There’s a nice remembrance of George Willoughby by the Brandywine Peace Community’s Bob Smith over on the War Resisters International site. George died a few days ago at the age of 95 [updated]. It’s hard not to remember his favorite quip as he and his wife Lillian celebrated their 80th birthdays: “twenty years to go!” Neither of them made it to 100 but they certainly lived fuller lives than the average couple.
I don’t know enough of the details of their lives to write the obituary (a Wikipedia page was started this morning) but I will say they always seemed to me like the Forrest Gump’s of peace activism–at the center of every cool peace witness since 1950. You squint to look at the photos at there’s George and Lil, always there. Or maybe pop music would give us the better analogy: you know how there are entire b-rate bands that carve an entire career around endlessly rehashing a particular Beatles song? Well, there are whole activist organizations that are built around particular campaigns that the Willoughby’s championed. Like: in 1958 George was a crew member of the Golden Rule (profiled a bit here), a boatload of crazy activists who sailed into a Pacific nuclear bomb test to disrupt it. Twelve years later some Vancouver activists stage a copycat boat sailing which became Greenpeace. Lillian was concerned about rising violence against women and started one of the first Take Back the Nightmarches. If you’ve ever sat in an activist meeting where everyone’s using consensus, then you’ve been influenced by the Willoughby’s!
For many years I lived deeply embedded in communities co-founded by the Willoughbys. There’s a recent interview with George Lakey about the founding of Movement for a New Society that he and they helped create. In the 1990s I liked to say how I lived “in its ruins,” working at the publishing house, living in a coop house and getting my food from the coop that all grew out of MNS. I got to know the Willoughbys through Central Philadelphia meeting but also as friends. It was a treat to visit their house in Deptford, NJ—it adjoined a wildlife sanctuary they helped protect against the strip-mall sprawl that is the rest of that town. I last saw George a few months ago, and while he had a bit of trouble remembering who I was, that irrepressible smile and spirit were very strong!
When news of George’s passing started buzzing around the net I got a nice email from Howard Clark, who’s been very involved with War Resisters International for many years. It was a real blast-from-the-past and reminded me how little I’m involved with all this these days. The Philadelphia office of New Society Publishers went under in 1995 and a few years ago I finally dropped the Nonviolence.org project that I had started to keep the organizing going.
I’ve written before that one of the closest modern-day successor to the Movement for a New Society is the so-called New Monastic movement–explicitly Christian but focused on love and charity and often very Quaker’ish. Our culture of secular Quakerism has kept Friends from getting involved and sharing our decades of experience. Now that Shane Claiborne is being invited to seemingly every liberal Quaker venue, maybe it’s a good opportunity to look back on our own legacy. Friends like George and Lillian helped invent this form.
I miss the strong sense of community I once felt. Is there a way we can combine MNS & the “New Monastic” movement into something explicitly religious and public that might help spread the good news of the Inward Christ and inspire a new wave of lefty peacenik activism more in line with Jesus’ teachings than the xenophobic crap that gets spewed by so many “Christian” activists? With that, another plug for the workshop Wess Daniels and I are doing in May at Pendle Hill: “New Monastics and Covergent Friends.” If money’s a problem there’s still time to ask your meeting to help get you there. If that doesn’t work or distance is a problem, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it more here in the comments and blogs.
2010 update: David Alpert posted a nice remembrance of George.