Category Archives: Remarkable Friends

The Viral Turning Point, and After

Signs of the Times:

> a crowded Colorado restaurant on Mother’s’ Day.

> Jam-packed taverns in Wisconsin.

> Dr. Fauci sidelined in the White House, as pundits speculate on  when he’ll be fired.

Upshot: the lockdown season is ending, not with a bang, but a whimper— many whimpers, if anyone will still listen to those who are now to die needlessly.

Leana  Wen, an ER doc and public health prof,  told it like it is in the Washington Post today:

Unfortunately, due to a late start, inconsistent state actions and a lack of federal direction, most states have yet to see a consistent decline in cases, much less reduced them to low enough levels for [the lockdown] to work.

No state has achieved sufficient testing and contact tracing.
Reopening under these circumstances means we are giving up on containing covid-19.

“No state” includes my own, North Carolina. Continue reading The Viral Turning Point, and After

Two Stories of Quaker Women: One True, One (Maybe) Fiction

Chuck Fager

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

The two women were Florence Thorne and Margaret Scattergood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Margaret and “The Enterprise”

McLean (aka Langley), Virginia – Fall 1986

I – Unauthorized Entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II -Some Kind of Inside Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twice, sir. Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III – Final Contingencies

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

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

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

“That was big of them,” Hammerman commented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mike! I got a signal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no,” Phillips said.

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

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

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

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

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

IV – A Better Idea?
Photo borrowed from Facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hammerman gestured for him to come over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?” Hammerman asked innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?” Phillips asked expectantly.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re kidding,” he said.

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

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

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

“And one more thing,” Phillips said

“Shoot.”

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

V – Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fierceness of his tone took Phillips aback.

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

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

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

The Chief swiveled his chair around and faced him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

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

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

 

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

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

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

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

Recap

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

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

Cara Pfeiffer, right, with Friends at Midway City.

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

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

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

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

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

Court Hearing

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

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Delaney.

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

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

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

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

James Healton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Ginder:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

EFCSW Annual Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the Continue reading David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

Ken Bradstock, Edward Hicks & Me

Ken Bradstock had something valuable to say. A lot, actually. Enough to fill a book.

I hope he got it down, on paper or on disk, whatever, before he died on January 22.

If I remember right, I first noticed Ken during the bad days of turmoil among North Carolina pastoral Quakers. Ken had been a pastor among them for awhile, and seemed to fit the profile: no city slicker,  a former marine, deputy sheriff turned PhD’d therapist and  hospice worker, from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hardly a radical. But somewhere along the line he read some Buddhism and also climbed off the “Christian” homophobia train, and the combination put him and the small group he then clerked in the crosshairs when the troubles came to North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

Ken Bradstock

But that’s not what I want to recall about him here. After that whirlwind passed, he and I corresponded  many times, via emails and Facebook. Struck by his vivid writing, I soon recruited him to write an essay for what was a called the “Narrative Theology” rubric in the journal Quaker Theology. Called “The Land” (online in full here)  I urged him to regard it as the first chapter of a book: memoir, autobiography, whatever. That became a standard, drill sergeant-style closing to my emails: “Write the damn book!”

He often replied: “I’m writing the damn book!” I hope he got enough of it finished to be a testament.

Here’s an example of why my hopes have been so high. An email exchange from 2017, which began when I sent him a photo of one of the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings by Edward Hicks, along with a special message from Hicks.

A print of the painting had sat for some weeks on a chair at the rear of Spring Friends Meeting, where I attend. Usually my phone (and its built-in camera) come to meeting with me, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the happenstance display.

The “special message” from Hicks was from a few years after his death in 1849. It came through a Progressive Quaker who was also a spiritualist medium, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York. It too is online, here.

Ken enjoyed the peculiar “spirit post.” But there was more to say:

From: Ken Bradstock
To: Chuck Fager
Sent: Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Subject: Re: Hicks’ Paper

I got interested in Hicks and the paintings after seeing one in Reynolda Manor in Winston-Salem. It’s not my favorite but I was awed.

One short story about the power of the paintings: I was leading a therapy group in the Child and Adolescent Psych unit at Baptist. We had a 13 year old kid who had severely sexually abused his sister and he was a hard case. They’d had him for months with no break-through. One of the kid’s defenses was to use his considerable intelligence to evade and attack with sarcasm. He was cold and they thought he might be a sociopath.

Edward Hicks was deeply affected by the Orthodox-Hicksite schism in 1827. He painted more than sixty versions of this biblically-based image of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” presumably to visualize his hopes for its repair. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the paintings became celebrated favorites of devotees of folk art.

I was doing a session with color copies of the Peaceable Kingdoms where in they picked the animal that they thought described them the best and then explained why to the group. Then they were asked to draw their own Peaceable Kingdom.

He suddenly got up and left the group with his drawing in hand and sought out a resident. Two hours later, I saw him in what looked like an intense conversation with the resident. The next day, the resident approached me quietly and asked what I did to the kid.

Edward Hicks, a self-portrait

Of course I didn’t do a thing, the painting reached his soul. The team asked me to describe the technique using the paintings. They said that he’s had a complete break-through, realizing what he’d done to his sister and had opened up to the resident for almost three hours. They finally could work out a discharge and follow-up plan with his treatment.

This was the most dramatic result I had with the paintings but there are many more in more subtle ways and more incremental steps toward healing. The tone of the groups working with the paintings were fairly identical. On one extreme, there would be a stunned quiet and on the other a sort of focused curiosity.  . . .

No wonder I kept shouting at him, “Write the damn book!”

A bonus: Here’s a snippet from “The Land,” about the family farm where he spent much of his childhood:

As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my mind to this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.

They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical Orthodoxy.

I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the land.

I hesitate to begin a description of her here because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.

Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under the house she used for a root cellar.

That damp room encased in stone would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s awe for her.

Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.

I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air. . . .

(Full text of the essay is here.)

 

 

 

“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