Category Archives: Hard-Core Quaker

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 on Amazon and 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!”

UPDATED: Friends Central School Discrimination Lawsuit: Fired Teachers Win the First Round

[Scroll down for updates.]

On August 2, federal judge Petrese B. Tucker issued a decision on a motion to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit filed in July 2018 by two former teachers at Philadelphia’s Friends Central School (FCS).

U.S. Judge Petrese Tucker

The teachers, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, were suspended in February 2017, and fired in May, after they scheduled a talk at FCS by Sa’ad Atshan, a Palestinian Quaker professor at nearby Swarthmore College. School officials canceled Atshan’s talk.

Tucker’s decision dismissed some of the charges made in the lawsuit, but said others were credible and litigation on them could go forward.

The fired teachers’ lawsuit made six accusations. It named school officials and board members as defendants.

Continue reading UPDATED: Friends Central School Discrimination Lawsuit: Fired Teachers Win the First Round

“Quaking Over Gay Rights” — Kicked in The Head in Wichita

Intro:

Here’s a report written in 1977 (on a typewriter; imagine!), just after the Wichita Conference of Friends in the Americas in late June 1977. The gathering included all the branches, and it was when the issue of LG Friends (BT&Qs weren’t listed yet) burst onto the national Quaker agenda, where it has stayed ever since.

I didn’t go there to cover the event.  As a rookie attending his first ever national Quaker event, I wanted more to socialize than do journalistic work. I had saved up to pay the fees and busfare, to avoid work-related distractions.

I should have known better.

Anita Bryant with posters from her successful effort to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida. The repeal was a big success, passing by a large margin just days before the Wichita conference began. But despite the national notoriety it brought her, Bryant’s career soon went into a terminal decline.

1977 was the year for articles on gay rights controversies:  Miami-Dade County, Florida adopted a pioneering gay rights ordinance, which sparked a widely reported repeal crusade led by singer and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant.

None of this was on the official agenda at Wichita when I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the gymnasium at Friends University, where we low-budget attenders did our best to sleep. (That’s  also where I got kicked in the head a couple times in the dark, presumably by accident.)

But the conference agenda was soon rewritten, and so was mine. Continue reading “Quaking Over Gay Rights” — Kicked in The Head in Wichita

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?