Tom Ewell

Tom Ewell may be one of the few Friends whose clearness committee didn’t clear him on the first try! He did not grow up a Quaker, but he became interested in Quakers when he was teaching at Cambridge (Mass.) Friends School in the early ’70s. "I decided midway through the year (1972) that I would check out these Quakers I was working for; so I went to Friends Meeting at Cambridge, and I felt at home. I had gone
to a number of churches in the Cambridge area, and I’d not found one that I even went back to a second time. So Quakers were a big discovery.

"After a few months, I asked how to become a member. Of course they said, ‘You write a letter,’ which I did right away, and they set up a clearness committee for me. About 15 minutes into our first meeting, they asked if I’d ever read Faith and Practice, or been to a business meeting, or read a book about Quakers. I said, ‘no’! Courteously, they suggested I think about Quakers a little more, go to business meeting, and maybe read Faith and Practice.

"Their rejection was good. I went to business meeting and began to appreciate the deeper part of Quakerism—its faith and practice. When I had a second clearness committee, perhaps a year later, it was a great celebration. I knew I had found a home, and I’ve not looked back.

"I never tire of reflecting on ‘there’s that of God in each person,’ partly because it’s the heart of my egalitarian instinct. I find it such a powerful way to organize my conscience, my social witness, and my sense of who I am. Then there’s the emphasis on experiential faith—no easy life rings of creed, church, status, or finance. The truth is yours to struggle for; nobody’s doing it for you.

"The same thing goes for Friends community, which does not just happen. You have to give your heart as part of the community. If I am smug about my Quakerism, it isn’t about theology or practice, it’s about the wonderful community to which I have access, traveling across the country or a phone call away—people with whom I share deep values and trust."

Tom Ewell is 57 years old and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He has been executive director of the Maine Council of Churches since 1986. He is a member of Portland Meeting. He feels he enjoys "a very privileged existence, living in a beautiful place, and having the wherewithal to enjoy life."

Tom graduated from the College of Wooster (Ohio) in 1965. He grew up in a small town in Ohio. "In some ways [it] seemed like a wonderful, sheltered place with considerable freedom and privilege. But both of my parents died in those years, my father when I was a baby, and my mom when I was 16. I was taken into the home of my Methodist Sunday School teacher, I call her ‘Mom Dundon’ and have been an adopted member of her family ever since. I am grateful for my good fortune.

"On a fellowship, I taught college in India for two years, 1965-67, working with Tibetan refugees during the summer break. I returned through Southeast Asia and faced into the Vietnam War when I talked with an Air Force man who was pulling the trigger and bombing places we weren’t supposed to be bombing—Cambodia and Laos. He also confessed to his relationship with a Thai woman when he had a wife at home. He was a miserable guy.

"That conversation was stunning—that there was this huge lie going on.

"When I went to India, I was a major apologist for the U.S., but I came back with an inclination to do peace work—at least to tell the story of what I had seen." Tom taught for two years in an inner-city Philadelphia junior high school, then went to School for International Training in Vermont. He did an internship in Bolivia and eventually went to the Center for the Study of Development and Social Change in Cambridge, as a volunteer and antiwar activist. "There I really dug in as a pacifist. My day job was Manpower; I worked some with [Latin American education activist] Paulo Freire and spent most evenings doing antiwar work."

Tom married in 1971 and taught at Cambridge Friends School from 1972 to 1976, deciding that education was not his calling. He was drawn toward ministry, so he spent a year at Earlham School of Religion and went on to Washington University in St. Louis for a graduate degree in Social Work.

Tom went to Maine because of a college roommate’s poster—a scene from Maine’s Georgetown Beach that fascinated and amazed him, and he visited the first chance he got. He determined that he would move there, which he did eventually with his family after finishing his graduate work. He first worked in a housing rehabilitation program for three years. Then he served as field secretary for New England Yearly Meeting from 1982 to 1986.

Having been executive director of the Maine Council of Churches for over 15 years, Tom is reflective about his work and his future: "One thing I feel good about is developing a leadership style that flattens the organization, both staff and committee. There’s a broad shared responsibility for the work—it’s almost the norm that people cannot claim individual credit for anything that’s done in the council. And that includes me, of course." Tom acknowledges that he must do the administrative work well to be free to do the public policy work he most enjoys.

Outside work, Tom’s focus is on family and faith. His two sons have graduated from college and are finding their way in the world. Tom is a proud father and spends quality time with his children. Though he and their mother divorced a number of years ago, he is open and honest with his sons about the pain of the divorce and has supported their relationship with their mother. He is now happy in a mutually supportive and spiritually compatible marriage and is the stepfather of a third adult son.

Tom nurtures his spiritual life in several ways. "I take some time in the morning to thank God, gratitude being the heart of prayer. I also take at least a week a year to go away on retreat for regeneration, rest, and quiet. And being part of a larger faith body, my meeting, has always been important."

Over his years as a teacher, social activist, pacifist, Quaker, husband, father, administrator, and leader, Tom has looked to heroes and mentors—Schweitzer, Gandhi, King—for inspiration and courage. But, he says, "increasingly, the real heroes of my life are older people who have stood the test of time, who have held integrity, grace, and humor.

Watching Mom Dundon grow old (she’s now 97) has been a lesson. She has lost her eyesight and hearing, but when we sing hymns and pray, she is as sharp as ever. Her prayers are cogent. She goes into a different place. She’s only gotten better over the years. I think what I most want to do is to grow old and be like that."