Quaker Theology #10 -- Spring-Summer 2004

The Journeyman – The Making of a Muslim Quaker

Brett Miller-White

How does a person start out as a liberal Protestant Christian, follow doubts about Christian orthodoxy into Quakerism, move from there to becoming a Muslim – and through Islam find a way back to understanding and valuing Jesus?

That’s my story, a journeyman’s story, which is laid out below.

My understanding of a journeyman or woman is someone who undergoes a particular apprenticeship that qualifies them to work for other people. My candidacy for such an appellation began unknowingly via being blessed with worldly parents and being exposed to very basic Christian roots.

My journey began when my parents moved from New York to a farm in the small town of Bethel, Connecticut, which suffered a polarized Protestant/Catholic setting where e.g. intermarriage was a rarity. The Congregational Church provided the compromise of their separate religious backgrounds, one Methodist and the other Christian Science. Our small church supported a missionary in Africa by the name of Minnie Carter.

I was much too young to pay attention to the country or countries that she served, but the impression of her devotion to her predominantly service-oriented mission did take hold. This also later influenced Eleanor Tishkins, the widow of our minister, to go to India under the auspices of The United Church in a service-oriented role as opposed to one of proselytism. Years later we shared memories of our different lay missionary experiences.

In 1938, my parents became active in the Moral Re-Armament movement and I attended all of their house parties, the agenda of which was based upon an evangelism which emphasized "absolute honesty, purity and love."

Who could take issue with that? The MRA, also known as The Oxford Group, peaked about 10 years later and then slowly subsided. It was also a "spiritual ancestor" of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. [The group still exists, renamed in 2001 as "Initiatives of Change." Its website is: http://www.uk.initiativesofchange.org/] It amuses me to think of its promotional success as the forerunner of such commercial techniques as Tupperware parties. Such a reference is not made entirely in jest. Long ago it had occurred to me that the politics of capitalism, i.e. commercialism, is very much involved with Christianity. Even today, President Bush is in bed with fundamental Christianity, and who knows how such is manifested politically and commercially within our cultural approach to God while we’re trying to keep a secular straight face?

The MRA experience eventually proved to be somewhat of a blessed event because it introduced my parents to meditation and in 1942 influenced them to send me to George School, a Hicksite-founded Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. That result, however, initially backfired because it caused me to exercise the first of several rebellious acts as an otherwise seemingly harmless teenager. On First Day mornings I began to disappear in order to attend a nearby Presbyterian church, so I could sing in their choir. To stake my claim to a more active Christianity, I also began wearing a small cross in my lapel – i.e. my heart was now ‘on my sleeve,’ unseen but pounding hard and fast. I think I was experiencing the born-again phenomenon long before that term became popular.

Fortunately George School also had another required Meeting for Worship on Wednesdays, so my brain continued to be washed just enough in Quaker practice to actually cause me to finally rise to my feet just before graduating in 1946. My confused message from God was immediately explained by my Religious Education teacher, who I suppose had a more direct line to God. I suffered a degree of mortification but managed to survive to speak again in Meeting for Worship a few years later. I now wish I could remember what that original message was all about.

After George School I entered Trinity College in Connecticut, where chapel credits were mandatory. What a mistake that was. Its Episcopalian trinitarian approach was emphasized from the pulpit and/or within such rote acts as Responsive Readings and/or joint prayers, and I found myself simply unable to relate to such an environment. The realization of what a Quaker Meeting had to offer had finally taken hold. I never would have graduated due to my already familiar practice of going elsewhere, and so I became an Attender at the Meeting in Hartford. In doing so it might be said that I had rediscovered congregational stability. I also began to replace bible readings with Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1945. Rufus Jones called it "a magnificent achievement" and it really worked for me, its basic setting being that "Only the pure in heart can see God."

My eventual marriage in 1951 to Theodora Whitaker, in an Episcopal church, was my next and also my last experience in being led to the trough of the logia of Jesus in terms of "Lift the stone and you will find me." I recall vividly feeling offended by being asked to polish the soles of my new shoes so that when I knelt down to face the minister and his book, the congregation would not have to look at any dirty soles. What about dirty souls?

Fortunately my marriage resulted in the blessings of four daughters and out of that came the instinctive realization that original sin could not possibly be a valid truth. My Christian box had begun to get some large holes in it. However, the understandings I felt that related to being of Christian service were not disturbed. No indeed. These were instead reinforced throughout by the world’s unrest during the thirties; and by the time World War II came into play I had already become a convinced pacifist confused only by the involvement of my peers, particularly my brother, in making themselves available to military action.

Lurking in the emotional background of such disturbing modern history was my bewilderment in learning that my roots included a female ancestor, a daughter of the Chief of the peaceful Siwanoy Tribe that lived on the land between Connecticut and Manhattan Island. She was one of 24 survivors of an organized massacre by combined Dutch/English forces in 1644. The purpose? The seizure of land. Between 500 and 700 Indians killed.

What on earth were Christians thinking then and since? It was 246 years later, in 1890, when my father was barely a year old, that the last massacre of Native Americans took place, at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. By 1899, our national occupation was finalized with the recognized total collapse of all tribal governments.

Despite my discomfort with Christian history my eventual personal need to be of service took hold in the early sixties at the age of 35. However, the concept of becoming available for overseas service immediately seemed doomed to failure. My search began with the American Friends Service Committee, not only because I was a Quaker but because I knew that I could not become involved with proselytism. AFSC, however, showed no interest in a man with a large family. Maybe we didn’t fit into its budget.

Fortunately the more affluent Church World Service program of the National Council of Churches responded to our availability and we agreed to an assignment in the Middle East where proselytism was not an issue. Coincidentally this introduced us to the spreading wide of Quaker wings (other journeymen and women) in the world of service. I not only replaced a retiring Quaker, Willard Jones, as the CWS Representative to the Middle East but I was later replaced by Yoon Gu Lee, a Korean Quaker. Further, our work was carried out through the offices of the Near East Council of Churches in Beirut whose Secretary, Richard Butler, was a graduate of Earlham.

The Council’s Committee on Refugee Works was located in Jerusalem so, in the early sixties, with my venturesome wife and our four young girls we took up residence on the Arab side of the divided city of Jerusalem. We rented the basement of the former Iraqi Consulate which happened to border the old Hebrew University grounds that now housed an Israeli garrison that had a personnel exchange every two weeks under the protection of the UN. Our house and grounds, with its high wall, became an occasional military position, right on the 50 yard line, whenever hostilities broke out.

This often put the children at risk over the next three years and I’d have to run home from my nearby office to make sure they were staying under cover. The walls were thick but so were the bullets. Fortunately the only close call we had was a stray bullet that bounced off an inside wall and ended up in the hem of a nun who was caring for Theodora in the hospital behind our house. She was suffering from severe hepatitis and the eventual effects of culture shock which later caused her early return to the States.

That is the background that led eventually to my getting out of the Christian baptismal pool that I had been washed in for so many years prior to becoming a Quaker. My work took me to six divergent areas of the Middle East . . . Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Gaza and the western protected newcomer, Israel. Each government was a form of theocracy and my work was carried out by indigenous Christian committees in each country through their refugee programs, which primarily affected Palestinian Muslims.

My most exciting work, when not traveling, was on the Israeli/Palestinian border of the West Bank. We had a self-help development program in 112 border villages populated primarily by Muslims. Most of the indigenous Christians (10% of the whole) were located in the more heavily populated areas. One could easily tell that they had come under a much greater exposure to western secular influence than the Muslim population. We were not involved with any direct proselytization but the implication was there. That was somewhat troublesome. Muslim curiosity was always at its peak. "Why is Abu Yacoub (my Arabic name) helping us with these projects? What is his motivation?" My particular moral sensitivity was not obvious enough for their immediate understanding of the ‘whys’ and ‘what fors.’ In time the efficiency of village networking took hold and a lasting depth of personal relationship surfaced that took care of such needs.

Meanwhile, life in Jerusalem proved to be very exhilarating. Theodora had become a skilled unofficial travel guide for visiting internationals and our oldest children were attending the Friends School in Ramallah. We further enjoyed the beaches of Gaza, the mystique of Damascus, cosmopolitan Beirut, the modern emergence of Amman, a multitude of archeological sites . . . the most outstanding being Petra. Then of course there were the side trips to such places as Cyprus, Greece, Baghdad and Istanbul.

In return, as residents of Jerusalem, we were caught up in the hosting and education of international visitors, experiencing the passion of multitudes of Christians at Easter time. We were also on hand to witness the excitement of the Islamic welcome when the Pope visited to meet with the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, and also made contact with the enlightened King Hussein of Jordan.

Whenever visiting clergy came through Jerusalem we would invite one of them to preach at the YMCA Chapel. On those rare occasions when one was not available there were a few international laymen such as myself who would perform that pulpit exercise without benefit of the educational badge of ordination. I knew this hypocrisy did me more good than the congregation. Similar duties were less of a sensitive challenge in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, where the Friends Meeting called upon my occasional services. They split their weekly Meeting for Worship between programmed and unprogrammed styles of worship. They more easily accepted the results of my less skilled interpretive role within the spirit of my intentions.

In the interim I began to study Islam by benefit of the wonderful facilities at the American University of Beirut and also Jerusalem’s single book store of new and used books on Middle Eastern subjects. I was immediately drawn to Sufism, the esoteric and mystical side of Islam, then known best for its weird whirling dervishes – which did not claim my hypnotic interest.

Instead I uncovered Sufism’s rich history in the study of sound. Earlier I had already developed skills in a cappella harmony so I knew about making overtones where the root sound is augmented by harmonizing. Our culture enjoys this unknowingly thru the skills of a good barbershop quartet that produces overtones, i.e. a fifth sound. It is also possible for an individual to do this alone, i.e. produce two sounds at once . . . the root and its variety of overtones.

In learning to do this I discovered that it was a very useful sound healing technique. When vibrations of sound produce overtones (the third, the fifth, the seventh etc.), one can enter a disciplined physical vibrational environment that when maximized is great medicine for the soul as well as the body. Practitioners call it toning and/or variations of chanting and I have been benefiting from it for many years.

Such toning or chanting is commonly found in use in various religious bodies but Sufism gave early recognition to it. One day when I was in Istanbul enjoying listening to the sounds of the multitudes of minarets providing the Muslim call to prayer, I suddenly realized that sound vibrations were being put to good use. Today I use silent toning as a personal method of centering down in Meeting for Worship in order to make contact with God.

Next >>>>

<<< Contents