Cultural Appropriation: the Sad Case of AFSC

No sooner had the AFSC’s Centennial bash gotten underway in spring of 2017, when  somebody rained on their parade: another multi-million budget shortfall was acknowledged, with the expected fallout of more job and program cuts.

This was getting to be an all-too familiar story; almost as familiar as the empty promises to “re-connect” AFSC with actual living Quakers.

The biggest cuts had come in 2008-2009, when years of mismanagement and profligacy combined with the larger economic crash to force over a hundred staff layoffs, and the closing of dozens of offices and programs. Yet that big rush of cuts wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last. Regional offices, once at 13, imploded to a skeletal four.

What had happened?

In marketing talk, the answer is straightforward: besides foolishly wasting millions of dollars, AFSC had trashed and squandered its brand, and is paying the price.

And what was that brand?

Look at the name: It wasn’t “American.”

“Service” was closer, but not the key.

And by god, it wasn’t “Committee.”

It was “Friends.”

And more than that: the “Society of Friends.”

Still more; the “Religious Society of Friends.”

An internal AFSC audit in 2002 acknowledged this:

“AFSC’s ties to the Religious Society of Friends [RSOF] have become strained in places over the last several decades because of the organizational shift from direct service to advocacy and activism, a lack of opportunities for Quakers to connect with AFSC in a way that is meaningful to them, and less of an AFSC presence in the quotidian of Quaker life.’” (Greg Barnes, A Centennial History of AFSC,  Chapter 17)

What’s all this got to do with Quaker theology?


In particular, it has everything to do with the new issue of Quaker Theology, #32, which is just out.

In this issue, which can be read online for free, forty years of observation, research and writing on AFSC is compiled and summarized. The thesis drawn from this compilation is that it is theology – or whatever is behind that term — which makes Quakerism real, and this difficult-to-pin-down “quotidian” (aka, real Quakerism’s everyday community and spiritual life) is what animates Quaker witness and service; and that without it, the service is fatally compromised.

Well, they have a certain charm, if one is in the right mood. But they are also unmistakably lifeless. Dead.

Further, that AFSC, in cutting loose from the RSOF, in all its messy “quotidian” (yet through which somehow the Spirit seems to work; after all, it birthed AFSC) has undermined the most precious aspect of its brand: its authenticity. Marketing experts agree that without that, a brand is like a cut flower, the roots severed. You can put the stems in a vase, change the water & add Floralife, but the blossoms are still mortally wounded, and will eventually wither or stiffen, fade and crumble.

This impulse for amputation is not a new phenomenon. As shown in the issue, Clarence Pickett, its most revered Director, said as far back as 1945 that “there is no legal connection between the S[ociety] of F[riends] and the AFSC.”  He added that “Theoretically, the AFSC could become composed of non-Friends entirely.”

As, in practice – not theoretically – AFSC almost entirely has become (details in the issue).

As the audit statement also indicated, AFSC’s financial troubles didn’t start with the 2008 debacle. We can look all the way back to 1971 for telltale signals:

In that year, AFSC’s budget was $2 million larger than that of World Vision, an evangelical service group with many programs that somewhat paralleled those of AFSC’s service days. But by 1980, World Vision’s budget had jumped to 400 percent more than AFSC. (A Friendly Letter [AFL] #33)

Also in the 1980s, according to a report delivered to the Board, AFSC’s income was flat, and lost ground to inflation.  The board clerk, Dulany Bennett, referring to the report spoke a great truth, that “many Quakers have a real revulsion about things financial.” And verily, the Board hardly discussed the report at all. Even so, the trend was there, for those who had eyes to see. (AFL #127)

Eventually, this organizational habit of avoidance came back & — to borrow an unrefined phrase — bit them in the butt bigtime. Last year, by the way, on the eve of AFSC’s centennial round of layoffs, World Vision’s income topped $1 billion.

What had happened? As one Board member put it in 1991,

“If you look down the list of major donors, people say again and again, ‘I’m giving money to AFSC because it’s a Quaker organization and when Quakers do peace work, they do it right. . . .’” (AFL #127)

Well, maybe they once did it right. But today, whether right or wrong, in AFSC, Quakers are not doing it anymore. Besides eliminating actual Quakers, Quakerism itself has been redefined in AFSC as something found in jars on a kitchen shelf, a set of SPICES.

Is THIS really what Quakerism is about?

(SPICES is yet another unfortunate branding move. The letters denote abstract, secular and utterly vacuous platitudes, and leave the newcomer wondering if AFSC is trying to compete with  McCormick’s red-topped bottles of oregano, or, if old enough, peddling an aftershave). SPICES has all the brand identity of, say, oatmeal.

Or maybe this?

Again, noting this vacuity is not new. In-house critic Dan Seeger, in the 1970s, privately lamented “the essential malady” of AFSC as —“a lack of a compelling and clearly relevant vision, a grasp of animating values.” He was isolated, but not alone: when I composed an open letter of concern to the AFSC Board at the 1979 FGC Gathering, 140 Friends lined up to add their signatures.

Sensing  that something is seriously wrong, the last several general secretaries, executive directors, executive secretaries (the name keeps getting tweaked) began or juiced up major reorganizations. Apparently the hope was that twisting a Rubik’s Cube of boxes on the organizational chart would yield a way to fill, or at least hide the emptiness at the center.

It hasn’t really worked. But the newest CEO is now trying again, in what is billed as a (yet another) thorough rethink. Doubtless, as I write,  high-priced consultants are on their way, full of agile talent, ready to tap tablets, serve up surveys, and claim buy-in for their wordsmithed deliverables, remembering to drop “transformation” into every paragraph, and never neglecting the chargeables.

But is this time, the charm?  (Spoiler alert: I doubt it.)

As described in Quaker Theology, Quaker historian H. Larry Ingle & I stumbled into this assignment in the summer of 1979, when an impromptu discussion of AFSC unexpectedly broke loose.

I was the convener, Larry an enthusiastic participant. We’ve been on this unfolding case ever since, often working jointly, otherwise in parallel. This collection brings together most of the major pieces we have produced.

To Larry and Friends in his yearly meeting, SAYMA (the full name is in the issue) goes credit for what may be the biggest scoop thus far turned up on this beat. That came in 2011,  when SAYMA made bold to ask AFSC to furnish them with the number of actual enrolled Friends then in their workforce.

Such data had been furnished before without fanfare: in 1962, 55 per cent of AFSC staff were reported as Friends; in 1981, it had dropped to 20 per cent. (AFL #7)

But by 2011, AFSC had “evolved” to the place where such interrogation was not even to be entertained. When a mere yearly meeting, even one of unimpeachable liberal character, dared to ask for current figures, the national Board clerk’s lofty refusal to even be questioned by such impertinent upstarts was truly an epic of supercilious haughtiness. And we’ve got it here, unexpurgated.

We’ve also got the latest available percentage figure of Quakers on the AFSC staff. How low can it go? Not much farther: take the last number listed above; divide by 40, and you’re getting close to understanding why I often speak of the “de-Quakerization” of AFSC.

But maybe I have a claim to second place in the scoop sweepstakes, from 1991, in which a once-leading candidate to become executive secretary graciously explained to a session of Intermountain Yearly Meeting how AFSC, while “building on its experiences in the Vietnam war. . . special operational frameworks, languages, assumptions and styles of the AFSC have evolved.”

Such that “The AFSC has become a ‘refined’ experiment in Quakerism, one which may have diminishing overlap with the experience of other parts of the Society of Friends. . . . Friends,” he said, “have a hard time fitting into the ‘operational style’ of the AFSC, developed through the years of struggling with social issues not familiar to many Friends.” (AFL #127)

Ah, yes – those ordinary non-AFSC Friends (of a certain age) must somehow have missed the Vietnam War (though it sure didn’t seem like it at the time), and are so hopelessly unfamiliar with other “social issues” (since he said that, it must be true), we were and are  simply incapable of the “refinement” AFSC had attained.

Rather than “refined,” I think of it as “homeopathic Quakerism,” a tincture so diluted that the original ingredient is barely detectable, if at all.

Yet somehow, many of us unrefined Friends have figured out what the “social issues” we are deemed hopelessly inept about must be. AFSC’s designated historian Greg Barnes put it this way:

“[O]ne of the constant themes in AFSC history for half a century needs validation: the Committee’s constant attention to its Affirmative Action program. In effect, the AFSC has prioritized the Quaker testimony of equality over the formal Quaker identity of its staff. The refinement of Committee policies and application of standards for fair play and equality show no sign of ending at the centennial.” (Barnes, Coda)

“No sign” indeed, and no “in effect” about it; the priority is very clear, and there’s that word “refinement” again. This cluster of issues has gone by evolving names over time in AFSC: affirmative action in the ‘70s, then diversity, anti-racism, inclusion (except of course not inclusion for Quakers). For those who are old enough, it can even be recalled as integrationdesegregation, or Black Power. But naturally, those don’t really count anymore; nor do we.

Reading Barnes’s book chronicling AFSC’s  first century and AFSC internal documents, it looks more and more like AFSC’s leadership decided several decades ago that “work for (their version of) equality” and actual Quakerism were mutually exclusive, even antagonistic categories, and if the one was coming, the other had to go.

That is certainly how it’s turned out: this self-defined “anti-oppression” thrust has indeed displaced “the formal Quaker identity” in the organization’s sacred center. And undeniably this proposition has been endlessly useful in internal politics. As one exasperated CEO put it in 2008 in an uncharacteristically candid moment: “There is a culture of white guilt in this organization that is stifling and patronizing.” (Barnes, Chapter 18.) And the clerk of a “Clearness Committee” on the subject noted that some staff members “consciously or unconsciously attribute these disputes over styles to racism because it makes it harder for the establishment to defend itself.” (Barnes, Chapter 13)

Really? Who knew?

But what if this exaltation is misplaced? What if Quakerism actually has real value, particularly in developing Quaker “service”?? What if the legacy of racism is a problem to be worked on by and with actual Quakers, rather than the  substitute and successor to Quakerism as the group’s religious and operational center?

And what has happened when a culture’s sacred has been vacuumed out of its collective vessel, replaced with a farrago of imported and shifting notions, handed over to outsiders, and the vessel is then paraded around to collect money from the credulous?

Here’s what has happened: it’s cultural appropriation, of a blatantly vulgar and exploitive sort. I am persuaded that’s what  Friends who take Quaker faith seriously confront in today’s 99+% non-Quaker SPICY-flavored AFSC. And it seems many former donors are not so credulous any longer.

Larry Ingle and I are aware that our work has not endeared us to many at the top levels of AFSC’s rickety staff ladder, and likely frightened some at lower rungs who fear for their jobs (probably rightly, but not on our account). It has been a kind of consolation to find in its records evidence that some higher-ups have occasionally put in serious effort at finding ways to avoid taking us & our concerns seriously; I mean, beyond composing catty doggerel, of which we have a telling sample. No doubt our most egregious continuing offense is that we have insisted, unlike almost all the internal reshufflers and reformers, in doing our work openly, in the public prints, and online.

And in Quaker Theology #32, here we are, doing it again. Read it, for free, and see.

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25 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation: the Sad Case of AFSC”

  1. Alas, all this sounds so familiar and depressing. As a ‘Friend of a ‘certain age’, (88 next month) whose life was set in a whole new direction by two summers in Institutional Service Units, working in mental hospitals. It resulted in a lifelong career for me in health care, then hospice chaplaincy, a continual blessing. But they don’t do that stuff anymore, and the daughter and son in law of my close, non-Quaker friends now are working for World Vision in Papua, New Guinea, New Guinea, and THEIR lives are being transformed. Thanks for the depressing, accurate update. When bright ideas replace Spiritual leadings, the vision tatters and falls away.

    1. Thanks, Mickey. It IS familiar and depressing. I wonder if anyone in AFSC’s Philadelphia offices will be reading your wise comments. Not optimistic.

  2. I have a gut feeling that the “Quaker center” is so ill defined to many that it is essentially non-existent. What is this center? I think part of the issue is that there are so many are non-Theist Friends these days that they pay little attention to the past because it is, well, Religious. And that smacks of God. There use to be a pretty solid center: that of God in everyone. But for many God does not exist. No God. No Center. A case can be made for this I think.

  3. When AFSC was designated the co-recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, it was somewhat controversial among Friends. Sadly, I think, those who believed it was wrong to accept the prize did not prevail. Many Friends recognized that while Quakers are peculiar, many others not being recognized were regularly about the Lord’s work. And the Lord’s work was not done for recognition but because God called us to do it. The other problem was that the designation of AFSC as a recipient for Quakers lead pretty quickly to AFSC being held out as the winner of the prize. This is unfortunate and not true. For years I have heard about AFSC winning the Peace Prize. I regularly encourage those who make those statements to read the Nobel Committee’s proclamation.
    Many of us have family history with AFSC and love it. We also feel excluded by an organization that so often seems to be in conflict with its roots as a Quaker service organization. We are not welcome as Quakers perhaps because so many professional staff see us as threats.
    I encourage your continued comments and thoughtful analysis of AFSC Chuck. I also remember that Kenneth Boulding once picketted AFSC so your thoughtful criticism follows in an honorable tradition

    1. William Hobson, I’m honored to have followed Kenneth Boulding’s example (at least a bit). There is a careful account of his witness in our issue, by Larry Ingle.

  4. AFSC, like many NGO’s, likes “clean” work. Live and work among the poor, helping the poor? The excuses pour forth with organizational platitudes. Leveraging, planning, laying the foundation, enabling others, etc.

    I don’t buy the unsubstantiated slam that theism is the answer. The empiricists I know (“I ask, I wait, I listen, I am led, I do, and it works”) experience a mystical relationship with that “source of truth and love that is beyond words” fully as much as the theists. As for theism being crucial, the Indiana Meetings who were KKK friendly in the last century were very theist, as are the ones in this century who eschew Quaker Process because God resides only at the top of the hierarchy.

    Historically, AFSC was formed to provide refuge for well-off Quakers who were not oriented toward a life of service, but were seeking a way to work off conscientious objection. While I’m for Peace and for conscientious objection, this is hardly an historical example to follow.

    Quaker Volunteer Service provides an example that is closer to what AFSC could do that would attract Quakers and also attract Quaker support and do good in a Quaker way. QVS suffers a bit from also doing “clean” work, but has right the idea of living in Quaker community. Transport that to Quaker Communities living among those in most need and helping them to make their lives better, with those Communities being the largest component of AFSC and the rest of AFSC devoted to the single task of developing and enabling these communities, and AFSC will have all the support it needs.

  5. Reminds me of a run-in I had with an AFSC program coordinator
    who was working with inner city kids, and I approached her at SAYMA and asked about reviving the concept of Quaker youth work camps, but putting the kids to work in her program, building better understanding between the predominantly African American kids from impoverished backgrounds and the mostly white privileged economincally kids that predominate in SAYMA. She angrily rejected my proposal and said she didn’t have time to babysit our kids and to leave it to the AFSC professionals who knew what they were doing!

    I have also been told repeatedly that not only racial and ethnic but religious diversity was the goal of AFSC–being an ecumenical if not secular activist organization, as if being Quaker in faith and leading and action was somehow deleterious to the AFSC mission.

    The “we know best” and “we’re better than the local Quakers” attitude IMO is what drove a wedge between AFSC and the High Point N C Quakers in the mid-60s (where I grew up) to the point that AFSC was invited to buy back their introduction and they moved their southeast office to Atlanta,

    Over the last 20 years there’s been an effort to put more Quakers on the Board and to thereby try to exercise more direct guidance over AFSC policy and practice, and an effort to encourage more Friends to volunteer, at least in the Atlanta office.

    I’m sad to see though that these changes may be only superficial, a band aid where a tourniquet is needed. 🙁

    1. I’m sure it would be an incredible experience for Quaker kids to do a work camp which connects them to kids who have very different experiences. But that’s not the job that the AFSC staff member has. The AFSC staff person is trying to create a program for a group of kids who face a lot of challenges. Youth “work camps” are actually summer camps – high school students with no skills or expertise who are looking to have a fun and meaningful experience are a net drain on staff time and program resources. And while I’m sure that the Quaker kids could benefit from opportunities to connect with African-American communities and culture, I doubt that the kids in the AFSC program lack opportunities to be exposed to whiteness. I would be angry too if someone asked me to take time and attention away from my work to prioritize rich, white kids and then dismissed my expertise and my objections.

      1. Alas, this reads to me like a prime example of AFSC “cultural appropriation” — using funds raised based on the Quaker name, witness & heritage to pay non-Quakers, who have only scorn for actual Quakers, to spend time pursuing projects whose only connections to actual Quakers is using one hand to slap them down, while holding out the other to grab for more Quaker-raised money. I wonder if the decades since this attitude took hold among the now 99% non-Quaker AFSC staff are connected to the group’s steady decline in size and funding? Personally I think so, and am not sorry. After all, what goes around, comes around.

      2. Rich, white kids? There are NO rich, white kids in my Meeting. Benefit? How do you expect these so-called “rich, white kids” (Quakers) to make long-term commitments to ending the oppression of people of color if they don’t know any?

        Sorry, but this doesn’t pass the scratch and sniff test.

        1. Actually, if AFSC had a bunch of our SAYFers (Southern Appalachian Young Friends, 12 – 18) who gather together 7 times a year, with their own dorms at Yearly Meeting, the AFSC staff would learn something about Quakerism, while the mixture of kids would be good for all. Our SAYFers don’t have traditional theological correctness, and they are woke Quakers who understand listening for leadings, listening deeply to each other, and how to come together in decision-making. They also know how to have a good time and how to get things done. AFSC would be fortunate to have them there.

  6. There is an aura that has never changed in 40 years. AFSC is always an admired group by non Quakers who only need to hear Nobel Prize. I am happy for those of you who have had positive experiences. I have always looked forward to that “lump in the throat” feeling but have met a politically self satisfied group. There is more of that of God in Mennonite service groups and certainly more humility. Thank you all for your efforts to “explain” AFSC .

  7. One of the problems with being in “advocacy” is that whether secular or religious, it has become adversarial. If one is in it for a career one’s bread and butter depend on conflict being perpetual, and if through some stroke of bad fortune the area in which one is advocating actually achieves healing or even just peaceful coexistence, one must strike one’s tent and move on to greener fields. That sort of nomadic existence is not real appealing to folks from privileged upper middle class Eastern Seaboard backgrounds, and so the advocacy tends to become ever more confrontational and less and less inclined toward building bridges and expanding common ground. The latter sort of activity lacks drama, does not get one many fund-raising dinner invitations, nor media coverage, which is handmaiden to fundraising. Many NGOs now are almost indistinguishable from profit making (profitable?) corporations in how they operate, and how they treat employees. It sounds like AFSC is right at home among its “peers”. It is not only in the world but of the world it sounds like. What happened to the idea (I think the Methodists coined it?) of “do all the good you can, and then disappear?”

  8. Thank you, Chuck. However much we may be in disagreement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we have been in unity about AFSC since the 80s. Keep up the good work.

  9. A family member was on the staff of the Midwest region (in the Dayton, Ohio office) 35 years ago and consequently I had a close social relationship with them. The contempt for actual Quakers, and that sense of “we know better than you do,” was palpable among many if not most of her co-workers. Most of the staff were radical left-wing agitators, knowingly and purposefully using AFSC as a vehicle for their own agenda. I have nothing against radical left-wing agitators, per se, since I am one. My disagreement is with the duplicity, the manipulation, and using the Quaker name to advance some distinctly non-Quaker perspectives. It was impossible to escape the conclusion that AFSC had become Quaker-in-name-only. Nothing in the intervening decades has changed that, despite the highly touted “we have more Quakers on our board now.”

  10. It isn’t AFAC – American Friends Advocacy Committee, last time I looked.

    It really should be simple: feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, provide a cool glass of water. We will understand privilege better when we fully experience it among those who don’t have it. And we don’t need to be ‘transformed’ either. That might be a bonus, but we just need to do what needs doing (instead of ‘advocating’ for it.)

    Instead of “speaking truth to power”, maybe we should start by speaking truth to our friends. Good practice, in both senses of the term.

    Thanks, Chuck.

    1. Thanks, David. Maybe it SHOULD be the American Advocacy Committee, since there are by intention practically no Friends in it, and certain kinds of advocacy seem to be the settled mission. Leave the “Friends Service” to actual Friends doing actual Service. So be it: Truth in advertising, Truth in fundraising.

  11. When I went off to college in the mid-1950s, one of the first things I learned from my instructor in my sophomore course in American history was that every institution starts off with a gripping idea that attracts other people to its compelling vision. But soon–the exact time varies–people come in whose only goal is recruiting others to the task, raising funds to do so, and keeping the machinery going. This applies to the Christian church, the Religious Society of Friends, and, say, Aetna Insurance Company, U.S. Steel, or in this case the AFSC.

    Pretty soon the vision is lost and now the goal is keeping the machinery working efficiently, the money coming in, the ranks filled. Someone comes along and reads the original charge and understand how compelling it was. But when she stands up and suggests others rediscoveer the original goal, she is a challenge to the status quo and is fired, quieted, or worse.

    There’s an old tale that Rufus Jones in the mid-1920s, after AFSC had survived the Great War, asked the still unincorporated committee whether it was time to lay down the organization they had labored so hard to preserve. The committee agreed it was not, so it broadened its mission, dug in to raise money, broaden its goals in peacetime, keep the machinery going, and bring more people to the cause.

    I’m not sure this is an inevitable, inexorable law of history–I dislike such “laws”–but it certainly speaks to AFSC’s current plight and Friends’s concerns with it. I applaud Quaker Volunteer Service and think we ought to support it, but we need to be aware of the danger it will inevitably face. We also need to be prepared to lay it down before it celebrates its centenary.

    1. Hi Larry,

      How true. And yet our Meetings survive and evolve, at their best.

      I attribute the difference to our being led in the moment, as contrasted with being led by organizational mission. Our mission is to be led in the moment.

      Can a service organization use that model? I’ve looked at that for 50 years (starting with the use of functional teams and its relation to general systems theory of organization, and the use of teams to rationalize boundaries of organizations), and I think so. The key is Spirit-led (however named and conceptualized) Quaker Process as the sole means of creating decisions about what the organization does and how it does it.

      In effect, the organization is always laying down parts of itself and raising up new parts.

      Fossilized organizations do indeed need to be laid down in order to be reborn. I think Quakers have found a way to make that an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process.

      So the key is an organization that has the deep, inner experience of what it means to be led from that place beyond words in an organizational context, and to respect that experience in every person. It means laboring to come together by adding perspectives with each other until unity is achieved.

      So while AFSC need not be all Quakers, everyone in the organization has to have or quickly learn that experience and how it works in a group. That experience, being led and fully respecting the leadings of even 1 dissenter, is what is required for an organization to stay living in the moment.


  12. I wonder, though. Being led “in the moment” would hardly seem an ideal way to mount advocacy efforts. So much of what we call “advocacy” fails because it is often a matter of “whims” of the moment (granted, more commonly led by NPR than by the Spirit), and that not enough time is allowed for it to take root.

    I have a sense that the same may be true of service.

    In either case, so much of what we do is reactive. For the past decade or so when FCNL comes around with its annual survey of priorities for our Meeting to respond to, I have always listed my top three choices as the same: refugees and immigrants; immigrants and refugees; and caring for the stranger in our midst. I don’t think I ever really got a hearing on these issues until this year (and the conditions of immigrants and refugees are NOT worse this year than in previous ones). Whatever happens in the U.S., worldwide I don’t expect conditions to improve. But I do expect the “Spirit” will lead us onto other things.

    I hope that someday we can “progress” to truly doing the second-best we can – we are so far from that now. Turning off the radio and cable news and listening to the Spirit might help. As will actually doing things rather than simply advocating for them, or exchanging facebook messages.

    1. All of a sudden I’m more mixed up about being “reactive” than I used to be. I’ve written about how much U.S. Friends seem to bounce from one media trend to another, and how disempowering that is, and I stand by that. John Woolman worked on one issue for 30 years, mostly losing from day to day; Lucretia Mott worked to help end slavery for 50 years, and thru the shocks of a civil war. Also she worked to advance women’s rights for 60 years. Both are models for me. Yet we’re in a time of continuing shocks, many of which are unexpected (to me) and hard to avoid “reacting’ to. For instance, its been years since I worked in a news room, but I have done that; it’s a congenial and honorable kind of place to me. I’m a journalist. So, though I’m far from Annapolis, only been there a couple times briefly & superficially, and am officially “retired” — yet 5 reporters (people I am personally unacquainted with, but my kind of folks) get gunned down at their desks, doing what they’re supposed to do, doing what I have done lots of. I have no recipe to “cure” or prevent what happened; but it’s still hard for me not to “react.” Similarly, my four kids are all adults; but a grandson lives very close by, and he will be in fourth grade, at an urban public school. Plus he’s a boy of color. And again — I have no “cure” for what’s been happening in too many schools, but every time there’s another big school shooting — and for that matter, with twinges every time he sets out to catch the morning school bus — I shudder and wonder — when will it be our turn around here? So I hate it, but it’s not easy to avoid “reacting.” (Even tho I also “know” that overall, violence in schools is down, yada yada.)
      At the same time, I also work on some things I feel are real long-term leadings for me. They developed slowly, with lots of “seasoning”; they are not on TV hardly ever — tho one, torture, had a brief big moment some weeks back, when a torturer was promoted to head the CIA. But then the public, the media & Friends all shrugged & yawned & turned on a dime to follow the next tweets; “normalization” anyone? That brief episode was actually a big defeat for me & others who share this leading. I’ve been working at this for 12 years, and am not ready to quit — but I’m still pondering: what do we do next, after getting our tails kicked like that? I work on some other stuff, also obscure, which has a lot of relevance to race and class & culture clashes, and it still feels rightly ordered; but there are shocks happening about that too, very distracting to sustained work, but hard not to “react” to. So I still don’t much like “reactive” spirituality. But I don’t know how to escape it today either. I quit listening to NPR 14 years ago, and never looked back; but the stuff seeps in around the windowsills, it’s all over the net, still in the air. It’s like an article I saw the other day about those terrible evil microplastics: you drink water from a bottle, you consume microplastics. So quit it and drink from the tap –but oops! Tap water samples everywhere are also full of microplastics. All right, let’s chill and do some mindful quiet breathing — but oh, the air in most of our houses is full of microplastics too. In the end, when is it that Elon Musk is launching his shuttle to Mars? Let me know when there’s an opening.

      1. I always like the Friendly Letter, but this one, and most of the comments, really helped solve my longtime problem of only kinda sorta understanding what in the world was going on with AFSC, so special thanks to all of you for that. But you, Chuck, gave up NPR fourteen years ago? I think I can guess why, and I know that choice is only barely relevant to the main points here, and maybe it’s just because of living in far west Texas, but such abstinence sounds superhuman to me. It’s like hearing somebody say they manage to survive without breathing air. I’m in awe!

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