On a windy August afternoon, the four of us—all women, all Quakers—went walking. Lonely from COVID, we kicked up dust with our shoes and sang songs. Then we settled under a gnarled old elm tree, telling stories. We talked about how we could support our Quaker meeting if the virus bloomed in town. We talked about the people we loved. The grass was stiff from summer heat and drought. It felt prickly on my legs.
Slowly, we moved into a quiet, more reflective time.
Dorothy, a Friend I have known for years, shared about her beginnings as a Quaker. She told of the older Quakers who had mentored her: Jane Jenks Small, Stephen Thiermann, Dean and Shirley Tuttle, Marjorie and Reed Smith. Hearing those older Friends’ names was like listening to my own heritage. I was too young to meet many of them, but I did meet Dean when he was 105.
Dorothy grew quiet; her words came with care. She talked about the lessons she had learned from these older Friends.
“It’s important,” she said, “for the elders to model Quaker process for the younger generation.” She was both quiet and fierce. “Because I see Quakerism as a real gem to be passed on.” I felt touched by her words.
Sitting nearby, Jackie nodded. Dorothy turned to me and asked if I’d ever met Anna Rain. I shook my head: I was too young.
“You would’ve loved her,” Jackie said, and they both grinned.
“Anna Rain used to say, ‘I just love going to business meeting. I wouldn’t miss it for anything!’” I laughed. Dorothy acted as if she were Anna Rain, sitting up a little straighter. She jabbed one finger in the air for emphasis. “‘Because I just love watching those older Quakers do business!’ That was part of what Anna Rain said.”
We let out a heap of laughter, which rang out across the lake.
Gazing out at riprap and blue water, Jackie said, “It’s up to us. We are the ones now.” A raven called from the far bank. She scrubbed the dog panting at her side. “We have to model and guide the process in a way that’s sacred.” When I heard her words, a chill of recognition ran up my spine.
I let out a breath. Jackie and Dorothy are each from my parents’ generation. As I heard them speak, I could tell we were sharing something important.
Dorothy gazed across the water. She leaned back and then recalled another moment. She’d been in business meeting and opinions were strong. Emotions were flaring up, she said, and, “People were getting glued to their perspectives.” And then, at that moment, one of the older Quakers asked for a pause, “Friends, I feel something here,” they said. “Let’s settle into worship.”
The worship was beautiful. She could remember it still. “You could tell,” Dorothy said, “that the moment was religious. You could tell people were praying for the good of the group.” A silence began to open up: a wide, deep silence.
Listening, I smiled and closed my eyes. It sounded wonderful. It sounded like a very Quaker kind of moment. I remembered the first time I’d experienced such a hush. I was walking into Baltimore Yearly Meeting Women’s Retreat. Inside a large hall 200 women were finding their seats. There was the bustle of chairs and coats. Then, to my surprise, a hush fell over us. It came like a little wave. I looked up, and saw that one woman was standing at the front. She was raising her hand for quiet.
I felt amazed that one person could have such an effect. This can happen, I thought, when Quaker women run things! On that day, 200 women modeled something for me. They modeled a new way of being, one that I found fresh and inspiring.
Dean Tuttle (left), age 108. “I played tennis with Dean until he was 99,” one Friend remembers. He and Shirley Tuttle were well-known for their activism and deep commitment to social justice. Photo from Lynne Heritage.
Jane Jenks Small (right) was generous, straightforward, caring, and warm. An educator and an active meeting member for 50 years, she reminded people: “Everyone does their very best every day.” Photo courtesy of Foxdale Village.
“It’s important for the elders to model Quaker process for the younger generation. Because I see Quakerism as a real gem to be passed on.”
Now, roasting in the summer heat, I pressed my hands to the dry ground. I liked hearing Dorothy tell stories about our meeting. Though I didn’t live the stories, they felt familiar. We moved into quiet as the wind tattered our hair.
A berry dropped on my knee, and Dorothy began to speak. This time, she talked about encouragement.
Dorothy remembered the grief she felt when the First Gulf War broke out. She had heard news reports that during the United States invasion, troops were disrupting water supplies in Iraq. She felt a wave of sympathy for the people affected, especially for the children. She decided to join a local group that opposed both the sanctions on Iraq and the war itself.
Together, the local group researched more. They learned about a network of peace activists who were working to draw attention to human suffering. Voices in the Wilderness used civil disobedience to protest the war and its impact. Members of this group were visiting Iraq in delegations. They brought food and medical supplies with them. They knew that their actions were illegal.
Dorothy and other members of the local group felt moved to donate money to Voices in the Wilderness. They spoke out publicly about their choice. Hearing this, a news reporter asked them for an interview. Dorothy told him that for her, the decision to speak publicly was a matter of faith.
I smiled when she said that: “a matter of faith.” It felt soft and true. I watched Dorothy’s face change, though, when she shared what happened next. The article was published on the front page of the local news. This made Dorothy uncomfortable. Her name, views, and integrity were all publicly exposed.
Young Friends at State College (Pa.) Meeting gather for a kitchen project. As this generation rises, they will live out their own “heritage of courage.” Photo courtesy of Vilmos Misangyi.
A few days later, a local man wrote to the newspaper. He spoke forcefully, sharing his disgust at the group. He identified Dorothy and called her a traitor. He claimed that she should be tried for treason.
Just briefly, on hearing the word “treason,” I almost wanted to laugh. But I glanced at Dorothy and stopped. I could see that she’d felt afraid. Her eyes were full. There was something in her face. Then she told us, “One of the penalties for treason is death.”
“Are you sure?” we asked quietly.
“I looked it up,” she replied. She had felt afraid when she was publicly exposed, and then criticized. She went to her Quaker community for guidance. Dorothy sought out people from the older generation, the Friends who had modeled Quaker process for her.
These Friends, her mentors, had been peace activists themselves during the Vietnam War. They had joined the Civil Rights Movement. They had stood up for their beliefs, in spite of the risks. They listened to Dorothy’s concern, and then offered a reply.
“Don’t worry about it,” they said. They spoke with gentleness but also clarity. They reminded her, “We’ve been threatened our whole adult lives. This is what we do. Quakers fed people during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. They fed the Germans after WWI, when most people hated Germans. They went out and set up soup kitchens to feed the people who were hungry.” They reminded Dorothy that Quakers had been on the front lines of human rights work for a very long time. The older Friends affirmed not only her fear but also her place in the group.
Hearing this, Dorothy grew more confident. She realized she could rely on a new kind of courage, one rooted in community.
As she spoke, the phrase “a heritage of courage” floated up in my mind. “Is that maybe what they gave you?” I asked. “A heritage of courage?”
“That, too,” she said, tilting her head back and smiling, “but also a heritage of identity. I felt a great sense of belonging in listening to them.” She smiled a very warm smile.
I pray that we may continue doing that work, as one generation rises and the other wanes. May we learn how to hold these stories in our hands and then, when it’s time, let them go.
Later, we stepped out from the tree and settled into separate cars. We drove home, but the impact of the day stayed with me. When I think about that time, a line from Faith and Practice comes to mind. It says that our queries change, “as each generation finds its own voice.” I think that’s beautiful.
When I think back to the elm tree, I see what we modeled for each other. It’s important for each generation to find its voice. We receive heirlooms from older Friends and shape them in our own hands. We need older and younger people to be telling stories together so we can do this.
Dorothy’s memories taught me about my past—our shared past—from before I was born. I take comfort in her words. They are a gift. Her words showed me: This is what we do. We stand in a sea of noise and model quiet leadership. We call each other into better listening. We work to build the kin-dom of God, but we don’t do it alone. We rely on one another—tenderly, vulnerably, and with our hearts overflowing. We live with integrity. Though it may be difficult, we put our integrity ahead of personal safety. We know that comes with risk. We find bravery through community strength. This is what we do.
I pray that we may continue doing that work, as one generation rises and the other wanes.
May we learn how to hold these stories in our hands, and then, when it’s time, let them go.
May we pass on the gems of our faith with all the fierceness and the fire that they deserve.