Friday, January 3, 2020

Best books read in 2019

This has been one of the best years for good reading. I discovered some new (to me) authors and re-read some old favorites. These are the favorites that I read during the year; most were published in other years.

--Richard Powers, The Overstory (2018): Possibly my favorite novel this year, this is the account of the relationships between humans and trees, with the trees being the real protagonists. Nine different stories eventually intertwine as the people share their concerns for the trees of the earth.
--Min Jin Lee, Pachinko (2017): About generations of Korean immigrants into Japan and the racism between the two groups; how the immigrants manage to survive and flourish through their involvement in the casinos (“pachinkos”), although the triumph is bitter-sweet.
--Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs (2007): In a town in New York state divided by race and social class, three young people from different strata develop a relationship and explore their limitations and possible destinies. How much do family heritage and environment shape lives? Or are humans free to dream and grow?
--Nadia Hashim, When the Moon is Low (2015): A wonderful and difficult book about an Afghani woman and her children trying to escape and migrate to Europe amid incredible hardships. Illuminates and personalizes the refugee crisis.
--Madeline Miller, Circe (2018): Based on Greek mythology, this is the story of Circe, the witch banished to an island who later becomes the lover of Odysseus on his journey home. The characters are quite human in their struggles and joys. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
--Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean’s Watch (1960): By a favorite “old” author, a story about a friendship between a cathedral dean and a common watchmaker, set in a small English town. Goudge’s wisdom comes through, without a cloying superficial righteousness sometimes seen in Christian fiction. Profound and full of grace.
--Delia Owen, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018): I loved this story of a strange girl who lives alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast. It brings together the themes of stereotyping people, caring for nature, what it means to be a person, and the serendipities of grace.
--Lois Lowry, The Giver (1990), Gathering Blue (2000), Messenger (2004), and Son (2012): This was my first time through these award-winning young people’s futuristic books. Beautifully written, set in a strange dystopia, they show brave, creative individuals discovering the values that make life worthwhile.
--Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered (2018): About two families in two different centuries who occupy the “same” house and find it falling down around them. Both stories are set amid the clashes of science and tradition. As their houses are falling apart, so are their cultures, and both families are facing the possibilities of becoming “unsheltered” on different levels.
--Heather Morris, The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018): Based on the true story of Lale and Gita Sokolov, two Slovakian Jews who met in the camp of Auschwitz. Well written and moving, but hard to read because of the details of life in the camp.
I read too many good novels to write here about them all. Other authors I read and would recommend include Celeste Ng, Kristin Hannah, Ken Follett, Elizabeth Wingate, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, Barbara Delinsky, and Ocean Vuong.

--Nina Willner, Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall (2019): A wonderful story, written by the US born daughter of a young woman who escaped from East Germany to make her way in the West. I learned so much about that historical situation, and about the courage to act with integrity in dangerous places, even while measuring the risks.
--Greg Koskela, Finding Hildegard: Healing through Medieval Wisdom (2019): Written by a friend (Friend) who tells about finding a path toward healing from church controversy through the writings of Hildegard. I found much I could identify with, and so experienced a measure of healing myself.
--David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019): Part memoir, part essay on what it means to be a mature person. Good.
--Francisco Cantu, The Line Becomes a River (2018): Unforgettable memoir by an ex-border patroller along the US/Mexican border. Cantu tried to change the system from the inside, but finally gave up in frustration. A hard, but important story.
--Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (2013): The memoir of her early life, up until the time she became a federal judge. Shows her determination to overcome the odds of her immigrant family upbringing, as well as the influence of family members, friends, and mentors who supported her along the way.

I read lots of poetry this year, as usual, but especially enjoyed Jane Kenyon’s collection, Otherwise (1997).

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Quakers and Indians in California, 1869

In writing of the beginnings of Friends in Bolivia, I tell the story of William Abel, a Native American from California who converted to Christianity in the small Ramona Friends Church in 1897.
I found historian Richard Carrico’s work helpful in providing background to this story. The book, Strangers in a Stolen Land: Indians of San Diego County from Prehistory to the New Deal (2008, Sunbelt Publications), details the history of the Kumeyaay tribal peoples of San Pascual, Abel’s ancestors.
In the first chapter of my book (ALong Walk, A Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in its Context of Conflict), I present William Abel’s background, conversion story, and contribution to the Friends movement in Bolivia. I refer to US President U.S. Grant’s attempts rectify past injustices to the Indians with his Indian Peace Plan and the instituting of a Board of Indian Commissioners (attempts than were not immediately successful). I quote a fascinating piece of information about Friends in California. Carrico states that Grant’s plans included “placing many of the Indian Agencies in the hands of Quakers, eliminating much of the patronage that had led to the spoils system being rife in Indian affairs, and lessening the power of the military in Indian affairs” (pages 108-109).
Carrico does not footnote this observation. I’m fascinated that the Quaker reputation for a ministry of justice had reached the White House and influenced government policy. I’m now curious to know more about Quaker involvement with indigenous peoples in Southern California.
As usual with historical investigation, among all my discoveries, I found a whole new set of questions.

Maybe someone will write a book about it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

New book on Bolivian Quakers!

It’s finally here!

This feels almost like presenting a new baby to the world. Only this one followed six years of hard labor.
Even so, it was a labor of love: love for Bolivian Quakers among whom Hal and I lived and worked for over 30 years; love for the team of Bolivian investigators who accompanied us on this adventure; love for Jesus, the head of the church and the real protagonist of this story.
Love for the country and people of Bolivia also energized this project. Recently, conflicts in Bolivia have been on the news, and many have been praying for peace and reconciliation. The subtitle of the book, “The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in its Context of Conflict,” illustrates the fact that the recent upheaval, unique in some ways, is actually part of an ongoing drama. Conflict seems to be part of the DNA of this nation’s history, as well as of the Aymara culture among which the Friends Church developed.
A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent explores how both history and culture affected the development of this evangelical peace church over a period of 100 years.
I found the story fascinating and enlightening. I hope you will, too.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Bolivian Friends--100 Years!

I’m just back from our family trip to Bolivia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolivian Friends Church (INELA). And celebrate we did—both on the macro level of the whole denomination and the more micro level of our family. Although I’m still physically recovering from the trip (only one more round of antibiotics!), this is a good time for reflections and memories.
Celebrate is something the INELA knows how to do. They had rented the government sports coliseum on the upper city. After a two-hour, two-mile long parade of some of the church’s 200 congregations, around 7000 Andean Quakers filled the building for the Easter Sunday celebration. (Some leaders were actually disappointed that the anticipated 11,000 didn’t show. It seemed like a great crowd to me!)
The four-hour celebration filled the building with music, speeches, prayers, pronouncements, and lots of smiles and hugs at the end.

 With Hilarion and Agustina

Mario Surco, now an old man, was the first INELA national missionary in the 1960s.

Girl friends, Teodora and Solome

Hal with another dear old friend, Francisco Tintaya, twice INELA president in the 1970s and 80s.

Jim LeShana, NWYM superintendent, and Hector Castro, INELA president

Kristin sitting with her friends

For our family—David, Kristin, Hal and me—the whole two weeks was a time for memories and renewal of old friendships. Hal and I, with one-year-old David, arrived in La Paz in January 1972. Kristin joined our family in 1973. We all feel like Bolivia was the place of our growing-up years. When we left in 1989, David was 19 and Kristin 16-years-old. This place is still home to them. And this was the first time in the last 30 years we were together in La Paz.

View from our Airbnb in downtown La Paz, a perfect central place to receive guests and from which to launch out on our excursions

Behind us, the city at night

 Visit with Juana Ott de Mamani

In the New Jerusalem Friends Church with Jesus and Paulina Torrez

Kristin's friends had great fun dressing her up as a cholita.

Dinner with the extended Gutierrez family

With my old prayer partners, Susan Espejo and Ruth Galeb.

David was invited to give a major presentation. What a joy to support him.

What a joy to share this experience as a family.
Thanks be to God!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Remembering Geraldine Willcuts

It’s been several months since Geraldine Willcuts died, but she’s still resting on my mind. I have before me one of her watercolor cards in a frame—a mountain stream cascading through autumn trees, interspersed with evergreen. It captures some of Geraldine’s lively, creative spirit.
When I think of her impact on my life, I have to open my memories to include Jack. In my earlier years, as a newcomer to the yearly meeting and a fledgling missionary, it was Jack Willcuts who told me I was a good writer. And it was Jack as editor of the Evangelical Friend magazine who actually gave me a monthly column and encouraged me to take seriously my vocation as a writer.
On furloughs home from Bolivia, Jack and Geraldine as a couple befriended and mentored us.
Sometime at the end of the 1990s, my home church, North Valley Friends, sent my name to the yearly meeting as a candidate for recording. When the recording committee informed me that my official mentor for the process would be Geraldine Willcuts, I was thrilled. Geraldine took her role seriously (and with a lot of humor). Whenever I was home from overseas, we met frequently over cups of tea and great conversation. I loved her earthy common-sense spirituality. We talked about what it means to be wife, mother, and minister of the gospel at the same time; how to nurture creativity in the busyness of life (she the artist, me the poet); how to walk lightly over the planet; how to support our leader-type husbands while being true to our own callings; how to identify our callings—all sorts of good stuff.
During yearly meeting sessions, 2001, I stood on stage with the other recording candidates. Geraldine stood at my side and presented me with a certificate and a new Bible, the one I still use. On the inside cover she had inscribed 1 Corinthians 2:13: “So then we do not speak or write in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, as we explain spiritual truths to those who have the Spirit.” She added her own thoughts on our time together and ended with a blessing: “God bless your words, written, spoken, and thought; God bless your students; these are all ‘bread cast upon the waters that will not return void.’”
I hold that blessing today. Thank you, Geraldine Willcuts, mentor and friend.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Good News!

Good news! The history book has a publisher. Wipf & Stock has accepted our manuscript, and we’re finally looking at some light at the end of this long tunnel.
A tunnel is probably not the best metaphor for this seven-year project, though much of it has been underground: mining the past in the archives of nine different universities, yearly meetings, mission headquarters, and museums; sifting through a lot of debris; bringing the good stuff up to the top; discovering a few gold nuggets.
And then came figuring out how to organize, analyze, and understand it all, at least enough to begin writing. I have thousands of database items and scanned documents, all backed up and filed away.
But a lot of the research was carried out above ground. The field work required hundreds of interviews with the leaders of the church and, especially, with the children and grandchildren of past leaders. This is where our Bolivian team members were so helpful.
I must confess how joyful most of this work has been. I’m one of those strange people who love to research and write. Although much of this has been drudge work, I’ve been excited to make the discoveries, to begin to see the patterns, to come to understand how God and God’s missionary agents (both expatriate and national) co-labored to plant and develop a community of some 200 Quaker congregations scattered about the Bolivian highlands and tropical valleys.
And now I’m excited to be able to share the story with others.
Our working title has us climbing a mountain—A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in its Context of Conflict. I like the mountain metaphor better than the tunnel. It’s more accurate.
I still have to do my final editing, including cutting down the size of the book. I hope to have the final manuscript to the publisher by early April. Actual publication may take up to year from that date.
Rejoice with us!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How many Quakers does it take?

Actually, this is not a joke about changing a light bulb. (If it were, I imagine the answer would have to do with how hard it is to come to consensus on weighty issues.)
Rather, this is a story about how many different yearly meetings contributed to the beginnings of the Bolivian Friends Church (INELA).
In previous blogs we’ve seen how a Native American who was converted and discipled under California Yearly Meeting gave his life as a missionary to Bolivia after a few months preaching on the streets of La Paz. We’ve seen how this man, William Abel, partnered with Quaker missionaries from yearly meetings in Kansas (Florence Smith) and Indiana (Emma Morrow and Mattie Blount) in 1919, a year of beginnings.
Our attention now turns to a young Bolivia mestizo, Juan Ayllón, who was drawn to the witness of these early Quaker missionaries and became a convinced Friend, also in 1919. Ayllón was particularly attracted by William Abel, having encountered him one evening praying publicly in a street meeting. Ayllón found himself moved by the power and sincerity of Abel’s prayer, and he determined to get to know him. Ayllón joined Abel and the others in their street ministry, attended Abel in his bout with small pox, and helped bury him in the public cemetery in La Paz. It had been a brief but highly impactful relationship. At that point Juan Ayllón seemed to take on the mantle of William Abel, including Abel’s convictions about adequate preparation for Christian service.
Through Emma Morrow’s contacts with the fledgling mission work in Central America, Juan Ayllón received an invitation to study in the new “Berea Training School for Christian Workers” in Guatemala. Missionary to Guatemala, R. Esther Smith (California Yearly Meeting) was especially interested in this young Bolivian and offered him a full scholarship in the new training school. So, in the fall of 1920, Juan Ayllón began a four-month journey (via trains, boats, and a donkey) from La Paz, Bolivia to Chiquimula, Guatemala.
The journey itself was a series of misadventures (which you can read about when the book is published). Juan earned his passage through manual labor. Legal problems prevented his disembarking in Central America, and he ended up in New York City, knowing no one and speaking little English.
Arriving on February 14, the ship’s captain let Ayllón occupy his room on board for five days while the ship reloaded. After that time, on a Sunday morning, Ayllón gathered his belongings to leave at a police station in New York City while he attempted to arrange for his passage to Guatemala. A policeman at the station, upon learning that Ayllón was a Quaker, “just happened” to know of a Friends meeting house nearby and gave him directions.
Ayllón was the first to arrive at the meeting house and he prayed in silence for someone to help him. After the meeting, people were interested in his story. Paul Furnas of New York and Frederick Swan of New Jersey hosted him for the next few weeks. Between them they arranged for his trip by train to New Orleans, and then by ship to the east coast of Guatemala. Thanks to the grace and generosity of these Quakers, Juan Ayllón finally arrived in Chiquimula on the evening of March 9, 1921, late for the beginning of classes, but much welcomed.
Ayllón spent the next three years in the Berea Training School. In January of 1924, he married Honduran classmate, Tomasa Valle, and in the Central American Friends Yearly Meeting sessions, Juan and Tomasa were commissioned as their first missionaries to Bolivia. They sailed in April, arriving in La Paz in May of 1924, thus beginning a new phase in the development of the Bolivia Friends Church. In the years between 1924 and 1930, years which saw the first official Friends Churches (INELA) planted in Bolivia, the mission work was supported by the Central American Friends Church and Mission, through the service of Juan and Tomasa Ayllón.
Getting to this place in the story required the contributions of Friends from California, Kansas, Indiana, New York, New Jersey, Honduras, and Guatemala. Oregon Yearly Meeting would not become involved until 1930. But that’s another chapter.
I should also add that Ayllón’s fascinating conversion story involved a Methodist missionary, a Salvation Army evangelistic service, and a small Baptist church, after which Ayllón met William Abel and became a convinced Friend. (Read the book for the details.)
This particular light bulb required many Christians, as well as many Quakers, to finally reach the light-giving point!