“I belong to a tradition that really emphasizes finding God in community, and in listening deeply within for the inner light; the inner teacher.”
This week brings us to a relatively young faith – a faith that grew out of the explosive mid-17th century English Civil War. Profound dissatisfaction with the barriers between God and people spurred a massive bloom of dissenting sects in Protestantism. Quaker Friends have been meeting and worshipping in America since 1656. The religion is defined by its emphasis on a personal relationship to the Divine, and to each other.
Our guest this week is climate justice activist and author Eileen Flanagan, speaking on how her Quaker faith became the engine that propelled her into a career as an international environmental activist.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
BILL BAKER: The simplicity, humanity, and imperatives of the Quaker faith.
EILEEN FLANAGAN: Part of why I chose Quakerism was the emphasis on community. The fact that we’ve had women ministers going back to the 1600s and that it was a place where I could explore my own questions. When I showed up in my late 20s, I didn’t know what I believed and it was a community where it was okay to say that. There are a lot of things that resonate in other traditions—Buddhism, you know, all kinds of things. But it’s that communal exploration for the truth, that’s part of what brought me to Quakerism.
BILL BAKER: This is Beliefs. I’m Bill Baker.
Quaker Friends have been meeting and worshiping in America since 1656. The religion is defined by its emphasis on a personal relationship to the divine, and each other. Our guest this week is climate justice activist and author Eileen Flanagan speaking on how her Quaker faith became the engine that propelled her into a career as an international environmental activist.
Eileen, welcome to our podcast. Eileen, you’re a Quaker. What does that mean?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: [Laughter] It means that I belong to a tradition that really emphasizes finding God in community and in listening deeply within for the inner light, the inward teacher. There are a lot of names that we used to refer to it.
BILL BAKER: How many Quakers are there? You know, you look like a person that I’d see on the street I wouldn’t know that you were a Quaker. I wondered if you had unusual dress or something like the Amish or Mennonite. So there must be many, many kinds of Quakers. And are the Amish and Mennonite Quaker?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: No. We are a different tradition. I’m afraid that the Quaker Oats man has given people a lot of false images of us. We were known in the 19th century for our distinctive dress, being very plain, and that was a signal, actually, to people who were running away from slavery—that the people dressed in gray were the Quakers who they could go to for help. Nowadays, most Quakers dress not that differently from their neighbors. Maybe a little less fashionable. We don’t drive horse and buggies. We’re way more likely to drive a Prius or take the train.
I think the core that is important is the idea of living simply. And so, our old ways of doing that have become stereotyped with Quakers today because we’re so small in number.
BILL BAKER: Where did Quakerism come from? It was founded in England, correct?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: That’s right. It began in Northern England in a very tumultuous political period in the 1600s. It was kind of a rebellion against all the Christian religious traditions of the time. Early Friends believed that they were getting back to the root message of Jesus, stripping away everything—the stained glass and everything—that got in the way with really living Jesus’ message.
BILL BAKER: Is there a liturgy? Or is there an organized form of introduction into your faith?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: One of the things that early Friends rejected were the sacraments, like baptism. Really, if there’s a core tenant, it’s that there’s that of God in every person, and everything is organized around: how do we express that? How do we live into that? The other forms of worship were sort of stripped away in an attempt to help people have more of a mystical experience, of connecting directly with God.
So, today there are different branches of Quakerism that have evolved over the years and there are some branches that have something that looks like a Protestant service with a little bit of silence. I’m from what’s called the un-programmed tradition that goes back to the roots of we’re going to gather in silence and listen for God to speak to us, and trust that God can show up in any place, in any form.
So, the community that I worship at you would come in. We usually sit down for an hour, grounded in silence. And if a person feels moved by the Spirit to speak, they can stand up, sing. I’ve heard of dance, but I have yet to see it.
And then they would sit down, and there would be another period of silence until someone else feels moved. If someone wants to join the community, they’re welcome to come whether they’re officially a member or not. But there’s a committee that you would write a letter to and express your interest. They would sit with you and have a kind of discernment process to make sure you knew what you were getting yourself into.
BILL BAKER: Where does the name Quaker come from?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: Well, there are different theories about that. Some people say George Fox, our founder, said something to a judge about “quaking in the sight of the Lord.” Other people say that because in the spirit of worship, sometimes people are so profoundly moved by a kind of mystical sense of the spirit that they have been known to shake, or quake, and kind of shake the benches. And I’ve seen that happen occasionally, so some people think that’s where the name came from.
BILL BAKER: Let’s talk about social justice. You’re very well known for that. Your books, your activities have been very, very focused in that direction.
EILEEN FLANAGAN: Part of what attracted me to Quakerism was the idea that “that of God in every person” has implications, right? So, if God is part of every person, how could we engage in war? How could we support the death penalty? How could we live in a world with such gross inequality along racial lines, along class lines, along gender lines?
So connecting those two things—a sense of spirituality and a deep commitment to social change and justice and peace—was really part of what brought me into my late 20s. In the last several years, I’ve felt a very strong calling to work on climate change, and I found my home in the climate movement in a group called Earth Quaker Action Team. It was founded by Quakers, but we include people from a variety of backgrounds and we were founded to work at the intersection of justice and climate change, and to use nonviolent direct action.
The kinds of strategies that King or Gandhi or the women’s movement for suffrage, which was led by a Quaker woman—all of those movements used a kind of spiritually grounded activism that challenged powerful people, that challenged decision-makers. And that is part of the Quaker tradition going back to the 1600s. George Fox, one of our founders, would stand up in a church service and challenge the preacher, which was very unconventional and got lots of Quakers thrown in jail.
So, we’re kind of reviving that tradition, only using it on the issue of climate change.
BILL BAKER: Well, I’ve read that you do social action very often in the corporate world, that you attend corporate board meetings and raise attention to some of your issues.
EILEEN FLANAGAN: That’s right. Corporations play a huge role in climate change. And I think there is a role for activists lobbying, certainly, but it’s our analysis that a lot of our political leaders get so much money from the fossil fuel industry, we might as well go right for the companies rather than try to lobby the people who are getting lobbied by big business.
So, our first campaign was against PNC Bank, which was founded partly by Quakers. It’s a Pennsylvania based bank. They brag about being a “green bank.” But when we started our campaign, they were one of the biggest financiers of mountaintop removal coal mining, where they blow up mountains to get coal cheaply. And it’s a horrific practice. It’s like, if you go to those mountains, it’s so eerie—there’s like nothing, no birds. They just killed the mountain. And it’s terrible for climate change. It’s terrible for the people of Appalachia, who have high cancer rates as a result of this process—dumping things in their drinking water.
And so, we thought, “Aha! Somebody bragging about their Quaker roots engaged in huge hypocrisy.” That sounds like our niche. So, for five years we showed up at PNC events. We had silent prayer—Quakers call it meeting for worship in bank lobbies. In their annual shareholder meeting we engaged in civil disobedience a number of times, but most of the actions were not ones where people were risking arrest. They were ordinary people showing up to their local bank branch and praying for change, but praying in a way that was in the way and challenging to the managers.
BILL BAKER: Did you have success?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: We did! We won that campaign in 2015. They came out with a statement announcing their change of policy and acknowledging the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.
BILL BAKER:Eileen, your most recent book—you’ve written a number of books—is called “Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness and Hope.” Will you tell us about that?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: My first two books were about spirituality and particularly about spiritual discernment and listening inwardly for divine guidance on a variety of issues.
I found myself coming up on my 50th birthday feeling—it’s kind of a stereotype—but feeling a little bit of a life crisis. I was teaching a class on discernment and feeling like I wasn’t sure what my own sense of calling was at that point anymore. And I had this deep sense that Quakers call “being under the weight of”— I had this sense of being under the weight of climate change and that I was called to do something about it more than just carrying my reusable water bottle and turn down a hot water heater and things like that.
But I wasn’t sure what to do. So, I went through this process that resulted in me finding Earth Quaker Action Team. I actually followed an intuition to go to the Philadelphia Flower Show on a particular day. It was Ash Wednesday. And I found this group committing civil disobedience in the middle of the flower show. It turned out PNC Bank was one of the major financial sponsors and they were singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in the middle the flower show and creating quite a ruckus.
And there is such a sense of joy as well as seriousness. That is the group where I found my home.
The book tells that story. It talks about my first arrest, and it also talks about being in the Peace Corps in Africa and what I learned about living simply there and how challenging it was to apply that coming back to the United States, especially having kids who were convinced they were the only people who didn’t have the latest PS3.
And then part of the story is learning about climate change in Africa and realizing the injustice of who’s going to get hit, who is getting hit—right now, Mozambique. It’s really demonstrating that the people who did the least to create climate change are experiencing some of the harshest consequences of it.
BILL BAKER: You mentioned that you were arrested. Want to tell us about that?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: Sure. I’ll tell you the last time—it was actually Holy Week a year ago. We organized a civil disobedience action at PECO [Pennsylvania’s largest electric and natural gas utility] and wanted to really challenge them to do more around climate change. They like a lot of companies, they talk a good game and when you really look at the numbers of what they’re doing it doesn’t match. So, a group of us—about half Quaker and then the other half were interfaith leaders from a group that we partner with called Power, which is interfaith organization in Philadelphia—we went in to the part of PECO where people pay their bills or resolve their conflicts with the utility.
We sat down. We sang. It became clear that the police were not in a hurry to arrest us. They were just going to wait us out. So, we started sharing with each other why we were there. I was sitting next to an African-American preacher—the Rev. Gregory Holston, who’s the executive director of Power—and he shared how his first congregation, which was African-American Methodist congregation, lived near an oil refinery and it was a wake up that was for him, learning about the unusual cancers that people had; seeing his own daughter with asthma, which she recovered from as soon as they moved out of that neighborhood.
He started sharing and said that he wished more people in his community knew about these issues.
And here we are the other side of the room full of PECO customers, most of them African-American. And I said, “Maybe you should go preach over here.” And so we stood up and we went over and explained what we were doing, and Rev. Holston just started sharing the same story with the people there who understood these issues immediately. And that was when they decided to arrest us. I think it was around the time that he pointed out that PECO nets a million dollars a day in our region that they sent the police and said, “No, get these people out of here.”
So, we were arrested pretty quickly, very peacefully. The officer who arrested Rev. Holston said, “ I’m really sorry, Reverend, I don’t want to do this.” And then we were released fairly quickly. It’s a pretty simple process in Philadelphia, which is not true of my activist friends necessarily in other places.
BILL BAKER: Well, what’s next for you and the Quakers of Pennsylvania?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: Well, for me I’m working on a new book that’s about the intersection of these issues. And Louisiana is a place that I’ve been drawn back to again and again, and that is a place where getting arrested is not necessarily the simple experience. I’ve talked to people who have been handled very roughly in Louisiana, where there’s a huge base of the fossil fuel movement. A lot of environmental racism—really stark differences in who bears the brunt of this.
Environmental racism refers to the fact that toxic pollution is not evenly distributed. In the United States, there’s a lot more of it in the U.S. south, but particularly in communities of color. African-American communities, Native American communities are way more likely to live next to the oil refinery or to be in the community where coal ash was dumped or to be in the community where the oil and gas trains pass through in the middle of the night with great danger of leaking and things like that.
BILL BAKER: You’re a Quaker. Do any other faiths resonate with you the way Quakerism does?
EILEEN FLANAGAN: There are there are a lot of things in other traditions that resonate with me. My husband is Roman Catholic and he likes to point out all the things we have in common.
Quakers believe that every day is sacred. And so, we don’t officially celebrate Easter or Christmas because every day is sacred. And my husband points out that Catholics believe every day is sacred and so they have a saint day for every day—it’s the same theology.
Part of why I chose Quakerism was the emphasis on community. The fact that we’ve had women ministers going back to the 1600s and that it was a place where I could explore my own questions. When I showed up in my late 20s, I didn’t know what I believed and it was a community where it was okay to say that. There are a lot of things that resonate in other traditions—Buddhism, you know, all kinds of things. But it’s that communal exploration for the truth, that’s part of what brought me to Quakerism.
BILL BAKER: Quaker Eileen Flanagan, thank you for being with us today.
EILEEN FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me.
BILL BAKER: Our guest was the climate justice activist, author and Quaker, Eileen Flanagan.
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Beliefs is brought to you with the support of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Jay Woodward is our producer. The theme music is by Edward Bilous.
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