Friday, October 17, 2014

Flashback Friday: The Sit In

Last week at this time I was visiting old friends and reconnected to some of my Quaker roots in North Carolina. To say things are a bit tumultuous among Friends there is a massive understatement. There will be more written about that here in the days to come, but today those thoughts led me to this Friday Flashback, first shared here in 2009. Enjoy.

The early 1980's were a strange time to be a 20-something, socially concerned seeker/christian trying to find his way in the world. In November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected and my roommates and I strongly considered moving to Canada (just so you know, this was not simply politics; I was a registered republican at the time and I voted for John Anderson, a republican who ran as an independent. It was just that Reagan scared us to death!). In December 1980 John Lennon was shot and an icon of the peace and justice movement was dead. By 1982 Reagan had declared it was "morning in America" (which was true if you happened to be white and have money) and the country was on an extreme conservative swing. Worse, at least for me, was that the church was becoming completely immersed in politics. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition had been a great help to the Reagan campaign, and now they were using their power to urge congress to pass more "christian" legislation. On the national stage Christianity became less about what Jesus taught and more about conservative politics. And if you dared disagree with them, you were quickly declared both unchristian and un-American, which they saw as the same thing. For example, the Moral Majority worked tirelessly against the re-election of Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, despite the fact that he was one of the most outspoken evangelical Christians in the Senate. His flaw? He was for disarmament and a World Peace Tax Fund. To paraphrase the great Tom Lehrer, "it takes a certain amount of guts to get up and speak out on behalf of peace and justice and brotherhood and all the other things those people are against!" Strange days indeed...

In the midst of these changing times, Quakers in North Carolina were changing too. For years, the Young Friends (7th-12th grade students) of NC Yearly Meeting had been primarily led by students who went to Quaker Lake for summer camp, many of whom also attended New Garden Friends Meeting. (For those of you who are regular readers, you will know that those are the two ministries I worked for at the time, so I was double trouble!) This began to shift in the early '80's as the leadership at the top of the Yearly Meeting began to change and reflect the political climate of the day. When the position of Youth and Christian Education Director for NCYM came open, the search committee went outside of NCYM, passing over several local candidates and hiring David Tebbs from Ohio. Over the next few years David and I disagreed on many things, but I always had the ultimate respect for him as a leader and as a Christ-follower, and eventually we became good friends. At about the same time, Jerry Cannady was installed as the new head of the Young Friends Activities Committee, which controlled the planning for all NCYM youth events except Quaker Lake summer camp. Jerry was a large, angry pastor who had no interest in youth- he was put in place to put us (the Quaker Lake and New Garden crowds) in our place. He did not have our respect on any level, and he made it clear he didn't like us at all. A showdown was inevitable.

The showdown came at Yearly Meeting (a once a year, statewide gathering of Quakers), August 1982 at Guilford College. For several years part of the program had been the showing of the Quaker Lake slideshow from the the recently completed summer camping season. The campers who also attended this event looked forward to it, and others came in just for the slide show presentation. On this particular occasion, the slide show was the last event of the day on the next to the last day of the sessions. For those who attended camp, the slide show was often a very emotional event, and this year was no exception. At the conclusion, before anyone connected with QLC could say anything, Jerry Cannady jumped to his feet and announced that it was time for everyone to go back to the dorms, and that there was to be total silence as we did so. We were stunned. No time to visit and chat about what we had just experienced. No time to go back through the slides and take them in more slowly, without the soundtrack. Jay Osborne, the Presiding Clerk (that's Quaker for chairman or president) of the Young Friends spoke up and asked if those who wanted to could watch it again. He was told NO in a most unpleasant way. As people began to get up and leave in silence, Jay and I did not move. Neither did many others. Jerry began yelling at us and using some distinctively un-Quaker language, demanding that we get out and go to our dorms. And still we sat there. A long, ugly discussion ensued that let us know in no uncertain terms that things were changing. Those of us who found our expressions of faith more in seeking, peace, equality and the radical teachings of Jesus were now being dictated to by those who saw everything in black and white; and we had just been declared part of the darkness.

I don't really remember how it all ended that night; I don't think we saw anymore slides. My own theology and beliefs, so young at the time, have certainly changed since that night. But what I really remember is my good friend Jay Osborne, age 17 or so, (yes, the same Jay who would one day drop my guitar off the roof of the QLC lodge!) staying seated to "stand up" for his beliefs and his friends. I was proud to sit with him and all the others. It didn't ring a bell at the time, but today it is not lost on me that our little "sit-in" took place in Greensboro, home to one of the great and powerful sit-ins of the civil rights movement. But the real heart of the story is this- many of "those people" who left as we sat took the time later on to talk to us, to lovingly share their side of the story and to seek a middle ground. Many of them would become my friends and co-workers in the years that followed. Quakers have never been and will never be homogenous, being a wildly diverse (and often quite confusing) group in theology and worship styles. But historically they have always been willing to seek consensus and work for the greater good in God's name. It is my most fervent prayer that my old friends currently embroiled in difficult circumstances in NCYM will remember that fact and remember that the love of God is not based on theology, styles, finances or politics. God loves us all. Even the people who are not like us... 

Because of Jesus,


  1. Anonymous10/17/2014

    Sounds sadly like what is happening now in the Yearly Meeting. I guess the saying is true: those who don't remember history are condemned to repeat it.

    1. Yes, there similarities were striking to me as well.. It is one thing to disagree. It is another matter completely to seek to cast aside those with whom you disagree.


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