Buried Treasures brought to Light
Introducing Chel Avery, a New Voice for Book Musings
Chel Avery has served FGC for the past six months as Publications Manager. She understands editing as a ministry which assists authors in clarifying their message. She’s edited Pendle Hill pamphlets for several years and used to serve as director of the Quaker Information Center, for which she established an enewsletter ‘’Flashes of Light.”
I’m grateful that she has accepted my invitation to write Book Musings on alternate months – you will find that her reflections on books and Quaker spirituality are engaging and insightful, her voice is an excellent companion in this ministry of finding and promoting Quaker writings.
Book Musings: Buried Treasures brought to Light
Hello! This a new voice to Book Musings. I am Chel Avery, serving for the past several months as Publications Manager at Friends General Conference. Lucy Duncan has invited me to write Book Musings on the months when she does not. And this is an exciting time for me to begin. Sunday, we launched our newest publication, Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights, at Friends Center in Philadelphia. A standing-room-only crowd heard editors Hal Weaver and Paul Kriese and others read from this anthology of works by three centuries of African American Friends.
What buried treasures were brought to light! One of the highlights was Amanda Kemp’s dramatic reading from the “Memoirs and Anecdotes of William Boen,” who was enslaved when he had his first spiritual openings and found himself in the difficult position of having to choose between the different instructions of his New Master and his old master. I asked one of the editors what he considered the most regrettably forgotten voices in this book, and he named Mahala Ashley Dickerson and George Sawyer, both lawyers during the civil rights era, both members of Friends meetings, and both sometimes injured by the complacency of white Friends who suggested that their good fortune to be in a Quaker community should stop them from raising issues of inequality that they encountered among Friends. A voice that is better remembered is that of Jean Toomer, a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance. But few people know him as a Quaker. He wrote some deeply moving pieces on the inner life of the spirit.
Bayard Rustin’s voice within Friends was “buried” in a more disturbing way. As co-author of the influential AFSC treatise “Speak Truth to Power,” published in 1955, his name was removed from the publication to protect the message from being associated with a recent scandal of homosexuality, in which Rustin, a gay man, had been arrested on a morals charge in California. AFSC’s board has recently taken action to restore his name to that important publication, which he played a key role in composing. Its opening passages are included in this anthology.
This experience has started me thinking about the other ways that voices and books are “buried treasures.” I remember going through an old box of “stuff” – one of those boxes that gets moved three times without unpacking – and finding an audiotape with my grandmother’s voice on it. Just a few sentences, but as recognizable and as beloved as it was the last time I heard it in life, over twenty years ago. A few years ago I did a secondhand book search and bought a copy of my old “cow book” (formally known as The Better Homes and Garden Story Book) that was the source of most bedtime reading when I was very young. The battered yellow volume sits on a shelf now, but I can recognize it from across the room and I treasure having it near.
Something has happened in the world of books. So many treasures get buried so quickly. Shelf life in public view is very short. Many years ago, I used to wait to buy a new book until I was ready to start reading it. I trusted that in six months, or two years, it would still be available. Now I am more likely to snap up something I want in a hurry, fearing that if I don’t get it now, it will disappear. It means a much larger shelf (confession: a shelf and a half) of yet-to-read titles, but books are precious in my life – I don’t want to let the good ones be strangers, seen on the far side of a room, but never met.
QuakerPress of FGC has a number of titles that are in danger of becoming buried treasures. When they first came out, we told the world about them. But now, if you don’t look for them, you may not know they are there. Here are a few of my favorites from recent years.
Where Should I Stand: A Field Guide for Monthly Meeting Clerks by Elizabeth Boardman. A friend of my family, a folk musician, once said of a certain Bob Dylan song, “The first time I heard it, I wanted to bite myself on the arm because I wasn’t the one who wrote it.” I don’t pretend to have the wisdom to have written this book, but as a sometimes clerk of my meeting, I could bite myself on the arm for not having better understood clerking from this author’s perspective. Elizabeth Boardman recognizes that being a clerk is so much more than a set practical functions that you perform on behalf of a meeting – it is a role you assume in relationship to a meeting and the people in it, a role that needs to be followed with careful discernment: a bit parent, a bit servant, a bit teacher, a bit student, a bit companion, a bit caregiver . . . and much more. Some of the questions weighed by the author and others she interviewed about their clerkship were: How should I relate to the children of the meeting? How will my personal life fit in with my role as clerk? How do I get support for this work? Do I have to attend worship every week and business meeting every month? Am I the hostess now? The practical functions of clerking are addressed as well, but this book speaks to so much more than the clerk’s “job description.” (This book is now available as a downloadable ebook at quakerbooks.org.)
Friend: The Story of George Fox and the Quakers. This is a book for children (10 and up) by the prolific fiction writer, Jane Yolen. What makes this treasure “buried” is its status as a children’s book, masking its wonderful value to adults like me. What a relief it was, after years of plowing through George Fox’s journal and countless other versions of early Quaker escapades, finally to read an account that explains the political and social contexts of those times in basic, simple terms that don’t presume I remember any more than I actually do from my 10th grade history class! (Am I really supposed to remember whose side the roundheads were on?) I think of this book as “George Fox for Dummies” – in a very good way.
Have you ever wondered what John Woolman actually said to the slave owners he visited? I have often wanted to be a fly on the wall, hearing the words he used to protest enslavers’ very way of life in tones of compassion and goodwill. Well, examples are available in the letters of Woolman’s likeminded contemporary, David Ferris. Resistance and Obedience to God, edited by Martha Paxson Grundy, is the title of Ferris’s short memoir, which will be delicious to anyone who finds inspiration in the Journal of John Woolman and wants more. I was especially delighted by the passage in which Ferris describes meeting the woman who was to become his wife. After having backed off from courting an attractive prospect at his own initiative, because he had not consulted his Guide, Ferris finds himself sometime later dining at a friend’s house where he meets a young woman. “My attention . . . being otherwise engaged, I took very little notice of her; but a language, very quietly and very pleasantly, passed through my mind on this wise, ‘If thou wilt marry that young woman, thou wilt be happy with her.’ There was such a degree of divine virtue attending the intimation, that it removed all doubt concerning its origin and Author.” Later, however, when the guests rise from the table, Ferris notices that she is lame. He is annoyed that this is what heaven has allotted to him, and thinks he would much rather choose for himself. He wrestles with the matter for many months before he accepts the guidance, and later writes that he has always “regarded our union as a proof of divine kindness.” What a concept of obedience!
Here is how another of my buried treasures begins:
Help Wanted: Person with deep spiritual life, infinite patience, great wisdom, and vast knowledge of the foibles of human nature. Job requires availability 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to accompany friends and neighbors through the messes and joys that life provides. This is the job description for a member of the committee that in different meetings bears such names as counsel, oversight, nurture, or care. Yikes! Who can do this job? Grounded in God: Care and Nurture in Friends Meeting, edited by Patricia McBee, assembles articles previously published in the very thoughtful Pastoral Care Newsletter, sorted under such headings as Membership, Marriage and Divorce, Illness and Death, Conflict in the Meeting, Care for Persons with Mental Illness, and more. It’s the sort of book you dip into as needed, rather than reading cover to cover. The situations addressed may or may not perfectly correspond to the unique situation you are trying to navigate, but the combined wisdom, good sense, spiritual depth, and the wealth of practical advice are always helpful and frequently offer a broader perspective on an issue than the one we first take in.
My next buried treasure is one that isn’t buried very deeply, but has become a bit dusty, and I hope it will come to light often over the years. Lloyd Lee Wilson’s is my nomination for the Quaker classic of our time. Wilson goes deeply (and readably) into the meaning of our traditional Quaker beliefs and practices as modern Friends. Here are the conclusions of someone who is not merely well informed about those traditions, but who has explored them extensively in his own life and has wisdom to offer from experience and reflection. For example, in one chapter he details insights gleaned in his role as a public Friend about the risks of ministry . A few of them are: embarrassment, failure, change, vulnerability, scorn, and success. Other chapters explore worship, business meeting, testimonies, leadings and discernment, and more. Here is not only wisdom, but a vision of what we could become, as meetings and individuals, if we let our faith and commitment lead the way.
A second book, Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition, contains the transcripts of ten lectures Wilson gave at yearly meetings and other assemblies of Friends after the publication of the first book. My favorite is “How to Be a Non-Egyptian in the Land of Pharaoh.” One of the gifts I derived from these two books is that their clarity and consistency made it possible for me to identify not only where I agree, but where I do not agree, what basic assumptions can I not accept? For example, Wilson is so certain that God does not ever change that I was forced to recognize that I do not share that certainty. Why should God not change? I feel as much edified by my disagreements as I do by the many ways his books deepen and clarify my understanding, and call me to be a more dedicated Friend.
Writing all of this has left me curious about other people’s buried treasures in the world of books. If you have titles of your own to recommend, please write. I would love to do a follow-up Book Musings sometime on readers’ nominations for the title “Buried Treasure.”
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