Category Archives: Passing the Torch(es)

For A Hearty Holiday: Our Democracy Is Approaching Cardiac Arrest

My fickle finger of fate, lit up for the big MRI

So: I went in for a thorough cardio checkup, a long  overnight at Duke Med. As the capstone of the process they stuck me in this MRI machine for a long hour of lying stock still on my back, eyes closed and hands slowly going numb under the barrage of whanging and zapping aimed at discovering what if anything functional was left in my upper torso.

In cardio terms, the MRI was a success: they said my heart was pretty much okay for a guy my age: go home, take the pills, and keep in touch.

But an hour later, when I clicked the news on the iPad, I got an eerie sinking feeling: maybe there had been more to that big machine than just a very noisy electronic stethoscope. What if it was also a reverse time machine, doubtless part of the CIA’s vast secret UFO research: when they rolled me in, it was 2021. When I came back out into the light, in much of America it was 1964, or maybe 1953.

Not that I was younger, or anything good was back from those days (big Hershey bars for a nickel, Cokes for a dime, and Elvis on the juke box). Instead, 56 years of civil rights history was gone. While I was in that light beige reverse birth canal, the Voting Rights Act disappeared. Continue reading For A Hearty Holiday: Our Democracy Is Approaching Cardiac Arrest

The “Spirit of Harriet Tubman” is Ready to speak Again

[Details on a live performance of “The Spirit of Harriet Tubman” 0n June 27 are below. Spread the word!]

During much of the 1850s, Harriet Tubman, felt almost like a prisoner. She lived in Canada, just a few miles west of the U. S. border at Niagara Falls. She was safe there, but itchy to help more enslaved people to escape.

Diane Faison as Harriet Tubman

And today, Diane Faison of Winston-Salem, NC, knows something of how Harriet felt.

Tubman, the Ace of the Underground Railroad, was a hunted woman. Southern slavecatchers wanted her dead or alive. She had secretly returned to the state to aid others several more times.

Diane Faison’s journey with Harriet started 140 years later, when she knocked  a book off a library shelf. Continue reading The “Spirit of Harriet Tubman” is Ready to speak Again

What’s In a Name (Change)??

A pre-revolutionary Washington, with William Lee, one of his enslaved servants. In his will, Washington freed Lee and a hundred other enslaved people. Not good enough to keep his name on a public school?

“May I be boiled in oil,
And fried in Crisco,
If I ever call
San Francisco, Frisco.”

–Ogden Nash

All right, let’s stipulate that some of those San Francisco schools SHOULD be renamed. But some other cases are, well, complicated.

I mean, if living in an independent country has any value for us, the bad news that George Washington was a slaveowner can’t be the end of discussion about him; dammit, he and his ragtag army did win the revolution.

Then he declined to celebrate by taking on the crown his victory had displaced.

That’s a gesture which some of us have just re-learned is definitely not chopped liver. (Tho some of us evidently just haven’t.)

Ditto for the fact that Lincoln was a stone segregationist who hoped slaves would be freed so they could all be shipped to Central America.

Terrible “optics, in politico-speak. And a completely  cockamamie idea; but then Abe still got woke enough to end legal slavery. And he gave some boffo speeches, huuugely better than, say, “The carnage stops here.” There’s a whole lot of reckoning yet to be done there.

Two Roosevelts. Toss a coin to toss one?

Instead, tho, according to numerous press reports, the  SF renaming process turned into a contender for the worst imitation of a bad SNL cold open that ever made comedy writers spew their coffee.

The renamers even voted to toss Roosevelt Middle School, tho they couldn’t seem to be bothered to figure out which Roosevelt it was, FDR or Teddy, to whom they were giving the boot. (But who cares? They were both dead white males.)

Well, anyway. Looks like becoming a laughingstock finally got under somebody’s skin there, and the renaming is now toast.

But it really ought not to be. Some of the names probably should go. Plus there are definitely new names that need recognition. (Looking at you, Harriet Tubman. And my sentimental Sixties favorite, Wavy Gravy.)

Besides, the reexamination of all 44 could be a Golden Gate into substantive educational experiences involving the students too. (Students? What a concept.)

Well, Frisco school folks, you gave yourselves a big load of lemons.

So now get busy, catch up on that history homework you skipped, and make your city some serious educational lemonade, meringue pies and (gluten free) pound cake already.

Sacramento Bee: Plan to rename 44 San Francisco schools during pandemic on hold.

‘Mistakes were made’
BY DON SWEENEY — FEBRUARY 22, 2021
Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco will be among 44 schools which was to have their names changed following a 6-1 vote by the school board. Those plans are now on hold, school officials say.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s disappearance has also been stayed.

Gabriela Lopez

Gabriela Lopez, newly elected as president of the school board, said in a statement Sunday that school officials must focus on reopening schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Reopening will be our only focus until our children and young people are back in school,” Lopez wrote. She canceled further hearings by a renaming committee.

Lopez called the school renaming issue “one of many distracting debates,” noting the process began before anyone anticipated a pandemic shutting down in-person schooling.

“I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process,” Lopez wrote.

When the renaming project reopens, district leaders will seek a “more deliberative” process involving historians along with parents and educators, Lopez wrote.

The school board voted 6-1 Jan. 26 to strip the names, now considered offensive, from 44 San Francisco schools, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“It’s a message to our families, our students and our community,” said trustee Mark Sanchez at the time, according to the publication. “It’s not just symbolic. It’s a moral message.”

Parents and teachers at each school would have had until April to propose new names to be approved by the board, Courthouse News reported. The renaming project was expected to cost $440,000.

School names honoring Paul Revere, Francis Scott Key, Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Hoover, Father Junipero Serra and Robert Louis Stevenson were also among those scheduled to be changed, according to a district list.

The renaming committee faulted Washington for owning slaves, Lincoln for the hangings of Native Americans and Feinstein for reports she once ordered the replacement of a Confederate flag torn down by protesters.

Other names to be changed include those of conquistadors who explored California and notable San Francisco residents, including a former superintendent, who held racist views.

The board also voted to rename Roosevelt Middle School despite confusion over whether it was originally named for Theodore or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fox News reported.

A committee studied the proposed name changes for two years before the decision was made, according to a presentation from the San Francisco Unified School District.

The presentation says involvement in colonization, slavery, genocide, exploitation of workers, oppression, racism and other human rights abuses are reasons to remove someone’s name from a school.

Some of the criteria for possible replacement names included a grounding in social or economic justice, local rather than national figures and those who bring “joy and healing to the world.”

The proposed name changes generated national commentary, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed criticized the proposals in October, KGO reported.

“The fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our city, not the name of a school,” Breed said, according to the station.

Another personal favorite for a new school monicker: political whiz Stacey Abrams. Okay, so she’s not from California. Well, lots of the others weren’t either.

Former President Donald Trump posted to Twitter about the proposal in December, calling it “so ridiculous and unfair,” The Hill reported.

Critics of the name changes argued that historical figures should be judged in historical context of all their efforts, not dismissed for individual questionable actions, Courthouse News reported.

A Passing Ode to Beat Poet Diane di Prima

Diane Di Prima was an anarchist feminist Beatnik poet, who died this past weekend at 86, in San Francisco.

I didn’t really follow her work or career. But I was an early long-distance fan of the Beats, and one of her poems, part of a series of “Revolutionary Letters,” caught my attention.  For my second book, Uncertain Resurrection, about the failure of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign,  I included it as an epigraph and opening lament. I can still feel its sting half a century later.

Here it is, along with an excerpt from her obituary in the Washington Post:

Revolutionary Letters #19

Diane DiPrima

if what you want is jobs
for everyone, you are still the enemy,
you have not thought thru, clearly
what it means

if what you want is housing,
industry
(G. E. on the Navaho
reservation)
a car for everyone, garage, refrigerator,
TV, more plumbing, scientific
freeways, you are still
the enemy, you have chosen
to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some
science fiction utopia, if what you want

still is, or can be, schools
where all our kids are pushed into one shape, are taught
it’s better to be “American” than black
or Indian, or Jap, or PR, where Dick
and Jane become and are the dream, do you
look like Dick’s father, don’t you think your kid
secretly wishes you did

if what you want
is clinics where the AMA
can feed you pills to keep you weak, or sterile,
shoot germs into your kids, while Merck & Co.
grows richer

if you want
free psychiatric help for everyone
so that the shrinks,
pimps for this decadence, can make
it flower for us, if you want

if you still want a piece
a small piece of suburbia, green lawn
laid down by the square foot
color TV, whose radiant energy
kills brain cells, whose subliminal ads
brainwash your children, have taken over
your dreams

degrees from universities which are nothing
more than slum landlords, festering sinks
of lies, so you too can go forth
and lie to others on some greeny campus

THEN YOU ARE STILL
THE ENEMY, you are selling
yourself short, remember
you can have what you ask for, ask for

everything Continue reading A Passing Ode to Beat Poet Diane di Prima

Kent State – May 4, 1970: Part One

May 4 2021 is the 51st anniversary of the Kent State killings of four students by National Guard troops during an anti-Vietnam war protest.

Only three years ago, on a balmy spring Sunday, was I able to visit & pay respects at Kent State, not far from Cleveland, with my good friend Henry Bloom, who lives nearby.

The scene was tranquil and idyllic, flowers blooming, trees budding, but like a corner of the fields around Gettysburg, ringed with memorials and monuments. Here are some snapshots.

 

Henry, at left, is a somewhat retired physician, less retired this spring because of the pandemic.

Continue reading Kent State – May 4, 1970: Part One

“Passing the Torch”, Author Speak #6: Diane Faison Mckinzie

Diane Speas Faison McKinzie.

[In midlife, Diane Faison and her family faced multiple traumas while living in Richmond, Virginia., including the murder of her mother-in-law and family conflict over her estate.] Diane writes,

After all this, it was no surprise that my husband said he wanted to leave Richmond. I don’t want the children living in this atmosphere, he said. I said OK. Now out of the Navy, he said he wanted to find a teaching job somewhere quiet in the country. Before long he found a position in Farmville Virginia, about fifty miles away. I was teaching in Richmond, so soon he was driving from Richmond to Farmville and back every day, 50 miles each way.

I finished up my contract in Richmond and found a position in Brookville, about 5 miles from Farmville. . . . Soon we bought 70 acres that was mostly wooded. On it we built our dream house,  finished in 1987. We were also both very involved with the schools there in and around Farmville, which was in Prince Edward County.

I guess I need to say something about Prince Edward County. By the time we got there many years had passed since the days of lunch counter sit-ins and Dr. King’s big march. But major civil rights history was not far away.

In 1959, when a federal court ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its schools, the county reacted by closing them all. White students were issued vouchers to pay tuition at a new private “segregation academy.” Black students were left to fend for themselves. Their schools stayed closed til 1964.

Prince Edward Academy, the segregated private school organized for white students when the county’s public schools were closed to avoid integration. Local black students were left on their own. The academy still exists, renamed the Fuqua school, and has in recent decades admitted a few students of color.

They reopened just about the time I started teaching after college. So in one way it was all over. But the memories were still fresh. And one of them was particularly meaningful to me: Late in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee started work in Prince Edward County, with an office in Farmville for what in 1960 became its Emergency Placement Program.

Through it families in non-segregated areas volunteered to take in black students from Prince Edward to attend school there. That program lasted four years, til the schools reopened. It enabled many black students to complete their disrupted high school work.

Prince Edward students demanding the reopening of their public schools. The county schools were closed from 1959 to 1964.

Friends = Quakers. The connection stayed with me. I learned about their tradition of quiet worship, without a church hierarchy. I liked that idea too. I often spent time on our land in silent meditation. My husband, now out of the military, sometimes talked reflectively about all the killing in war. About the time our house was finished, a gentleman who lived nearby decided to start a Quaker worship group, under the auspices of a regional association called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. We began to gather at his barn for meeting, alternating with our house.

Those were good years. The children grew, moved on through school, into college and out into adult life. Both my husband and I were honored for our work in the schools. And each February, when Black History Month came along, we joined in eagerly.

It was in 1988, when I started thinking about the coming February, that I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.

Harriet Tubman during the time she worked as a spy and scout for the Union Army during the Civil War.

So I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books and barely any computers. I had to touch the books, lift them and open them. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.

I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman. Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person, but with such a huge courage.

The idea began to grow in my mind. I had older relatives, who didn’t have much schooling, who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice. I didn’t have to study that part.

I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read it, I felt it, and I spoke it. I was following the tradition of my people: I didn’t have to read it. Storytellers of my people don’t have scripts. But I keep learning about Harriet. Every year I find out something new about her, and I might add it to the performance, and I might not.

After that first performance in 1989, I began to get requests to perform at other schools. And those were very fulfilling too.
Yet in time, big changes came. One morning in 1997, my husband tugged me awake. When I saw him I screamed: his chest and groin were covered with blood. It was an advanced case of cancer, which he had not told anyone about.

From there I had more than a year of caregiving as he went through surgery and chemo and experimental therapies, and got weaker and weaker. When he died in 1999, I was more than devastated; we had been married thirty-one years. . . .

[In 2015, Diane married Crawford McKinzie, and moved with him to Gibsonville, North Carolina. . . .]

spring Friends Meeting, Snow Camp NC.

When I moved to Gibsonville, I felt an overwhelming need to find another Friends meeting to be part of, and I started searching for one. I finally found Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp, NC, where I do feel like I belong. Spring had an unexplainable spiritual atmosphere that felt like a warm hug. Maybe that was partly due to the fact that the Meeting has been in that spot since the late 1700s; so many Quakers have lived there, and many are buried nearby.

Mack had been career army, twenty-two years, and was a Vietnam veteran too. He had been in field units there, often under fire in combat areas, sleeping on the ground with rats and taking baths mainly in the rain, — and both the rain and the ground were running with toxic Agent Orange. Even now, sometimes he has flashback nightmares, muttering “They’re coming, they’re coming” in his sleep, and striking out, even at me.

This 2019 movie created powerful images of Harriet Tubman’s work.

After four good years together, Mack fell ill, and as this is written, he is contending with a number of very serious conditions. I’m again being a caregiver, essentially fulltime, juggling doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures, savoring his good days, and weathering the others.

Harriet Tubman, at left, as caregiver and advocate for elderly veterans, her family members, and others, at her home in Auburn, New York., circa 1887.

This routine, I confess, wears me out. And I remember that Harriet too was a longtime caregiver. She built a house in Auburn, New York, where she cared for the poor, including Civil War veterans who were afflicted with what we would name PTSD, but then was called “soldier’s heart.”

Later she took care of her second husband and her aged parents there. She did this work for almost as many years as she was active in the Underground, and then the Civil War. Learning this strengthens my identification with her; besides my second husband, I too took care of my aging parents. She did this caregiving until her own health failed; she lived until 1913.

Diane as Harriet.

In my situation, I often get tired, and frustrated. Times of relief and release are sparse. I know that in Harriet’s years of caregiving, she found support in her religious faith and her church community. And at Spring, with Friends, when I lead the meeting, or sit and listen in the meeting, it gives me the same renewal like I feel also came to Harriet. And I have to add that the most renewing moments are when I’m performing as Harriet. . . . Even after thirty years, and several hundred appearances, speaking Harriet Tubman’s words and evoking her spirit refreshes and renews my heart and soul.

More of Diane’s story, of growing up in the time of segregation, and being a military wife during and after the Vietnam War, is in the pages of Passing The Torch.

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

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

5. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

6. Marian Rhys: “I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

“Passing the Torch,” Author Speak #5: “I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil . . .”

From Marian Rhys, “Life: The Great Balancing Act,” in Passing the Torch

Marian Rhys

Despite [a youthful] service-work connection with Friends, it was not until my early twenties that I became engaged with them on any regular basis. By that time, I had begun to feel the need for some spirituality in my life, and started attending Westwood Monthly Meeting in Los Angeles, where I had moved in 1968. I joined the meeting after about two years, eventually serving as treasurer and on Ministry and Oversight Committee.

But it was attending Pacific Yearly Meeting that really drew me to Friends. I experienced Yearly Meeting as a wonderful gathering of highly energized, dedicated and spiritually centered people. Worship sharing sessions seemed infused with truly meaningful discussions about important issues: what are our values? what does it mean to lead an ethical life? how do we address the suffering in the world?

I was particularly impressed with the older Friends I met, the World War II generation (and even older): in California, Lloyd and Eula McCracken, Ed and Molly Morgenroth, Russ and Mary Jorgensen, Red and Madelaine Stephenson, Bob and Marie Schutz, Earle Reynolds; and in the midwest, Louis and Nancy Neuman, and Raymond and Sarah Braddock. Howard and Anna Brinton were speakers at the first yearly meeting I attended, in 1971; Howard’s book, Friends for 300 Years, had just recently been published, and I bought a copy at the gathering and read it avidly.

The men in this generation had been conscientious objectors in World War II, and many couples had met while doing service work for the AFSC in Europe, after the war. These people were still vibrant and politically radical, even in their old age, taking part in civil rights and anti-war marches. Some of them were war tax resisters or were living deliberately ‘simple’ lives rather than — like most people in their generation — trying to acquire as many material goods as they could afford. And most of them had worked in lower-paying careers in social service work.

Earle Reynolds and his daughter Jessica, on the Phoenix, circa 1958.

Earle Reynolds has remained one of my heroes. He, along with his wife Barbara, had sailed his small ship, The Phoenix, into the atomic-weapons testing site in the South Pacific. When asked whether he was worried about the military detonating a weapon while he was in that area, he replied, “That’s their problem, not mine.” People like this were great role models for me, in my mid-twenties.

The most memorable event of my Pacific Yearly Meeting attendance, though, was the Meeting for Business in 1971, when the Peace and Social Concerns Committee, clerked by Earle, brought a minute endorsing amnesty for men who had evaded the draft by moving to Canada, but also (for balance, in a good Quaker way) for soldiers like Lieutenant Calley who had committed war crimes.

There were about 400 attenders at that Meeting for Business, and considerable discussion followed, much of it contentious. Many Friends were strongly opposed to granting amnesty for war crimes, while others argued for compassion and understanding for those (mostly young) soldiers who had, under the duress of war, committed acts that they normally would not have. Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not yet been identified or named, some Friends clearly grasped the concept.

Eventually, the committee was tasked with doing more research on the amnesty question and bringing back a modified minute on the following day. In those pre-internet days, research meant going to the library and poring over books.

Pardons were one thing; amnesty was another.

The committee, and Earle in particular, spent many hours at the library, returning to the next meeting with some interesting information: the president does not have the power to grant amnesty, Congress does, and amnesty cannot be granted for what are called “common crimes” such as murder, although persons who are convicted of such crimes can be granted pardons by the executive branch.

At this subsequent meeting, a modified minute was brought forward, urging amnesty for the draft evaders and pardons for the soldiers committing war crimes. The minute was approved with little discussion this time, and there was a tangible sense of spiritual unity in the meeting such as I have rarely experienced. This incident introduced me to the idea that perpetrators of evil suffer just as do victims, albeit it in a different way.

Yet I had my struggles with Friends, even in those early years. I went through a crisis of faith in 1972 when I read about the tortures being perpetrated in the South Vietnamese prisons — tortures funded by U.S. taxpayers. Although we did not have photographs of these atrocities, as we did thirty years later from Iraq, I had a good enough imagination to visualize them, and they made me sick.

I was never able, though, to get Friends, as a group, to address the issue of human evil. Although I did meet a few individuals here and there, who had experienced some struggles with the issue of evil, I did not find anyone who seemed to have been as deeply affected by it as I had, who could not get it out of their mind. When I brought up my struggles over the torture issue in a discussion group at PYM in 1972 or 1973, another Friend told about her social work with a family headed by a single mother, whose new boyfriend refused to let her daughter from her previous marriage sleep in the house at night; the child had to sleep outdoors, under the porch.

I was horrified at this tale, as were several other Friends. Yet no one seemed to really be willing to address the issue of the evil that this incident represented. One Friend proposed that we all go and rescue this child. “Sure,” I thought, “that’s really likely to happen. And even if it did, what about all the other abused and neglected children, of which there are no doubt millions, all over the world?” Other Friends simply responded by saying that we all need to perform social justice work, and eventually situations like this would get fixed.

But clearly, there was way too much evil in the world to fix. People were suffering, horribly, in many ways. Millions of people, every day, day in, day out, year after year. I was overwhelmed by it all; I thought about it constantly, for years. Yet virtually no one was willing to talk about it; I did not maintain ongoing relationships with the few people I encountered who at least admitted that it was an issue, and Friends as a whole simply refused to discuss it, most offering only useless platitudes like those put forth in that discussion group where I had first brought up the issue.

So, I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil, and tried to find other individuals here and there in my life, who were willing to acknowledge the existence of evil, and talk about it.

My first successful step in this direction was in 1983, when I started attending self-help groups. There I met people who had suffered and survived abuse and even torture, including many who had learned to cope with the wounds. Invariably, it was spirituality, of one kind or another, that had helped them through this process. . . .

What came of Marian Rhys’s continued grappling with the issue of evil in Quaker circles (and beyond)? Her answer is in the pages of Passing The Torch.

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

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

5. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

 

 

“Passing The Torch”, Author Doug Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling . . .”

. . . I grew up in a large, mildly liberal pastoral Friends meeting in Indianapolis.  Amiable but tepid, it gave me little to rebel against, but not much to inspire or motivate me either.  I did not attend any church or meeting during my college years.  But I had a spiritual sense that gravitated toward the natural world.  I might well have explored an Eastern spiritual discipline, had I not received a distinct calling to ministry in 1968, at age nineteen.

I had never considered ministry before (I was a zoology major).  All I knew was that my first love relationship had recently ended and I was devastated.  As they say, God meets us in our    extremity.  The subtle but clear call, “be a minister,” came as I sat alone in my dormitory room one evening.  It came as a seismic non sequitur that felt strangely hopeful.

I understood my calling to be a Christian ministry among Friends.  But I was sure it needed to be something more prophetically Christian and more seriously Quaker than what I had received in my youth.   I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1971 (though I admit it was New York that drew me most).

The professors [at Union] weren’t sure what to think of us baby-boom seminarians, many of whom had enrolled primarily to avoid military conscription.  But we were ready to learn from them – on our own generational terms.

My prophetic Christian faith grew during my Union years, ending in 1975.  But since there were no other Friends at Union, it was only afterward, during my first Friends pastorate back in Indiana, that the Quaker dimension began to develop.  The most important influence for me was Lewis Benson, two generations my senior, a high school drop-out who began studying George Fox and early Friends in the 1930s and soon became a critic of Rufus Jones and the liberal Quaker renewal – something very unpopular in those days.

. . .   I was drawn to Lewis’ outsider status and his identification of the prophetic spirituality of George Fox’s message. It was much more trenchant than anything I heard from the pastoral meetings I knew in the Midwest or the liberal unprogrammed meetings I attended in the East. . . . Often individuals from an earlier generation who had been outliers or rebels serve as forerunners and mentors to members of an emergent generation.  Lewis Benson played that role most acutely for me. . . .

Still, what I learned from my mentors had to be appropriated by way of the “fresh contact” of my own personal and generational experience.  My apocalyptic interpretation of George Fox, which was published [in book form] as Apocalypse of the Word, built on Lewis Benson’s prophetic interpretation, but took Fox’s experiential eschatology much further. 

My reading of Fox was informed by my calling to ministry during the apocalyptic year of 1968, and by the intensified registers of personal experience particular to my generation . . . .

. . .  The polarization of culture, religion, and politics since the stalemated outcome of the revolutionary sixties continues to enervate American society at large and the Society of Friends in particular.  My ministry unfolded as a series of sojourns crisscrossing that divide between liberal-progressive and traditional Christian camps of American Friends, sometimes as a Friends pastor, other times as a teacher at Pendle Hill (and at Woodbrooke among British Friends).

All the time, I continued to research and write about early Friends and attempt in various ways to present early Quaker witness as a more vital faith and practice than either liberal or evangelical Friends offer.  In Unmasking the Idols: A Journey among Friends, I suggested that there is no future for either major branch of American Friends as long as they refuse to learn from the prophetic vision of early Friends but continue to hybridize their faith and practice with evangelical and liberal-humanist streams in the wider culture.  Indeed, membership statistics since then continue to suggest that the world doesn’t need “we too” Quakers.

But sojourns among the variety of Friends have also inspired my quixotic penchant for song-writing (sometimes recorded under the name The Brothers Doug).  “A Process in the Wind” lampoons Quaker group decision-making. “Eighty-Weighty Friend” celebrates Quaker gerontocracy.  “Yonder Stands the Quaker” [ on YouTube here: ] views us from the outside as “an endangered species of spiritual life, practiced in the art of lost cause.”  “That of Odd in Everyone” explores where “oddliness and godliness intertwine” . . . . It is a sign of their spiritual health that Quaker communities enjoy laughing along with these songs. . . .

I completed a trilogy of early Quaker studies, ending with . . .  Seekers Found in 2000.  By then, I noticed that while Apocalypse of the Word (1986) had gained significant readership and discussion across the Quaker spectrum, The Covenant Crucified (1995) aroused less interest, and Seekers Found garnered very little, despite being some of my best work.

Reviews of these books were very positive, but sales kept declining. . . . In the 1980s, Friends had read and discussed books much more widely.  By the turn of the century, book conversations were declining sharply, at least in my anecdotal awareness.

I decided that more books about early Friends would be more along the lines of a personal hobby than a religious concern.  And feeling unhopeful about significant renewal among Friends in general, I turned my attention to Pendle Hill.  That Quaker educational community had profoundly renewed my spirit during my sojourns of life and work there, and I knew it had similarly affected many others.  . . .  Beginning in 2008, I began researching and writing Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill.  . . . The book turned out to be more an elegy for what had been than a call to continue a great Quaker experiment. . . .

. . . Millennials have been formed by social and technological changes as profound as those that formed my baby-boom generation.  . . .  In addition, the related rise of finance-driven capitalism – moving at light-speed in global circuits and generating perpetual crisis – has made the vocational and economic lives of millennials increasingly precarious.

Not surprisingly, there is some palpable intergenerational resentment against baby-boomers, who have so broadly contributed, or otherwise acquiesced, to the environmental decline, entrenched racism and sexism, and economic insecurity that millennials inherit today.

. . . As for me, I am still stuck writing books, which are so last century.  But they seem to be the best way to convey the richness of Quaker history and theology. . . .

I suppose you could say I have been “carrying a torch” in the sense of tending the wound of some lost or unrequited love, some unfulfilled hope.  Friends today (all generations) increasingly regard history as irrelevant to the all-consuming what’s-happening-now. . . .

Because Quaker faith is experiential rather than creedal, our theology is narrative in character.  The Quaker penchant for journals, memoirs, and histories bears this out.  . . . .We are poorer spiritually and bereft of evocative models of prophetic faith without the echo of their voices. . . .

What came of Doug Gwyn’s outsider-insider career as a Quaker thinker and writer? The (short) answer is in the pages of Passing The Torch. (The longer answer is in his own books.)

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

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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