By Chuck Fager
One of the finest, most eloquent ministers of this generation of liberal Quakers has left us. William J. “Bill” Kreidler, of Beacon Hill Meeting in Boston, died on June 10, 2000. This is a time to mourn, and also a time to remember, and to pay tribute, which is what I want to do here
Of Bill’s biography, I know only a few scattered facts: He was from a farm community in western New York, and grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church. He began college in Buffalo and finished in Boston, where he became a public school teacher. He was gay. He wrote books about conflict resolution in schools, and did consulting with school systems on violence prevention. Where and how he came to Friends I don’t know; but he was a founding member of Beacon Hill Meeting.
My first memory of Bill is from St. Lawrence University, at the FGC Gathering of 1984. I was leading a workshop, my first for FGC, on the Basics of Bible Study, and he was in it.
Well, partway in it anyhow. As I recall, he spent most of those weekday mornings perched on the sill of an open window, there on the second or third floor of our old classroom building. I didn’t think he was going to jump out; it was brutally hot, the building was not air-conditioned, and he was trying to breathe.
But at the same time, he did seem to be keeping a safe distance, a space between him and the dangerous book I was waving around, and maybe the bearded breeder who was waving it as well.
During the workshop we spent a lot of time reading aloud the story of David, Jonathan, Saul, and Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, as I had culled it from the First and Second books of Samuel. This is a gripping, mournful story, which I called “The Bible as Soap Opera,” and perhaps it went on too long, especially given the weather.
But all through it, there is a clear image of Bill, still on the windowsill, head cocked to one side, paying close attention as we plowed through this saga of love, betrayal, death, and loyalty beyond death. Glancing over at Bill from time to time, I wondered if something about it was sinking in. I now think that it was.
Three years later, Bill and I met again at FGC, this time in Oberlin, Ohio. The weather was better that week, and we sat down on a green lawn and asked each other how we were doing. My story was pretty routine, but Bill had a saga of his own. He was, he said candidly, coming out of a bad relationship and a long cocaine addiction. He had found the support and love there, especially among the gay Friends, to make a turn toward the twelve steps. Things were looking up.
There was much more to this remarkable story, but I didn’t hear it until a few years later, when someone gave me a tape of Bill’s keynote talk at the 1989 Midwinter Gathering of Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. On the tape I heard a polished storyteller, but one who was using his talents and gifts for something far beyond a mere performance.
“I’m 36 years old,” he began, “and I’ve finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.
“I want to be an old Quaker lady.”
Over the laughter, he continued:
“I don’t say this lightly; I have thought long and hard about growing up to be Gene Kelly. I never learned to tap dance, though — at least not yet.”
As the chuckles died down, he explained that “old Quaker ladies” weren’t necessarily either old, Quaker, or even ladies; this image was a metaphor for a kind of spiritual centeredness that he had lost, and was now slowly, painfully working to regain. “This is a really pitiful story,” he remarked about halfway through. “I tell it well, but it’s a really pitiful story.”
The twelve step pilgrimage he recounted was familiar in outline; it retold, as most of them do, the story of “Amazing Grace,” lived out: he once was lost, in a maze of drugs, alcohol, and abuse; but now he was being found. Some of his specifics were new, though, especially when he got to the part about a spiritual awakening. In his report of it there was, as I expected, some mention of familiar Quaker names, Fox and Woolman; but more important, it turned out that Bill had discovered, or been discovered by, some of the key women saints in the western mystical tradition, especially Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila.
“Terry and Julie,” he called them, making us laugh, but not making a joke of it. They too, had remarkable stories, which meant a reat deal to him. He had been taken on what became a long-term version of what Douglas Steere calls “the journey in,” by way of prayer and related spiritual disciplines. He wasn’t sure where it was leading him. He wasn’t sure how it all fit together. But it did. And he was willing to let us in on it.
Even on my tinny old tape player, the eloquence and depth of Bill’s presentation–his witness, really– still comes through clearly, more than a decade later. It was a sermon, but like few I had ever heard: equal parts polished standup comedy, wrenching personal confession, and straight-out preaching, it was at once ego-tripping and deeply humble, and entirely compelling.
Further, while many of the religious themes of Bill’s talk were traditional, their context was not: for him, the saving community had been, not a conventional church or even a meeting, but rather the group, Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (FLGC).
While by 1989 FLGC was essentially an accepted presence at the annual FGC Gatherings, this acceptance was still relatively new, and not uncontroversial. Furthermore, FLGC, like all other such groups, was feeling the impact of the AIDS epidemic, and the ramifications of this crisis were still sinking in.
One of these ramifications was the targeting of gay and lesbian groups as a locus of personal and social evil by powerful and very vocal forces in society at large. To have a member of such a group describe it so convincingly as a vehicle of personal salvation was very much at variance from this reverberating chorus, and Bill’s audience was very moved by his affirmation of it.
Not that there was any politics in his talk. Rather, one of the points he most wanted to make was that, “As lesbians and gays, I think that joy is one of the things that we have to offer. And I don’t just mean that we have better taste and more fun. Buy pyridium online Although of course, we do.”
When he closed with by evoking an image of FLGC at its best as, “a room full of old Quaker ladies, and they all were tap-dancing,” it’s a safe bet there was hardly a dry eye in the meetinghouse.
Whether Bill knew it then or not, talks like this soon launched him on what Friends call a public ministry. He was already well-known in educational circles as a consultant to schools on conflict resolution and violence prevention. This was a job he had essentially created for himself, growing out of his work as a schoolteacher in tough Boston public schools. Soon he was combining this work with his ministry among and to Friends.