A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager)

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Chuck Fager -- Writer, Editor
Updated: 5 hours 4 min ago

Is “Christian Democracy” Possible in the U.S.?

Sun, 04/08/2018 - 9:36pm

The Guardian: “Christian democracy, a political ideology embodied by figures like Germany’s Angela Merkel, contributed to establishing stable democracies in Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. The US was often deeply supportive of this process, yet never cultivated an analogous political movement at home. Now that it is facing a serious institutional threat of its own, it can perhaps learn from what it has long preached abroad.

The role of Christian democratic parties and agents in the creation of the United Nations, the European Union and the international human rights regime was decisive.

Given how different all this is from the direction taken by the American right of late, is there any chance that something of the sort might actually take hold in the US? Far from a fanciful speculation, there is a clear constituency for a political movement founded on such premises in this country. As George W Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson notes in the Atlantic’s latest cover piece: “One of the most extraordinary things about current politics … is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump.” It’s so extraordinary, in fact, that it is hard to imagine Christian voters remaining loyal to Trump if faced with a better alternative.

Well, maybe. But finding “a better alternative” won’t be easy.

Still, there’s plenty  of wisdom here. American evangelical Christianity COULD in theory move way from the current regime, which mocks almost every aspect of its core.

But I see four BIG hazards that will need to be overcome on the way to becoming a better option:

1. The Mormon hegemony. While most evangelicals supposedly condemn Mormonism as a “cult,” it has become a major power center in their political world (cf. Mitt Romney), one which is organized behind a solidly reactionary social-economic agenda, and it will not yield the floor easily.

2. Christian Zionism: a tenacious, well-funded crusade, with a wide following, firmly allied with most of the most dangerous & reactionary elements of the Israeli government, and panting for its chance to bring on Armageddon.

Christian Zionism

 3. “Christian Dominionism.” These are the cadres who firmly believe that their sort should rule like Old Testament Kings, enforcing the most brutal Old Testament strictures (i. e., death to LGBTs & others). Roy Moore is their kind of guy.

And last but hardly least—

4. Racism. Sure, racism is everywhere in American religion. But major chunks of evangelicalism  long ago abandoned its initial reformist notions and retreated into a segregated nativist ghetto, which made it the seedbed for the second rising of the Ku Klux Klan, the host for many less well-known pillars of Jim Crow, the key to the GOP’s “Southern Strategy,” and now shelter the most loyal legions of the 45 regime. A few voices are crying out in that wilderness, but they are still lonely & mostly scorned.

I’m no expert on how their European counterparts overcame their own obstacles, which were the opposite of trivial, but for two generations they’ve done well enough to produce leaders of the caliber of Angela Merkel. Yet Merkel’s hold is slipping there, and the alternatives look grim. 

Considering the state of American evangelicalism in 2018, it’s hard to imagine this movement evolving and spawning a resurgence of humane “Christian Democracy” here, or shoring up its beleaguered outposts across the Atlantic.

Germany’s Angela Merkel: the last Christian Democratic leader standing in Europe?

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Categories: Blogs

Selma, the Day before Memphis

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 2:20am

On Wednesday April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,

Room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

I’ll be among  those, But I’ll be doing it from Alabama, just down the street from the still blindingly all-white state capital in Montgomery. That’s where the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church still stands. There in 1955 Dr. King  began the career which ended, at least in embodied form, with a bullet fired  in Memphis.

At Dexter Street, Alabama State University will conduct a day-long program on the anniversary, and they invited me to join a panel.

The “Queen City” of the Black Belt? If so. It reigns over a crumbling domain.

My route to Montgomery is not straightforward. It takes a detour 50 miles west, to Selma. If I get this close, Selma is a place of pilgrimage for me. Regular readers should recall that I spent 1965 here, working with the civil rights campaign that resulted in the  passage of the Voting Rights Act

Andy Grace, left, & Chip Brantley (headphones).

This time, I joined up with two exceptionally knowledgeable guides, Andy Grace & Chip Brantley, scholarly journalists & filmmakers, at work on a major radio documentary, in association with NPR. They shared many new facts about the city, NC exchange for my recollections & reflections of my time there.

Wake up delicacies at Mr. Waffle. Mr. Waffle runs a respectable establishment . . .

After a very southern breakfast at “Mr. Waffle,” we headed for the first of two visits with the dead. Selma’s main cemetery is home to a new, very large, and controversial Confederate memorial complex. Besides a host of actual Confederate graves, it features a new statue honoring the memory of rebel general Nathan Bedford Forrest (also from Memphis), who tried & failed to defend Selma from a Union  force in the last days of the Civil War.

This statue was the target of vigorous protests by local black activists. They pointed out that Forrest’s war record included involvement in a wanton massacre of black Union troops at Fort  Pillow, Tennessee, and before that, he had built a fortune running the biggest slavetrading operation in his region. Then when the official war ended he was a key figure in founding the first Ku Klux Kla’s terrorist campaigns.

But the protests failed to stop the monument’s installation, and all I could do was shake my fist at his brooding brass visage. (He was unmoved.)

But I did find some consolation in one the place’s major ironies, that among its most “illustrious” rebel residents is Confederate General, reputed Alabama Klan leader, and U. S. Senator Edmund Pettus. Despite this record, Pettus has become a posthumous Civil Rights “hero,” by having his name attached to the famous nearby bridge which figured so centrally in the voting rights struggle of fifty-three years past.

Buried in irony: part of Edmund Pettus’s grave marker.

Yet in an effort to keep up with the current renaming frenzy, some local students have circulated a petition to drop Pettus from the bridge, and replace him with John Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture when voting rights marchers were attacked while attempting to cross it in March 1965. But Lewis, a large-souled fellow and now a senior congressman, has declined the nomination. I suspect Lewis enjoys a fine irony when he sees one, as he has helped organize many of the annual bridge-crossing commemorations which have cemented the Late senator’s unearned but enduring civil rights renown.

General, I think we’re stuck with you; and vice versa.

From there we drove thirty miles northwest, to a smaller burial ground near the town of Marion. In it we paid homage to the shade of Jimmie Lee Jackson. He was unarmed & trying to protect his grandfather when a state trooper shot him during an attack on a night march in February 1965; he died a few days later.

A sturdy memorial bouquet for Jimmie Lee.

Jackson’s  large and handsome headstone has been pocked and chipped by numerous bullet gouges & divots, But I took some comfort from the fact that there didn’t seem to be any new  strafing damage since my 2015 visit. (These days, one takes such bits of comfort where one finds them.)

Then it was back to Selma, to go to jail. The small city jail Is still there, on the second floor of what was City Hall then, but is police headquarters now.

In the first floor hallway there hangs a long row of framed photos of Selma’s police chiefs. One of them is in civilian clothes; that’s Wilson Baker, who insisted on being called Public Safety DIrector. It was Baker who arrested Dr. King and about 250 other voting rights marchers on February First, 1965; I was among them.

“Go on in,” said the jailer with a smirk, “you been here before, right?” Right.

We were taken to a large cell block on the third floor, but soon Dr. KIng and three others were moved to a small cell block one floor down. The sheriff picked me as one of the four.

I’ve written elsewhere of my adventures in that crowded cell, which centered on eating Dr. King’s dinner. I told Andy about this, but what  impressed us more was just the fact that 53 years later, that cell and the tiny block were visibly the same. 

Back in the hoosegow again. Briefly. Jail rules; we obeyed.

That aging did not seem to have eroded the rumbling, heavily painted, bars. But it was of a piece with large chunks of Selma’s surrounding downtown, except that many of the other buildings were much the worse for wear, and whole blocks were locked and boarded up. 

In fact downtown Selma looked like it was rapidly morphing into a ghost town.  The streets seemed bare, except for a trickle of tourists walking onto the bridge and taking pictures. It was the same elsewhere.

On Highland Avenue, about a mile north of downtown, there are some middling malls and a large WalMart. They were largely filled and busy in 2015, though the presence of more than a dozen predatory payday loan shops was worrisome.

But today these malls were mostly empty, surrounded by deserts of unfilled parking lots. The Walmart was teeming, but the decay that followed the crash of a decade ago has only spread and deepened.

Mrs. Boynton’s house, what’s left of it.

A personal symbol of this collapse still stands on Lapsley Street. It’s the long time home of Amelia Boynton,  a grande dame of the local movement, who lived to be 104.

She was my landlady.  I rented a room there. It seemed a solid middle class abode. By the time she died In 2015, there were  plans to turn it into a museum.

The sign announcing the museum plan stands forgotten on what’s left of the back porch.

But instead the house is now boarded up, abandoned and collapsing Scores of once-solid houses across the black neighborhoods are in similarly bad shape.

Taped to a desk in the police station, behind a thick plastic screen.

Overall, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that whatever gains were brought to Selma by 50-plus years of black voting rights have been all but taken away by a disintegrating economy. And this downward spiral seems likely to continue.

All of which leaves me in a somber mood as the panel in Montgomery approaches. What now remains of  the  seemingly great victory that was won in Selma? What remains of what Dr. King and others risked their lives for? What is left of what many, including Dr. King, gave their lives for?  Of what realm is Selma now the Queen CIty?

I wonder.

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Categories: Blogs

Preparing for Life – A Quaker Story

Sat, 03/24/2018 - 1:43pm

Place: A Friends School

Time: Now

Note: This story is fiction. It is also true.

The door to Matthew’s office was open a few inches, but Teacher Ellen still knocked tentatively. The door was big, the oak was heavy and dark, but not ornate. The sign that read “Matthew Evans, Head of School,” was small and visually unimposing. But no matter how modest, to her it still meant “The Boss.” 

Matthew was an open-minded and friendly boss, to be sure. And encouraging to junior teachers with lots of ideas. 

But still, the boss. His office where Ellen’s future as a Quaker private school teacher would probably be decided. It was also where the buck stopped, where the school’s most unpleasant tasks got done.

Like this one, Ellen thought, when she heard him say, “Come in.” She glanced back at the two students behind her. The girl, thin, her dark hair still tousled, was trying for an air of defiance. The boy, an entitled preppy if there ever was one, didn’t need to work for an insolent expression; it came with the pedigree. 

Yes, Ellen, she thought, waving them in ahead of her, admit it: you’re prejudiced against seniors who drive their own Beamers. She admitted it.

They took their places in front of the broad, dark desk, The students in front, Ellen behind and to their left. She noted again that, no matter how affable Matthew could be in faculty meetings or bantering with students over lunch, he was also master of a dead-serious poker-face. 

She had only seen it once before, when a student drug dealer was expelled. But that once made clear it was one of the tools of his trade as school head. The stern poker face was as necessary as his ability to charm donations out of wealthy parents for new programs and raises in teacher pay. 

Matthew was examining a sheet of paper in an open folder. His jacket was off, but his tie was a solid navy blue and his demeanor entirely businesslike. He let them stand there in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. 

Then he dropped the paper, glanced up and said, “Teacher Ellen?”

“It’s just as you see there,” Ellen said. “I went into the drama building last night, to get a book I’d left in a classroom, and on the way out I heard noises from the auditorium. I went in quietly, and, um, found Kevin and Connie on the mattress behind the stage. They were, um, unclothed, and apparently having sex.”

Matthew shifted a stony gaze to the students. “You knew this was completely against the behavior code?” He said.

Connie stared at the floor and nodded. Kevin’s response was something between a nod and a shrug.

“And you also understand,” Matthew went on, “this infraction is eligible for immediate expulsion?”

More nods, but from the corner of her eye, Ellen caught the hint of a curl to Kevin’s lip, which she took to mean, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Connie,” Matthew intoned, “I’m sending you home for a month. Report to the Counseling Office, and they’ll escort you to your room to pick up your things. You may go.”

Connie started to sniffle, then put a hand to her face and shuffled out.

Matthew waited another long moment. It seemed to Ellen he didn’t even blink.

“Kevin,” he said, “This is your second incident. You were lucky there was a different head of school that time. I’m sending you home til after Christmas.”

“But I’ll miss finals,” Kevin protested.

“Not if you want to graduate,” Matthew said coldly. “You’ll make arrangements with the teachers by email, and your return is subject to their certifying that all the work is up to date.” 

Matthew picked up the folder. “Report to the Counseling office, and you are not to speak to Connie there, or anywhere else on campus.

When Kevin’s footsteps had faded down the long old hallway, Ellen realized she felt as if she had been holding her breath through the whole ordeal.

Matthew shook his head and the poker face dissolved into a tight smile. “That’s definitely not the fun part of my job,” he said, “but sometimes –” he opened his palms, left the rest of the sentence hanging.

Then he stood up from the desk, stepped to a hanging file drawer, and slipped the folder in a slot. “Enough of that!” He said, as if he’d opened a window to banish an unpleasant odor.

“Now,” he was settling back into his chair, “I’ve got lots to do, but tell me a bit about your sophomore field trip.”

Ellen was relieved; the encouraging boss was back. “It was great,” she said. “The Old Roadside Friends Cemetery is a goldmine. It’s got gobs of Quaker and antislavery history, and the kids seemed to love cleaning it up. There’s lots more work to do, though.”

“What about the neighborhood?” 

“It’s pretty rough,” she said, “but we had no trouble. We visited the Baptist church across from it, and the pastor was welcoming. Said he was glad to see Quakers taking some responsibility for what’s still their property. He invited us to visit a service, and I set that up for this Friday.”

“Excellent.” Matthew was beaming now. 

A bell clanged, echoing up and down the hallway outside.

“Time for my class,” Ellen said, and turned to go.

“Keep it up,” Matthew said. “Your history & heritage program is great. I wish I’d had a history teacher like you when I was here.”

Matthew had only a couple minutes of quiet before Victor Washington, the Development Director, was in the doorway, a thick folder under one arm. “You wanted the latest on the fundraising campaign,” he said. He tapped the folder. “Got it right here.”

Of course, Matthew knew most of what was in Victor’s spreadsheets and charts. As head of school, he had to deal with more than student misbehavior; teaching, and teachers; campus sports, boards and committees. Besides all that, every day, maybe every hour, he thought about raising money. 

From the outside, the school might look timeless and solid after almost two centuries in its wooded campus. But from inside, every single year, so much had to be paid for: buildings built, painted, trimmed, fixed, rebuilt, replaced. Teachers were underpaid, but their paychecks still added up. Tuition and fees kept going higher, but never quite caught up with expenses. 

So Matthew, like every head of school, thought about fundraising every day. A head who didn’t was soon out of a job.

Matthew nodded reflexively as Victor said the money for a new swimming pool was on track; and the historic meetinghouse restoration was almost funded.  These were places the alumni remembered, and things they had had fun doing: easy to raise money for. 

“But where it’s still heavy lifting,” Victor was saying, “is the NIT.”

Matthew sighed. The NIT–or New Initiatives in Teaching. His favorite, and it was tougher. Computers were obsolete as soon as you turned them on. Software  needed updates almost every week. And if something was focused on the past–like Teacher Ellen’s history & heritage plans– or you wanted more scholarships for poor or non-rich Quaker students–the first question behind closed doors was, “How will it help my kid (or grand-kid) get into Harvard?”

Like pulling teeth, and it never stopped. 

These scholarships were also close to Matthew’s heart. Victor’s too: a scholarship student who finished top of his class. Now he looked over the newest report, frowning. “We need some new ideas for this,” he said, “some way to put it across better.”

Matthew shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Yeah,” he said,”you’re right.”

He turned toward the window behind his desk. An old clock was on a mantel next to it. Across the grass, he could see the corner of the meetinghouse. Beyond it cars were parked along the road to the campus entrance. 

As he watched, two white campus vans drove down the road. Matthew shook his head at them. From this distance, they looked shiny and new. 

“You see those vans, Victor?” He pointed. “We had to put a new transmission in one last month. And the U-joint in the other one could go any day. Several thousand bucks in all.”

He turned back to Victor. “But without them we have no field trips, for Teacher Ellen’s program. The kids like those trips. And getting their hands into American and Quaker history is–“

A discreet tap at the door. Doris, his secretary. “Excuse me, Matthew,” she said. “You’d want to see this.” She handed him an oversize yellow post-it note.

Doris understood how things worked, so Matthew frowned down at the note as Doris retreated. At a signal from him, She shut the door quietly behind her.

“Victor,” he said quietly. “It’s Mrs. Mickleson.”

Victor’s eyes widened. But he looked confused. This should be good news. Yet he could hear alarm in the way Matthew spoke the name of the school’s biggest donor.

“What–?” Victor asked.

Matthew read from the note. “She’s here, outside.” He glanced up. “No,” he added, “we were not expecting her. She told Doris she was in the city for a board meeting of the Mickelson Charitable Foundation, and asked her driver to stop here before they went back to Washington. She said she has something urgent to show me.”

He considered the note again. “Doris has very good radar about this sort of thing,” he said. “It sounds like a problem.”

Victor hurried the reports back into their folder. “You want me to go?” He asked.

Matthew hesitated. It might be wiser to see her by himself. But in Victor and his work,  Matthew thought he glimpsed a future head of school, either here or another Quaker school. So maybe he should see this too, whatever it was. 

Matthew shook his head. “You’ve been working with her,” He said. It wasn’t really a question.

“Met with her twice at the Foundation office,” Victor said. He checked his phone calendar. “Have an appointment in Washington next week.” He paused. “Did have, anyway.”

“Better stay,” Matthew said. “We’ll see what it’s about. If I need one-on-one with her, I’ll say so.”

A moment later, the three of them had finished a round of hearty greetings, and Doris had asked if anyone needed coffee or juice, which was declined with forced cheer.

Mrs. Mickleson was near sixty, dressed in a subdued but well-tailored pantsuit, a single string of pearls, and a black leather portfolio.  Matthew knew she was not typically condescending or imperious. But he could sense she was all business today. Curiously, though, she also had gloves on.

She launched right in. “Matthew, I won’t take much of your time. There’s another board meeting in Bethesda at four o’clock, that I mustn’t miss.”

“How can we help?” Matthew asked.

Instead of answering directly, Mrs. Mickleson said, “My granddaughter Amy Singleton spent the weekend with us, and she talked nonstop about the school. She loves it here.”

“Glad to hear that,” Matthew said, though he had a definite sense there was a “But” coming.

“And she had some of her chums over for a swim, and that night I heard them out on the patio talking and carrying on about a field trip her class took into the city.”

Matthew wanted to smile and nod; something kept him from it.

“They thought I’d gone to bed,” she said. “But I peeked out when they went off to the kitchen for snacks, and there on a table was this–“

She flipped open a silver-tipped latch on the black portfolio, dipped two gloved fingers into it, and lifted out a thick plastic zip-lock bag. She held it up for them to see. 

Matthew was struck by how out of place the bag looked. The plastic was thick but translucent, with white patches at the top as labels.

It looked like something from a police evidence locker, or a hospital morgue, somehow mislaid in the gloved hand of a model from Tiffany’s. The juxtaposition was so visually absurd it was almost funny.

Mrs. Mickelson was not the least bit amused. “These are some of the souvenirs Amy and her class secretly brought back from that field trip, which I gather was to an abandoned cemetery in the inner city.”

She pointed at it with her other hand, highlighting a thin cylinder. “That tube, Matthew, is a drug addict’s syringe, complete with a used and bloodstained needle.”

The pointer finger moved down past a round beige lump. “And this,” she grimaced, “this is a used condom, evidently left behind by one of the prostitutes who ply their trade there.”

She turned a withering gaze on Victor. “Mr. Washington, was this, er, excursion part of the new program you told me about? What’s it called–??”

Victor cleared his throat. “Uh, history and heritage, Mrs. Mickelson,” he said softly.

Matthew couldn’t let him take the rap here. “We think very highly of the program,” he said. “It often serves to bring together critical issues of the past and present in vivid, concrete ways.” 

As soon as the word “vivid” was out of his mouth, Matthew regretted it.

“‘Vivid,'” Mrs. Mickleson repeated for emphasis. “I’ll say.” She waved the bag for emphasis, then dropped it back into the portfolio. Clicking the clasp, she looked from Victor to Matthew. Her lips were tight.

“Matthew,” she said flatly, “One of Amy’s classmates claimed she found bullet shell casings from some sort of pistol, but a teacher took them.”

She stifled a shudder. “I believe you know, Matthew, that I am no reactionary. The long  record of progressive Quaker values is a big part of this school’s appeal. And both the Foundation and I have long supported research and advocacy for forward-looking and humane drug and social policies.” An eyebrow arched. “The Foundation director testified before the Senate just last year. 

“But this–” she gestured toward the portfolio — “Amy and her chums treated them like carnival prizes. But do you realize how dangerous those — those objects are? Bloody needles? Germ and virus-infested debris from commercial sex? Bullets?”

She leaned forward. “Do I have to spell it out?” 

Her eyes were wide, as the memory of Amy and her chums in close proximity to any of those objects closed in.

“No,” Matthew shook his head, a hollow feeling settling in his gut. “No, you don’t.”

Mrs. Mickelson sat back stiffly in her chair. “Amy’s sister Bethany is In Eighth grade in Bethesda. We’ve looked at Westtown and Sidwell, but she wants to follow her big sister here. And they have cousins in Baltimore who say the same thing.”

She tightened her grip on the portfolio, and stood up abruptly. “But Matthew, I couldn’t possibly support anything like this.” She raised a hand for emphasis. “If they need field trips, Washington is within reach, and so is New York. I’m sure they would be received by the most progressive and responsible policy groups in these fields, and there are model programs they can also visit. Safely. I–“

The hallway class bell clanged and cut her off. Mrs. Mickelson took it as a signal. Giving each of the men a single pump handshake, she turned to the door. 

“Matthew,” she said, lifting the portfolio, “I truly respect the enthusiasm and spirit of adventure you bring to your work here. But I must remind you that those adventures involve some of the most precious parts of my life–and that of others like me.” She pulled the door open. “Amy and your other students are here to prepare for life, not to risk it.”

“I’ll see to it right away,” Matthew said. But she was gone. 

Victor closed the door, leaned against it, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Whoa,” he murmured. “That was, um, vivid.”

“Yeah,” Matthew chuckled, and realized he was sweating too. “Victor,” he said, “we need some time to decompress and absorb this, but we’ll talk again after classes are done this afternoon.”

“Decompress,” Victor repeated, and gave a low whistle. “Totally.” He opened the door.

“Oh, and on your way,” Matthew said, “can you stop by the History room, and ask Teacher Ellen to come down?”

“Check,” Victor said. The door clicked behind him.

Matthew turned again to the window, his fingers moving reflexively to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar.

One of the campus vans was now parked next to the meetinghouse, while the driver carried in some cardboard boxes.

Another field trip. Friday, which was tomorrow. He sighed. Not a chance for that now.

Matthew dropped his hands. No. The tie and collar had to stay tight.

He crossed the office to a coat closet. A mirror hung on the back side of its door. He looked into it, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and arranged his features into the disciplinary poker face. Yes, he practiced. 

It wasn’t quite right for this next encounter. But he couldn’t think of how to add a note of compassion without undermining the hard necessity of what had to be done.

The tap came on the office door.

He took the chair behind  his desk. “Come in.” 

Ellen entered, smiling.

Matthew opened a folder on the desk, and looked down without seeing what was in it.

Compared to what he had to do now, he thought, dealing with Connie and Kevin for writhing around on an old mattress — was it really only a couple of hours ago? — that was a piece of cake.



More about some actual events that helped inspire this story here, here & here.

The post Preparing for Life – A Quaker Story appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Selma, Alabama: Protecting King, Protecting Obama

Sat, 03/10/2018 - 2:56pm

When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.

Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.

One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous  trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color. 

That second march, by the way, is still going on.

I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.

But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.

Let me explain.

In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.

And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.

Selma, 1965, ready to march: Front, left to right: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Andrew Young. Behind and right of Young, me.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.

James Orange, at right behind Dr. King.

 “Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”

Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned. 

“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”

His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”

“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.

I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first to die in the Selma campaign, shot by a state trooper in February, 1965 while trying to stop the beating of his grandfather. The shooting hasn’t stopped: his headstone, by a state highway near his hometown of Marion, is pocked and pitted with bullet marks. This photo is from 2014, 49 years later.

Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops. 

The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.

That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.

 Several years later, while  doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis. 

All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.

This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.

But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.

A white supremacy billboard near the Pettus Bridge, celebrating the career of Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest, who later was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The motto under Forrest’s image is “Keep The Skeer On ‘Em”

I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.

A neo-Confederate supporter’s car, in Selma, 2014. At the right, below the confederate flag, reads the motto: “In the coming civil war, be a man among men.”

On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?

The passage quoted by this U.S. Senator from Georgia, republican David Perdue, was typical doublespeak dog-whistle hate: “Let his days be few, and another take his place of leadership” the quote from Psalm 109 begins. And then it adds: “9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. 10 May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. 11 May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. 12 May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. 13 May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. . . . “(and on it goes).

Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.

When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:

On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.

A busy office building in 1965, stands empty in downtown Selma, in late 2014; one of many.

 At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.

Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.

One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.

There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me  that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)

Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective.  Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.

The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. after his introduction during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. Lewis helped lead the original Selma march on March 7, 1965 which was attacked by police, deputies and state troopers, leaving him with a fractured skull.

The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.

But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.

Hope won’t stay behind the barriers.


More about my time in the movement is in this book, available here.

The post Selma, Alabama: Protecting King, Protecting Obama appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

A Stunning Article About Blacks in (& Troubled by) White Evangelical churches

Fri, 03/09/2018 - 2:35pm

There’s a must-read in today’s New York Times: “A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches”

It is carefully reported, and digs deep. It takes a broad view, but focuses on a huge megachurch, “Gateway,” in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

The Gateway congregations are “integrated”; people of color have been worshiping there for years; pastors at two of its “campuses” are black. As Charmaine Pruitt, one longtime attender, told the Times: 

“This is what I need right now,” thought Ms. Pruitt, moved to tears when she first went to orientation programs at the church. Members who happened to sit near her at worship came to ask about her when she missed a service, and some came to her grandmother’s wake. One couple began to refer to her as a daughter.

The congregation is mostly white, but not entirely; the pastors at two of the six satellite campuses are black men. Church videos and promotional materials are intentionally filled with people of color. 

But recently, some there, and in similar churches, have become increasingly uncomfortable. 

Two events seem to have marked this discomfort: first was the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, followed by growing anger and protest of the killings of many more black people (mostly young males). These killings were traumatic to many; but the disturbing aspect to some Gateway attenders was the silence about them in the church.

A service at Gateway. It has six “campuses,” which pack in 31,000 weekly.

The second landmark was the 2016 election. As the campaign proceeded, there was anything but silence from the Gateway pulpit. 

The church’s founder and “Senior Pastor,” Robert Morris, preached about the election in August 2016. As the Times quoted him:

Robert Morris, Gateway’s founder& Senior Pastor.

  “We (in America) are going the wrong way,” he concluded. “We need to get involved, we need to pray and we need to vote.”

[Morris] never said to vote for Mr. Trump. But the implication in the sermon, and in the leaflets that [were] handed out at church, was lost on no one: that one must vote to uphold Christian values and that the Republican Party platform reflected those values. And Mr. Trump was the Republican candidate.

This sermon, and the previous silence, left Charmaine Pruitt, who had attended Gateway for some years, more & more uneasy:

Pruitt sent messages to several white couples she had befriended at the church, telling them she was going to take some time off. She had become uneasy at a church, she told them, that speaks of overcoming racism on one Sunday “and then turns around later and asks me to support” Trump, who she believed was “a racist candidate.”

One of the couples invited her to come to their house. Sitting in the living room over a plate of brownies, Ms. Pruitt explained to the wife how disturbed she had been by the clear inference from the pulpit that she should support a candidate whose behavior and rhetoric were so offensive that she could not bring herself even to say his name.
The woman explained that a Trump victory had been prophesied and handed Ms. Pruitt a two-page printout, which began: “The Spirit of God says, ‘I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.’”

[NOTE: the full text of this “prophecy,” issued in 2011, is here, with “updates.” Here is an excerpt:

Mark Taylor, formerly a firefighter in Orlando, Florida. Now a self-proclaimed prophet.

The Spirit of God says, I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this. For as Benjamin Netanyahu is to Israel, so shall this man be to the United States of America! For I will use this man to bring honor, respect and restoration to America. America will be respected once again as the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth, (other than Israel). The dollar will be the strongest it has ever been in the history of the United States, and will once again be the currency by which all others are judged.

The Spirit of God says, the enemy will quake and shake and fear this man I have anointed. They will even quake and shake when he announces he is running for president, it will be like the shot heard across the world. The enemy will say what shall we do now? This man knows all our tricks and schemes. We have been robbing America for decades, what shall we do to stop this? The Spirit says HA! No one shall stop this that l have started! For the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now! For I will use this man to reap the harvest that the United States has sown for and plunder from the enemy what he has stolen and return it seven-fold back to the United States. The enemy will say Israel, Israel, what about Israel? For Israel will be protected by America once again. The spirit says yes! America will once again stand hand and hand with Israel, and the two shall be as one. For the ties between Israel and America will be stronger than ever, and Israel will flourish like never before.

The Spirit of God says, I will protect America and Israel, for this next president will be a man of his word, when he speaks the world will listen and know that there is something greater in him than all the others before him. This man’s word is his bond and the world and America will know this and the enemy will fear this, for this man will be fearless. The Spirit says, when the financial harvest begins so shall it parallel in the spiritual for America.

The Spirit of God says, in this next election they will spend billions to keep this president in; it will be like flushing their money down the toilet. Let them waste their money, for it comes from and it is being used by evil forces at work, but they will not succeed, for this next election will be a clean sweep for the man I have chosen. They [the enemy] will say things about this man, but it will not affect him, and they shall say it rolls off of him like the duck, for as the feathers of a duck protect it, so shall My feathers protect this next president. Even mainstream news media will be captivated by this man and the abilities that I have gifted him with, and they will even begin to agree with him says the Spirit of God.

[NOTE: the “next election” following this “prophecy” was that of 2012, which we will recall was won handily by Barack Obama. However, the premature chronology did not trouble the woman who gave it to Pruitt. As the Times reported]:

Barack Obama, the woman continued, should never have been president, since he was not born a United State citizen. The visit ended with the woman suggesting that Ms. Pruitt’s discomfort at the church was God telling her it was time to move on.

Ms. Pruitt never went back.

. . . Mr. Trump’s win, which one elder at Gateway described as a “supernatural answer to prayer,” generated a frisson of excitement at the church. Pastor Morris told the congregation that he was one of Mr. Trump’s faith advisers. The church was a sponsor of an inaugural ball in January 2017. . . .

Pastor Morris has since preached about race, However, his feelings about the current administration have not changed:

 “We were electing what we felt was the person who held the values that the church loves dearly the most. That doesn’t mean that he’s perfect. But I do believe after spending time with him that he really wants to learn, that he really wants to do a good job for all Americans. I really do.”

There are larger racial injustices in the country, he said, and those injustices need to be fixed — though not in ways that would enable dependence, he clarified, but rather to “give people a hand up, not a handout.” He noted the low black unemployment rate under Mr. Trump. The answer to racism lies primarily in the church, not the government, he said, and now that white pastors are waking up to the pain that black people have felt, it is in many ways a hopeful time.

“I think that there’s an anger and a hurt right now, and a fear,” he said, “and I think that people are going to get past that.”

There is now a team at the church focused exclusively on making the church more diverse. On the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a 49-second video of excerpts from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was played at worship services — “a monumental moment in Gateway church history,” one pastor said, the first time that the day had been acknowledged. . . .

For Charmaine Pruitt, this was too little, too late:

[Ms. Pruitt] had kept giving tithe money to Gateway for some months after she stopped going, but after learning about the inaugural ball, started donating to another church. On most Sundays she had stayed at home, watching services online.

Read the rest of this remarkable article.

PS.  One of Mark Taylor’s recent prophecies; find it on YouTube.

The post A Stunning Article About Blacks in (& Troubled by) White Evangelical churches appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Does Scot Miller Have the Answer to American Quaker Decline?

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 9:33am

Not all U. S. Friends Meetings are withering away; I live close to two of them (liberal unprogrammed) which seem to be thriving.

But many meetings are shrinking. Several formerly large yearly meetings, particularly in the Midwest & South, are now but shadows of their earlier selves. One of the largest among them, North Carolina, went entirely out of business in 2017, after 320 years.

In many other meetings, pastoral and non-, generational gaps are opening, with now elderly Baby Boomers more or less in charge, while their children’s and grandchildren’s generations seem to be missing or sparse in attendance.

Similar trends are evident in numerous other larger denominations. Church growth “experts,” pastors, debt-burdened seminarians, and others whose paychecks are at stake, are showing signs of panic. Surveys appear seemingly weekly, documenting, lamenting, wringing hands. Some with prophetic pretensions are issuing jeremiads, pointing fingers here and there (mainly at older folks, who are putatively “in power”) for having botched everything and brought on this debacle. But even with Boomers responding by dying off in droves, it seems to continue apace.

And like clockwork, Friends Journal in its February 2018 issue published a piece ominously titled,  “Can Quakerism Survive?”

One is tempted to smile at it. In this particular field –showing anxiety, gloom and near-despair about its future — Quakers have been far in the forefront among First World denominations (the way we believe we once were in the vanguard of all the important social reform movements). I have half a dozen such screeds on my bookshelf (see below for some details), and probably a few more that are lost in the overflow shuffle; it’s practically its own subgenre.

Both Friends Journal and the author, Donald W. McCormick, appear blissfully unaware of this, but the first big, deep tolling of the bell of impending Quaker doom came 159 years ago. That’s right, in 1859,  a committee of weighty London Friends, frightened by a downward membership trend, awarded a prize of 500 guineas (worth $25000 or more in today’s dollars) to Friend John Stephenson Rowntree, for his essay, Quakerism, Past and Present: being an inquiry into the causes of its decline in Great Britain and Ireland. (Online here.)

1859: A Tradition Begins

Rowntree’s essay was elegantly written, conversant with church and Quaker history, and moderate in his proposed remedies (mainly: loosen up on restrictions against “marrying out,” and for pete’s sake quit with the dorky-looking clothes.) His small book was widely read and discussed, and seems to have had some impact: marrying out soon become at east tolerable; and the old dorky duds faded away, replaced by newer dorky ones.)

Even more intriguing, though forgotten today, was the runner up volume, which was awarded, I think, two hundred guineas. It was  called:  The Peculium, an endeavour to throw light on some of the causes of the decline of the Society of Friends, especially in regard to its original claim of being the peculiar people of God, by Thomas Hancock (online here). 

Hancock’s analysis was the more trenchant, his proposal more radical: The Society of Friends was done, he concluded; it had completed its tiny role in God’s big plan. The only proper course for it now was to lay down its separate existence & all pretensions of “peculiarity,” then turn in a body to the one true Christian Church, namely the Roman Catholic. Well, Kyrie Eleison . . .!)

Compared to Hancock, Friend Donald McCormick’s 2018 suggestions — that meetings form outreach committees and start talking about all this — is pretty thin gruel. And a skeptic could point out that his reported “data” for this hair-on-fire piece comes from one local California meeting, and a single visit to its Pacific Yearly Meeting.

Meanwhile, today’s yearly meetings which have suffered the most decline (including the one which just folded) have talked about little else for decades, and made a plethora of “outreach” schemes (mostly called “evangelism”) an abiding centerpiece of their programs and budgets. All, by the way, to no avail.

So yes, things are changing among American Quakers. Some meetings seem to be coping with this pretty well. But what about the others? 

I don’t have any big rescue plans up my sleeve. But I do have a  suggestion: maybe it’s time to think outside the “outreach committee/evangelism-program/kidnap-the-Millennials-and-don’t-let-them-out-again-til-they’re-40” box.

I mean, outside. 

So who’s got some interesting outside-the-box ideas about building Quaker community in our present plight?

Scot Miller, with hat, in Flint, Michigan.

Scot Miller does. 

And if you’re in central NC this weekend, you can come hear them and talk to him about them. Saturday, Feb. 24, and then again on Sunday morning, when he’ll “bring a message”, both at Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp.

Listen. Think. Talk back. Argue if you want (like I do, but with interest).

Scot, multi-tasking with Derrida & Holstein, two of his favorite philosophers. . . .

Scot is from Michigan, in Barry County, a very red place smack in the middle of a triangular region with Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing at the corners (plus Flint a bit further east).

Scot is a theological hybrid/outlaw: both Quaker and Anabaptist. He recently published a book, Gospel of the Absurd. And his big idea (which might sound “absurd” to some, is closer to Hancock than Rowntree, but  is still worth a closer look anyway). It comes down to saying Quakers should turn Amish.

Well, not quite. More Amish–ish.

Scot doesn’t have much patience with today’s “progressive” Christian [and Quaker] ideas and activism, especially not as a way of building community. And at Spring Friends Meeting He’ll explain why and offer a different perspective and plan.    Here’s a preview: You have to wade through a lot of seminary-jargon in his book, Gospel of the Absurd to get to the nub, but then his complaints about current progressive activism pretty much come down to this:   1. Progressive church activism is “Christian” (or churchy) in name only, and in fact usually derived from the same old politics of power, which are secular and often enough demonic. 

2. Its programs and campaigns don’t work well, which ought to be clear from the deepening mess of trouble we’re in. And

3. The other side, “anti-progressive” so-called “evangelicals,” is better at it anyway, in crude worldly power politics terms. Which may make them even worse “Christians,” but they don’t much care what Scot Miller, or thee and me think about that.

Okay, so that’s Scot Miller’s diagnosis of our plight. What’s this turning “Amish-ish” alternative about?

For starters, is it plain dress & no more “smart” phones or laptops? Shunning dissenters or “sinners”? Trading in our cars for horse-drawn buggies?    Almost; though he’d be willing to dicker some about keeping the cars, and even the phones & laptops. But otherwise, pretty close. Again, not quite Amish. Amish-ish. Like this: reform ourselves into autonomous but networked communities. 

Organize the community life around what the Amish call an Ordnung (often rendered “discipline” or rules); and “Gelassenheit,” which suggests an anti-individualist outlook of tranquil modesty and submissiveness to tradition and community. (The community will write its own rules; but they would be real rules, not suggestions or evasive, “Do we feel guilty enough about all the things we’re not doing?” queries.)

Since most  of the Amish groups’ ordnung & rules are unwritten, handed down orally and by practice from youth, Miller’s Amish-ish culture would differ from them by centering on ongoing group study & interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Gospels, and the figure of Jesus in them.

And in the world, this Amish-ish practice would aim to express the typically-ignored calls by Jesus for sacrificial behavior toward others: nonviolence, a giving up of “privilege,” and service to the poor, oppressed, forgotten, including Trump supporters and even white nationalists in the area. (Cf. “Love your enemies,” etc.)   But why on earth should any progressive throw over all that they’ve toiled so hard for to take up this new role?

Miller’s answer, in sum, is threefold:

1. Because Jesus said to, and while Miller is no fundamentalist,  he’s convinced that if we’re to take Jesus (and the Gospels) seriously, that’s what seriousness means;

2. Because such a stance yields a different understanding of the world, and our place in it, one which is more true and promising; and

3. Because action from the bottom and at the margins has more impact than we can perceive with our media-distracted eyes & ears, especially if we can factor in the work of grace.

[Besides the Amish, he says the Catholic Worker movement is another useful model for comparison and study.]   Scot’s own form of this kind of Amish-ish ministry is to run a small dairy farm in west-central Michigan, in the midst of what is popularly called a (very) “red” community; and to do work with addicts and poor people, many in Flint, Michigan.Besides chronic poverty, too many of whom even yet don’t have safe water for themselves or their families (i.e., are still forgotten).   Scot has an idea, a plan to expand this ministry by means of an agricultural community built around his farm, but with  extensions to other communities within reach. He’s looking for people to join in. He hopes it will be organized around a Quaker heritage.

Scot is visiting North Carolina the weekend of February 24-25 to talk about his proposal, the ideas behind them, and the book in which they are expressed.

Maybe he doesn’t mean for all Quakers to do this Amish-ish thing; maybe there could be an interplay between such groups and sympathetic Friends who still need (or want) to live in town. (After all, somebody’s got to eat all that kale.)

The discussion will convene at 10 AM Saturday, February 24, at Spring Friends Meeting, 3323 E. Chapel Hill-Greensboro Rd., Snow Camp NC 27349. (Directions here.) Lunch will be provided, and then discussion will continue afterward as long as seems in good order.

On Sunday, February 25, Scot will bring the message at Spring’s First Day worship, at 11 AM.

The sessions are open to the interested public. There is no charge, but interested persons are encouraged to let us know they are coming so we can plan for lunch.
Spring Friend Meeting, Snow Camp NC   Oh — and just in case you think I’m exaggerating about the succession of doomsday prophecies of Quakerism’s imminent demise, here are a few more I’ve run down:

James De Garmo, was raised Quaker in upstate New York, but later turned Episcopalian. In 1895 he published The Hicksite Quakers & Their Doctrines, in which he pronounced the end of the Hicksite movement, and gave it a kind of funeral in print (Then, in a second edition a few years later he admitted wit some amazement that he’d been mistaken, and the Hicksites were not in fact all gone, but were even then growing again. (His book is online here.)

Leapfrogging ahead, in 1970, an interbranch conference in St. Louis emitted a report entitled What Future for Friends? (Its forecast: cloudy skies and possible storms ahead.)

Then in 1986, the late Gordon Browne was asked to speak at the 300th anniversary celebration of two meetings with the same name, Middletown, near Philadelphia. Browne was a well-travelled official with the Friends World Committee for Consultation. His title was The Future of Quakerism, and his prediction: sunny skies.

Thirteen years later, almost a century since DeGarmo’s slightly premature obituary, a group at the Earlham School of Religion produced a thick report, Among Friends, A Consultation with Friends about the condition of Quakers in the U. S. Today, in 1999.

Its tales of deepening Quaker woe were fulsome and filled many pages (but sending our best and brightest to ESR seemed to be the remedy of choice). This one is not online but it is reviewed here.

Five years later, British Friend Bill Chadkirk achieved a kind of notoriety in the journal Quaker Studies, with a piece full of charts and graphs and jauntily titled,“Will the Last (Woman) Friend to leave Please Ensure that the Light Remains Shining.”

In his paper, Chadkirk says, “An accelerating decline in membership commencing in 1990 is identified. Trends are extrapolated to determine an end-point in 2032.” (The paper is online here.)  So if thee wants to be a British Friend, better hurry up — only 14 years to go, max.

But if thee don’t like these sketches of what awaits us, Friend, fear not — another one or more will be along presently. It may be the only sure thing about our future as Friends . . .

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Categories: Blogs

The Road to Columbine – A True Story

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 11:14am

It was 1959 and I was a junior in high school when I discovered that my stomach muscles were unusually strong. Here’s how I found this out:

Justin, whose locker was a couple down from mine, came into the locker room, grabbed me by the shirt, slammed me up against my locker, and punched me in the stomach.

I don’t think Justin was angry at me when he did that, at least not especially so. He just felt like punching somebody, and there I was.

I had been punched in the gut once or twice before, and a couple other times hit there accidentally. The effect was always the same: it doubled me over in agony, unable to breathe for a moment or two. We called it, “having the wind knocked out of you.”

It was very scary the first time, until I realized I wasn’t going to suffocate, and every time it was painful.

But what happened that day was completely new, and it wasn’t clear who was more shocked by it,  Justin or me.

Me, then.

Somehow I knew what was coming when he grabbed me, and in the split second as he was shoving me against the locker door, managed to tense up my stomach muscles.

When the punch came, his big fist bounced off my hardened belly.

“Jesus Christ,” Justin said. “What’s this?”

He frowned thoughtfully behind his thick glasses, and then, deciding to take a scientific, experimental tack, calmly punched me a second time, harder.

My head and back thumped against the steel door, but his fist again bounced off my belly. My stomach hurt, of course, but I could still breathe, and stand. Justin had not knocked the wind out of me.

He shrugged and turned away. I had, in a limited but important sense, defeated him, at least for the moment.

Who knows how my stomach muscles got so hard? I wasn’t athletic, and had done no sit-ups or other special exercises. But I realized at once that if it could get that hard again, my sore belly could be an important survival tool.

The entrance, in the 1950s

Justin and I were cadets at St. Augustine’s, a Catholic military boarding school in western Kansas. It was 1959. At St. Augustine’s we went to church three times on Sunday, and twice every other day. We wore ROTC uniforms and marched wherever we went outside the building.

Despite all this, I liked it there. Why I liked it is a long story, having mainly to do with being from a large Catholic, military family and wanting to get away from home. St. Augustine’s was also Catholic and military; but it was far away from home, and that was enough for me.

Or at least, it would have been if I could figure out how to keep away from Justin. He was no taller than me, but weighed about twice as much, most of which was muscle. Rough-looking, with pimples and thick glasses, he was well-muscled, and he swaggered. He claimed to be a black belt in karate, and to have been in all kinds of rumbles and fights back home. I could believe this, although I also knew he bragged a lot.

“Be prepared.” How was I going to prepare?

What really surprised me was that he also insisted he was an Eagle Scout. Maybe he was just bragging about that too; but I didn’t doubt it then. I just puzzled over how he had fooled the scout leaders. How did he get them to see him as a person of upright character and all the other nice guy stuff that supposedly goes into achieving that highest scouting rank?

Anyway, Eagle Scout or no, Justin was a bully. More than a bully, really. That year I had begun reading some psychology books, and soon decided he was more like a psychopath, or maybe a sociopath, the kind of person who would kill somebody and never give it a second thought. He talked that way, and treated me and others that way too.

Actually, I didn’t think he might kill me, because he didn’t take me seriously enough. The gut punches were, for him, just fooling around. Even so, except for when I had to be at my locker, I gave him a wide berth, and he mostly ignored me.

My buddy Eddie was a different matter. Eddie’s locker was a couple down from mine, farther away from Justin’s. He and I were buddies for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was that we were among the few non-Catholic cadets at St. Augustine’s. This was no big deal for Eddie–he was raised Protestant and never gave it much thought. But it was a big deal for me, especially because it was very new: one reason I had been sent to St. Augustine’s was because there was no Catholic school near where my family lived.

But that year, besides reading psychology, I had also been plowing through some philosophy books, and soon realized I didn’t believe all this Catholic stuff they had taught me since before I started school. I decided I was probably an atheist, or at the least an agnostic.

I wasn’t ashamed of my new lack of faith; in fact, I often debated with other students about God, Jesus, miracles, hell, all that. The arguments were fun, but at the same time, this was very much a minority outlook at St. Augustine’s. So I was anxious to find some comrades: somebody, anybody I could speak plainly with, and Eddie was one of the main ones.

Eddie was tall, with a handsome face and dark hair which he frequently slicked back with a pocket comb, which was a cool thing to do in those days. And like Justin, he bragged a lot. He bragged about what a Romeo/ladykiller he was. He bragged about being a musician. And he also bragged about being tough, a fighter.

Maybe he was a Romeo; you could never be sure about that at our isolated all-boy’s school; and he was something of a musician, playing the saxophone quite seriously. But as far as being a fighter–well, that was mostly in his head. The fact was that Eddie was rail thin, and when he took off his shirt, there were huge patches of scar tissue all over his skinny chest. He had been severely burned as a child, and skin had been taken for grafts on his face and neck. I think the aftermath of those burns had also kept him physically weak.

Just the same, Eddie talked as if he was a veteran of all sorts of physical combat, in which he had kicked butt left and right. And he often swore he’d beat up anybody who tried to mess with him right here at St. Augustine’s. But the truth was that if it came to a fight, I could probably have beaten him myself, and I was no fighter.

None of this bothered me, because we were buddies; and it didn’t seem to bother most other cadets either, because it was easy to see that Eddie lacked the equipment to back up his bluster.

But everything about Eddie seemed to irritate Justin. I often thought about this. Was it Eddie’s smooth-skinned good looks, at least above his shoulders, that made Justin jealous? Or maybe his bragging just brought out Justin’s meanest streak.

Whatever it was  – I only know what I saw: The more Eddie talked, the more ticked off Justin got. And it didn’t take long to figure out that this meant trouble.


But Justin and his big fists were not all I thought about then. As the year at St. Augustine’s unfolded, I learned many things, and had my share of fun. Much of this was shared with Eddie, because our outsider status increasingly threw us together.

For one thing, while girls were mostly distant figures, they weren’t completely out of reach. In town there was a Girls Catholic High School, where the students all wore identical billowing blue dresses, and as time passed we each developed crushes on one or another of them. I admired a girl named Betty Lou, mostly from afar. Eddie did better. Because St. Augustine’s didn’t have a band, he was allowed to go into town regularly to play in the local high school band. There he found a girl named Marla, and actually managed to have a few dates with her. He swore they also did some serious making out – but I wasn’t so sure about that.

Then there was music. For Christmas my parents sent me a small portable record player, and I managed to get a single earphone connected to it. On it I played some big classical LP records I bought at a local supermarket for ninety-nine cents each. The earphone was tiny, and clipped over one ear. The sound was very tinny. But to me, tinny Mozart in one ear, was better than no Mozart at all.

Eddie’s fave. Not mine.

Eddie put up with my Mozart and Beethoven, but never quit trying to convince me that modern jazz, especially the music of Stan Kenton, was the greatest stuff ever written. I heard him out, but stuck stubbornly to my classical convictions.

By the time the snow melted and the leaves were returning, Eddie and I often took long walks in our limited free time, across the dark plowed fields next to the school grounds to the wooded creek beyond it, talking as always about all sorts of things. We chattered and argued about music, girls, and even religion, because I kept reading new books that raised new problems with various beliefs I had earlier taken for granted.

Before long we also talked about how all this reading was getting me in trouble with the priests who ran the school. They could put up with a few quiet Protestants around, but somebody like me, who had loudly abandoned their Catholic faith, was a real problem.

In fact, we soon heard out that one of the cadets I had argued with had reported me to Father Vincent, the Director of Student Life. I think my unbelieving notions scared him, as if they were a kind of virus and might be catching. And maybe he was right.

In any case, the goal of St. Augustine’s was to turn out good Catholics, not good atheists, and that’s what I was sure I was becoming. So one of these days, I announced, the priests would be coming after me.

Eddie said he’d stand with me when they did, and he was as good as his word.

One Friday afternoon we had to see Father Vincent to get permission to go into town after class. But Fr. Vince (as we called him), turned us down flat. Eddie’s grades, he said, were not good enough.

We knew there was more to it; for one thing, my grades were excellent

It was Eddie who lit the fuse: “Was there anything else, Father?” he asked.

“Yes!” Father Vince almost shouted. He turned to face me, eyes blazing, and said they were sick and disgusted about my disloyal debates with other cadets.

“It takes more humility than that to get into heaven, Fager,” he cried, and then preached at me for what felt like an hour.

I stood still, staring back at him the whole time, saying nothing, denying nothing.

This, I realized, was an important moment: confronting the Church which had raised me, and declaring my independence of it, even if only by my silence and a defiant stare. Eddie stood there beside me, echoing my quiet rebellion the whole time.

I could feel his solidarity. It’s not a small thing to stand with a friend who’s being told he’s going to hell, and I was grateful.

But what would happen next? I wanted to know. Soon a rumor circulated that they were planning to expel me from the school. Would they really do that? I still wanted to come back the next year and graduate from St. Augustine’s; I had more independence there than at home, and didn’t want to give that up. I had even ordered a school ring, gold with a red garnet stone.

Would the priests send me packing, and tell my parents their son was a vocal atheist? What would my mother, who was very religious, do to me if they did?

Eddie and I talked about this a lot on our walks. And he had an idea: “Don’t be a chicken about it,” he challenged. “Walk right in there and ask them. You’re not afraid of the priests, are you?”

Well in a way, yes; but in another way, no. So one afternoon I took his advice and went into the office of Father Abelard, the school’s President, and put it to him straight.

Father Abelard smiled kindly at me. “Oh no,” he said reassuringly, “nothing like that has been proposed. We haven’t even talked about such things.”

That made me feel better, and I was happy to go back to my tinny Mozart, and friendly arguments with Eddie about jazz versus classical, how even his Protestant God didn’t exist, and whether he really did make out with his girlfriend in town. We talked, and walked.

As the weeks went on, we also talked a lot about Justin. The current of antagonism between him and Eddie was rising, as surely as the creek after spring rains. The tension level when they were both in the locker room was palpable. What were we going to do about that? What could we do? What could I do?

Justin had tried his belly-busting punches on me a couple more times, probably just to see what would happen. Once he even called over a couple other big guys from a few locker rows away, to take their turns at this abdominal novelty.

All the punches hurt, but none of them could knock the wind out of me; I still can’t imagine why. But I had had enough. After that, the next time Justin grabbed me, I mustered all my courage and pushed him away.

“Stop it!” I shouted. “If you’re gonna beat me up, then go ahead and do it. You know I couldn’t stop you. But otherwise, leave me alone!”

To my surprise, after that he did. At least somewhat. He still threatened me, and bragged about all his fighting, but he mostly kept his hands off. After all, like I said, I wasn’t important enough to beat up seriously.

I wish the same could have been said of Eddie. But it couldn’t. This was as much Eddie’s doing as anyone’s, though. He taunted Justin from his locker, calling out over my head, branding him ugly and stupid, and said he wasn’t afraid, he’d take Justin on anytime.

Eddie made the mistake of baiting him one afternoon as I was coming in, and Justin went for him. They only scuffled for a few seconds, thank god, before some other guys pulled them apart and I pushed Justin back. He could have tossed me aside, but there were others crowding around.

Behind me, Eddie was shouting and cursing: “Put me down, damn it! I’ll clobber him! I’ll kill him! Put me down!”

I turned and saw that one of the basketball players had grabbed Eddie and was holding him about six inches off the floor, his fists and feet flailing the air like angry matchsticks. He was that lightweight. If it had been any other time, I would have burst out laughing, he looked so ridiculous.

But Justin shoved past me, and pointed a thick finger between the shoulders of the other guys between him and Eddie. “I’ll tell you who’ll kill who, you punk” he bellowed.

He pulled his hand back, made a fist, and smashed it loudly into a locker door, shaking the whole row and leaving a dent in the metal. “Like that.” He backed away and stalked out of the locker room.

The basketball player let Eddie down, and the other guys wandered off.

I was shaking. “Eddie,” I whispered, “let’s get out of here.”

We headed down the hall and out the door, going as far as we were allowed, to the plowed field, toward the creek. As we walked, watching out for muddy spots, a couple of things became clear to me: one was that Justin wasn’t kidding. He would want his revenge on Eddie, and it would be a bloody one. Another was that when the time came, I had to stand with him, just as he had stood with me in my face-off with Father Vince.

But how could I do that so it made a difference? Justin could flatten Eddie with one fist and me with the other; and where would that leave either of us?

Still feeling shaky, I spotted something in the grass by the creek. It was a length of two by four lumber, about two and a half feet long. It was damp from lying out there in the dew and rain, and that made it heavy. A notch had been cut out of one end, giving my hand a good grip on it, and it swung with a real heft to it.

I whacked it against a tree a few times. The blows were solid, tearing big gashes in the tree’s bark, and making my palm and fingers hurt. But I didn’t drop it. In fact, with each blow I felt stronger and swung harder, and harder at the tree.

And like an electric shock, an idea came to me.

This two by four was not just a piece of wood. It was an equalizer. Looking down at it, I stopped shaking. It could solve our problem with Justin: In my mind’s eye I could see how it would go down, as clearly as if it was actually happening:

I would walk into the locker room, and find Justin attacking Eddie. Really beating him up, smashing that smooth face he hated so much, or maybe choking him. Eddie would be gasping and bleeding, maybe flailing around, maybe unconscious.

As usual, Justin would hardly notice me, walking over to open my locker as if I was utterly oblivious to what was going on a few feet away.

But then I’d turn around, step quietly behind Justin and raise the two by four high over my head–maybe holding it with both hands.

There would be only one chance, I figured. One blow. One heavy stroke across the back of Justin’s skull, swinging with all the concentrated force of a year’s accumulated rage. I could almost feel the bone give way under the board, the way the tree bark had split and flown off in ragged, sappy chunks.

I turned from this vision to Eddie, there by the creek, and told him very calmly what I planned to do. He believed me too, even though he still thought he could take care of himself.

With that settled, all we had to do was smuggle this weapon into the building. He went ahead of me, to signal from the hall doorway when the coast was clear.

The two by four was too long to fit under my shirt, but its weathered color was close to the khaki of my uniform, so I just walked quickly down the mostly deserted hall, swinging it in time with my right leg. In a couple of long moments, it was in my locker, covered by an old uniform shirt.


After that it was only a matter of waiting and watching. Each time I came into the locker room and saw Justin, the palms of my hands began to tingle, as if they were ready to close around the hidden lumber. But I felt calm about it, and kept up my usual careful deference toward him, and I don’t think he ever suspected a thing.

At this point, it would be satisfying to say things worked out as I expected, that my knotty pine equalizer made the difference, saved the day in a final, maybe fatal confrontation. And there were days when I felt that moment was coming close.

But it never happened. The year ended in anticlimax: Justin’s folks came and got him a day or two early, or Eddie’s parents came to get him; I don’t remember which anymore.

Either way, that ultimate, climactic showdown was headed off more or less accidentally, by disinterested forces beyond our control. Or maybe it was the grace of that God I didn’t believe in.

George Washington brought the shocking news, and blew my cover.

Anyway, a few weeks later, back with my family, there was a showdown of a different sort. My mother called me to the kitchen table, where she dropped a stamped envelope in front of me.

I opened it. Inside was a letter, from Father Abelard. It said that because of my vocal unbelief, I would not be allowed to return to St. Augustine’s the next year. Having me around was too hazardous to the other cadets’ spiritual welfare.

“Well?” Mother asked grimly. “What about this?”

I looked at the letter again, then at her, and took a deep breath. Finally I said, “It’s true.”

She didn’t give up, of course. But that battle was lost; I was done with the Catholic church.

A few weeks later, a small package came in the mail. In it was my St. Augustine’s school ring.

At first I thought I should send it back. But looking at the red and gold, I began to wonder about many things connected with the year at St. Augustine’s, things I still wonder about:

What ever happened to Eddie, or Justin, neither of whom I ever saw again? Would my belly muscles still stand up to one of his punches; it’s been a long time. Did the priests go through our lockers that summer and find my two by four? If so, what did they make of it?

I also wonder, if that final crisis had come, what would have happened after I swung that two by four? Or, more recently, what if the weapon hidden in my locker hadn’t been a two by four, but an AR-15, or the 1959 equivalent? Would this story be written from a prison cell? Would it be written at all?

These are questions to which there can be no answers. But there are three things I do know.

The first is that I meant what I said to Eddie about what I would do with that piece of wood. I can still see myself swinging it in the locker room, almost as if it really happened.

The second thing is that as I looked at the red and gold band and wondered all this, the ring took on an entirely different, and much more important set of meanings than it had had when I ordered it.

I put it on, and have been wearing it ever since, for  over 50 years.

The third thing–but this came later–is that I’m not an atheist anymore.

Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.

NOTE: This is a true story; all the names have been changed except mine, Stan Kenton, Mozart, Beethoven & Kansas.

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Categories: Blogs

Snow Camp & The Underground Railroad – Beyond Mythmaking

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 8:15pm

At Snow Camp we’re working at broadening the vision that created our acclaimed historical drama, Pathway to Freedom, to bring out more awareness of our practical connections to the actual Underground Railroad.

I admit, though, that sometimes I’m tempted to believe, as one prominent historian has argued, that the “Underground Railroad” (UGRR) is mainly a myth, spun into heroic proportions on legends, that serve mainly to puff up self-serving white people’s memories.

Salem Chapel, St. Catharines, Ontario CANADA: a terminus for successful UGRR journeys.

And surely there has been a lot of myth-making about it, feeding white rescue fantasies, which has deservedly been deflated by recent revisionist research.

But even after discounting the expansionist folklore, I haven’t been able to dismiss this saga — not since I visited this church, the Salem Chapel in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, only a few miles beyond the U.S. border at Niagara Falls.

The modest people of Salem Chapel are the descendants of many intrepid men and women who made this long and often terrifying  journey and succeeded. More than twenty such settlements of freed peoples’ were planted along the southern end of Ontario, stretching 250-plus miles from Buffalo to the lakeside city of Windsor, just a short ferry (or clandestine canoe) ride from Detroit. Many thousands of enslaved people showed the grit and stamina to start and finish their incredible journeys. (Many thousands more, truth be told, tried and failed, and usually paid a terrible price.)

Harriet Tubman statue, outside the St. Catharines school named for her.

Among the early worshipers at Salem Chapel was Harriett Tubman,. She led several parties there, and stayed on for most of the 1850s, when she was being hunted below the border. She returned south when the Civil War began, to undertake more exploits for the Union war effort.

Moreover, alternatives to the white savior UGRR plotline have been around for a long time, if too-long neglected. One of the best was also the earliest, by William Still of Philadelphia.

He had been a key figure in that city’s Vigilance Committee, which aided a great many successful slave escapes, and in 1872 he published the first detailed, documented account of his work and that of the Philadelphia underground.

Still’s  book is a landmark, and available free online, in full.) Further, Still’s view of the struggle was proudly Black-centered, as is evident right from his book’s title page:

Title page, “The Underground Rail Road,” by William Still, 1872.

Yet he was also forthright and even generous in acknowledging the active and sustained assistance his committee had from numerous activist whites, many of whom also took substantial risks. Among the white supporters, none outnumbered Quakers or former Quakers.

So William Still’s Underground Railroad was a Black initiative, built on and energized by the desire and action of the enslaved to break from bondage, but many were not entirely alone in the effort. And as Still’s 780 pages of dense text showed, there was plenty of joint initiative to recount.

The most complete recent history of the UGRR, Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich, reflects a similar pattern, only painted on a much broader canvas: where William Still focused on Philadelphia; Burdewich points out that what was then called the “Northwest” (now the Midwest), was criss-crossed by an equally, if not more important group of UGRR pathways, particularly in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, routes ultimately terminating in Canada.

These are rough reconstructions of the major eastern routes; many more went across the midwest to Detroit, at the western edge of southwest Ontario.

It’s about 700 miles from Salem Chapel in Ontario to Snow Camp, North Carolina —  as the Canada geese flocks fly; on the ground it’s many more. Hard miles, through forests, winding through mountains and crossing rivers, in all kinds of weather, hungry and hunted.  Here in Snow Camp, what we know of the UGRR is mostly folklore, but still it fits with these big-picture accounts, though with plenty of local twists.

For one thing, it’s right in the thick of a “Quaker hotbed” that was almost a century old in the years leading up to the Civil War, and which survived the fighting, despite losing many members in treks west, to Indiana and other non-slave states.

The big red area is our “Quaker hotbed” in the Carolina Piedmont. Snow Camp is at the tip of the yellow arrow. Greensbro, at the blue arrow, was the main “transfer point” for journeys to the north, toward Philadelphia, New York and Canada. Many escapees had to do much of the trek on foot.

This meant there were many potential UGRR sympathizers around Snow Camp– though they kept a low profile. After all, while the UGRR was controversial in the North, it was criminally illegal in the South: a number of white sympathizers were caught at it in the South and served long prison terms; more than one died in jail.

In this tense atmosphere, UGRR work was kept both secret and carefully compartmentalized: most participants only knew where the next stopping place was, and often were unaware of who operated it. The renowned UGRR tree near the Guilford College campus is a good example: nestled in a thick woods, which tree was it?

The woods near Guilford College. Now, let’s see: was it THIS big tree, or maybe THAT one over there? Or the one we passed awhile back?

Thus, if seized by the patrollers or the sheriff, “conductors” could give truthful (or nearly truthful), yet minimally informative answers.

So there are very few concrete records. (Levi Coffin, originally from Greensboro, described some of his forays in his memoirs– online here in full — many years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.) Yet local historians at the Friends meetings near Snow Camp have long asserted that area Quakers were active in UGRR efforts.

Characters from the abolitionist novel “UncleTom’s Cabin” were adapted to fit larger social images. Here is a playbill, featuring runaway Eliza from the story, with her baby, crossing a frozen river pursued by hounds. Here is Eliza in another period illustration, crossing the river carefully garbed as a proper Victorian lady, and so fair of hue that who would suspect her of being “black”?

Even so, Quakers were a suspect minority as far as local authorities were concerned, on a subject which frequently evoked actual violence.  Thus habits of concealment, and what spies call “cut-outs” and “drops” were key tools for UGRR work in this area.

In addition to preparing the 25th season of Pathway to Freedom, the only ongoing play about the UGRR, we hope to soon be able to make use of our historic buildings and artifacts to illustrate the day-to-day reality of life in a seemingly quiet but inwardly turbulent slave society. Watch this space for more details as they develop, And we ask again that our supporters send donations soon, so we can meet the high expenses of season preparation. 

Donations are welcome via a secure online link here:

For regular mail, make checks to:
Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre
P. O. Box 535
Snow Camp NC 27349

PS. A reminder: our local auditions will take place at the Drama site [301 drama Rd., Snow Camp] on  Wednesday March 14, noon to 5 PM, and Thursday March 15, 3PM to 8 PM. Make appointments by email at: info@nullsnowcampoutdoortheatre.com





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Categories: Blogs