The Estranged Family of Friends

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Andrew Secrest was a member of both Lake County Worship Group of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting and of Berkeley Friends Church. He was a husband and father, a hospice nurse, and he followed a calling his whole adult life to bridge the gap between evangelical Friends and liberal Friends. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in his home in Lakeport, CA, on June 25, 2013. The text below was excerpted from the transcript of an interview that Western Friend conducted with Andrew on May 16 and May 17, 2013. Thanks to Solomon Smilack for helping with the transcription.

Western Friend: Could you say a little bit about how the concern for unity among different branches of Friends arose for you?

Andrew Secrest: It came from the urgency of the discord I saw, or the urgency I felt to attend to the discord, or both. It was interesting. When I left Earlham School of Religion, I left with a very clear sense that I was being called by God. Not that I was being called to do something specific. I was being called to prepare myself. 

And it was clear to me that there were several steps to that. The first was getting out of debt, so I got myself out of debt completely within a year after leaving ESR.  Then I went through a clearness process with my meeting. I wanted to think out in advance some of the problems, and so we went through a clearness process. They approved my travel minute.

Then several people who had not been involved in the clearness process objected to my travel minute. And so I brought it back to Ministry and Counsel in my monthly meeting, and they decided that they had approved it, and I should go ahead and follow it up.  But this was also sort of a symptom of what I ran up against through Earlham School of Religion and experiences like that.

When I was at Earlham School of Religion, in my Introduction to Theology class, I came about that close to flunking it. I only passed because I’d done a couple of good written papers, but I flunked my final exam because I had been struggling the whole semester with this idea of – You’ve go got liberation theology, and you’ve got process theology, and you’ve got four or five different neo-liberal theologies, and you look at all these things, and to me it feels like you’re looking at a gem from several different points of view.  It doesn’t feel like they’re separate things, but most people seem to think of them as separate things. Separate viewpoints and separate things are not the same thing.

And so I wrote this little poem for my final exam in Theology, and the professor got really angry. He thought I was making fun of him, but I wasn’t. What I wrote was, I wrote the poem in the shape of a circle: “The more I think, the more circular my thoughts. Therefore, since we are made in God’s image, I think that God must be all round.”

One of the things that people told me, more than once, while I was at Earlham School of Religion, was, “Well, we really don’t know what to do with you, Andrew. Because you’re not leadership material.” I’m not, you know, I’m not an extrovert. And, you know, if you look at leadership as leading, then no, I’m not. But I look at leadership as being led. And I do have leadings. And I have weaknesses, too. I mean, I’m not good at some of the things that people expect from somebody in a leadership position.

So there were people in my meeting who made the assumption that if I said I thought I had a call to ministry, that that meant that I thought I was better than everyone else. There were a lot of people in the meeting that assumed that when I talked about my experience of Jesus, that I was trying to convert them. I wasn’t trying to shove my religion down anybody’s throat. I was trying to say, “This is what my experience has been.”

So eventually, I did go with my travel minute, and I brought my concern. I went to ask people about their experience:  “What does Unity mean?  What could it possibly mean? What does it not mean?“

WF: So in California, there’s just one evangelical Friends meeting?

AS: Yes. Evangelical Friends Church Southwest.  There was a period when evangelical Friends didn’t associate themselves with the word “Quaker.” Because they didn’t want to be associated with things like the Service Committee. So they called themselves “Friends,” but not “Quakers.”

WF: So was there activity that The Service Committee was doing . . . ?

AS: It had more to do with policy. About gays and lesbians, that sort of thing.

WF: In North Pacific Yearly Meeting, I know you’re aware, there’s an effort to reach out. Not so much in California. 

AS: Pretty much not at all. There’s a significant level of apathy in both yearly meetings in California. Sort of like, “Why should we bother? What’s the point in talking with each other?” And I can’t give you an answer for that. You have to try it and see what happens.

WF: What can you say about the value it’s had for you personally?

AS: For me it’s been personally valuable because, well, on the one hand, I think, Evangelical Friends have stayed somewhat closer to the early Friends’ theology. I mean, George Fox was a traveling preacher, after all. They have tended to keep the theology and lose the practice, whereas liberal Friends have done the opposite. 

WF: When you’re talking about being more true to the original theology, what . . .

AS: Reaching out, preaching at people, telling people to turn their lives around. Prophetic witness. Not necessarily telling them that they’re going to Hell or anything like that. But saying God wants you to be engaged in the world.

One of the things that that I’ve seen in the Southwest Friends is that they as a group lean a bit more towards a fundamentalist perspective.  The fundamentalist / Pentecostal distinction has to do with continuing revelation. Which the fundamentalists sort of rejected – they said the Bible is all the revelation we need; we don’t need anything else.

Evangelical Friends Southwest took a more fundamentalist turn partly because they had a big controversy around a pastor who was making all sorts of extravagant claims about healings and miracles and stuff like this. And they sort of turned away from that, had a reaction against that sort of Pentecostalism.

WF: How do you think about the way revelation is encapsulated imperfectly in the Bible, and the relationship between Biblical revelation and continuing revelation?

AS: Well, I am willing to accept certain points of view, certain ideas, as a working hypothesis. For example, I’m willing to accept the principle that the Bible might be flawless or inerrant. What I object to is saying that our interpretation of it is flawless. There are a lot of things in the Bible that I don’t understand, and I’ll leave them alone because I don’t understand them. I’m sort of trying to maintain an openness that includes the possibility that fundamentalists might be right. Even though I tend to think they probably aren’t.

WF: So I’m interested in your sense of where is Spirit expressing through all these different channels, and where are notions are getting in the way and stopping people from being able to really listen beyond the words.

AS: Not just notions, but outright falsehoods. I find, on both sides of the boundary line, a lot of mistaken assumptions. A lot of liberal Friends tend to think that all evangelical friends are sort of hard-core fundamentalists of the Jerry Falwell type, when in fact, very few of them are. And on the other side of the divide, I’ve found that a lot of evangelical Friends, when they’ve thought about it at all, seem to make the assumption that most liberal Friends are not Christian. That they’re Wiccan or whatever, I don’t know.

WF: Where do you see the common ground?

If you look at groups of people as having gifts in a spiritual kind of sense, I would have to say that it is fairly obvious that one of the gifts that Friends as a whole bring is the very simple, basic idea that it is at least as important, if not more important, to listen to God than it is to talk to God. And those are the kinds of things that we can find common ground on.

I don't think we shou­ld expect to find unity in the sense of agreement about what to do, you know, a business meeting kind of unity.  But I do think there's a kind of unity a step above that. That is a unity of caring about, and relating to, and being family to people with whom you have differences theologically or otherwise, but you still love them. And we are family, both groups of Quakers. Sort of estranged family, but still family.

I don’t think the separations among Friends are something that God wants. But given the fact of them, God can use them. One of my favorite metaphors is God as the Gardener. God has a marvelous ability to take all of our spiritual crap and compost it into spiritual fertilizer. I think that we could have a very valuable cross-fertilization between the different traditions.

WF: So, I’m thinking of the way forward. I’m wondering about some sense of a positive direction, where do you see it being?

AS: See, this is a part of the problem for me, with my disease and everything, that I’ve reached the point that I can’t do what I would like to see done. I would like to have people from [liberal] Friends meetings visit [evangelical] Friends churches. I’ve become convinced from all my experience that [the rift between branches of Friends] is not, and never can be, something that can be solved from the top down. It has to be something that starts at the grass roots. People in Sacramento Friends Meeting need to go do things with people in Sacramento Friends Church. There aren’t always places where a Friends meeting and a Friends church are in the same place, but it happens often enough. Or if it’s not too long of a trip, it would be worth the effort to do sometimes. And particularly, things like joint service projects, I think would be very valuable.

In January, I was down at the yearly meeting of Friends Church Southwest, and I talked with one of their staff, and I said, “I’m bound and determined to build some bridges, and you can decide to walk across them if you want, or you can decide to burn them down after I’m gone, I don’t really care, but I’m going to build them.” And he said, “You know, Andrew, I think you already have.”