On Sunday morning, August 4th, 2019, Susan Wilson and I left our home in Central Vermont. We had filled a twenty-foot rental truck with our possessions, hitched our car to the back of the truck, and started driving toward California. We were leaving behind our beloved friends and family, our lovely home, and the magic of the Green Mountains.
Anxious voices in my head complained as I maneuvered that unwieldy truck – and its several tons of momentum – down our steep road: “What are you doing!? You should be thinking about retiring. You shouldn’t be moving all the way across the country to start a major new commitment!!!”
I told the voices that it was all going to be okay, but they continued arguing with me for two and a half weeks, until we pulled into Quaker Center. There we found a dozen people waiting to help us unload. Most of these folks we hardly knew. Some of them we had never met. It really did look like everything was going to be okay.
Even though Susan and I had never done anything quite like this before – that is, we had never moved all the way across the country – we had, in fact, moved before, more than once. And we had started new jobs before. And we had taken leaps of faith before. So we “knew experimentally” that it was all going to be okay.
Late last year, our friends Gretta and Jacob Stone told us that Ben Lomond Quaker Center was looking for a couple to serve as co-directors and that we should apply. They had served in that capacity themselves from 2005 – 2010.
My first thought was, “No thanks, no way.” We loved our home. Our son Max lived and worked nearby. Our daughter Ali was living with us and working at a nearby Montessori school. We had lived in that home for nine years, getting to know the people in the area and building relationships with Friends at Plainfield Monthly Meeting.
But, the more we thought about it, the more we realized that this was a good opportunity for us. We had worked on several big projects together, early in our relationship, and we knew we worked well together. Susan had many years of experience as an administrator, supervisor, and educator. I had nearly as many years of experience as a Friend, years full of study of Quaker process, history, and manner of worship. I had clerked several monthly meetings and had served on numerous committees. I even had some background in the maintenance of buildings and grounds.
As Susan and I drafted our joint resume and cover letter, we began to get excited. The position started looking like a natural fit for us. And, in many ways, the timing was perfect. Susan had just left a career in higher education. I was employed in two part-time jobs that I enjoyed, but they were not sustainable. We needed a change, but were we ready?
When I was a teen, I read David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and a maxim from that book has stayed with me ever since: “Change is the heart of the gospel.” To me, this means that the essence of the Christian message concerns the possibility and necessity of deep, interior, spiritual change, of letting go and letting God, of opening our hearts and souls to the Creator.
I have a complicated relationship with Christianity. I could say that I was “brought up” Christian, but it would be more accurate to say that my family attended whatever Protestant church was nearest to wherever we were living. (We moved a lot.) At different times in my life, I have identified myself as Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, atheist, agnostic, and student of a kind of Americanized Zen. After my Zen teacher sexually assaulted me, I moved to Vermont, gave up on religion altogether, and discovered theater.
I dove into physical comedy and, later, method acting. But after six years of studying and performing, I hit a wall. I wasn’t happy. I realized I had devoted myself to something that wasn’t working for me. I began sliding into depression. And then I saw The Killing Fields.
This movie is based on the real-life experiences of two journalists working in Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a regime that committed genocide against its political opponents and eventually murdered a quarter of the country’s population. The film knocked me down. I went home and effectively locked myself in my apartment for days. I prayed, meditated, and chanted. I visualized a thousand-petaled lotus flower. I cried.
On the third morning of this struggle, I walked outside and looked up at a nearby steeple. The local Unitarian Universalist church was just a few blocks away. I decided I would go there some day. Then I realized it was Sunday morning and grabbed a jacket and went.
When I walked in, the congregation was seated, but no minister was in the pulpit. I sat down and noticed no music, no sermon, no reading. People appeared to be meditating. I noticed my breathing and fell into a relaxed awareness, a still silence. Eventually, someone stood, gave what seemed to be a short sermon, and sat down. A little while later, someone else did the same thing. This manner of worship excited me. It felt like I had been looking for something like this for a long time and didn’t know it. After about an hour, someone stood and explained that the worship service was part of the congregation’s ecumenical exploration of various styles of worship. This had been their Quaker-style service.
I had just discovered “worship in the manner of Friends” by way of a very unlikely coincidence. It was a miracle in my life. The following week, I attended worship at the Burlington Friends Meeting, and thus began my thirty-four-year journey with the Religious Society of Friends. I will be always indebted to the UU Church for pointing me in the direction of Friends. This experience has left me with a strong urge to help others learn about Quaker faith, practice, and history.
Susan’s spiritual journey began in the Greater Bay Area, which means that moving to Ben Lomond has been a sort of “full-circle” moment for her. Her parents were members of the very liberal, very activist, First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto. “First Prez” has harbored refugees and conscientious objectors and has hosted people like Joan Baez in anti-war and pro-union fund-raisers. Susan’s parents were strong supporters of the UFW and the grape boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s. They were also early proponents of LGBTQ rights.
Susan and I met in 1987 at the Peace & Justice Center in Burlington, VT, where I worked. She was an elder (a young elder!) in a progressive Presbyterian congregation, and she was a new board member of the P&JC. One weekend, we both planned to attend a workshop near Albany, NY, and she asked me for a ride. That weekend I learned that Susan is smart, kind, progressive, and a terrific listener. She also laughed at all of my jokes. I was smitten.
Not long afterwards, we found ourselves helping a family of Lebanese refugees who were stuck in Vermont. They had been trying to get into Canada, but a number of immigration procedures were changing, and the family wasn’t able to cross the border as they had planned. Before we knew it, scores of refugees were stranded in Vermont – from Central America, Lebanon, Somalia, and elsewhere – held up at the border with no money, no food, and nowhere to go. Susan and I got more and more deeply involved. Soon we knew we needed help.
We called anyone we could think of who might be able to assist. We knew that if we broke the work down into manageable tasks, it would be easier to find volunteers and easier to coordinate. As it turned out, some folks were able to provide transportation, others could provide food, and others helped with housing, legal advice, and translation services.
Pretty soon we had a functioning volunteer organization up and running, which we called Vermont Refugee Assistance (VRA). Within a year, others were able to take over the coordination of the organization, and Susan and I were able to move on to other things. Over a period of years, VRA volunteers helped hundreds of refugee families.
In 1989, Susan and I married and moved into an apartment above the Burlington Friends Meetinghouse. I became the caretaker and, eventually, the clerk of the meeting. In 1993, our son Max was born. A couple years later, Susan became the Director of Student Activities and Leadership Programs at the University of Michigan, and we moved to Ann Arbor. We became active in the friends meeting there, where Susan served on the Religious Education Committee and taught First Day School, and I served on committees for Membership & Outreach and Ministry & Counsel. In 1998, our daughter Ali was born.
After sixteen years in Michigan, we found ourselves moving back to Vermont. Susan had accepted a position as Dean of Community Life at Goddard College. It was a tough transition for our whole family, but it also taught us some good lessons about living with change. One lesson I learned is summed up in this observation by leadership coach John C. Maxwell: “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”
Growth is a matter of choice. We can follow the anxious voices in our heads, the ones telling us to resist new opportunities, or we can choose to learn to ride the waves, accept the things we cannot change, and grow into every present moment – while thanking the miracles that greet us along the way, like the opportunity to live and work with Quakers in the magnificent redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. ~~~
Bob Fisher is a co-director of Ben Lomond Quaker Center with his wife, Susan Wilson. They are members of Plainfield Monthly Meeting in Vermont, and are currently sojourning with Santa Cruz Friends Meeting in California (PYM).
Subscribe or renew now to read all articles online.