Category Archives: Divergent Friends

Guest Post: Profile of A Renegade Quaker Artist – Edward Sorel

[NOTE: Friend Gary Sandman, of Roanoke Meeting in Virginia, has long been collecting and distributing short articles about artists and performers who are Quaker, or Quaker adjacent.
His latest profile is of the longtime illustrator and artist, Edward Sorel. It was so appealing that with his permission, we are re-posting it here, with some addenda we found online.]

GUEST POST: Gary Sandman on EDWARD SOREL

Edward Sorel (b. 1929) is an American cartoonist and writer.  His work usually focuses on political topics, though occasionally it touches on other subjects, and it is enlivened with his sardonic humor. 

The cartoons are pen-and-ink sketches, filled out with watercolors and pastels.  The best of them, in his words, are “spontaneous drawings”.  Among the numerous magazines in which his work has appeared are The Nation, The Village Voice, Esquire and Vanity Fair.  
Sorel has published children’s books, Hollywood histories and autobiographies, in collaboration with others or on his own, including Johnny-on-the-Spot, Superpen: the Cartoons and Caricatures of Edward Sorel and Profusely Illustrated: a Memoir. He is also known for his mural at the Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village.  
Sorel has exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, the Art Institute of Boston and Galerie Bartsch & Chariau.  His honors include the Auguste St. Gaudens Medal for Professional Achievement, the Page One Award and the National Cartoonist Society Advertising and Illustration Award. 

Sorel began attending Morningside Meeting in New York City in 1963.  After he separated from his first wife and lost his job, he went through a long dark period. Ed Hilpern, his therapist and a member of the Meeting, recommended that he explore Quaker worship.  

Sorel’s sketch of Morningside Meeting circa 1965. Morningside then gathered on folding chairs in a room at Columbia University. On that morning, Sorel (at far left) noticed Nancy Caldwell (far right). After meeting, Sorel introduced himself, and one thing led — well, Sorel gives details below.

He met Nancy Caldwell, the love of his life, at the Meeting, and they were married there in 1965.  (Above is a cartoon of the Sunday morning they met).  

Sorel participated in anti-Vietnam War marches in Washington DC with Friends and joined with them when they walked across the Peace Bridge at Rochester to deliver medical supplies for North and South Vietnamese civilians to Canadians Friends, who had agreed to forward the supplies.  

When he and his family moved upstate in the early 1970’s, they attended Bulls Head-Oswego Meeting.  A gleeful atheist, Sorel is known for his anticlerical cartoons and has sat on the board of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  He felt, however, that he could become a member of the Friends because of Quaker social witness.

I have always loved Edward Sorel’s cartoons.  I first saw them in Ramparts magazine in the mid-1960’s and enjoy them still in The New Yorkermagazine.And I was delighted to see the cartoon above.  I had worshiped at Morningside Meeting several times when I lived in New York City.

A quote from Sorel about his first Friends Meeting for Worship:

“What I remember best is the silence.  It seemed to charge the room with a connectedness of yearning”.  

Gary Sandman

[ Gary has published an extensive collection of his artist profiles in a book titled QUAKER ARTISTS. Copies can be ordered (hard back or e-book) through his website, at: http://garysandmanartist.com/ ]

Continue reading Guest Post: Profile of A Renegade Quaker Artist – Edward Sorel

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.

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”

A Quaker Theologian for Our Hard Times.

A substantial Holiday Weekend Read:

I always feel uneasy when finding myself in agreement with rightwing Catholic pundit Ross Douthat. But in his August 31 NYTimes column, he nails it, mocking the spectacle of :

”  . . . generals and grand strategists who presided over quagmire, folly and defeat fanning out across the television networks and opinion pages to champion another 20 years in Afghanistan. You have the return of the media’s liberal hawks and centrist Pentagon stenographers, unchastened by their own credulous contributions to the retreat of American power over the past 20 years.

“Our botched [Afghanistan] withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors.”

But I’m not nodding to Douthat today about Afghanistan. It’s more the “general catastrophe,” or cascading crises, that have been similarly botched and booted by our rulers and most of our reigning “elites.”  And rather than piling on, I’m looking for some help in getting through and making some hopeful sense in the aftermath, if there is to be one. Someone outside the discredited mainstream pundits and bemedaled poseurs.

Which brings me to Jim Corbett.

Continue reading A Quaker Theologian for Our Hard Times.

David Zarembka’s Memorable Writings: A Sampler

Besides his work and example, Friend David Zarembka also left a valuable and underestimated resource of writings for Friends and others.  We’ll sample that legacy here, and point to where more can be found.Zarembka -Book Cover

Besides some personal contact, I learned most about Dave from his book A Peace of Africa. Here’s part of that context from my review: Continue reading David Zarembka’s Memorable Writings: A Sampler

Breaking! OMG — Friends David Zarembka & Wife Gladys Kamonya Dead of Covid

This is a developing story. Watch for Updates.

I’m stunned.

I just learned that David Zarembka, aged 77,  a very distinguished Friend from Baltimore Yearly meeting, who lived for more than a decade among Friends in Kenya, and his wife Gladys Kamonya, 73 have both succumbed to Covid. Both passed in Eldoret Kenya. Gladys Kamonya died on March  23, 2021;  David  died on April 1.

Below is his autobiographical sketch published in the book Passing The Torch. More to follow:

David Zarembka, in his own words: From Passing the Torch

I find the world an extremely interesting place and I participate in as many aspects of it that I can. Conversely, I don’t find myself very interesting at all and therefore don’t often write much about my life’s 76 year journey. This article therefore is a major exception.

In order to understand where I ended up, I have to explain where I came from. Although it might seem that my life has been unconventional, it really hasn’t been when one considers where I came from and how I grew up.

My paternal great-grandfather, Mathias Zarembka, came from then Russian-occupied Poland to the United States to work. Those were the good, ole days in the late 19th century when people could just come and go. He stayed in the US for seven years and then went back. He had seven children, six of whom immigrated to the US, while only one remained in Poland. My grandfather, Frank Zarembka, immigrated to the US in March/April 1914.

If he had waited a few months longer, the guns of August which started World War I would have begun, and he probably would have been drafted into the Russian army where the ill-equipped and untrained Polish soldiers were mowed down by the Germans. He left behind my grandmother, Lotti Wilant (notice the German name although she knew of no connection to Germany), and my one-year old father, Richard Zarembka. They were not able to immigrate to the US until 1921 when the family reunification act was passed in the United States. They lived in St. Louis in the Polish section of town. My grandfather worked for St. Louis Coal and Ice and pulled ice from the ground to be cut up in blocks to be put in iceboxes. Even when I knew him as a child, he was physically very strong.

My maternal grandfather was Ernest Elmer Colvin. He was a newspaper man. My Mom, Helen Jane Colvin Zarembka, was a great family storyteller so I have lots of old stories. My grandmother was so worried about my grandfather when the Associated Press in St. Louis assigned him to cover the 1919 so-called “race riots” in East St. Louis – it was actually just a massacre of what were then called Negroes. When he retired around 1954, he was copy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. My maternal grandmother, Flora Scott Colvin, died even before my parents were married. She had grown up in Kansas City where my grandparents met. She and her sister, Fanny, started the first kindergarten in Kansas City. Each morning they would hitch up the horse and pick up the kids for school – something that women were not supposed in those old days. So, my roots run deep. Continue reading Breaking! OMG — Friends David Zarembka & Wife Gladys Kamonya Dead of Covid

“Merry Christmas. Now, Get Out!” Quaker David & Goliath Update: Goliath Wins

Christian churches all over the world are having Christmas services this weekend, and into the coming weeks. It’s a tradition almost two millennia old. But for some churches, it’s a pretty bittersweet occasion.

The Friends Church of Midway City, in Orange County California is one such. After 85 years, this Christmas weekend is to be their last in the church they built and paid for, and pursued their vision of evangelical Quakerism.

[Note: more about Midway’s GoFundMe campaign, to help pay off their $50,000 debt for lawsuit legal expenses, is here: https://gf.me/u/ykw8s8 ]
Many readers have asked about the outcome of the dispute between Midway City Friends and their evangelical overlords, reported here in widely-read blog posts almost a year ago, here and here.

The overlords announced in May 2018 that they were going to shut down the congregation, take the church and its property, and fire the pastors. The Midway City Friends filed a lawsuit in 2018 to stop their expropriation.

It didn’t work out. As the church announced on its Facebook page above, they lost their case. The defendants, leaders of Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW; neé California Yearly Meeting), argued that changes in Faith & Practice they had engineered a decade earlier made the EFCSW Board of Elders the supreme rulers, with ultimate ownership over all their member churches’ property. After months of mainly Covid-forced delay, last summer the judge agreed.

Cara and Joe Pfeiffer, now looking for a new gig, and home, for their family of six.

Midway City’s deposed pastor Joe Pfeiffer put it this way in a September Facebook post:

What we have discovered through the legal process in the last two years is that a small group who want to adopt a megachurch-satellite model with a centralized corporate structure basically circumvented our denominations governing bylaws to orchestrate a take-over. Though a lot of pious and spiritual language is being used (as often in church settings) it really comes down to power and money.

Early on, I started to publicly question this trend, as well as some of the ways our denominational budgets and nominations were being handled, and basically became a target, and then our church as a whole.

Our hope above all in this, is to continue to speak truth to power, and testify to our experience. Our aim is that truth will lead to conviction and ultimately reconciliation and healing in our broader body of Friends in Southwest.

But a third goal of their EFCSW antagonists went beyond grabbing the Midway City property and terminating Joe and his wife, co-pastor Cara Pfeiffer. They also want to make the whole episode disappear into oblivion down the legal memory hole. When a “settlement” was reached in November, it included nondisclosure clauses which forced the Pfeiffers to clam up, and relieved the EFCSW rulers from having to make any comment.

So no one has actually told me any of the settlement details. But key parts of it, e.g., the evictions, are outcomes that can’t actually be entirely concealed. After all, your basic big closing-down-and moving-the-church rummage sale announce-ment is pretty much a dead giveaway.

Their forced move is also a public reminder of how this whole affair started, when the Pfeiffers yielded to the quinte-ssentially Christian impulse to help a few homeless people who showed up on their doorstep in early 2018. That, and Joe’s record of daring to question EFCSW’s dedication to secretive top-down rule which brooked no questions or protest — that is, acting as if Friends were supposed to be a community of equals, was simply beyond the pale. They had to be stopped. The support the Pfeiffers had from the church was intolerable;  all had to be stopped, and the memory expunged.

Now EFCSW has sort of got their way: they’ll get the property, which if the economy rebounds could be worth a bundle, and the Pfeiffers and their four foster children, are now mum about the lawsuit, and face an uncertain pandemic-haunted future.

Yet there are a few loose ends. For one, the church, while small, has refused to die. Yes, it will be homeless a few days from now; but this is the year of worship-by-Zoom, so they will still meet, as they have done since the pandemic arrived, until they figure out where they can land next. There are, after all, Friends meetings in their area which are not under the hegemony of EFCSW.

Further, last spring, well before the gag rule was drafted, Joe Pfeiffer published “Engaging Homelessness Behind the “Orange Curtain,” a detailed, searing and trenchant critique of the entire “church growth” theology that has driven EFCSW  for more than fifty years. The piece exposed its deep-seated roots in defensive white normativity and the preservation of class privilege.

The essay and a detailed Preface were published in Quaker Theology #34, which is available online at no charge here. EFCSW’s legal victory and its aftermath are unlikely to put an end to the searching conversations that article started.

For its part, EFCSW issued a short letter addressed to pastors in its 45 churches, noting the settlement, and underlining its  confidentiality. In a possible bow to criticism that may have been evoked by wide attention to the Midway City property grab, Rick Darden, who signed the missive for the Elders, said of EFCSW’s leaders that

“we commit to improving our efforts in communications and relationships among our pastors and churches.

We believe that EFCSW has acted graciously toward the people of FCC Midway City and Joe and Cara Pfeiffer and their foster children in this settlement . . . .”

I couldn’t help it. The cluelessness here forced a laugh.

Here’s the leader of a so-called Christian church, parading his “graciousness” while marking the occasion of the birth of his church’s acclaimed messiah, whose infancy was spent as a homeless refugee, and one of whose commands for salvation was taking in the homeless, by having it coincide with making homeless refugees of one of their own congregations.

Further, Darden & Co. are expelling them from a church which the mostly non-affluent members of built, paid for, and maintained. Their only “crime” (besides wanting to think and speak freely) was trying to help a few of the thousands of homeless people with which Darden’s home county abounds.

(The last homeless count in Orange County was over 7000 in 2019, up from 4800 when this whole fiasco began. A 2020 count was canceled by Covid, but homelessness is widely assumed to have ballooned with the associated economic crash and its joblessness.)

An Orange County homeless shelter, 2019.

Darden and EFCSW’s flagship church in upscale Yorba Linda (self-styled as “The Land of Gracious living”) include on their megachurch staff eight staffers assigned to “Marketing,” and a dozen more to a “Creative Team.”

Evidently none of these twenty noticed that both the timing and what political pundits called “the optics” of this expulsion event are, to put it mildly, beyond terrible.  After such a move, any EFCSW efforts at “improving [their] efforts in communications and relationships” as Darden’s letter pledged, would seem to be, as the pundits also say, “due for a reset.”

Darden’s letter closed by assuring that EFCSW’s leaders were offering the Pfeiffers and the Midway City Friends their thoughts and prayers.

Of course. As Christians today, it was the least they could do.

Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks

Author and novelist Jessamyn West (1902-1984), best remembered for her classic The Friendly Persuasion (book and movie) was raised and shaped by a long line of Quakers. Rooted in Indiana, they wound up evangelical and Holiness-centered, as well as cousins to Richard Nixon, in southern California.

Jessamyn West, circa 1946

Her family left their southern Indiana Quaker homeland when Jessamyn was six. West left its Quakerism as a young woman; as her church moved in ever-more conservative directions, she wound up, not an activist, more a loyal ACLU liberal. But her Quakerism never really left her.

In West’s 1966 semi-autobiographical novel, A Matter of Time, this Holiness Quakerism is called the Pilgrim Church, Indiana becomes Kentucky, and she is renamed Tasmania Murphy. Tasmania/Jessamyn describes how she resisted her growing heretical thoughts, and departure, by trying to get saved. Continue reading Jessamyn West, Her Friendly Un-Persuasion, Christmas & Thanks