Notes from the 2014 Cary Lecture by William Graustein

I attended the 2014 Stephen Cary Lecture at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat center in Wallingford, Penna., in April. The following are my notes, pretty much unedited.

A sound recording of the lecture is here.

Bill Graustein – Stephen Cary Lecture, 4/7/2014

“Prophets and Nonprofits: Tending Quaker Roots in Secular Soil”

How do scriptural referents (parables, prophets) appear in the inward experience of the Light?

He went to a high-church Episcopal boarding school; there was some tension around religion with one of his parents. After he graduated he was struck upon meeting a Quaker, who talked easily and simply of her faith. She invited him to meeting for worship in Purchase, NY. When they all shook hands at the close of meeting, he felt very welcomed. Later, he reflected that this was indeed a radical sign of welcome.

Parable of the sower: had heard it back in school, but it came alive for him one time stopping by a farm field one winter evening in December. He realized sowing seeds then would not result in anything; but sowing them in the same location four months later would. So he saw the parable could be about time as well as physical (or spiritual) location.

His father had founded a company back in the late 1940s. Although it didn’t do well, he started a foundation, too, (later?) named after his late brother, Bill’s uncle. The company was sold much later, for about four times what they thought it would, so they had a lot of money. Holy sh**! He was in the 1%.

They agreed to start a family foundation with his mother’s share. Bill consulted people for guidance. As a geophysicist, he expected data and analysis. Instead, he heard stories and narratives. Meanwhile, his mother’s withdrawn stance was diagnosed as paranoia.

His father, son of an uneducated dairyman, had gone to Harvard, class of 1902. He was friends with Amos Wilson, (one of?) the only African American at Harvard then. He stayed friends with Amos throughout his life, as they found a pile of correspondence from Amos in his dad’s papers. Bill realized racial justice was important to his father [and so could be appropriate for the foundation’s work].

Bill attended a retreat on “emerging ministries” that he heard about at a ministry and worship committee meeting.  He didn’t feel emerging or like a minister, but went anyway. Found that people there had the same story in different forms: many had suffered some hurt, faced facts, chose life, got moving, and now wanted to figure out how to give back.

He organize a planning meeting with 20 people in New Haven. What’s your vision for the future, and what’s getting in your way? He found two major themes:

  1. Yearning to look outside the bounds of their own organizations to work together for something greater;
  2. Seeking support to be more fully alive in community. The work wasn’t necessarily supportive.
He realized he was hearing things that Friends address, for example, listening non-judgmentally.

He founded an organization called the Community Leadership Program. It encouraged storytelling. Then he introduced the clearness process to them. After the first year, they did an evaluation. They learned people of color held back on issues of race, because the two initial leaders were both white. In the second year they brought in a third facilitator who is a woman of color. This helped.

Bill also brought in Donald Davis, who uses the power of storytelling.

Niyonu Spann is now working with him to help transfer the skills and talents of holding space, consciously creating. They have founded an organizaton on co-creation; she is doing most of the day to day work.

He felt his work was difficult, yet there was vitality in failing, and it was rewarding work. The work pulled him away from his meeting, though.

He told the story of a 57-year-old woman on Metro North, who was told not to sit down next to a white man because he didn’t want her black skin touching him. She was shocked, paralyzed, and troubled that no one else spoke up. There was only one other person of color in the car at the time.  Bill was in meeting for worship two days later and thought, “The composition in this room looks like that Metro North car.”

He told the story of a man from a low-income background whose father had left the family. Once he was on a commuter train, where he saw an African American man in a suit and tie and sharp as can be. He resolved to be like this older man. Now he has founded a couple of nonprofits in New Haven to help young men in circumstances he had grown up in. He chanced to meet his father once, in Florida; but he suffered from mental illness, and could not truly see his son. Yet this was hard, as his whole life the younger man had tried to be a man his father could be proud of. Bill could relate because his own mother could not really see him, either.

Quoted Cornel West’s take on Ephesians: “love the people.” Most radical thing Bill ever did was listen.

People in the world outside Quakers are longing to be heard, to be affirmed. Quakers have something to offer. Many Quakers want to “get outside the Quaker bubble,” as the December issue of Friends Journal said.

Renewal : Power flows from the practice of Friends for him. What do we have to offer the world as patterns and examples?

He concluded, “To listen to our neighbors as if they were prophets is a necessary step toward justice.”


Q (J): Sometimes white people want people of color to tell their stories at meetings. But that often doesn’t work well.
A: Yes, there’s an imbalance of power/privilege. Start with questions that are not about issues: “Who’s someone you admire who you wish the others here could know?” (Otherwise it puts the less-privileged person at risk.)

Q: What’s a success and a failure you’ve had?
A: CLP is resulting in collaborations because people see commonality. Personal friendships are growing across difference. Mistake was not getting on the ball sooner. We often make mistakes in CLP and then say, “Oh, okay, what can we learn?” And the biggest mistakes are the ones I haven’t learned anything from yet.

Q (LD): I’m part of a small group of white people who meet to talk about racism. It’s a spiritual practice. One person said, “I used to be able to forget about racism. Now, not a single day goes by when I don’t think about it.” This is important work you’re doing. Can you do this work with national Quaker organizations?
A: (bows = yes) Q (O): Gravest sin is not to recognize the divine in others. My prayer is that we acknowledge the brokenheartedness in not seeing one another.
A: We all need refuge at times. And other times we nee to step out of refuge and into action.

Q (V): RSOF is either at a breaking point or a breakthrough point. How might we step into and through the difficult bits?
A: 1) Boundary between RSOF and outside is more permeable today. Revitalization can come from without as well as within. Patterns of exclusion can be worked on. 2) How do we get people the “psychic Wheaties” to enable them to do the hard work? Sometimes, we nee to ask for help—from elders, accountability partners. Celebrate small steps.

Q (S): Say more about the distance with your monthly meeting.
A: I did not feel the meeting was letting me down, more that I was busy, stuck in “facilitators mind” when at meeting for worship, and didn’t know how to invite people along with me. Feel closer to my meeting again, serving on a committee again.

Q: Point is to go forth, not to build meetings. Beatitudes turn everything upside down.
Q (A): I affirm that you choose to do this work. You could choose not to and still have a foundation and have people around you say you’re doing good work. This, this is important work. [Didn’t write much in the way of notes, because I responded to her emotion with my own deep emotion welling up. Definitely felt like a moment of Presence.]… Is there anything that you get angry about in this work? A: I don’t do anger well, but I’m kind of starting to get worked up: Why aren’t more of us doing this work in our culture? There, did I do better [in expressing anger]? [Niyonu shakes head, everyone says “No!” and we all burst out laughing together. Together!!]