Friend (or rather, ex-Friend) Joshua Ashlyn Humphries, a banished Quaker and Anabaptist prophet/theologian, is dead, at 39.
Dead, and it’s a damn shame.
A shame for Quakers, Mennonites, and some others. I feel shamed too. But he was not an ex-Friend to me.
The official obituary does not say how or where he passed; presumably in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had lived for more than ten years. It settled for the piously evasive: he “went to be with the Lord on Thursday, April 29, 2021.”
Yeah, sure; but what ticket did he ride?
The silence here leaves many questions: Josh had serious medical conditions (of which more anon); but just a couple of days earlier, in his last Facebook posts, he was both worn out — and intellectually busy:
The April 27 Facebook post is a paraphrase from one of Josh’s favorite biblical books, the skeptical Ecclesiastes (aka Qoheleth, or “The Teacher”). It’s more familiar in the stately King James rendering: “Vanity of vanities — all is vanity and chasing the wind.” (The “sardonic laugh” was his addition, but it fits.)
Josh was widely-read in theology, and took it seriously. And as it has for some of the best of his kind, the theologizing repeatedly got him in trouble.
Born in 1981 in Salem, a suburb of Roanoke, Virginia, he was raised deep in southwest Virginia’s evangelical-fundamentalist religious culture. But he was also exposed to modern music, and he says he even took part in some all night dance “raves.”
After one such marathon session, on a Saturday in 2001, he was still awake Sunday morning, and decided to attend a different church, and found his way to Roanoke Friends Meeting, part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM).
It stuck, even over the vehement objections of his parents: his father told him he was joining a cult. Soon he was attending BYM annual sessions, and showing up at the Religious Education Committee. Which is where I met him.
For several years we were part of a small, scattered group that worked to make a previously near-moribund RE committee a live part of BYM sessions. We invited speakers called Friendly RE Consultants, or FRECs (rhymes with “Freaks”). As bait we paid the kitchen to make big sheet cakes, which we parked outside after supper and let Friends, especially kids, go nuts on them with bright sugar sparkles and tubes of colored icing before digging into slices; all under posters urging them, or rather their parents to “Teach First Day School.”
We mostly had fun, but our antics turned appropriately solemn for the 2006 session, when we called in several FRECs to help BYM mourn and process the murder of our member Tom Fox, who had been doing peace work in war-torn Iraq.
Then the money ran out, one of our key members succumbed to cancer, I moved to North Carolina to do my bit in the (anti) war, and our RE effort petered out. Josh, in the meantime, had been living with his now-divorced parents, first one, then the other, and basically got run out by each. Besides having joined a “cult,” he came out as gay, which was maybe worse. In 2007, he managed to move to Charlottesville VA, and began attending Charlottesville Meeting. He hoped to be able to help with First Day School; he liked kids.
That same summer he was in a terrible car crash, in which he was badly hurt and his passenger died. He showed up at the BYM sessions in August, mostly recovered, wearing a jaunty neck scarf covering the fresh scar from where a tube had been surgically inserted in his throat after the wreck.
That was bad enough, but an even worse shadow hung over the BYM gathering: in April, at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg VA, a shooter had killed 33 students and staff and wounded 17 in a rampage that traumatized the whole region and dominated national and much world news for days.
It’s hard to remember it now, but it was the worst civilian mass shooting in the U.S. up to that time.
What did that terrible day have to do with Josh, or BYM? From one angle, not much. The yearly meeting met in Frostburg, Maryland, a five hour drive north from Blacksburg.
But in other aspects, a lot: many BYM meetings were near campuses, or in college towns; many members were academics, or academic adjacent. Lots of us (me too) had been to Quaker gatherings at Virginia Tech. One BYM Friend had even been tapped to help lead Virginia’s commission investigating the Virginia Tech massacre. This horror had directly invaded “our” cultural turf.
Beyond that, there were nagging uncertainties about the attack: the shooter’s motives were murky — depressed, of foreign descent, but no suicide note, no criminal record. It could have been anyone.
But that last sentence is incomplete: It could have been anyone unusual or weird.
And at Charlottesville Friends Meeting (CFM), there was a new attender who was unusual — hell, say it, weird.
I knew it already. Josh was enthusiastic in BYM RE Committee meetings; he was knowledgeable and widely read. But often he was too enthusiastic. And he easily became vigorous in discussing disputed points, especially touching on theology. He had trouble sitting still; fidgeted; walked around. He was touchy, and could get belligerent.
Over time I picked up bits and pieces about the physical basis for much of this behavior. But it’s better to describe it in a formal summary.
He had Neurofibromatosis Type 1.
That explains it, right? Now we understand?
In truth, I just looked up the term since hearing about his death. He had told me some of it. Clearly it was wearisome for him to dwell on; the condition was in the way of so much. But here’s a summary:
Neurofibromatosis (NF) is a group of three conditions in which tumors grow in the nervous system. . . there may be pain either in one location or in wide areas of the body. The tumors in NF are generally non-cancerous. [Josh had much pain.]
Usual onset Birth to early adulthood Duration Life long
There is no known prevention or cure. Surgery may be done to remove tumors that are causing problems or have become cancerous.
But wait, there’s more. In many cases, the tumors of Neurofibromatosis are visible on the skin of those who have it. In Josh’s case, they were mostly inside his body, on the nerves directly. And one nerve in particular — which I had to look up also: the Vagus.
The best short description I’ve found of the Vagus nerve and its significance was from Josh himself, in a 2011 email to me, after he had received more bad news:
Chuck: Tell me more about what it means for the vagus tumors to be inoperable. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know what or where the vagus nerve is, or what it does.
Josh: Well, at least you admit it. My idiot neurologists didn’t admit it when my radiology report said I had tumors on my vagus two years ago.The vagus nerve is one of the autonomic nerves. It runs from the ears along the cheeks and down the neck to the larynx. It continues running along the carotid artery, the esophagus and larynx, and ends in the neighborhood of the bladder and the anal sphincter.It regulates blood pressure, mucus production in the sinuses and throat, swallowing, the sensation of having to go to the bathroom, sweating, and a whole bunch of other functions. The tumors are basically “inoperable” because they’re too close to the body of the nerve and not enough people have documented problems with that nerve for anyone to develop the necessary expertise to operate in such a tight area. I could lose my voice and my ability to do all sorts of things.
I had a friend with a tumor on his vagus whose wife found him dead after he choked on mucous in his throat; he was in his late 50s/early 60s. So who knows where this’ll end up.
For Josh, the vagus connection also helped explain another set of debilitating symptoms: frequent seizures, many of which left him unconscious, and afterward in a groggy altered state (called “postictal”) which could last for hours, and could look to the eyes of police, bus drivers and even EMTs (and did look to some of these) like staggering inebriation. Again, chronic discomfort; no cure; inoperable.
Plus one more crucial item: Neurofibromatosis often messes with one’s head:
From the National Library of Medicine: Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) is often associated with psychiatric disorders, which are more frequent in NF1 than in general population (33% of patients).
Dysthymia is the most frequent diagnosis (21% of patients). [Dysthymia, also known as persistent depressive disorder, is a mood disorder consisting of the same cognitive and physical problems as depression, but with longer-lasting symptoms. ] There is also a high prevalence of depressive mood (7%), anxiety (1-6%), and personality (3%) disorders.
The risk of suicide is four times greater than in the general population. Bipolar mood disorders or schizophrenia appear to be rare. The impaired quality of life associated with NF1 may play an important role in the development of psychiatric disorders. Quality of life assessments may help to identify a population at high risk.
Josh was diagnosed at five, at the same time when he was showing unusual intelligence, reading already. Thirty years later, after innumerable workups, MRIs, needles and pills, a neurologist would tell him ruefully that he knew more about his condition than most of the doc’s specialist colleagues.
Not that the knowing did Josh much good. Inoperable; incurable; intractable. Insufferable.
And at Charlottesvile Friends Meeting (CFM), there were reports of whispered fears that Josh was, you know, dangerous. Virginia Tech. A dropout. Edgy and touchy.
Did he own firearms? (No. But in Virginia it’s dead easy to get them.)
And he was very weird in meeting; centered in the silence, but fidgety, moving around — and he dared to bring a laptop to make notes to remember thoughts that came to him. (He said the laptop helped him focus, and his condition made his handwriting illegible.) And then he talked back and got angry when he was eldered about it. His theological references were not particularly welcomed.
It’s easy to see where this is going. I followed it from a distance, writing and talking to Josh frequently. But by January of 2012, a member wrote plainly to Josh:
Regardless of what has happened in the past, the current problem is the way you express your anger at Charlottesville Friends Meeting. These meltdowns frighten and intimidate people. They are hurtful to the community because they create a hostile, stressful environment.
By January 2012, Charlottesville Meeting formally “APPROVED Joshua’s separation from Meeting properties and activities.” Disowned and banned.
Josh came to see the struggle as in large part a matter of accommodated him and his disabilities. And he increasingly defined that as an inheritor of the black and LGBT civil rights movements. In early 2011 he tried to express this in an email headed: “The New Queers Are Cripples”:
. . . How great the changes have been! The struggle in the area of gay rights is around the area of the germinating black civil rights movement. . . .
But one group was left behind . . . the mentally ill and those with physical disabilities! In discussion of this point, I realized that people with disabilities will be “the last minority” to achieve true equality.
That’s because everybody “has to be” above SOMEBODY. I admit, I am offended by the notion of someone assuming that I have some sort of mental/intellectual impairment. Why? At some level deep within me, I need to be above someone. It’s the same reason that many interracial people in American history have historically denied having ancestors of any non-white races! It’s also the same reason why homophobia is more common in minority ethnic groups and weakened socioeconomic groups.
I’ve even noticed such attitudes among supposedly egalitarian groups.
I even see such attitudes worsening when any person who acts “different” is so often seen as “mentally ill.” If a person is
disliked, their breaking of any social rules becomes a symptom of mental illness (even when it’s a symptom of a physical disorder or the expression of a heart broken by systemic oppression). I know that first-hand; it’s been made absolutely clear recently in a place that I’d mistaken as “safe.” And I know that those who act on such biases don’t see it at all because I’ve pointed it out to them and they’ve seen it as a delusion!!
Time did not soften the split. Five years later, in January 2017, Josh wrote a plaintive note to CFM asking if he could attend worship at least occasionally. The Clerk’s response was swift and definite:
January 12, 2017: On Thursday evening the Ministry and Worship and Overseers committees met, and asked me as presiding clerk of Charlottesville Friends Meeting to remind you of the minute of January 8, 2012, “Friends … APPROVED Joshua’s separation from Meeting properties and activities.” We wish you well, but must insist that you do not come onto Charlottesville Friends Meeting property, or attend Meeting events.
Sincerely . . . .
For many years, Josh added to emails a tagline from Ecclesiastes, different from the “Meaningless” lament cited above. Instead, it was from Chapter 9:4, full of defiant drive and energy:
“Anyone alive has hope; even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” — Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth 9:4
It was still there after his banishment. He missed CFM, but Josh thought he had an option: a Mennonite congregation in Charlottesville. One advantage was that they sang hymns; and Josh had a fine deep bass singing voice. (Josh a singer? Who knew? Not this silent meeting Quaker friend of his.)
But there were also new complications: eastern Mennonites were (and are) deep into a split over acceptance of LGBTQ persons, and at stake were both the prospect of the Charlottesville church being expelled from its association, and the ruin of the pastor’s career prospects. There Josh’s theological knowledge and persistent advocacy were fuel to the fire. Again he hoped to help in their Sunday school; no dice.
Sometime in these recent years, the “live dog” Ecclesiastes quote disappeared from his emails. A year ago, the pandemic sealed his isolation.
He kept reading: in mid-April he posted a list of the books he had read thus far in 2021: eighteen 18 weighty tomes, more than one a week, mostly theological. All that grist for rich conversation, and no one to talk with about it.
His Facebook posts included ever more plaintive appeals, with a tone almost like that of a condemned prisoner vainly protesting his innocence.
A theologian who entered Josh’s emails and posts more recently is Stanley Hauerwas, who taught for many years at Duke Divinity School. Hauerwas wrote often about how relating positively to those with profound disabilities was part of the central duty and meaning of Christian community, especially those who were attempting to break free of captivity to modern consumer culture.
“Christian communities,” he writes in one lecture, “often offer rival understandings of the roles and gifts of those called to be the church. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the disabled have a role to play in God’s story of his people.”
One such rival view comes into play as I grieve for Josh: would it not have been possible for one of these communities to undertake to make the dialogues and adjustments that would have enabled his inclusion, rather than banishment? Okay, it would not have been easy, or painless.
And eldering myself: I’ve long been an advocate for liberal meetings to take responsibility for drawing limits for their own protection, and that of their children. And it’s a stretch to judge Charlottesville Friends and Mennonites from my safe distance (and didn’t Jesus tell us to “Judge not”?)
Well, yes he did; but there’s more to that advice: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’” (Matthew 7:1-5)
In none of the emails and documents I’ve seen from CFM dealing with Josh (though surely I’ve missed some), have I yet found any which included the words Neurofibromatosis or Vagus, or any allusion to them. (I haven’t seen any documents from the Mennonite group, where the practical outcome was the same.)
But he brought a laptop into meeting!
Josh added to his emails a quote from Bayard Rustin:
“We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn.”
Yes, angelic troublemakers. A nice, defanged phrase. But was Josh angelic? (Check in the Bible. What’s the common human reaction when an actual angel appears? Luke says it in the passage about the shepherds near Bethlehem: “And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they feared with great fear.” Or as many others render it: they were “terrified.”)
For that matter, was CFM angelic? Josh’s fate does look familiar in light of numerous other biblical texts: take Jesus, in despair over the city where he is to meet his fate: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling!”
But for that matter, were the biblical prophets “angelic”? Not very damn much, by the record. A hairy, troublesome, intrusive bunch. Likely often scary. For most, appreciation only came long after they were safely dead.
Fear was the one candid comment I saw from CFM about Josh: he frightened many there. I do not doubt it. “You scare us: begone.”
But can I begrudge them their fear? They (and thee and me, Friend) live in a bloody, self-destructive society, in which interpersonal violence has increased markedly during the pandemic, and threats of civil war are more than rumors. Gun sales in my own state nearly quadrupled in that horrible year of 2020. What were CFM Friends to do?
So let’s circle back to the clipped obituary. Was Josh’s death suicide? What do you think? The odds are substantial. Deaths of despair are commonplace. How much “Meaningless” is a person supposed to absorb?
But yes, dammit. Josh Humphries deserved better. He had much to tell. We have much to learn.
The book list Josh posted in mid-April: