My Quaker 50th Anniversary
My, how time flies, when you’re having fun. (And even when you’re not.)
This month, December 2015, marks the 50th anniversary of my coming among Friends. And much of that whole ongoing adventure can, for this purpose, be boiled down to four things:
A knock on the door;
Getting “The Letter”;
Riding the bus; and
Getting on with it.
The knock on my door came (as best I can recall) in early December, 1965, on Lapsley Street in Selma, Alabama.
Alabama in general, and Selma in particular, were extremely unlikely places for this to happen, among the least likely in the U.S. But it did, reflecting the recurrent tendency for Quakers to turn up where they are least expected.
My wife Tish, answered the knock, and then recoiled in fright. A young white woman stood there — and looked as scared as Tish did.
We were living in the black part of Selma, had been working with Dr. King’s staff in the voting rights movement for almost a year. There had been some violence, plus ominous, heavy-breathing phone calls to the house, that sort of thing. So we were cautious.
But as soon as the young woman spoke, her accent showed she was not a local, and Tish relaxed. In fact, she was a student with a group from a new Quaker educational experiment, Friends World Institute (later College).
At the school they studied problems (like racism) rather than conventional courses; and did this with a lot of “study travel,” trekking off in VW Microbuses to places far away from the school’s initial base on Long Island, New York. Places like Selma, where Dr. King’s office staff sent them out to canvass in black neighborhoods to find people of color who still needed to register. Which brought her to our door.
When Tish learned this, the newcomer was invited in. Soon she and Tish were chattering like old chums. That evening, the whole group came over, and we talked some more.
At first Tish was the most interested in the Quaker part; I was more or less an atheist, but had read that Quakers were against war, which was appealing to me. After working in Dr. King’s movement, I had been moved to apply for status as a Conscientious Objector, and to my surprise had been approved.
The FWI students and their staff knew all about C.O.’s; they even had some working there. In fact, the leader hinted, they might need some more. (They didn’t say what I soon learned: that C.O.’s worked cheap.)
As an approved C.O., I was obliged to do two years of non-military “alternative service work” that met certain government criteria. I hadn’t been looking very hard for such a job. But this possibility sounded like an adventure.
Long story short, I was invited to apply and was soon hired, as what was called “faculty,” but was more like being a camp counselor. Two months after that knock on the door, early in February, 1966, Tish and I took a long train ride north, and wound up on Long Island. Our destination was Harrow Hill, a big old estate which some rich people had donated as Friends World Institute’s temporary headquarters.
After breakfast the next morning, with butterflies in my stomach, I set out to meet my new boss, the school’s founder, a distinguished scholar and educational philosopher, Dr. Morris Mitchell.
I walked down an ornate hallway and knocked at the door of a parlor that had been turned into an office.
When the door opened, I had to look up to meet the eyes of its occupant. Morris Mitchell was a very tall man, still powerful and towering at the age of seventy-one. White hair, piercing eyes, and a strong, firm grip.
“How do you do, Dr. Mitchell,” I began, “I’m–
“Don’t call me Dr. Mitchell,” he said, turning back toward his desk, which was strewn with papers. I immediately caught his southern twang, softened by decades of northern exile, but still distinct.
“Call me Morris,” he continued, sinking into his chair. “I’m a Quaker, and Quakers don’t hold with titles. I don’t even want to be called ‘Mister.’ ‘Mister’ comes from ‘Master,’ and I acknowledge no man as my master, and don’t want to be master of anyone else.”
I stood there, dumbfounded but captivated. This next chapter, I knew at once, was going to be something very special.
And it was. Once settled in, between study trips, I listened to many of Morris’s stories (he was, as he said, in his “anecdotage,”) and became steadily more interested in this Quaker thing that had brought him from being a decorated but disgusted machine gunner in World War One to a pacifist visionary educator fifty years later. I soon began reading about Quakers: Fox, Woolman, the whole nine yards.
This study and experience (which has never really stopped) did not produce any dramatic “Damascus Road” vision (read Acts 9 for more on this) or an obvious religious crisis. The process was much more homely and less dramatic: I compare it to having worn shoes the wrong size for a long time, and then finding a new pair which actually fits. (Mundane, maybe; but that’s an important change, as anyone who has been through it can attest.)
Being among Quakers, and becoming one, hasn’t all been (root) beer and skittles. Indeed, my own conclusion is that one does not begin to arrive at a mature relationship to a faith group until one has had some hard times in and because of it. I’ll skip my gory details here, but at more than one point since meeting Morris Mitchell, I have wondered if it wasn’t all a mistake, a blind alley, or more grief & trouble than it was worth.
But after some reflection, I concluded that this was not so, at least for me.
Why not? The best answer is a kind of parable, about “getting the letter.” Here it is:
Back In The Day, when I was young, American males of a certain age (20-ish) got a letter which began “Greeting,” but was not about holidays. It was from Selective Service, the government agency that ran the draft for the U. S. Army.
“The Letter” commanded the reader to report for “processing” which usually culminated in being inducted into the army. Following these orders, readers soon were on a bus with a bunch of other guys, headed for an induction center; before they knew it, most were in uniform, with buzzcuts, marching and, for many of those years, headed for war. (A great evocation of this experience is Arlo Guthrie’s generational classic, “Alice’s Restaurant.”)
The bus is an important image: those of us bumping along on it might or might not share cultural and political outlooks; we might or might not be buddies or relatives; some of us might even despise each other. Nevertheless, we did have at least three things in common:
A. We all got “The Letter.” (In my case, the knock on the door.)
B. We got on the bus; and
C. When we arrived, we got to work.
Quakers who come and stay, in this parable, are those who got “The Letter” (a summons from the Spirit) who didn’t choose to avoid following its instructions. The “bus” was whatever Quaker activity or group we fell in with; and the “induction centers” are Monthly Meetings; they decide if our letter was legit.
Why a metaphor for Quakerism about getting “The Letter” for the draft? Because I regard Quakerism as a gathered or chosen people. (This idea is not my invention; it was the standard corporate self-understanding for about 200 of our 365 years). Those who “ride their bus” into the Society and then stay and make something of the experience are among those who “got the letter,” and responded to the summons.
For many, all this happened quietly and by degrees, as it did for me. And certainly, like the draft, getting “The Letter” was not a sign of moral superiority or special virtue; more like duty, and most of those who got them were not at all thrilled.
Nor did the summons come with any detailed explanation of all one needed to know about Quakerism, what Friends believed and (dis)believe, what we did and do, and what the whole point of it is.
Over time one can figure out a good deal of this, but even so, much about The Sender and the purpose for the summons still remains mysterious. (BTW the military evinces the same unfathomable opacity; just ask a veteran.)
It was reassuring when I discovered that’s also how it looks in the stories of some other of these gathered/chosen peoples, in their Bible: some things come to make sense, but much remains mysterious.This business some Quakers and others spout about an infallible Bible that lays out everything we need to know like a textbook, yada yada — they’re just kidding themselves.
As for this gathered-but-not-necessarily-better people called Quakers, there are some things about it that have come reasonably into focus for me after this much time: our “Quaker ways” are something like what in Judaism is called the Torah: a body of thought, rules and wisdom which is rather a jumble, endlessly argued over, but continues to evolve and be valuable. Similarly, Quakers even had our own “Promised Land,” called Pennsylvania, in which they undertook a “Holy Experiment,” which achieved some remarkable things for themselves and others — but which, rather like the Children of Israel, they also botched up pretty thoroughly.
Along with exploring this fascinating but less than entirely lucid history, Quakers who pay attention will ultimately find their part in Quaker work; their “leadings.” And another learning for which I’m very grateful is that Quakerism’s unfinished character has meant that there are plenty of opportunities to do “serviceable” Quaker work.
By “Quaker work” I don’t necessarily mean getting a Quaker paycheck, though I have collected some. But there are not many paid Quaker jobs; the Society has kept our superstructure skeletal, and our collective giving low, and a mostly volunteer church is what you get with that.
But there is plenty of Quaker work. I’m a writer, and much of my Quaker work has involved that. And when one Friends project I’ve worked on has finished, petered out or been thwarted, after some recalculating and discerning, I’ve found other Quaker work (and fun) to take part in. Plus it’s not all prescribed: there’s room for imagination and daring. (Also mistakes.)
In my Quaker “career,” besides writing, I’ve raised funds, started an art gallery, organized conferences, overseen a major house renovation, drove thousands of miles in a VW Microbus, got tear-gassed, clerked this and that committee, helped eat innumerable potluck suppers, tried to prevent/stop several wars (and failed, alas, but haven’t given up), visited jail, been to jail, got kicked out a few times (didn’t stick), collected old & new Quaker jokes, and even spent significant periods (believe it or not) keeping quiet.
At this point — this is the faith part — I remain persuaded that God/Spirit still has plenty for the Society of Friends to do. That’s a definite discernment, because I also know that religions, churches, don’t last forever. The need they answered, the call they heard, may have been fulfilled; or the Spirit, like the wind “blows where it wills” and may have simply moved on. I once visited the Shaker village at Sabbath Day Lake in Maine. A remarkable group; all that’s left is museums.
That could happen to Quakerism; and don’t get me started on all the things Friends could be doing better. But with all our shortcomings, it doesn’t need to.
Certainly I’m not done yet, though the years pile up and the energy flags. Fifty years of it has often left me tired out, but not finished.