Grace In Your Face: Remembering Bill Kreidler
First written Summer 2000
One of the finest, most eloquent ministers of this generation of liberal Quakers, William J. “Bill” Kreidler, of Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, died on June 10, 2000. That was a time to mourn, and also a time to remember, and to pay tribute. And today, more than a decade-plus later, remembrance and tribute are what I want to do here.
Of Bill’s biography, I know only a few scattered facts: He was from a farm community in western New York, and grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. He began college in Buffalo and finished in Boston, where he became a public school teacher. He was gay. He wrote books about conflict resolution in schools, and did consulting with school systems on violence prevention. Where and how he came to Friends I don’t know; but he was a founding member of Beacon Hill Meeting.
My first memory of Bill is from St. Lawrence University, at the FGC Gathering of 1984. I was leading a workshop, my first for FGC, on the Basics of Bible Study, and he was in it.
Well, partway in it anyhow. As I recall, he spent most of those weekday mornings perched on the sill of an open window, there on the second or third floor of our old classroom building. I didn’t think he was going to jump out; it was brutally hot, the building was not air-conditioned, and he was trying to breathe.
But at the same time, he did seem to be keeping a safe distance, a space between him and the dangerous book I was waving around, and maybe the bearded breeder who was waving it as well.
During the workshop we spent a lot of time reading aloud the story of David, Jonathan, Saul, and Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, as I had culled it from the First and Second books of Samuel. This is a gripping, mournful story, which I called “The Bible as Soap Opera,” and perhaps it went on too long, especially given the weather.
But all through it, there is a clear image of Bill, still on the windowsill, head cocked to one side, paying close attention as we plowed through this saga of love, betrayal, death, and loyalty beyond death. Glancing over at Bill from time to time, I wondered if something about it was sinking in. I now think that it was.
Three years later, Bill and I met again at FGC, this time in Oberlin, Ohio. The weather was better that week, and we sat down on a green lawn and asked each other how we were doing. My story was pretty routine, but Bill had a saga of his own. He was, he said candidly, coming out of a bad relationship and a long cocaine addiction. He had found the support and love at this FGC Gathering, especially among the gay Friends, to make a turn toward the twelve steps. Things were looking up.
There was much more to this remarkable story, but I didn’t hear it until a few years later, when someone gave me a tape of Bill’s keynote talk at the 1989 Midwinter Gathering of Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. On the tape I heard a polished storyteller, but one who was using his talents and gifts for something far beyond a mere performance.
“I’m 36 years old,” he began, “and I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.
I want to be an old Quaker lady.”
Over the laughter, he continued:
“I don’t say this lightly; I have thought long and hard about growing up to be Gene Kelly. I never learned to tap dance, though–at least not yet.”
As the chuckles died down, he explained that “old Quaker ladies” weren’t necessarily either old, Quaker, or even ladies; this image was a metaphor for a kind of spiritual centeredness that he had lost, and was now slowly, painfully working to regain.
“This is a really pitiful story,” he remarked about halfway through. “I tell it well, but it’s a really pitiful story.”
The twelve step pilgrimage he recounted was familiar in outline; it retold, as most of them do, the story of “Amazing Grace,” lived out: he once was lost, in a maze of drugs, alcohol, and abuse; but now he was being found.
Some of his specifics were new, though, especially when he got to the part about a spiritual awakening. In his report of it there was, as I expected, some familiar Quaker names, Fox and Woolman; but more important, it turned out that Bill had discovered, or been discovered by, some of the key women saints in the western mystical tradition, especially Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila.
“Terry and Julie,” he called them, making us laugh, but not making a joke of it. They too, had remarkable stories, which meant a great deal to him. He had been taken on what became a long-term version of what Quaker writer Douglas Steere calls “the journey in,” by way of prayer and related spiritual disciplines. He wasn’t sure where it was leading him. He wasn’t sure how it all fit together. But it did fit. And he was willing to let us in on it.
Even on my tinny old cassette tape, the eloquence and depth of Bill’s presentation–his witness, really–still comes through clearly, almost three decades later. (You can read a version of it online here ; but really, his estate needs to release the tape for hearers to appreciate the full power.) It was a sermon, but like few I had ever heard, especially among Friends: equal parts polished standup comedy, wrenching personal confession, and straight-out preaching. It was at once ego-tripping, deeply humble, and entirely compelling.
Further, while many of the religious themes of Bill’s talk were traditional, their context was not: for him, the saving community had been, not a conventional church or even a meeting, but rather the group, Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (now FLGBTQC).
While by 1989 FLGC was essentially an accepted presence at the annual FGC Gatherings, this acceptance was still relatively new, and not uncontroversial (as it still is in some places). Furthermore, FLGC, like all other such groups, was feeling the impact of the AIDS epidemic, and the ramifications of this crisis were still sinking in.
One of these ramifications was the targeting of gay and lesbian groups as a locus of personal and social evil by powerful and very vocal forces in society at large. To have a member of such a group describe it so convincingly as a vehicle of personal salvation was very much at variance from this reverberating public chorus, and Bill’s audience was very moved by his affirmation of it.
Not that there was any politics in his talk. Rather, one of the points he most wanted to make was that, “As lesbians and gays, I think that joy is one of the things that we have to offer. And I don’t just mean that we have better taste and more fun. Although of course, we do.”
When he closed with by evoking an image of FLGC at its best as, “a room full of old Quaker ladies, and they all were tap-dancing,” it’s a safe bet there was hardly a dry eye in the meetinghouse.
Whether Bill knew it then or not, talks like this soon launched him on what Friends call a public ministry. He was already well-known in educational circles as a consultant to schools on conflict resolution and violence prevention.
This was a job he had essentially created for himself, growing out of his work as a schoolteacher in tough Boston public schools. Soon he was combining this work with his ministry among and to Friends.
What I know of Bill’s career as a public Friend over the next four years is based on two more taped talks, one to New York Yearly Meeting, and the other to his own in New England. Both are powerful but quite different presentations, which clearly show him maturing in his spiritual life, while coping with an ongoing series of new challenges.
He came to New York in 1991, a year after that body had nearly come apart in a bitter controversy over involvement in Wicca among some of its visible members, and in a time when it was still wounded and seething. (More about that New York upheaval is here .) Bill tells them he knows about this, but does not refer to it directly. Instead, he recalls a saying of a Boston Friend, who sagely observed that, “Whenever we think we have things all worked out in life, God will send us ‘lab practice,’” usually in the form of conflict.
As a template for reflecting on conflict among Friends, Bill used slides of paintings by the 19th century Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks, from his well-known series on the Peaceable Kingdom. These paintings were a favorite of Bill’s; he had, he said, long had a postcard reproduction of one painting taped over his desk, representing both an aspiration and an ideal, especially for his work as a teacher. He had also studied Hicks and his work, and explained how both were very much influenced by conflict, especially the Hicksite-Orthodox Separation of 1827, which Hicks lived through and found very traumatic.
With these images in mind, of the lion and the lamb coexisting, not without conflict but somehow in spite of it, Bill urged the New Yorkers to work at regarding conflict as a gift from God, something to be worked through carefully and prayerfully.
This reads like a pious platitude when I write it down; but then, I lack Bill’s gifts. His presentation was informed, subtle, profoundly insightful, and again leavened generously with humor.
“People often ask me where I received my training in conflict resolution,” Bill told them, “and I say, ‘I taught third grade.’” (Chuckles, as he paused.)
“‘And–I clerked Friends meeting.” (Laughter)
Listening again years later, I am convinced this presentation must have been both soothing and encouraging to the New Yorkers; and the record shows that they subsequently worked through this conflict with considerable success.
Two years later, in his keynote at New England Yearly Meeting, Bill had conflicts of a different, more personal sort to talk about. His subject was spiritual storytelling, which he said he loved to hear, as a key part of the life of a vital faith community. As part of this, he spoke in a summary way of his own addiction and recovery; but by this time, four years after his FLGC talk, there is much more serenity in the narrative.
He then turned to the experience, decisive for gays and lesbians, of coming out.
“Coming out,” he explained, “is not a confession, and it’s not a celebration either. It’s a process, first of all–it’s a process of coming into one’s authentic self.”
And as part of this ongoing discipline of authenticity, he had come that night to describe a new stage in his own personal story, namely “coming out” as a Christian. This “coming out,” he explained, was something unexpected but undeniable. It had been something he had to do first for himself, and it was also something which did not change his identification with the gay and lesbian Quaker community. But this new chapter of his own story was one he could not withhold.
It happened during a time, Bill explained, when he was dealing with very serious health problems. One morning, half awake, he said,
“I had this dream….I dreamed that Jesus was walking toward me. and Jesus got very close to me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘When things grow dimmer, you always have me.’ Then he walked away.
“And when I woke up and remembered the dream, the first thought I had was, ‘Well I wasn’t really asleep, so it doesn’t count.’ But then I thought, ‘Mmm no, if Jesus appears to you in any kind of a dream, it counts.’
“So then I thought about what he said: ‘when things grow dimmer….’ And then I decided that on top of everything else, I was going to go blind. And then I calmed down, and realized that it really was a very simple and straightforward message. Jesus was saying that if I needed him, he would be there for me. In the times when I was blind, he would help me see.
“And during the next few weeks I realized something else: I did need him. To my surprise, I realized that I had a new companion on my spiritual journey. I didn’t expect this companion; I didn’t expect that it would be Jesus; I didn’t expect he would ever be this important to me. But at this stage in my spiritual journey, he’s exactly the companion that I need…. And, to be honest, I’m a little amazed, and a little uncomfortable sometimes to hear myself say, ‘I’m a Christian.’”
I won’t try to summarize Bill’s very personal Christianity further, because I didn’t get to talk with him about it in depth. But it was clear from the New England presentation that it was both deeply felt, and at the same time hardly orthodox. While learning form the lives of the saints, Bill remained at home in the resolutely polymorphous theological stew that bubbles among gay and lesbian Friends–and other unprogrammed Friends as well.
As he put it, quoting a Friend in his spiritual support group, “It’s amazing how different we are, all in the same way.”
He acknowledged feeling uncomfortable with some of Jesus’ more loudly self-identified spokespersons, but what others said did not change his own experience and commitment.
It’s important to note here what Bill’s “confessions” were achieving in his context. A great many unprogrammed Friends are religious refugees, mainly from Christian denominations, and many of us bring lots of negative baggage about “churchianity” with us into the Society. And what is true generally is, I think, doubly true among many LGBT Friends, almost all of whom have a consciousness of being stigmatized by mainstream Christianity, and even in some branches of Friends.
In this setting, Bill was both embodying and articulating a process by which, if not Christianity, then at least Jesus, was being “rehabilitated,” and revived as a potentially meaningful figure in the religious life of a wide swath of this constituency. Again, this bare summary can hardly do justice to Bill’s voice and influence; but it was major, and felt far beyond the lesbian and gay Friends community.
Just how powerful his impact could be was shown the following year, when Bill gave a major talk at the FGC Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts. I have a tape of this talk too, but was greatly favored to be on hand when it was given. By this time, for those of us who followed his work, Bill’s themes were becoming familiar, especially the emphasis on spiritual storytelling. But familiarity was hardly breeding contempt, because with each of these talks, there was something new and more moving to take away.
In Amherst, Bill again “came out,” not merely as a Christian, but also as a person with AIDS.
There were gasps when he acknowledged this; he had seemed too healthy, too animated and ebullient, for such a fate. Besides, the conventional outcome of the “amazing grace” scenario is that the redeemed sinner–like John Newton, the former slave ship captain who forswore slavery and wrote the hymn–goes on to a long and fruitful career of good works and evangelism. I’m sure I was not the only one there who felt personally affronted by the suggestion that Bill’s recovery and faithfulness might not be thus rewarded.
But Bill did not permit us to wallow in shock or dismay. His own account of coming to grips with this diagnosis was too excruciatingly funny for that. He led us through what he called his “broccoli phase,” when he looked at ordinary things like vegetables with a sudden and almost mystically intense appreciation. “‘I’ll never,’” he quoted himself at the time, “‘take broccoli for granted again.’”
But this period, he added, passed: “Now I see broccoli and say: ‘Dollar twenty-nine a pound? I’ll take the cabbage instead.’” Life goes on, even in the face of death.
Moreover, the disclosure of his AIDS, while the blockbuster item in the talk, wasn’t his main point, which was centered on leadings, and the importance of following them faithfully, regardless of our circumstances, as long as we can. And despite his diagnosis, as he repeated and reassured us, “I’m fine.” He was healthy and doing healthy things, and life and work continued. Besides his consulting on conflict resolution in schools, Bill was also giving workshops on Terry and Julie, prayer, and forgiveness.
(A footnote here: friends who are knowledgeable in the field tell me that Bill’s published work on conflict resolution in schools is the best there is, and that his consulting work, which took him to many places in the world, earned him a lifetime achievement award from the National Conference on Peace and Conflict Resolution. This side of him clearly warrants a separate account and tribute; but I don’t know it, so it will be, regretfully, almost completely overlooked here.)
By the time his talk was finished, it had been one helluva memorable night for Quakers in Massachusetts. But Bill’s contribution to that day, it turned out, was not yet done.
After the plenary, in another auditorium, there was a concert. This room was smaller, and not air-conditioned. The few hundred of us who crowded, sweltering, into its seats had come to hear what was the farewell performance of a remarkable ensemble, the (stay with me now) “Free Grace Undying Love Full Gospel Quaker Choir Sing and Be Saved.”
This was a group of seven New England Friends, who had spontaneously found themselves around a piano and a hymnbook a few years earlier, and then felt led to keep singing together. They had given several concerts in the region, and even put out a tape, called (what else?) “Grace in Your Face.” Word about their performances had spread rapidly in Quaker circles.
The choir’s organizer, dynamic center, and tenor, was Frederick Evans, a gay Friend with a flair for the dramatic. Fred Evans was a very good friend of Bill Kreidler’s; in fact, it was Fred who had introduced Bill to “Terry and Julie” at that fateful 1987 Gathering in Oberlin, and who had run the projector with the Peaceable Kingdom slides during Bill’s New York address.
But Fred Evans was also being memorialized in this concert, because he had died a few months earlier, of AIDS. That night the choir arranged itself around the microphone with a space at the center where Fred, their tenor, would have been. Between songs, they came forward one by one to bear their personal testimony, and speak of Fred and what he had meant to them and others. They were a theologically diverse group, as these lines from one of their songs put it:
“Some of us think Jesus Christ is di-vine–
Others take a universalistic line;
But though we disagree,
Still we sing, sing, sing and be saved.”
Then, in between numbers, a new figure came bounding out on to the stage. It was Bill, in white shorts and tee shirt, and an incongruous pair of big shiny black shoes.
But these were no ordinary footwear: they were tap shoes, and Bill Kreidler commenced to tap dance for this crowd, with vigor and some style, in memory of his friend.
God help me, I can’t begin to describe the impact. We were weeping and laughing at the same time, sad and exalted in a way that stands out in my thirty-plus years of attending FGC Gatherings. I wrote the next day, in the session’s newsletter, the Quaker Free Press, that it was the closest FGC ever came to a revival meeting, and if Bill or someone had given an altar call, there would have been a rush to the stage by even the least theistic in the house. “I think that joy is one of the things that we have to offer,” he had said in 1989; and that night he delivered. Tap dancing old Quaker ladies, indeed.
Time kept passing, the choir disbanded, and I heard Bill speak only one more time, in the spring of 1995. By then I was on the staff at Pendle Hill, organizing something called a Quaker Theology Roundtable, and I persuaded Bill to come. Not only did he come and talk, but I also managed to shake a written version of his presentation out of him. He published very little of his ministry work.
(I acknowledge feeling quite proud of having wrung the paper out of him. But it was not my charm or good looks that persuaded him to write it down; it had more to do with hanging on to his honorarium check until the text arrived.) The piece was included in the Pendle Hill collection of Roundtable presentations, called, New Voices, New Light. (not online, alas.)
In this talk, Bill summarized what had become the major themes of his ministry, which was aimed, he said, at promoting spiritual revival among the unprogrammed branches of Friends. As always, it began with the personal:
“Like many people, I see my spiritual life as a journey. Step by step, concrete, down to earth, practical. A journey with smooth parts, rough parts, unexpected and sometimes unpleasant detours, places where I almost gave up, corners I turned and found visions of unexpected beauty, times I could only sit on a rock and cry in despair. A journey where some of the tiniest details became immensely important.”
Reflecting on this journey, he had four points to emphasize: the need for spiritual storytelling, for nurturing our communities, for following follow spiritual disciplines, and for discerning and following leadings. He spoke about “Terry and Julie,” the Peaceable Kingdom paintings, and his own addiction and recovery.
Again, these sound like truisms in this bald summary, which hardly does them, or him, justice. Moreover, this presentation was not as funny as some of his earlier ones, perhaps because, as he said, the rubric of “theology” was strange to him and he wasn’t as relaxed addressing it.
Nevertheless, his talk was brisk and arresting, and the essay clear and concise. By 1995 Bill’s reflections on his journey had taken a coherent and persuasive form.
I rushed to get the book of Roundtable papers into print in time for the FGC Gathering that year in Michigan, to show to him and others. I made it, but the debut didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. Bill saw the book at the Gathering bookstore before I did, and he came up to me in the hall outside the bookstore looking stern and announced, “We have to talk!”
I followed him back inside, still feeling proud of my work. But then he was waving the volume in my face and pointing to the cover–which I thought was rather well-designed, and equalitarian besides, with all the contributors’ names listed in alphabetical order. His was prominent among them, in bold type: “Kriedler.”
Did you catch it? It was only at that moment, with Bill standing there, furious, that I did: His name was misspelled, “ie” not “ei,” and on the cover; my proofreading had missed it. Instant humiliation.
He said he forgave me, but Bill had his pride too, and was something of a perfectionist. I still cringe when I see that cover.
After that, I only saw Bill a few times, at Pendle Hill, usually briefly. The last time he told me that something disturbing was happening to him: he was having bouts of depression, which he attributed to side effects of the anti-AIDS drugs he was taking. Such experiences were new to him, he said, and he didn’t know quite what to do about them. I tried to speak comfortingly, no doubt in cliches, I hope not inanely. What do I know of such conditions?
One other thing I said, though was to renew a plea made to him several times over the years: to write down and publish some of his talks. They were, I urged, too good, too valuable a ministry to leave in the obscurity of a few tapes. Bill’s replies were mostly evasive, but once he said he was working on a book, and hoped to sell it to a major religious publisher. I don’t know what became of this project.
(I hope his executors can be persuaded to get something into print, and put the audio online.)
Bill’s public ministry, unplanned and evolving as it was, had a major influence on the atmosphere and spirituality of FGC Quakerism in the 1990s and beyond. It is also a testament to the verse in the Gospel of John that the spirit blows where it will, unpredictably. Who would have thought that a homosexual male Quaker would be the one to bring a motley crew of universalist Quakers back to the point of taking seriously such figures as medieval women saints–not to mention Jesus? And keep us laughing all the way to the foot of the cross? So it goes.
I only know of Bill’s last years by second hand report. It’s clear his health was deteriorating, and in 1999 he developed an aggressive AIDS-related cancer. Among his last journeys, I’m told, was a visit to the large exhibit of Edward Hicks paintings, including many of the Peaceable Kingdoms, which was then on tour around the country.
Those close to him report that Bill’s passing was peaceful, and among Friends. His memorial meeting at the 2000 FGC Gathering was large and covered. A display of photos of Bill, mostly at Gatherings past, was mounted in the Gathering’s art gallery. Among them was one of him, in white shirt and shorts, tap dancing madly that unforgettable night in Amherst.
Dance on, dear Friend. And as the Jewish prayer goes, “may his memory be for a blessing.” And let us not lose track of his ministry.
More “Dog Days” posts . . . .