Forum April 2019

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Dwelling in Joy

Kat Griffith’s “Surprised by Joy” is one of the finest articles I can remember in my long history of reading Friends Journal (FJ Feb.). In a mere two pages, she reminds me of a spiritually profound joy in adversity, joy in giving, and joy in following one’s leading. Despite her wrenching grief at her sister’s death, she rejoices in her loving service. Her article brings to mind a Quaker classic, Eva Hermann’s In Prison—Yet Free (available at Hermann, a German Quaker, was imprisoned in 1943 by the Nazis for sheltering Jews. Fully expecting to die in prison, she discovers joy in simple acts of generosity to fellow prisoners. “We . . . did not suppose that we would be allowed to survive—and I dwelt in joy.”

Steve Smith
Claremont, Calif.

My mother’s death from cancer at age 60 began a time of transformation in my life. Being with her when she was told that she had only a few months to live was an opening experience for me. I felt a great wave of compassion and love flow through me—something I had not experienced for many years. As our family gathered around her in her final months, and then all together during her final days, there was such a sense of love. Even my mother said that she had never thought that her final days could be so beautiful. Yes, we grieved. But we also experienced the joy that I believe flows from deep love for one another. I discovered that joy can encompass pain and suffering.

Stephen Snyder
Wentworth, S.D.

It is such a blessing to share in this story of faithfulness and grace. Today I had my own. Tugged at to return to the place where I quit my job a year ago, I volunteered my services as a visitor to the dying. First I was told it might be many months before I could train in. While I was visiting the nursing home residents I remembered I was approached again by the volunteer coordinator. Could I please come now? A woman was dying and her family was still shoveling out to come join her. I was there for the her final moments—a grace for me, for the attending staff, for the dying woman and even for the family just minutes away. And I was able to bear witness to that Inner Guide. We are so blessed—both when we are called and when we answer.

Marie Vandenbark
Eau Claire, Wis.


Quaker vocabulary for new Friends

The “Glossary of Common Quaker Terms” video (, March) is especially important, I think, for non-Quaker seekers, who may stumble on QuakerSpeak, as I did, not so long ago.

For me, Quakerism isn’t easy. The gentle messages in QuakerSpeak gives the mass culture of YouTubers accessibility to the “unmitigated experience of the Light within” through real people, in their own words.

Claire Staffieri
Feasterville-Trevose, Pa.

In my experience (and in the experience of many Friends past and present), there is a dynamic, living, Real Presence at the heart of our tradition. Quaker language, however we define it, should help us to orient toward and open to this living Word.

“Minutes” don’t just capture our decisions, they trace and illuminate the movement of the Spirit within and among us. They indicate “sense of the meeting” which is very different from secular decision making.

Unprogrammed Friends do have ministers, even ones that are formally recognized or “recorded.” We recognize ministers because they’ve been given the gift of ministry. We recognize ministers so that we might nurture gospel ministry within our society.

The impulse to want to differentiate between convincement and conversion is also revealing. Early Friends would not have made this distinction: convincement without a complete conversion of the heart would not be real convincement.

Travis G. Etling
Durango, Colo.

Rooftops and runways

One of the ways my family is acting on climate change is to have solar panels on our house. We are lucky, and have a south-facing roof. Now we have purchased an older model electric car, too. It gives me joy to drive a car powered by the sun! But that is only possible for folks with a home that faces south. Other actions are trying to eliminate single-use plastic, cut down on driving distances, use less energy, and speaking out politically to influence our country to combat climate change. I believe just saying, “no thanks, I don’t need a straw,” can help influence others to change, too.

Kay Ellison
Vancouver, Wash.

Quakers—and others—do many great things towards climate change activism, but no one ever mentions the immediate, obvious and massively-impactful thing we can all do: stop flying. Lynn mentions the campaign to get PECO Energy to transition from fossil fuels to alternatives, so Quakers acknowledge the advice from the worldwide scientific community that fossil fuels are bad and we should use less. But what is the single greatest fossil-using activity that everyone casually continues to use? Aircraft. Planes spew vast emissions into our already-burdened atmosphere. If we stop flying, we can make a big difference. If we give up that holiday in an exotic location for our children’s future’s sake, we are making a huge and effective contribution. Everybody can readily do it: just don’t buy that ticket! Stay local, celebrate local. And for anything further away, start using the wonderful technological options that are out there: video conferencing, Skype, live streaming. It’s obvious, isn’t it—so why are we not doing it?

Hobart, Tasmania

More views on race and diversity

I am very grateful for the January 2019 issue of Friends Journal, devoted to thoughtful discussion on the value of a racially diverse Society of Friends.

I feel strongly that part of this topic’s difficulty is the language we use to talk about it.

Let’s start with “race” and “racial.” Biologically, we are all of one race. I am saying this because all humans are able to mate and produce children who then can go on to become parents themselves. There may be huge and important differences among us—economic, educational, geographic, religious, and whatever else you want to come up with (such as skin pigmentation or the lack thereof). But the underlying fact remains we are all human. It would be good if we could learn to talk about our very real differences without using language that is not quite accurate, and that denies what we have in common.

We can look at the terms we use every day in identifying the groups involved. For a while, black and white were in vogue. These were inaccurate, for one thing. So-called black people are rarely black, and so-called white people (like me) are rarely white. There is a wide variety of pigmentation, with a great degree of overlap. And once again, these terms imply polarization, and important differences, rather than leaving room to talk about the very many things we have in common.

In a way, “African American” sounds like an improvement—except that, if the latest anthropological thinking is accurate, we are all African American. I have fooled around with this one, which at least gives a nod to what we have in common, but fails to describe the differences that seem to concern us. I have come up with “people of recent African descent,” which is kind of a mouthful for everyday use.

Harriet J. Schley
Norfolk, Va.

I hope concerned Friends are reassured to know that the families of many middle-class, white Friends, in California at least, are thoroughly integrated. Our dark-skinned children, in-laws, grandchildren, nieces and nephews are not often with us on Sunday morning, but they are a vital part of our lives.

Elizabeth Boardman
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Self-praise and dirty secrets

I celebrate discussion around Vanessa Julye’s “Are We Ready to Make the Necessary Changes?” (FJ, Jan.) and am interested and curious to hear more about the specific behaviors that show these patterns of racial exclusion. What other types of behaviors and systemic structures that Quakers have acquiesced to also reflect white supremacy and the dominant culture? How has it been, what has been the harms and how can they be addressed and what are the dreams for how things could be different going forward? Let’s bring out the laundry lists, please!

How can we engage at our highest level of thinking to learn and grow together? Who are the peacemakers in meeting? What are the systematic changes that are necessary or desired? What resources are available to support systematic change in Quaker meetings? What are the current systems and how do they operate and what system(s) would/could replace them?

Jan Robertson
Durham, N.C.

I continue to be humbled by the persistence of Quakers of color I know—mostly African American adults—to partake of a faith that has been so insulting and inhuman in its religious practice. There is a soul in Quaker faith and practice that wants to survive this, and even survive the comfort that leads to betrayal of faith. As you ask and comment: “What happened to the Religious Society of Friends that we could choose to hide our passions?,” one of our standing jokes may supply the answer: They came to do good and did quite well. Yes, personal perspectives on justice have been known to change with one’s degree of comfort. That’s it, over and over—comfort trumps courage.

I think “the collective we” will never be able to say yes to Julye’s final question—”are we ready to make systemic change?” The overwhelming weight of the mountain that must be moved if we are to change and survive may mean those who answer yes need to move away from the mountain, and make a smaller hill with the strength to live the heart of our faith. John Woolman prayed publicly for his contemporaneous who were slave-owners, trying to impress upon them that they were condemning their own souls by such evil. Do we believe in the soul?

Susan L. Chast
Lansdowne, Pa.

I became a Friend around 1985 for many reasons but one was that, to me, Quakers had always been on the right side of history (well, almost always). I knew about the peace testimony, the fairly egalitarian treatment of women, the abolitionists, and the underground railroad. At some point I wondered why there weren’t more African American Quakers.

I reasoned that if Quakers had been so helpful, maybe some former slaves or free people of color would have joined up. I tried to research the question but couldn’t find anything. When I mentioned my question, Friends said that people of color were simply not attracted to our faith. Now with Vanessa Julye’s published books and articles, I have the answer to my question. In the past, African Americans were “fit for freedom, not for friendship.”

This has gone on long enough. I am ashamed. I am disappointed. I am deeply saddened. I am disillusioned. Like predatory priests in the Catholic Church, the Religious Society of Friends in the United States has deep, dark, dirty secrets that need some Light on them.

Barbara Birch

Can errors not be righted?

I recently finished reading Marcus Rediker’s The Fearless Benjamin Lay and can appreciate more the message conveyed when Abington (Pa.) Meeting unveiled a grave marker in recognition of him and his wife, Sarah, along with a November 12, 2017 minute:

We now recognized the truth behind Benjamin Lay’s abolitionist efforts. Although we may not reinstate membership for someone who is deceased, we recognize Benjamin Lay as a Friend of Truth and as being in unity with the spirit of our Abington Monthly Meeting.” (“News,” FJ Aug. 2018)

As an African in America whose ancestors were victims of the horrors Benjamin Lay struggled against, and as someone who has been accepted within the house of the Bulls Head–Oswego (N.Y.) Meeting, such acknowledgement stirs appreciative emotions within me.

Lay went the distance and, to me, gave full meaning and substance to the phrase, “Let your lives speak!” He was not before his time but right on time with a message that would continue to add fuel to a fire that needed to burn bright enough for others to see. They could then, in their own way, go about addressing one of the greatest failures in human history. He was, in my humble opinion, a champion and hero and should always be highlighted historically as a prominent seeker and speaker of Quaker truth.

Why can’t Abington Meeting reinstate membership to someone who is deceased? Is that a common practice among Quakers or monthly meetings? Can it be true that even if at a certain time a meeting or its elders are factually wrong or in error in their judgment, that at a later date when “the truth is crushed to the earth” that “wrong or error” cannot be changed or righted? If such is the case, then I ask: where is the compassion? Where is the forgiveness? Where is the integrity? Lay was found to be right; however, because privileged Quakers were found to be wrong, they get a free pass. Where is the equality in that?

Yohannes “Knowledge” Johnson
Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y.

Working on institutional racism

As members of an interracial couple in more than one meeting we have discovered that there is a difference between mostly European-American Friends “accepting” people of color and “welcoming” them (“An Interview with the Co-clerks of Institutional Assessment on Racism Task Force,” FJ Jan.) . There is that too-polite approach. But there is also a curious lack of welcoming into gatherings outside formal and informal meeting functions. We have drifted away from meetings because we discovered that Friends were not particularly eager to become friends.

Chris King
Ojai, Calif.

“How does this decision support FGC in its goal to transform into an actively anti-racist faith community?” I am interested in seeing how this query gets passed along to Friends General Conference-affiliated meetings, especially at the monthly meeting level. How much resistance from our white majority may there be in using it? How will we prevent it from being scapegoated as credal? Anti-racist white Friends have our work cut out for us for sure!

Had this query been in place when Black members were shunned or read out of meeting (as recently as 2016), what would have changed? FGC doesn’t intervene or set policy for its constituent meetings, and since yearly meeting representatives have little if any power within our meetings, there remains a lot of individual and systemic work to do.

Liz Oppenheimer
Minneapolis, Minn.

Maintaining faith behind bars

I am very moved to read the account by Yohannes “Knowledge” Johnson of finding faith in a Quaker worship group in prison, and then maintaining that faith over long years when it was not possible to meet in worship with other Friends (“Never Having Set Foot in the Meetinghouse,” FJ March). I rejoiced to read of him finding Quaker fellowship again in person and becoming a member of Bulls Head–Oswego (N.Y.) Meeting. I feel enlarged by “meeting” the author in this way, and I am grateful for the larger meeting for worship and fellowship in the Spirit which this essay reveals.

Marcelle Martin
Chester, Pa.

I hope Johnson is able to leave prison and participate in a meeting outside its walls. I met my husband in a Friends meeting inside a prison. He was able to be set free after 30 years. He used his time in prison to help out and friend those who were in special need of a friend. Being honest about his crimes was a big part of his integrity.

Heather Pens
Olympia, Wash.

I once visited an Ojibwe guy in a state prison for 1 1/2 years. Experience with Quakers prepared me for that relationship.

We had met because, while he was awaiting sentencing, I was asked to evaluate his speech and language in the county jail because of a stutter. I was working at an Indian-run health clinic at the time. I agreed to visit him in prison, and he added me to his visitors list.

In a number of tribal traditions, when someone says, “I want to see you,” it means that they want to be in your presence. It does not necessarily mean that they want to talk a lot. Our prison visits, and our visits after his release, involved more listening than talking, and we listened well.

Brian Humphrey
Wilton Manors, Fla.

Meeting the Inward Christ

Thank you for the stimulating issue on Quakers and Christianity (December 2018). Not surprisingly, the wide variety of perspectives is daunting. In recent years, when I have been asked one of the many variations of the question, “Are Quakers Christian?” I have found it helpful to answer by paraphrasing the words of Paul Lacey (Leading and Being Led). “A Quaker is not someone who believes certain doctrines about Jesus, nor even someone who follows the teachings of Jesus; a Quaker is someone who has met the Inward Christ.” I have found that regardless of who asks the question, this conveys something essential about Quakerism, something which can be heard by a wide range of questioners, from evangelical Christians, to people of other faith traditions, to non-theists. It also is a challenge to Friends: have we truly met the Inward Christ—by whatever words we choose to name that inward reality?

Tom Gates
Lancaster, Pa.

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