Day 39: James Forten

James Forten (1766-1842) was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the grandson of a slave who had freed himself. After his father died, James Forten started working at age seven to help out his mother and sister, first as a chimney sweep and then as a grocery-store clerk. He also attended the African School, run by Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet. By age nine, Forten left school to work full-time.  During the Revolutionary War, Forten served on the Royal Louis. The ship was captured by British forces and he was at risk of being enslaved. Captain John Beazley, who had taken the privateer, was impressed with Forten and secured his being treated as a regular prisoner of war.

james-fortenForten was fortunate to survive the prison conditions in England where thousands of prisoners died. After 7 months he was released on parole and his promise not to fight in the war. He was returned to Brooklyn and walked to Philadelphia to return to his mother and sister and later signed up on a merchant ship that sailed to England. He lived and worked for more than a year in a London shipyard.

When Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he became apprenticed to sail-maker Robert Bridges, his father’s former employer and a family friend. He learned quickly in the sail loft, ultimately purchasing the business in 1798. By 1810 his was one of the most successful sail-making businesses in Philadelphia, employing black and white workers, and Forten one of its wealthiest citizens. Having become well established, Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for blacks.  He wrote pamphlets and publicly denounced bills that mistreated free blacks. As the resettlement movement grew, Forten supported the idea of establishing black-governed nations like Liberia and Haiti. However, he also felt that many American blacks should have equal rights to property in the US as they had been here for generations. He consistently said that it was far better for them to fight for an egalitarian US society rather than to flee the country.

Forten financially backed William Lloyd Garrison in starting up start up his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, in which he frequently published letters signed as “A Colored Man of Philadelphia.” According to his biographer Julie Winch, Forten was “one of the most powerful African-American voices, for many thousands more throughout the North. He knew how to use the press and the speaker’s podium. He knew about building alliances, when to back down and when to press forwards with his agenda.”

He died at the age of 75 in Philadelphia. Thousands of people, both black and white, attended his funeral. His children and grandchildren remained active in the abolitionist movement as leaders, activists and educators. His granddaughter, Charlotte Forten Grimké became a poet, diarist and educator. Her diary from teaching freedmen and their children in the South after the Civil War was republished in scholarly editions in the 1980s.

For today, reflect on these words of Forten: “It seems almost incredible that the advocates of liberty should conceive of the idea of selling a fellow creature to slavery.”


Day 37: Neil Snarr

Neil Snarr grew up in New York and Indiana in a conservative household. After a stint in the Army and obtaining advanced degrees in Theology and Sociology, Neil took a teNeil Snarraching job at Wilmington College. WC is a small Quaker liberal arts college in Southwest Ohio. Not long after arriving at WC, Neil began attending Quaker meeting and has been deeply involved with Friends ever since.

At WC he taught a variety of courses in Sociology and Global Issues. He also taught frequently in Wilmington’s prison program, which was a central aspect of WC’s social justice-oriented mission. In the 1960s, Neil began taking students to Central America and Mexico to learn Spanish and about the realities of the region. This was the beginning of his decades-long interest in taking students abroad and concern for native people throughout the world.

In the 1990s Neil began taking a handful of students to Spring Lobby Weekend, organized by FCNL in Washington, DC. At Spring Lobby Weekend, students learn about an issue of concern to Quakers, learn how to lobby, and then apply this knowledge on Capitol Hill. What began as a few students in a van has evolved into a charter bus loaded with 50-plus students, faculty, staff, and community members from Wilmington, Ohio.

In the academic realm, Neil has done research on post-disaster housing in Central America, edited a book on Nicaragua, and co-edited a book on global issues (now in its 6th edition). Additionally, he has served on various Quaker committees including Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) and Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO).

Upon retiring, Neil has remained active. At WC he raises money for student travel to Quaker-related issues and has researched the history of local desegregation efforts. Most recently, Neil received recognition for selling $10,000 worth of Palestinian fair trade olive oil. His support of Palestinian olive farmers fits well with Neil’s long-held mantra that “if you want to help disadvantaged people, you should buy their products.” Neil has also been instrumental in enabling WC students to join William Penn Quaker Workcamps as participants and leaders in DC, West Virginia and Pine Ridge.

In alignment with his dedication to education as peacemaking, there are these words from Maria Montessori: “Establishing lasting peace is the work of education. All politics can do is keep us out of war.”

Day 22: Tom Keefer – Building Bridges, not Walls

I first met Tom when I was working at Canticle Ministries, an HIV/AIDS ministry in DuPage and Kane County, IL. Tom was on the ministry staff of a large evangelical church and had been asked to help develop a response to HIV. DuPage County’s conservative faith community had only recently gotten involved in HIV/AIDS work thanks to the appearance of Bono at Wheaton College. The energy and focus, however, was almost exclusively on Africa, allowing for many to think they could address the HIV/AIDS pandemic and avoid talking about homosexuality and drug use.  Many people, including Rep. Henry Hyde, only wanted to talk about Africa. As one church representative told me, in Africa “we don’t have to deal with homosexuality.” Tom Keefer knew otherwise. Growing up in the south, his church led African missions but did not allow people of color in the pews so, before delving into far-away AIDS work, Tom wanted to make sure his church was a place of welcome for people with HIV. TomKeefer

What unfolded was transformational. Tom opened my eyes to an evangelical community that was not a monolithic group of Bible-thumpers, but made up of a broad range of thinkers and doers; people of deep faith, deep compassion and deep thought. This led to getting to know or be acquainted with such people as Ruth Bell-Olsson (Rob Bell’s sister), Andrew Marin, Jennifer Grant, Suzie Goering, and Cathleen Falsani. He got me to see the amazing goodness where I had assumed it did not exist, and to seeing people not just living in the tension, but embracing it. He did this more with his actions than words, including helping lead local HIV testing efforts with openness and humility, confronting stigma with love. This has been fundamental to what we do at William Penn House and William Penn Quaker Workcamps.

In addition, Tom challenged me – ever so gently – to more deeply explore my own faith. By asking “so what do Quakers believe?” I realized that I could list the “not’s” (war, violence, greed, etc.), but to state affirmations was less simple. Because of his simple question, I can now state with certainty that I believe that there is that of God in All, and mine is to joyfully seek it. Sharing his faith, and encouraging me to explore mine, deepened my Quaker faith while more deeply appreciating his. This now guides the Quaker Workcamps engagement with places like the Southeast White House and Our Daily Bread, as we create opportunities for groups to become comfortable with religious talk so they can see the good works. We also ask Workcamp participants to develop a greater comfort in affirming one’s own faith.

background-bridge-winter-picIn 2006, an election year when gay marriage was again a hot-button issue, Tom and I were working with Chip Huber from Wheaton Academy to hold a workshop exploring global and local issues related to HIV. As the date neared, Tom called me to say we had to talk. My first thought was he had to back out because of church pressure about doing this with an openly-gay, HIV+ person at a religious school. Instead, Tom wanted me to know that if the question of gay marriage came up and he was asked his opinion, he had to speak his truth – that he believed marriage is for one man and one woman. More importantly, Tom did not want this to hurt our friendship. I was deeply moved by his trust and his faith, and realized then that when his “t”ruth and my “t”ruth come together, a greater “T”ruth” emerges – that we can live together.

In honor of Tom’s gentleness and spirit, take a moment to reflect on these simple words from Isaac Newton: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”

Submitted by Brad Ogilvie

Day 17: Lao Tzu – Setting the Path

Lao Tzu (Laozi) was an ancient Chinese philosopher and poet living sometime between 6th and 4th century BCE.  He is the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching and the philosophical founder of Taoism, as well as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. The Tao Te Ching describes the Tao as the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen but not transcendent, powerful yet humble, and is at the root of all things. People have desires and free will. Many act “unnaturally”, upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The practice of Taoism is to lead students to a return to their natural state, in harmony with the Tao. Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed, as they are viewed as biased and artificial.  Lao Tzu also wrote a lot about the importance of simplicity, not so much rejecting intellect, but maintaining a calm mental state in a world of adaptation and change.


Taoism has greatly influenced modern thought – belief in inherent goodness, harmony and getting into/recognizing flow being a few examples. Mindfulness practices are embedded in the sentiment “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” There are other teachings about grace, kindness, and speaking truth. But it also creates paradox. For example, compare “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Do not resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally towards whatever way they like” with “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are headed.” Combined, these reflect the sentiment of the Serenity Prayer – being able to change what we can, accept what we cannot, and have the wisdom to know the difference. Both sides of the political landscape embrace this for varying causes (such as climate change). Libertarian groups, both left- and right-leaning, share the sentiment often found in Taoism about the corrupting nature of people as they seek power and resist change, although the politics of left- and right-leaning libertarians vary greatly as to the proper role of government.

For today, take a moment to reflect the role of humility in living in the tension.

“To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one know will lead to difficulty.”

Day 14: Titus Brandsma

Titus Brandsma was a Dutch Carmelite friar, Catholic priest, and professor of philosophy born on this day in 1881. He vehemently opposed to Nazi ideology, and ultimately died in Dachau as a result. He was born into a small dairy-farming family and was named Anno Sjoerd Brandsma. His parents were devout Catholics in a predominantly-Calvinist Province of Friesland, and all but one of their children entered religious orders. He entered the novitiate of Carmelite friars in 1898 where he took the religious name Titus (in honor of his father), was ordained in 1905, and received a doctorate of philosophy in Rome in 1909. He was knowledgeable about Carmelite mysticism, and was one of the founders of the Catholic University of Nigmegen (now Radboud University), where he became a professor of philosophy and the history of mysticism. His studies on mysticism were the basis for the establishment of the Titus Brandsma Institute (in 1968) dedicated to the study of spirituality.

TitusBrandsma (1)After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Brandsma fought against the spread of Nazi ideology. In January, 1942 he hand-delivered a letter from the Conference of Dutch Bishops to the editors of Catholic newspapers ordering them not to print official Nazi documents as was required by law. He visited 14 editors before being arrested on Jan. 19. He was transferred to Dachau on June 19, where his health quickly gave way, and died on July 26 from a lethal injection that was part of a medical experimentation on prisoners.

In a biography about him, The Man Behind the Myth, Brandsma was said to have combined vanity, a short-tempered character, extreme energy, political simpleness, true charity, unpretentious piety, decisiveness and great personal courage. His idea were of his own age and modern as well. His strong disaffection for any kind of antisemitism offset contemporary Catholicism’s negative theological opinion about Judaism.  In 2005, the town of Nigmegen named him its greatest citizen, where a memorial church has been dedicated. A street in Dachau is also named in his honor.  He was Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1985.

In honor of his birth 135 years ago today, take a moment to ponder these words of his: “Do not yield to hatred. We are here in a dark tunnel, but we have to go on. At the end, an eternal light is shining for us.”

Day 8: Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of Bahá’í Faith

Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) was born Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí in Tehran, then the capital of Persia. Some authors claim his ancestry can be traced back to Abraham, Zoroaster (founder of the ancient religion Zoroastrianism) and to the last king of the Sassanid Empire. His teachings and religious works spoke of humanity as one single race and that the age has come for unification as a global society.

Early in his life, he joined the Bábí movement, a rapidly growing movement across the Persian empire that faced widespread opposition from the Islamic clergy. This movement was a progressive movement that eliminated successorship and invited doubt to faith with messages of a Promised One to come who will make all things manifest, and that no other person’s writings should be binding until then.  

When the leader of the Bábí movement was executed in 1850, a group of his followers



Gardens in Haifa, Israel


plotted to assassinate the Shah in retaliation. Bahá’u’lláh condemned this plan, but his influence did not stop the attempt that failed and resulted in the plotters being rounded up and killed, while the rest of the Bábí movement was imprisoned in an underground dungeon. It was during this imprisonment that Bahá’u’lláh had several mystical experiences and received a vision of a maiden from God that he was the prophesied one. Upon his exoneration and release from prison, he was exiled from Iran and chose to go to Iraq in the Ottoman Empire rather than to Russia, where he had been invited.

As he made his way to Baghdad, the outgoing and accessible Bahá’u’lláh was increasingly seen as the spiritual leader of the movement, whereas the appointed nominal leader, Mirza Yahya,  was often living in hiding and disguised. Resentment built in the community as Yahya tried to discredit Bahá’u’lláh so, in 1854, he decided to leave Baghdad and pursue a solitary life and not become a source of disagreement in the community. For two years he lived as a hermit in the Kurdistan. His penmanship brought curiosity from local Sufi instructors, and as he began to take guests, he became noted for his learning and wisdom, and people started seeking his wisdom. He also wrote several books during this time. He emerged as the unifying leader of Bábísm, although facing many conflicts, exiles, detentions, and attempts on his life from Yahya as well as Persian and Muslim clerics. Yahya was finally discredited in 1867, and Bahá’u’lláh’s followers started calling themselves Bahá’í’s.

Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh in Bahjí

For the remainder of his life, Bahá’u’lláh continued to write and form the foundations of the Bahá’í Faith. He wrote letters to world leaders asking them to cast away their material possessions, and to rule with justice and protect the rights of the downtrodden. He called for reductions in armaments and for reconciliation of differences. To Christian monarchs, he asked them to be faithful to Jesus’ call to follow the promised “Spirit of Truth.” His final imprisonment was in Akka, the citadel city in Ottoman Palestine (now Israel). As he became a trusted and respected person there, the prison conditions were eased and he was able to move about more freely. He continued to write, with many works outlining his vision for a united world, as well as the need for ethical action. He died and is buried in a shrine in Akka (above).

For today, reflect on these two pearls of wisdom: “Religion without science is superstition. Science without religion is materialism”, and “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” 

NOTE: There are few photographs of Bahá’u’lláh, and out of respect for the faith’s customs, I have not put one here.


Day 4: Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) was born in her parents home in Marion, AL, with her paternal great-grandmother Delia Scott, a former slave, presiding as midwife. Her mother, Bernice, had a 4th grade education, worked as a school bus driver, church pianist and for her husband. She was also a member of the local Literacy Federated Club. Obie, Coretta’s father, was the first black person in their neighborhood to own a truck. He also ran a barber shop, a general store, and a lumber mill. The latter was burned down by white neighbors after he refused to sell his mill to a white male logger. Among Coretta’s ancestors were people of Irish and Native American ancestry, including a maternal grandfather, Martin Van Buren McMurry, born to a Black Native American mother and her white master. Martin’s father never acknowledged Martin as his some and, despite being able to pass for white, Martin detested the notion of “passing”. Martin is noted for having inspired Coretta’s passion for education.

Coretta King

Coretta first attended Antioch college as part of its Interracial Education. Her older sister, Edythe, was the first African American to attend Antioch in this program. Coretta said “Pioneering is never easy” as she credited her sister for making her own time at Antioch (where she studied music) easier. It was also here that she became politically active, due largely to her experience of racial discrimination with the local school board.

She transferred from Antioch to the New England Conservatory of Music on a scholarship. It was here that she met and married Martin Luther King, and their participation in the struggle for African-American equality escalated until they became central to the movement. After Martin’s assassination in 1968, she approached singer Josephine Baker to take over the leadership of the movement. Baker, citing concern that, with her 13 adopted children, said she could not risk her life at that time, so Coretta assumed the leadership. She quickly expanded that work to include involvement in the Women’s Movement, the LGBT rights movement, and anti-war movements that continued until her death. She was  instrumental in getting Martin Luther King Day recognized as a Federal Holiday, founded the King Center, and was the 2004 recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize.

Despite having experienced the brunt of racism’s worst – burning of her father’s business, home assaults, assassination of her husband – she remained a steadfast inspiration for peace and love.  In her own words: “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than the hated.