Joe Franko became a Quaker through a brief friendship with Rick, a conscientious objector he met in Vietnam in the early ’60s. As Joe describes it, "Vietnam was just ratcheting up. I bought the whole thing, hook, line, and sinker—saving the world for democracy, the domino theory—and I enlisted."
Through conversations with Rick, who expressed a genuine, respectful interest in learning how Joe made his decisions about the war, Joe began to consider the war more critically. Then Rick was killed by "friendly fire"—a bomb dropped on the children’s hospital where Rick was performing his alternate service.
Joe recalls, "It was like a bomb on my consciousness! When I got out of the service, I began to investigate these people called Quakers. I had a scholarship to Iowa State, and one of the first things I did was go to a Quaker meeting on the campus in Ames."
The eldest of six whose mother was a schizophrenic and father an unskilled laborer, Joe found little safety in his growing years. In truth, he spent much time and energy providing safety for his siblings. At 17, he enlisted in the Navy, feeling he had no desire ever to "do family" again. Years later, he was shocked to realize that he wanted to be a father; his son, now 34, recently married and is a former Peace Corps volunteer.
After taking a year’s leave of absence from his tenured position as a mathematics professor to serve as interim director of AFSC’s Pacific Southwest Regional office, he felt led to apply for the position on a permanent basis. He got the job, spent four "wonderful years" at AFSC, and has now returned to his professorship.
Joe Franko identifies himself as a "Christo-centric Quaker, not wounded by another Christian religious belief or practice and thus able to come to Christ in a completely fresh way." He is gay, which he says "allows me to understand oppression, though not in the same way I would experience if I were black or a woman." Joe’s participation in and clerking of Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns helped him tie together his sexuality and his spirituality. "In gay life, it’s not often OK to admit that you’re a spiritual person—so many gay people have been deeply wounded by religion."
As a mathematician, he lives by the phrase, "this I know experimentally," asking himself, "can I test my faith with my knowledge of reality and see how it fits for me?" But what he loves most about being a Quaker is that continuing revelation forces him to be constantly responsible for developing his spiritual life.
Joe practices various spiritual disciplines, including being with his dog. "My dog is totally open to the world; he teaches me by example about being in the world. His approach to the world and to me is consistent, open, never fake. I believe that God put dogs in the world as an example of unconditional love."
Enthusiastic about long-distance running, he has completed eight 100 mile races, as well as one six-day race (300 miles). He also finds that being an amateur astronomer helps him take himself less seriously and find his place in the larger context of the universe.
Joe has devoted some of his free time recently to a school in Pakistan for Afghan refugee girls. In the fall of 2001, he and Edith Cole went to their respective monthly meetings (he, Orange Grove, and she, Claremont) with a concern to explore what work might be undertaken with Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Their contact was Edith’s son-in-law, a Pakistani mathematics professor. Their monthly meetings raised about $6,000 for Joe and Edith to take to Pakistan when they traveled in late January 2002. Joe says, "You know, Quakers talk about ‘way opening?’ Well, this was like God built a freeway for us! By April, we had opened a school. We had hired four teachers, a principal, and two night watchmen, and had built four classrooms and two outhouses in a refugee camp. About 300 girls are in the school, to which we’re committed, with the Pakistani Ministry of Education, for three years."
Joe Franko is both modest and honest. His interests are varied and his accomplishments numerable. A colleague says of him, "No matter where I go, Joe Franko has lived there or been there!" Joe responds, "The one thing I would like on my tombstone or in my eulogy would be the phrase, ‘He was not afraid to try.’"
© 2003 Kara Newell