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.