Category Archives: Cross-Generational Conversation: YAFS & OFFs

Holiday Weekend Stories: His Eye Is On The Sparrow

Introduction: Pentler’s Folly

If you ever want to rile up a Friends meeting, here’s a simple recipe: Leave them a lot of money in your will, but with no instructions about what to do with it.

It’s a sure thing: the meeting will spend years haggling over what to do with all that worldly wealth.

In the mid-1970s, a fellow named Charlie Pentler did just that to Palo Alto Meeting in California. I don’t recall how much his estate finally came to; but it was enough, at least, to build a new meeting house, which was what they finally decided to do with most of it, after tying themselves up in knots for several years.

That whole story would probably yield the plot of an absurdist comedy of Quaker manners, if there was a Friendly cable channel to show it on. But before all the ruckus started, the Meeting decided to use a bit of the loose cash in one of Charlie Pentler’s accounts for a different purpose: to make some small grants to local folks for Friendly projects of one sort or another.

Being nearby when this news came, I hied myself to the front of the line, with my cap in one hand and an idea for writing some Quaker stories in the other.

The meeting gave me $1200, and the immediate result was two Quaker short stories, my first. which I labored over for weeks, hidden away on a farm near York, Pennsylvania.

But in a way, almost half a century later, a few dozen more stories are also the ultimate results of their generosity. That’s because the Quaker story bug, once loose in my veins, wouldn’t go away. For many years, like a recurrent fever, it kicked up ideas from my subsconscious, usually when I was least expecting them, and I’ve done my best to capture them on paper before they slipped back into the mist.

Most of these were first written to be read aloud, the earliest to my own children. Some years later, when my kids were older, they were read to the campers at Friends Music Camp, held for many years on the historic campus of the Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio, where I visited for this purpose for more than thirty years.

It started by accident: I visited Olney school one summer with son Asa, just to bask in the locale’s old-time Quaker atmosphere, and met the camp director, Peg Champney of Yellow Springs, Ohio Friends Meeting. I was low on cash and asked what I could trade for a weekend’s board for us.

“What have you got?” Peg asked.

I hemmed and hawed, then: “Um—I have some stories I could read.”
I was in luck. The evening program for the next day had just fallen through. So that evening, campers clustered around me in the main dorm lounge, and I read my stories.

They liked them. Looked forward to more. So one summer visit led to — thirty others. For ninety minutes in each of those years, sitting on a plain camp chair as dusk fell, surrounded by rapt youths, I felt like a famous writer.

The stories aren’t only for children, or Quakers.

I’ll post two of them: one below, the other tomorrow. Read them for yourself, and make your own judgment as to whether Palo Alto Meeting, and the shade of Charlie Pentler, got their money’s worth.

A postscript: some stories feature Quaker ghosts. They too started out to be fiction. The first was told spontaneously in the summer of 1987, during a visit to the historic Friends meetinghouse in Mount Pleasant, Ohio.

Mt. Pleasant Ohio Friends Meetinghouse

My two younger children, Guli and Asa, wanted to know why we had stopped there; and the explanation, to my surprise, came out as a story, about how a Quaker quarrel there in 1828 turned into a riot (it really did) and how ghosts linger with its memory, and can be heard there, still quarreling, on warm summer afternoons.

As the story was being told, Asa, at least, was quite sure he could hear the ghosts when he pressed an ear against the locked door of the meeting house. Asa’s hearing is very good; and ever since then, I haven’t been entirely sure whether the story, and some others, were as fictional as I thought.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

[Note: This story is essentially true; it happened in summer 1961. I was 19, between freshman & sophomore years in college. The camp was in the Hudson Valley of New York]

I

It was Marcy Siegel who first realized that a killer was about to strike.

“No!” she shrieked. “Don’t”

But it was too late. The killer squeezed the trigger, squeezed it smoothly, silently, remorselessly. The rifle popped loudly, and the sound bounced back from the low hill in front of them.

The victim jerked and fell to the ground.

Then Marcy Siegel screamed, and so did the others.

II

Camp Pontiac was not much different from dozens of other such places: A long rambling row of cabins spread out along the shore of a cool blue lake. Behind them were softball fields, basketball courts, and other athletic equipment. A big lodge divided the boys’ cabins on the east from the girls’ on the west. In the big lodge we ate, heard announcements, and griped about the food.

I didn’t gripe about the food, though, at least not so the Inters could hear. “Inters” was short for Intermediates, which meant age 11 or so.

I couldn’t let them hear me gripe because I was one of their counselors. It was up to me to set an example.

A big bubble at Camp . . . Camp is a big bubble.

Many of my kids could use a good example too; Pontiac was an expensive camp, where most campers arrived hauling huge trunks crammed with stacks of brand new shirts and shorts and socks, twice as many as they’d ever needFortunately this was 1961, or there would have been cell phones and tablets too. Instead, when Visiting Day came a few weeks into the season, parents and other relatives brought or sent each of my kids bags and bags of candy, more than a single child could be expected to consume in a week.

In hopes of controlling the sugar craziness, we told them to eat as much as they could by bedtime that night, and then confiscated the rest. But there wasn’t much left by then, because what they couldn’t eat, they ended up throwing at each other, or us. For the rest of the season there were brown splotches on our cabin porch where M&Ms were ground into the wood floor.

That had been the low point; mostly the kids were bright and interesting, even if they wore us out. Besides, several of them had an air of underlying sadness that all the candy and new clothes couldn’t quite conceal: I called them the orphans.

They weren’t officially orphans, of course, but they might as well have been: they were shipped off to boarding schools for nine months of the year, and then trans-shipped off to camp for the summer. Their parents were evidently otherwise engaged, and had the money to keep the kids at a comfortable distance. I admit I cut the orphans a little extra slack sometimes; maybe I’m just a sucker, but it felt like they needed it.

Days at Camp Pontiac had a regular round of activities, swims, and assemblies. A kind of focal point came every weekday after rest period. That was when we gathered in front of Herbie the Head Counselor’s cabin for mail call and any last-minute afternoon announcements.

Herbie was big, blustery, sun-blond, and not really very athletic. But he was a longtime Camp Pontiac staffer, who knew what was what, and he was always ready to set us straight. He’d burst dramatically out of his cabin,  blow a whistle hanging around his neck on a nylon cord, make a joke or two, and pass out the mail. Then he’d collect  postcards the kids were constantly encouraged to write to their parents, at least weekly. The camp provided the postcards, and Herbie dropped them ceremoniously through a slot into a big locked wooden box attached to the front of his cabin.

“Okay!” he’d shout when this ritual was completed. “Let’s get out there and have a great time!” With one more blast of the whistle, he’d send us scampering to the afternoon’s activities.

Another big Camp breakfast about to get scrambled.

There were a lot of options at Camp Pontiac; there had to be, for as much as they charged. This variety was why I was there at all: in the winter, when checking the Summer Job Directory at college, the counselors’ lists in the camp section were a series of painful reminders of just how un-athletic I was:

Could I swim? A little, but not enough to teach it or lifeguard; as for hitting a baseball or shooting a basket, forget about it. And tennis? Don’t be silly. Volleyball, just barely.

Page after page, the activities lists at camp after camp were nearly identical. I was about to give up on getting away from my college in Colorado for the summer when, near the end of the section, Camp Pontiac appeared. Its list was longer than most, and even included horseback riding. Not that I could ride a horse either; but it gave me hope.

Then, like a gift from heaven, there it was–something I could actually do, and maybe even teach: riflery.

It’s true. When I was about twelve and living in rural California, my father bought me a single-shot .22 rifle. We never went hunting, but several times I took it out behind our house, facing an empty open field, and used up a box of shells plunking away at tin cans and bottles. I always hoped a bird or a rabbit would stray into my line of fire, but none ever did.

Two years later, a high school youth group offered target shooting lessons, and I jumped at the chance. I liked shooting; what 1950s American kid wouldn’t? I enjoyed the classes, too: (This was Back in the Day when the NRA was mainly about safety— no, really.) The instructors were sticklers about safety rules. But unlike a lot of rules in my world, theirs made perfect sense. They taught us to listen to the instructor’s commands, and to move together in sequence:

Ready!
Move up to the firing line.
Pick up your rifle.
Load and lock.
Ready on the Left?
Ready on the Right?
Ready on the firing line.
Commence firing!

Then:

Cease firing.
Rifles down.
Move back from the firing line.

We followed these rules because they kept us safe, and focused on the real objective, which was blowing little holes in the black bullseyes of the targets at the other end of the range.

Besides appreciating the discipline, I also liked the classes because in shooting, bigger didn’t mean better; what counted was control, concentration, aim, a steady trigger finger. A skinny kid like me could be a better shot than some burly, swaggering jock. We even had girls in the class, and some were better shots than most of the guys.

Besides, the results suggested I had a knack for it. My shooting scores were decent, and with practice got better. I was picked for the rifle team, earned a Sharpshooter’s medal, then added several bars to it. Our team won a few matches, and lost some, but in all I carried my weight. I hadn’t ever done that in a team sport before.

But then it ended: my family moved, and the new place didn’t have a rifle range available to teenagers, and that was that for my shooting career. Or it was until that day I sat reading through the Summer Job Directory at college.

My spirits lifted: Riflery was a skill I could legitimately offer Camp Pontiac. And it wasn’t that common; lots of people could hit a baseball; but how many could hit a bullseye? This, I thought, just might be my ticket back East, to New York, which I’d never seen before.

And so it was. One sunny morning in mid-June I was on a train chugging up the Hudson Valley from Manhattan. A few hours later, in my brand new Camp Pontiac tee shirt, I inspected the rifle range.

It was small, only six target stands, and backed up against the slope of a wooded hill, with nothing behind it for many acres. It looked good: safe, cozy and familiar. This I could handle.

I asked Herbie if I could try out the range; the campers weren’t due til tomorrow. He wasn’t too keen on the idea, but let me take a few potshots. I put two bullets through the bull’s eye, several more close to it, and was getting ready for my last shots when I noticed a fluttering in the trees halfway up the hill.

Lifting my eye from the rifle sight I saw birds flitting through the branches, seemingly unconcerned about the slugs kicking up dirt a few feet below them.

Come on, tweeties, I whispered urgently to them. Come on down here. Let me find out if I’m really still a sharpshooter. Come to papa. But they didn’t.

III

Everything went well that summer until the morning the killer appeared. Several times a week I met groups of campers at the range, showed them what to do, explained the importance of following instructions, gave out ammunition, and barked the commands:

”Campers ready! Move up to the firing line; pick up your rifle; load and lock. Ready on the left? Ready on the Right? Ready on the firing line, commence firing!”

I called out these orders from a spot behind the line, where I could see everybody and the targets beyond, to make sure every rifle was pointed in the right direction at all times. There weren’t going to be any accidents on my watch; the camp couldn’t afford it, and neither could I.

And it was going fine. In fact, the whole summer was going great. Camp, I soon discovered, was not just a matter of shepherding kids around. Over on the girls’ side, there were many pretty college age counselors, and the big lodge had a canteen where we could meet them after our boys were asleep. That year too, the Twist was the big dance, and I discovered to my surprise that I could actually do it.

So I was a popular guy, with kids when the sun was up, and with various female counselors after dark and on our precious days off. This, I concluded, was living.

That’s how it was the morning Marcy Siegel and her twelve year-old colleagues showed up, giggling and pigtailed. They were a little nervous about this business with guns, but eager too.

My confident tone was reassuring as I explained that a rifle is not a gun, that safety was primary, and how following my commands in unison would keep us all safe. They were wide-eyed, somber-faced and obedient when I said we were ready.

The first round of shooting went off without a hitch, though few of the girls could, as shooters say, hit the broad side of a barn. When we took a break I spoke encouragingly, gave them a few pointers, and said we’d do a second round so they could try to raise their scores. This time they were eager.

”Group One,” I shouted, “Move up to the firing line!”

Six subteens plopped down in their stalls.

”Pick up your rifle!”  They obeyed.

“Load and lock!”  There was a clicking and snapping of metal.

I started to say, “Ready on the Left!”  But just then I glanced out toward the target stands, and the words stuck in my throat.

A bird, a sparrow, had flown down from the trees above and was perched, big as life at about four inches long, on the third target stand. Its little head moved in quick jerks. One tiny claw flicked up to scratch its squat neck in a blurry rhythm.

My mouth went dry. I had wanted to see something like this, not just all summer—no, for years, ever since I stood knocking tin cans off a fence post in California. And now, here it was.

My fingers tingled. I had, I figured, about ten seconds to decide what to do, if I was going to do anything, about this. I took a couple of deep breaths, and then spoke:

“Rifles down. Yes, down!” Heads turned toward me, faces quizzical, but my stern voice brooked no questions or challenge. “Move away from the firing line!” They scrambled nervously back in my direction.

As soon as they were even with me I said, “Wait here.”

In a second, I had flopped into position in the third stall, and was aiming down the loaded rifle sight, over the shiny dark barrel. That was when Marcy Siegel realized what was about to happen, and screamed.

IV

I don’t think any bullseye ever felt better than that one shot. When the rifle made its single pop, the bird leaped off the target stand, then swerved right into the ground. I dropped the rifle and trotted out to the stands. There it was, limp and still, with a spot of blood bright on the tiny dark grey feathers where an eye had been. I walked back to the stalls, practically crowing about my shooting.

In fact, I was so full of pride at my kill that it took a few seconds to realize I was now surrounded by twelve near-hysterical girls.

To them, I was not a good shot; I was a killer, a cold-blooded, brutal murderer.

Really, they were so cute when they were angry. I patiently explained about how common such birds were, and how predators killed them by the dozens, and that actually I was no different than one of those sparrow hawks we saw circling overhead every day. No big deal; there were plenty more birds where that one came from, and anyway, didn’t they see what a good—no, what a great shot it was?

They weren’t buying it. My rationalizations about life and death in the wild cut no ice; my bragging about the fine shot did not impress. Marcy and a couple others started to cry.

I could see it was time to backpedal. I apologized for upsetting them, assured them that the bird did not suffer, and calmed them down as best I could. When it seemed that order had been restored, we finished up the second round and I sent them back to their counselors. They seemed back to normal as they went.

Once they were gone, I walked back up and took another look at my prey. No, I thought, they didn’t understand; they were too young. This really was the best shot I’d ever made. But probably it would be wiser, I figured, not to mention it to the other counselors.

V

This policy lasted exactly two days. Then, after mail call, when Herbie blew the whistle to send us off for the afternoon’s softball tournament, he called out to me to stay behind, and beckoned me to follow him into his cabin. I had never been inside it before; it was unofficially reserved for the senior counselors.

As soon as the door was closed behind us, he rounded on me, fury in his face: “What the HELL were you doing on the rifle range the other day?” he demanded.

Busted. Looking mostly at the floor, I explained what had happened. “I don’t know why I did it,” I concluded sheepishly. “But a bird never came down on the range before. It was probably the only chance I was going to have, and I guess I couldn’t pass it up.”

Herbie softened a bit as he listened. There was a good chance he had relatives in the army; and for all I knew he’d been in the army himself. I think he appreciated good marksmanship, at least in the abstract.

“And anyway,” I added lamely, “I was very careful about the safety procedures. None of the kids was anywhere near the firing line.”

Now Herbie snorted. “Oy vey,” he said. “Maybe not close to it, but they weren’t far enough away. Do you have any idea how many of them went back to their cabin and wrote home about this?”

I shook my head, confused.
“Five,” he roared. “FIVE!”

A postcard.

I was still confused. How would Herbie know that? But then in a flash it was obvious: the postcards. The box. It was not a regular mail box that could be opened only by an actual employee of the United States Postal Service. I glanced to my right, and there it was: the outside lock was for show: the box opened into a wire basket, right there in his cabin. And of course, there would be one just like it on the girls’ side.

No wonder the camp gave out the postcards. It was so the head counselors could read the notes home before sending them. And chances are, some never got sent. Like, Herbie explained, the five from my target practice escapade.

”You mean you didn’t send them?” I squeaked. The idea of tampering with the U.S. mail was genuinely shocking.

”Are you kidding?” he snapped. “What do you think the parents would do if they read that?” He rolled his eyes at my naivete. “We can’t afford that. You can’t either.”

Herbie let me go a few minutes later, with orders never to do any such meshuggenah thing again. I promised him I wouldn’t.

And I didn’t. Of course, this self-restraint was made easier by the fact that no bird ever again came near the target stands while I was on the range. A few weeks later, Marcy Siegel and her buddies made another visit to the range, eyeing me suspiciously the whole time. But everything went strictly by the book, and soon they seemed to be enjoying their shooting as much as the other campers did.

Maybe, I thought, this whole business was blowing over.

It seemed to be. The weeks passed swiftly, with kids keeping me busy during the days, and pretty female counselors to flirt with in the nights. By late August, when camp ended, everything seemed fine again. Heading back west toward Colorado and another year of college, I was determined to return there the next summer. Camp was fun; I missed the kids; I missed the female counselors. But next year would be even better-now I had experience to offer, as well as a specific skill.

Early the next spring, I sent an eager letter to Camp Pontiac, telling them how anxious I was to come back and do my best for them and the campers.

I never got an answer to that letter, nor to the follow-up I sent as May approached and I began to get desperate. My career as a camp counselor was over, no doubt slammed into oblivion along with that tiny sparrow. That year I ended up in ROTC summer camp, marching in full uniform around an Air Force base in Kansas in one hundred degree heat, without a cool blue lake or an eligible female anywhere in sight.

All this was sixty years ago, but I still miss Camp Pontiac sometimes, and wish I could slide one more postcard into that slot in Herbie’s box. If I could, the card would read like this:

”Dear Marcy Siegel, wherever you are, I’m sorry. I really am.”

That would be it. Although I admit I’d like to add a PS, which would say: “But really, Marcy, it was a great shot, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Do you understand that any better now?”

I wonder if she would.

 

Posies for Peg is a  collection of my stories, in memory of Peg Champney, founder of Friends Music Camp. Available here.

 

 

 

Will Lucy ALWAYS Snatch Away The Football, Charlie Brown??

AP News: “A Good Man”: Exhibits honor ‘Peanuts’ creator Schulz on 100th

May 27, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — In a series of “Peanuts” comic strips that ran in midApril of 1956, Charlie Brown grasps the string of his kite, which was stuck in what came to be known in the longrunning strip as the “kiteeating tree.”

In one episode that week, a frustrated Charlie Brown declines an offer from nemesis Lucy for her to yell at the tree.

“If I had a kite caught up in a tree, Id yell at it,” Lucy responds in the last panel?

The simplicity of that interaction illustrates how different “Peanuts” was from comics drawn before its 1950 debut, said Lucy Shelton Caswell, founding curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus, the worlds largest such museum.

 

“The idea that you could take a week to talk about this, and it didn’t have to be a gag in the sense of somebody hitting somebody else over the head with a bottle or whatever,” Caswell said. “This was really revolutionary.”

New exhibits on display at the Billy Ireland museum and at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, are celebrating the upcoming centenary of the birth of “Peanuts” cartoonist Schulz, born in Minnesota on Nov. 26, 1922.

Schulz carried the lifelong nickname of Sparky, conferred by a relative after a horse called Sparky in an early comic strip, Barney Google.

Schulz was never a fan of the name “Peanuts,” chosen by the syndicate because his original title, “Li’l Folks,” was too similar to another strip’s name. But the Columbus exhibit makes clear through strips, memorabilia and commentary that Schulzs creation was a juggernaut in its day.

At the time of Schulz’s retirement in 1999 following a cancer diagnosis, his creation ran in more than 2,600 newspapers, was translated into 21 languages in 75 countries and had an estimated daily readership of 355 million. Schulz personally created and drew 17,897 “Peanuts” strips, even after a tremor affected his hand.

The strip was also the subject of the frequently performed play, “Youre a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” as well as “Snoopy: The Musical,” dozens of TV specials and shows, and many book collections.

Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” described in a 2007 Wall Street Journal review of a Schultz biography the difficulty of looking at “Peanuts” with fresh eyes because of how revolutionary it was at the time.

Benjamin Clark, curator of the Schulz museum, describes that innovation as Schulzs use of a spare line that maintains its expressiveness.

Schulz “understood technically in drawing that he could strip away what was unnecessary and still pack an emotional punch with the simplestappearing lines,” Clark said. “But that simplicity is deceptive. There’s so much in these.”

The exhibit in Columbus displays strips featuring 12 “devices” that Schulz thought set Peanuts apart, including episodes involving the kiteeating tree, Snoopys doghouse, Lucy in her psychiatry booth, Linus obsession with the Great Pumpkin, the Beethovenplaying Schroeder, and more.

“Celebrating Sparky” also focuses on Schulzs promotion of womens rights through strips about Title IX, the groundbreaking law requiring parity in womens sports; and his introduction of a character of color, Franklin, spurred by a readers urging following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In addition, the display includes memorabilia, from branded paper towels to Pez dispensers, part of the massive “Peanuts” licensing world. Some fellow cartoonists disliked the way Schulz commercialized the strip.

He dismissed the criticism, arguing that comic strips had always been commercial, starting with their invention as a way to sell newspapers, Caswell said.

While 1965s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the most famous cartoon TV specials of all time, the characters have also returned in dozens of animated shows and films, most recently in original shows and specials on Apple TV.

Those Apple programs introduced new viewers to the truth of what Schulz drew, his wife, Jean Schulz, told The Associated Press last year. She described that truth this way:

“A family of characters who live in a neighborhood, get along with each other, have fun with each other, have arguments sometimes with each other, but end up always in a good frame hugging each other or resolving their arguments,” she said.

Caswell, who first met Schulz in the 1980s, said one of the exhibits goals was to surprise people with things they didnt know about the man. In that, “Celebrating Sparky” succeeds admirably.

Who knew, for example, that Schulz, a hockey and iceskating lover, is in both the U.S. Figure Skating and U.S. Hockey halls of fame? (Perhaps that isnt surprising, given multiple strips that featured a hockeyplaying Snoopy or Zambonis driven by the little yellow bird, Woodstock.)

By focusing on Schulz, the exhibit also aims to show he worked hard to perfect his drawing style before “Peanuts” was launched and was intentional about what he wanted the strip to be, Caswell said.

“This was a person of genius who had a very clear, creative focus to his life, and enjoyed making people laugh,” she said.

“Celebrating Sparky: Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts” at the Billy Ireland museum runs through November and was mounted in partnership with the Charles M. Schulz Museum.

The Charles M. Schulz Museum has two exhibits commemorating Schulzs birth: “Spark Plug to Snoopy: 100 Years of Schulz,” which explores comic strips and artists who influenced Schultz (running through Sept. 18); and “The Spark of Schulz: A Centennial Celebration, exploring cartoonists and artists influenced by Schulz (from Sept. 25, 2022, through March 12, 2023)
___

Associated Press US Entertainment Video Editor Brooke Lefferts in New York contributed to this report Continue reading Will Lucy ALWAYS Snatch Away The Football, Charlie Brown??

AFSC Restructure Update: Staff Uprising? What Happened?

If I was a “consultant” and needed work, I’d get in line at AFSC. By my count, the group is hosting its third round of outside consultants, laboring earnestly (and raking in the billable hours) trying to help it square the circles of what is called at 1501 Cherry Street, Philly “Restructuring.”

The Restructuring plan — and the drive for an internal coup to smash it — were reported here in early January, and this initial post has links to the main documents, and a detailed sketch of the struggle against it. At that point, the Restructuring plan was set to be acted on at a Board meeting earlier this month.

The January coup was spearheaded by Lucy Duncan, who was at the time assigned as AFSC’s liaison with Quakers. She was candid about the goals for her insurgency:

We call on other Quakers to call for a cessation of the planned restructure, an external evaluation of the Senior Leadership Team and a searching, well facilitated internal conversation about how this process proceeded so far despite widespread opposition and how the organization can heal and move forward collectively, honoring all voices especially those most impacted by the issues upon which AFSC focuses.

If the plan wasn’t dumped, she warned, AFSC would be faced with numerous departures:

 Several staff have left or are on the verge of leaving the organization–some of whom have been with AFSC for decades–due to the difficult experience of these processes and their concern about the new direction AFSC seems poised to take.

Well, there was one signal departure in the wake of this manifesto: Duncan, who was suspended and then fired within a week.

Her dismissal stirred up a brief flurry of well-attended Zoom calls, some wringing of hands, and various social media posts.

But within a few weeks, the smoke cleared, and most Quakers  turned back to their already long list of serious concerns, such as the impending destruction of democracy here, the invasion and ongoing destruction of Ukraine there, and the destruction of the entire planet overall, to name a few.

This plethora of distraction indicated that there would likely be no mass movement of Friends marching to rescue Duncan and a once-Quaker-but-now 99+% secular NGO from the fiendish clutches of — the people who were hired to run it, especially by stopping another reorganization in a long string of such over the decades.

For the record, the Restructuring grew out of a strategic plan adopted by AFSC in October 2020 (and online here).

But opposition to it surfaced early, and  despite the often overheated rhetoric, took in practice the more typically Quaker form of a campaign to stall and talk it to death.

This is where the parade of consultants  got into  the  act, being well-compensated to somehow make a series of real differences vanish in a cloud of lavender-scented conflict resolution blather or drown in vats of herbal tea.

The consultants haven’t yet succeeded, except at their bottom lines. The key sticking points were summarized in the early post thus:

After wading through many documents, and cutting through a fog of verbiage and buzzwords, in my view the issues boil down to three:

  1. Power: Who will run AFSC?
  2. Jobs: Will “restructure” mean staff and program cuts? And, not least,
  3. Money: who will control its distribution?

The two sets of answers, in brief, appear to be:

From the “Leadership Team” (aka LT):

  1. Power? To the LT.
  2. Jobs/program cuts? Likely; maybe lots.
  3. Money control? The LT.

From the dissidents:

  1. Power? To the staff (or rather, the staff favored by the dissidents). Out Now! with the LT & its plan.

  2. Job/program cuts? Not just no, but Heck No. Instead, more hires and projects at the “bottom,” in field and project offices.

  3. Money control? Staff (again, the “right” ones).

With l’affaire Duncan now past, it seems clear that the struggle has returned to the question of who will out-stall, out-talk, and out-consult whom. AFSC Deputy General Secretary Hector Cortez told me this week there has not been any staff exodus following Duncan out the door.

But he also acknowledged that the April Board meeting, held in conjunction with AFSC’s annual Corporation session, had come and gone without taking up the Restructuring plan. Which, in light of what I was told in January, suggests the LT didn’t think the Board was ready to say yes.

The next Board meeting will be June 10-12. And from documents shared with the Corporation, it seems AFSC will be in full frenzy marathon meeting mode til then. Here’s the schedule (which, as the small print admits, will probably get even more crowded toward the end of May.):

This whirl will likely focus on much the same conflicts as were identified above. Here’s the summary shared with the Corporation (By the way, the BWGPDM stands for the Board Working Group on Governance and Decision Making):

And that’s not all. The remnants of the Duncan putsch echo here:

So, what will happen in June? Here’s the Leadership Team’s vision:

The blue chart above tracks a process which it says started (at top left) in June 2020, and looks to complete in June 2022 (at bottom right).

Seems to me it leaves out some items, so I’ve prepared a revised, shortened version here. One possibility is not on it: I predict that when June arrives, the Restructuring opponents will insist, “We need more time!” (And consultants.)Then . . .

The big Maybe: There are no public polls of the 20-plus member AFSC Board. Maybe they’re as ready as Cortez to be done with all this. Yet after fifty-five years of Quaker business and committee meetings, it is very easy for me to imagine a half dozen members not being ready to act in June, which would be enough to thwart the LT’s yearning for a conclusion, and keep the hopes of the resisters alive.

After all, just a couple weeks ago there was a letter from Friends General Conference about how their planning committee was tied up in knots and essentially fractured over — wait for it — mask rules for a Quaker gathering.

After two years of AFSC’s impasse, Cortez sounded to me like he (and the LT perhaps) was within sight of being fed up: “We are under the assumption and the very very clear expectation a proposal will go to the board in June,” he said, “and we will request a decision.”

If they don’t get one?

Well, there are always more consultants to consult.

Other related posts:

“Hello, AFSC? There’s a Crisis on the Line—And It’s for You.” Posted January 3, 2022
https://wp.me/p5FGIu-5qk

AFSC Restructuring Plan (Draft of April 16, 2021) — posted: January 3, 2022
https://wp.me/p5FGIu-5q5

AFSC & The Hammer: Duncan Fired — posted:
January 5, 2022
https://wp.me/p5FGIu-5qN

AFSC After “The Day The Movement Died” — posted:
January 13, 2022
https://wp.me/p5FGIu-5rp

Sayonara to FGC and The Gathering?

From the reports I see, the pandemic was bad for most churches: attendance is off, and (more important) ka-ching in the collection plates is down.

The possible exceptions are clustered among the most shamelessly antivaxx megabucks preachers. Theirs was a win-win setup: if they died, they were martyrs gone home to Jesus; if they lived, they could brag about beating the pagan socialist groomers with the poison vaxx needles, burn their masks and feel bulletproof (at least til the next spike).

And what about Quakers? I haven’t seen recent overall attendance numbers (and Quaker attendance figures are mostly baloney anyway); but a few significant bits of hard data have turned up. Among them are four numbers that sketch in the pandemic impact in an important sector, and the sum is not good.

The first two big numbers aren’t public, but their impact is: in early April, Friends General Conference announced that its 2022 summer Gathering, which had been set to be held in-person at Radford University in southwest Virginia, was off; in its place would be another all-online gathering (the third in a row).

Plans for the 2022 online Gathering program are, as of April 13, still “under discernment.” (Usually, by mid-April a detailed Gathering program schedule is ready, and registration is open.)

Next year, FGC pledged, the Gathering would be back, live & in-person, in Oregon.

We’ll see about that.

The first two of the key numbers behind the cancellation came from extensive surveys of former and potential attenders. The first showed that likely attendance this year would be way below that of the last in-person Gathering, at Iowa’s Grinnell College, in 2019.

Second, the surveys showed a similar decline in attender volunteers to staff out the very labor intensive run-up to the very labor intensive Gathering week itself.

The attendance/volunteer projections underlie the third key Gathering number, denominated in dollars, namely: income. The Gathering costs a lot of money, and over time, it has to break even.

This pay-as-you-gather policy has served FGC and its constituency well. Bottom line, it has meant that for more than 120 years, enough living Friends actually wanted the FGC community experience enough to pay what it costs, either in cash, in volunteer labor, or a mix.

Sure, FGC raises and gives out substantial financial aid and work grants. And there’s always uncertainty when fees are set and attendance is projected months ahead of time: in some lucky years, the Gathering comes out a bit ahead. In others, it falls short.
But “projections” are predictions, and the  prophet Yogi Berra said truly that predictions are tough, especially about the future.
Yogi Berra, a true seer

Will it rain tomorrow? What about a market or economic crash six months from now? A war or an oil shock? A pandemic?  Or, you know, the collapse of democracy? (Hey I’m just asking questions . . . .)

FGC does not have anything like the endowment needed to underwrite the whole event.

Besides, breakeven paid attendance yields a measurable authentication that the Gathering maintains a place in the lives of enough living Friends to stay viable.

But foreseeing a big drop in likely attendance/volunteers, the planners’ calculations for 2022 also projected a deficit of around $70,000.

Some shrugged off that number: FGC could raise the difference with a special fundraiser.

But others held fast to the breakeven tradition: finances were, and had been, uncertain for FGC since even before the pandemic; and while COVID was currently declining, there was still plenty of other uncertainties to grapple with.

Further, beyond short-term volatility, which is unsettling enough, FGC faces the biggest challenge in the fourth big number, which comes down to three fateful digits: Eight zero zero.

What’s that?

Let’s set the scene for the answer: run the Calendar app backward almost twenty-two years, to early July, 2000. I was with some family in Rochester, New York: a few miles north was the rippling blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Closer in were landmarks including historic houses where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass had lived.
“Let’s have tea.” (And plot a revolution.) A memorial to Susan B. Anthony & Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY.

We were on the campus of the University of Rochester, at the FGC Gathering.

It was to be a special one, because FGC picked that year to mark its centennial (mistakenly, in fact; FGC was actually about twenty years older. But no one on the planning committee really knew much FGC history, so never mind.)

I was on that planning committee, and we had all sorts of special events scheduled. A highlight was an all-attender panoramic photo: I squeezed in for it, crouched on the grass next to a granddaughter. As a memento, I ordered a print of the photo. It cost $25, a lot; but worth it (though sadly it was lost somewhere, likely in one of the decluttering attacks).

I remember looking it over later, before it was mislaid: so many Quakers together, packed like sardines, but all smiles.

I recalled the tally of those dozen-plus long rows: we had hoped and worked hard to get at least 2000 attenders. We came very close, about 1960, but didn’t quite make it.

It wasn’t unusual in those years for attendance to top 2000. More than once the Gathering filled every available bed on a host campus, and a few frantic late callers were reluctantly turned away. (What did the registrar say when a tardy Friend choked up on the phone and sobbed, “But God TOLD me to be there . . .”?)

So — Rochester in 2000, with almost 2000 Quakers. A new century. Heck, a new millennium. A lot to celebrate.

Yet since then, year by year, a graph of the Gathering attendance figures would be jagged, but the trend line was unmistakable; and it’s not a rumor. Which brings us back to that fourth big number, 800.

It was the attendance at the last in-person Gathering,  2019 in Iowa, the final summer of what many of us now think of as The Before Time.

FGC has been struggling with this attendance decline, with only fitful, temporary upticks.

There have been several surveys, and some recurrent complaints: the Gathering was becoming too expensive; it lasts too long; it’s become a Nanny State; etc. (I think FGC has made some big mistakes; but that’s not what this post is about, though some are listed here FYI.) Tweaks were made; yet the slide continued.

At a certain point, continued decline will push the Gathering to the brink of being no longer financially feasible.

Personally, that’s what I think it faces now. Besides finances, the email about the decision to go online includes a report on intense and unresolved struggles among planners over such matters as mask-wearing and Covid protocols. (WHAT?? Polarization among liberal Quakers too?? Is NO ONE safe? Evidently not.)

At this point, in most Quaker commentaries like this one, it is a rhetorical expectation — nay demand — for the writer, especially if they’ve been critical, to present what I dub the “Fix It List”. That’s a number of actions, usually about five, for Friends to take at once, to either solve a problem, or at least provide a sense of Having Done Something. (The ability to DO SOMETHING NOW seems to be one of the presumed keystones of our Quaker spiritual birthright and entitlement.)

Such lists almost always include, near the top, a mandate to Write to Congress, and Call for Action. Next is to Make a Donation to some do-good group or cause. And if the readership includes those from the programmed branches, a third will be a Summons to Pray. The other two will vary.

In this case, a Fix It List is something of a conundrum. For instance, while there are many good reasons to write Congress now (e.g., to save democracy), bailing out the FGC Gathering is not one of them. And while donations to the FGC (or relief for Ukrainian war refugees) are always welcome, the organization is not facing a temporary cash crunch, and we’ll all be dunned soon enough anyway. Still, if it’s your practice, one could Pray for All Of The Above.

But to be plain, as far as I can tell, the Fix It List mantra doesn’t really apply here.

Instead, what I increasingly suspect we may be witnessing is the natural sunset of an event and an organization: a life cycle, like that of a tree or a creature, or fossil-fuel powered automobiles. Or thee and me.

After all, the first Friends General Conference was organized in the early 1880s, more than 140 years ago. That’s a pretty good run; how many U. S. businesses have continued since then with their original name and ownership & mission? (Some churches have; but many have not.)

If the Gathering and FGC were to be laid down, would that be the end of Friends? I strongly doubt it. Other committees had come and gone. Quakerism had muddled through 200 years before they were started.

But what of those of us for whom the Gathering was one of the high points of our year?

That was me, for a couple of decades. And there will be a time to grieve. But I’m also one for whom the Gathering thrill is gone; its appeal has faded and wrinkled. Could that be, not something To Be Fixed, but just how it goes — more like leaves turning brown in the fall?

It feels more that way to me. And the 800 number, along with the latest projections, reinforce this impression.

So this summer, if I’m able to Zoom in and join in the online Gathering, as I have in a limited way the past two years, that may well be enough. It sounds like it will be for many others too.

And if the Gathering or FGC soon thereafter quietly folds its tents, my prediction is that before long some other concern or leading or event could take its place.

In any case, I’m now reminded of what one Friend said in jest, but might now be a promise of renewal:

“Our kind of Quakers don’t believe in Hell; that’s because we’ve got committees.”
Oh yes. Oh yes we still have.

Well, FU to Friends University: you Flunked the Freedom of Expression Exam Big Time.

Someday, I’m thinking, there will be a historic marker on (or near) the campus of Friends University in Wichita, Kansas.

Caitlyn Fox, Free Speech Advocate.

And if I last long enough to see it go up, I gotta take a selfie standing next to it. And if I’m really lucky, maybe Caitlyn Fox will take one with me.

I’ll get to Caitlyn in a minute. That Wichita historic marker won’t be  about me, but it will point to where my Quaker journalistic “career” started, in late June of 1977. I lived a year there one week, four and a half decades ago, and from recent reports it seems some things there haven’t changed a bit in those 45 years. Continue reading Well, FU to Friends University: you Flunked the Freedom of Expression Exam Big Time.

Martha Schofield & A Great Quaker Escape

It was a fine day for an escape.

Imagine we were in Aiken, South Carolina: a pretty town, near Augusta and the Georgia border, with a fine mild climate (headed for the low fifties today, February first, while much of the rest of the US freezes and shovels out).

But we’re visiting there in 1916. Aiken’s climate is a major selling point for the town. It has numerous hotels which attract well-heeled Yankees fleeing the deep freeze of northern winters, and even the heat of summer, plus a railroad to bring them and various cargoes up and down the Southeast.

February first in 1916 was also a Tuesday, and as  the Southern Railroad morning train pulled in from Georgia, the streets were already busy. A great many people of color, dressed as for Sunday churchgoing, were on the streets, heading for the old school.

There were enough of them that few noticed a family of five calmly making their way along the sidewalks toward the station: a tall couple, and three girls of school age.

But not only were they dressed in their best, they were wearing coats heavier than needed in the cool day, and carrying parcels, elderly-looking suitcases and covered baskets. If you were looking for them it would be evident that they meant to get on the train, not to meet someone getting off.

But they hoped no one was looking for them. They had planned for this day a long time, and with care. And part of the care was keeping quiet about it. Continue reading Martha Schofield & A Great Quaker Escape

To Promote Racial Justice, It’s Time to Move On from “Anti-Racism”

Not to ban the slogan. But to close it like a book, and put it on the shelf with others that have been read, which delivered value, and have become part of a reference collection.

In the almost sixty years since I was drawn into racial justice work, many such slogans have come and gone: like best-selling novels, page-turners in their day, then outpaced by new events, new stories and new mottos.

When I came along, it was all “Desegregation,” “integration,” “civil rights,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  Back in The Day, they were stirring, often thrilling, and not a few sanctified with the blood of martyrs.

They didn’t disappear either. But they were elbowed aside, particularly by “Black power, just as ”Negro,” a term of respect which Dr. King spoke  with pride til the day he died, was replaced by “Black” (which in turn is now jostling with “people of color”). And there have been many others.

For that matter, there was a long succession of similar mottoes before my time, going back over 250 years:

Among Friends there were manumissionists, such as John Woolman, urging owners to free enslaved individuals; then anti-slavery advocates, succeeded in the 1830s by abolitionists, radicals who aimed not so much at individuals as at the slave system.

After the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction, there was a long slow progression through guarded euphemisms like “Intergroup relations“ and “human relations” toward the more candid “inter-racial cooperation;” but not until after victory in World War Two did “human rights” enter the discourse.

Some of these terms receded because they were shown to have downsides: “Black Power!” centered African-American agency and justified anger; but it was vague about concrete goals, and some of its advocates slid into the dead-end of violence.

Today, many pretend not to notice, but “anti-racism” carries issues of its own:

  • It’s negative, against, against, against. There was a season for that, after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. But again, to construct justice, concrete goals are required.
  • It has become a coalition-buster, in a time when knitting together often fractious groups with similar needs and aspirations has never been so urgent.
  • Then, even more troublesome has been its impact on too many progressive whites. It has exacerbated our most self-defeating feature, the penchant for circular firing squads. I have seen way too much of this even in my small corner of the “progressive” subculture, liberal Quakers.

Why? Since too many of us fear actual conflict, yet can’t avoid the echoes of events mostly happening beyond our cultural bubbles, we displace our anger and fear at the forces outside, and dump them over each other instead, pretending they are the real adversaries. Continue reading To Promote Racial Justice, It’s Time to Move On from “Anti-Racism”

Quaker House, 9-11 and Me: Arguing With God

I’ve said that when I was Director of Quaker House (2001-2012) I had the best Quaker job there is.

But I didn’t always feel that way. In fact, my initial stance was emphatically the opposite.

Now that the job is open again, it’s worth describing how and why that changed for me.

This is a true story, which I hope will speak to a Friend who may not know it now, but is the right one to fill the post in what is likely to be a very challenging time.

The story begins with “No.”


                      I

“No,” I said. “No thank you.”

I said this to Chris Olson-Vickers. Chris was a mild-mannered social worker in Richmond, Virginia. She was also a Quaker, who in August of 2001 had agreed, perhaps rashly, to host an impecunious co-religionist  in need of shelter during the mid-Atlantic Quakers’ regional assembly, called Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

That impecunious co-religionist was me. Laid off and low on cash, I was too strapped to stay on-campus nearby, where our sessions were underway. I was packing lunches and avoiding the cafeteria.

sgt-abe-as-god-copy
Art by john Allder Stephens

On this evening, besides putting me up, Chris was also feeding me dinner. With the meal she had offered – not job-hunting advice; she is too cultivated for that. Rather, she was exercising a Quaker prerogative and “laboring” with me.

It was opportune, she had said, perhaps even providential, that I was unemployed and under her roof. Because she knew of a job opening. A Quaker job. One she thought I had the skills to fill.

At first I was all ears. What job? Where?

But at her answers, I shook my head emphatically. “It’s called Quaker House,” Chris said. “In Fayetteville, North Carolina. Next to Fort Bragg.”

“No,” I repeated. “Not a chance.”

In a more mainstream setting, this could, maybe should, have been the end of it. But as I said, Chris was not simply giving helpful advice. Rather, she was doing religious work, in a form we both understood then, and I understood better later. The fact that, to an outsider, it might have sounded like an argument, did not change its essential character.

Quakers call it “discernment.”

chuck-and-books-blft-circa-1999-copy
Chuck and books, in Pennsylvania 1999

After all, many of the key divine-human encounters in the Bible are a lot like arguments, if you listen behind the euphemized antique language.

So Chris pushed past my demurral.

Wait, she persisted. This was not just any job. It was a Quaker peace project planted near one of the largest U. S. military bases, in the midst of a thoroughly militarized city. It had been lifting up the Quaker Peace Testimony in Fayetteville since 1969.

In particular, it had helped many dissident GIs to find legal ways out of the military, and there were plenty more calling it all the time.

All very admirable, I agreed. But it was not for me.

There were any number of reasons.

At the top of the list, I readily admitted, was unabashed regional prejudice. For seventeen years, from the late 1970s to the middle of 1994, I had lived in northern Virginia, which was in the South despite cosmopolitan pretensions and nearness to Washington DC.

I tapped my chest significantly : That experience, I told her, put me deeply in touch with my Inner Yankee. In mid-1994 a chance came to move to Pennsylvania: I had leaped at it like a prisoner of war spying a hole in the stockade fence.

I was still there, in beautiful Happy Valley. That’s what folks around State College, home of Penn State University, call their mountain-secluded stronghold in the center of the state.

I liked the area. The woman I lived with was rooted there like an oak. We were part of a lively  Quaker meeting there. So why would I want to move?

chuck-and-blft-quaker-cemetery-copy
Next to the old Orthodox Friends cemetery in Bellefonte, PA, near State College.

Okay, I had been laid off from teaching English classes that Spring; that was an issue. But stuff happens. This too shall pass.

Besides, I raved on, North Carolina?  I hadn’t lived there, but knew all I needed to know about it: it was a Four-H state –

It had Heat. Humidity. Hurricanes.

And Jesse Helms. 

jesse-helms-tongue-out
Jesse Helms, longtime reactionary U.S. Senator from NC.

To repeat, no thanks. They could keep him, and the rest of it.

There was more like this.

But none of it fazed Chris Olson-Vickers.

You need to apply for this job, she said again. Chris had grown up in Fayetteville, still had family there. She knew Quaker House’s good work firsthand.

But the job had been vacant for a year and a half; hardly anybody had even applied. If they can’t fill it, she said, the board would have to close Quaker House down.

Which would be a darn shame, because there was still so much to do. There wasn’t any other place like it, she said. This wasn’t just personal, about filling a slot. This was about Quaker witness.

My turn: I said my heart went out to the board, but that didn’t change my conviction. I had grown up on military bases too, I conceded. But that only showed that the military wasn’t for me, and enough was enough.

nc-military-friendly-sign-copy

From there, I switched to two other lines of defense:

For one thing, I pointed out, if what Quaker House did was counsel GIs about military rules and regulations, I knew nothing about those, except that they filled many fat volumes that I had never opened.

Chris shrugged. You could learn, she said.

Besides, I pushed on, the board would be unlikely to hire me, because of my ornery reputation among Quakers. For eleven years I had published an independent Quaker newsletter. It had repeatedly rattled various closeted Quaker skeletons, poked sticks in sleeping dogs, upset various institutional applecarts, otherwise ruffled feathers and mangled metaphors right and left.

Some of this reporting might have been the Lord’s Work, but little of it was what could be considered good career moves. Somebody on the board was sure to be ticked off about something or other.

Chris was equally unimpressed by this ploy. If anybody on the board remembered these old controversies, she was sure that for the project’s survival, they would set it all aside.

If I had only been arguing with Chris, I think I could have prevailed. By the time we were finished, she had badgered me into agreeing that I’d at least send a resume to Quaker House, if only to get her to leave me be. What could it hurt? She said.

Right. What could it hurt? All the most likely outcomes I could imagine would get me off the hook:

Somebody else would apply, who lived closer and really was ready to move. They’d hire them, with my blessing.

Or a board member would recall an old grievance and not let it go. “Fager?” I could see them thinking. “Wasn’t he the one who wrote that inflammatory article about–(whatever)?” And then putting their response: “Over my dead body,” into proper passive aggressive Quakerese:

“Er, Friends, I believe that is a name which would not have occurred to me.”  

I’ve used that sentence myself, and more power to him. Or her.

On the upside, in the meantime perhaps I would find other work, so if they called I could graciously decline.

In any event, I grudgingly kept my word to Chris, sent in the resume when I got back to Pennsylvania, repeated most of the above caveats about it to my woman friend, and then thought about it as little as possible.

And if I had been arguing only with Chris, I’m sure that would have been the end of that.

                                     II

Not thinking about that resume in the next few weeks was relatively easy. That’s because while I was without full-time work, I did have a contract gig, doing research for a union organizing drive among Penn State teaching assistants. So I was busy digging into the seamy side of a large, rapidly expanding, and very secretive university.

Penn State is a hybrid institution, partly public and partly private, and its managers skillfully play both sides of that fence to conceal the maximum amount of inside information from just about all outside scrutiny.

My big achievement in that project was to discover and publish the salary of its president, a number which was as closely guarded as any secret the CIA is hiding. The magic number, about $500,000 as I recall, turned up in an obscure corner of an obscure IRS document filed by an obscure university research foundation.

I’ve done a lot of investigative reporting, and it’s always a thrill to lift the veil on some hidden item which should be public anyway.

But my triumph was short-lived. No sooner had my contact at the local daily paper published the number, backed up by my source, than Penn State’s lawyers/lobbyists swung into action. They interceded with the IRS to get the obscure foundation exempted from that reporting requirement in the future. The CIA could hardly have reacted more swiftly or effectively.

That work was absorbing and often fun. But by the end of the month I was ready for a break. My son Asa had graduated from high school that spring, and had been selected to do a year-long tour with Americorps, starting in a few weeks. I proposed a trip, one of those life-transition journeys a parent and child get to take if they’re lucky.

I had squirreled away enough cash from the research gig to bring it off, I thought. We would be on a tight budget, driving my car, staying mainly with friends, and looking for low-cost attractions, but we could do it.

Where did he want to go? I had asked. Maine, he said. Where in Maine, I wondered – how about Portland, recalling his interest in  the novels of Stephen King? He shrugged. Just Maine would do.

Let’s get there by way of Canada, I suggested and he agreed. So off we went just after Labor Day, heading for Maine by first going northwest to Ontario, and then up to Montreal.

Montreal was especially appealing. It was still warm, and on the night we rolled into town, wondering at the French signs and the general European air, we stumbled onto a noisy street dance, downtown on Ave. St. Denis. Asa took off to find the mosh pit, and I sat by, content to people watch, and bask in my linguistic acuity when, after an hour or so, I figured out that a banner reading “rentrée” meant “back to school.”

samaritans-montreal-copyFrom la belle province we headed to central Maine, where we stayed with Arla Patch, a fine Quaker artist, went to the beach, and visited the Sabbath day Lake Shaker community.  And it was somewhere on that leg that Asa and I fell to talking about generations, and their sense of identity.

He told me he envied mine, the veterans of the Sixties. We knew what we were after, he said, like stopping the Vietnam war and segregation. We had a sense of direction, a center. “Look at my generation,” he pleaded. “What direction do we have?”

I did my best to reassure him. The notion that my peers and I had things together is mostly retrospective eyewash, I said. We were a bunch of kids trying to make sense of a lot of violence and hate. And many of us, his father included, had spent years trying to find, or create, some sense of direction, a sense of what Quakers call centeredness.

I couldn’t say that process had ended, either. And anyway, I would not wish something like the Vietnam war on anybody.

cf-under-arrest-mass-circa-1973-copy
Under arrest – anti-Vietnam war protest, Boston, circa 1973.

We never did get to Portland, to drive past Stephen King’s house. We might have given it a shot when we left, because our plan was to visit my brother in Brooklyn, before heading back to Pennsylvania.

But just as we were climbing into the car, on that lovely Tuesday morning, Arla Patch came out, looking worried, a phone held to her ear, to tell us that something crazy had just happened and it was on TV right then. Something about the World Trade Center. We better come see.

What?” I said, annoyed at the delay, and reluctantly followed her inside to take a look.

It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

                                 III

Later that day, the car angled southwest across Vermont, aimed well away from Brooklyn and New York City.  The radio kept repeating the awful reports over and over, as if the reporters still could not quite believe what we had all seen, and at some point I turned to Asa. “God help us all, son,” I said, “but I think your generation just found its direction.”

Back home in Pennsylvania, I struggled through the next days, like everyone else, to make sense of what had happened. Only one thing about the aftermath seemed clear to me: the U.S would soon be at war. Where and when were obscure, but this had felt to me like a bottom-line certainty even before we finally rose and left Arla alone with the smoke on her television screen that morning.

This certainty was not a sign of any prophetic gift. It came, I think, more from my roots in a military family. Many of the reflexes of that culture were ingrained: You (whoever “you” were, who hijacked those planes, we still weren’t sure) don’t get away with attacking the Pentagon, the nerve center of all the US military. Somebody will soon face some heavy payback from the armed men and women whose headquarters and stronghold are in that building. 

And chances were very good that when this war started, there would be many more of the innocent killed in their frenzied, fiery search for the guilty. U.S. revenge would be painted on some part of the world in a very broad brush of death.

And me? What would I do in the face of this impending war? The attacks had shaken me, truly, but had not undermined my basic Quaker pacifist convictions. I had just seen murder, on a huge scale. But more murder was not an answer to murder. That was my conviction on September 10; it remained so on September 12th. I also sensed that I would have some small part in struggling to frame and lift up some voice for an alternative. Hell, any serious Quaker (or Christian?) would.  Right?

But what alternative? And how to raise it?

I didn’t know. But Quakers in circumstances like these are taught to wait for “way to open.” Our spirituality is that if we are properly attentive, we will be given “leadings,” which will point us in the way to go.

I’m a Quaker in large measure because that has happened to me. In our literature such experiences are often described in terms of mystical ecstasies or compared to the rush of romantic infatuation. These are as much metaphors as markers, however; it doesn’t happen according to any specific schedule or formula. John 3: 8 applies: “The spirit is like the wind: it blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from, or where it’s going.” 

I knew all this well enough from my own experience. I was about to learn it again.

                                  IV

An email from a stranger named Bonnie Parsons came only a few days after the return from Maine. Smoke was still rising from the wreckage in Manhattan and Washington, and those with their hands on the levers of political power were already taking advantage of the calamity to serve many other ends, but above all the ends of war. Afghanistan was the first target.

Bonnie Parsons said she wanted to talk to me. And it turned out she was not really a stranger: Bonnie Parsons was the Clerk of the Board  of Quaker House in Fayetteville-Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

At this point, we can skip a chunk of chronology. Contemplating Bonnie’s email, I could almost hear the teeth on the gears of Providence grinding into place somewhere above my head. Heaving a sigh at the computer screen, I knew that if Quaker House wanted to talk to me, they would likely want to hire me.

Even with my checkered past, I made a strong competitor for a Quaker job that nobody else wanted. And if they did make an offer, I knew I would take it.

But what about all my objections? My complaints to Chris Olson-Vickers?

They remained, but were no longer of any consequence.

As with the premonition about the coming of war, this was another case where the models from a military background made more sense than the softer language of typical Quaker spirituality. Reading Bonnie’s email, I felt like an old, out of shape army reservist suddenly being called back to active duty.

Such calls come when you receive orders. The tone of such communications is direct, curt, and unmoved by complaints and objections.

In the military, you don’t follow your bliss; you follow  orders. And it’s not about self-fulfillment — or God help us, “transformation” — it’s about a mission, one likely formulated, as they say, somewhere way above your pay grade. And in pursuing the mission, people can get hurt or killed. For that matter, from your lowly perspective, the mission, as far you can understand it, might be stupid, pointless or even self-defeating.

And your lowly perspective may even be right. But orders are orders.

You won’t find this image in any books on Quaker spirituality that I know of, but that day, and still, I could almost hear God speaking, in the tones of an old, profane first sergeant:

sgt-abe-as-god-copy

Oh, so you don’t like Carolina? Fayetteville’s not in your pretty mountains? Too hot and humid, you say? Scared of hurricanes, and you’ll miss your girlfriend?

Tough shit, soldier. Get in line. 

And you’re asking how long your tour will be?

Til further orders, asshole, what did you expect? There’s a war on, or will be in a minute. 

And oh, yeah — I voted for Jesse Helms. Four times. Or was it five? You got a problem with that, soldier?  

Suck it up and drive on.

That’s who else I had been arguing with when I was complaining to Chris Olson-Vickers. And as any soldier knows, those are arguments you don’t win.

I went on the Quaker House payroll December 1, 2001, and moved in over New Year’s 2002. Sure enough, it was the right place, the best place for me. Stayed til the end of November 2012; it, and the wars, wore me out. Which the best job is supposed to do.

We didn’t stop the wars, alas. But we kept at it, and I was able to pass on Quaker House to able successors who kept up the witness; which is how the story is supposed to end.

And which is what needs to happen again now. Maybe you’re the one. Or you know who it could be. (The full job announcement is here.)

Besides, if God talked tough, She was also merciful:  Shortly after I got to North Carolina, Jesse Helms announced his retirement.

– – – – – –

“It’s not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It’s the one that says ‘To Whom It May concern,’ said an anonymous Belfast resident.”

– from War, the Lethal Custom, by Gwynne Dyer.

“I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life, … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life. What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?”

– Participant in a Harvard longitudinal life-study, in his 60s; from The Atlantic, June 2009

Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

qh-and-sign-copy

Chuck Fager retired as Quaker House Director Director in 2012.

On September 21, 2019 Quaker House observed its 50th anniversary, and today it is still working with soldier war resisters, military families and veterans. 

The Separation Generation: A Continuing Challenge

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.

Thanks, Ian!
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 )

 

SAYMA: The Deathwatch Begins

It was their own Clerk who said it, in a letter opening the October 16 2021 Zoom Representative Meeting, or RM:

“SAYMA must arise from its spiritual deathbed of debilitating fragmentation or give up the ghost.”

The signs were all around. One of the most significant, to me, was in a seemingly noncontentious committee report:

Nominating Committee: [Wood Bouldin, Clerk] There are over 39 open positions. Friends are encouraged to consider whether they have gifts to contribute to SAYMA by letting Nominating know they are interested in being considered for open positions.

Thirty-nine plus vacancies? SAYMA is not all that big. But the actual situation is more like the way they used to talk about a tough town I once lived in: Folks line up to stay away from there.

Another committee plea sounded almost comical, in a cruel kind of way; it was from the Yearly Meeting Planning Committee: Continue reading SAYMA: The Deathwatch Begins