the Langley Hill Quakers meeting just down the street. When the group got involved in the sanctuary movement, which helped Central American refugees flee into the United States in the 1980s, their family did, too.

Soon, Scattergood was having the refugees over for dinner. Some stayed in her guest room.

Blanchet remembers them as students, families and “just ordinary people who had really suffered because of the war,” mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala.

The CIA believed the visitors were Sandinistas, a leftist resistance group the CIA was working against in Nicaragua. Sometimes, they ended up at the gate of the CIA when they were looking for Scattergood’s house. Officials now say they are not sure whether the visitors were indeed rebels.

After her death at 92, after a long decline, the CIA took the house, and used it successively to train  K-9 units, a bicycle repair shop, and then left it to fall down. But it was saved and renovated into its current use as a CIA conference center. The CIA now even has a feature about Scattergood, Thorne, and the house on their public website.

Calvert, in its current incarnation. In the time of Margaret Scattergood, the long verandah was open. (CIA press phot)

The CIA article, however, does not point out that almost on the day of her passing in November of 1986, after a time in a coma, what is called the “Iran-Contra Scandal” was made public. That affair, referred to by high officials by a code name, “The Enterprise,” centered on secret, illegal sales of weapons to armed opponents of the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. The unlawful operation was handled by the CIA. Public accounts of the scandal say its cover was blown by a report in a Lebanese news magazine.

As one of many members of Langley Hill Meeting who benefited much from Margaret’s presence and ministry, particularly in her final year, I often thought of her, and wrote a tribute published in Friends Journal in April 1987.

And as time passed, I became aware, via sources which I am not at liberty to disclose, of what may have been another part of this closing chapter. That account is below, and some think it is fiction; but I am not so sure. . . .


Margaret and “The Enterprise”

McLean (aka Langley), Virginia – Fall 1986

I – Unauthorized Entry

The walkie talkie in Phillips’s right hand crackled. “I’ve got something on my scanner, Fred,” Hammerman’s voice buzzed through the tiny speaker. “You picking up anything?”

He looked. The thin blue lines were still making their wavelike pattern on the small handheld screen, up an inch and then down, up and down, just as they were supposed to.

“Nothing,” Phillips muttered into the mike. “You sure you’re not just imagining things, Mike?”

“Yeah, right,” Hammerman bantered. “I’m making it up, to pass the time as we hide in the bushes on this chilly Friday night in October. To keep from losing my marbles.”

Fred Phillips chuckled quietly. It did feel a bit loony, crouching in the shrubbery outside a stately, empty old house in the woods of northern Virginia. At least, the house was supposed to be empty, since the Special Operations staff had left at 5:00. Funny how you could run the world for the CIA on a nine to five schedule.

But they said the house wasn’t staying empty at night. Someone had to be getting in, as impossible as that sounded. Three after hours intrusions in two weeks, they said. What are you security guys doing out there, playing games? Sleeping?

Not a chance. The CIA never lets down its guard on security. So here they sat, in the bushes in the dark, feeling ridiculous, but with their reputation on the line.

Something caught his eye, and Phillips glanced down. Holy mackerel–The scanner’s red alert light was blinking a rapid warning.

Next to it, the blue lines were racing wildly across the screen. Their regular pattern was replaced by frantic, narrow swings.

“Mike!” he hissed at the walkie talkie. “I’m showing it now too. Someone’s in there for sure.”

“What sector?” came Hammerman’s tense reply.

Phillips checked the readout. “A-13,” he whispered. “The front office, just like the Special Ops guys said.”

“OK, mine says it too,” Hammerman’s voice was grim. He was backup. “That’s your side, boss. Gimme a minute to get in position so I can cover you. And keep your head down.”

Phillips unsnapped his holster. “I’m on my way,” he said, rising up from the bushes. “For Pete’s sake don’t shoot unless you have to, I’m too easy a target in the dark.” He took a deep breath. “Cowabunga, dude, here goes!”

Head down, he sprinted around a tree and hit the wide sidewalk running, his sneakers making almost no sound. Halfway up the broad front steps of the house he could hear swishing thuds behind him as Hammerman moved into position.

The big oak door was solid, but it had been jimmied for them, with scotch tape on the latch and paper stuck in the jamb so it only looked closed. A real high-tech setup, Phillips thought as he leaned to his left to hit the door, full tilt, shoulder first.

The big door crashed open, and Phillips had to veer to miss the tall, solid post of the banister by the staircase. The front office was to the right, behind a partition wall that had been set up in the front half of the elegant old dining room.

He banged the office door open with one expert karate kick, and hunched down, minimizing his target profile, pistol at the ready, and shouted. “Hold it! Security! Put your hands up and don’t move!”

The first thing he heard was a thump from the hallway followed by a moan and a muffled curse.

Hammerman had not missed the banister post. But he recovered quickly and was in backup position in less than a second, his weapon likewise trained on the dark space where the office door had opened.

The office was silent. Phillips’s hearing was keen, and he didn’t pick up any rustling, or even the faint wheeze of tense breathing, other than his own. He held his breath, waited another few seconds, then muttered, “Hit the lights, Mike,” without turning his head.

Hammerman edged over to the door, keeping his pistol trained, swept his free arm up the wall, and the room lit up. Phillips blinked in the brightness, keeping the office covered, and then warily stepped through the door.

No one was there. Filing cabinets, a multiline secure phone hookup, and a couple of desks strewn with papers, that was all.

It was enough, though. No desk in the Langley complex was supposed to have classified papers left on it after hours; that was basic security. And for sure the Special Ops boys hadn’t been that stupid, not with the stakeout planned.

“Somebody’s been here and no mistake,” Hammerman whispered, coming in behind him. He pointed: “There.”

Phillips followed his finger. Against the wall stood a filing cabinet, the kind with a steel bar running down the front and a big combination lock at the top to hold everything shut. But the lock was open, and so was the top drawer. A file folder poked up over the edge.

“Christ,” Phillips muttered, “how did we miss him?” Every door and window in the place was covered by electronic monitors, with backup security cars on all the perimeter roads keeping careful watch. What the heck was going on?

Hammerman broke into his thoughts. “Look at this, Fred.” On the bigger of the two desks, the top sheet of an open file folder was headed “Update–The Enterprise, 10/1985.”

But that was not what had caught Hammerman’s attention. Under it, in thick, red magic marker, someone had scribbled, in a large, bold hand: “THIS IS AN OUTRAGE. STOP IT AT ONCE!”

“What the–” Phillips started, but then his security reflexes clicked into gear. “All right,” he ordered, “impound these documents, and send that top sheet to handwriting for analysis and ID. This has to be an inside game, and whoever’s being cute just went a bit too far. Call in the backup team to search the area, just in case, but I doubt they’ll find anything.”

Hammerman left, returning with a camera and a big plastic evidence bag. He snapped photos, then began putting the violated files into it. When it was closed up and the seal crimped, he gave it to Phillips with a flourish. “This one’s got me stumped, Fred. I think it’s one that’ll have to go to the Chief. But I don’t know what you’re gonna tell him.

Phillips shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell him either,” he said

II -Some Kind of Inside Job

“Now let’s go over this one more time,” the Chief said gruffly. He was standing, gazing intently out the big window of his large office, and sipping coffee from the big mug that was always kept full and within his reach.

Must we? Phillips thought, looking at the trophies on the wall behind the Chief’s big, neat desk, on which the unsealed plastic evidence bag seemed totally incongruous. There was a picture of the Chief with president Reagan, both grinning. A framed medal from some operation in Vietnam. Two small maps, one of the Middle East, the other of Central America, with pink and blue pins stuck into them at various points.

Phillips realized his mind had wandered when the Chief growled, “Is that right?”

“Excuse me?” Phillips stumbled, looking away from the wall maps at the Chief.

“I said, you executed the entry into the house without a hitch, after getting positive signs of entry on your surveillance equipment, but found no one?”

“Uh, yes sir,” he agreed. “But we’re still searching the area for footprints and other evidence of unauthorized entry and egress.”

Not that he expected to find anything. This was, he was more and more sure, an inside job. Probably one of the Special Ops guys had jumped the track. Or maybe even gone over to the other side. No one liked to mention it, but it had happened before. The Eighties had turned out to be a big decade for spies, and they were barely half over.

“And handwriting drew a blank with that defaced file cover sheet,” the Chief continued.

“Yes sir,” Phillips said again. Nobody in the Agency’s current files wrote that indignant rebuke on the file. Or so it seemed, at any rate. Phillips wasn’t sure that handwriting analysis was such an exact science.

“So, what are we going to do about these intrusions, Phillips?” the Chief barked. “This is very sensitive material. We can’t afford to have it compromised.”

He paused, sipped his coffee, and chewed his bulging lower lip. “Have you searched the house?”

“Twice, sir. Nothing.”

“I can’t accept that,” the Chief said, shaking his big head, his thin white hair quivering. “There has got to be something.”

He paused again, thinking and chewing his lip. “What do we know about that house?” he asked finally. “How did it get there on Company land?”

“It was here first, sir,” Phillips answered. “An old lady built it with a partner, and lived there til she died, just this year. Now it’s reverted to us.”

“Who was she?” the Chief asked. “Maybe she has some disgruntled relatives, playing tricks.”

It seemed to Phillips like a very unlikely line of inquiry. “Sir,” he protested tentatively, “I’m not sure there’s really any point–”

“Maybe not,” the Chief cut off him. “You got anything better? Check it out. And keep me posted.”

He turned away from the window to the desk, picked up the plastic evidence bag and thrust it toward the security officer.

“Yes sir,” said Phillips, standing up. It was time to go. He didn’t like this. His own inclination would be to have Counterintelligence going over the records of all the Special Ops Unit’s personnel files, maybe even tailing them. It had to be an inside job.

“Oh, and Phillips,” called the Chief as he was passing out the doorway.

“Yes sir.” He stopped and turned back. The Chief was behind the desk, sticking a pink pin into the map of Central America.

“Keep the house under your personal surveillance tonight, and every night, until we get this cleared up.” He picked up the coffee mug.

“Yes sir,” Phillips said wearily. His wife wouldn’t like this, and neither did he. But you didn’t argue with the Chief. Not unless you wanted a transfer to the Antarctica field station. And he didn’t, even if there was no trouble with inside security breaches in Antarctica.

III – Final Contingencies

“So, what did you find out?” Hammerman asked over the walkie talkie. The house was again dark, and they were back in the bushes, passing time.

“Just what I told the Chief,” Phillips answered, a trace of irritation in his tone. “The house was bought in the 1930s by a lady named Scattergood. She called it Calvert, after a place in Maryland where she used to go as a kid. From Philadelphia originally.”

He checked his scanner. The lines on the screen were oscillating normally. “She worked for the labor unions in D.C.,” he said. “Never married, but had a housemate, who died in the ‘70s. When the Agency took the land, it agreed to let them stay here as long as she wanted to.”

“That was big of them,” Hammerman commented.

“She got the laugh on ‘em too,” Phillips went on. “That was in ‘51, and she was about that old. Nobody figured she’d last another thirty-some years, but she did, til ‘86. That’s it; end of story.”

“You sure?” Hammerman wondered. “Maybe she had some private vices. Or was a secret commie, infiltrating the labor unions.”

“Naaah,” Phillips demurred. “She was with the old AF of L, and they didn’t come any more patriotic than that. And after she retired she spent most of her time gardening and going to church.

“What church?” Hammerman asked, only half-interested

“Quaker meeting, down the road,” Phillips said.

“Maybe we should check it out,” Hammerman said teasingly. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Get outta here,” Phillips snapped. “Tomorrow morning I’m sleeping in. This late night surveillance wears me out.”

“Come on,” Hammerman coaxed. “You could use a little church.”

“Speak for yourself,” Phillips bantered, and was about to say something sarcastic about Hammerman’s single lifestyle, when his scanner’s red alert light started blinking.

“Mike! I got a signal.”

“Right. Me too.” Hammerman was all business again. “You check the window. I’ll slide around back.”

Following their revised tactical plan, Phillips slipped away from his base behind a large oak tree and padded quietly across the lawn, up to the window at the end of the dining room, where the Special Ops office was. The sill was just above his head, but under one arm he carried a small folded aluminum step stool. The legs straightened and clicked silently into place. He set it firmly in the dirt, and stepped silently onto it.

Peering over the sill, he could see a faint blue light in the room. He couldn’t make out any details, but  saw it move, in the direction of the desk.

Phillips let himself down silently from the stool, took a few silent paces away from the window, then crouched down and brought the walkie talkie to his lips. “Mike. He’s in there. Are you in position?”

“Ten-four, boss” came the reply. “We’re ready for the punk this time.”

Rather than a wild rush, tonight they would sneak up on their intruder, get him coming out. Hammerman was at the back door; Phillips covering the front. This was no time for heroics. Just wait; he had to come out of there.

But he didn’t. After ten minutes, Phillips checked his scanner. The blue lines were normal again; the alert light was off. He began moving back toward the stool, then eased up on it. The blue light was gone.

“Fred,” the walkie talkie spoke. “You still picking him up? My scanner’s gone blank.”

Phillips cursed under his breath. “Mine too,” he answered. “We better go in.”

They didn’t rush; they could sense there was no need for SWAT team heroics. And inside the scene in the office was almost identical to the night before. The files unlocked, a drawer open, papers on the desk.

“Now I’m sure this is an inside thing,” Phillips said, surveying the room. “Special Ops changed all the locks this morning. Only they knew the combinations. It has to be one of them.”

“Maybe,” Hammerman said, “but then how’d they get in and out of here. This is like chasing a ghost.” He stooped to pick up some papers that had fallen to the floor. “Uh-Oh!” he exclaimed. “Here’s our wiseguy again.” He handed a sheet to Fred.

“Oh no,” Phillips said.

The paper was stamped TOP SECRET, and headed “The Enterprise: Final contingencies.” Across it was written, “THIS MUST NOT GO ON ANY LONGER! IF YOU WON’T TELL THE AUTHORITIES ABOUT IT, I SHALL!” The words were in the same red magic marker, in the same strong, large hand.

“The Chief won’t like it,” Phillips said. “Another breach of a secure office, and I look more and more stupid reporting them to him without any explanations or perpetrators. You got any ideas?” he asked Hammerman.

“Just one,” Hammerman said. “And you already don’t like it. But it’s all we got. Let’s check out the old lady’s Quaker meeting tomorrow.”

He saw Phillips rolling his eyes, and put up his hands. “Look. I’ll pick you up about 9:45. If you’ve got a better idea by then, we’ll skip it. OK?”

“OK,” Phillips answered with a sigh. “I better come up with something.”

IV – A Better Idea?
Photo borrowed from Facebook.

But he didn’t. At ten AM, Hammerman’s Toyota turned off Georgetown Pike, a half mile beyond the huge, tree-hidden CIA headquarters, into the driveway of a white clapboard church. The peeling wooden sign in its postage stamp front yard read “Langley Hill Friends Meeting.”

“That’s weird,” Hammerman said, looking up at the building. “A steeple. Quakers aren’t supposed to go for steeples.”

“Oh yeah?” Phillips wasn’t really interested. He yawned. “What do they believe?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” Hammerman said. But I seem to recall it doesn’t include steeples. They’re plain, you know; like the guy on the oatmeal box.”

Now Phillips was getting uncomfortable. “You mean funny clothes? You taking me to some cult group, Hammerman?”

The driver grinned. “We’ll see. But hey, you’re a combat veteran, black belt in karate, an expert pistol shot; you can handle them.”

“Maybe,” Phillips said. “But I forgot my gun.”

As it turned out, the people in the meetinghouse weren’t dressed oddly, except that some of them weren’t dressed in what Phillips thought of as Sunday clothes. And the biggest challenge he faced was staying awake on the wooden bench waiting for the service to start.

When nothing had happened after about fifteen minutes, he plucked a small white leaflet from a rack on the next bench where it leaned against a battered-looking hymnbook. It explained that the waiting was the service. This made it even harder for Phillips to keep his eyes open.

Just as he started to snore, Hammerman nudged him awake. A white-haired woman was standing and saying something about peace, and how awful the Contra war in Nicaragua was, and how they had to get the White House to stop the CIA supporting the contra rebels

Great, Phillips thought. Peaceniks. Just what he needed to hear on too little sleep from a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were talking about.

The woman sat down, and Phillips started to drift again.

But then someone was pulling at his sleeve and shaking his hand. He pulled away nervously, then turned to see Hammerman with his hand out.

Hammerman gripped his hand and leaned toward this ear. “It’s their custom,” he murmured. “It means it’s over.”

Well, not quite. They were then subjected to about fifteen minutes of announcements, half of which, Phillips noticed, seemed to be about protests of one sort or another against American policy in Central America. This made him even more uneasy. Was this really a church, or some political front group? What did they believe, anyway?

They were also asked to stand and give their names and where they were from, which Phillips wasn’t about to do. But Hammerman covered for him, speaking for them both and saying vaguely that they lived in the neighborhood.

Then everyone got up and started milling around. Phillips noticed a large coffee urn on a back table, and headed for it; he’d feel more at ease with a cup of coffee in his hand.

But the urn, he found, held some kind of sweet-smelling but watery-tasting herb tea. When he asked, a young woman standing by the urn explained sweetly that they never served coffee, because of the caffeine. That was also why there was no sugar, and no styrofoam cups.

Maybe that’s what these people believed, Phillips thought: caffeine, sugar and styrofoam are the work of the devil, or at least behind the trouble in Nicaragua. One sip of the tea was enough for him to know this wasn’t his kind of church.

Phillips sidled out the door of the meeting room into the vestibule, figuring he’d wander back to the car. Then he saw Hammerman, down a hallway in another room, talking to the white-haired woman.

Hammerman gestured for him to come over.

The room was a small, cramped library. The white-haired woman was smiling and saying something about a book of faith statements by members. She was sure it was right here somewhere–now she was scanning the bookshelves–and it would answer all his questions about Quaker beliefs. She was about to give up when the notebook suddenly turned up, wedged between a dictionary and an old Bible.

“Aha, here we are,” The white-haired woman said, and handed the notebook, not to Hammerman but to Phillips. “He says you wanted to know why we have a steeple if we don’t believe in steeples,” she said, grinning broadly. “It’s quite simple, really. The steeple came with the building when we bought it, and we didn’t have the money to take it down. Then they made  the whole corner into a historic area, and it would probably take an act of Congress to remove it. But we did take out all the stained glass windows, except the one with the mandala pattern up front.”

She smiled up at the window, which had an abstract, four-cornered pattern. “It’s wonderfully archetypal, don’t you think? Joseph Campbell would have loved it.”

Joseph Campbell, 1904-1987. Not a Quaker. Very devoted to theories of Carl Jung about archetypes and mandalas.

“Er, I’m sure,” Phillips mumbled, wondering what sort of pinko this Campbell person was. He was relieved when she turned to Hammerman.

“Now you said you might be distantly related to Margaret Scattergood, didn’t you? I think she has a faith statement in the book there, and I believe there’s a picture of her in here somewhere….”

She trailed off and began searching through the crowded bookshelves again. Hammerman took the notebook, and Phillips followed her movement along the shelves, noting uneasily how many of the books had the word Peace in their titles.

No war, no steeples, no sugar, styrofoam or caffeine; that seemed to about sum up Quakerism, at least as it had been explained so far.

“Uh, Mike,” he said after a long moment, “don’t we have to be getting back for lunch?”

Hammerman looked up from the notebook distractedly. “In a minute,” he said. “This is interesting.”

Just then the white-haired woman was back before him, smiling that toothy smile again. “Here she is,” she said triumphantly. “That’s her at her house, down the road.”

Hammerman looked at the black and white snapshot. A thin, plain woman in tweed, wearing sensible shoes and gardener’s gloves and holding a pair of long hedge clippers. Though slight, there was a sturdy look about her.

“Yes,” Hammerman agreed, “she certainly has the face of one of my old cousins. They could fool you, though: look as meek as church mice, but fighters when they were riled.”

“Oh I don’t think Margaret was like that,” the white-haired woman demurred. “She was always quiet here. But of course we mostly agreed on things. Hmmmm – but now that you mention it, there was that one time back in the forties, when they tried to take her land.”

“Who?” Hammerman asked innocently.

“Why, the CIA,” said the white-haired woman vehemently. “Came along back in ‘47 and decided they wanted her land and her house, just like that. Wham, bam, thank thee ma’am.”

She sniffed with indignation that was genteel but not diluted by the passage of nearly forty years.

“And Margaret did get riled about that. Gave ‘em quite a fight, too. Took it to Congress and everything.” She ran a finger down a page in the notebook, then showed it to him.

“She worked for the unions then, and Harry Truman had to pay attention. Made them leave her be, too. In the end a special act of Congress said she could stay there as long as she lived. I don’t think many people could have fought the CIA to a draw like that, do you?”

Phillips shook his head solemnly; no he didn’t think so either.

“But mostly she was a quiet person, worked on committees for desegregating schools and things like that. And she was corresponding secretary for our meeting for the longest time, til her health gave out. She kept very good track of all our records. In fact they’ve been something of a jumble ever since.”

Hammerman closed the notebook and gave it back to her. “This has been very informative, ma’am,” he said. “I appreciate all this information. You’ve filled in a lot of blanks for me. I’ll have to come back sometime and hear more.”

“Well, if you come next Sunday, we’re having a potluck lunch and a used book sale,” said the white-haired woman. “And you’re certainly welcome.”

Back in the car, Phillips said, “You can come back if you want to, Mike, but once is enough for me. Can you imagine what their potlucks must be like, with no caffeine, sugar or styrofoam? Did you ever figure out what they believe here, or is that it?”

“What’s the matter,” Hammerman grinned, “you got something against macaroni? Hey, I had fun. Besides, I found something better than whatever they believe.”

“Yeah?” Phillips asked expectantly.

“This,” Hammerman said with a smirk, reaching into his jacket and producing a folded sheet of paper. “Take a look.”

Phillips unfolded the typed sheet. “My Personal Faith,” read the heading, “By Margaret Scattergood.”

“Okay so you’re a good spy,” Phillips said sarcastically, “but pinching an old piece of paper from a church is hardly high-quality tradecraft. Why do I want to know about this old lady’s personal faith?”

“Maybe you don’t,” Hammerman retorted. “But it might not hurt to check out her handwriting.”

Phillips glanced at the paper again. At the bottom it was inscribed with her signature the date, and “Calvert, Langley, Virginia.”

“You’re kidding,” he said.

Hammerman shrugged. “It can’t hurt,” he said. “Besides which, we got nothing else, and not least, I think the writing looks familiar.”

“All right,” Phillips shrugged in turn. “But do me a favor: I’ll sign the request, but you take it to handwriting.”

“No problem,” Hammerman grinned. “Consider it done.”

“And one more thing,” Phillips said

“Shoot.”

“If you’re right, what am I supposed to tell the Chief?”

V – Need to Know

Nothing unusual happened at the Scattergood house for several days thereafter. But Phillips saw a stream of Special Ops people coming and going from there with unusual haste, many carrying striped plastic trash bags, the kind he knew were full of documents meant for the Agency’s own special shredders and incinerators.

While he was not supposed to notice this, since he had no need to know, it was still obvious what was happening: The Special Ops project known as the Enterprise, whatever that was, had been compromised, and everybody was busily covering the Agency’s tracks. He had seen it before; Watergate had kept the incinerators smoking for weeks.

Hammerman had also noticed the procession, and drawn his own conclusions. But when Phillips asked him about the handwriting check of the Scattergood letter, he just shrugged.

The next Monday, Phillips was summoned to the Chief’s office. As soon as he came in, he noticed that the maps had been replaced on the wall behind the desk. In their place was a large, full color photo of president Reagan, the official one where he wasn’t smiling.

“Phillips,” the Chief began, as soon as he had shut the door, “those intrusions over at Calvert seem to have stopped. Good work.”

“Thank you sir,” Phillips said cautiously. He wondered why the Chief thought they had stopped, and what he had to do with it. Or did he, old spymaster that he was, know more than he let on.

Of course he did. There was a file folder on the Chief’s desk. He opened it, and gazed at it thoughtfully as he sipped from his coffee mug. “That was very shrewd,” the Chief said, “your idea of checking the handwriting on the intruder’s notes with the Scattergood woman’s letter. Very shrewd.”

“Uh, thank you, sir,” Phillips began, “but actually it was–”

The Chief interrupted him. “I know, I know, it was only a wild guess. But Handwriting says they matched perfectly. I have their report right here.”

He lifted a sheet from the file; all Phillips could read was the TOP SECRET stamped across the heading.

“Very shrewd,” the Chief said again, but more thoughtfully. Then he added slowly, “there’s only one slight problem with it. He paused and looked out the big window, and chewed the large lower lip.

Finally he glanced back at his visitor and said, more loudly, “What do you think, Phillips? How do I explain to the president that one of the most sensitive intelligence operations of my term has just been blown?”

He was suddenly vehement. “And above all, how do I tell him it was compromised by the ghost of an old Quaker lady?”

The fierceness of his tone took Phillips aback.

“Sir,” he stumbled, “Sir, I never said–”

“Of course not,” roared the Chief. “I wouldn’t have said it either, anywhere else but in this room. But that’s the fact.”

He looked out the window again. “Phillips,” he said more quietly but grimly, “can you imagine what would happen if this gets out? I can see the headline in the National Enquirer now: ‘Spooks spooked by old lady spook.’ We’d be the laughingstocks of the intelligence world. The Soviets would lose all respect for us. The Chinese. Not to mention the president.”

The Chief swiveled his chair around and faced him.

“So, Phillips, I am not going to explain this to the president. We’ve made arrangements for this operation to be exposed in a different, more understandable way; an obscure magazine in the Middle East will publish something, which will be picked up and broadcast more widely. I think we can keep the lid on after that, but it won’t be easy.”

“Sir,” Phillips put in, “I’m not sure I really have a need to know all this, do I?”

“Good point, son,” the Chief said approvingly, “but it can’t be helped. The cover story will be all over the place in a few days anyway. In the meantime, you know what really happened, whether you need to or not. But you also need to know that if the real facts are ever disclosed outside this room, there are only two of us who could be the source, and one of us will be getting an immediate transfer to the Antarctica field station. And it won’t be me.”

An image said to be of the CIA facility in Antarctica. There are those who believe the penguin statue at right is cover for surveillance equipment.

Another sip from the big cup “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir,” Phillips said with emphasis.  He felt like he should salute. “You can count on me, sir.”

“I thought so,” said the Chief. “But there’s one more thing. Maybe you don’t really need to know this either, but you deserve to know it just the same.”

He lifted another sheet of paper from the file. “This is the only copy of my order canceling Agency support for the Enterprise, and telling our agents to get clear of it. It never left this room; the Special Ops people read it here, and it’s going into the burn bag before this day is over.”

Phillips started to say “Very good, sir.” But the Chief cut him off with another near-shout:

“–Then this morning when I came in, I found this on it–” He handed the sheet to Phillips.

There, across the paper, was the familiar red magic marker. “IT’S ABOUT TIME THIS WAS STOPPED,” the script declared. “NOW I CAN BE MORE AT EASE IN MY OWN HOUSE, AND IN MY OWN COUNTRY.”

Phillips’s eyebrows rose, and he handed it back. “What do you make of it, sir?”

“I hope it means she’ll leave us alone for awhile,” the Chief answered. “God knows there are enough spooks in this place already. She must not like intelligence agencies. Maybe they were against her religion.”

Phillips shrugged. “I wouldn’t let it bother you, sir,” he said. “I don’t think she liked coffee either.”

 


If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and on  and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

 

Trump & the Troops: Is the Party Over?

Here’s a speculation: For three years, Trump has been singling out American military commanders and lower-ranking troops and treating them like dirt. He’s also elevated some dirt bags, like the Navy Seal prisoner-killer he pardoned, who was hated by his own team members.

He’s toyed with whole units, sending them on phony-baloney, embarrassing “missions” to the Mexico border, to repel what all of them knew were imaginary, nonexistent immigrant “invaders.”

Further, he forced them to hold a Soviet-style parade (making them mimic the old enemy?) It was a completely superfluous ordeal for the troops required to be there in heavy uniforms and zipped lips. And he made them do it on a day when the Washington Post said “extreme heat and humidity will power through . . . the day and into the evening . . . . Overall, it’s going to be ridiculously hot and sticky on July 4, in Washington, D.C.” Temperatures were in the 90s, then it rained buckets.

The response of the generals was dumped in the last paragraph of the New York Times‘s report, but was unmistakable:

Trump: “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.” (And one person here is a craven draft dodger.)

The president announced months ago his intention to speak on Fourth of July. But it was just in recent weeks that he demanded a robust military presence, including tanks and fighter jet flyovers.

That led to a mad scramble in the Defense Department to gather the military leaders who would attend. The Pentagon was given only a few days’ notice that Trump wanted his defense secretary, all the Joint Chiefs and all the service secretaries by his side during his remarks.

Most of the Joint Chiefs were on leave or on travel and did not attend.

In September, there was another slap: most of the money diverted to Trump’s wall-building came from projects meant to benefit military families and their kids. CNBC put it pithily:

Pentagon pulls funds for military schools, daycare to pay for Trump’s border wall

Look close: can you see the schools and daycare centers for military kids?

The Pentagon said on Wednesday it would pull funding from 127 Defense Department projects, including schools and daycare centers for military families, as it diverts $3.6 billion to fund President Donald Trump’s wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Schools for the children of U.S. military members from Kentucky to Germany to Japan will be affected. A daycare center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland – the home of Air Force One – will also have its funds diverted, the Pentagon said.

A month later, Trump abruptly abandoned Kurdish troops who had fought & bled against ISIS for years on the U. S. side. Trump trashed their loyalty and left them to be slaughtered by the Syrian army without a backward glance.

I was raised in a military family; but that was long ago, and I haven’t been in the military myself; so I’m no expert. Even so, observing this long roster of chickensh*t antics, I felt it must be having some impact on opinion among U. S. troops. A great many of them still take what are called military values & honor with some or high seriousness.

Officially, they’re supposed to keep out of public politicking. But many of these troops vote. And there are large numbers of them in  North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and other states with pivotal races.

What this procession of follies adds up to is that Trump has repeatedly shown no more respect for the troops than for anyone else. These repeated shocks should have been pounding this ugly message home to many of those in uniform.

Nor is this merely an ego/image matter: these are the Americans who go into harm’s way, and stupid, reckless leadership ultimately produces needless casualties, in and out of uniform. Surely, I’ve been thinking, some of the troops must be getting fed up with this.

Could a shift in GI opinion make a 2020 electoral difference? Rhetorical question: in a tight race, for sure — say, the one facing Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, home of Fort Campbell, one of the largest army bases. Or Thom Tillis in N. Carolina, where more than 100,000 troops are assigned to Ft. Bragg and Marine base Camp Lejeune. Add family members and the numbers nearly double. Almost any move could tip the balance.

Sure, many servicepeople are strong Trump supporters. But the feeling is both not unanimous, and appears to be measurably slipping. The Military Times papers do such polls, and their most recent one was in mid-December. The summary of that tally was stark:
Military Times:

Military Times Poll photo.

“Trump’s 42 percent approval in the latest poll, conducted from Oct. 23 to Dec. 2, sets his lowest mark in the survey since being elected president. Some 50 percent of troops said they had an unfavorable view of him. By comparison, just a few weeks after his electoral victory in November 2016, 46 percent of troops surveyed had a positive view of the businessman-turned-politician, and 37 percent had a negative opinion.

The poll surveyed 1,630 active-duty Military Times subscribers in partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. The numbers likely reflect a more career-minded subset of the military than the force as a whole . . . .

“These are people for whom the morals and standards of the military mean a lot,” [military analyst Peter Feaver] said. “The president has criticized those same career workers in the State Department and other agencies. So, it’s possible they are more likely to be offended by the president than other parts of the military.”

More Military Times Poll data.

Still, Feaver said, the drop in Trump’s popularity in the poll (conducted with the same parameters over the past four years) indicates growing dissatisfaction with Trump and his handling of several military issues.

When asked specifically about Trump’s handling of military issues, nearly 48 percent of the troops surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of that part of his job, compared to 44 percent who believe he has handled that task well. That marks a significant drop from the 2018 Military Times poll, when 59 percent said they were happy with his handling of military issues, against 20 percent who had an unfavorable view.

Since these mid-December numbers came out, Trump ordered a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and brought the U. S. and Iran to the brink of war.  We have also seen publication of a book, A Very Stable Genius, by a pair of Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winners, that revealed a scene of Trump railing at top generals as “a bunch of dopes & babies”.

This week has been marked (so far) by the bum’s rush of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his uninvolved brother, Col. Yevgeny Vindman out of the White [supremacy] House like criminals, Alexander for the “offense” of doing his duty & complying with a legal subpoena, and his uninvolved brother for being — related.   These petty acts also made public fools of DOD higher-ups, who had vowed to prevent any retaliation.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

What will come next? There are many other currents swirling in the maelstrom of the 2020 election. But military servicemembers are citizens who whose votes will also count, and both their experience with Trump,  and their reaction to it will make their mark before it is done.

Midway City Update: Quaker David, Goliath & the Two Witnesses

The little church challenging the huge California Quaker megachurch (described in the blog post, David vs. Goliath, the “Friendly” Version, of January 30), won a round in court on January 31; but its reward was only a reprieve. The struggle over an aborted effort to help the homeless continues.

Joe Pfeiffer. The sign is valid for at least seven more Sundays.

Orange County superior court judge Thomas Delaney denied the motion from the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW), based in Yorba Linda, California, to dismiss a lawsuit by the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, California. The lawsuit  seeks an injunction to stop EFCSW from closing the Midway City church and firing its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.

Recap

In late 2017 and early 2018 Midway City took in several of the many thousands of homeless people who cluster and camp across Orange County, just south of Los Angeles.

Hostile neighbors complained to Orange county about signs of homeless people staying on church property, in violation of county codes. When an inspector wrote Pfeiffer a letter about it, he promptly but reluctantly complied, sending the homeless visitors on their way.

Cara Pfeiffer, right, with Friends at Midway City.

But when a copy of the inspector’s letter arrived at the EFCSW office, members of the Elders Board, made it the basis for a secret decision, taken March 27, 2018 to close the church, fire pastor Pfeiffer, and oblige him, his wife and their four foster children to vacate the parsonage behind the church.

Pfeiffer and his wife Cara were told of their removal and eviction in June. They were also told to vacate the parsonage within weeks.

The church’s membership, barely 30 people, rallied behind them and resisted the closure order. It was delayed for months, then on October 12, 2018, Midway City filed suit, asking the Orange County Superior court for an injunction to stop the closure and the firing.

EFCSW filed a motion for summary judgment, which argued that the Midway City lawsuit did not raise any issue the court had jurisdiction over. It insisted that EFCSW was a “hierarchical church” with total power over member groups like Midway City: EFCSW  owned the buildings and property, controlled the agendas and conduct of meetings, and could remove pastors at will, without appeal. Its brief claimed the First Amendment religious liberty provision protected the denomination from legal interference. It cited precedents where courts had declined to take up cases involving church doctrine and internal practices.

Midway City countered that EFCSW had in fact frequently violated its own rules with secret meetings and decisions that were not subject to review by the whole body, contrary to its own and other Quaker traditions. They also contended that EFCSW did not really own its buildings and property. Such violations they said, were subject to judicial remedies.

Court Hearing

At the January 31 hearing, Judge Delaney agreed that there were real questions about whether EFCSW’s actions followed its own rules, and thus summary judgment was not warranted. He scheduled another hearing on March 30 to consider the issues involved. Midway City won the day, but the reward was only a two-month reprieve.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Delaney.

What moved the judge? There were technical arguments about passages in the EFCSW book of Faith and practice, regarding quorums for meetings, and about various kinds of property deeds. Such is the nature of most civil litigation.

But there were also in the case file papers of a different sort. Two of these stand out: statements by veteran EFCSW pastors which bring a very different perspective on that body’s life. The two were from James Healton, of Sacramento’s Friends Community church, and Joe Ginder, from Long Beach Friends.

Their statements combined personal witness with long experience both in EFCSW and among Quakers. They directly challenged one of the denomination’s main claims, that it was a hierarchical church, governed by a Board of Elders at the top which was, for all practical purposes, sovereign.

This challenge proved to be risky, as we shall see. But first let’s hear from them directly:

James Healton:

I am the pastor at Sacramento Friends Community Church. Since 1974 I have been a member of the EFCSW . . . . I have served as a local pastor therein since 1982.

During the last twenty years, a number of changes to Faith and Practice were adopted by the Representatives. On the governance side of things, the trend was increasingly toward concentration of responsibility in fewer hands. Those who recommended these changes defended them on the basis that it was increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers to fill all the boards, committees and offices. Despite this trend, we were never told that the Elder Board had replaced the Representatives as the ruling body of the Yearly Meeting, without appeal.

I was present in the Representatives meeting when the language in Faith and Practice . . . was adopted, under the heading, “Essential Business of Representatives”. I asked for and received assurances during the meeting that the words, “The final decisions and actions on the following must be approved by the Representatives”, implied no limitation on what other business the Representatives were free to consider but only a limitation on what other bodies (including the Elder Board) could act upon. We never understood this language to mean that the Representatives could not discuss and decide upon any other matters of concern to them. I had not heard that there was such a limitation implied by that language until I heard it from the attorney for EFCSW . . . .

Moreover, Faith and Practice says that “Other business may be introduced from any of the local churches, Elder Board, and other boards, committees and task forces.”  . . . Again, this indicates that the Representatives have the right to bring any matter they choose before the assembled Representatives. If a church wishes to propose a decision to the Representatives different from one taken by the Board of Elders they are free to do so under the rules governing EFCSW the corporation. This would, of course, include the possibility of an appeal to the Representatives.

In all my years in the EFCSW denomination, I do not recall an instance where a church was closed against the decided will of its members. If pastors were removed by the Yearly Meeting it was on account of serious moral failings or because the local church was divided over their leadership and the Yearly Meeting was asked to step in to settle the matter. To my knowledge it was never the case that pastors were removed because of things like “poor leadership skills, lack of discernment as a minister, an ineffective ministry, inability to increase the membership of FCC, poor decisions” or even “misuse of church property … “ as has been alleged against Pastor Pfeiffer. Dealing with such matters was left up to the local church unless Yearly Meeting staff or other people were asked to help or offered their help.

In the case of Midway City, there was not an offer to help them meet the city code requirements. They were simply told that Joe Pfeiffer was fired, their church was no longer a church in the EFCSW denomination and they had to vacate the premises. Of course, had the church failed to meet the code requirements, there would have been possible grounds for discipline but the church did meet the city’s expectations. Again, this severe a response to a church in need is unprecedented in my experience of more than forty years in EFCSW.

I note that the charges against Joe Pfeiffer and Midway City Friends Church that they violated Faith and Practice were for actions after they had been removed from membership in EFCSW denomination by the Elder Board of the corporation.

These alleged violations all amount to one charge against them: that they objected to, and sought remedy for, the actions the Elder Board had taken against them.

The closing of Midway City Friends Church and removal of Joe Pfeiffer as its pastor represents a sharp departure from what I have known and from what I understood to be the relationship between the local church and EFCSW as a whole. I would also add that though

Pastor Joe Pfeiffer is unafraid to speak his mind I have never known him to be intentionally rude or mean-spirited in his remarks. He has high ideals that sometimes make us feel uncomfortable but it is always clear to me that he is motivated by good will toward others, including those with whom he may, at times, disagree. . . . They did, however object when Midway City Church was closed. To me this indicates that their motive was not to divide the body of EFCSW or vindicate themselves but to protect the interests of their flock and to defend the historic balance between EFCSW oversight and the rights of its constituent churches.

Joseph Ginder:

I have been a member of EFCSW since 1986 and pastor of Long Beach Friends since 1996. . . . I’ve been a representative to the Yearly Meeting / Annual Conference Business Meeting nearly continuously since 1987. The Yearly Meeting is a traditional term for the annual gathering of local Friends church representatives to decide upon the business of the EFCSW denomination as a whole. . . . Prior to coming to Long Beach, I grew up at Anderson First Friends within Indiana Yearly Meeting, soaking up Friends ways from my seniors. Many of my ancestors have been Quakers since the beginning of the movement. . . .

About hierarchy. I read a claim that the EFCSW denomination is a hierarchical church because our Faith and Practice invests authority in some that is not given to all. This is a distortion of the Friends way of doing business. Our Faith and Practice speaks clearly to this. We expect leaders to lead rather than to rule. We do not empower individuals or small groups of leaders to make decisions that disregard the sense of other members in good standing. We empower individuals and small groups to act and lead on behalf of the larger group when the larger group is not meeting, or when the smaller group has followed the Friends manner of making decisions within the larger body as a gathered people of God.

The Friends approach for a group of leaders to take on important decisions is to build unity and listen before taking a controversial direction, at least when a matter requires no urgent action. We always expect our leaders to act to try to build unity. Friends were cast out of a hierarchical church because we did not simply accept the decisions of the few in hierarchical leadership, despite their claim to divine right.

Rather, we held decisions up to the light of scripture and the leading of the Spirit. For this we were persecuted and imprisoned, some unto death. As a representative to the EFCSW denomination representatives business meetings, I have never agreed to or believed we were approving changes to our Faith and Practice which would allow a small group of leaders such as the current board to make decisions that could not be questioned or re-examined by our representatives.

The list of items of “Essential Business of Representatives” in Faith and Practice . . . is a restriction on committees and leaders, not on the representatives! Those who say otherwise are simply in error. [also] any EFCSW church can bring business before representative sessions. Several churches have not been allowed to bring items regarding FCC-MC to the representatives sessions in the past two years.

This is clearly in violation of our Faith and Practice. The representatives in session are the highest authority of our organization and can consider whatever business they choose; all of our churches have access to bring business to the representatives.

The elders board is not exempt from the Friends Way of Doing Business. Faith and Practice, p.33. This way of doing business embodies the value of building unity and seeks to prevent a few from imposing decisions unilaterally upon others without going through our business process of discerning the mind of Christ together. . . .

This description of our way of doing business applies between the Elder Board and other members, not just between members of the Elders Board. . . . We should never hear, “We didn’t have to ask you” as an excuse for excluding stakeholders from participating in the Friends way of doing business as has been done with FCC.

This statement directly contradicts Friends teaching. We are not a hierarchical church and never have been. While FCC (or the corporate elder board) cannot change the Faith and Practice of EFCSW without agreement of the Representatives. . . as Friends we do not empower one group as superior and relegate another as subordinate. Jesus is our Head. We are all subordinate to Him . . . .

I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that the foregoing is a true and correct. Executed this 15th day of January 2020 at Long Beach, California.”

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer came away from the court hearing with a sixty day extension of their residence, and eight Sundays for their church to gather in the home they had built and maintained for nearly ninety years.

Call to Worship on February 2, from the Midway City Facebook page; “Worship with us this morning as we explore Micah 6 and the habits of life that please the Lord and the ones that make his anger burn. Justice is at the center of a life pleasing to God.”

 

EFCSW Annual Conference

Later that same day, EFCSW opened its 2020 annual conference,  with a dinner for representatives from its 39 member churches in California, Arizona and Nevada. As noted by Joe Ginder, in most similar Quaker bodies, such events are called yearly meetings, and extended over several days, with a mix of business sessions, worship, family reunions, and social events. EFCSW had discarded that tradition, and compressed the gathering into one tightly scheduled Friday evening, followed by a Saturday morning session.

Among the attenders were Joe Ginder and James Healton. As they arrived for the opening dinner, they were taken aside by a member of the Elder Board, and shown a letter on a smartphone, addressed to them. The letter sternly rebuked them for submitting the statements, and warned them not to speak openly about the Midway City case during the annual conference. They were taken aback.

Ginder and Healton complied with the letter’s strictures. The evening went as planned.

Saturday morning was similarly programmed, with 35 minutes set aside for a “business session.”

As the meeting was getting underway, Cara Pfeiffer appeared, but members of the Elder Board quickly surrounded her and, despite her protests, firmly ejected her from the room.

Reports indicate that the “business session” lasted not much more than fifteen minutes, although it included formal approval of a $1,200,000 three-part budget, and a pre-selected slate of nominations for various boards. No one spoke about Midway City.

–Well, that last sentence is not quite right. In a packet of “Advance Reports,” Midway City was mentioned in print twice. The Elder Board’s report noted that “A challenge over this past year has been the ongoing legal issue related to the closing of one of our churches. Unfortunately, this issue has occupied a significant amount of the staff and elders’ time and energy. Continue to pray with us for a God-honoring resolution to this issue.”

Then under “Annual Budget,” EFCSW Chief of Staff Ron Prentice reported that “The 2019 General Administrative budget projected a year-end balance between income and expenses. However, the legal costs for the defense against the claims by FCC Midway City and the increase of one staff position from part-time to full-time are the two primary factors that caused our expenses to exceed our income by $111,000. As we look to 2020, the increases to personnel and our legal expenses have been included into our budget projections for the New Year.”  There were no reports that either item was discussed. (The letter read to Healton & Ginder reportedly told them that if they tried to speak about Midway, they would be ruled out of order.)

The business session was followed by a “Prayer initiative and Time of Prayer,” then adjournment for lunch and departure.

Testimony by ECSW staff in pre-hearing depositions made clear that they believed the nine-member Elder Board acted with full authority for EFCSW, 364-plus days per year, except for the abbreviated session on that one Saturday morning. The board also prepared the agenda for that annual half-hour. The Board’s meetings were private, and there was no appeal from their decisions. We have seen what happened to those, like pastors Ginder and Healton, who spoke of when practices were different for that body. Their temerity in submitting affidavits dissenting from the Elder Board’s understanding could be hazardous both to their jobs and the churches they served.

Joe Pfeiffer advised me that late this week there will be a court-sponsored mediation meeting between Midway City and EFCSW officials, to see if a non-judicial resolution is possible. Pfeiffer insists that would be his preference, but says EFCSW Elders have turned aside several such suggestions already.

And lest it be entirely forgotten, this multifaceted melodrama will continue to play itself out against the backdrop of a vast city in which thousands still sleep outside each night, and their number continues to increase.

An American/Orange County homeless camp: here today. Gone tomorrow. Back the day after.

 

 

David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the small church members and its pastors homeless.

The issue: the small church was helping homeless people.

Yorba Linda Friends Church. Its 18-acre main campus is best seen from the air.

The Goliath here is Yorba Linda Friends Church, which claims 4800 attenders weekly at its five campuses. Its home is an 18-acre complex, now being expanded again, perhaps best glimpsed from the air. Its website lists 84 paid staff. Its top pastors and prominent members also hold the key posts in the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (or EFCSW) as a de facto subsidiary.

Founded as California Yearly Meeting, the group has shed the “Yearly Meeting” label along with most other Quaker features, both corporately and operationally. The group’s main session, now called the Annual Conference, is set for this weekend. If the judge rules for them Friday, the gathering will likely see some celebrations, privately if not in the open.

Worship at Midway City Friends Church; plenty of room. However, the group’s membership has doubled from 10 to 20 during the Pfeiffers’ tenure.

The “David” figure in this drama is the Friends Community Church of Midway City, about a 20-minute (and two or three light-years’) drive from Yorba Linda. Although this group is nearly ninety years old, it is quite small: on a good week, its services draw maybe 30 people. But from all descriptions it is a tightly-knit congregation.

Cara and Joe Pfeiffer.

Midway City’s pastors are a couple, Joe and Cara Pfeiffer, who occupy a parsonage along with four foster children. The church pays them a pittance, and they are, in current parlance, “bivocational,” piecing together a modest subsistence with other work, while also pursuing doctoral studies at nearby Fuller Seminary.

The confrontation here brings into pretty stark view three converging, intractable issues of our American moment: inequality, homelessness, and the increasing fervor with which the affluent are preserving their comforts, among which is not having to see or deal with the other two, except on their own terms.

A bit of background: the Los Angeles region is under siege on more than one front. Most of us know about the fires; which we must leave aside here. Often lost in their smoke, but ever-present, is the steady rise of homelessness. This is, of course, a national phenomenon, but seems particularly acute in southern California.

A small stretch of the three-mile sprawl along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, 2017. It grew to include around a thousand homeless people.

In Orange County, the count of homeless persons increased from about 4800 in 2017 to over 6800 in late 2019. In 2017 a three-mile stretch of tents and camps grew along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, which winds through central Orange County in Anaheim. The burgeoning settlement was in sight of the Angels baseball stadium, Disneyland and the Ducks Hockey arena, and it rapidly became the tent-crowded “home” of nearly a thousand homeless. (A video bike tour of the stretch is here.)

The trouble that ultimately embroiled these two Friends churches could be said to have begun in late February 2018, when Orange County authorities swept through this three-mile bike trail stretch. There they rousted almost a thousand homeless campers.

In their wake was a vast swathe of trash and abandoned belongings which took weeks to clean up. At length, that stretch of trail was re-opened, and bicyclists had an unobstructed path again.

But where did the many hundreds of bike trail homeless go? One police official told reporters that the whole process was like stepping on a balloon: it might flatten out where you were standing. But then it swelled out somewhere else.

Midway City Friends Church. Its property is about one acre.

There were already plenty somewhere else. Several months before the river trail sweep, a few of them made their way to Midway City Friends Community Church. Two were a man and wife in a venerable RV. The husband had stage four colon cancer (he has since died). Details are sketchy, but they may well have been among the many who have been bankrupted by medical bills. Pretty soon a couple individuals joined them.

The church had some unused space.

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer were not planning to start a homeless shelter. But they faced what could be called the Matthew 25 Dilemma, drawn from Jesus’ scenario of the last judgment. Let’s review:

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:31 “When the Son of man shall come in his glory. . . 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. . .

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 

A bucket of needles, among the several thousand used syringes collected along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail after the homeless camp was cleared.

For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?38 When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Pfeiffers were well aware of how controversial these guests could be. But they are also serious Christians. In their theology, Jesus in Matthew was not laying out a program, like a presidential candidate, for curing homelessness; he was giving his disciples a command to “love their neighbor” by acting with sacrificial compassion.

It was chancy (it was for Jesus); but they did it. Quietly, they thought.

But, not quietly enough.

A hostile neighbor soon noticed the telltale signs: bicycle parts; bare mattresses visible through the windows of spare rooms; the itinerant RV lingering in a driveway. The neighbor called the Orange County Code Enforcement Office, which dispatched an inspector to the church. Shortly a “courtesy notice” was sent, stating that some of these items were in violation of county codes. If they weren’t rectified, the church could be issued a formal citation.

The Pfeiffers saw that the jig was up. Reluctantly they told their guests they had to move on, and tidied up the area. The inspector returned, found the church was in compliance, and no citation was issued.

Matthew Cork, head pastor of Yorba Linda Friends Church and Superintendent of the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. He sits on the Elders Board that voted to fire Joe Pfeiffer and close the Midway City church.

But in the meantime the County had sent a copy of the notice to Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW). Authorities there decided the incident was not over. In fact, it called for a decisive, if drastic response. On March 27, 2018, members of EFCSW’s Elder Board met with its top staff, and decided forthwith to

  1. Terminate the Pfeiffers, and instruct them to vacate the parsonage promptly; and
  2. Permanently close down the Midway City church, in April.
Ron Prentice. Before coming to Yorba Linda and EFCSW, he spent more than ten years in fulltime work to stop the legalization of same sex marriage, with Focus on the Family and the California Family Council.

The Pfeiffers were not informed of their firing until May 3, 2018. That news was delivered by Ron Prentice, Chief of Staff for both Yorba Linda and EFCSW. He takes the minutes of the EFCSW Elder Board meetings. But they and the congregation, while small, stoutly resisted and defied these dictates, and the closing/eviction dates were repeatedly delayed.

In August, the Elder Board, which asserts that EFCSW owns all its members’ church property, set what it thought was a firm closure date of August 31. But it was pushed back again, and in October 2018 Midway City filed a lawsuit, which claims EFCSW does not have any real ownership claim on the Midway City church, which was built and maintained from their own meager budgets,  and that EFCSW had violated its own rules and Quaker practices in its dealings with the Pfeiffers and the congregation. The closure/eviction has been on hold since then.

That’s what the judge will decide. And this shift of focus to the seeming arcana of “Quaker process” may make some readers’ eyes glaze over, I ask that they stay with us a bit, because there’s more here than meets the eye.

Because EFCSW’s top staff and much of the currently ruling Elder Board of EFCSW heavily overlap with the leadership of Yorba Linda Friends Church, the contrasts between it and Midway City ought not to be skimmed over. Let’s consider some of these.

First of all, the setting. A sign on the edge of Yorba Linda modestly dubs it “Land of Gracious Living.” And with some reason: as an old jibe puts it, the Quakers came to Yorba Linda to do good, and some (really many) have done very well indeed. They and their neighbors.

More than once recently, Yorba Linda was named the richest city of its size in the U.S.  Median household income ranged between $110-120,000 per year (probably higher now with the soaring stock market); a real estate site pegs the median house value as $850,000. Only 3.1% of residents are under the poverty line.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the city’s Wikipedia entry notes proudly that besides being the richest of its kind, “Yorba Linda is California’s most conservative large community . . . .” Voters there went two to one for Proposition 8, an effort to stop legalization of same sex marriage. (It passed 52-48%, but was later overturned.) In the 2016 presidential election, while deep-blue California gave Donald Trump only 31 percent of its votes, in Yorba Linda, Hillary took a bare 33 percent, to Trump’s 56 percent.

Midway City is not in fact a city, but an unincorporated area in Orange County, with no city council, schools or police of its own. Many residents like that; it keeps their local taxes down. Midway City is home to a large Vietnamese-American population, whose founders were refugees from the lost Vietnam War.

Twenty miles southwest, Midway City (which is not a city at all, but an unincorporated enclave in the larger town of Westminster) sits  several rungs down the economic ladder.

It’s not a slum, but homes are older, with values under $700,000. Median household incomes are around $47,000, and 13% of residents are under the poverty line. It is home to two trailer parks, plus apartment complexes for disabled, low income and homeless veterans. Here Hillary bested Trump: 51 – 43%.

More to our point, in the latest count of homeless, Westminster/Midway City tallied above 180, and its adjoining towns held 2000-plus. A few miles north, another 2000 were counted in a swath of suburbs running west to east across Orange County. Anaheim, even after the clearing of its notorious Santa Ana River Bike Trail, headed that list at over 1200.

And Anaheim’s northern boundary runs for several miles along Yorba Linda’s town line.

Yet once back past in the Land of Gracious Living, we are in a different world: amid their county’s simmering, surrounding, ever-expanding multitude, the 2019 recorded count of homeless in Yorba Linda was: 1.

[Not a typo: One.]

Not that Yorba Linda’s largest church is indifferent to the plight of homeless people. As its Chief of Staff Ron Prentice testified in a deposition, echoing the Matthew 25 quote above, “It’s actually a call of Christians to care for the widows and the orphans specifically from scripture, and oftentimes we would see homeless individuals in that light, and I believe that by providing shelter in — in — without — without risking liability or — or harm to the culture of the neighborhood, that would — that would align with my thinking, absolutely.”

And true to its word, Yorba Linda Friends Church, where Prentice wears another hat as, again, Chief of Staff, did mobilize groups to visit with and personally minister to the homeless three times in 2019.

Those homeless were Dalits, who are, as the church website put it, “the lowest of the low” in the caste system of India; 8000 miles away from Orange County. The ministry trips cost participants $3250 each.

Closer to home, the group’s concern to avoid “harming the culture of the neighborhood” was evident. The rulers clearly found the Midway City church, and the Pfeiffers, a liability in this regard. Further, the ruling EFCSW Elder Board asserts that it has full authority to deal with such liabilities. As the EFCSW’s book of Faith & Practice puts it, under the heading of “Final Authority””

“Thus EFCSW holds the spiritual and legal power among its churches to decide all such matters, including, without limitation, all organizational and operational matters. Its decisions are final. It can counsel, admonish, discipline, dismiss, or close its subordinate churches.”

Further, this authority is vested, on 364 days of each year, in its Elder Board, a group of up to nine, that meets secretly. On day 365 (which for 2020 occurs Saturday, February 1), a Representative Body gathers for a single session of usually under three hours, to approve the budget and nominations presented to it by the Elders. Information about these items is typically concise: the entire EFCSW annual budget summary for the 39-church group usually takes up less than a single page. [If that thumping sound you hear sounds like a rubber stamp, you could be right.]

It was not always done this way. The Midway City lawsuit argues that the Faith and Practice has been hijacked by a small group, mainly associated with Yorba Linda. The present “Final Authority” text was only inserted in 2011, and all real power has since been concentrated in the Elder Board’s hands, exercised in closed meetings, brooking no challenge, with no regard for the rest of the body, or previous Quaker traditions of broad consultation, open discussion, and sometimes extended seeking of consensus.

A prime instance was the Elders’ decision to terminate the Pfeiffers and close Midway City, neither of which were presented by the Elders to a Representative Body session.

BTW — taking possession of the Midway City church and its acre of land could provide EFCSW a considerable windfall. After all, as the beleaguered church keeps pointing out, EFCSW spent none of its funds to acquire the land, build or maintain the church and its other buildings. With land prices in southern California what they are, just selling the property could likely bring in millions

Has this occurred to anyone in EFCSW? A review of 2018 and 2019 Elder Board minutes turned up frequent discussions of and laments about the lack of funds to pursue their plans, and the need to find more funding sources. Further, in deposition testimony, EFCSW/Yorba Linda Chief of Staff Prentice acknowledged, “I did not deny that the future of the church is being discussed and the option of selling the property is on the table, [but] it was made clear to [Midway Friends] that the reasons for Joe’s dismissal from the position of pastor are based on our questions of discernment . . . .”  “poor discernment”

The charges of “poor discernment” and unacceptable behavior were indeed frequently repeated in Prentice’s deposition, and referred to in Elder Board minutes deposition. Asked if the reputed  behavior included moral, financial, or other such professional lapses, Prentice said no.

What then, specifically? Prentice responded,

“I’m aware of Mr. Pfeiffer’s comments through others during the process of the nomination of Matthew Cork to be considered as the superintendent in replacement of Stan Leach. I was not present at one meeting where Mr. Pfeiffer was vocal regarding the process of selection, and I was present at another follow-up meeting — the final meeting prior to Mr. Cork’s selection as superintendent where  Mr. Pfeiffer was again vocal and dissatisfied with the process of the selection of the superintendent, yes.”

Being vocal and dissatisfied with an opaque hiring process? Showing the temerity to question an Elders’ decision; in EFCSW,  these were grounds for termination & closure, with no appeal.

It’s also a clear enough signal, indeed a warning, to other pastors in EFCSW churches, where there are reports of murmuring and unease with the trajectory of Yorba Linda/EFCSW: speak at your own peril.

EFCSW’s response to Midway City’s suit comes down to repeating the passage on “Final Authority,” insisting that this power is vested in the Elders Board, acting on its own, and that under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, secular courts have no business interfering with such matters.

That’s why they will be seeking, in the court hearing on January 31, a summary judgement, to toss out Midway City’s  lawsuit on the basis that there’s “no there there,” nothing in it that the court could rightly adjudicate. They may be able to win the judge to this view.

That’s Goliath Quakerism.

Meanwhile, the homeless of Orange County huddle while their numbers grow; The Pfeiffers and their congregation wait to see if they will be joining them; the grand life in nearby privileged enclaves continues; and the credibility of much of American Christianity continues to diminish.

Ken Bradstock, Edward Hicks & Me

Ken Bradstock had something valuable to say. A lot, actually. Enough to fill a book.

I hope he got it down, on paper or on disk, whatever, before he died on January 22.

If I remember right, I first noticed Ken during the bad days of turmoil among North Carolina pastoral Quakers. Ken had been a pastor among them for awhile, and seemed to fit the profile: no city slicker,  a former marine, deputy sheriff turned PhD’d therapist and  hospice worker, from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hardly a radical. But somewhere along the line he read some Buddhism and also climbed off the “Christian” homophobia train, and the combination put him and the small group he then clerked in the crosshairs when the troubles came to North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

Ken Bradstock

But that’s not what I want to recall about him here. After that whirlwind passed, he and I corresponded  many times, via emails and Facebook. Struck by his vivid writing, I soon recruited him to write an essay for what was a called the “Narrative Theology” rubric in the journal Quaker Theology. Called “The Land” (online in full here)  I urged him to regard it as the first chapter of a book: memoir, autobiography, whatever. That became a standard, drill sergeant-style closing to my emails: “Write the damn book!”

He often replied: “I’m writing the damn book!” I hope he got enough of it finished to be a testament.

Here’s an example of why my hopes have been so high. An email exchange from 2017, which began when I sent him a photo of one of the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings by Edward Hicks, along with a special message from Hicks.

A print of the painting had sat for some weeks on a chair at the rear of Spring Friends Meeting, where I attend. Usually my phone (and its built-in camera) come to meeting with me, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the happenstance display.

The “special message” from Hicks was from a few years after his death in 1849. It came through a Progressive Quaker who was also a spiritualist medium, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York. It too is online, here.

Ken enjoyed the peculiar “spirit post.” But there was more to say:

From: Ken Bradstock
To: Chuck Fager
Sent: Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Subject: Re: Hicks’ Paper

I got interested in Hicks and the paintings after seeing one in Reynolda Manor in Winston-Salem. It’s not my favorite but I was awed.

One short story about the power of the paintings: I was leading a therapy group in the Child and Adolescent Psych unit at Baptist. We had a 13 year old kid who had severely sexually abused his sister and he was a hard case. They’d had him for months with no break-through. One of the kid’s defenses was to use is considerable intelligence to evade and attack with sarcasm. He was cold and they thought he might be a sociopath.

Edward Hicks was deeply affected by the Orthodox-Hicksite schism in 1827. He painted more than sixty versions of this biblically-based image of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” presumably to visualize his hopes for its repair. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the paintings became celebrated favorites of devotees of folk art.

I was doing a session with color copies of the Peaceable Kingdoms where in they picked the animal that they thought described them the best and then explain why to the group. Then they were asked to draw their own Peaceable Kingdom.

He suddenly got up and left the group with his drawing in hand and sought out a resident. Two hours later, I saw him in what looked like an intense conversation with the resident. The next day, the resident approached me quietly and asked what I did to the kid.

Edward Hicks, a self-portrait

Of course I didn’t do a thing, the painting reached his soul. The team asked me to describe the technique using the paintings. They said that he’s had a complete break-through, realizing what he’d done to his sister and had opened up to the resident for almost three hours. They finally could work out a discharge and follow-up plan with his treatment.

This was the most dramatic result I had with the paintings but there are many more in more subtle ways and more incremental steps toward healing. The tone of the groups working with the paintings were fairly identical. On one extreme, there would be a stunned quiet and on the other a sort of focused curiosity.  . . .

No wonder I kept shouting at him, “Write the damn book!”

A bonus: Here’s a snippet from “The Land,” about the family farm where he spent much of his childhood:

As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my mind to this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.

They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical Orthodoxy.

I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the land.

I hesitate to begin a description of her here because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.

Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under the house she used for a root cellar.

That damp room encased in stone would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s awe for her.

Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.

I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air. . . .

(Full text of the essay is here.)

 

 

 

Nuggets from a Mystery Reading Binge

Here are three  great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”

Yeah, they’re that good.

#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:

Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio. 

“What’s it all about, Crabbie?” 

He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?” 

“Aye.” 

“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly. 

“And if there is no God?” 

“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.” 

I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos. 

Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”

 – – – – 

#2- Tickling the Ivories

Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:

Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?” 

“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.” 

“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein. 

“Go on, then,” Patrick said. 

I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.” 

The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank. 

“You play very well, you know,” he said. 

“I’m rusty.” 

“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45. 

“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked. 

“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said. 

“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.” 

I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?” 

“Why?” 

“Because he was Haydn.” 

“Get out of my shop!”

– – – – – 

#3- The Big Belly Laugh:

Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway.  When she gets in his car:

She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference. 

“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.

“OK.” 

“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Because all proper tea is theft.” 

“You should put your seat belt on.”

[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]


McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,”  a post in his blog:

” .  . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.

But this is not my way.


I see things differently.


For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.

. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.  

Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.


So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“

 

 

 

 

The Hungarian Religious Resistance: a Mirror & a Beacon to Our Own

A report in The Guardian on December 28 compellingly describes the small, marginalized religious resistance to the self-described ”Christian” authoritarianism of the current Hungarian regime. In this sketch there is much to learn and reflect on for those Americans who feel called to a similar path.

The anti-democratic drive of the Viktor Orban government to undermine Hungary’s independent courts, media and other democratic processes is well-known. So is its unremitting hostility to the homeless poor, refugees, immigrants & LGBT persons, and incitement of anti-semitism.

What was less known, at least to me, is how much this burgeoning tyranny has been wrapped and sanctified in religious terms, as an expression of “Christian liberty,” intended to protect a version of “Christian culture.”  Also new to me is how similar its rationale is to reactionary evangelical/fundamentalist movements in other countries.

The Advent Statement logo.

Early in December a band of Hungarian religious dissenters responded by issuing what they call “The Advent Statement.” As I read it I noted that, if one replaced “Hungary” with the “US administration” & its cronies, much or most of its text could be an “American Advent Statement.” See if you agree:

We are calling,” it says, “for resistance to an arrogance of power that makes the concept of “Christian Liberty” a slogan for exclusionary, hate-filled and corrosive policy; a power that destroys the social fabric and eliminates useful social institutions; a power that systematically threatens democracy and the rule of law. We are concerned about the arrogance of power that mixes the language of national identity with the language of Christian identity in a manipulative way. We cannot let our freedom, given to us by grace in baptism, be taken away.

We are concerned by the narrow political usage of the concept of “Christian Liberty”. Our goal is to restore the dignity of this biblical and theological concept. Christian liberty includes freedom from causing harm to the other person and to ourselves, freedom from abuse, exploitation, ignorance and freedom for protecting the other person’s dignity and rights, as well as our own. In this light, we cannot be indifferent to the current state of affairs we experience in Hungarian society. . . .”

Their bill of particulars should also sound familiar to American ears:

Orban & the flag.

The authoritarian exercise of power is spreading around the world but especially before our eyes in Hungary. We are witnessing manipulation of electoral law and the use oflegislative and executive power in order to provide legislative protection for the corruption inspired by the state. This is a strategy of power that deliberately eliminates political differences of opinion through the eradication of independent media, spreading fake news, discrediting and character assassination, and harassment by authorities.
Because of this, in the name of Christian liberty we would like to be prepared to speak up and act unambiguously. . . . ”

One major difference between the two countries is that in Hungary (as in some other European nations), many churches are subsidized by the government, through allocations from taxes. These payments become an ongoing form of hush money:

Alexander Faludy, a vicar who spent years in forced exile during the time of Communist rule, acknowledges that “The state funding is important of course, acting as both a carrot and a stick” . . . . [Something like that is happening here too, see: “How Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups,”  For that matter, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush pushed through increases in federal aid to churches.]

But as a beleaguered Job noted in the Bible, “the Lord giveth & the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). He wasn’t talking about government funding, but the sentiment applies: the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, whose President, Pastor Gábor Iványi was instrumental in drafting The Advent Statement, saw its state funding withdrawn after the Orban regime consolidated its power. And maybe that’s why the larger Protestant groups in Hungary have not signed on to it.

Beyond direct funding, Vicar Faludy added, “there has also been a  comprehensive instrumentalisation of the churches [by Orban] through the power of prestige. The idea of participation in public life, for people who grew up under communism, when churches were systematically placed at a civil disadvantage, was very tempting. I think that in 2010 [when Orbán was re-elected prime minister] there was a sense of hope in the churches. Church leaders thought: ‘This government may be far from perfect but it’s a way of getting things done, for example of making sure there’s a Christian ethos in the schools.’ From speaking to people in the churches, I think they thought they could ride the tiger.”

Pastor Ivanyi speaks out in Hungary.

After 10 years in which Orbán’s grip on civil society has been relentlessly strengthened, Faludy says: “At best, the churches have chosen quietism rather than prophetic vocation.”

Of course, In the U. S., many prominent evangelical leaders are definitely not “quietist.” Rather, they clearly ARE “riding the tiger,” galloping, they believe, straight toward a promised land where their kind of “religious liberty” will be exercised to ban abortion, roll back LGBT rights, gain government support for their “Christian” schools & much more, so (with the rare exception of, say, editors of Christianity Today magazine), they show no inclination to get off.

Similarly, there’s as yet been no stampede among Hungarian churchgoers to join the Advent Declaration’s public dissent. And this should be no surprise to its authors:

“[Orban] is turning the Christian message on its head,” says Iványi. “Is there any other Christian country in the world where it is written in the constitution that you can be jailed for being homeless? Is it a Christian country where asylum seekers are not given the basic resources they need to survive? Is it Christian to use power to abolish media freedoms, the independence of judges and academic autonomy?

“In ancient Israel, the prophets spoke out against corruption and wickedness. We are now compelled to speak out. We might not be Isaiahs or Jeremiahs. But we take courage from their example.”

Yes, courage. Iványi and his cohorts will need it. The prophets they cite may now loom large in the Bible and the gospels. But in life, theirs was a lonely and frequently fatal career path.

It was also the path Jesus took, frequently denouncing the tiger-riding religious bigwigs of his day as the spawn of those who killed the prophets. And you see where that message got him.

I salute Pastor Iványi and The Advent Statement. And beyond courage, I wish them (& their American counterparts) stamina and determination:  the stories of the prophets also show that it took time, often lifetimes, of endurance, protest and lamentation for their prophecies of greater justice even to begin to come to pass.

Mayor Pete & his notorious (Christmas) Tweet

So how offensive is this?

“Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

That’s mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Xmas tweet, complete & unexpurgated.

Personally, I thought it was pretty cool, if one is into such things: respectfully restrained, but clear about his own stance. His being “out” about his faith, but not obnoxious or triumphalist, I find an appealing feature of his presence on the political scene.

But it’s blowing up the evangelical internet.

Rev. Dr. Darrell Scott of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for instance, didn’t put too fine a point on it: “When did you come up with that load of crap?” he explained.

One objection that’s been raised has some merit: it’s not likely that Mary & Joseph were “poor” in first century terms: they could afford to make the trip that took them thru Bethlehem, and likely had the shekels to pay for a bunk in the inn, if it hadn’t been sold out.

OTOH the cries that Jesus didn’t arrive as a refugee are more shaky. First off, he was “homeless” when he landed; staying in a stable was definitely not Doubletree. A lot of things have changed since then, yet stable smells abide . . . .

Then, when the angels quit singing and the three wise guys were gone, there were, you know, diapers, or whatever they called Pampers then. (Jesus may have had a virgin birth, but the prophets hadn’t said squat about a poopless parturition.)

Even worse was the news that King Herod had launched a massacre of male babies, aimed directly at him. I mean, how would he get into the right Betsy DeVos Christian preschool with a price on his head (and no security detail)?

So the parents swaddled the babe & high-tailed it to Egypt, where they were definitely refugees, for a good (if textually unspecified) while. And if they weren’t poor when they started, this long unplanned side trip — several hundred miles, on a donkey, thru hills and across desert, and the roads! (wait, what roads?) –had to bring them close to the edge. (For evidence, check the pictures of homeless camps in your state.)

Okay, whatever: SCOTT and a bunch of other preachers aren’t having it. Still, having their obnoxious “gospel” thus exposed, while it isn’t fun, could be valuable over time: if we’re going to have religion in public life, Mayor Pete’s way of showing it is much more appealing & manageable than that of the prattling theocrats who now cluster & preen around their golden(haired) calf in The Oval Office.

BTW I like Mayor Pete, but this post is not an endorsement.  Too soon for that, and I like others as well. But I do endorse his tweet.

As for Rev. Dr. Scott and his chorus, I can offer but an echo: When did you come up with that load of crap?

Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell

One day in 1980, I was at my desk on an upper floor of a  way-past-its-prime hotel that had become a staff office annex for the U. S. House of Representatives.

The onetime hotel that had been turned into the House Annex where I worked in 1980.

My boss — Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, wanted some information about an obscure part of a not-so-well-known energy bill: say, Section 227D of the 1979 Energy Act Amendments, something like that, and the request had been bounced down the office status ladder to me.

I knew nothing about the Energy Act or the amendments, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

But I knew who did know: Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan; or someone in his office. I think maybe Dingell even wrote the amendments. So I picked up the phone and dialed his office number.

By 1980, Dingell had been in Congress for 25 years; he would stay in Congress for almost 35 more.

John Dingell is sworn in as a Congressman by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in 1955. (But Rayburn served a mere 48 years.)

Dingell was a tough, tenacious Democrat, who was already high up in the House hierarchy. That meant he had lots of staff assistants like me, only likely better-informed, with more political hustle, who could set me straight, if they bothered to take the call from a Republican nobody. (My boss, McCloskey was a Republican, and this was the time when Ronald Reagan was eating Jimmy Carter’s lunch.)

The phone rang once, maybe twice, then was scooped up with a pre-cellphone rattle that meant the receiver was grabbed with alacrity, not reluctance.

“John Dingell.” said a voice.

What?? Err, uh, I, uh–”

If I was a coffee drinker, this was a java-spewing-from-my-nostrils moment. It wasn’t a receptionist. Nor an intern. Not even the assistant chief of staff.

The Boss. Himself.

When I recovered, I identified myself and my office and stumbled through my query.

“Sure,” Dingell said, and then reeled off the answer, clearly and concisely, as if I was calling from the White House, or maybe the New York Times (or the Detroit Free Press?)

I scribbled a couple of notes, and asked for clarification of one point, which he patiently offered. I thanked him, he said I was welcome and then it was done.

The call only lasted about three minutes. It took me awhile longer to recover my balance. Thirty-nine years later, I still have questions.

Why was Dingell picking up cold calls to his office phone? And why was he taking time to answer a rookie question from a minor league staffer from across the aisle?

And how, with hundreds of bills and laws and amendments streaming across his desk, day after day, week after week, was he up to the minute even on Section 227D?

(Would he have known Section 227C as well?? Probably.)

After much pondering, I’ve come to a simple answer: Dingell was a mensch, and a natural. He also didn’t have an inflated view of himself; he could, and did, speak to me as one colleague to another, from out of the blue.

It’s no wonder he was re-elected to Congress more times than anyone else in that body’s history.

Rep. Paul “Pete ” McCloskey. A war hero, but an anti-Vietnam war campaigner, and a fine public servant. But his is another story.

Now my boss, McCloskey was a fine guy. But if there’s a special gallery in heaven reserved for the best of Congress, I bet John Dingell has a seat in it.

I know that’s an iffy notion; Mark Twain concluded long ago that “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and we have recently heard much corroboration for that view, especially from one side of the aisle.

For that matter, my boss McCloskey argued, even before he left Washington three years later, that “Congressmen are like diapers. You need to change them often, and for the same reason.”

Your humble blogger, in a sketch from around this time, with daughters Molly (left) and Annika (right)

But still; I say IF.

I gather that some fatuous pretender recently spoke of John Dingell as being in hell.

It only took me about two minutes to learn, but I’m pretty sure I know otherwise.

More like vice versa.

There’s Still Time! (But not much.)

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In “Passing the Torch,” eleven varied & always interesting Quakers  share their spiritual lives, and reflect on the wisdom to be gleaned from them. Their stories are concise, compelling, and often provocative. Get it, share it  Here’s a link: https://tinyurl.com/s6sbhaz