For a reporter, even a retired one, there’s a charge of adrenaline in a scoop — getting a story before other journalists.
And if the scooped rival is the Big Kahuna, aka the New York Times, there’s an extra kick to it.
So I’m preening this morning, after noticing that the august Times, fresh off stuffinganother Pulitzer Prize into its warehouse full of such trinkets, catching up with reporting that appeared here more than five years ago.
This despite the fact that the story involved mostly delivered grim news.
Seeing the Times headline, “As a ‘Seismic Shift’ Fractures Evangelicals, an Arkansas Pastor Leaves Home,” my immediate reaction was — I admit it — “Well now, it’s about dam time.”
Blogging about the divisive agony which is overwhelming Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association (SAYMA — described here) was not on my agenda when we planned the Zoom session set for tomorrow, November 11, at 4 PM. (Register at this link:bit.ly/3k6eDBZ )
But stuff happens. Even in theology.
And that post usefully (if sadly) shows that the forces which produced the five splits chronicled in The Separation Generation series are not confined to the pastoral and evangelical branches, and their theological universe; but can be stirred anywhere, on many issues.
There isn’t space here for a detailed comparison/contrast; and likely it’s too soon. But that time will come. And as we discuss the books tomorrow, my thinking will not only be about this near past, but also about the present. These books are a resource for such immediate work.
This was pointed out by a reviewer on Amazon, Canadian Friend Ian Davis, writing of Indiana Trainwreck:
Ian J. Davis — 5.0 out of 5 stars
It would be easy to say that this was a dry read about recent events in a place very distant from my own.
But nothing could be further from the truth. At core this is a careful examination of religious conflict in a Quaker context; how it arises, how it festers and just how destructive it can be.
There is a strong tendency for religious movements to seek safety in their own creeds and dogma and to insist on uniformity of thought. This desire invites those who disagree with the righteous to be labelled heretics in need of either correction or expulsion.
But there is also a strong desire among Christians to be mindful of the teachings of Jesus, and in particular to love one’s enemies. This is particularly true of Quakers who have historically rejected creeds and dogma, partly on the grounds that such artificial rules (regarding who is to be deemed in, and who out) are divisive, and invite coerced pretense rather than informed spiritual growth.
The conflicts described in this book center around the issues of faith, practice, acceptance of individuals in the LGBTQ community, and the issue of support or opposition to same-sex marriage. It is the ever repeated conflict between those inclined to impose uniformity versus those inclined to welcome diversity.
But it is also the conflict between those who seek God’s will, and those who seek to impose God’s will. Readers of this book are offered front row seats where they can better observe the bloody action unfold. [The coauthors have] done the world a service in documenting so carefully and in such a readable manner the human tendency to forget “thy will be done” in favour of “my will be done”. I rather marvel at [their] own fortitude in staying on the train, while this train wreck was in progress.
In 2008, a Quaker meeting in the West Richmond Friends Meeting of Richmond, Indiana quietly adopted a policy statement affirming the presence and participation of LGBTQ persons in all aspects of its fellowship, and posted this new statement, called a Minute, on its website.
Officials in the meeting’s regional association, Indiana Yearly Meeting, took exception to this new statement, and told West Richmond to remove it from the site. West Richmond declined. The resulting controversy unfolded over the next five years, and resulted in a major division in what had once been among the largest Quaker communities in the United States.
For historians, it is a unique resource for research. For general readers, it is a rare closeup view of issues that reverberate widely across our culture, and have implications far beyond the boundaries of a small Midwestern religious sect. Indeed, the Indiana virus spread, and parallel conflicts soon convulsed several other American Quaker associations.
In mid-2014, a blast of church schisms blew into the three-century old North Carolina Quaker community like a line of summer tornadoes.
A purge was demanded to “purify” their ranks of congregations deemed theologically “liberal” or friendly to LGBTQ persons. It was much the same wave that had already sundered Quaker groups in Indiana.
Yet the targeted meetings in Carolina stood up eloquently in their own defense, and the purge attempts repeatedly stalled. So how far would the crusaders go? Were they, like U.S. troops in Vietnam, ready to destroy their Quaker “village” in order to “save” it? Did the struggle have to end with a “Murder at Quaker Lake?”
The last time such a broad wave of separations rolled across the American Quaker landscape was in 1827-1828. These recent divisions were reported on as they happened for both a Quaker and a general readership by two projects: the journal Quaker Theology, and a blog titled A Friendly letter.
Murder at Quaker Lake is Volume Two of The Separation Generation, a three-volume series which brings together these reports and related documents, as both an unique initial historical record and a singular resource for those concerned with the course of contemporary religious evolution and controversy.
While Quakers (formally called the Religious Society of Friends, or Friends Church) are a small denomination, they encompass a broad range of theological perspectives and socio-political outlooks, and have experienced controversies similar to those that have shaken many larger denominations in recent times.
In Shattered by the Light, parallel conflicts over sexuality, the Bible and church governance erupt in and tear apart two Quaker associations half a continent apart.
Their stories, in the Pacific Northwest and southern Midwest, were part of a larger wave of divisions that echo and illumine recent struggles in numerous other churches, and in American culture at large.
This book is Volume Three of The Separation Generation, a unique three-volume series which brings together reports and related documents about five such conflicts, all distinct but related, in American Quaker circles since the beginning of this century. This book and the series offer both a unique historical record and a singular resource for those concerned with the course of contemporary religious evolution and controversy, which continues and reverberates far beyond the bounds of one small denomination.
(You can see the three coauthors live and ask questions on Thursday, November 11 at 4 PM EST: in person at Earlham School of Religion, or by Zoom, and later on the ESR website. To get the Zoom link, register NOW at this link:bit.ly/3k6eDBZ )
Not since 1827 have so many American yearly meetings split in such a short time.
That 1827 struggle was so traumatic that a fully-researched study of it (Quakers In Conflict, by H. Larry Ingle) was not published until 1986, one hundred and forty-nine years afterward.
This time, between 2003 and 2018, four YMs broke, and a fifth disappeared completely after 320 years. But unlike 1827, what was dubbed The Separation Generation was reported in real time, defying the pandemic, and chronicled in three books.
The three co-authors of The Separation Generation will discuss them, the yearly meeting upheavals which produced them, and answer questions in a live presentation on Thursday, November 11 at 4 PM – EST at Earlham School of Religion (ESR). It will also be livestreamed on Zoom, and for those present at ESR, will be followed by a reception.
The three coauthors include Stephen Angell, the Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at ESR; Chuck Fager, a retired activist, journalist and editor; and Jade Rockwell, an activist and student at ESR.
“These books fill a big accountability gap about these conflicts,” said Chuck Fager, who edited the series.
“The gap was created on one hand by the fact that too many YM and local meeting officials — like many other church & corporate bureaucrats— prefer to bury or ignore bad or unflattering news. They often act like like bent cops & shady politicians. (But there were also, the books show, staunch Friends who stood up for Truth and fair process.)
“And these coverups have usually been enabled by Quaker publications which lack the skills & the backbone to seriously report them.
“So as these five separations developed, nobody was covering & documenting them. So we stepped up. Others could do it again, when the need arises (and it probably will, if Quaker history is any guide), and I hope they will.”
The five yearly meetings involved were:
>Indiana and Western, two once very large bodies whose struggles over Universalist theology and LGBT affirmation left them scattered and shrunken. They are covered in Vol. 1, Indiana Trainwreck.
> North Carolina (FUM), which faced internecine warfare over biblical and church authority, LGBT acceptance, and did not survive; its self-destruction fills Vol. 2, Murder at Quaker Lake.
> And Northwest and Wilmington YMs, two quite distinct bodies, the former evangelical and West coast-centered, and the latter straddling a stretch of the heartland from Ohio to Tennessee. While facing some similar issues, their outcomes differed, and their diverse stories make up Vol. 3, Shattered By The Light.
The Separation Generation series, available in paperback and ebook, offers a unique combination of journalism, theology, old & new; over 150 pages of documents backing up the reporting; and some limited speculation & opinion.
The coauthors worked mainly as volunteers, starting when each had a day job.
Documenting our Quaker history as it happens is accountability work that can be done, & needs to be done. That way we can learn about what’s happening to us, especially amid the deep cultural & political upheavals we’re surrounded by today.
“I’ve been doing independent reporting among Friends since 1977, in various forms,” Chuck Fager said, “almost 45 years, on a shoestring budget and alongside regular day jobs.
“I believe projects like this will likely be needed again, in various media. I’m very grateful to ESR for upholding the involvement of Steve and Jade, and for bringing the results of our work forward among Friends.
I hope Friends watching this program at 4 PM EST on November 11 or on the web afterward, will consider taking up this concern when it’s needed again, and encourage others who do.”
Both the live presentation and the Zoom stream are FREE and PUBLIC. For more details and to receive the Zoom link, please register by clicking this link: bit.ly/3k6eDBZ
In Shattered by the Light, parallel conflicts over sexuality, the Bible and church governance erupt in and tear apart two Quaker associations half a continent apart.
Their stories, of Northwest Yearly Meeting in the Pacific Northwest and Wilmington Yearly Meeting in the southern Midwest, are part of a larger wave of divisions that echo and illumine recent struggles in numerous other churches, and in American culture at large.
The Separation Generation series brings together reports and related documents about five such conflicts, all distinct but related, that have disrupted U. S. Quaker groups since the beginning of this century. The other two titles will be described in future posts.
Has this wave of schism and institutional destruction, the broadest divisions since the “Great Separation” of 1827, now crested and receded? We think this particular set may have, but are very hesitant about predicting the future. Yet certainly struggles over related religious issues are not finished in contemporary U.S. culture. Far from it.
The conflicts recounted here were sparked by confrontations over acceptance of LGBT persons and same sex marriage. But they included differences about the place and interpretation of the Bible, the nature of Christ and salvation, church structure and governance, and more mundane matters of money, property and jobs. Some took years to reach their conclusion.
The authors in Shattered By The Light began the work which culminated in the book in 2014. It started as articles in the journal Quaker Theology, and blog posts on this site. It culminated in a unique synthesis (or as some say, a remix) of journalism, history and theology. This series is the only published record of these divisions so far; we see it not as a definitive account, more as the beginning of study, reconsideration, and learning .
What about the title?
“Shattered” was a “term of art” in the breakup of one of the yearly meetings in the book. As the drama played out, the word, like many such, took on more unexpected layers of nuance and irony. This evolution continues.
“The Ruins & the Grass,” was both suggested by the cover photo that appealed to the editor, and a once-famous poem by Carl Sandburg. The struggles in the third book, like all those in the series, left much of their Quaker environment in ruins. At the same time, around these there are at least patches of grass, green with growth. What these green patches may grow into and become — who can say? But there’s plenty of fodder here for study and creative reflection.
Stephen Angell is the Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion, author of many studies in church and Quaker history.
Chuck Fager is Editor of Quaker Theology, and a longtime journalist with special interest in both current Quaker events and Friends history.
Jade Souza is a graduate student at Earlham School of Religion, and has years of varied experience as an organizer.
And for the record, these three produced this volume, and The Separation Generation series, independent of any institutional connections, and their work speaks for itself.
This book and the series offer both a unique historical record and a singular resource for those concerned with the course of contemporary religious evolution and controversy, which continues and reverberates far beyond the bounds of one small denomination.
This excerpt from the conclusion of Shattered By The Light offers a reflection on the sweep and impact of the struggles this series has followed:
On screen, the January 2021 presidential inauguration was all appropriate pomp and circumstance: high officials on every hand, soaring rhetoric, striking singing and poetry, prescribed oaths, and a multitude of flags. It went off without a hitch.
But if the cameras pulled back, or widened their lens-angles beyond the west Capitol steps, resplendent in the chilly morning sunshine, a very different scene appeared: an occupied city, with 25,000 carefully-vetted National Guard troops deployed, fully armed, watching every street corner. They formed an impenetrable cordon around what had been turned into a (hopefully temporary) equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone. This broader vista showed a city that looked like it had foiled an attempted coup, barely.
Oh, wait ― that’s exactly what it was.
Does this daunting political tableau have anything to do with Quaker strife in Wilmington or Northwest Yearly Meetings? Or any of the other Quaker stories in The Separation Generation series?
We think so. It was, in its larger public setting, a more ominous manifestation of many of the same conflicts that brought all the five divisions about. We will not delve into the present political context here, except to note that in general, evangelicals (and conservative Catholics) have clustered on one side, while “progressives” of numerous denominations (and none) are on the other. And that LGBTQ affirmation was a major, ongoing point of contention in both, plus struggles over biblical interpretation, other Christian doctrines, and forms of legitimate church governance.
These parallels are mirrored in other American denominations, much larger than the Religious Society of Friends: Episcopalians Methodists, Mennonites, Lutherans and Baptists have all faced schisms on similar issues in this century . . . .
The Separation Generation was compiled and published as a resource for Friends and others concerned with these issues, and their present and future import for our meetings, churches, and larger social order.
Apropos of Dr. King’s birthday, and looking toward Black History Month, an email came In Monday telling me the New Yorker magazine had posted on its website an article from the April 10, 1965 issue called, “Letter from Selma,” about the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
And I was mentioned in it.
Sure enough; it’s the only time I have appeared in the magazine.
I barely remember what was in that “Letter,” though I can still see the writer, Renata Adler, appearing by the edge of U.S. Highway 80.
I do recall how strikingly out of place she seemed, on its rough and rocky shoulder, crowded with disheveled marchers, and lined with armed troops eyeing the nearby scrub forests for snipers.
Adler looked as if she had been plucked from a stroll on Fifth Avenue and teleported to Alabama, in a colorful and almost slinky sheath dress, with a broad voguish hat bending under the stray breezes, notebook in hand.
We talked for just a few minutes. It’s a good article. Only time my name ever appeared in the New Yorker, as far as I know.
I think you can read it for free.
And there’s more: on Jan. 18 I was asked to speak to the good people of Life’s Journey UCC Church in Burlington NC, and tell them the title story from my memoir, “Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.”
Of course, I didn’t get to go to Burl-Ing ton, which is about 40 miles west of Durham. Instead, I ZOOMed in from home in Durham; that’s This American (Pandemic) Life, 2021.
and explain how for a long time after that year in Selma, it had a happy ending. But then, in 2013, that ending was erased, and the story of fighting for voting resumed.
Only this time, the wear and tear of age had me on the sidelines, but still connected, reminding the young that this continuing story is now theirs too, and it was their turn, not yet to tell it but to write the decisive next chapters with their lives.
In mid-2014, a blast of church schism fever blew into the three-century old North Carolina Quaker community like a line of summer tornadoes.
At its annual conference, a purge was suddenly demanded to “purify” their ranks of meetings deemed theologically “liberal” or friendly to LGBTQ persons. The same wave had already shattered Quaker groups in Indiana, and would soon roll west into Oregon and Washington state.
But the targeted groups in Carolina stood up eloquently in their own defense. They issued cogent rebuttals to the doctrinal charges, and stood firmly for the integrity of recognized Quaker decision making. The purge attempts repeatedly stalled.
Yet they continued. For two years the question was, how far would the crusaders go? Were they, like U.S. troops in Vietnam, ready to destroy their Quaker “village” in order to “save” it?
”A house divided against itself cannot stand!” was the insurgents’ refrain, citing the gospels and Abraham Lincoln. Something would have to give.
And ultimately, it did.
Murder at Quaker Lake unpacks this dead-serious true story. It is now available, in paperback & e-book form. Since the turn of the 21st century, five U. S. Quaker Yearly Meetings have become battlefields, truly making the opening decades of the 21st Century as The Separation Generation.
[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]
For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.
This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.
Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.
I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.
How did this come about? Who knew?
I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.
That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.
Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.
For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:
I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages.
The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation. [2021 Update: the company still exists; lab rats are still dying for our sins.]
Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.
I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.
By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me. [Update: I hear that the FBIS has since disappeared into some bureaucratic slot in the spy world; but one hopes the agencies are still paying some attention to the rest of the world.]
One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.
In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.
As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–
— But first, some explanation.
My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot. He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.
In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.
And I almost did.
Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.
But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)
If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.
But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.
How many of us get a chance to do that?
I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.
The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.
I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.
Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.
The retired could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.
Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”
Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”
And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.
The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.