Two Quakers Living with the Military

Department: 

We are two Quaker women who raised our families in towns dominated by the U.S. military. Rather than shun the military and look away, we have lived our witness amidst strong military presences. One thing about being in a military town is that you can’t look away from how big a machine the military is. Each of us found that it was hard to raise a Quaker family in a community with a tiny Quaker presence and a huge military presence. It was hard for our children to find peer support with so few Friends in town. The military has certainly created plenty of occasions for us to talk about our testimonies and our practices in the face of headwinds. Both of us have found that our situations have actually helped strengthen our faith, since we often have to live our witness when sustained by faith alone.

The two of us met at Pendle Hill in the fall of 2016, when we were both taking a clerking workshop from Arthur Larrabee – in preparation for becoming clerks of our respective yearly meetings. A few years later, we were excited to see each other on the Western Friend board, and we discovered that each of us has lived for over thirty years in a town with a small Quaker community and a big military presence.

“Sometimes I think we get sympathy for being missionaries,” said Lucretia when she talked about how other Friends react upon discovering that she lives in Great Falls, Montana (population 60,000), which is surrounded by 150 underground silos containing nuclear missiles. Molly has had Friends recoil upon learning she lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado (population 470,000), and ask how she could possibly live in a place that is surrounded in all directions by military bases and the Air Force Academy.

Accidents of life landed us where we are. Neither of us fully realized that we were moving to a military town when we did. Lucretia left behind “my perfect life” in Olympia, Washington, with like-minded people, a substantial Quaker community, family, and a growing career. Molly moved to Colorado Springs from the small, conservative town of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which had a very small Quaker meeting. So, for her, Colorado Springs seemed familiar – just another conservative town with a small Quaker meeting. Having the larger and more liberal city of Denver only ninety minutes away was a bonus. She was aware of the military in Colorado Springs, but the extent of the military’s impact on all aspects of the city was a big surprise.

After trying and failing to find a compatible faith community in Great Falls, Lucretia and her husband started a Quaker worship group there. That was thirty-five years ago, and the Humphreys’ home phone has remained the contact number for Great Falls Worship Group ever since. The group currently has five members and five attenders.

When Molly moved to Colorado Springs, a few Quakers there were already meeting for worship each Sunday – in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. A few years later the meeting was in need a clerk, and Molly became the clerk; her home phone became the contact for the meeting. Today, Colorado Springs Meeting is still small, about fifteen members, but it’s large enough to have a meetinghouse and its own phone number.

Lucretia feared she would lose her passion for social activism when she moved to Great Falls, but she found that she needed it more than ever. Previously, peace activism in Great Falls had been spurred on by outsiders, mostly from Missoula, protesting nuclear missiles at Malmstrom Air Base. Once the Great Falls Worship Group had been established, Friends were able to help plan such events. They organized a weekly silent vigil against the Iraq War, which continued for seven years. For the first time, pacifism became a local issue in Great Falls. Lucretia was employed by the school district, and some people complained about her, but she kept her position.

Colorado Springs has a long tradition of peace activism. The city has a Justice and Peace Commission, which has bannered, marched, held vigils, and hosted rallies since the 1970s. Quakers have been regular participants in these activities, even if not central in the planning. Molly has served as a peacekeeper at such events, and her pacifism has never threatened her livelihood.

Even though we are committed Quakers, neither one of us lives in a bubble of Friends and like-minded people. We have engaged with these military towns, where we have raised our families. Each of us has two sons, and all four boys were recruited by the military in high school. None of them joined.

Molly’s family had social and athletic crossovers into the military community. Her kids and husband played Ultimate Frisbee with Air Force Academy airmen and families. As a soccer mom, Molly sat on the sidelines with soccer parents from the military, where she heard some disparaging remarks about pacifists. Over time, she developed friendships with some of those parents, based on common interests like birding and cooking. “When it became clear later that I was a pacifist, these people already knew me. They had trusted me with their children. They learned that pacifists weren’t what they previously thought.”

In Great Falls one year, the middle school band was scheduled to play in a parade organized to impress a group of Pentagon officials, who were visiting to help determine whether Malmstrom AFB should stay open or not. Lucretia complained to a member of the school board about children playing for the military. Her objection seemed to baffle the school board member, and Lucretia was reminded that she was free to pull her kids out of any extracurricular activity. Soon after that encounter, over family dinner, Lucretia explained that her son could pull out of that parade if he didn’t want to be part of it. He was decisive that he wanted to participate, that he did not want to stand out from what the other kids were doing.

Years later, Lucretia was surprised when a young man who had grown up nearby said at his wedding that he was grateful to have neighbors like the Humphreys, who were willing to be different in Great Falls. He said, “I appreciate your speaking out about nuclear missiles.” When one of Lucretia’s sons went away to Carlton College, he reported back to his parents that they weren’t so radical after all. “You’re pretty mainstream!”

For both our families, the annual sessions of our yearly meetings were touchstones for our sons. While two of our sons never really “clicked” with their Quaker cohorts, for the other two, annual sessions were critical to their connection with Friends and to growing up. Particularly when disaster struck, the Quaker kids came together to support each other.

Our kids are all now “launched” as adults. And here we are, “older adults” – two Quakers living in military towns. We continue to listen for that Still Small Voice – and we continue to give witness to it.

Molly has taught classes on pacifism in the history department of a local college, where she also helped coordinate a degree program for a minor in nonviolence and has created a symposium on this topic. She continues to serve as executive director and an instructor in “Poetry Heals,” a program she founded in 2015 to provide therapeutic writing classes to trauma survivors, many of whom have connections with the military.

Lucretia has put herself into the spotlight a few times over the years. For example, when she helped organize a debate in 1986 about Reagan’s proposed anti-ballistic-missile “Star Wars Program,” a Pentagon official called her shortly before the scheduled event to say that his office had never promised to provide a speaker and that “they don’t bow to turncoats.” Lucretia felt Spirit leading her beyond her fear, and she replied, “I’ll go to the press!” The Associated Press did call her back, and ultimately, the Pentagon did provide a speaker – although the event became a pair of presentations rather than a debate. Even so, it drew an overflow crowd.

Lucretia has also maintained a quiet, persistent activism over the years. As a school counselor, she kept a basket filled with colorful paper cranes on her desk. When students showed interest in them, she explained the legend of the thousand paper cranes and Sadako’s wish for a peaceful world, free of nuclear weapons. If a student wanted to take a crane, she asked them to think first about how they could make the world a more peaceful place.

Just last year, a reporter from a large Japanese newspaper was visiting U.S. military bases. After being toured around Great Falls and entertained by local politicians and business owners, this Japanese reporter looked for someone with an alternative perspective. He found Lucretia and Jim Humphrey and spent several hours with them. He was especially moved by their description of Hiroshima Day in Great Falls, when for several years, the worship group invited people to meet on the banks of the Missouri River.  “We brought luminaria and cranes to float on the river, and we each told our personal reason why we believe it is important to remember this holocaust in our town surrounded by nuclear missiles.” The journalist, a young man, was clearly moved.

As the two of us talked about writing this article together, we agreed that we both feel a bit overwhelmed at times by the enormity of the military and the way that most people in our towns support the military without question. We see how our city boosters speak of the military as a way to grow our local economies. But we both know from experience that the military is not accountable for the money it spends and the damage it does. We live close to the people and local resources that the military chews up. The most insidious aspect of this self-destructive boosterism is the way our communities accept it. 

However, our most personal and profound common experience is this: Living in these particular towns keeps us close to the knowledge that a nuclear war is not survivable for us. Our towns are among the first targets. This dreadful feeling of our assured demise rises high when something like the war in Ukraine brings talk of nuclear weapons. A recent headline about Russia placing its nuclear weapons on high alert gave Lucretia a real emotional jolt. “I am their target.”

Both of us have friends and acquaintances who tell us they are glad we live in our military towns with our public witness. Some join us, others applaud us, but many others simply avoid the topic. It is an act of faith to live each day with integrity and love, even when we are distinctly the minority.  ~~~

Lucretia Humphrey is a recent clerk of North Pacific Yearly Meeting. Molly Wingate is a recent clerk of Intermountain Yearly Meeting. Both serve now on Western Friend’s Board of Directors.

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