Monday, November 18, 2013

History of the Bolivian Friends: finding the puzzle pieces

I love puzzles. I am currently beginning the largest and most complicated puzzle of my life. This one will take longer than usual, and I will need a lot of help in putting it together.
In January of this year, both the Northwest Yearly Meeting Board of Global Outreach and the Bolivian Evangelical Friends Church (INELA) officially approved a five-year project to research and write the history of the INELA. As this yearly meeting approaches its centennial celebration (2024), people are concerned to pass on the details of its birth, development and growth as a heritage to the next generations.
We traveled twice to Bolivia this year to organize the Bolivian research team, set up an office, and begin the work. We want the work to reflect both insider (Bolivian Quakers) and outsider (us and the NWYM mission archives) perspectives, with three resulting products: a book in Spanish for Bolivian Quakers, a book in English for NWYM and other English-speaking Quakers, and a documentary film in Spanish, with English sub-titles. The two books will not be translations but two separate books for the two separate audiences, although we will share the research.
Currently Hal and I are in Southern California, scrounging around in the archives of Azusa Pacific University and the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest. We’re following the trails of a few names that exist almost as myth in the very beginning of Friends in Bolivia: William Abel and Juan Ayllon. We’re trying to sift fact from fiction. To get back to my puzzle metaphor, we’re trying to find the missing pieces.
Without going into a lot of detail here, two discoveries are especially exciting because they connect us personally to the story. They both concern William Abel, the Native American Quaker that began it all. I learned that he left the Mesa Grande reservation in Southern California shortly after his parents died, and he moved to the town of Ramona. He reluctantly attended revival services at the Ramona Friends Church in 1897. California Yearly Meeting superintendent of evangelism, Levi Gregory, was preaching, and on the second night, William Abel made a decision to join his destiny to the cause of Jesus Christ. He became a Christian.
This links to me in that I grew up in Ramona and also became a Christian in the Ramona Friends Church, at a much later date, of course. This church, always small, no longer exists.
Two years later Levi Gregory was involved, along with several other Quakers, in founding the Training School for Christian Workers in Southern California, the institution that gradually evolved into Azusa Pacific University. Gregory apparently used his influence on his young convert, and William became the first person to enroll in the school in 1900.
William Abel’s story takes several twists and turns. He spent under two years at the school and left in 1902 as a missionary to the Philippines where he spent the next 11 years. Sensing the need for more training, he returned to the school and finally graduated in 1916. After that he left as a missionary to Bolivia, and the history of Friends in Bolivia begins.
But the personal link to Hal is that graduating class of 1916. We have obtained a graduation photo of the Training School for Christian Workers, 1916. Of the eight graduates, William Abel is the man in the middle of the last row. And on the first row, the pretty young woman second from the left, identified as Mary Kellogg, just happens to be Hal’s grandmother.
What a delightful discovery. We knew that Grandma and Grandpa Clyde Thomas attended the training school, but we had no idea they were classmates of William Abel. (Grandpa and Grandma Thomas moved to Oregon after their marriage, raised their five kids, the oldest being Hal’s dad Bill Thomas, and then went to Burundi as Friends missionaries. But that’s another story.)
Later this morning we’ll drive our rented car to the headquarters of Evangelical Friends Southwest where we’ve graciously been given access to the archives. I’m hoping to find something about the revival meetings in Ramona, maybe a story about William Abel’s background, and so on. We have many questions.
Fortunately, I really do love a good puzzle. It's fortunate because I’ll be spending a lot of time on this one—not just the beginnings of the work, but its development on the high plains of Bolivia and its growth down into the tropical valleys and into what is today a thriving community of Christian Quakers. I imagine the completed picture will be multicolored, with all shades of light and dark. I imagine it will be complex and beautiful.
In the meantime, we’re having fun finding the pieces.


  1. This is truly a worthwhile puzzle for the decade of your lives. Sorry, I doubt 5 years is quite enough for all 3 projects. Feel free to prove me wrong. I love your excitement, zeal and perseverance. Blessings my dear sister.

  2. I meant, the next decade. Alas, proofreading skills still need further work.

  3. What a kick to read this! I am a descendant of Levi Gregory and have his portrait hanging in my home. Seems he was quite a force for the Quakers.

  4. What a kick to read this! I am a descendant of Levi Gregory and have his portrait hanging in my home. Seems he was quite a force for the Quakers.