All posts by Chuck Fager

LaRouche & Me, Part II

< For Part I, Click here.

But FBI Director Webster’s reply came pretty quickly.

It was brief: the FBI had reviewed their files and had found nothing that implicated me in any of the “dossier” allegations. McCloskey gave me a copy, which I framed, and hung on my man cave wall. (After all, how many other people do you know who have a letter personally signed by the FBI Director saying the Bureau has no evidence they’re a KGB mole? But after my several moves, it’s now somewhere in a box of other personally important documents. I should hunt it down; after all, you never know . . .)

But McCloskey was not done. Working from the FBI letter and my notes on the “dossier,” he reserved time on the floor and made a hard-hitting speech to the House, (okay, the chamber  was nearly empty) denouncing LaRouche and defending my integrity (and, by extension, his own). I had copies of that speech, too, but they are also lost in my paper shuffle, and the 1980 Congressional Record is not yet online. So for now you’ll just have to take my word for all this. Continue reading LaRouche & Me, Part II

Lyndon La Rouche and me — Part I

Prelude

Lyndon La Rouche has died. The stories about him and his uber-weird political career are legion. This is a summary version of mine; it has a lot to do with Quakers. It wasn’t meant to, but that’s how it turned out.

I

First, though, I need to make what will seem like a pointless digression, though it isn’t; then we’ll get back to LaRouche:

In 1965, I worked in the civil rights movement Selma, Alabama. Dr. King was leading a campaign to break through the exclusion of people of color from voting. Out of that campaign emerged a great victory: passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Dr. King traveled a lot; his day-to-day second in command in Selma was James Bevel. Bevel was a fine organizer, a brilliant preacher,  and a very charismatic figure.

I still remember him bursting into my bedroom at the home of Mrs.  Amelia Boynton, Selma’s most respected local black woman activist. It was after midnight, but he woke up my wife and me to tell us about his brilliant idea — for a march from Selma to Montgomery– which had just come to him in the cold late February moonlight. I was still half-asleep, but I could see that it was a brilliant idea.

James Bevel, left, with Dr. Martin Luther King, circa 1965.

It wasn’t his only one.    In these years, many prominent black leaders were going along with support for the Vietnam War, at least as a way of staying in the good graces of President Lyndon Johnson, who had been the political champion of voting and civil rights. But Bevel soon saw through this, sensed the plagues domestic and foreign which the war was loosing on the world, and took his case to Dr. King. At heart, King agreed; but he was also worried bout the politics. Bevel kept up his work of persuasion, along with some others, and by the beginning of 1967 Dr. King overcame his reluctance and opposed the war openly and eloquently.

On the other hand, in off-hours, Bevel was renowned as a seducer. This habit was periodically disruptive among the field staff, as his eye wandered among the wives of colleagues as well as the younger groupies who were drawn to the movement. Yet he was hardly alone in this habit among the highly patriarchal leading circles of the movement. The richly sardonic song, “Go Limp,” by the legendary singer Nina Simone describes this phenomenon with trenchant artistry. Continue reading Lyndon La Rouche and me — Part I

Liberal Quakers Need More “Theological Diversity.” What could possibly go wrong?

The First Month 2019 issue of Friends Journal includes an article by Friend Adria Gulizia, Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity.”

At one level, I very much empathize with Adria Gulizia’s concern for what I would call “theological inclusiveness.” The widespread ignorance, apathy & avoidance of theology/Bible in “liberal” meetings I have known have become personally very burdensome.

Yet there is another side to this story, one not easy to see from the Philadelphia orbit. But if one actually steps out of that enclosed space, some very different aspects that appear.

To summarize: outside the “Phillysphere” and the Northeast, five U.S. yearly meetings have split apart in the last 20 years, with one of the five, 320 years old, blowing up/melting down & disappearing completely. Where I live, in the Pretty Deep South, the fallout, like debris from a plane that exploded in midair, is still falling around us.

And what was the cause of this fivefold schism? Well, one could point the finger in several directions, but in the foreground of all five was that which Gulizia’s piece calls for, namely: “theological diversity.”

I know some of this from direct experience. Many were the interrogations such “diversity” produced, not of me but my whole meeting:
Start with the Bible: Did we have the right view of it? And the true notion of its authority?
Next, were we “Christ-centered”? No, they meant, not that way, but this way, really, truly?  Or enough? And with the authentic formulation? Oh, and had we adopted (& enforced) the correct church authority structure?

And lots more. (In our area, the ordeal went on for three-plus years. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being called a tool of the Anti-Christ by someone who really means it.)

Continue reading Liberal Quakers Need More “Theological Diversity.” What could possibly go wrong?

Shooting the Dead: a Hitman Reviewer fills Leonard Cohen full of [Pencil] lead

Maybe William Logan has been waiting to unlimber his literary AR-15 on the corpus of Leonard Cohen for a long time. It sure seems like it; and now his moment has come:

“When a poet dies,” Logan writes in his New York Times review, “his publishers often hurry into print whatever scraps lie stuffed in his desk drawers or overflow his wastebasket. This is the book business at its darkest and most human, but many balance sheets have been balanced by a posthumous work or two.

Death is the moment when all eyes are upon the poet for the last time; beyond, for most harmless drudges, lies the abyss. Leonard Cohen, who died two years ago, wore many a fedora — poet, novelist, songwriter, a singer of sorts — but only the last trade, which he took up reluctantly, made him a star.

Cohen was never taken very seriously as a poet. He wasn’t much of a singer, either; but the gravelly renderings of his lyrics gradually attracted a mass audience that seemed more like a cult. . . .

Such songs now form the hoarse, moaning soundtrack to countless movies and television episodes. When a Cohen song rises from some awkward silence it’s a good bet the director has run out of ideas. The religiose sentimentality and painful growl, like a halibut with strep throat, have patched a lot of plot holes. He’ll give an emulsified version of everything the scriptwriter left unsaid.”

Continue reading Shooting the Dead: a Hitman Reviewer fills Leonard Cohen full of [Pencil] lead

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

Ho. Ho. Ho? How The Grinch Is Stealing Christmas at Earlham College

You read it here last August:

“At Earlham College, it’s going to be a tense Christmas this year, especially for faculty and staff.

That’s because, whatever goodies Santa brings, the Grinch will be close behind, snatching away the good cheer and hopes for a happy new year in 2019. . . .”

And this week, Mr, G. will indeed be out there, prowling the streets of Richmond Indiana. And he’ll be delivering pink slips.

The trigger was pulled Wednesday Dec. 19, 2018. The Earlham College Board of Trustees adopted a plan, in preparation since late summer, that will cut Earlham College’s budget by 12 per cent, or $4.3 million (to $45.7  million total), and result in elimination of 12 staff positions, a reduction of five more staff jobs from full to part-time, and the ending of 11 visiting faculty positions: 28 in total.

It is the eleven faculty who will be getting pink slips from Mr. G. By college regulations, the bad news must be delivered, preferably in person, by New Years Eve. (The plan was announced in an email letter from the Board on Friday Dec. 21, which was also the Winter Solstice. The staff cuts will be made official by February 15; rumors that this date was chosen to spoil Valentine’s Day as well were unconfirmed.)

[The full text of the December 21 letter is  at the end of this post.]

From one perspective, the cuts were a big success for the faculty: they protected all the school’s tenured & tenure track professors, and turned back the Trustees’ earlier call for $8 million in cuts.

But for how long? The Board was careful to point out that this batch  of cuts was not the end of the matter. Their original $8 million target for cuts, almost 17 per cent, was not forgotten.  To reach that higher number would likely have meant adding some tenured names to the pink slip list. (We explained in the August post how the Board can get around tenure, by abolishing entire majors or departments.) And the December 19th letter was explicit that this option was still on your the table:

“It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.”

To my southeastern ears, that sure sounds more like “when,” rather than “if.” They then added, under the heading “Future planning”:

“The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation. . . .

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability . . . .” [Emphasis added.]

“Financial sustainability” is the key phrase here. The Board’s analysis of admission and income trends views Earlham’s present path and staff/faculty configuration as “unsustainable,” requiring much more drastic restructuring (and job cuts) to stop the bleeding.

A concrete example of where “financial unsustainability” leads can be found by looking east, to Boston. There Wheelock College, after 131 years “merged” last June with Boston University, shrinking from a freestanding college to a department in BU’s ed school. And when the merger” was done, 111 employees, more than half of its almost 200 faculty & staff, were laid off.

How did this happen? One report said: “Schools like Wheelock have experienced a perilous cycle of shrinking enrollment and rising costs over the past decade. . . .

That spiral — of rising costs and shrinking enrollment — is common at small colleges colleges across the country.

Michael Horn, an education consultant based in Boston and co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, puts it this way: pit “significant increases in tuition, year over year over year, against the reality that middle-class wages have largely been stagnant.”

Horn anticipates that many such schools could end up merging, closing or going bankrupt in the years ahead. “Forty percent of colleges in this country have fewer than 1,000 students — I think all of those are at grave risk,” he warns. [Emphasis added.]

Earlham’s recent enrollment is barely over a thousand.

An informed Earlham veteran advised me last week that another big factor in Earlham’s plight is that it gives away a great deal of scholarship aid, which has cut down its net tuition revenue to dangerously low [aka “unsustainable”] levels.

So one “fix” likely to be in the mix for the Round Two plan is a substantial reduction in scholarships and raises in tuition.

Such reductions might yield a jump in net tuition income. But then again, maybe not: perhaps enrollment would fall, as prospective  students take their tuition money and look for better bargains elsewhere.  Wheelock raised tuition; it didn’t save them.

And there’s another wild card the Board did not mention in the December 19 letter, but which I bet has been on all the Trustees’ minds since then: the stock market’s rapid slide. Just three months ago, as the first round of plans were taking shape, the market was riding high, seemingly  promising continued steady growth and income from endowments.

Last August, Earlham estimated its endowment at $438 million, up from $425 million in 2017. The school had been drawing on its endowment to cover operating deficits (“unsustainably,” said the Trustees).

But as of last week, all the year’s growth in major markets had been abruptly and completely erased, and more chaos was in the forecast. The Christmas Eve fall of 600+ In the Dow Jones Indexwas one for the record books. Could the markets be heading into a new crash like that of September 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed?

Who knows? But uncertainty hangs over us all, including colleges living on or near the edge. Wheelock College saw its endowment tank in 2008, and it never recovered.

Can Earlham pull through this time of uncertainty? I make no predictions, but here’s one somewhat upbeat footnote: I am reliably informed that these financial problems have not affected the Earlham School of Religion. Or at least not yet.

ESR has a separate budget, which is currently deemed to be “sustainable.” (Of course, seminaries have their own problems, involving shrinking church attendance and finances, which means fewer job opportunities for their graduates. But that’s another story.)

And in the meantime, there’s the Mean One, on the loose.

 

Full text of Board letter, released in Friday, December 21, 2018

On Wednesday, December 19, 2018, the Earlham Board of Trustees held a special meeting on campus to consider some time-sensitive issues. Following is a report on the meeting.

Presidential search

The trustees heard an update from the Presidential Search Committee, and they approved a slate of semi-finalists who will be invited to participate in preliminary interviews in January. Finalists will then be invited to visit campus for interviews in early February. The committee will share feedback on those interviews and a recommendation for next steps during the Board’s meeting on February 9-10, 2019.

Financial sustainability

The trustees received the president’s recommendations for a budget reduction for the 2019-2020 academic year. (This was in response to the Board’s direction in June to reduce the 2019-20 expense budget to $42 million, which would be about an $8 million reduction from the current year’s budget.) More than 20 teaching faculty, administrative faculty and staff attended the discussion with the Board. Trustees heard reports from committee conveners on the processes that led to the recommendations, and asked questions to which teaching faculty, administrators and staff members responded.

After a robust discussion, the recommendations were approved. The resolution will reduce the College’s operating budget by nearly 12 percent, lowering our annual expenses by approximately $4.3 million. After this reduction, the College’s operating budget for the 2019-20 academic year will be about $46 million. We consider this a positive step toward long-term financial sustainability, but we must continue to find ways for the College to meet this important strategic goal.

The Board expressed its gratitude to the Teaching Faculty and Curricular Working Group, the Administrative Budget Reduction Team, the Cabinet and the President for their hard work, thoughtfulness, perspectives and advice on the budget reduction process. Trustees acknowledged that they had given the College a very challenging task and that the recommendations are difficult and, in some respects, unwelcome to some in the community. They believe that what they have approved will help the College address its financial challenges while staying true to its core educational mission.

The budget reductions approved by the trustees touch every area of the College. We will eliminate 12 administrative or staff positions, most of which are vacant or will be vacated as a result of our voluntary early retirement program. In addition, five administrative positions that are currently full-time will be reduced to part-time.

We will also not be renewing the contracts of some visiting faculty members, many of whom were hired on one-year contracts. In total, the size of the teaching faculty will be reduced by 11 positions. Most are visiting positions that were scheduled to end this year. In addition, two retiring faculty members will not be replaced. All searches for tenure track and visiting positions that are currently underway will continue. These reductions will change our student-faculty ratio (currently 10:1) to 11:1. The recommendations did not call for the elimination of any tenure or tenure-track faculty positions.

Visiting faculty members whose contracts will not be renewed are being informed this week. We feel that it is important to share this sort of information in person, when possible, and it is necessary to do so this week since the Faculty Handbook stipulates a deadline of December 31, 2018 for non-renewals for visiting faculty. Administrators and staff whose positions will be reduced to part-time will be notified no later than February 15, 2019.

It is quite possible that some majors will be discontinued in the future due to staffing reductions. The College will work with all current students to make sure they can take the classes they need in order to complete their majors. We will follow the faculty governance documents and established process in making these decisions.

Future planning

The president also recommended that the College immediately begin work on a new institutional and curricular plan that will focus on a path forward that allows Earlham to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of current and future students in a financially sustainable way. The Trustees approved this recommendation.

The first step in this effort will be the creation of a framework for a curricular plan, developed by the faculty, that will articulate the core values of an Earlham education and offer the world a compelling value proposition.

The board has requested that this framework, which will be developed in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, be completed no later than April 19, 2019 so that it can go to the board for their approval at their June 2019 meeting. The Board expects a full curricular plan and institutional plan, also created in close consultation with the Faculty Meeting, to come for approval during the October 2019 Board Meeting.

It was clear from the conversation during the meeting that the Board is committed to financial sustainability, but that it is also steadfast in its desire to offer an exceptional educational experience to a diverse group of students with a diverse and committed faculty and staff.

 

A Free Book Download on Quaker Bible Study: “A Respondent Spark”

For ten summers, 1984-1994, I led workshops on “The Basics of Bible Study” for the Friends General Conference Gatherings. They were lively and well-attended, highly rated on evaluations.

Putting my thoughts together for it, I produced a handbook. The title was “A Respondent Spark,” which was taken from a quote from Robert Barclay’s early Quaker theological treatise, “The Apology for the True Christian Divinity”:

“In the Scriptures God has deemed it proper to give us a looking glass in which we can see the conditions and experiences of ancient believers. There we find that our experience is analogous to theirs….

This is the great work of the Scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God’s ways and his Spirit upon them. We know this from inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and his work in our hearts….

Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners. Yet…they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule…for… according to the Scriptures the Spirit is the first and principal Leader.” [Emphasis added

I’ve had some requests to see this handbook, and have resurrected it from my hard drive as a PDF. It is located here, and can be freely downloaded.

I’m conscious of its limitations: I’m not a trained Bible scholar; and the text is several laps behind recent biblical scholarship. Even so, there are some ideas in it which may be of continuing relevance.

Certainly the sections in it introducing the work of literalist biblical interpretations, and some of the nefarious ways these ideas were then being put to work in our society and politics are not obsolete. Some of the names are different, but the key issues are much the same.

Yes, the Bible DOES teach slavery. But it also brings images of and hope for liberation.

For that matter, some of the names are much the same too: I wrote about Jerry Falwell’s so-called “Moral Majority” and its [mis]use of the Bible. There’s still a Jerry Falwell at work today, but his view of the Bible as a political battering ram is not much different from that of his late father. And then there’s Franklin Graham; lord help us.

Still the book was not and is not about politics, except incidentally and when it’s unavoidable. (Alas, there was too much of that unavoidable stuff going around these days; and in these days too; sorry.).The book’s main goal was to answer a query:

Is This the Book For You?

This brief handbook is for certain kinds of people:

First, people who don’t know much about the bible, but think they would like to.

Second, it is for people who are independent-minded, and prefer to form their own judgments rather than simply accept the pronouncements of a traditional authority, no matter how venerable.

Third, it is for those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity because, as we shall see, one thing the Bible doesn’t offer is easy, automatic, simple answers.

This book is also for people who want a practical approach. There is, of course, much more to this subject than could possibly fit into these few pages; but it is my hope that when you have finished it, and become familiar with the tools it describes, you will be able to pick up the Bible, begin to make sense of what you read, know where to get more information about it, and not be afraid of following your leadings about its meaning wherever they may lead.

Beyond the personal benefits it offers, the ability to find your way around in the Bible is of particular value these days, when groups who claim to have the exclusive, true understanding of Scripture are running around attempting to impose their understanding on everyone else, or else.

In case you missed it — you really didn’t. Didn’t happen.

I happen to think that these groups are mostly wrong, especially about what the Bible means. But I don’t think their efforts can be effectively blunted except by people prepared to meet them on their own ground, that is on the basis of knowing something about what the Bible says and how to figure out what the text means.

So if you’re wondering about Bible study, give it a whirl. Did I mention that it’s a FREE download? No registering, no information sought, no facial recognition, and I won’t sell your data. (Some web prowlers might come and snatch it; but can’t help that.)

If you’re interested, check it out, and I welcome feedback.

The download is here.

 

Thoughts on Quaker Storytelling: A Crucial Art & Witness


Renewing the 
Art and Witness
of Quaker Storytelling

Let’s talk about storytelling, specifically Quaker storytelling. To do this right, I’ll also tell a couple of stories before I’m finished; that will come in due time.

While good storytelling is entertaining and fun, I believe it is also important, serious religious business. I think this is especially true for a group like the Religious Society of Friends. This goes for Friends of all ages, not just the kids in First Day School and the adults who teach them. It’s also important – very important – for our outreach, and our witness, including peace witness. The stories we create and preserve and enact and pass on are very significant parts of our personal and communal lives.

For a religious community, stories have a great deal to do with establishing and preserving their identity as a people. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Exodus, for instance, when God tells Moses to paint blood on the doorposts so the angel of death will pass over the firstborn sons of the Hebrews, God also commands him to make the remembrance and telling of the Passover story a perpetual tradition among the people.

A Seder plate, which summarizes the story this annual ritual re-enacts.

That defining story of calling and liberation is still retold by Jews, some 3000+ years later, every spring at their annual Seder ceremonies.

Many scholars and sages say that the maintenance of this tradition has had much to do with the survival of the Jewish people through their long, often difficult history, and I think they’re right. And of course for Christians a few days later there’s the story of Easter, which has at its heart the retelling of the equally defining gospel narrative about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But why do I say storytelling is particularly important for Quakers?

A World War Two CO sketch

To get an answer, let me tell a brief story. We’ve just seen in the case of the Passover and Easter how stories can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But this one is about how stories can die: I found that out talking to an older Friend who had been part of a very exciting and important protest action by Conscientious Objectors during World War Two.

I was very eager to talk to him about this protest; I had seen brief secondhand accounts: a group of COs assigned to a big Cleveland mental hospital discovered widespread abusive care and management corruption there. When they blew the whistle internally, they were threatened with jail. But they stood their ground, and . . . .

These snippets were stunning. And this Friend, I learned in the early 1990s, had actually been a participant in the Cleveland action; his “testimony” would be firsthand, full –I hoped– of the kind of details that enrich retellings. I couldn’t wait.

Finally the day came to interview him. He welcomed me with a big smile, I set my tape recorder turning — and soon found he had forgotten everything about his Cleveland experience. Everything except that, in his words, “. . . it was really something.” (This was his entire account, verbatim.)

I said this was a story; but in the passage of fifty years, it had shrunk to a tantalizing, incomplete anecdote.  It confirms George Fox’s early charge to us to “let your lives speak.” Lives like the one of Cleveland and those of many other exceptional Friends can speak for generations, principally through the stories we remember and tell about them. But the stories of even the bravest witness can also die.

(For many summers at my yearly meeting, Baltimore, we interspersed business with reflective reading of memorial minutes, telling of the lives of Friends who have died in the previous year; these times, when lives that are mostly otherwise unheralded can preach, have been for me some of the most moving and instructive moments of our sessions.)

It’s also important to point out that Friends are a people of limited resources: We do not have huge numbers; we do not have vast wealth; and we do not have many members in places of power to protect us with the arm of the state (and when we do, they often end up, as in the case of Richard Nixon, more a problem than an asset.)

Elizabeth Fry in Newgate Prison

But there is one thing with which Friends are plentifully endowed, and that is good stories. From Fox on Pendle Hill, to Mary Fisher facing the Sultan; from John Woolman visiting the Indians unarmed, to Elizabeth Fry going alone into the stinking prisons of England; even that of the defiant Cleveland COs (think of your own favorites….)

“Popeye the Quaker Man” — a short-lived a short-lived promo for oatmeal; First Day school protest killed him off. Srsly.

Many of these stories reflect the fact that when Friends have most faithfully been Friends, and borne our Friends’ testimonies, this faithfulness has often enough been misunderstood, or has gotten us into trouble. Even today, if we don’t face overt persecution, our heritage and witness are typically ignored by the larger culture, and misunderstood or distorted when they are recognized. (Does anybody here remember “Popeye the Quaker Man”?)

Thus it is important for us to find and preserve and tell our own stories, because at bottom, Quaker stories are countercultural, even many based on our readings of the Bible and other ancient sources: in key respects they run across or against the grain of establishment religions and culture, and their stories.

The best Quaker stories can still be countercultural today, even if most American Friends are nondescript middle-class in our way of life, and the government isn’t currently hunting us down as abominable heretics.

The U.S. Military understands the power of stories – in Fayetteville NC, near Fort Bragg, the Army has built a large Airborne museum, to tell (and shape) stories of 80 years airborne and special forces warfare. As I have learned, this museum (and the 300+ other war museums in the U.S.) is not only, or even mainly about the past: not really. It is more about shaping how Americans think of and visualize the past – and apply what they think to the future. (Quick quiz: after 300-plus years of American Quaker peace work, how many PEACE museums are there in the U.S., telling a story that challenges those of the War Museums? Hint: the answer is less than three.)

Romance? “The dissolute Duke of Jervaulx is brilliant at both seduction and writing scientific papers — which he does with a blind Quaker mathematician. But when he’s left speechless and straitjacketed by a stroke, it’s up to the mathematician’s daughter, Maddy Timms, to see that there’s still a man inside the restraints — and to reconcile her Quaker faith with her growing love.”

I’m hardly the first Friend to discover the value and plentitude of our stories; and not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition of Quaker storytelling, mainly in print. Early Friends used stories of the persecution they faced in efforts to persuade kings and governors to end it, often with much success. And once the Society was accepted and settled into the quietist period, Friends used stories to pass on and reinforce Quaker values and practices to their children.

To show you what I mean about how early stories are different, I’m going to reproduce here a story from the oldest Quaker storybook I could find at the Friends Historical Library, a volume entitled, Piety Promoted. It was published in 1802, deep in the Quietist era, and some of the stories are considerably older. The 1802 volume was popular, and was followed by numerous successor volumes

This story is the first in that book, and it was meant to be read to children eight and nine years old. I ask that you listen to the story as if you were hearing it with two different ears–one the ear of a child to whom it was read, and the other the ear of a parent who wanted to read it. And ask yourselves, What were the parents saying in this story? And what were the children hearing?

Here’s the story.

(NOTE: This is the complete text, but I have broken up the original paragraphing into shorter blocks, and inserted a word in a few places for clarity. The story has no title.)

Mary Post, daughter of Benjamin Post, and Elizabeth his wife, of London, was of a tender spirit, sober behavior, religiously inclined, and a lover of plainness in habit and speech, and kept to it; but a disliker of pride and finery in apparel.

When she was but about eight years of age, being at a neighbor’s house who desired her company (being solid and grave) and had a daughter about fifteen years of age, who loved her, and to whom this child said, ‘Anna, what signify these fine things thou hast on, they will not carry thee to heaven?’

To which Anna answered, ‘Pride is not in the things, it is in the heart.’

To which [Mary Post] replied, ‘But if your minds were not proud, you would not wear them.’

She also said to her mother, that she much wondered at the great pride she observed in some young ones who professed the truth, adding, ‘I hope I shall never be like them.’

Her mother thereupon said to her, ‘I hope thou wilt never be like them; but be an orderly child, that thou mayst be in favour with God.’

At which [Mary] wept, and said, ‘If I should love fine things, I must alter much: what signify fine things when folks come to die?’

Hearing some boys in the street taking God’s name in vain, she said, ‘They take God’s name in vain enough to frighten one.’ On a certain occasion she said, she should delight to go to meetings.

The day before she was taken ill, her mother sending her out on an errand, and her brother being newly come out of the country, she desired him to go with her, which he refused; at which she stood by him awhile, and then with a solid countenance said, ‘Wilt thou not go with me? It may be, the next time thou comest up, thou mayest not have a sister to go with,’ as if she had a sense of her death.

And in that sickness she often said, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, give me a little ease;’ and lifting up her hands, repeated such like expressions, and said: ‘I had rather die than live; through mercy I am not afraid to die; I shall go to rest, were I shall feel no more pain.’

Her mother, standing mourning by her, the child looking upon her said, ‘Mother, do not cry, let us be contented; the Lord can lay me low, and he can raise me again; if I were dead he can raise me again.’ Then she repeated, as before, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, or convenient, give me a little ease;’ and seemed earnest to die and go to rest.

Her mother said to her, My dear, why art thou so earnest to die? The Lord can ease thee of thy pain, and give thee life.’

She answered, ‘One must once die, and if I recover, I must, or may, be sick again; and I had rather die while I am young. If I should live til I am older, the devil may tempt me to be naught[y], and I might offend the Lord. I am no afraid to die; through mercy I shall go to my rest: If I live, I am satisfied; and if I die I am satisfied. I am willing to die; I had rather die than live.’

Her mother said, ‘I shall dearly miss thee.’

[Her daughter] replied, ‘I am willing to see my little sister and [my] brother.’

Her mother said she would send for them: ‘but,’ said her mother, ‘if any alteration should be before thy brother come, what wouldst thou say to him?’

[Mary said] she left him the little money she had, and some other things to her father, mother, and two sisters.

Her mother desiring her to take something that was prepared for her, she seemed to refuse and said, ‘What signify doctors and apothecaries, if the Lord please to take one’s life?’

A little before her end, she lamented folks taking pleasure, and not considering the love of God. The last words she was heard to speak were, ‘Dear Lord God Almighty open the door,’ and so sweetly departed this life, the 12th of the Eleventh Month, 1711, aged above eight years.

This story is worth some reflection before we pass on: What did you hear in it? A preoccupation with death and dying? A practical way of coping in a time when many childen died young? An obsessive concern with long-abandoned Quaker “peculiarities”? Middle class Victorian fastidiousness masquerading as religion? A lack of plot?

What does this story tell us about Friends in 1802, or 1711? What do our reactions to it tell us about ourselves? Would you be ready to read it to a group of 8-9 year olds in a First Day School class? Why or why not?

(Incidentally, all the other stories in this edition of Piety Promoted and its successor volumes were similar in theme and “plot.”)

In the nineteenth century, John Greenleaf Whittier retold many early Quaker stories in verse. Here is a sample, from one I always liked, “The King’s Missive”:

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

UNDER the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer
In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.

He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag, and cloven the May-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about,
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
Earnest and honest, a man at need
To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed,
He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal
The gate of the holy common weal.

His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
‘Woe’s me!’ he murmured: ‘at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.

‘Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!’ . . .

This story tradition has continued into our own time, of which more later.

Many of these early Quaker stories reflect a worldview rather different from our own, and in some ways alien to it. I believe we can find useful food for reflection in such stories, as well as an impetus to consider how we are doing at preserving and telling the Quaker stories of our own time.

There’s no shortage of material. Perhaps the most familiar title is The Friendly Story Caravan, published by Pendle Hill. It has been in print in various editions for more than seventy years. As I have read them, these stories were not all of equal quality; some seemed sentimental; some, I discovered, had actually falsified history in pursuit of making a pious point – not, it must be admitted, a new phenomenon in religious literature.

Even so, these books deserve credit: they told Quaker stories to several generations.

But it seems to me that there’s something of a gap since then. Our storytelling efforts seem to have dwindled in the past generation or two. Where, for instance, are the stories of COs in World War Two – I mean stories which ought to be familiar to most well-informed Friends? Or those of Quaker COs during the Vietnam War – of which I am one? Have any of us heard any of those? And most of us have been told about Lucretia Mott and the Underground Railroad; but what about the Quaker men and women who took part in the modern civil rights and feminist movements? There were plenty of them; where are their stories?

One story I heard some years ago was told by the woman who lived it, Marion Anderson, a Friend from Michigan. It was hilarious as well as audacious, because it described how she managed to walk right in on a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and give them all antiwar leaflets, much to their surprise.

I’m not talking here only about children’s stories. Adults need these stories too, told in adult formats. Today, adults may need them even more, because we’re so fully immersed in an amnesia-inducing mass media culture. But many of these stories, I’m afraid, are at serious risk of being lost. They are not being told, or even collected. And to lose them , I submit, would be a tragedy, it would mean losing part of our Quaker identity.

I’m not surprised that this is happening; we live in a culture where mass media shout at us constantly, and draw us remorselessly into their orbits. They are designed to keep us fixated, mesmerized, long enough for the marketplace they serve to sell us more and more goods. They work constantly and effectively to drown out and shut out the still, small voices that have something different to say. (And that’s not  even to mention politics.)

Of course, you know all this, so I won’t belabor it. The result is that not only Quaker stories, but the stories and identities of a great many smaller, even somewhat countercultural communities are being eroded, ignored, lost.

The process is analogous to the way species disappear as the rain forests are cut down to make hamburger wrappings. And I believe that those non-mainstream communities which fail to act to discover their own stories, to preserve and tell them, will not long survive, except as museum pieces.

One of several memoirs by Jessamyn West: a classic, in my view.

Fortunately, we have not been entirely without adult storytellers dealing fictionally with recent events; I think of Jan de Hartog’s memorable  trilogy of novels (The Peaceable Kingdom, The Lamb’s War, and The Peculiar People) , Stanley Ellin’s suspense novel Stronghold, the works of Jessamyn West, Daisy Newman’s Kendal series, and mystery novels, one series by Irene Allen, set at my old stomping ground, Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts; and Edith Maxwell, one of whose historical series is set in Whittier’s hometown, and includes the poet as a recurring character.

Feeling as I do, you will not be surprised to learn that, being a writer, I have written a number of Quaker stories, and hope to write more. Some of these stories are aimed at children; but others, including my own two Quaker mystery novels, are very much aimed at adults.

Volume 3 of Edith Maxwell’s historical Quaker mysteries.

But just as war is too important to be left to the generals, Quaker storytelling is too important to be left to Quaker writers, especially novelists. Fiction writers need the true stories as raw material. And in our communities, we shouldn’t always wait until someone is dead before trying to sum up their life preaching in a memorial minute. I hope some among the Friends who might read this, as way opens, will take time to seek out and record the stories that can be found right nearby, in your own meeting community.

Capturing these stories is not really difficult; you don’t have to be a novelist or writer. Here are some suggestions:

Talk to people, especially with a tape recorder in hand. Or while taking detailed notes. Ask lots of questions. Keep listening, and keep asking. Don’t worry about how it sounds; get it down first. Transcribe the tapes if at all possible; audiotape deteriorates faster than paper.

Collect photos, documents, news clippings. Few things are as ephemeral, or as interesting.

Store these collections carefully. If your meeting doesn’t have a safe place for them (and few really do; the top shelf of your Recording Clerk’s closet does NOT count), ask the local historical society, or even your state archive. There are also several fine Quaker libraries with archival collections whose curators would probably be thrilled to have them: I am personally familiar with those at Swarthmore, Haverford, Guilford and Earlham Colleges, and there are others.

Oh yes, perhaps most important–enjoy yourself! Gathering, processing and retelling these stories can and should be fun.

While you’re having your fun, remember that you’re fulfilling a function that is crucial to the long-term health and preservation of your religious community. I hope you will not let the noise and intrusions of mass culture lead you to neglect it.

Adapted from a Workshop at the
Friends Schools Day of Peace, Philadelphia,
Fourth Month 4, 2004

A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?

Except for how it turned out, I hate almost everything about this report:

A mass school shooting was foiled on Thursday, December 13; that’s the good part.

College students and adults too: warning booklet, in a college dorm room at a large Quaker conference.

But the first thing I hate about it is not in the news, but in myself: when I began checking the evening  headlines yesterday, a thought came:

Isn’t it about time for another big mass shooting? How long has it been—? Let’s see . . . the Pittsburgh synagogue, hmm. Oh yeah, late October: 11 dead, six wounded. . . .
Seven weeks ago; right? So  . . . another one is about due . . .”

Yes, I thought that, unbidden, and I hate that I thought it. A premonition? I don’t think so. It’s just that after these past few years, it does feel like there’s some sort of gruesome rhythm to such events.

The new ABnormal.

Then I glanced at the BBC News feed, and there it was:

Continue reading A Quaker Meditation: Hating the Good News?

Friends Seminary – Fired Teacher Will Return

A normally reliable source has furnished me a copy of a letter from the Principal of Friends Seminary (or FS)  in New York City,  announcing that “In late January we will welcome Ben Frisch back into the classroom.” (I called FS to ask about it; as of this writing, there was no response.) The full text of the letter is below.

If you don’t know, Ben Frisch is the Quaker teacher at Friends Seminary (“the”, as in THE only Quaker teacher almost a year ago, when this story began), who was abruptly fired last March.

He  got the boot after making a clumsy joke in a geometry class about how his raised arm, illustrating an obtuse angle, was like a “Heil Hitler” salute.

Frisch is about as far from being “Nazi friendly” as you could want. Although he’s a longtime Quaker, his ancestors were European and Jewish, and some were lost in the Holocaust. He doesn’t need a “diversity officer” to brief him on all that. Nevertheless, he was canned within a couple weeks. In a letter to students, the principal, Bo Lauter, wrote, “Our students know that words and signs of hate and fear have no place at Friends . . . .” Continue reading Friends Seminary – Fired Teacher Will Return