A tea towel from a Quaker bookshop in London hangs on my guest room door. In the center is a bright green mustard seed plant with large yellow flowers. To the left are these words from Matthew 13:31 in the Christian Bible:
The Kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. Mustard is indeed the least of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh as a tree, so that the birds may lodge in its branches.
On the right it reads:
Quakers recognise the creative power of God within the world and every human being. We work through quiet processes for a world where justice builds true peace. Like the mustard seed our work is small in comparison to the scale of world problems but our prayer is that our small seeds of love will also grow into greater things.
I find both encouragement and challenge in those words. Today the Religious Society of Friends numbers over 370,000 members worldwide, about 80,000 in the United States and Canada, with under 100 in Austin, Texas, where I live. That’s not many to carry our testimonies of peace, equality, simplicity, and integrity into a world where humans practice racism, unsustainable economics, and violence.
Then I remember examples of “small seeds of love” growing into “greater things.” John Woolman, born in 1720 into a Quaker farm family in southern New Jersey, planted such seeds. In 1742 as a young shop clerk, the experience of writing a bill of sale for his employer selling a slave woman left Woolman convinced that slaveholding was “a practice inconsistent with Christian religion.” Many Friends at the time owned slaves, and some were involved with the importation of men, women, and children from Africa. Traveling among them and sharing his concerns about the evils of slavery became Woolman’s lifelong ministry.
Woolman wrote in his journal that he constantly tested his opposition to slavery through long periods of prayer and by never acting except with permission and support from his meeting. Though his ideas were radical and his contemporaries sometimes found him a bit odd (he wore white linen and wool clothing to avoid using cotton and indigo dye, which were products of slave labor), Woolman is most remembered for his loving respect for enslaved people and their owners, both of whom he considered caught in a system of oppression that separated them from God. When he traveled among Friends who enslaved people, he pressed upon his hosts money to pay those who had served him. He explained he was trying to help the enslavers come closer to God by treating those who had served him as full human beings due payment for their labor.
Woolman died in 1772, never to know that his “seeds of love” helped begin a movement that made slavery an unthinkable institution. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before we identify other ways in which our White supremacist structures oppress the descendants of formerly enslaved people and others, and change those structures to create equal opportunity for all.
Slavery was as commonplace in Woolman’s world as war and violence are in ours. Today, many Quakers sow seeds of love in their efforts to abolish capital punishment and end war.
The author’s tea towel from a Quaker bookshop in London. Photo courtesy of the author.
In 2001 Friends Meeting of Austin—my meeting—took under our concern the 29 men and women on death row in Texas who had committed their crimes while juveniles. Our intent was to help them, their families, and the families of their victims. One of those on death row was Napoleon Beazley, an African American man from Grapeland, Texas, who at age 17 was part of a 1994 car hijacking that ended in the murder of a 63-year-old man. Sadly, Beazley was executed on May 28, 2002. We helped his family and others bring visibility to Texas’s violation of international treaties and the U.S. Constitution in carrying forward his execution. Respectfully and with love, we engaged state officials in dialogue about the execution of juvenile offenders.
We also sent Beazley books about spiritual matters and some of us visited him, getting to understand how much he regretted being involved in this crime. In his last statement before execution, Beazley showed a maturity gained during his time in prison:
The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was senseless. But the person that committed that act is no longer here—I am. . . . I’m saddened by what is happening here tonight. I’m not only saddened, but disappointed that a system that is supposed to protect and uphold what is just and right can be so much like me when I made the same shameful mistake.
On the evening of the execution, some meeting members stood silently with others in front of the governor’s home in prayer for all involved. Beazley was one of the last juvenile offenders to be executed in the United States. In 2005, the Supreme Court (Roper v. Simmons) banned the practice of executing offenders who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes. Our witness was “small seeds” that contributed to the changing of government behavior.
We are not sowing small seeds unless we stay open to understanding God’s plan, and are ready to offer expertise we have garnered from practicing nonviolence. Together we can turn small seeds into a country where we share the value of loving our neighbors, no exceptions.
Quakers in Austin continue to sow small seeds together, supporting the ministry of more than ten Friends who, before COVID-19, visited death row inmates monthly. We send holiday greetings to all those on Texas’s death row, inviting those individuals to request a pen pal if they so choose. Many people in our meeting write to one or more death row inmates. Relationships have been forged with these individuals, and joys and sorrows have been shared through letters, poetry, and art. These small steps have improved the death row situation for some; the number incarcerated on death row has decreased, and the number of executions continues to dwindle.
Quakers seek a world without war. The dominant culture teaches us to put our faith in armaments and weapons of mass destruction to ensure safety and security. The theologian Walter Wink traces to ancient Babylon the origin of the belief that combat is the way goodness overcomes evil. Contemporaries often call military force “the last resort,” as if it would always, though costly in dollars and lives, be guaranteed to work.
For over 300 years, Friends have been lovingly questioning this myth. We are called by God today to ask our leaders and others: why didn’t nearly $500 billion in spending for the U.S. military in 2001 (adjusted for 2021 dollars) protect us from the 9/11 attack? How much more do we need to spend to do so? Meanwhile we sacrifice our cities, our environment, the education and training of our children and youth, and the health of our people. Is using war to “rid the world of evil” the only role for our country?
In asking these questions, Friends risk being seen as un-American. Quakers are devoted to our nation, the freedoms we enjoy, and the positive role the United States could play in the world. Our aim—and our definition of patriotism—is to help this great country become greater and practice norms more consistent with our vision. We are not sowing small seeds unless we ask these questions lovingly of our leaders and one another. We must stay open to understanding God’s plan and be ready to offer expertise we have garnered from practicing nonviolence. Together we can turn small seeds into a country where we share the value of loving our neighbors, no exceptions. We can create sustainable systems that assure the welfare of all the earth’s creatures, and scatter mustard seeds that will grow into large trees.