Category Archives: Hard-Core Quaker

Two Post-Valentine Quaker Stories: One True, One (Maybe) Fiction

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2020, the Washington Post ran an engaging story of two independent-minded women who faced down the CIA and won. That’s our first story:

The two women were Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood.

The Post: Five thousand square feet, wide windows, a grand staircase, a front porch with a panoramic view of nature. The year was 1933, and Northern Virginia was still the countryside, even with Washington just across the Potomac. So it was the ideal retreat for Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood, two pioneers of the American labor movement who defied the gender expectations of their time.

“Florence said, ‘Of all the houses we looked at, this is the only one I would care to live in,’“ Scattergood recalled years later. “That was pretty final.”

Were they a couple? No one knows. But they lived there the rest of their lives, Thorne til 1974, and Scattergood until her last illness in 1986. They worked for the American Federation of Labor in Washington, in the days when unions had clout in the capital.

So when the feds came looking to take their property in the 1940s, to fold into the site for some expanding federal agency, they mobilized their friends in high places and drove a bargain: the government could take the land, but they got to stay in the house for life.

Scattergood was a Quaker, who joined the new Langley Hill Meeting when it took over a former Methodist chapel nearby. I knew her there in her latter years, as a diligent meeting archivist, and a quietly persistent advocate for many social causes.

By then one of her targets was the agency which had won the scramble for the surrounding property,  and built a sprawling but tree-concealed headquarters: the CIA

To [Scattergood], the agency was an affront to her values. After retiring from the AFL, Scattergood dedicated herself to civil rights. She’d written to Martin Luther King Jr., funded affordable housing efforts in the District and fought swimming pool segregation in Virginia. She was also a staunch pacifist, and as the CIA grew, she lobbied Congress to reduce the budget of the U.S. military and intelligence operations.

“I remember her saying the one thing she’d like to do is stop World War III. She had small aspirations, you know,” said Sylvia Blanchet [a] great-great grandniece. . . .

With their aunt, they attended the Langley Hill Quakers meeting just down the street. When the group got involved in the sanctuary movement, which helped Central American refugees flee into the United States in the 1980s, their family did, too.

Soon, Scattergood was having the refugees over for dinner. Some stayed in her guest room.

Blanchet remembers them as students, families and “just ordinary people who had really suffered because of the war,” mostly from El Salvador and Guatemala.

The CIA believed the visitors were Sandinistas, a leftist resistance group the CIA was working against in Nicaragua. Sometimes, they ended up at the gate of the CIA when they were looking for Scattergood’s house. Officials now say they are not sure whether the visitors were indeed rebels.

After her death at 92, after a long decline, the CIA took the house, and used it successively to train  K-9 units, a bicycle repair shop, and then left it to fall down. But it was saved and renovated into its current use as a CIA conference center. The CIA now even has a feature about Scattergood, Thorne, and the house on their public website.

Calvert, in its current incarnation. In the time of Margaret Scattergood, the long verandah was open. (CIA press phot)

The CIA article, however, does not point out that almost on the day of her passing in November of 1986, after a time in a coma, what is called the “Iran-Contra Scandal” was made public. That affair, referred to by high officials by a code name, “The Enterprise,” centered on secret, illegal sales of weapons to armed opponents of the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua. The unlawful operation was handled by the CIA. Public accounts of the scandal say its cover was blown by a report in a Lebanese news magazine.

As one of many members of Langley Hill Meeting who benefited much from Margaret’s presence and ministry, particularly in her final year, I often thought of her, and wrote a tribute published in Friends Journal in April 1987.

And as time passed, I became aware, via sources which I am not at liberty to disclose, of what may have been another part of this closing chapter. That account is below, and some think it is fiction; but I am not so sure. . . .


Margaret and “The Enterprise”

McLean (aka Langley), Virginia – Fall 1986

I – Unauthorized Entry

The walkie talkie in Phillips’s right hand crackled. “I’ve got something on my scanner, Fred,” Hammerman’s voice buzzed through the tiny speaker. “You picking up anything?”

He looked. The thin blue lines were still making their wavelike pattern on the small handheld screen, up an inch and then down, up and down, just as they were supposed to.

“Nothing,” Phillips muttered into the mike. “You sure you’re not just imagining things, Mike?”

“Yeah, right,” Hammerman bantered. “I’m making it up, to pass the time as we hide in the bushes on this chilly Friday night in October. To keep from losing my marbles.”

Fred Phillips chuckled quietly. It did feel a bit loony, crouching in the shrubbery outside a stately, empty old house in the woods of northern Virginia. At least, the house was supposed to be empty, since the Special Operations staff had left at 5:00. Funny how you could run the world for the CIA on a nine to five schedule.

But they said the house wasn’t staying empty at night. Someone had to be getting in, as impossible as that sounded. Three after hours intrusions in two weeks, they said. What are you security guys doing out there, playing games? Sleeping?

Not a chance. The CIA never lets down its guard on security. So here they sat, in the bushes in the dark, feeling ridiculous, but with their reputation on the line.

Something caught his eye, and Phillips glanced down. Holy mackerel–The scanner’s red alert light was blinking a rapid warning.

Next to it, the blue lines were racing wildly across the screen. Their regular pattern was replaced by frantic, narrow swings.

“Mike!” he hissed at the walkie talkie. “I’m showing it now too. Someone’s in there for sure.”

“What sector?” came Hammerman’s tense reply.

Phillips checked the readout. “A-13,” he whispered. “The front office, just like the Special Ops guys said.”

“OK, mine says it too,” Hammerman’s voice was grim. He was backup. “That’s your side, boss. Gimme a minute to get in position so I can cover you. And keep your head down.”

Phillips unsnapped his holster. “I’m on my way,” he said, rising up from the bushes. “For Pete’s sake don’t shoot unless you have to, I’m too easy a target in the dark.” He took a deep breath. “Cowabunga, dude, here goes!”

Head down, he sprinted around a tree and hit the wide sidewalk running, his sneakers making almost no sound. Halfway up the broad front steps of the house he could hear swishing thuds behind him as Hammerman moved into position.

The big oak door was solid, but it had been jimmied for them, with scotch tape on the latch and paper stuck in the jamb so it only looked closed. A real high-tech setup, Phillips thought as he leaned to his left to hit the door, full tilt, shoulder first.

The big door crashed open, and Phillips had to veer to miss the tall, solid post of the banister by the staircase. The front office was to the right, behind a partition wall that had been set up in the front half of the elegant old dining room.

He banged the office door open with one expert karate kick, and hunched down, minimizing his target profile, pistol at the ready, and shouted. “Hold it! Security! Put your hands up and don’t move!”

The first thing he heard was a thump from the hallway followed by a moan and a muffled curse.

Hammerman had not missed the banister post. But he recovered quickly and was in backup position in less than a second, his weapon likewise trained on the dark space where the office door had opened.

The office was silent. Phillips’s hearing was keen, and he didn’t pick up any rustling, or even the faint wheeze of tense breathing, other than his own. He held his breath, waited another few seconds, then muttered, “Hit the lights, Mike,” without turning his head.

Hammerman edged over to the door, keeping his pistol trained, swept his free arm up the wall, and the room lit up. Phillips blinked in the brightness, keeping the office covered, and then warily stepped through the door.

No one was there. Filing cabinets, a multiline secure phone hookup, and a couple of desks strewn with papers, that was all.

It was enough, though. No desk in the Langley complex was supposed to have classified papers left on it after hours; that was basic security. And for sure the Special Ops boys hadn’t been that stupid, not with the stakeout planned.

“Somebody’s been here and no mistake,” Hammerman whispered, coming in behind him. He pointed: “There.”

Phillips followed his finger. Against the wall stood a filing cabinet, the kind with a steel bar running down the front and a big combination lock at the top to hold everything shut. But the lock was open, and so was the top drawer. A file folder poked up over the edge.

“Christ,” Phillips muttered, “how did we miss him?” Every door and window in the place was covered by electronic monitors, with backup security cars on all the perimeter roads keeping careful watch. What the heck was going on?

Hammerman broke into his thoughts. “Look at this, Fred.” On the bigger of the two desks, the top sheet of an open file folder was headed “Update–The Enterprise, 10/1985.”

But that was not what had caught Hammerman’s attention. Under it, in thick, red magic marker, someone had scribbled, in a large, bold hand: “THIS IS AN OUTRAGE. STOP IT AT ONCE!”

“What the–” Phillips started, but then his security reflexes clicked into gear. “All right,” he ordered, “impound these documents, and send that top sheet to handwriting for analysis and ID. This has to be an inside game, and whoever’s being cute just went a bit too far. Call in the backup team to search the area, just in case, but I doubt they’ll find anything.”

Hammerman left, returning with a camera and a big plastic evidence bag. He snapped photos, then began putting the violated files into it. When it was closed up and the seal crimped, he gave it to Phillips with a flourish. “This one’s got me stumped, Fred. I think it’s one that’ll have to go to the Chief. But I don’t know what you’re gonna tell him.

Phillips shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell him either,” he said

II -Some Kind of Inside Job

“Now let’s go over this one more time,” the Chief said gruffly. He was standing, gazing intently out the big window of his large office, and sipping coffee from the big mug that was always kept full and within his reach.

Must we? Phillips thought, looking at the trophies on the wall behind the Chief’s big, neat desk, on which the unsealed plastic evidence bag seemed totally incongruous. There was a picture of the Chief with president Reagan, both grinning. A framed medal from some operation in Vietnam. Two small maps, one of the Middle East, the other of Central America, with pink and blue pins stuck into them at various points.

Phillips realized his mind had wandered when the Chief growled, “Is that right?”

“Excuse me?” Phillips stumbled, looking away from the wall maps at the Chief.

“I said, you executed the entry into the house without a hitch, after getting positive signs of entry on your surveillance equipment, but found no one?”

“Uh, yes sir,” he agreed. “But we’re still searching the area for footprints and other evidence of unauthorized entry and egress.”

Not that he expected to find anything. This was, he was more and more sure, an inside job. Probably one of the Special Ops guys had jumped the track. Or maybe even gone over to the other side. No one liked to mention it, but it had happened before. The Eighties had turned out to be a big decade for spies, and they were barely half over.

“And handwriting drew a blank with that defaced file cover sheet,” the Chief continued.

“Yes sir,” Phillips said again. Nobody in the Agency’s current files wrote that indignant rebuke on the file. Or so it seemed, at any rate. Phillips wasn’t sure that handwriting analysis was such an exact science.

“So, what are we going to do about these intrusions, Phillips?” the Chief barked. “This is very sensitive material. We can’t afford to have it compromised.”

He paused, sipped his coffee, and chewed his bulging lower lip. “Have you searched the house?”

“Twice, sir. Nothing.”

“I can’t accept that,” the Chief said, shaking his big head, his thin white hair quivering. “There has got to be something.”

He paused again, thinking and chewing his lip. “What do we know about that house?” he asked finally. “How did it get there on Company land?”

“It was here first, sir,” Phillips answered. “An old lady built it with a partner, and lived there til she died, just this year. Now it’s reverted to us.”

“Who was she?” the Chief asked. “Maybe she has some disgruntled relatives, playing tricks.”

It seemed to Phillips like a very unlikely line of inquiry. “Sir,” he protested tentatively, “I’m not sure there’s really any point–”

“Maybe not,” the Chief cut off him. “You got anything better? Check it out. And keep me posted.”

He turned away from the window to the desk, picked up the plastic evidence bag and thrust it toward the security officer.

“Yes sir,” said Phillips, standing up. It was time to go. He didn’t like this. His own inclination would be to have Counterintelligence going over the records of all the Special Ops Unit’s personnel files, maybe even tailing them. It had to be an inside job.

“Oh, and Phillips,” called the Chief as he was passing out the doorway.

“Yes sir.” He stopped and turned back. The Chief was behind the desk, sticking a pink pin into the map of Central America.

“Keep the house under your personal surveillance tonight, and every night, until we get this cleared up.” He picked up the coffee mug.

“Yes sir,” Phillips said wearily. His wife wouldn’t like this, and neither did he. But you didn’t argue with the Chief. Not unless you wanted a transfer to the Antarctica field station. And he didn’t, even if there was no trouble with inside security breaches in Antarctica.

III – Final Contingencies

“So, what did you find out?” Hammerman asked over the walkie talkie. The house was again dark, and they were back in the bushes, passing time.

“Just what I told the Chief,” Phillips answered, a trace of irritation in his tone. “The house was bought in the 1930s by a lady named Scattergood. She called it Calvert, after a place in Maryland where she used to go as a kid. From Philadelphia originally.”

He checked his scanner. The lines on the screen were oscillating normally. “She worked for the labor unions in D.C.,” he said. “Never married, but had a housemate, who died in the ‘70s. When the Agency took the land, it agreed to let them stay here as long as she wanted to.”

“That was big of them,” Hammerman commented.

“She got the laugh on ‘em too,” Phillips went on. “That was in ‘51, and she was about that old. Nobody figured she’d last another thirty-some years, but she did, til ‘86. That’s it; end of story.”

“You sure?” Hammerman wondered. “Maybe she had some private vices. Or was a secret commie, infiltrating the labor unions.”

“Naaah,” Phillips demurred. “She was with the old AF of L, and they didn’t come any more patriotic than that. And after she retired she spent most of her time gardening and going to church.

“What church?” Hammerman asked, only half-interested

“Quaker meeting, down the road,” Phillips said.

“Maybe we should check it out,” Hammerman said teasingly. “Tomorrow morning.”

“Get outta here,” Phillips snapped. “Tomorrow morning I’m sleeping in. This late night surveillance wears me out.”

“Come on,” Hammerman coaxed. “You could use a little church.”

“Speak for yourself,” Phillips bantered, and was about to say something sarcastic about Hammerman’s single lifestyle, when his scanner’s red alert light started blinking.

“Mike! I got a signal.”

“Right. Me too.” Hammerman was all business again. “You check the window. I’ll slide around back.”

Following their revised tactical plan, Phillips slipped away from his base behind a large oak tree and padded quietly across the lawn, up to the window at the end of the dining room, where the Special Ops office was. The sill was just above his head, but under one arm he carried a small folded aluminum step stool. The legs straightened and clicked silently into place. He set it firmly in the dirt, and stepped silently onto it.

Peering over the sill, he could see a faint blue light in the room. He couldn’t make out any details, but  saw it move, in the direction of the desk.

Phillips let himself down silently from the stool, took a few silent paces away from the window, then crouched down and brought the walkie talkie to his lips. “Mike. He’s in there. Are you in position?”

“Ten-four, boss” came the reply. “We’re ready for the punk this time.”

Rather than a wild rush, tonight they would sneak up on their intruder, get him coming out. Hammerman was at the back door; Phillips covering the front. This was no time for heroics. Just wait; he had to come out of there.

But he didn’t. After ten minutes, Phillips checked his scanner. The blue lines were normal again; the alert light was off. He began moving back toward the stool, then eased up on it. The blue light was gone.

“Fred,” the walkie talkie spoke. “You still picking him up? My scanner’s gone blank.”

Phillips cursed under his breath. “Mine too,” he answered. “We better go in.”

They didn’t rush; they could sense there was no need for SWAT team heroics. And inside the scene in the office was almost identical to the night before. The files unlocked, a drawer open, papers on the desk.

“Now I’m sure this is an inside thing,” Phillips said, surveying the room. “Special Ops changed all the locks this morning. Only they knew the combinations. It has to be one of them.”

“Maybe,” Hammerman said, “but then how’d they get in and out of here. This is like chasing a ghost.” He stooped to pick up some papers that had fallen to the floor. “Uh-Oh!” he exclaimed. “Here’s our wiseguy again.” He handed a sheet to Fred.

“Oh no,” Phillips said.

The paper was stamped TOP SECRET, and headed “The Enterprise: Final contingencies.” Across it was written, “THIS MUST NOT GO ON ANY LONGER! IF YOU WON’T TELL THE AUTHORITIES ABOUT IT, I SHALL!” The words were in the same red magic marker, in the same strong, large hand.

“The Chief won’t like it,” Phillips said. “Another breach of a secure office, and I look more and more stupid reporting them to him without any explanations or perpetrators. You got any ideas?” he asked Hammerman.

“Just one,” Hammerman said. “And you already don’t like it. But it’s all we got. Let’s check out the old lady’s Quaker meeting tomorrow.”

He saw Phillips rolling his eyes, and put up his hands. “Look. I’ll pick you up about 9:45. If you’ve got a better idea by then, we’ll skip it. OK?”

“OK,” Phillips answered with a sigh. “I better come up with something.”

IV – A Better Idea?
Photo borrowed from Facebook.

But he didn’t. At ten AM, Hammerman’s Toyota turned off Georgetown Pike, a half mile beyond the huge, tree-hidden CIA headquarters, into the driveway of a white clapboard church. The peeling wooden sign in its postage stamp front yard read “Langley Hill Friends Meeting.”

“That’s weird,” Hammerman said, looking up at the building. “A steeple. Quakers aren’t supposed to go for steeples.”

“Oh yeah?” Phillips wasn’t really interested. He yawned. “What do they believe?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” Hammerman said. But I seem to recall it doesn’t include steeples. They’re plain, you know; like the guy on the oatmeal box.”

Now Phillips was getting uncomfortable. “You mean funny clothes? You taking me to some cult group, Hammerman?”

The driver grinned. “We’ll see. But hey, you’re a combat veteran, black belt in karate, an expert pistol shot; you can handle them.”

“Maybe,” Phillips said. “But I forgot my gun.”

As it turned out, the people in the meetinghouse weren’t dressed oddly, except that some of them weren’t dressed in what Phillips thought of as Sunday clothes. And the biggest challenge he faced was staying awake on the wooden bench waiting for the service to start.

When nothing had happened after about fifteen minutes, he plucked a small white leaflet from a rack on the next bench where it leaned against a battered-looking hymnbook. It explained that the waiting was the service. This made it even harder for Phillips to keep his eyes open.

Just as he started to snore, Hammerman nudged him awake. A white-haired woman was standing and saying something about peace, and how awful the Contra war in Nicaragua was, and how they had to get the White House to stop the CIA supporting the contra rebels

Great, Phillips thought. Peaceniks. Just what he needed to hear on too little sleep from a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were talking about.

The woman sat down, and Phillips started to drift again.

But then someone was pulling at his sleeve and shaking his hand. He pulled away nervously, then turned to see Hammerman with his hand out.

Hammerman gripped his hand and leaned toward this ear. “It’s their custom,” he murmured. “It means it’s over.”

Well, not quite. They were then subjected to about fifteen minutes of announcements, half of which, Phillips noticed, seemed to be about protests of one sort or another against American policy in Central America. This made him even more uneasy. Was this really a church, or some political front group? What did they believe, anyway?

They were also asked to stand and give their names and where they were from, which Phillips wasn’t about to do. But Hammerman covered for him, speaking for them both and saying vaguely that they lived in the neighborhood.

Then everyone got up and started milling around. Phillips noticed a large coffee urn on a back table, and headed for it; he’d feel more at ease with a cup of coffee in his hand.

But the urn, he found, held some kind of sweet-smelling but watery-tasting herb tea. When he asked, a young woman standing by the urn explained sweetly that they never served coffee, because of the caffeine. That was also why there was no sugar, and no styrofoam cups.

Maybe that’s what these people believed, Phillips thought: caffeine, sugar and styrofoam are the work of the devil, or at least behind the trouble in Nicaragua. One sip of the tea was enough for him to know this wasn’t his kind of church.

Phillips sidled out the door of the meeting room into the vestibule, figuring he’d wander back to the car. Then he saw Hammerman, down a hallway in another room, talking to the white-haired woman.

Hammerman gestured for him to come over.

The room was a small, cramped library. The white-haired woman was smiling and saying something about a book of faith statements by members. She was sure it was right here somewhere–now she was scanning the bookshelves–and it would answer all his questions about Quaker beliefs. She was about to give up when the notebook suddenly turned up, wedged between a dictionary and an old Bible.

“Aha, here we are,” The white-haired woman said, and handed the notebook, not to Hammerman but to Phillips. “He says you wanted to know why we have a steeple if we don’t believe in steeples,” she said, grinning broadly. “It’s quite simple, really. The steeple came with the building when we bought it, and we didn’t have the money to take it down. Then they made  the whole corner into a historic area, and it would probably take an act of Congress to remove it. But we did take out all the stained glass windows, except the one with the mandala pattern up front.”

She smiled up at the window, which had an abstract, four-cornered pattern. “It’s wonderfully archetypal, don’t you think? Joseph Campbell would have loved it.”

Joseph Campbell, 1904-1987. Not a Quaker. Very devoted to theories of Carl Jung about archetypes and mandalas.

“Er, I’m sure,” Phillips mumbled, wondering what sort of pinko this Campbell person was. He was relieved when she turned to Hammerman.

“Now you said you might be distantly related to Margaret Scattergood, didn’t you? I think she has a faith statement in the book there, and I believe there’s a picture of her in here somewhere….”

She trailed off and began searching through the crowded bookshelves again. Hammerman took the notebook, and Phillips followed her movement along the shelves, noting uneasily how many of the books had the word Peace in their titles.

No war, no steeples, no sugar, styrofoam or caffeine; that seemed to about sum up Quakerism, at least as it had been explained so far.

“Uh, Mike,” he said after a long moment, “don’t we have to be getting back for lunch?”

Hammerman looked up from the notebook distractedly. “In a minute,” he said. “This is interesting.”

Just then the white-haired woman was back before him, smiling that toothy smile again. “Here she is,” she said triumphantly. “That’s her at her house, down the road.”

Hammerman looked at the black and white snapshot. A thin, plain woman in tweed, wearing sensible shoes and gardener’s gloves and holding a pair of long hedge clippers. Though slight, there was a sturdy look about her.

“Yes,” Hammerman agreed, “she certainly has the face of one of my old cousins. They could fool you, though: look as meek as church mice, but fighters when they were riled.”

“Oh I don’t think Margaret was like that,” the white-haired woman demurred. “She was always quiet here. But of course we mostly agreed on things. Hmmmm – but now that you mention it, there was that one time back in the forties, when they tried to take her land.”

“Who?” Hammerman asked innocently.

“Why, the CIA,” said the white-haired woman vehemently. “Came along back in ‘47 and decided they wanted her land and her house, just like that. Wham, bam, thank thee ma’am.”

She sniffed with indignation that was genteel but not diluted by the passage of nearly forty years.

“And Margaret did get riled about that. Gave ‘em quite a fight, too. Took it to Congress and everything.” She ran a finger down a page in the notebook, then showed it to him.

“She worked for the unions then, and Harry Truman had to pay attention. Made them leave her be, too. In the end a special act of Congress said she could stay there as long as she lived. I don’t think many people could have fought the CIA to a draw like that, do you?”

Phillips shook his head solemnly; no he didn’t think so either.

“But mostly she was a quiet person, worked on committees for desegregating schools and things like that. And she was corresponding secretary for our meeting for the longest time, til her health gave out. She kept very good track of all our records. In fact they’ve been something of a jumble ever since.”

Hammerman closed the notebook and gave it back to her. “This has been very informative, ma’am,” he said. “I appreciate all this information. You’ve filled in a lot of blanks for me. I’ll have to come back sometime and hear more.”

“Well, if you come next Sunday, we’re having a potluck lunch and a used book sale,” said the white-haired woman. “And you’re certainly welcome.”

Back in the car, Phillips said, “You can come back if you want to, Mike, but once is enough for me. Can you imagine what their potlucks must be like, with no caffeine, sugar or styrofoam? Did you ever figure out what they believe here, or is that it?”

“What’s the matter,” Hammerman grinned, “you got something against macaroni? Hey, I had fun. Besides, I found something better than whatever they believe.”

“Yeah?” Phillips asked expectantly.

“This,” Hammerman said with a smirk, reaching into his jacket and producing a folded sheet of paper. “Take a look.”

Phillips unfolded the typed sheet. “My Personal Faith,” read the heading, “By Margaret Scattergood.”

“Okay so you’re a good spy,” Phillips said sarcastically, “but pinching an old piece of paper from a church is hardly high-quality tradecraft. Why do I want to know about this old lady’s personal faith?”

“Maybe you don’t,” Hammerman retorted. “But it might not hurt to check out her handwriting.”

Phillips glanced at the paper again. At the bottom it was inscribed with her signature the date, and “Calvert, Langley, Virginia.”

“You’re kidding,” he said.

Hammerman shrugged. “It can’t hurt,” he said. “Besides which, we got nothing else, and not least, I think the writing looks familiar.”

“All right,” Phillips shrugged in turn. “But do me a favor: I’ll sign the request, but you take it to handwriting.”

“No problem,” Hammerman grinned. “Consider it done.”

“And one more thing,” Phillips said

“Shoot.”

“If you’re right, what am I supposed to tell the Chief?”

V – Need to Know

Nothing unusual happened at the Scattergood house for several days thereafter. But Phillips saw a stream of Special Ops people coming and going from there with unusual haste, many carrying striped plastic trash bags, the kind he knew were full of documents meant for the Agency’s own special shredders and incinerators.

While he was not supposed to notice this, since he had no need to know, it was still obvious what was happening: The Special Ops project known as the Enterprise, whatever that was, had been compromised, and everybody was busily covering the Agency’s tracks. He had seen it before; Watergate had kept the incinerators smoking for weeks.

Hammerman had also noticed the procession, and drawn his own conclusions. But when Phillips asked him about the handwriting check of the Scattergood letter, he just shrugged.

The next Monday, Phillips was summoned to the Chief’s office. As soon as he came in, he noticed that the maps had been replaced on the wall behind the desk. In their place was a large, full color photo of president Reagan, the official one where he wasn’t smiling.

“Phillips,” the Chief began, as soon as he had shut the door, “those intrusions over at Calvert seem to have stopped. Good work.”

“Thank you sir,” Phillips said cautiously. He wondered why the Chief thought they had stopped, and what he had to do with it. Or did he, old spymaster that he was, know more than he let on.

Of course he did. There was a file folder on the Chief’s desk. He opened it, and gazed at it thoughtfully as he sipped from his coffee mug. “That was very shrewd,” the Chief said, “your idea of checking the handwriting on the intruder’s notes with the Scattergood woman’s letter. Very shrewd.”

“Uh, thank you, sir,” Phillips began, “but actually it was–”

The Chief interrupted him. “I know, I know, it was only a wild guess. But Handwriting says they matched perfectly. I have their report right here.”

He lifted a sheet from the file; all Phillips could read was the TOP SECRET stamped across the heading.

“Very shrewd,” the Chief said again, but more thoughtfully. Then he added slowly, “there’s only one slight problem with it. He paused and looked out the big window, and chewed the large lower lip.

Finally he glanced back at his visitor and said, more loudly, “What do you think, Phillips? How do I explain to the president that one of the most sensitive intelligence operations of my term has just been blown?”

He was suddenly vehement. “And above all, how do I tell him it was compromised by the ghost of an old Quaker lady?”

The fierceness of his tone took Phillips aback.

“Sir,” he stumbled, “Sir, I never said–”

“Of course not,” roared the Chief. “I wouldn’t have said it either, anywhere else but in this room. But that’s the fact.”

He looked out the window again. “Phillips,” he said more quietly but grimly, “can you imagine what would happen if this gets out? I can see the headline in the National Enquirer now: ‘Spooks spooked by old lady spook.’ We’d be the laughingstocks of the intelligence world. The Soviets would lose all respect for us. The Chinese. Not to mention the president.”

The Chief swiveled his chair around and faced him.

“So, Phillips, I am not going to explain this to the president. We’ve made arrangements for this operation to be exposed in a different, more understandable way; an obscure magazine in the Middle East will publish something, which will be picked up and broadcast more widely. I think we can keep the lid on after that, but it won’t be easy.”

“Sir,” Phillips put in, “I’m not sure I really have a need to know all this, do I?”

“Good point, son,” the Chief said approvingly, “but it can’t be helped. The cover story will be all over the place in a few days anyway. In the meantime, you know what really happened, whether you need to or not. But you also need to know that if the real facts are ever disclosed outside this room, there are only two of us who could be the source, and one of us will be getting an immediate transfer to the Antarctica field station. And it won’t be me.”

An image said to be of the CIA facility in Antarctica. There are those who believe the penguin statue at right is cover for surveillance equipment.

Another sip from the big cup “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes sir,” Phillips said with emphasis.  He felt like he should salute. “You can count on me, sir.”

“I thought so,” said the Chief. “But there’s one more thing. Maybe you don’t really need to know this either, but you deserve to know it just the same.”

He lifted another sheet of paper from the file. “This is the only copy of my order canceling Agency support for the Enterprise, and telling our agents to get clear of it. It never left this room; the Special Ops people read it here, and it’s going into the burn bag before this day is over.”

Phillips started to say “Very good, sir.” But the Chief cut him off with another near-shout:

“–Then this morning when I came in, I found this on it–” He handed the sheet to Phillips.

There, across the paper, was the familiar red magic marker. “IT’S ABOUT TIME THIS WAS STOPPED,” the script declared. “NOW I CAN BE MORE AT EASE IN MY OWN HOUSE, AND IN MY OWN COUNTRY.”

Phillips’s eyebrows rose, and he handed it back. “What do you make of it, sir?”

“I hope it means she’ll leave us alone for awhile,” the Chief answered. “God knows there are enough spooks in this place already. She must not like intelligence agencies. Maybe they were against her religion.”

Phillips shrugged. “I wouldn’t let it bother you, sir,” he said. “I don’t think she liked coffee either.”

 


If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and on  and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

 

Midway City Update: Quaker David, Goliath & the Two Witnesses

The little church challenging the huge California Quaker megachurch (described in the blog post, David vs. Goliath, the “Friendly” Version, of January 30), won a round in court on January 31; but its reward was only a reprieve. The struggle over an aborted effort to help the homeless continues.

Joe Pfeiffer. The sign is valid for at least seven more Sundays.

Orange County superior court judge Thomas Delaney denied the motion from the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW), based in Yorba Linda, California, to dismiss a lawsuit by the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, California. The lawsuit  seeks an injunction to stop EFCSW from closing the Midway City church and firing its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.

Recap

In late 2017 and early 2018 Midway City took in several of the many thousands of homeless people who cluster and camp across Orange County, just south of Los Angeles.

Hostile neighbors complained to Orange county about signs of homeless people staying on church property, in violation of county codes. When an inspector wrote Pfeiffer a letter about it, he promptly but reluctantly complied, sending the homeless visitors on their way.

Cara Pfeiffer, right, with Friends at Midway City.

But when a copy of the inspector’s letter arrived at the EFCSW office, members of the Elders Board, made it the basis for a secret decision, taken March 27, 2018 to close the church, fire pastor Pfeiffer, and oblige him, his wife and their four foster children to vacate the parsonage behind the church.

Pfeiffer and his wife Cara were told of their removal and eviction in June. They were also told to vacate the parsonage within weeks.

The church’s membership, barely 30 people, rallied behind them and resisted the closure order. It was delayed for months, then on October 12, 2018, Midway City filed suit, asking the Orange County Superior court for an injunction to stop the closure and the firing.

EFCSW filed a motion for summary judgment, which argued that the Midway City lawsuit did not raise any issue the court had jurisdiction over. It insisted that EFCSW was a “hierarchical church” with total power over member groups like Midway City: EFCSW  owned the buildings and property, controlled the agendas and conduct of meetings, and could remove pastors at will, without appeal. Its brief claimed the First Amendment religious liberty provision protected the denomination from legal interference. It cited precedents where courts had declined to take up cases involving church doctrine and internal practices.

Midway City countered that EFCSW had in fact frequently violated its own rules with secret meetings and decisions that were not subject to review by the whole body, contrary to its own and other Quaker traditions. They also contended that EFCSW did not really own its buildings and property. Such violations they said, were subject to judicial remedies.

Court Hearing

At the January 31 hearing, Judge Delaney agreed that there were real questions about whether EFCSW’s actions followed its own rules, and thus summary judgment was not warranted. He scheduled another hearing on March 30 to consider the issues involved. Midway City won the day, but the reward was only a two-month reprieve.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Delaney.

What moved the judge? There were technical arguments about passages in the EFCSW book of Faith and practice, regarding quorums for meetings, and about various kinds of property deeds. Such is the nature of most civil litigation.

But there were also in the case file papers of a different sort. Two of these stand out: statements by veteran EFCSW pastors which bring a very different perspective on that body’s life. The two were from James Healton, of Sacramento’s Friends Community church, and Joe Ginder, from Long Beach Friends.

Their statements combined personal witness with long experience both in EFCSW and among Quakers. They directly challenged one of the denomination’s main claims, that it was a hierarchical church, governed by a Board of Elders at the top which was, for all practical purposes, sovereign.

This challenge proved to be risky, as we shall see. But first let’s hear from them directly:

James Healton:

I am the pastor at Sacramento Friends Community Church. Since 1974 I have been a member of the EFCSW . . . . I have served as a local pastor therein since 1982.

During the last twenty years, a number of changes to Faith and Practice were adopted by the Representatives. On the governance side of things, the trend was increasingly toward concentration of responsibility in fewer hands. Those who recommended these changes defended them on the basis that it was increasingly difficult to find enough volunteers to fill all the boards, committees and offices. Despite this trend, we were never told that the Elder Board had replaced the Representatives as the ruling body of the Yearly Meeting, without appeal.

I was present in the Representatives meeting when the language in Faith and Practice . . . was adopted, under the heading, “Essential Business of Representatives”. I asked for and received assurances during the meeting that the words, “The final decisions and actions on the following must be approved by the Representatives”, implied no limitation on what other business the Representatives were free to consider but only a limitation on what other bodies (including the Elder Board) could act upon. We never understood this language to mean that the Representatives could not discuss and decide upon any other matters of concern to them. I had not heard that there was such a limitation implied by that language until I heard it from the attorney for EFCSW . . . .

Moreover, Faith and Practice says that “Other business may be introduced from any of the local churches, Elder Board, and other boards, committees and task forces.”  . . . Again, this indicates that the Representatives have the right to bring any matter they choose before the assembled Representatives. If a church wishes to propose a decision to the Representatives different from one taken by the Board of Elders they are free to do so under the rules governing EFCSW the corporation. This would, of course, include the possibility of an appeal to the Representatives.

In all my years in the EFCSW denomination, I do not recall an instance where a church was closed against the decided will of its members. If pastors were removed by the Yearly Meeting it was on account of serious moral failings or because the local church was divided over their leadership and the Yearly Meeting was asked to step in to settle the matter. To my knowledge it was never the case that pastors were removed because of things like “poor leadership skills, lack of discernment as a minister, an ineffective ministry, inability to increase the membership of FCC, poor decisions” or even “misuse of church property … “ as has been alleged against Pastor Pfeiffer. Dealing with such matters was left up to the local church unless Yearly Meeting staff or other people were asked to help or offered their help.

In the case of Midway City, there was not an offer to help them meet the city code requirements. They were simply told that Joe Pfeiffer was fired, their church was no longer a church in the EFCSW denomination and they had to vacate the premises. Of course, had the church failed to meet the code requirements, there would have been possible grounds for discipline but the church did meet the city’s expectations. Again, this severe a response to a church in need is unprecedented in my experience of more than forty years in EFCSW.

I note that the charges against Joe Pfeiffer and Midway City Friends Church that they violated Faith and Practice were for actions after they had been removed from membership in EFCSW denomination by the Elder Board of the corporation.

These alleged violations all amount to one charge against them: that they objected to, and sought remedy for, the actions the Elder Board had taken against them.

The closing of Midway City Friends Church and removal of Joe Pfeiffer as its pastor represents a sharp departure from what I have known and from what I understood to be the relationship between the local church and EFCSW as a whole. I would also add that though

Pastor Joe Pfeiffer is unafraid to speak his mind I have never known him to be intentionally rude or mean-spirited in his remarks. He has high ideals that sometimes make us feel uncomfortable but it is always clear to me that he is motivated by good will toward others, including those with whom he may, at times, disagree. . . . They did, however object when Midway City Church was closed. To me this indicates that their motive was not to divide the body of EFCSW or vindicate themselves but to protect the interests of their flock and to defend the historic balance between EFCSW oversight and the rights of its constituent churches.

Joseph Ginder:

I have been a member of EFCSW since 1986 and pastor of Long Beach Friends since 1996. . . . I’ve been a representative to the Yearly Meeting / Annual Conference Business Meeting nearly continuously since 1987. The Yearly Meeting is a traditional term for the annual gathering of local Friends church representatives to decide upon the business of the EFCSW denomination as a whole. . . . Prior to coming to Long Beach, I grew up at Anderson First Friends within Indiana Yearly Meeting, soaking up Friends ways from my seniors. Many of my ancestors have been Quakers since the beginning of the movement. . . .

About hierarchy. I read a claim that the EFCSW denomination is a hierarchical church because our Faith and Practice invests authority in some that is not given to all. This is a distortion of the Friends way of doing business. Our Faith and Practice speaks clearly to this. We expect leaders to lead rather than to rule. We do not empower individuals or small groups of leaders to make decisions that disregard the sense of other members in good standing. We empower individuals and small groups to act and lead on behalf of the larger group when the larger group is not meeting, or when the smaller group has followed the Friends manner of making decisions within the larger body as a gathered people of God.

The Friends approach for a group of leaders to take on important decisions is to build unity and listen before taking a controversial direction, at least when a matter requires no urgent action. We always expect our leaders to act to try to build unity. Friends were cast out of a hierarchical church because we did not simply accept the decisions of the few in hierarchical leadership, despite their claim to divine right.

Rather, we held decisions up to the light of scripture and the leading of the Spirit. For this we were persecuted and imprisoned, some unto death. As a representative to the EFCSW denomination representatives business meetings, I have never agreed to or believed we were approving changes to our Faith and Practice which would allow a small group of leaders such as the current board to make decisions that could not be questioned or re-examined by our representatives.

The list of items of “Essential Business of Representatives” in Faith and Practice . . . is a restriction on committees and leaders, not on the representatives! Those who say otherwise are simply in error. [also] any EFCSW church can bring business before representative sessions. Several churches have not been allowed to bring items regarding FCC-MC to the representatives sessions in the past two years.

This is clearly in violation of our Faith and Practice. The representatives in session are the highest authority of our organization and can consider whatever business they choose; all of our churches have access to bring business to the representatives.

The elders board is not exempt from the Friends Way of Doing Business. Faith and Practice, p.33. This way of doing business embodies the value of building unity and seeks to prevent a few from imposing decisions unilaterally upon others without going through our business process of discerning the mind of Christ together. . . .

This description of our way of doing business applies between the Elder Board and other members, not just between members of the Elders Board. . . . We should never hear, “We didn’t have to ask you” as an excuse for excluding stakeholders from participating in the Friends way of doing business as has been done with FCC.

This statement directly contradicts Friends teaching. We are not a hierarchical church and never have been. While FCC (or the corporate elder board) cannot change the Faith and Practice of EFCSW without agreement of the Representatives. . . as Friends we do not empower one group as superior and relegate another as subordinate. Jesus is our Head. We are all subordinate to Him . . . .

I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that the foregoing is a true and correct. Executed this 15th day of January 2020 at Long Beach, California.”

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer came away from the court hearing with a sixty day extension of their residence, and eight Sundays for their church to gather in the home they had built and maintained for nearly ninety years.

Call to Worship on February 2, from the Midway City Facebook page; “Worship with us this morning as we explore Micah 6 and the habits of life that please the Lord and the ones that make his anger burn. Justice is at the center of a life pleasing to God.”

 

EFCSW Annual Conference

Later that same day, EFCSW opened its 2020 annual conference,  with a dinner for representatives from its 39 member churches in California, Arizona and Nevada. As noted by Joe Ginder, in most similar Quaker bodies, such events are called yearly meetings, and extended over several days, with a mix of business sessions, worship, family reunions, and social events. EFCSW had discarded that tradition, and compressed the gathering into one tightly scheduled Friday evening, followed by a Saturday morning session.

Among the attenders were Joe Ginder and James Healton. As they arrived for the opening dinner, they were taken aside by a member of the Elder Board, and shown a letter on a smartphone, addressed to them. The letter sternly rebuked them for submitting the statements, and warned them not to speak openly about the Midway City case during the annual conference. They were taken aback.

Ginder and Healton complied with the letter’s strictures. The evening went as planned.

Saturday morning was similarly programmed, with 35 minutes set aside for a “business session.”

As the meeting was getting underway, Cara Pfeiffer appeared, but members of the Elder Board quickly surrounded her and, despite her protests, firmly ejected her from the room.

Reports indicate that the “business session” lasted not much more than fifteen minutes, although it included formal approval of a $1,200,000 three-part budget, and a pre-selected slate of nominations for various boards. No one spoke about Midway City.

–Well, that last sentence is not quite right. In a packet of “Advance Reports,” Midway City was mentioned in print twice. The Elder Board’s report noted that “A challenge over this past year has been the ongoing legal issue related to the closing of one of our churches. Unfortunately, this issue has occupied a significant amount of the staff and elders’ time and energy. Continue to pray with us for a God-honoring resolution to this issue.”

Then under “Annual Budget,” EFCSW Chief of Staff Ron Prentice reported that “The 2019 General Administrative budget projected a year-end balance between income and expenses. However, the legal costs for the defense against the claims by FCC Midway City and the increase of one staff position from part-time to full-time are the two primary factors that caused our expenses to exceed our income by $111,000. As we look to 2020, the increases to personnel and our legal expenses have been included into our budget projections for the New Year.”  There were no reports that either item was discussed. (The letter read to Healton & Ginder reportedly told them that if they tried to speak about Midway, they would be ruled out of order.)

The business session was followed by a “Prayer initiative and Time of Prayer,” then adjournment for lunch and departure.

Testimony by ECSW staff in pre-hearing depositions made clear that they believed the nine-member Elder Board acted with full authority for EFCSW, 364-plus days per year, except for the abbreviated session on that one Saturday morning. The board also prepared the agenda for that annual half-hour. The Board’s meetings were private, and there was no appeal from their decisions. We have seen what happened to those, like pastors Ginder and Healton, who spoke of when practices were different for that body. Their temerity in submitting affidavits dissenting from the Elder Board’s understanding could be hazardous both to their jobs and the churches they served.

Joe Pfeiffer advised me that late this week there will be a court-sponsored mediation meeting between Midway City and EFCSW officials, to see if a non-judicial resolution is possible. Pfeiffer insists that would be his preference, but says EFCSW Elders have turned aside several such suggestions already.

And lest it be entirely forgotten, this multifaceted melodrama will continue to play itself out against the backdrop of a vast city in which thousands still sleep outside each night, and their number continues to increase.

An American/Orange County homeless camp: here today. Gone tomorrow. Back the day after.

 

 

David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the small church members and its pastors homeless.

The issue: the small church was helping homeless people.

Yorba Linda Friends Church. Its 18-acre main campus is best seen from the air.

The Goliath here is Yorba Linda Friends Church, which claims 4800 attenders weekly at its five campuses. Its home is an 18-acre complex, now being expanded again, perhaps best glimpsed from the air. Its website lists 84 paid staff. Its top pastors and prominent members also hold the key posts in the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (or EFCSW) as a de facto subsidiary.

Founded as California Yearly Meeting, the group has shed the “Yearly Meeting” label along with most other Quaker features, both corporately and operationally. The group’s main session, now called the Annual Conference, is set for this weekend. If the judge rules for them Friday, the gathering will likely see some celebrations, privately if not in the open.

Worship at Midway City Friends Church; plenty of room. However, the group’s membership has doubled from 10 to 20 during the Pfeiffers’ tenure.

The “David” figure in this drama is the Friends Community Church of Midway City, about a 20-minute (and two or three light-years’) drive from Yorba Linda. Although this group is nearly ninety years old, it is quite small: on a good week, its services draw maybe 30 people. But from all descriptions it is a tightly-knit congregation.

Cara and Joe Pfeiffer.

Midway City’s pastors are a couple, Joe and Cara Pfeiffer, who occupy a parsonage along with four foster children. The church pays them a pittance, and they are, in current parlance, “bivocational,” piecing together a modest subsistence with other work, while also pursuing doctoral studies at nearby Fuller Seminary.

The confrontation here brings into pretty stark view three converging, intractable issues of our American moment: inequality, homelessness, and the increasing fervor with which the affluent are preserving their comforts, among which is not having to see or deal with the other two, except on their own terms.

A bit of background: the Los Angeles region is under siege on more than one front. Most of us know about the fires; which we must leave aside here. Often lost in their smoke, but ever-present, is the steady rise of homelessness. This is, of course, a national phenomenon, but seems particularly acute in southern California.

A small stretch of the three-mile sprawl along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, 2017. It grew to include around a thousand homeless people.

In Orange County, the count of homeless persons increased from about 4800 in 2017 to over 6800 in late 2019. In 2017 a three-mile stretch of tents and camps grew along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail, which winds through central Orange County in Anaheim. The burgeoning settlement was in sight of the Angels baseball stadium, Disneyland and the Ducks Hockey arena, and it rapidly became the tent-crowded “home” of nearly a thousand homeless. (A video bike tour of the stretch is here.)

The trouble that ultimately embroiled these two Friends churches could be said to have begun in late February 2018, when Orange County authorities swept through this three-mile bike trail stretch. There they rousted almost a thousand homeless campers.

In their wake was a vast swathe of trash and abandoned belongings which took weeks to clean up. At length, that stretch of trail was re-opened, and bicyclists had an unobstructed path again.

But where did the many hundreds of bike trail homeless go? One police official told reporters that the whole process was like stepping on a balloon: it might flatten out where you were standing. But then it swelled out somewhere else.

Midway City Friends Church. Its property is about one acre.

There were already plenty somewhere else. Several months before the river trail sweep, a few of them made their way to Midway City Friends Community Church. Two were a man and wife in a venerable RV. The husband had stage four colon cancer (he has since died). Details are sketchy, but they may well have been among the many who have been bankrupted by medical bills. Pretty soon a couple individuals joined them.

The church had some unused space.

Joe and Cara Pfeiffer were not planning to start a homeless shelter. But they faced what could be called the Matthew 25 Dilemma, drawn from Jesus’ scenario of the last judgment. Let’s review:

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:31 “When the Son of man shall come in his glory. . . 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. . .

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:35 

A bucket of needles, among the several thousand used syringes collected along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail after the homeless camp was cleared.

For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?38 When did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The Pfeiffers were well aware of how controversial these guests could be. But they are also serious Christians. In their theology, Jesus in Matthew was not laying out a program, like a presidential candidate, for curing homelessness; he was giving his disciples a command to “love their neighbor” by acting with sacrificial compassion.

It was chancy (it was for Jesus); but they did it. Quietly, they thought.

But, not quietly enough.

A hostile neighbor soon noticed the telltale signs: bicycle parts; bare mattresses visible through the windows of spare rooms; the itinerant RV lingering in a driveway. The neighbor called the Orange County Code Enforcement Office, which dispatched an inspector to the church. Shortly a “courtesy notice” was sent, stating that some of these items were in violation of county codes. If they weren’t rectified, the church could be issued a formal citation.

The Pfeiffers saw that the jig was up. Reluctantly they told their guests they had to move on, and tidied up the area. The inspector returned, found the church was in compliance, and no citation was issued.

Matthew Cork, head pastor of Yorba Linda Friends Church and Superintendent of the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. He sits on the Elders Board that voted to fire Joe Pfeiffer and close the Midway City church.

But in the meantime the County had sent a copy of the notice to Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW). Authorities there decided the incident was not over. In fact, it called for a decisive, if drastic response. On March 27, 2018, members of EFCSW’s Elder Board met with its top staff, and decided forthwith to

  1. Terminate the Pfeiffers, and instruct them to vacate the parsonage promptly; and
  2. Permanently close down the Midway City church, in April.
Ron Prentice. Before coming to Yorba Linda and EFCSW, he spent more than ten years in fulltime work to stop the legalization of same sex marriage, with Focus on the Family and the California Family Council.

The Pfeiffers were not informed of their firing until May 3, 2018. That news was delivered by Ron Prentice, Chief of Staff for both Yorba Linda and EFCSW. He takes the minutes of the EFCSW Elder Board meetings. But they and the congregation, while small, stoutly resisted and defied these dictates, and the closing/eviction dates were repeatedly delayed.

In August, the Elder Board, which asserts that EFCSW owns all its members’ church property, set what it thought was a firm closure date of August 31. But it was pushed back again, and in October 2018 Midway City filed a lawsuit, which claims EFCSW does not have any real ownership claim on the Midway City church, which was built and maintained from their own meager budgets,  and that EFCSW had violated its own rules and Quaker practices in its dealings with the Pfeiffers and the congregation. The closure/eviction has been on hold since then.

That’s what the judge will decide. And this shift of focus to the seeming arcana of “Quaker process” may make some readers’ eyes glaze over, I ask that they stay with us a bit, because there’s more here than meets the eye.

Because EFCSW’s top staff and much of the currently ruling Elder Board of EFCSW heavily overlap with the leadership of Yorba Linda Friends Church, the contrasts between it and Midway City ought not to be skimmed over. Let’s consider some of these.

First of all, the setting. A sign on the edge of Yorba Linda modestly dubs it “Land of Gracious Living.” And with some reason: as an old jibe puts it, the Quakers came to Yorba Linda to do good, and some (really many) have done very well indeed. They and their neighbors.

More than once recently, Yorba Linda was named the richest city of its size in the U.S.  Median household income ranged between $110-120,000 per year (probably higher now with the soaring stock market); a real estate site pegs the median house value as $850,000. Only 3.1% of residents are under the poverty line.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the city’s Wikipedia entry notes proudly that besides being the richest of its kind, “Yorba Linda is California’s most conservative large community . . . .” Voters there went two to one for Proposition 8, an effort to stop legalization of same sex marriage. (It passed 52-48%, but was later overturned.) In the 2016 presidential election, while deep-blue California gave Donald Trump only 31 percent of its votes, in Yorba Linda, Hillary took a bare 33 percent, to Trump’s 56 percent.

Midway City is not in fact a city, but an unincorporated area in Orange County, with no city council, schools or police of its own. Many residents like that; it keeps their local taxes down. Midway City is home to a large Vietnamese-American population, whose founders were refugees from the lost Vietnam War.

Twenty miles southwest, Midway City (which is not a city at all, but an unincorporated enclave in the larger town of Westminster) sits  several rungs down the economic ladder.

It’s not a slum, but homes are older, with values under $700,000. Median household incomes are around $47,000, and 13% of residents are under the poverty line. It is home to two trailer parks, plus apartment complexes for disabled, low income and homeless veterans. Here Hillary bested Trump: 51 – 43%.

More to our point, in the latest count of homeless, Westminster/Midway City tallied above 180, and its adjoining towns held 2000-plus. A few miles north, another 2000 were counted in a swath of suburbs running west to east across Orange County. Anaheim, even after the clearing of its notorious Santa Ana River Bike Trail, headed that list at over 1200.

And Anaheim’s northern boundary runs for several miles along Yorba Linda’s town line.

Yet once back past in the Land of Gracious Living, we are in a different world: amid their county’s simmering, surrounding, ever-expanding multitude, the 2019 recorded count of homeless in Yorba Linda was: 1.

[Not a typo: One.]

Not that Yorba Linda’s largest church is indifferent to the plight of homeless people. As its Chief of Staff Ron Prentice testified in a deposition, echoing the Matthew 25 quote above, “It’s actually a call of Christians to care for the widows and the orphans specifically from scripture, and oftentimes we would see homeless individuals in that light, and I believe that by providing shelter in — in — without — without risking liability or — or harm to the culture of the neighborhood, that would — that would align with my thinking, absolutely.”

And true to its word, Yorba Linda Friends Church, where Prentice wears another hat as, again, Chief of Staff, did mobilize groups to visit with and personally minister to the homeless three times in 2019.

Those homeless were Dalits, who are, as the church website put it, “the lowest of the low” in the caste system of India; 8000 miles away from Orange County. The ministry trips cost participants $3250 each.

Closer to home, the group’s concern to avoid “harming the culture of the neighborhood” was evident. The rulers clearly found the Midway City church, and the Pfeiffers, a liability in this regard. Further, the ruling EFCSW Elder Board asserts that it has full authority to deal with such liabilities. As the EFCSW’s book of Faith & Practice puts it, under the heading of “Final Authority””

“Thus EFCSW holds the spiritual and legal power among its churches to decide all such matters, including, without limitation, all organizational and operational matters. Its decisions are final. It can counsel, admonish, discipline, dismiss, or close its subordinate churches.”

Further, this authority is vested, on 364 days of each year, in its Elder Board, a group of up to nine, that meets secretly. On day 365 (which for 2020 occurs Saturday, February 1), a Representative Body gathers for a single session of usually under three hours, to approve the budget and nominations presented to it by the Elders. Information about these items is typically concise: the entire EFCSW annual budget summary for the 39-church group usually takes up less than a single page. [If that thumping sound you hear sounds like a rubber stamp, you could be right.]

It was not always done this way. The Midway City lawsuit argues that the Faith and Practice has been hijacked by a small group, mainly associated with Yorba Linda. The present “Final Authority” text was only inserted in 2011, and all real power has since been concentrated in the Elder Board’s hands, exercised in closed meetings, brooking no challenge, with no regard for the rest of the body, or previous Quaker traditions of broad consultation, open discussion, and sometimes extended seeking of consensus.

A prime instance was the Elders’ decision to terminate the Pfeiffers and close Midway City, neither of which were presented by the Elders to a Representative Body session.

BTW — taking possession of the Midway City church and its acre of land could provide EFCSW a considerable windfall. After all, as the beleaguered church keeps pointing out, EFCSW spent none of its funds to acquire the land, build or maintain the church and its other buildings. With land prices in southern California what they are, just selling the property could likely bring in millions

Has this occurred to anyone in EFCSW? A review of 2018 and 2019 Elder Board minutes turned up frequent discussions of and laments about the lack of funds to pursue their plans, and the need to find more funding sources. Further, in deposition testimony, EFCSW/Yorba Linda Chief of Staff Prentice acknowledged, “I did not deny that the future of the church is being discussed and the option of selling the property is on the table, [but] it was made clear to [Midway Friends] that the reasons for Joe’s dismissal from the position of pastor are based on our questions of discernment . . . .”  “poor discernment”

The charges of “poor discernment” and unacceptable behavior were indeed frequently repeated in Prentice’s deposition, and referred to in Elder Board minutes deposition. Asked if the reputed  behavior included moral, financial, or other such professional lapses, Prentice said no.

What then, specifically? Prentice responded,

“I’m aware of Mr. Pfeiffer’s comments through others during the process of the nomination of Matthew Cork to be considered as the superintendent in replacement of Stan Leach. I was not present at one meeting where Mr. Pfeiffer was vocal regarding the process of selection, and I was present at another follow-up meeting — the final meeting prior to Mr. Cork’s selection as superintendent where  Mr. Pfeiffer was again vocal and dissatisfied with the process of the selection of the superintendent, yes.”

Being vocal and dissatisfied with an opaque hiring process? Showing the temerity to question an Elders’ decision; in EFCSW,  these were grounds for termination & closure, with no appeal.

It’s also a clear enough signal, indeed a warning, to other pastors in EFCSW churches, where there are reports of murmuring and unease with the trajectory of Yorba Linda/EFCSW: speak at your own peril.

EFCSW’s response to Midway City’s suit comes down to repeating the passage on “Final Authority,” insisting that this power is vested in the Elders Board, acting on its own, and that under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, secular courts have no business interfering with such matters.

That’s why they will be seeking, in the court hearing on January 31, a summary judgement, to toss out Midway City’s  lawsuit on the basis that there’s “no there there,” nothing in it that the court could rightly adjudicate. They may be able to win the judge to this view.

That’s Goliath Quakerism.

Meanwhile, the homeless of Orange County huddle while their numbers grow; The Pfeiffers and their congregation wait to see if they will be joining them; the grand life in nearby privileged enclaves continues; and the credibility of much of American Christianity continues to diminish.

A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven in the Basement

Cambridge, Massachusetts, late 1970s

“Heads up!” called the voice from the basement. “Here come the bags!”

This story is fiction. But the setting, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Massachusetts, is real.

When they heard the cry a hundred men and women straightened up, like ragtag soldiers jerking to attention. Spaced about three feet apart, they stood in a line that ran from the open end of a big tractor-trailer truck squeezed into the horseshoe curve of Longfellow Park, up the sidewalk and across the wide green lawn. It snaked around the corner of the meeting house, past Friends Center, up the three low steps of the meetinghouse porch, through the open double doors, made a sharp right past the small literature table. Then left again to the steep, dim stairway, and down every other step to the basement.

There it ended, at a heap of bulging black plastic trashbags. Each bag was packed full and cinched tightly shut with a strong wire twist. The bags were neatly stacked five high, eight wide, and half a dozen deep, and they seemed to fill the entire low-ceiling room.

Kevin Blackburn stood at the front of the line, wondering how he ended up facing so much hard labor on a quiet Sunday morning.
But there was really no mystery about how he got there. Louisa Cabot, the prim older woman standing next to him, glancing from the pile of bags to the waiting line of people, had asked him.

Actually, “asked” wasn’t quite accurate; “drafted” was closer. After announcements at the end of meeting for worship, she had marched straight up to him, peered at him above her wire-rimmed spectacles, and said firmly, “Kevin, I would like for thee to help me get the shipment out of the clothing room.”

Her tone was friendly enough, but it left no room for any response other than agreement. She spoke, Kevin thought, like the old-fashioned schoolteacher she had been for forty years, still in firm command of her classroom. And in her subdued flower print dress, with its square lace-trimmed collar, she looked the part, too.

Louisa gave the waiting line of Quakers a last quick glance and said, “Well, Kevin, whenever thee’s ready, I suggest thee start at the far end of the stack.”

Kevin did, pulling the top sack out by the bunched plastic neck, catching it in both hands, then passing it to the Friend behind him, who in turn passed it on up the stairs.

Fortunately, the bags weren’t as heavy as they looked; old clothes were more bulk than weight. But before long, when the bucket brigade was going full tilt and the bags were moving quickly up the steps and around the three corners to the waiting man on the truck, Kevin was sweating freely. This was hard work. He would need to go home and take a shower before the concert, or Jenny wouldn’t come near him. And Kevin wanted very much to be near to Jenny.

After hefting two rows of the bags, Kevin felt as if the pile would go on forever. Surely, he thought, there’s enough pants, shirts, sweaters, dresses, socks and underwear here to clothe every refugee in Asia, and Africa too, with plenty left over for Central America, and even a bag or two for the Goodwill downtown.

But then, suddenly, there were only three bags left, and in a flash they were behind him, disappearing up the stairs. As the final bag arrived at the truck and was tossed in, the Friends in the line gave a cheer, shook hands, and then broke up into small groups, mopping the sweat from their foreheads and talking excitedly.

Kevin collapsed in a chair to catch his breath. The basement seemed much bigger now with the bags gone. Mending tables lined one side, each bearing several oversize spools of thread and a number of old soup bowls full of every kind of button imaginable. On one a stack of newspapers for wrapping leaned precariously. Racks of dresses and suits awaiting repair stood along the opposite wall, under a row of small ground-level windows.

Here, several days a week, Louisa gathered a mixed crew of volunteers, mostly other older women, who patched and mended and talked for hours. Kevin had never seen them at it, but they were clearly an energetic and productive bunch: This was the second big shipment that had gone out since he started attending Cambridge Meeting last winter.

“Here, Kevin, thee has earned this,” Louisa said behind him. He looked around and took the glass of lemonade from her. “Thanks,” he said, still panting.

“I hope we didn’t wear thee out and spoil thy plans for the day,” Louisa said.

“Oh, that’s okay,” Kevin said. “I’m just going to a concert later. Then I’ll be back here tonight for Social Concerns Committee.”

And for the committee’s potluck, he added silently. He was a little embarrassed to admit it, but potlucks were his favorite Quaker ritual and the closest to home cooking a single Harvard grad student ever got. Sometimes he wondered if potlucks headed the list of what these Quakers called testimonies.

“Um, what sort of concert?” Louisa asked, cutting into his theological reflections. Her tone was tentative now, as if she felt she was prying.
“Oh, just a string quartet,” Kevin answered. “A woman I’m dating is playing the cello.”

At this Louisa’s eyebrows went up slightly and her expression became thoughtful. “A string quartet, eh?” she mused. “I don’t know much about music myself. English grammar and American history. Those were my subjects. Nothing against it, thee understand, I just never had much time to listen.”

She paused for a moment, while Kevin drained his lemonade. “Um, Kevin,” she inquired, “would thee do me a favor?”

“Sure,” he said, genuinely surprised now at her tone. The old sense of command was gone; she sounded anxious, almost afraid.

“After the committee meeting tonight,” Louisa continued, “I’ll be in the library. Meet me there and there’s something I want to show thee if I can. Something musical, and very peculiar.”

Kevin grinned at her. “I’ll do it,” he said dramatically, “on one condition.”

“What’s that?” Louisa asked guardedly.

“Promise me there’ll be no more heavy lifting,” he said.

Now it was her turn to grin, and smile wrinkles piled up around her eyes. Her old self again, she stuck out a hand.

“Friend,” she said firmly, “Thee has a deal.”

* * * * * * * *
The concert was fine. Jenny played well, and agreed to meet Kevin for ice cream and talk after his meeting. He was looking forward to that.

The committee meeting was a different matter, though. Ever since winter, they had been laboring over a policy statement on war tax resistance. But after months of meetings, they seemed no closer to unity than when they started.

Some Friends felt the meeting had to take a stand and not even pay the federal tax on its telephone, which went directly to support wars like the one that had recently, finally ended in Vietnam. But others felt the group ought to obey the law, and anyway tax money didn’t just pay for war. It paid for other things, too — good things like health care, and housing.

And student grants, Kevin reminded himself.

The meeting room, Cambridge. The clothing room, still in operation in 2019, is below it.

Coming out of the meeting, Kevin’s head ached a little from the arguments. His own opinion seemed to go back and forth; surely, he thought, the meeting ought to take a stand against the billions wasted on bombs and missiles. But on the other hand, he couldn’t deny that some good things were done with taxes. And how were we to tell the difference?

“How long,” he wondered aloud to Louisa as he entered the library, “will it take that committee to make up its mind about war taxes?”
But there was no answer. The lights were on, but the room was empty.

The silence surprised him. Louisa was surely punctual if she was anything. Then he was startled by a voice behind him. Louisa, was coming through the doorway with a book under her arm. “Did I hear thee complaining about war taxes?” she asked.

“It’s the committee,” he said. “We can’t agree on what to do about them.”

“Humph,” she said brusquely, “Friends have been arguing over what to do about them for more than 300 years, with no end in sight. Don’t let it bother thee.”

She set the book down on the library desk. “A waste of time, if thee asks me,” she concluded firmly. “Come along and let’s see if we can find something a little more interesting.” Turning toward the door, she motioned for him to follow.

She led him out of Friends Center, into the quiet night of Brattle Street. Stepping up to the darkened meetinghouse, she signalled silence with a finger to her lips, then quietly tried the door.
It was locked, as it always was at night.

“What–?” Kevin began, but her rising finger stopped him.

“This way,” she whispered, and tiptoed toward the far corner of the meetinghouse. There she stopped and peered cautiously around the corner, then stepped back and motioned to Kevin.

He looked past her, at nothing special: a high board fence divided the meeting’s property from the neighbors’ garage, a big old maple rustled gently at the far end, and a narrow strip of grass lay in between, dark like a carpet except where a wedge of dim light turned a patch dull turquoise.

Kevin turned back to Louisa and shrugged. She shook her head and leaned toward his ear. “The light,” she hissed.

He looked again. Now that she mentioned it, there was something peculiar about the light. It was an odd color, like a very blue fluorescent bulb, and was coming from down low — the basement, the last couple of ground level windows.

Louisa whispered again: “The music — do you hear it?”

As soon as she said it, he realized he did. The faint but unmistakable sound of strings — several strings, probably a quartet. The sound seemed to be coming from down by the maple tree.

Kevin stepped around the corner of the meetinghouse, and tiptoed forward, with Louisa rustling quietly behind him.
The farther along the meetinghouse they moved, the louder the music played. And it wasn’t coming from beyond the tree, Kevin quickly understood, but from the far end of the basement, the same place as that strange blue light.

They stopped halfway down the building and pressed themselves against the wall. The music was quite loud now.

“Does thee recognize it?” Louisa whispered.

“Sure,” he whispered back after listening another moment. “It’s Beethoven. The Razumovsky Quartet. They played it at the concert today.” It was also, he thought, either the best recording he’d ever heard, or a live performance. And a very good one, too.

“What is it?” he whispered. “Who is it?”

Now she shrugged. “Take a look,” she whispered.

“Me?” he asked, suddenly nervous. “Why don’t you look?”

She drew herself up in the darkness. “Because,” she hissed, “it frightens me. Besides, thee is the music expert.”

“Well, this frightens me, too,” he said. But despite himself he crouched down, and carefully and quietly peered in the low basement window.

There wasn’t much to see. The blue light seemed brightest right below the window, near the wall beyond his field of view. The mending tables were faintly visible, and he could make out the bowls of buttons and the stack of newspapers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

He straightened up and whispered, “Nothing.”

Louisa began edging back toward the front of the
meetinghouse, beckoning him to follow. Once there, she strode quickly across the driveway to Friends Center.

Back in the library, she sat down behind the desk and spoke firmly.

“This is the third night that music has been playing in my clothing room. I’ve worked there twenty-two years, and nothing, I repeat, nothing like this ever happened before. I don’t like it.” Her voice was severe, as if reprimanding a particularly stubborn pupil.

“Have you gone down there?” Kevin asked. “You have a key.”

“Certainly not,” she snapped. “It’s not safe. Who knows who, or what, is down there?”

“Well, will you go with me?” Kevin asked. “I’m up for a little adventure. And besides, what could be so bad about ghosts that play Beethoven?”

“Ghosts?” Louisa said, “Why, whatever can thee be thinking of?”

“I don’t know,” he answered jauntily. “But do you have a better idea? Come on!”

She glared up at him for a moment over her glasses, then said, “Very well.” She stood up resolutely and pulled a key ring from a pocket of her dress. “It’s the large brass one in the middle. But thee goes first.”

In fact, he was more than a little nervous as he stuck the large, worn key in the lock. They had paused on the way to peek around the corner, confirming that the blue light was still shining, and the music was still playing.

“Might as well get it over with,” he muttered as the doorknob turned and then moved away from him.

“All right, we’re coming down!” he shouted as he pushed past the door, fumbling with one hand for the light switches as he groped towards the stairway in the dark.

“Here,” Louisa murmured from behind; her fingers, intimate with the building, found the switches on the first try.

The entryway suddenly lit up, and there was the stairway in front of him.

“Here I am,” he called, thumping loudly down the steps, “and I don’t mean you any harm–”

He hit the light switches at the bottom, and swung through the doorway.

No one was there.

The room looked much as it had after the morning’s bag brigade; the mending tables here, the racks over there, a few stray garments hung over the odd folding chair; certainly no sign of a concert. He took a few steps into the room, looking around uncertainly.

“Is thee all right?” Louisa croaked from the stairway.

“Yes,” he called. “Come on.”

She stopped in the doorway and surveyed her small domain carefully. Knowing it better, she saw what he had missed.

“There,” she said, pointing. “Those chairs!”

Of course, he thought. He hadn’t noticed them against the dark background of the racks. Four folding chairs stood in front of the last rack near the far wall. On two of the chairs a black evening suit was draped over the back; on the others hung black dresses, formal but severe.

“Look,” Kevin said, walking over to them. “They’re set at angles, as if around a music stand.” He touched one of the hanging jackets. “Do you recognize these clothes?” he asked.

“Hmmm,” she fingered a dress. “They must be off our racks here. But I recognize this one; Bay State Costume Exchange sent it over. I’m not certain about where the others came from.”

“Aren’t these a little classy for refugee duds?” he wondered, moving to the other suit.

Louisa bristled. “Friend,” she said sternly, “does thee think that only farmers and laborers are made homeless by war? I’ll have thee know that after Vietnam we sent suits to half the former college professors in the South. Nasty, useless war that was. And there’s many an educated Palestinian–”

“All right,” he grinned, “you made your point.”

* * * * * * * *
Louisa saw him glance at his watch. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed, “I’ve gotta call Jenny. I’m late.”

“There’s a phone over there,” Louisa pointed toward a venerable black instrument on a battered desk in a corner. Kevin rushed to pick it up.

Louisa listened to him spinning the old rotary dial, then blurting breathlessly. “Jen–I know I’m late, but you won’t believe what just happened. Can I come tell you about it? I’ll bring the ice cream. Great! Be there in a flash!”

He clanked the phone down, turned on his heel and hurried heedlessly to the stairs. He had trotted halfway up them when his steps abruptly stopped, paused, and then walked slowly back down.

Louisa regarded him skeptically as he came back into the room. “I’d like to think,” she said, “thee realized thee was leaving me here alone with this — whatever — and wanted to offer to walk me to my car. But I get this feeling thee has something else on thy mind.”

Kevin felt sheepish. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted, “I was going to ask if you know where I can buy some ice cream at this hour on Sunday night. But you’re right, of course, it was thoughtless to rush off like that.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Louisa said. “I was a lovestruck youngster once myself, and in that state, forgetting thy manners is the least of thy problems.”

She smiled now, a prim but wistful, remembering smile.

“Come on,” she said, “thee can follow me to the all-night market. And on the way to my Ford, let’s consider what to do about this possible poltergeist I seem to have inherited.”

Outside, as she locked the meetinghouse door with the large brass key, she turned partway toward him and murmured, “French vanilla was a very appealing flavor in 1932. My favorite in fact.”

Kevin’s expression showed that he realized she was not really speaking to him, and was gazing past his shoulder in the night. He waited a moment, letting the older woman in the flowered dress enjoy her reverie. Then he said quietly, “You’re right. French vanilla it is.”

* * * * * * * * * *
On the way to the car, what they decided to do was to treat the strange intrusion as something of a cross between a mystery and a research project. Louisa would look into the origins of the clothes they found on the chairs. Kevin would take a music history approach, and see what he could find out about Beethoven, and his string quartets. They agreed to meet at Friends Center after dinner the next night, to see what conclusions they could draw.

* * * * * * * * * * *
But reporting to Louisa after a day of effort, all Kevin was able to draw was blanks. “I found out a little about Razumovsky,” he reported. “He was the Russian ambassador in Vienna for years, and Beethoven wrote three quartets for him. As far as I can tell, it was just a job for Beethoven. He thought all the bigwigs who hung around the emperor’s court were a flock of turkeys. I don’t think there’s anything there. What did you turn up?”

“Not very much either, I’m afraid,” Louisa said. She sat at the library desk, drumming the fingers of her right hand nervously. “Mr. O’Neill at Bay State Costume Exchange recognized the evening suit and one of the dresses, but he couldn’t remember where he got them. It could have been The Boston Symphony. So I went down to that office. But,” she sighed tiredly, “the property manager has only been there a few weeks and doesn’t know anything. All in all a wasted day,” she concluded. Her fingers kept up their restless drumming.

“Maybe you’ve been looking in the wrong places,” put in Jenny, who had come in with Kevin and had been sitting quietly beside him.

Louisa had liked her from the first. She was pretty all right, but looked serious too, and unaffected. Jenny seemed, Louisa concluded judiciously, to have the makings of a good strong Quaker wife — if that was how her romance with Kevin, and his romance with Quakerism, turned out.

Now she asked the young woman, “What does thee mean?”

“Well,” said Jenny, “suppose your musical ghost isn’t in your basement because of Beethoven, or because of an old evening dress. What if it’s here because of the meeting?”

“Hey, yeah,” echoed Kevin, brightening. “What if it’s coming back because of something that happened here? Louisa,” he asked, “have there ever been any string quartets played in the meetinghouse? The acoustics would be terrific.”

Louisa furrowed her brow. “I seem to recall something about music, but it was quite a few years ago and I didn’t hear it. As I told thee, Kevin, music was not my subject.”

Kevin thought a moment. “What about the meeting minutes?” he asked. “Would there be anything about recitals in them?”

Louisa shrugged. “Probably. They’d need permission for a concert in the meetinghouse, and that would be in the minutes. After all,” she added, “permitting the playing of music in a silent Friends meetinghouse would never have occurred to my old Wilburite grandfather, God rest his plain Quaker soul.

She pointed past the tables. “The minute books are over there, on that shelf by the window, all but the last five years or so, and there haven’t been any concerts in that time.”

Kevin stood up; he was excited now. “Okay, let’s start with the latest minutes and work our way back.” He moved toward the shelf.

“No, Kevin,” Jenny objected, “it would make more sense to start at the beginning and work forward.”

Kevin’s face showed irritation. “I don’t see what difference it makes,” he said sharply, “and I want to start with the recent minutes.”

There was a long, stiff pause, while the two young people glared at each other.

And so, Louisa thought, and sat slowly down  in her folding chair. Here we are at one of those seemingly minor hurdles these new young lovers will have to get over. Do they now get lost in their little egos, or do they work this out? She crossed her arms. How well, she thought. Alas, how well I remember.

“Perhaps,” she interposed after a moment, “you could work from both ends.”

To their credit, and to Louisa’s relief, they reached out for her little olive branch.

“Of course,” Kevin said, “why not?”

“Sure,” said Jenny, “that’s a good idea.”

“And I’ll start in the middle,” Louisa said. “The meeting was organized in 1940, so halfway puts me in 1965. Fifty years is young for a Quaker meeting in New England,” she observed, “but it’s still a lot of minutes. Let’s get busy.”

So each of them pulled down a stack of the heavy bound minute books. Kevin and Jenny sat them down on the big reading table, while Louisa took hers back to the desk.

Beethoven

* * * * * * * * *
For the next hour and a half, as night settled over Cambridge, there was little sound in the library other than the rustling of pages being turned. Kevin, working backward, found that, yes, there had been a chamber concert series in the meetinghouse in the summer of 1973.

“Let’s see,” he said, “here’s one for 2 harpsichords, one for lute, and another for some madrigal singers.” He signed, “But no quartets. And no Beethoven, either. It’s all renaissance and baroque.”

“I haven’t found any music,” Louisa commented at another point, “but here’s Social Concerns Committee in 1969, haggling about war taxes again.” She adjusted her glasses. “Didn’t get anywhere that time either.”

“No music in the forties, or most of the fifties,” Jenny added. “But I’ll keep looking.” She turned a few more pages, then stood up and stretched. “It’s getting stuffy in here,” she said. “Can I open a window?”

“Certainly,” Louisa said. “Fresh air will do us all good.”

When Jenny opened the window, cooler air poured in. But something else came with it — the faint but unmistakable sound of a string quartet.

Jenny listened without turning around.

“Is that–?” Kevin asked.

“Yes,” Jenny answered quietly. “The third Razumovsky. We should have been expecting it, I suppose.”

“Let’s go down there,” Kevin said, standing up. But Jenny reached out to touch his sleeve, and he paused.

“Wait a minute,” she said softly. “I want to listen here for a minute. There’s something familiar about the playing.” She listened again, for a long moment, until the playing subsided, then stopped. “That was the slow movement,” she said.

“What about the playing?” Kevin asked.

“I-I’m not sure,” Jenny said. “Maybe we should go over. We’re not finding anything in these minutes.”

“I’m ready,” Louisa announced, closing a minute book with a thump. “I guess we’ve established that whoever or whatever they are, they don’t have guns.” She pulled the key ring from her pocket and headed for the door.

They paused only briefly at the corner of the meetinghouse, to peek around and be sure, once again, that the pale blue light was indeed shining from the last two basement windows, and the music had begun again. Then Louisa walked briskly up the three steps and stuck the big brass key in the lock. She was first down the steps this time, too, stepping smartly into the again-deserted basement and over toward the far end of the racks, where the four chairs stood as before, the suits and gowns draped over them.

“Nothing different here,” Kevin said, looking over the tableau.

“There most certainly is something different,” Louisa snapped.

“But what?” Kevin persisted. “Here are the chairs and the clothes, just like last night.”

“That’s precisely it,” Louisa insisted. “This morning I hung up those clothes and put the chairs back at the table before I went to the Bay State Clothing Exchange. They’ve all been moved back.”

“Wait a minute,” came Jenny’s voice from behind them. “I think I’ve found something over here!”

She was at the mending table, looking at a newspaper from the stack, spread out on it. Kevin came to her side. “What is it?” he asked.

“There,” she said. “The obituaries.” She sat down as Kevin picked up the page and began to read:

“Isidore Kominsky, principal cellist with The Boston Symphony for more than twenty years and founder of the highly-regarded New Freedom String Quartet, died at his home last week.” He broke off and looked at the top of the page. “When was this?” he mused.

“Last month,” Jenny murmured gently.

Kevin’s eye skimmed down the paragraphs. “Let’s see… `escaped from his native Czechoslovakia in 1949, after a year’s imprisonment by the Communist government….Founded the New Freedom Quartet with three other exiled musicians in 1956, to raise funds for relief of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, after it was crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.

This photo is reportedly of a young Hungarian refugee somewhere in Europe, after the 1956 revolution was crushed.

“`Their first concerts were highly successful. Thereafter the quartet played several concerts each year, always as refugee benefits, even after Kominsky’s retirement from The Boston Symphony in 1971. “

He took a breath, and frowned.  “‘The group continued until 1976, when violist Ada Steinberg, one of its two women members, passed away, and Kominsky soon disbanded the group. He was the last surviving member of the quartet. In 1977–”

Kevin was stopped by a stifled sob beside him.

Jenny’s face was in her hands. “He was my first teacher,” she whispered. “He was old then, and had arthritis in his fingers, but he still played like an angel when the pain wasn’t too great. He had to stop after a year because of a stroke.”

She took a handkerchief Kevin was holding out to her, and wiped her eyes. “I heard the quartet play a few times before that, but I was just a kid. I didn’t know about the refugee part.”

Louisa had picked up the newspaper. “Thee missed the fine print, Kevin,” she said. He looked over her shoulder and read aloud again:

“A private memorial service is planned, and friends are asked to send donations in lieu of flowers to the Quaker Material Aids Program, care of Cambridge Friends Meeting.”

“As a matter of fact,” Louisa put in quietly, “we did receive several checks listed in his memory. But the name was strange to me because–”

“I know,” Kevin said, “music is not your subject.”

“Well music is my subject,” Jenny said firmly, wiping her eyes once more and blowing her nose. “And I know a reunion concert when I hear one. And we’re interrupting it.”

She faced Louisa. “I’ll bet if we could trace those clothes, they’d lead straight back to Mr. Kominsky, Mrs. Steinberg and the others. And they’ll be gone from here soon, in one of those trash bags, to who knows where. So while they were here together, their owners gathered with them one last time. And they didn’t get to finish, because we’re in their way.”

Jenny stood up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kominsky,” she said softly in the direction of the chairs, “I didn’t mean to intrude.” Then she walked toward the door.

Louisa and Kevin followed, snapping the basement lights off behind them. When they reached the door upstairs, though, Louisa gestured to Kevin before she hit the switch. As the entrance became dark, Kevin reached for Jenny’s hand and led her soundlessly after Louisa into the meeting room.

There, just as they sank noiselessly onto a long, sturdy bench, they heard the music start again below, with the cello mounting a vigorous, deeply felt melody, which the viola and violins answered in turn.

Kevin leaned over toward Louisa. “It’s the finale,” he murmured, and felt, rather than saw, her slight nod.

The music moved swiftly to an impassioned climax, then died away on a final, ringing chord.

After another few moments of silence, Kevin reached over and shook Louisa’s hand, then Jenny’s.

* * * * * * * *
A little later, after the young couple had escorted her to her Ford and then driven away, Louisa got out of the car, walked up to the meetinghouse, and quietly let herself in.

Downstairs, she found what she was expecting: The chairs were again at the table, the suits and gowns hanging on the rack.

So, she thought, they are finished. And I suppose that means that after tonight, they won’t be back.

But on the other hand, she reflected, after tonight, I expect young Kevin and Jenny will be.

 

Previous Quaker Holiday Stories:
#1 A Hospice for Hope

#2 How I got so Lucky

#3 Candles in the Window

**A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven In the Basement


If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.

And having had what some call a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.

“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And its our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”

The remains of the reputed “Ozymandias” statue in Egypt.

This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.

We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.

A Torah scroll, filled with stories, one of the oldest existing copies, in the possession of the Samaritan community.

Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual storys role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.

Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call bold” or ground-breaking.”

In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.

Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. Ive dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.

Were a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.

Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. Its a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.

What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that,  Ill leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:

8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they dont.

 And 4:12:  So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.

(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

“Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #3: “I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. . . .”

Helena Cobban

I was born into a very traditional (Church of England, Conservative-voting) family of the British upper middle class.

Helena Cobban

I was 14 when the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 broke out. As I recall it, just about all the news coverage on our grainy black-and-white television and in the two newspapers my father took, the Times and The Daily Telegraph, was solidly pro-Israel. The British conservative elite was still smarting from the rise of that upstart, President Nasser, in Egypt, and was delighted to see him “taken down a notch.” Besides, the Israelis were “modern”. They were “like us”. They had “made the desert bloom”, etc. . . .

In fall 1970, I enrolled at Oxford. In the hurly-burly of the matriculation week, I connected with some intriguing student social-justice networks. One was a feminist group. A couple were leftist/Marxist. One was the Oxford University Arab Society. I established lasting connections with people in all three types of group. One ardent Trotskyist at Oxford with whom I worked closely was Alan Adler, who had earlier attended the most elite Jewish boarding school in Britain, Carmel College — a place from which he was notoriously expelled because he had tried to establish there a cell of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fateh. (Tragically, a few years later, Alan died by suicide.)

Many of the Oxford leftists at the time were Jewish, and most of the ones I knew shared the concern I was developing for the long-usurped rights of the Palestinians, including their right to return to the homes and farms from which they had been expelled in 1948. . . .

I graduated from Oxford in 1973, not brilliantly, and after a few months’ consideration I decided, yes, I really did want to become a foreign correspondent. I followed in the footsteps of many male British adventurers before me, picked up my notebook, and decamped to a foreign clime.

What better place to launch my career than Beirut? My friends from the Oxford University Arab Society had contacts and relatives there; and I was on my way.

My journalistic experience? At the elite girls’ boarding-school I attended I had hand-produced (and “published” in five blurry carbon copies) three issues of a small satirical magazine; and at Oxford I was on the editorial collective of a short-lived counter-culture magazine called the Oxford Strumpet. Ah well, chutzpah and ignorance stepped in to persuade me I had a career plan.

Beirut, pre-civil war – Wikimedia Commons

Beirut was then a bustling hub of commerce, with numerous banks and businesses working hard to provide services to the massively growing Middle Eastern oil industry.

I launched my career by working as a copywriter in a local high-end advertising agency, racing twice-daily from my desk there to attend immersion classes in modern standard Arabic that were held at the Jesuit university in another part of town. Eight months later, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and I was ideally placed to turbo-charge my career in actual journalism.

By the time I was 23, I was regularly getting front-page stories about developments both in Lebanon and further afield published on the front page of the London Sunday Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The work was exhilarating, exacting, and sometimes fairly dangerous.

The work of a good reporter is also, I think, more than a little bit Quakerly. As a reporter, you need to look around you and listen very closely, and scrupulously record the truth as you see it. You need to be able to interact respectfully with people with whom you may (personally) disagree very strongly, both in order to record their sayings and their actions accurately and in order to be fair to them.

In doing this, you need to set your own emotions and judgments aside while you are “getting the story,” and try to stay pleasant and open. (I worked for a short while for the Reuters bureau there. They had a rule of thumb that, since their product gets used by newspapers in many other countries that have different needs, any story you write should be structured so that an editor using the story in any place could cut the story to the length he/she needed at the end of any paragraph, and be left with a journalistically “balanced” story. There’s discipline!)

Beirut, during the civil war.

So my journalism career was advancing very well until one day in 1981, when my then-husband was covering the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran from the Iranian side, I was covering it in Baghdad from the Iraqi side, and our two small children were home with their nanny in Beirut… and she contacted me in a panic to tell me one of the local Lebanese militias had put a sniper onto our roof, which of course made the whole building into a valid military target.

I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. I took the first car I could back across the desert to Amman (a 17-hour drive), flew back to Beirut, scooped up the nanny and the children, and took them all out to the safety of London.

So that was the end of my burgeoning career as a Middle East correspondent. I was stranded in London with two small children, no career, and as it happened a broken marriage.

I turned to writing books, with the first two being on the PLO and on the history of modern Lebanon. To support myself and my kids while I wrote them, I had to come here to the United States where I got fellowships at well-heeled universities that allowed me to do the writing. . . .

When I went to Lebanon in 1974, I did not intend to become a war correspondent, but that is what I soon became, both there and in the early months of the massive war waged between Iran and Iraq from 1980 through 1988. My position as a Western correspondent in Lebanon was distinctive. The war erupted eight months after I arrived; and shortly after that I married a nice Lebanese man whom I had met there and had two children, born in the late 1970s. He also worked in the media, as a cameraman for international news agencies. . . .

All the other Western correspondents were males. They lived either in swanky hotels or in nice apartments where they and any family they had were cared for either by staff or by their wives. As for me, I was trying to run the household and look after the kids while also doing a job that involved crazy, irregular hours and often, a degree of danger.

Later, I came to see that many of the experiences I had had in Beirut gave me powerful insights into the nature of war. They underlined for me, above all, that wars inflict the greatest damage on women, children, and the vulnerable, and that most of this harm comes not from actual physical impacts of weapons but from the shattering of basic services.

I learned early on during the Lebanese civil war to manage when the electricity was cut off. We could gin up paraffin lanterns and cook over little paraffin stoves. But when the water was cut off, life was really, really hard. I would trudge down to the well in the basement of our building and haul jerrycans of water back up to our seventh-floor apartment. Every drop was so precious it would be used multiple times. Finally, after being used, say, to boil pasta and then wash the floor, the last remnants would get re-used to flush the toilet. . . .

And how does this experience of war, its human toll, personal turmoil and human rights work lead Helena Cobban to Quakers?

The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Previous Authors Speak posts:

1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

 

 

Quaker House at 50: We tried everything to stop U.S. torture. Even Bible study.

In 2004, like the rest of the world, at Quaker House we began to learn about U. S. torture in the “War On terror.”

An exhibition parachutist shows his stuff at a ball game near Fort Bragg. summer 2019.

In one way, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Situated next door to Fort Bragg, we knew that besides being home to the 82nd Airborne Division (Airborne means they troops jump out of airplanes to get to their targets), Bragg also was headquarters for many of the most secret military units: Green Berets, Delta Force, “Jaysock” (the Joint Special Operations Command), and others.

And as torture information leaked out, in bits and pieces, this data was like dots. And connecting the dots produced lines that were like a spiderweb, and many of those lines (not all, but many) crossed and pointed to eastern North Carolina.

There was a county airport not far from us, where a CIA front company called Aero Contractors sent “torture taxi” planes across the Atlantic, to carry detainees who were blindfolded, shackled and spread-eagled on their cabin floors, drugged and diapered for long flights to secret locations called “black sites,” and sometimes Guantanamo. There the unspeakable and illegal was done to them by U.S. government agents. This reality was supposed to stay unknown.

But it didn’t. And soon, to our packed agenda of war protest, we added torture. There were vigils, letters, articles, a few arrests, al that sort of thing. Plus we organized or joined in several conferences. Hopes rose when the now-disgraced president who green-lighted all this malign madness left Washington in early 2009, succeeded by one who promised “Hope & Change.”

Our own hopes in this matter rested on accountability: we didn’t have to write Congress demanding new laws–torture was already a federal crime, a felony.  Give us some law and order! Hopes rose further when the new president ordered a halt to torture.

But there, change was denied us, and hopes were dashed. The perpetrators of torture had walked free during the previous regime; the new boss said we would look ahead, and leave them alone.

Which was to say, U.S. torture was simply put on “Pause,” not truly stopped. The perps were still there. And sure enough, one of the main architects of the torture program was eventually promoted to head the CIA. The laws against torture were made a dead letter; impunity reigned. still does.

A mockup urging repentance for torture advocacy on Kiefer Sutherland, the star of the TV series “24”, that popularized torture from 2002 to 2011. (It didn’t work.)

Furthermore, under the influence of highly effective popular entertainment like the show “24”, which ran for nine seasons and more than 200 episodes, frequently featuring torture, public opinion swung solidly in its favor — provided that the U. S. was doing the torturing.

Within  a few years, the outcome was plain:  torture may have been wrong, but the American public above all planned to forget about it. This forgetting, or corporate amnesia,  was aided and abetted by its government, from the highest levels. It still is.

Some of us, an ever-diminishing band, kept trying. For several years, some of us periodically picked up trash along the roadside outside Aero Contractors.

There were more conferences and reports, most of which were presented to local, state and federal officials. While mostly polite, it was evident they didn’t want to hear about it, and some defend torture to this day.

It’s pretty quiet now, we’re older, energy is flagging and shouting into the wind is tiring. But a few have not forgotten.  What other countries’ experience has to teach suggests that it typically takes decades for a society to begin to face up to its own atrocities and war crimes, if it ever does.

Last spring, when a peace pilgrimage stopped to have a religious vigil outside the now heavily-protected site of Aero Contractors (the CIA front company is still there, even bigger, but more well-hidden), most of those passing by who took our flyers didn’t know what we were talking about.

Patrick O’Neill, a stalwart protester, during an Easter Week vigil outside Aero, Spring 2019. The poster he’s carrying shows Khaled el Masri, a German citizen who was snatched and put on an Aero torture taxi to five moths of abuse in a black site, before it was admitted that he was not the person the CIA was searching for. His life was all but destroyed by the experience. No one was brought to account.

Torture, along with the war, was strongly supported by many religious Americans, notably evangelicals. Many such are in the  military, even at high ranks. As an outreach to such, I even ventured into Bible study. I’m pasting it here, because I think it has wider and continuing relevance. If and when this segment of the public awakens from its amnesiac trance, it will still be apt. For others it’s brief.

From, “Patience & Determination,”
a Pamphlet from Quaker House, 2009)

                                             I

Most biblical translators seem reluctant to write the word “torture.” Yet there are places in the scriptures where softer terms read more like evasions. The spirit of torture hovers over many passages, like buzzards circling the lonely figure of Job, alone on a dung-heap.
Indeed, the entire book of Job can be seen as a meditation on the relentlessly inflicted suffering that is of the essence of torture, with Job as the archetypal torture victim. He is innocent and faithful; yet he has been stripped of everything and left bereft and in continual pain, wailing and scratching his sores.
Job’s condition is not accidental. It results from an arbitrary exercise of power, without warrant, limit, or foreseeable end. Worse, as he sees clearly, its source was supposed to be the font and guarantor of justice, not its destroyer.
Yet not only translators shy away from calling such treatment what it is. Job himself confronts a claque of commentators – one is tempted to call them spin doctors – who fill pages like memos to the White House, explaining that what he is enduring is really only a new set of enhanced interrogation techniques, and anyway he must have deserved it.
The victim is not having it. These rationalizations only reinforce his sense of what’s happening:

19:1 Then Job answered: 2 “How long will you torture me, and break me in pieces with words? . . .”

Only one among a score of versions in an online Bible collection (The New Living Translation) boldly renders the Hebrew here as “torture.” In the King James, Job merely sniffs that the apologists “vex my soul”; the Catholic Douay-Rheims version says they “afflict” him. Others speak of “torment,” which at least is closer.
But Job interrupts, at 21:6: “Know then,” he continues, “that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me. . . .”
And when his vivid rage is momentarily spent, he begs,

21 “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,’ for the hand of God has touched me! 22 Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?”

A searching question; and whether Job gets any real explanation of what has happened to him (I think not) has been debated by Bible students ever since the book appeared.
Further, Job’s cries for relief and vindication are more than an individual lament. For those with ears to hear, they echo as loudly for us today as they ever have down the centuries.

                                             II

There is torture in the New Testament as well. And here again, translators typically shy away from rendering the term. This is harder to understand in the gospels, because the Greek term used there unambiguously refers to torture as we think of it today.
This specificity should not be surprising; torture was a frequent feature of life and “justice” in Jesus’ world. When demons confront him, for instance, they are expecting it:

Matthew 8:28 “When Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to [torture] us before the time?”

Luke 8:27: 27 As Jesus stepped out on land (from the sea of Galilee), a man of the city who had demons met him. . . . 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torture me.” (Jesus didn’t torture him. Instead, he banished  the man’s demons.)

For that matter, the scourging of Jesus (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15) certainly qualifies; and what else was crucifixion but execution by extended, public torture?
So again, torture was a feature of Jesus’ world, though he did not inflict it. Small wonder then, that when his followers were trying to consolidate their movement after his death, it turns up in a list of general exhortations in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

Hebrews 13:3 “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”

As with Job, though, only one translation of Hebrews in twenty (The New Revised Standard Version) ventures to say it plain. While the Greek term here is different from that in the gospels, and less exact, it still refers to excruciating suffering inflicted as part of persecution. This is clear enough from an earlier verse from the same epistle,

Hebrews 11:37 “The [early martyrs] were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, [tortured] . . . .”

Here the typical rendering is “tormented.” Yet isn’t it a plausible argument that being sawn in two would be somewhat more than “tormenting”?
The earlier, more explicit term reappears in one more New Testament book, Revelation. The most vivid passage, in Chapter Nine, recounts a vision that for some readers at least, evokes surreal parallels with the more repulsive abuses of our own day, especially when carried out by those charged with upholding law and justice:

Revelation 9:1-11:
1 “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit;
2 he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.
3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given authority like the authority of scorpions of the earth.
4 They were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
5 They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone.

Some imaginative [Bible prophecy” writers are able to see texts from Revelation being played out in almost every current upheaval. And right on time, here they are seeing “locusts” as drones.
6 And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7 In appearance the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, 8 their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth;
9 they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle.
10 They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people for five months.
11 They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon. The first woe has passed. There are still two woes to come.”Would that this woe were the worst, but there is one more passage to contemplate. It is one of the repeated climaxes of the same book, describing the wrath of divine judgement:Revelation 14:9 “Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, ‘Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands,
10 they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tortured with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.
11 And the smoke of their torture goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.’”Such passages have long been a burden to those who can’t see the justice in applying an infinite punishment for the limited evil that even the most fiendish humans can do. Nor are these doubts eased by the pious admonition of verse 12 that “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.”
Perhaps that’s why translators prefer “torment” to torture here, although there is no real ambiguity in the underlying Greek. Who wants to think about the worst human torturer in history being subjected to even a worse torture, unendingly, as an endless quasi-pornographic spectacle for the angels and the Lamb, the Lamb who represents the One who is supposed to combine justice with mercy?
I doubt there are many who want to contemplate such a scenario. And for those who were forced to, like Job, perhaps the best response was his:
21 “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends,’ for the hand of God has touched me!”Have pity, yes. But remember, as Hebrews charges us. Remember, and then act to banish the demons.

On September 21, 2019 Quaker House will observe its 50th anniversary, and is still working with soldier war resisters, military families and veterans.  You are invited to join in. Details here.

Quaker House 50: Helping End “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

In 2010, after eight years at Quaker House, I couldn’t recall ever seeing an article in our local paper, the Fayetteville Observer, that was affirmative of GLBT issues, or in particular, supported the repeal of the military’s repressive “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which since 1994 had pushed gay troops into the closet or out of the services..

This doesn’t mean the paper was a font of homophobic verbiage; but when anti-gay articles did appear, they usually went unanswered.

That silence was consistent with the general atmosphere of the community. Racial integration has been the policy of the military for sixty years, and federal law for almost fifty; racism still exists here, but it skulks in corners and speaks publicly in code. Mixed families in mixed neighborhoods are everyday.

Homophobia was another matter. I was acquainted with a number of gays and lesbians there, some who were quite active in the community. But there was no visible gay presence in the city. No “Gay Pride Day,” no vocal organizations, and the gay bars kept a very low profile. It was the most closeted city I had lived in.

Hence when a homophobic Op-Ed appeared in the Observer in the Spring of 2010, praising “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,”  the chances were that it too would go unanswered. That commentary, by retired Chaplain Ronald Crews, is excerpted below, for context.

This communal closeting had long been a burden to me, and after reading Crews, I decided to speak up for my own convictions, and perhaps those of some others who did not feel safe to speak.

Retired evangelical chaplain, Ronald Crews

My Op-Ed response was published in the Observer on June 3.
As advocacy goes, it was pretty mild. That reflected an effort to take the immediate audience into account.

So, here first is part of the original piece, by retired chaplain Ronald Crews: Continue reading Quaker House 50: Helping End “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

Yale, the Indian, the Puritan, & the Politics of Display & Discussion

Yale University plans to move a controversial stone carving from a pillar by the entrance to a renovated library to a museum setting for study. The carving shows an Indian with a bow facing a musket-carrying Puritan.

(Below, two views of the carving:  on top is the original, with musket; below, today’s version, musket covered. In its future home, the covering will come off.)

Penn, under review also.

Such campus “cleansing” is also occurring on other campuses, and in different settings, particularly religious. And it is controversial.

For instance, recent efforts to marginalize  or “cancel” William Penn by some Pennsylvania Quakers seem to me short-sighted. Yes, Penn once owned some slaves. That was a blot, but on an otherwise remarkable record, which I consider well worth remembering, grappling with, and yes, in many respects celebrating.

But back to Yale. A law professor there decried the move in today’s Washington Post. The move, and its motivation, in his view, have serious drawbacks. As he put it:

Anthony Kronman, Washington Post: 

This kind of ethical cleansing is bad for many reasons. One is that it discounts the importance of discomfort in the process of learning. Discovering what your conscience demands is the reward for confronting ideas that shock it, and maturity is the prize of learning to live with ambiguity.

Another is that it confirms the wish to have one’s field of vision seamlessly fit one’s system of values. It invites the smug belief that a real problem has been met simply by removing an irritant from view.

A third is that it reinforces the belief that those who lived before us were blinded by prejudices we have thankfully overcome. But that itself is a prejudice — one that powerfully shapes campus life in an age otherwise devoted to the eradication of prejudice in all its forms.

Anthony Kronman

This trend places moral self-confidence ahead of the life of the mind, which is always more than a little dangerous, because that adventure should put even our firmest convictions at risk. . . .”

All these points, made about college-level education, in my view apply to religious/spiritual life too. As Kronman also argues, 

“Our students must of course be free from physical harm. But they must also be free from the spirit of moral conformity that today represents a danger of a more insidious kind.. . .” 

Besides “students,” this hazard also faces many religious seekers and their faith  communities.

But let’s also hear the other side. The university released the following statement on August 22 about moving a historical piece:

Yale University is moving a decorative piece of stonework from the main entrance of its Center for Teaching and Learning. The decorative piece will be made available for study and viewing, and written material will accompany it and place it in historical context.

A carving, created during the construction of the building in 1929, depicts a Puritan settler holding a musket pointed toward the head of a Native American. During renovation of the building to accommodate the Center for Teaching and Learning, the project team in consultation with Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces determined that leaving the depiction in place would have the unintended effect of giving it a place of honor that it does not deserve. The university consulted faculty and other scholarly experts, who concluded that the image depicts a scene of warfare and colonial violence toward local Native American inhabitants.

The decision to move this carving, contextualize it, and make it available for study is consistent with principles articulated by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (CEPR) and adopted by the Yale Corporation in December 2016.  The university has an obligation not to hide from or destroy reminders of unpleasant history; at the same time, the university chooses the symbols and depictions that stand in places of honor. The prominence of this carving changed when its location became a main entrance to the Center for Teaching and Learning.
When the carving was originally discussed in the spring of 2016, the CEPR had not yet been formed and articulated principles. A team in charge of planning for the construction project decided to cover the depiction of the musket with removable stonework. Covering over the problematic aspect of this carving is not consistent with the principles subsequently adopted by the university in the CEPR report; and therefore, when the carving is relocated, the covering stonework will be removed.

In explaining the decision to move the decorative corbel and restore the covered part of it, President Peter Salovey said, “We cannot make alterations to works of art on our campus. Such alteration represents an erasure of history, which is entirely inappropriate at a university. We are obligated to allow students and others to view such images, even when they are offensive, and to study and learn from them. In carrying out this obligation, we also have a responsibility to provide information that helps all viewers understand the meaning of the image.  We do so in a setting that clearly communicates that the content of the image is not being honored or even taken lightly but, rather, is deserving of thoughtful consideration and reflection.”

What do you think? And as the Puritan goes, so goes Penn? And which other worthies?

The library entrance. The carving is at the bottom of the pillar to the viewer’s right.

Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this. Continue reading Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”