Friends have many opportunities each day to witness to our belief that there is that of God in everyone. The reason for this is that U.S. society is based on the premise that there is something wrong with people.
When I lived in Pittsburgh, Pa., I became interested in the Seneca Indians, who had formerly lived in the area. I met a Quaker who taught at a school on the Seneca Reservation in Salamanca, N.Y. I asked him how the Seneca students were doing in school. He replied, "Badly." I asked why. He said that school is all about punishment and rewards, but the Seneca never punish their children. The Seneca students do not take well to the school’s basic premise, and therefore do not do well there.
The premise of punishment is widespread in our culture. Our whole prison system is based on it, and one out of a hundred adults is currently in prison. The welfare system is overtly bureaucratic because people are worried that someone might be cheating. Business is based on the assumption that profit is the most important goal. Go into a bank and try to cash a check—you are treated like a criminal suspect. Need I mention the trials of air travel these days?
You may argue that this is all necessary, but surely this is not the peaceable community we are hoping for. If we all abide in a world of continued suspicion, are we really Quakers?
If, as a Quaker, you realize you are completely "out of sync" with the mores of society, you have a choice. You can act contrary to the norm, even if people are a little bit surprised. Do you greet everyone with suspicion, or with a smile? Do you relate mechanically or as a fellow human with the people at the checkout counter when they are "only doing their job"? Do you treat children as if they were born in sin, or do you look for that of God in them? I find that many Quakers do simple, small deeds daily that direct us towards the peaceable community. Here I outline some I have done in my life.
For 20 years I fixed houses for a living, mostly for Quakers and their friends. I would stand up in meeting and say, "Who would like to have their house fixed?" and I would have enough work for a long time. But home repair is an occupation fraught with all kinds of problems, conflicts, short cuts, and outright fraud. These issues aren’t always easy to resolve.
Once, an elderly couple who had a nice house, in which each room had a door opening onto their garden, asked me to change their locks to keyed locks on the inside. This is a fire danger because if there were a fire in the house, people would not be able to get out. Was it worse to be robbed, or to die in a fire? I explained this to them, but they insisted they wanted the locks changed. I complied, but afterwards I regretted it because if someone had died in a fire, I would have felt like an accomplice.
Naturally, in that line of work there are miscommunications, including the cost of the job. I decided that when there was a dispute where the client expected to pay X while I expected Y, I would tell the client to decide what they wanted to give me between X and Y. In every case where I did this, the client voluntarily split the difference.
I preferred to be paid by the hour because I thought this was fair to both the client and myself. Of course they had to trust that I wasn’t going to sit down and watch the soaps while they were at work and add this to their bill. But I never returned to clients who had their maids time me and didn’t want to pay for the time I spent going to the home supply store, buying materials for the job.
Another problem I had, particularly at the beginning, was that I was being unfair to myself. I tried to bend over backwards to be fair to the client, but if something then went wrong, I would earn less than I expected. Once I did a big job (by the hour) for a Quaker client for $20,000, including materials and labor. She then told me a few months later that, due to this work, the value of their house had increased by $100,000. So I raised my hourly rate by $5. My son still thought I was charging about half of what I should have charged. What is fair when you are setting your own wage?
Fellow Quakers who trusted me were much better to work with than the general public. I once made the mistake of letting a clerk at a home supply store give out my name to people who needed repair work. I got three clients this way, and two of them were very difficult. (I remember my few difficult clients much more than my many satisfied customers.) I asked the clerk to stop giving out my name.
Part of being a Quaker is speaking truth to power. In Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, the school system had just opened a new, integrated middle school near my house. As I walked by the school, I noticed that the physical education softball game was divided by race: one team was all white and the other side all black. So I called the principal. The next day, one team was all white with one black player and the other team was all black with one white player. Oh well, I tried.
Another time I saw a group of boys from a private school ganging up and beating another student. A few minutes later, when I got home, I called the principal of that school, who said he would run out to see what was happening.
The U.S. census is coming up soon. I don’t believe in the racial classifications they have on the census, so I cross out the section on race, indicating that I refuse to respond. According to the fine print, this could get me a $500 fine, but I have never been questioned.
There are many times when my wife, Gladys Kamonya, a Kenyan, is assumed to be my maid or my mom’s caregiver. I always respond to such cases matter-of-factly and with no animosity: "That’s my wife, not my maid." This, of course, leads to much apologizing, which I take graciously because I think people ought to apologize for their racist assumptions. I also have to correct people who think my daughter, Joy, is my wife. People who see that we have the same last name, who are told she is my daughter, still wonder how we are related. There’s a brave new world out there, with such people in it.
Living simply in the United States is against the norm—although it may be getting easier with the economic crash. When I bought my first house, I didn’t have a car loan, so I had difficulty getting a mortgage because I didn’t have a good credit rating. Of course, when my children were teenagers they were the most critical of my simplicity. As I drove around in my old van, they would duck to hide so their friends didn’t know their dad drove such a jalopy. My daughter said to me, "Dad, the trouble with you is that you are always happy with what you’ve got." I took it as a compliment.
Also while in Pittsburgh, we lived near the meetinghouse and had a couple of extra bedrooms on our third floor. We would sometimes house people. Once in 1976, a young couple, the wife pregnant, contacted the meeting that they needed a place to sleep for the night. That winter it was bitterly cold, and the couple had decided to flee to Florida from Minneapolis when the temperature got to minus 40 degrees. The next morning I gave them $20 to buy gas and bid them Godspeed on their way to Florida.
I don’t bring up all these rather minor good deeds to brag but because I am trying to cover the major Friends testimonies here. I think every conscientious Quaker has his or her own witness to the goodness of the world around us. Quakers, in our own ways and circumstances, are attempting to do something for the common good. Although most of these are small things that never hit the headlines—even of Friends Journal—they are the small actions that point us towards the Peaceable Community.