Quakers acting badly

Friends don’t have a particularly good track record with regards to controversy. There’s no reason we need to pretend to be talking historically. We’ve had two major yearly meetings break up in this summer (meet Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Fellowship of Friends), with at least one more “at bat” for some future long hot summer.

Controversies flare up in many places. Friend Sa’ed Atshan just broke his media silence to talk about the cancelation of his talk at Friends’ Central School in February and the subsequent walk-outs, firings, and litigations. The controversy around Avis Wanda McClinton’s disownment by Upper Dublin Meeting continues to incense large numbers of Philadelphia Friends, with fuel to the fire coming from the role that the Undoing Racism Group does or doesn’t have in the yearly meeting structure. Last year a majority of Friends of color boycotted public events at the FGC Gathering over frustration at the site selection process and the underlying issues extend to other Quaker venues.

The most-commented recent article in Friends Journal is “It Breaks My Heart” by Kate Pruitt from the online June/July issue. Many readers related to her sense of alienation and loss. Two comments that hit me the hardest were:

Not all Friends are found in Quaker Meetings. You’re better off without your meeting.

Gone now is the hope… of finding community among Quakers. To be frank, why bother? There’s plenty of brokenness right where I am.

And I get enough “Why I’m leaving Friends” manifestos in my email inbox every month that I could turn it into a regular Friends Journal column.

It seems to me that are a number of underlying issues that tie these controversies together. What do we do when a group of Friends starts acting in a manner that seems contrary to our understanding of Quaker testimonies and practices? How do we balance love and judgement when conflict arises among us? When do we break out of Quaker niceness? Maybe even more challenging, how do we maintain our integrity and accountability when controversy breaks us into camps willing to engage in exaggeration? And just what do we say when the outside public only gets half the story or thinks that one side is speaking for all Friends?

So this is a plug for submissions for December's Friends Journal.  The theme is “Conflict and Controversy" and the submission deadline is September 9. We’re not looking for blow-by-blow accounts of being mistreated, and we’re not terribly interested (this time) in manifestos about Quaker cultural norms. I'm less interested in specific issues than I am the meta of discernment: How do individuals or small groups of Friends move forward in the heat of controversy. What do we do when the easy solutions have failed? How do we decide when it's time to break out of Quaker niceness to lay down some truth—or time to kick the dust off your sandals and move along?

Wheat planting at Howell’s Living History Farm

We’ve got­ten into the habit of vis­it­ing Howell’s Liv­ing His­to­ry Farm up in Mer­cer Coun­ty, N.J., a few times a year as part of home­school­er group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shear­ing and card­ing. Today we saw the var­i­ous stages of wheat – from plant­i­ng, to har­vest­ing, thresh­ing, win­now­ing, grind­ing, and bak­ing. I love that there’s such a wide vocab­u­lary of spe­cif­ic lan­guage for all this – words I bare­ly know out­side of bib­li­cal para­bles (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vin­tage machin­ery (Howell’s oper­a­tions are set around the turn of the twen­ti­eth century).

Visual storytelling through animated gifs and Vine

NPR’s Plan­et Mon­ey recent­ly ran an arti­cle on glass recy­cling, How A Used Bot­tle Becomes A New Bot­tle, In 6 Gifs. The Gif part is what intrigued me. A “gif” is a tightly-compressed image for­mat file that web design­ers leaned on a lot back in the days of low band­width. It’s espe­cial­ly good for designs with a few dis­creet col­ors, such as cor­po­rate logos or sim­ple car­toons. It also sup­ports a kind of prim­i­tive ani­ma­tion that was com­plete­ly overused in the late 90s to give web­pages fly­ing uni­corns and spin­ning globes.

Ani­mat­ed gifs have grown up. They make up half the posts on Tum­blr. They are often derived from fun­ny scenes in movies and come with humor­ous cap­tions. The Plan­et Mon­ey piece uses them for sto­ry­telling: text is illus­trat­ed by six gifs show­ing dif­fer­ent parts of the recy­cling process. The move­ment helps tell the sto­ry – indeed most of the shots would be visu­al­ly unin­ter­est­ing if they were static.

The short loops reminds me of Vine, the six-second video ser­vice from Twit­ter which I’ve used a lot for sil­ly kid antics. They can also tell a sim­ple sto­ry (they’re par­tic­u­lar­ly well suit­ed to repet­i­tive kid antics: up the steps, down the slide, up the steps, down the slide, up…).

In my work with Friends Jour­nal I’ve done some 7 – 12 minute video inter­views with off-site authors using Google Hang­outs, which essen­tial­ly just records the video con­ver­sa­tion. It’s fine for what we use it for, but the qual­i­ty depends a lot on the equip­ment on the oth­er end. If the band­width is low or the web­cam poor qual­i­ty, it will show, and there are few options for post-production edit­ing. But hon­est­ly, this is why I use Hang­outs: a short web-only inter­view won’t turn into a week­long project.

Pro­duc­ing high-quality video requires con­trol­ling all of the equip­ment, shoot­ing ten times more footage than you think you’ll need, and then hours of work con­dens­ing and edit­ing it down to a sto­ry. And after all this it’s pos­si­ble you’ll end up with some­thing that doesn’t get many views. Few Youtube users actu­al­ly watch videos all the way through to the end, drift­ing away to oth­er inter­net dis­trac­tions in the first few minutes.

I like the com­bi­na­tion of the sim­ple short video clips (whether Vine or ani­mat­ed gif) wed­ded to words. My last post here was the very light-weight sto­ry about a sum­mer after­noon project. Yes­ter­day, I tried again, shoot­ing a short ani­mat­ed gif of Tibetan monks vis­it­ing a local meet­ing­house. I don’t think it real­ly worked. They’re con­struct­ing a sand man­dala grain-by-grain. The small move­ments of their fun­nel sticks as sand drops is so small that a reg­u­lar sta­t­ic pho­to would suf­fice. But I’ll keep exper­i­ment­ing with the form.

Story: The teapot that survived

“What do you think of this?” It was prob­a­bly the twen­ti­eth time my broth­er or I had asked this ques­tion in the last hour. Our moth­er had down­sized to a one-bedroom apart­ment in an Alzheimer’s unit just six days ear­li­er. Vis­it­ing her there she admit­ted she couldn’t even remem­ber her old apart­ment. We were clean­ing it out.

Almost forgotten history.
Almost for­got­ten his­to­ry. by martin_kelley, on Flickr

The object of the ques­tion this time was an antique teapot. White chi­na with a blue design. It wasn’t in great shape. The top was cracked and miss­ing that han­dle that lets you take the lid off with­out burn­ing your fin­gers. It had a folksy charm, but as a teapot it was nei­ther prac­ti­cal nor aston­ish­ing­ly attrac­tive, and nei­ther of us real­ly want­ed it. It was head­ed for the over­sized trash bin out­side her room.

I turned it over in my hands. There, on the bot­tom, was a strip of dried-out and cracked mask­ing tape. On it, bare­ly leg­i­ble and in the kind of cur­sive script that is no longer taught, were the words “Recov­ered from ruins of fire 6/29/23 at 7. 1067 Haz­ard Rd.”

We scratched our heads. We didn’t know where Haz­ard Road might be (Google lat­er revealed it’s in the blink-and-you-miss-it rail­road stop of Haz­ard, Penn­syl­va­nia, a cross­roads only tech­ni­cal­ly with­in the bound­ary of our mother’s home town of Palmer­ton). The date would place the fire sev­en years before her birth.

We can only guess to fill in the details. A cat­a­stroph­ic fire must have tak­en out the fam­i­ly home. Imag­ine the grim solace of pulling out a fam­i­ly heir­loom. Per­haps some grand­par­ent had brought it care­ful­ly packed in a small suit­case on the jour­ney to Amer­i­ca. Or per­haps not. Per­haps it had no sen­ti­men­tal val­ue and it had land­ed with our moth­er because no one else cared. We’ll nev­er know. No amount of research could tell us more than that mask­ing tape. Our moth­er wasn’t the only one los­ing her mem­o­ry. We were too. We were los­ing the fam­i­ly mem­o­ry of a gen­er­a­tion that had lived, loved, and made it through a tragedy one mid-summer day.

I stood there and looked at the teapot once again. It had sur­vived a fire nine­ty years ago. I would give it a reprieve from our snap judge­ment and the dump. Stripped of all mean­ing save three inch­es of mask­ing tape, it now sits on a top shelf of my cup­board. It will rest there, gath­er­ing back the dust I just cleaned off, until some spring after­noon forty years from now, when one of my kids will turn to anoth­er. “What do you think of this?”

Update March 2017

Prob­a­bly the old­est pic­ture of Liz I have, from 1931. Eliz­a­beth “Lizzie” “Gram­my” Williams Noll, Eliz­a­beth Klein­top, Puerette “Puri” “Pap­py” Noll. On porch of Colum­bia Ave. home, Palmerton.

Beyond all odds, there’s actu­al­ly more infor­ma­tion. Some­one has put up obit­u­ar­ies from the Morn­ing Call news­pa­per. It includes the May 1922 notice for Alvin H. Noll, my mother’s great grandfather.

Alvin H. Noll, a well known res­i­dent of Palmer­ton, died at his home, at that place, on Sun­day morn­ing, aged 66 years. He was a mem­ber of St. John’s church, Towa­mensing, and also a promi­nent mem­ber of Lodge, No. 440, I.O. of A., Bow­manstown. He is sur­vived by two daugh­ters, Mrs. Lewis Sauer­wine, Slat­ing­ton, and Mrs. Fred Par­ry, this city; three sons, Puri­et­ta Noll, Samuel Noll and Thomas Noll, Palmer­ton. Two sis­ters, Mrs. Mary Schultz, Lehigh­ton; Miss Aman­da Noll, Bow­manstown; two broth­ers, Aaron Noll, Bow­manstown, and William Noll, Lehigh­ton. Ten grand­chil­dren also sur­vive. Funer­al ser­vices will be held at the home of his son, Puri­et­ta (sic) Noll, 1067 Haz­ard Road, Palmer­ton, on Wednes­day at 1.30 p.m., day­light sav­ing time. Fur­ther ser­vices will be held in St. John’s church, Towa­mensing. Inter­ment will be made in Towa­mensing cemetery.

And there it is: 1067 Haz­ard Road, home of my mother’s grand­fa­ther Puri­ette Franklin Noll one year before the fire. So I’ll add a pic­ture of Puri­ette and his wife Eliz­a­beth with my Mom eighter years after the fire, at what the pho­to says is their Colum­bia Avenue home. Wow!

Quaker video outreach, a talk with Raye Hodgson

An inter­view with Raye, a mem­ber of Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing Con­ser­v­a­tive who serves on their Elec­tron­ic Out­reach Com­mit­tee. You can also watch it on Quak­erQuak­er: Quak­er Video and Elec­tron­ic Out­reach.

Raye: Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing holds our year­ly meet­ing in Bar­nesville Ohio – some peo­ple know us as those Bar­nesville folks. We have an elec­tron­ic Out­reach Com­mit­tee and that includes the over­sight and min­istry asso­ci­at­ed with our web­site. We spend time think­ing about how to open up to peo­ple who might be inter­est­ed in Friends’ ways and might want to know more about us whether or not they’ve ever read the Jour­nal of George Fox. We’re try­ing to expand our wit­ness, if you will.

One of the ques­tions that has come up in this elec­tron­ic out­reach group is: what types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or video are use­ful for some­one to get to know us but also respect­ful of the fact that we do wor­ship and that wor­ship is a spir­i­tu­al­ly inti­mate time. We’re try­ing to bridge and deal with respect­ing the wor­ship­pers, the Friends them­selves, to not put on a per­for­mance and yet to try to com­mu­ni­cate what it is that is edi­fy­ing in prac­tice and worship.

Mar­tin: How do you give new­com­ers a taste of Quak­ers with­out direct­ing it too much? If you just have that silent emp­ty box it’s hard for new­com­ers to know what should be fill­ing that box.

Raye: One of the things Friends have done for hun­dreds of years is to pub­lish, to keep jour­nals and to share that. But that’s not all there is to the Friends expe­ri­ence. There are those qui­et times and those moments of min­istry that we believe are Spirit-inspired. Many of us wish we could give peo­ple a lit­tle taste of that because that doesn’t show up in a lot of pub­lished writ­ings. That spon­ta­neous and time­ly, and at times prophet­ic, wit­ness that we see in our Meet­ings. We have con­sid­ered dig­i­tal video as a way to do that.

Mar­tin: I love the video pos­si­bil­i­ties here. Video can be a way of reach­ing out to more people.

Raye: It’s not just any­thing that can be writ­ten. Cer­tain­ly the writ­ings that have been pub­lished are very help­ful in get­ting some sort of a glim­mer of where we have been, or in some cas­es where we are head­ed or where we are. But there is noth­ing like that expe­ri­ence of being with Friends in meet­ing. It doesn’t always hap­pen but there are these moments called a cov­ered meet­ing or a gath­ered meet­ing where every­body seems to be in the same place spir­i­tu­al­ly and when seems to be mes­sages and gifts com­ing through peo­ple. That’s dif­fi­cult to get across.

We’re hop­ing that with video we can dis­cuss these kinds of things after the fact. We don’t want to turn it into a spec­ta­tor sport or performance.

Mar­tin: Authen­tic­i­ty is a key part of the Quak­er mes­sage. You’re not prac­tic­ing what you’re going to say for First Day or Sun­day. You’re sit­ting there and wait­ing for that imme­di­ate spir­it to come upon you.

Raye: We don’t know when that will hap­pen. There are meet­ings where every­body is very qui­et, where there’s a sense of that spir­it and uni­ty but it may be an out­ward­ly qui­et meet­ing. I have been in meet­ings where some­one stood up and began to sing their mes­sage or a psalm or some­one had a won­der­ful ser­mon that was per­fect for the moment. These things hap­pen but we don’t know when they will.

Pew survey on dogma and spirituality

Sur­vey: More have dropped dog­ma for spir­i­tu­al­i­ty in U.S. — USATO​DAY​.com

“Every reli­gious group has a major chal­lenge on its hands from all direc­tions,” says [Pew Forum direc­tor Luis] Lugo. When he fac­tors in Pew’s Feb­ru­ary find­ings that 44% of adults say they’ve switched to anoth­er reli­gion or none at all, Lugo says, “You have to won­der: How do you guar­an­tee the integri­ty of a reli­gious tra­di­tion when so many peo­ple are com­ing or going or fol­low­ing ideas that don’t match up?”

Lugo’s ques­tions is par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant for Friends, as many of us are con­verts. But the gen­er­al turn toward a more expe­ri­en­tial reli­gios­i­ty points to pos­si­bil­i­ties for fur­ther out­reach. Don’t have the time to check the sur­vey itself but USATo­day looks to have some good graphs about it.