When I visit Evangelical Christians or Mormons or Muslims, I expect everyone I meet in that family or community will subscribe to the basic tenants of their respective faith. When I visited Tommy Bassett and his son Arthur in the Quaker community outside McNeal, AZ I learned that presumption doesn’t necessarily apply. Quaker tenets are looser; their tolerance extends to accepting people into their fold who do not fully subscribe.
In the mid-1970’s a small Quaker community formed in Sulphur Springs Valley. Today, eight people live in an assortment of houses, with room for a few more. There’s also a small meeting hall. I mentioned that the place was easy to find because a ‘War is not the Answer’ sign was posted opposite the driveway. Tommy acknowledged the sign, but noted, “Our group is hesitant to jump into social justice. We didn’t come here to stir things up, but to be left alone.”
Despite that hesitancy, Tommy exemplified the broad, liberal thinking for which Quakers are known, He endorsed that the recent Martin Luther King Day Parade in Denver had been coopted by the Black Lives Matter movement. “MLK Day should not be a corporate event with the usual political speeches. It should be about service and the disenfranchised.” Last year the movie Selma opened on MLK Day in nearby Sierra Vista. “We went to the theater and the place was packed. We worried if we could get in. We didn’t realize that American Sniper opened the same day. The crowds for that. There were maybe twelve people in the theater for Selma. You have to remember, Arizona was the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Day.”
Tommy was raised Roman Catholic during the period of liberation theology. He has good friends who are evangelical Christians and loves their spirit. He’s participated in Vipassana retreats. He likes how Quakers allow space in their services and in their lives. Although he lives among Quakers and values aspects of other faiths, he always comes back to the idea of one holy apostolic church, the ritual, the smoke and incense.
Tommy is aware that, “the most segregated hour of the week is Sunday morning at 10 a.m.” but he sees religions coming together, and considers that a good thing. “I see more mainline Protestants taking on Catholic traditions, participating in Day of the Dead and celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe. Catholics are taking on other traditions. I am also seeing more spaces in services, more pauses, more place for meditation.”
Tommy respects the Quaker method of decision-making. A few years ago a member of the community wanted to invite someone to their Thanksgiving celebration who was a convicted child abuser. After several community meetings, in which everyone’s concerns were considered, the group extended the man an invitation.
“Quakerism is self-defined. We have something called eldering where people announce themselves as Quakers and are accepted by their congregation.” Otherwise, you’re a Quaker if you adopt the name.
Although Tommy speaks from a variety of religious perspectives, he sees religion as a vehicle for action in this life. “When you go to a church, look at how much of the bulletin is focused on the garden club, choir and liturgy versus reaching out to the disenfranchised. If it’s more than 50%, find another church.”
Tommy is keen to the variety of problems we face. He talked about how the problem of profit motivated prisons and seeking justice in immigration. “Indirectly and directly, the fact that we retain our military might enforces our will, whether we point our guns or not.”
Still, Tommy is a patient man who knows lasting change happens slowly. “The problem is that change can’t happen too quickly. Turn a man-o-war around on a dime and it will sink. No doesn’t always mean no. Sometimes it means ‘not now.’”
How will we live tomorrow?