Nancy’s Secret Garden

When we came here in fif­teen or so years ago, Nan­cy Forrester’s Secret Gar­den was a mag­i­cal oasis tucked in the mid­dle of a block in Key West, a small for­est said to be the last unde­vel­oped acre in the city’s Old Town neigh­bor­hood. Full of wind­ing paths and trees it was the rarest of spaces: loved, care­ful­ly tend­ed, and shared with the pub­lic as a gift of beau­ty. But even then it felt besieged. In 2012 tax­es and expens­es became too much and Nan­cy sold off parcels to devel­op­ers. From an arti­cle in Key News:

The tucked-away entrance to Nan­cy Forrester’s Secret Gar­den off Free School Lane in the 500 block of Simon­ton Street will be closed to the pub­lic after today, as finances and prop­er­ty tax­es have forced For­rester to sell the land parcels that have housed an artist’s cot­tage and gallery, par­rots, orchids, rare palms, mean­der­ing path­ways and a med­i­ta­tive gar­den for more than four decades.

These days the gar­den has been reduced to a small back­yard on Eliz­a­beth Street which Nan­cy uses as a res­cue par­rot refuge. In the morn­ings she gives edu­ca­tion­al lec­tures on the birds, full of facts about their bril­liant behav­ior, the destruc­tion of their native habi­tats, and gen­tle lec­tures about how we can all pro­tect native par­rot habi­tats by liv­ing more light­ly on the land (hint: no red palm oil or beef). From behind the fence came the sounds of a swim­ming pool being installed in the cut­down mid­dle of the for­mer gar­den. Nan­cy has life ten­an­cy on the ill-repaired house where she lives with the parrots. 

I don’t know the details of the real estate trans­ac­tions or Forrester’s finances but I find it incred­i­ble that Key West couldn’t ral­ly around one of its liv­ing trea­sures. I’m glad that Nan­cy remains along with her par­rots and I’m grate­ful my kids got a chance to meet her. 

 

AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don't mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.

Worshipping?

Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Chatting with Greg Woods

Yes­ter­day I had a nice video chat with my friend Greg Woods, whose arti­cle, Orga­niz­ing Young Adult Friends Online, appeared in November’s Friends Jour­nal. Greg and I have been hav­ing vari­a­tions on this con­ver­sa­tion for years. Back in 2011, we worked togeth­er along­side Stephen Dot­son to put togeth­er a now-dated Young Adult Friends web­site (watch us eat in double-time in its pro­mo­tion­al video!). I believe it was the fourth YAF orga­niz­ing web­site I had built since the mid-90s. Greg is now putting togeth­er a net­work of Quak­er cam­pus min­istries. It’s one of those obvi­ous needs that I hope Friends will support.

From concern to action in a few short months

rooftop3A grow­ing list of sto­ries is sug­gest­ing that black church­es in the South are being tar­get­ed for arson once again (although one of the more pub­li­cized cas­es seems to be lightning-related). This was a big con­cern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quak­er pro­gram stepped up to give Friends the chance to trav­el to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Jour­nal edi­to­r­i­al:

Some­times a news arti­cle touch­es the heart and moves peo­ple to reach out to one anoth­er in unex­pect­ed ways. So it was this win­ter when the Wash­ing­ton Post pub­lished a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black church­es in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Con­fer, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Wash­ing­ton Quak­er Work­camps, saw the arti­cle, he decid­ed to do some­thing about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two col­leagues accept­ed an invi­ta­tion to trav­el to west­ern Alaba­ma and see the fire dam­age for them­selves. They were warm­ly received by the pas­tors and con­gre­ga­tions of the three Greene Coun­ty church­es. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.

I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right tem­plate to fol­low this time, but it’s a great sto­ry because it shows the impor­tance of hav­ing a strong grass­roots Quak­er ecosys­tem. I don’t believe the Wash­ing­ton Quak­er Work­camps were ever a par­tic­u­lar­ly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been run­ning for ten years and had built up cred­i­bil­i­ty, a fol­low­ing, and the abil­i­ty to cross cul­tur­al lines in the name of ser­vice. The small­er orga­ni­za­tion­al size meant that a news­pa­per arti­cle could prompt a flur­ry of phone calls and vis­its and a fully-realized pro­gram oppor­tu­ni­ty in a remark­ably short amount of time.

A first-hand account of the work­camps by Kim Roberts was pub­lished lat­er than year, Rebuild­ing Church­es in Rur­al Alaba­ma: One Volunteer’s Expe­ri­ence. The D.C.-based work­camp pro­gram con­tin­ues in mod­i­fied form to this day as the William Penn Quak­er Work­camps.

Update: anoth­er pic­ture from 1996 Alaba­ma, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old pho­to books. She’s sec­ond from the left at the bot­tom, part of the longer-stay con­tin­gent that Roberts mentions.

WQW

Banishing the demons of war plank by rotten plank

In Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, Jane Brax­ton Lit­tle writes about the restora­tion of one of the most sto­ried protest boats of the twen­ti­eth century:

The Gold­en Rule project is an improb­a­ble accom­plish­ment by unlike­ly vol­un­teers. Mem­bers of Vet­er­ans For Peace, they are a mot­ley bunch that might have appalled the orig­i­nal crew, all con­sci­en­tious Quak­ers. They smoke, drink and swear like the sailors, though most of them are not. Aging and per­pet­u­al­ly strapped for mon­ey, the most­ly retired men sought to ban­ish their war-related demons as they ripped out rot­ten wood and replaced it plank by pur­ple­heart plank.

Friends Jour­nal ran an arti­cle by Jane, Restor­ing the Gold­en Rule,  back in 2011 when the VFP vol­un­teers first con­tem­plat­ed restora­tion, and a longer fol­lowup by Arnold (Skip) Oliv­er in 2013, The Gold­en Rule Shall Sail Again. Of course, the cool thing about work­ing at a estab­lished mag­a­zine is that it was easy for me to dip into the archives and find and com­pile our 1958 cov­er­age of the ship’s famous first voy­age.

You ca fol­low more about the restora­tion work on the VFP Gold­en Rule web­site or check out pic­tures from the re-launch on their Face­book page.

Golden-Rule-crew-1958