Forum, May 2020

The world is so much smaller

I’m sorry it took COVID-19 to do this, but I love how it is bringing us all together online (“Quaker Meetings Respond to Coronavirus” by Katie Breslin, FJ Mar. online). I can’t wait to meet new Quaker friends. The world is so much smaller with the Internet! I know we will all begin to rethink how we use our resources, who we vote into government, how we interact with others, and how we utilize technology to better our experience and save the planet!

I created a garden today with my compost. It is true, the best things in life are free.

Sara Mason
Clearwater, Fla.


Social distancing is a sad state of affairs, and a serious challenge to the integrity of the Friends movement, which rests on social interaction as well as personal engagement with the world.

But it also exposes a longstanding issue plaguing Friends of all stripes. Social distancing is surely a contradiction of all our testimonies. I find this distressing. Yes, our present predicament calls for extraordinary measures, and the need to cope with such extraordinary measures is vital for the health and well-being of our communities. But it is also a reminder of the temporary nature of our compromises.

Keith R. Maddock
Toronto, Ontario


As dean of students in a state university and a member of the COVID-19 virus committee, we have put in place all the interventions that may contribute to reduction in the spread of coronavirus. These include and are not limited to regular washing of hands in designated points, sanitization, no shaking of hands, cancelation of lectures and group activities, avoiding congested places, and observation of balanced diet. Similar measures have been put in place in my church, Township Friends Church. Members have been sensitized adequately about COVID-19 signs and dangers. All precautions have been taken to avoid contracting.

Jacob Asige Chavulimu
Nairobi, Kenya

High heels and comfy shoes

Being free to dress as you like is an important part of self expression and a reflection of knowing you are in a safe space (“Thou Shalt Wear Comfy Shoes” by Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan, FJ Mar.). If you show up at my historically African American Baptist church in plain clothes, old clothes, or casual clothes, you are welcome just the same. If you look altogether raggedy, someone may offer you a bag of good clothes or invite you to shop at the church clothes closet, but that’s about it.

We Quakers could learn a thing or two about that, and would do well to remember that the reason Quakers quit wearing all grey was because they realized they were too hung up on their clothing. It had become its own form of ritual and contrary to the spirit of Quakerism, which disdains ritual requirements.

The Spirit doesn’t care about our shoes, and shoes don’t bring us closer to our Inner Light. But who knows? If we are too hung up on the comfy shoes, maybe wearing a nice pair of heels would elevate our experience.

Neva Reece
Anchorage, Alaska


As someone who has spent a lifetime fighting against stereotypes of what constitutes femininity, which I experience as confining and oppressive, I found the “Comfy Shoes” article that actively embraces these ways of presenting profoundly disorienting. I have treasured having a community where my non-normative choices in this area are welcomed, and I find it hard to imagine others freely choosing for bodily discomfort when there is an alternative. However, this strikingly different perspective is one that I won’t easily forget, and my attitude toward high heels will never be quite the same.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, Pa.


I am probably the only woman in my meeting who wears makeup, and I also color my hair. No one has said so much as boo about it to me. You cannot choose the times you live in. I live in 2021, not 1968. I am 61 and fabulous.

Shelia Bumgarner
Charlotte, N.C.


I grew up in Louisiana and South Carolina, and putting on a dab of makeup was part of getting ready to go out the door, whether I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the grocery store, or dressed to go to the office or out to dinner. I often felt uncomfortable about this “peculiar” habit in Quaker meetings, especially after I moved to the Pacific Northwest, where cosmetics seemed to be an oddity even in non-Quaker circles. It’s rare to see a tie or a pair of heels, admittedly, but if someone wanted to wear them, I hope to heaven no one would bat an eyelash! It’s so important for us to bring our true selves to worship. However we choose to express that by our attire, it’s our kind words and deeds that I hope will be remembered and appreciated.

Virginia Herrick
Bellingham, Wash.


I am a convinced Friend and remember well my first pair of high heels (bright red!) and how wonderful I felt walking in them. I was 14 years old, and they were a badge of becoming a woman in my mind. I wore heels most of my working life, and by the end of the day, couldn’t wait to kick them off and get into flat slippers because my feet hurt.

Then in my 40s I started running and learned very quickly the value of a good supportive running shoe that supported my feet, ankles, knees, and hips in a proper alignment. This prevented injury. I still wore heels to work because that was expected. 

I became a convinced Quaker when I was 70, and by then clothing was about comfort and practicality. Flat shoes and comfortable dress were what I wanted. I am now 81, and there is no reason in the world why you should dress as if you are 81—any more than I should dress as you do. I would break my neck in your heels.

Quakers should be about the inside and not the outside. This article should be a wake-up call for those of us who see fit to advise others on how they should dress. It’s none of our business.

Mercy Ingraham
Newtown, Pa.


Dressing plainly is part of the Friends discipline I follow. But over time, informed by the writings of transgender pioneer Kate Bornstein, I have come to understand that a joyful and exuberant gender expression is a vital and important part of being for many people. I just never let that line of thinking assert itself in my view of being in Friends worship. This article has brought these lines of thought together for me in a way that I will now be able to reflect on them. I begin that reflection with this: that I learned from an early age that plain, simple, serviceable clothing could be used by Quakers to reduce the harm done by barriers erected through competitive dressing meant to advertise possession of power and wealth. But the lesson to me now is that the clothing one chooses as a Quaker may also address other important issues, such as freedom of gender expression in our sacred and everyday places.

Peter Small
Audubon, N.J.

Reminding ourselves of the Light we carry

While I am a Quaker, I belong to a non-Quaker faith-sharing group. I have found myself thinking, yes, I could do that, but would I want to be doing it while wearing my “I am a Quaker” t-shirt? (“Why Do Some Quakers Dress Plain?,” Mar.)

When Quakers gave up plain dress and plain speech—their version of that t- shirt—they gave up the instant recognition of being a peculiar people.

Nowadays, we can be Friends in our meeting community and the rest of the world is none the wiser. We may have gained personal privacy with our fitting-in shabby dress, but we have also lost a great deal in opportunities to witness, to minister, and to remind ourselves of the Light we carry.

Rachel Kopel
San Diego, Calif.


I can see how dressing plain would be an ongoing reminder of who you are and what you believe. I’m curious to know what other ways Quakers have found to give them that continuous reminder. I put a Q as my middle initial on Facebook to remind me to be careful with my posts. I have a large capital letter Q pinned to the corkboard above my desk at work. These little cues help me to stop and think before I say something I might regret. I hope this doesn’t sound trite. I am curious if others have found ways to remind them throughout the day.

Larry Muller
Vienna, W.V.

Finger lickin’ good? 

As with many aspects of life, we are challenged to know the difference between being righteous and self-righteous (“In Defense of Blue Kool-Aid” by Kat Griffith, FJ Mar.). Friends in the nineteenth century had a parallel challenge to know when plain speech and dress became an affectation rather than a testimony.

Meanwhile, as a son of the Methodist Midwest, I am always happy to see a salad with “real lettuce,” a.k.a. iceberg, and happy when some potato chips sneak into potluck next to the blue corn chips.

Carl Abbott
Portland, Ore.


The meeting I attended had many gardeners among their members. Potlucks therefore were dominated by whatever was ripe that week. It was not uncommon for six of the ten offerings to contain the crop of the week. Even for adventurous adults, that is a lot of kale or squash. But for children, it made for some very discouraging meals. The most popular item for my children at these potlucks was the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken one family regularly contributed. The close second was the bowl of mashed potatoes. These were familiar and identifiable foods.

Eileen Redden
Lincoln, Del.


The word “privilege” is the significant one I feel. What is under the assumption that the giver of the blue Kool-Aid had other options? It’s cheap. It’s plentiful. It’s pretty. How would a homeless person have something to offer that requires a kitchen, an oven or stove, and ingredients, let alone the ability to cook something? If we truly welcome everyone, we must accept their gifts with openness and love.

Mercy Ingraham
Newtown, Pa.


I always quite enjoy a Quaker or Buddhist potluck meal. It reminds me of the straight and narrow culinary path my conscience and my medical doctor have been harping on for me to follow for years. At 69, I’m three-quarters of the way there.

Hank Breitenkam
Port St. Lucie, Fla.


My wife is a nutritionist, and both of us work in public health. Kool-Aid and Pop-Tarts are full of sugar, so hummus is a more healthy alternative (as Kat does point out). In a country with over half of the population either overweight or obese, we need to encourage more healthy eating habits. Be examples! I am proud that our monthly meeting has had only vegetarian dishes at its weekly simple lunch for several decades. I do not mind politely explaining the reasons to anyone who inquires.

Stan Becker
Baltimore, Md.


I, too, have been offered unusual foods to eat over the years: raw grasshoppers, fresh cow’s blood, cow’s urine in milk, and a variety of home-distilled firewater called changa’a. I tried only the latter, and survived. Most of the time, I respectfully informed hosts beforehand that, truthfully, as a matter of faith, I didn’t eat meat, fish, or fowl. Putting my vegetarianism within the context of my faith gave folks an understandable reason to serve me something else—usually something much less costly and, more likely, what they ate everyday themselves.

Kat Griffith’s opening about the seven bowls of hummus at a potluck reminded me of our Quaker wedding 48 years ago in Buffalo, N.Y. We had already gone through a clearness process but our travel plans changed, so we ended up giving the meeting only nine days notice for a potluck reception. We ended up with eight or nine versions of three-bean salad.

Ken Maher
Rochester, N.Y.


As a child of the Midwest United States, I grew up on potluck staples of potato salad, jello salad, baked beans, macaroni salad with tomatoes—and Kool-Aid (soda was a treat reserved for holiday meals). The well-intentioned folks who bring whole wheat crackers, hummus, and vegetarian items are welcome to do so, but for those of us who are gluten intolerant or allergic to nightshade foods (potato in all forms and tomatoes), potluck meals are nothing short of nightmarish. We don’t know what is safe to eat without carefully reading labels. Blue corn chips are fine as long as I can enjoy a beef or chicken taco alongside it!

Carol McIntyre
Las Cruces, N.M.

Beyond the bumper stickers

Laura Boles has hit on something (“The Power of Being Quaker in Public,” Mar.). For much of our history, to be a Quaker was to be very public and visibly distinctive. In those days, if a member of the Society of Friends walked down the street, everyone knew it. For these Quakers, simplicity included dressing plainly.

Imagine a march or rally where all the Quakers dressed plainly: no colors, no accoutrements—just black, white, and Quaker gray bonnets and broad brimmed hats. This would say clearly who we are and what we stand for. That is, we are members of a historic peace church, bearing public testimony for peace.

Of course, early Friends did not just dress plainly on First Day. Integrity requires that our simplicity not be just for public gatherings. An adoption of simple dress means putting on Quaker gray every day. This requires the courage to look peculiar all the time. But why not? We are ready to let the world know who we are with an abundance of bumper stickers. Why not let the world know who we are and why we are every day and with every person we meet?

So, consult with thy Inner Guide. See if (for thee) walking cheerfully over the world also means walking plainly for all to see.

Chip Thomas
Kennett Square, Pa.


Quaker process is not something we hide behind. It is an essential element of our experiential faith. We do not do outreach and witness because we are Quakers but because we experience the Eternal Divine Light and order our lives by that. Our task as Friends is not to point toward ourselves. It is and has always been to point toward the Light. Nothing else matters, and when our witness in the world begins with that understanding, it will gain great power.

Don Badgley
Newburgh, N.Y.


Would so many Quakers have been arrested throughout history if people weren’t drawing attention to themselves and their identity as Quakers? Would the group have grown for so many early generations if it hadn’t worn an identifiable banner through its deeds and acts?

Breaking old rules, like not taking off hats, were individual (or group) acts to provoke thought and change. They were preaching. They were saying, “Join us.” They were wearing their identities as “Quakers, ” just like Laura Boles is describing in this video.

And a new thought for me on Quaker language: it is supposed to be a society of friends. Society seems bigger than attending a weekly silent meeting. Wasn’t one of the complaints raised by early Quakers and other Protestants that faith has been reduced to weekly rituals? Doesn’t calling it a society suggest that it has to be bigger, broader, and encompassing of more of life?

Are Friends not, to borrow Laura’s phrasing in the video, “hiding [that Light and the belief in that Light] behind” Quaker rules of decorum, process, arcane language, and—I dare add—ritual? For several years now QuakerSpeak videos have been saying this same thing but often less directly: Quakers need to speak, and not just to themselves.

Mark Skinner
Columbus, Ohio


I was once accosted by a gentleman who had learnt I was a Quaker—and therefore a pacifist. He challenged me in the form of the query: “How can you sleep at night knowing others are doing the work of protecting you?”

That began a long discussion between us, whereby I reiterated many times (and in many ways) that the role, life, and witness of a “pacifist” was not to “be passive,” but to be constantly active for justice and actions to stop war or the preparation for war.

I did not convince this gentleman to become a pacifist himself, however, in the end, I did convince him that I slept well. And he gave me a line that I will happily take to the grave with me: “I suppose pacifists do add a certain leavening to society.”

When I think about the difference between leavened and unleavened bread, and what a small addition to the baking mix a leavening agent usually is, I think it is a wonderful analogy. In this I was truly able to walk cheerfully and answer that of God in my disputer.

David Tehr
Bassendean, Australia

Surprising landscapes

I find uncertainty makes me a better listener, as I feel no need to react from some certainty of my own (“Uncertainty, an Unnamed Quaker Creed?” by Rhiannon Grant, FJ Mar.). It helps me to turn toward persons with varying doctrinal ideas. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own convincements, notions. Also isn’t there something inherently uncertain in the use of representative symbols, particularly language? I hope to tinker with ideas rather than encapsulate them. Because I can only know Spirit uncertainly, I often hear of it by surprise. A surprising landscape is uncertain. Isn’t openness itself uncertain?

If someone tells me they are certain about their convictions, I won’t argue with them about that; I agree with Rhiannon Grant that uncertainty ought not be imposed or expected of another.

Stuart Bartram
Springwater, N.Y.


Forum letters should be sent with the writer’s name and address to Letters may be edited for length and clarity. Because of space constraints, we cannot publish every letter.

1 thought on “Forum, May 2020

  1. Great list! Thank you.
    And I haven’t read these yet, but they’re on deck, and seem especially important for Friends (and maybe already included on other lists at FJ):

    • Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice By Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye
    • The Seed Cracked Open: Growing Beyond Racism By Vanessa Julye

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