All God’s Quakers Got a “Place In The Choir” — Even the Non-Theists Who Can’t/Won’t Sing

So we’re hearing some complaints about sniping back & forth between “theists” and “non-theists in some liberal Friends meetings. I have some thoughts on that. Kind of a long read . . . .

I

Let me work up to them with a story, going back to the turn of the years 1990 into 1991. I was working for the Post Office, as a Mailhander, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. I mainly shuffled bundles and sacks of mail back and forth across the floor of a facility about a quarter of a mile long. It processed several million pieces of mail every day. In those years, I had real calluses on my hands, and a lot fewer pounds around the middle.

I was also surrounded by veterans there, mostly from the Vietnam era, who had preference in Post Office hiring. We weren’t very familiar with the phrase PTSD then, but it was all around me. I felt a lot of solidarity with them, though I didn’t know how to express it. I was an Anti-Vietnam veteran, had protested one way and another all through those years, and bore my own set of scars from it.

November & December at the Post Office were always hectic: Christmas meant a continuing flood of packages, mandatory overtime, and running us off our feet. But the year 1990 brought a big additional burden of stress: the buildup to the First Gulf War, what’s known as Desert Storm, was in full swing.

I’m starting these reflections with a war story, not because I like war stories, but as part of my own grappling with the fact that when I look back over my 76 years, my life as an American and a Quaker has been dominated by war.

Big wars, punctuated by smaller and more secret wars, and then periods of tension and preparations for more war. I’m not sure that many Americans, and Quakers, really take adequate account of that over-arching reality: any American my age and younger has lived in a militarized, war-making country all our lives. And  that reality doesn’t appear to be changing much today.

August 5, 1990.

Anyway, I remember when the Gulf War buildup started, in late summer 1990, when the first president George Bush learned that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait, next door. My memory of Bush is that he was riding in the presidential golf cart, and pulled it to a stop where some news cameras were clustered, and said, “This will not stand. This will not stand.” (Actually, an old video shows him saying that after stepping out of the presidential helicopter. At least I got the words right.)

Reporters shouted questions, but he waved them off with a curt, “I gotta go to work.” 

He had sounded clumsily florid; as most of us knew, he was no orator.

But I also knew in my bones that Bush meant it. He was “going to work” to plan a war, a big one.

Benches in the Stillwater Meetinghouse, Barnesville Ohio, site of a certified prophetic Quaking experience for me. There’s a plaque marking the spot. (Kidding about the plaque.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

II

The conviction stayed. In fact, a few days later I was in a worship session at Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting, in their big stately old Stillwater Meetinghouse in Barnesville, Ohio, and I was moved to speak — the whole Quaker thing, feeling shaky, reluctant, but pushed.

I rose and said I had been shown there was going to be a big war soon, and that if anyone in the room believed in what Friends called the Peace Testimony, they would soon have occasion to show it, and in ways that might be costly.

I went home from Barnesville resolved to follow my own counsel. If the government was  going to have a war, the least I could do was protest. So I got involved in planning a one-day Quaker peace conference in Washington, on the same weekend as a huge antiwar  march was scheduled. We were hoping against hope there was still a chance that citizen resistance might stop the rush to war.

As an event, the conference was a success: we packed the Florida Avenue Meetinghouse in DC. We had lots of workshops, fiery speeches, we fed everybody, cleaned up, and kept the fee low yet covered all the expenses.

A crowd estimated in the tens of thousands makes its way down Market Street in San Francisco, Saturday, Jan. 19, 1991 while protesting the United States attack on Iraq and Kuwait. The crowd was heading to an afternoon rally outside City Hall. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Of course, our gathering made no difference as far as stopping the war was concerned. The epidemic of war fever, ginned up by the government, using slick PR agencies to feed atrocity propaganda to a subservient media, kept spreading. Many people, as I soon learned, were becoming increasingly hostile to dissent.

III

At work, we often wore tee shirts under our shop aprons. I made a shirt with big bright letters on the back, which showed up clearly in my work apron: “No War For Oil,” it said. “One Vietnam Is Enough.”

I wore it a couple of times. Then the third time, within an hour after I’d clocked in, a union steward came up and beckoned me into a quiet corner.

He told me I had to change the shirt. I asked why. He said it was pissing some people off — some of the Vietnam veterans. They thought I was mocking them and dissing their service and their buddies who didn’t make it back.

I protested. “Hey, I respect those veterans, I’m not mocking them, and I’d be happy talk to anybody about it.”

He said, “Look, you don’t understand. This is not a discussion group.”

Then he leaned closer, dropped his voice. “I mean,”he said, “you’re not safe wearing that shirt here. You’re not safe.”

It began to sink in. Of course. Old traumas were being deliberately stirred up and triggered by the drums of war fever and propaganda, swirling and echoing all around us. It was like a rising, threatening wind.

And there was more than just propaganda: preparing a mass invasion is a huge undertaking. A Friend who was in the Army then, later told me her part of the war was figuring out how to ship about ten thousand trucks, big and small, from the U.S. mainland to the Persian Gulf.

Also, several hundred thousand soldiers and reservists had to be brought together, given last-minute training, crowded into planes and ships headed for the Gulf. Once there, they had to be fed and bedded down in big tents in the desert. Field hospitals were set up in more tents. Bombers and fighters roared overhead, keeping constant watch; along the coast dozens of Navy ships were cruising.

With this rumbling maelstrom in the background, my tee shirt, despite my high-minded intentions, looked like the enemy to many of the troops and veterans around me. Too many.

I won’t kid you: I didn’t want to get waylaid and beaten up somewhere in the vast parking lot outside. And beyond worries for my own safety, I didn’t want to feed my co-workers’ reflexes about enemies. I wasn’t the enemy of those haunted veterans — or an enemy to the new recruits preparing for their first deadly combat.

So I changed my shirt. Which helped my physical safety, but didn’t calm my internal turmoil, or that around me. This war, most of us worried, was going to be horrible. There were stories of the army secretly packing tens of thousands of body bags on Gulf-bound ships, ready to be filled with the corpses of American casualties.

Even after our conference and big march, there were still voices against the war — I remember the Pope, John Paul II, who was no liberal, loudly denouncing it as unnecessary and unchristian. But he was ignored just as the rest of us had been ignored and belittled. The rulers wanted their war, and they were going to have it, come hell or high water. And soon enough, they did.

NYTimes: “Pope John Paul II delivered a scathing denunciation of the Persian Gulf war today, calling it a ‘darkness’ that he said had ‘cast a shadow over the whole human community.’ ‘A choice was made of aggression and the violation of international law, when it was presumed to solve the tensions between the peoples by war, the sower of death,’ he said in his Easter Sunday message, ‘Urbi et Orbi’ — ‘To the City and the World.'”

IV

At that time, my work weekend came on Monday and Tuesday. But of course my meeting, Langley Hill, not far from CIA headquarters, met First Day mornings.

The Post Office was supposed to make a “reasonable accommodation” of my religious observances, so they let me split my Sunday shifts: clock out in time to drive to meeting, then hustle back afterwards, and stay later to make up the time.

It meant a long day, but I did it. And I found myself feeling more urgent about it as the war buildup neared its peak, and several weeks of bombing Iraq began, as a prelude to a massive ground invasion.

I remember driving to meeting on many First Day mornings then, listening with one ear to the latest news about the buildup, and the flickering debate about it.

But there was more than talk. In the other ear it felt as if the drumbeats of war had morphed into a kind of invisible hurricane roaring around me and across the land, all feeding and reinforcing the momentum speeding us to combat and its awful, unforeseeable consequences.

When I pulled into Langley Hill’s parking lot, I felt surrounded by this cacophony as I walked to the meetinghouse door, stepped up, opened it, and walked through.

And then something amazing happened: The hurricane stopped. Or rather, it continued, but was somehow shut out, kept at bay, quieted.

This was welcome, but very strange: Langley Hill’s meetinghouse was not a fortress, just a small converted Methodist chapel; white clapboard outside, with a steeple: Langley Hill Friends had weighed the traditional Quaker stand opposing “steeple houses” against the expense of taking it down; thrift, and the steeple, prevailed. Inside,  the meetinghouse was suitably plain, long sturdy benches facing each other, cream-colored walls, and a small Clerk’s table.

Yet in this small, unreinforced space, the outside hurricane of war was silenced. Or maybe more accurately, absorbed into the silence.

I can’t explain this, but it happened many times in those days. Spoken ministry was rare, and usually quiet; I don’t remember calls to the antiwar barricades; worship here felt more like largely unspoken mourning for those already harmed in Saddam’s invasion, and for those who would be harmed by the impending counterattacks, and of the unmasking of our powerlessness in the face of it.

For me, these morning intervals of quiet were religious experiences. They’re in the same category with visions and angels bearing supernatural messages, things I’ve read about in other sources. A visitor might not have noticed anything special, beyond a subdued group of Quakers in gloomy silence; and that would be true enough. But for me it was not the whole truth: those times beyond the grip of the hurricane were more of a lifeline.

These brief periods away from work were something closer to miraculous. I remember thinking, or maybe it was praying, that I had never been so grateful to be a Quaker, among Quakers. When meeting was over, and I passed back through the meetinghouse doorway, the hurricane resumed.

V

Looking back, it’s clear that in an outward sense, Langley Hill didn’t “DO” much about the war. Some Friends helped with our conference and other protests; but others were not “active.” They related to our situation in different ways.

I remember one of these “non-activist” Friends in particular. His name was Herbert Brown. He was old, stooped, and retired, likely from a white collar civil service job. He was a very quiet man, whose family had long been part of the Orthodox branch of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, which had reunited with the Hicksite branch about twenty years earlier.

Not long before the war, Herbert Brown began to show up at the meetinghouse several times a week. He became its volunteer janitor and handyman: sweeping, dusting, cleaning, fixing.

He did this quietly, with only occasional help from others. He kept doing it as that long winter of our discontent folded into a bleak spring. Soon the war was officially “won,” and was followed by weeks of jingoistic victory celebrations.

A small stretch of what was called “The Highway of Death” in Iraq, where U.S. bombers and artillery killed thousands of Iraqis.

Trying to ignore them, I reflected on the experience of how important the respites from the hurricane of war had been for me. As I did that I also became more conscious of Herbert Brown’s low-profile presence  in that.

I talked to him about it a couple of times. He quietly made it clear that he felt led to do this seemingly menial work, and that it needed to be done. I got the sense that in years gone by, he had likely filled other slots, maybe more visibly weighty ones: Finance Committee, clerkships and such.

But now, those were in the past. Yet he was hardly useless, or marginalized: he was caring for the meeting house, I realized, in order to care for the meeting. (As in turn, the meeting had cared for me, one of those Friends who could be identified as an “activist.”)

Even more, he understood something about such work that was only beginning to dawn on me. Especially now, looking back, I’ve concluded that if Langley Hill, and other Friends meetings, had any real contribution to make in our crazy world, it would grow out of the combination of these varying leadings in them.

I also learned another thing, in bits and pieces: Herbert Brown had cancer. I forget what kind. It was somewhat in remission, but considered incurable. I screwed up my nerve one day and asked him about it. He answered plainly and calmly that yes, he did have it, the cancer was not curable, but he was “resigned,” and well enough to handle his janitorial/handyman work. He planned to keep doing it as long as he could. It was his leading.

And he did do that. Eventually his strength failed, and he took quietly to his bed and died.

VI

Here in sum, I think we can see, or at least I think I can see, that this time of war was also for me a time of learning about the various roles Friends play in meetings and in witness. I don’t know if the pattern I saw is visible to anyone else, though I think I have observed it in other meetings and in individual Friends.

There’s a fancy theological term for this pattern: it’s our ecclesiology, our sense of the basic structure and dynamic of a religious community. I think I can summarize this, if the jargon isn’t too complicated, in one line, and the line is this:

“All god’s critters got a place in the choir.” Or less melodiously: “All God’s Quakers got a place in the choir — even if they’re non-theists in an unprogrammed meeting that doesn’t have a choir.”

(Don’t ask me to sing that song; but I hope it’s familiar.) Here’s a version by Makem & Clancy.

Sometimes that “place” is quite visible: the Clerk presides at business meetings; the Treasurer handles the money. “Activists” talk in acronyms and are busy trying to change the world.

For others, the role is less clearly defined: for instance: who was it that upheld the remarkable atmosphere in worship at Langley Hill, during those awful months when I needed its shelter so much? Was it those who believed most in prayer? (We didn’t talk about that a lot.) Not to mention those who taught First Day School with my children and others? And how much came from Herbert Brown, with a broom in his hands and a screwdriver in his pocket?

If you’re new to a meeting, or to Quakerism, you might ask: how does a newcomer find their “place in the choir”?

Good question, and I don’t have a simple answer. Personally, I think I’m a slow learner: not a birthright Friend, raised Catholic and came to Quakers in my early twenties. I began attending in 1966, about eleven years before I arriving at Langley Hill. For the first ten years I was mostly in a student or apprentice mode: learning; reading a lot, attending meetings, protesting the Vietnam War, absorbing things.

I didn’t join many Quaker committees then, or donate money to the meetings. But I don’t feel guilty about that: I was poor and struggling professionally too, and I figured, if my situation ever gets better, I’ll do my bit; and eventually it did get better. So also eventually, I ended up on many committees.

In fact I’m now part of the “Quaker Retirement Plan”: no money, just committees till you drop.

VII

Because my profession turned out to be journalism and writing, my first real meeting responsibility was related: I became editor of Langley Hill’s newsletter. One thing led to another, and I’ve been editor for numerous other Quaker projects since. (That also led to the Post Office, since writing for and about Friends never has paid much.)

All that writing background had another important aspect: traveling along Friends, I soon noticed that there were many events and issues that were live and contested among Friends, but which were rarely discussed in Quaker publications. With my journalist’s hat on, these issues looked like news  stories that needed to be reported and discussed, maybe debated. (Some would call all this “discernment.” Some others might consider it stirring the pot.)

But with my meeting member’s spectacles on, I saw pretty clearly that the institutional pattern was mainly to avoid talking or writing about them, and playing these matters down, especially the difficult ones.

I resisted that pattern, and that resistance initially made me a failure as a Recording Clerk, not once, but twice: at Langley Hill, and then at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I wrote minutes that were intended to be useful to Friends far into the future, as a detailed window on our history. But enough living Friends in both groups strongly objected to that kind of minute-taking, clearly preferring notes that were brief, oblique, sanitized and became all-but completely opaque within a few years.

So I yielded to the will of the body; that is, I was fired.

That is, by the way, one effective way to learn it’s time to find a new place in the Quaker choir.

After a bit of  experimentation, I started my own Quaker publications, which examined many subjects, including some of the tough ones. For instance, at the first national Quaker gathering I attended, in 1977, the issue of recognizing the presence of gay & lesbian Friends (trans were not on our radar yet) came up suddenly and explosively, and I ended up writing an article about it that was pretty widely circulated.

A Friendly Letter, a monthly independent Quaker newsletter that began in 1981, and continued til early 1993. It was first prepared on an antique instrument called a typewriter, but soon moved to a computer. In 2004 it resumed as a blog.

Since then I’ve written about many other Quaker concerns, including plenty about the wars. But I realized two years ago, in 2017, that I have been writing about LGBT issues & struggles among Friends for forty years. 40 years! (And those issues are still far from being resolved.)

I don’t apologize for that work, but I can say I didn’t mean to do it; as an old straight guy, I’m no expert; but most of what I reported on, would not have been written about otherwise. Yet these are community struggles, and I’m convinced that silence on such matters does not serve us or the Spirit.

The rise to visibility & inclusion of LGBT Friends in many Quaker spaces, and their continuing exclusion and erasure in others, is much too big a piece of our recent history to ignore; it ought be studied and told by many; but it really hasn’t been yet.

VIII

So I did the best I could; and along the way, there have been a few other “religious experiences” that came at crucial yet unexpected moments; but those are another story. And while I’m slowing down with age and trying to retire, these and other issues (especially the wars) are still very much alive among American Friends, and in Quaker groups elsewhere. The experience of being comforted and encouraged in very hard times by sitting in meeting has returned often in the past two years.

But it hasn’t all been gloom & doom.  I’ve published two books of Quaker humor; I like Quaker jokes;  and consider them a survival tool. Yet as I said earlier, my American Quaker life, now in its 53rd year, has been lived in a time of nearly constant American warmaking. And in that record, I can see the truth in the biblical warning from Galatians 6:  “Be not deceived: God is not mocked. A man (or a country) reaps what they sow.” And as part of the harvest of our military wars, Americans are in continuing domestic conflict on numerous fronts, even among Friends.

If dealing with such struggles makes a Friend uncomfortable, it’s relatively easy to hunker down in a cozy, like-minded meeting and ignore most of them, and maybe that’s the right path for some. (I write that last without being convinced.)

But such cocooning doesn’t make the struggles go away. And sooner or later, one or another of these conflicts may well come knocking on your meeting’s door; and then, for instance, the blessed sanctuary that Langley Hill was for me in 1990 and early 1991 can all-too quickly dissolve into a faction-ridden catfight or worse.

In fact, some years after I left the DC area, Langley Hill started a Quaker school, with high hopes and a dedicated committee. But that project failed, and ended with the school closed and some Friends in court against others.

I don’t know the details of that, and wouldn’t burden you with them if I did. But I will repeat that the Society of Friends today exists within a larger society and culture that is riven with very deep conflicts, reaping what we have sown, and various aspects of these conflicts afflict many Friends & meetings too. I don’t know how to solve those, or how to escape them. I do have ideas about how to work on some of them, and have done my imperfect best.

I’ve also learned that Jesus’ time was like ours, only worse; do you remember where he ended up? And if you read a serious biography of George Fox, you’ll see that he and the first generations of Friends faced such internal travails as well.

So as I said, for me it took some time, more than a decade, among Friends, to find my place in the choir, and my broadest leading, centered on writing, in which specific other leadings have taken shape, in changing circumstances. And even then, specific leadings can and have changed. Further, some of my most important leadings were ones that I at first rejected and struggled against.

Even so, my basic message still stands, that among Friends, “All God’s Quakers got a place in the choir.”

Let me expand it a bit: you may have to seek, perhaps for years, to find your place. You might even have to struggle to claim it. Or have to invent it, and even stand fast for it. And then, due to “stuff happening,” sometimes positive, sometimes not, and as a consequence of further leadings, your place can change. 

And that’s not to mention that the “choir” may not always get along or sing in perfect harmony.

Nevertheless, “All God’s Quakers got a place in the choir.” That includes you, if you stay with it. And if you don’t remember anything else that I’ve written here, I hope you’ll hang on to that motto. Then find or make your place, stick to it, yet be ready to move when the time to change places comes.

If you find this post helpful, please pass it on.

 

3 thoughts on “All God’s Quakers Got a “Place In The Choir” — Even the Non-Theists Who Can’t/Won’t Sing”

  1. sounds familiar. And makes a timely share with Houston Live Oak’s nominating committee as we try to match people’s gifts with Meeting needs.

  2. Great read! In a culture of war, that encourages conflict, shouldn’t Quakers be mindful of that paradigm and resist it? To me, in my limited understanding, this is an indirect call to Convergent Quakerism. We should be coming together rather than splitting apart.

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