On October 5, 2022, I left Texas for one of my twice-yearly visits to Old Chatham Meeting. When I arrived at Dallas Love Airport, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming whiteness of the folks waiting to pass through TSA security. It’s mostly white people who can afford to fly. The second thing I noticed was a TSA entrance for “Elite Passengers”—presumably those who had paid for a more expeditious security check. After passing through security, the third thing I noticed was the dark skin color of the janitors and restaurant workers. These lower-paying jobs were mainly the province of Latinos and Afro-Americans.
At the boarding gate the grouping continued. The “A” passengers had paid extra for first-boarding rights. The “B” passengers hadn’t paid extra but had downloaded their boarding passes as soon as possible. The “C” passengers hadn’t paid extra and had been slow to get their boarding passes. Of course, between “A” and “B” groups were families with young children and military personnel with military I.D. Before everyone was the pre-boarding group, disabled persons largely in wheelchairs. Nevertheless, for the most part, people at Love Field were grouped according to their income or their ability and willingness to pay. Our American society is a class society based on wealth.
The groups mentioned above are either broad sociological categories (i.e., middle or lower class) or transitory groups of convenience (i.e., groups A, B, and C). That groups should figure so prominently in my thought does illustrate that “the group” is an important feature of human life. Our pre-historic ancestors only survived because they gathered themselves into groups or tribes. Individually, a human being is no match for a mammoth or a saber-toothed tiger. Collectively, people can successfully hunt mammoths and defend themselves against saber-tooths. Co-operation among individuals compensates for our lack of size and strength. In fact, human sociability is so ancient as to be encoded in our genes.
Of course, Old Chatham Monthly Meeting is a tribe of sorts. Perhaps it could be considered a small group designed to protect its members against the hostile values of the larger society. Or maybe the best analog is the extended family, which cares for those family members who are sick or disabled. Certainly, Ministry and Counsel tries to identify and help members of the meeting who are in need. And individual members spontaneously help one another. On this trip, a fraudulent charge caused the bank to close both my checking and credit card. Both Don Lathrop and Bob Elmendorf offered to loan me money. Fortunately, my wife saved me with a Western Union MoneyGram.
However, the most important function of our Quaker meeting is spiritual. It’s a little like a therapy group in which participants probe the psychology of their personalities and look for better ways of coping with the world. In both Meeting for Worship and a therapy group, personal ethics play a role; but the Quaker Meeting seeks to put us in contact with God or Spirit, asking what God’s will is for our lives. Of course, non-theist Quakers substitute another term for God, perhaps speaking of an integrated and balanced life.
My impression is that Old Chatham Friends are whole-heartedly seeking the Ultimate, whether through Christianity, Buddhism, Humanism, New Age spirituality, or some other path. Such diversity is a strength. Different traditions enrich one another and bring us closer to Enlightenment than one religion or philosophy alone. Herb and Elaine Ranney tell me that—even sixty years ago—diversity was a hallmark of Old Chatham Meeting.
But how I digress! I arrived at Don and Merry’s on Wednesday, October 5 and was pleased to have the opportunity to talk to them face-to-face. On Thursday I drove around the area, taking in its beauty before attending a meeting of Ministry and Counsel. I had looked forward to seeing Jens, Regina, and Dianne in person. Unfortunately, covid precautions forced us to ZOOM the meeting, which nevertheless felt productive and included Bill Thompson and Chris Erb.
On Friday, I did more driving around, saw the Ranneys, and—after collecting money from Western Union—visited Bob Elmendorf, who fed me and talked at length about books that I’ve been meaning to read for many years but haven’t gotten to yet. Bob was kind enough to give me one BIG book—the Septuagint, or Bible in Ancient Greek.
Saturday, I went to the annual Meeting Workday, sorting a stack of old mail, sweeping the porch, and cleaning a couple of rugs. I didn’t do all that much work; but I did get to see the real Joseph Olejak (as opposed to his virtual facsimile) and visited with Rebecca McBride, Sandy Beer, Dan Michaud, and Spee Braun among others. I was thankful that Vicki Smith brought real cookies as a snack—not vegetables and hummus.
Sunday was First Day Meeting. I was pleased to note that you really can see the faces of ZOOM participants on the new TV, and—in my opinion—the TV itself is placed in such a way as to be quite unobtrusive. That afternoon Bob Elmendorf and I visited Eric Wilksa in his bookstore, and Bob bought an armful of books to add to his already formidable library. After Bob and I ate at Amici’s, a nearby Italian restaurant, I returned to Don and Merry’s, where we watched a video about the evolution of the cosmos and engaged in a discussion on what place God might have in such a universe.
The next morning I got up at 2:00 am in order to catch a 6:00 am flight from Albany to Dallas via Baltimore. How sad to leave the upper Hudson Valley! But I hope to be back next Spring!
~ Richard Russell
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