Being a Friendly Adult Presence in the Lives of Young Friends: What Would Tom Fox Do?

My 15-year-old son Jonathan dragged his tired body in the door, trailing his sleeping bag and pillow, exhausted but with a peaceful smile and an air of happiness. He had just returned from a Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends weekend (they call it a "conference") and he just wanted to go to bed. Before collapsing, he uttered a puzzling declaration: "I just met the most awesome guy in the world—Tom Fox."

"Tell me about him," I asked, in my best open-ended manner. My son shrugged, continued his stagger toward the bed, and mumbled over his shoulder, "I don’t know, he’s just a guy—but he’s really cool."

I was intrigued, not just to hear about this Tom Fox, but also to find out more about what happened during these weekends. Jonathan was noticeably affected by his experiences there. He seemed happier, more relaxed, and more self-confident. He was less grumpy around the house too!

I decided to ask Jonathan if I could volunteer to be a FAP (Friendly Adult Presence) at a conference. The answer was an emphatic "No!" But after each weekend event, I continued to express interest in going, and at last he let me come along (and give rides to his friends) as long as I did not act like a mom while we were there. Our agreement was that he would call me by my first name just like everybody else, and that I would treat him no differently than I treated all the other Young Friends. This is how I finally got to be a FAP.

When I met Tom Fox, I was puzzled. How could this quiet, middle-aged, balding man in boring khakis, white polo shirt, and cap emblazoned with "Farm Fresh" have captured my cool son’s admiration? It actually took me a while to figure this out, since Tom was so understated and subtle.

Tom Fox is now well known because he was killed in Iraq while serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams. The journal he kept while serving there has been an inspiration to peace-loving people all over the world. Through his example he taught us the importance of being present to witness the pain inflicted by our country’s policies, and to lovingly minister to those who suffer the most, the Iraqi people.

Tom learned how to be a presence in people’s lives through his many years of service to Young Friends. He was passionate about Young Friends and he felt called to serve them as a mentor, friend, teacher, and spiritual companion. An entire generation of Young Friends throughout the country, and especially in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, were blessed with Tom’s presence.

When news of Tom’s murder finally arrived after his long captivity, there was an outpouring of emotion from Young Friends around the country. At memorial services held for Tom, current and former Young Friends attended in large numbers. They spoke about their love for Tom and what they learned from him. They wrote songs about him and told stories about their experiences with him, some funny, others profound. They also asked themselves hard questions about how Tom’s witness for peace affects their own life choices. They honored him through their support of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Several former Young Friends are now considering working with CPT themselves, and many others are actively looking for ways to live their lives as witnesses to peace.

A verse from one of the songs written for Tom expresses the sentiments of many Young Friends:

I’m remembering back to when you were a FAP.
You had a silent and a powerful presence.
You had so much wisdom that you kept inside but we knew you were wise.
Your silence was the evidence.
I learned from your eyes not to speak all the time.
To be wise means to not have to prove it.
And we talk about patience and love all the time but you showed me that someone can do it.

—from "There’s a Spirit in Iraq," by Jon Watts, from The Art of Fully Being,

So what did Tom do with Young Friends that was so powerful in helping them find their voices as Quaker adults? Here are the observations of some of us who learned from Tom’s passionate convictions about working with Quaker youth as we served alongside him in Quaker camps and at Young Friends gatherings:

Ted Heck, co-clerk of Youth Programs Committee for Baltimore Yearly Meeting, who served as a FAP with Tom for many years, remembers watching Tom during business meetings at BYM Young Friends’ Conferences. Tom seldom said a word, but always paid close attention to everything that was going on. When he did speak, he usually addressed protocol or process, offering information to help Young Friends make informed decisions. On the rare occasion when he gave his opinion, Tom was careful to stick to his observations of the facts. It was clear that Tom’s intention was never to push Young Friends in a particular direction, but rather to help them find their own way.

What Tom said to Young Friends, through his words and his behavior, conveyed these messages:

I respect you, I trust you, I love you—most of the time, I even like you!
I encourage you to take responsibility for yourself, for your behavior, and for the consequences of your behavior.
I know you will act responsibly given the opportunity to discern what is right for you, individually and as a group.
I know that I can trust you to do what is right.
I love you even when you make mistakes. In fact, I expect you to make mistakes. You are human just like me, and I have certainly made plenty of mistakes.
Nothing you are concerned about is unimportant or not worth my time to discuss with you.

Whether he was in the kitchen helping to prepare a meal, leading a workshop, or just hanging out, Tom Fox obviously enjoyed Young Friends. Ted Heck noticed that Tom always seemed sublimely content and consistently entertained by Young Friends’ antics and fun. While he sometimes joined their conversations and activities, often he just watched and listened. Tom had the enviable and amazing ability to really be in the moment without needing to influence it, and to fully appreciate Young Friends without needing to criticize or change them.

In The Power of Now, contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle describes the practice of being present in the now as one of the essential tools for achieving enlightenment. Tom Fox was fully present in the moment with Young Friends, and said that he felt more spiritually connected when he was with them than at any other time.

In her eulogy for Tom Fox on April 22, 2006, Lauri Perman, clerk of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, reported that before Tom left for Iraq for the last time, a Young Friend told him that she didn’t want him to leave. He looked at her, smiled, gave her a hug, and said, "I’m leaving, but we have the memories, and we are here together now."

Laurie Wilner, who knew Tom as a fellow FAP and co-worker at Baltimore Yearly Meeting, remembers the way Tom handled an awkward situation that arose during a Young Friends conference at Langley Hill meeting. At a previous conference, three female Young Friends had decided to be "kitchen elves" around 4 am, so the job would be done when everyone else got up. Protecting their only decent shirts, they worked in their bras, anticipating that the other Young Friends would be thrilled to find a clean kitchen—which they were. But what interested Young Friends more was what they called "topless dishwashing."

At the next conference, when it came time to clean up, someone yelled out "topless dishwashing!" Tom just shrugged, said "Okay," took off his T-shirt, and got to work. The energy tinged with sexuality turned into hysterical shrieks and laughter as the teens cleaned alongside Tom, girls in their sports bras, boys shirtless. Tom’s action had diffused the tension, meeting the Young Friends right where they were. When another FAP complimented him on his quick-witted response, Tom simply replied, with a half smile, "You use what God gives you."

Tom Horne, another long-term FAP, is grateful to Tom Fox for many years of constant help and support for his children, who grew up in Young Friends, and believes this influence was a very important factor in their development. Tom Horne observed the calmness that Tom Fox brought to the difficulties of working with teens. He also enjoyed Tom Fox’s sense of fun and playfulness. A favorite memory is laughing uproariously with Young Friends, who had been playing Duck, Duck, Goose, when his son, Sam Horne, tapped Tom Fox on the head to be the goose. Sam figured that the older man could not catch him, so started his circuit at a relaxed pace. But Tom took a short-cut across the circle—definitely against the rules. Sam was impressed that a man of such wisdom who had everyone’s respect would actually break rules, and wrote in his online journal on March 11, 2006: "That’s Tom Fox. He was not limited by any box people get put in. He was wise but full of laughter. Every bit the adult that watched over us, and every bit the child we loved to play with. I’ll keep that memory the closest. It’s his smile I will see when I think of him, his smile, his laugh, and that he cheated at children’s games."

Tom Fox believed in children’s spirituality, and he was truly dedicated to helping Young Friends find their own spiritual paths. He believed they could have direct, mystical experiences of the Divine. At Opequon Quaker Camp (where he volunteered every summer to do whatever was needed—kitchen manager, workshop leader, bus driver, cook, grounds maintenance guy), fellow staff member Coleman Watts remembers that Tom shared regularly at fire circles with the children (ages 9-14) about the techniques he found helpful for centering during meeting for worship. The summer before his kidnapping, Tom co-led a workshop called "Spiritual Path," and he taught the campers one of his favorite meditation techniques, "Focusing," which can be used to receive guidance from the Inner Light (See "Focusing on the Light" by Nancy Saunders, Friends Journal, Jan. 2003).

Workshop co-leader Elizabeth De Sa remembers when Tom told the children that he tried to exude peace, even when looking down the barrel of a gun. They really got it—that this was about real life issues, not just behavior or beliefs for meeting on Sunday. It did not occur to Tom that children might not have the patience or the interest in these subjects. He trusted them to learn about Spirit in their own way.

Tom Fox also served as a role model and a mentor for many adults who worked with Young Friends. One important lesson learned from Tom’s example is that Young Friends don’t need rules or direction from adults. They need role models—adults who demonstrate through their own choices and behaviors the options available to Young Friends to act on one’s beliefs, and who have faith in young people’s abilities to find the best direction for themselves. They also need information from adults to help them make informed decisions, particularly from adults who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with Quaker process, while allowing space for Young Friends to follow their own process. This is a delicate balance that is difficult for many adults. It is hard to be present and supportive of Young Friends without imposing one’s own agendas. Tom achieved this balance more easily than most, and he showed other adults the way to love Young Friends, sharing our own journeys with them, and then letting go with trust in their wisdom and strength.

Laurie Wilner remembers one of the more difficult pieces Tom Fox left with her, a statement he made when he was clerk of Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Youth Programs Committee: "Any form of control other than self-control is oppression." Tom went on to say that sometimes some people need some amount of oppression (the two-year-old running toward the street) but that it is important to realize that if it is not self-control it is oppression. As her 17-year-old son, Sean, prepares to leave for college, Laurie finds these words of wisdom particularly profound.

Tom Fox felt that this work with Young Friends was of the highest importance. He knew that these empowered young people could change the world. He deeply appreciated the privilege of being present to contribute to Young Friends’ spiritual journeys. He knew that simply through being present he could make a difference in their lives.

With the help of Tom Fox and other dedicated FAPs, and with the patience of my son who helped me learn from my blunders, I finally learned how to be a Friendly Adult Presence. My son and I became much closer and more accepting of one another as a result of our experiences together in Young Friends. The positive changes carried over into our home and made me a more conscious and intentional mother, as well as a more understanding friend to the other young people in my life. Sharing their spiritual journeys has been a precious gift.

Peggy O'Neill

Peggy O'Neill is a member of Richmond (Va.) Meeting and a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she directs educational programs about preventing abuse and neglect of people with disabilities. She also teaches Sacred Dance and designs jewelry. In 1999, Peggy felt a strong leading to serve Young Friends and has since been Religious Education coordinator as well as a regular Friendly Adult Presence and workshop leader for Young Friends throughout Baltimore Yearly Meeting and at the Friends General Conference Gathering.