It IS different here!

My wife and I moved to North Carolina last fall after many years of living and working with Quakers in Indiana, the Adirondacks, and New England. Quick take: it’s a little different here.

I’d been impressed for many years by the Friends from North Carolina who showed up at FUM Board meetings. Their gentleness, discernment, good humor and dedication made me wonder what it would be like to live and work there.

North Carolina culture – both in general and among Quakers – is different. The accent is definitely Southern, but it’s far from what people from the rest of the U.S. think of as Southern. It’s a soft accent, easy on the ears.

People use old-fashioned words in everyday conversation – yonder, young ‘un, y’all (I quickly learned that “y’all” is singular, while “all y’all” is plural). You don’t turn off the A/C, you cut it off. There’s a big difference between the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and the Triad (High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem).

When I made an unworkable suggestion to the head of the House and Grounds committee, he turned me down with a smile, saying, “That dog won’t hunt”. Dinner is still the noontime meal here, supper is what you eat at sundown. The standard everyday greeting here is “Hey!”, used to and by people of all ages.

There’s a difference between “fixin’” (getting ready to do something) and “fixin’s” (the side dishes of pinto beans, slaw, biscuits, fries, etc. which accompany a meal). “Right quick” means pretty soon – maybe in an hour, maybe next week, maybe later this year, depending on circumstances. But “directly” means right now, immediately, no fooling around, no side trips or stopping to chat with friends (“Y’all come home directly!”)

One of my favorite phrases here is “might could”, which expresses just the right amount of possibility or indecision in any situation. “Do you aim to go to the mountains next weekend?” “Might could, if the car don’t break down.”

Respect is a big part of the culture in North Carolina. I have never been called “sir” so many times before in my life, often several times in a single sentence. I strongly suspect that children in North Carolina get whomped upside the head by their parents for not using “sir” or “ma’am”. It takes some getting used to, especially since I always thought that Quakers didn’t use titles.

Many people are addressed by both their first and middle names – and it’s astonishing how many people here have “Lee” as a middle name. Quite a few women are addressed by their middle name, usually a treasured family name, whether or not the middle name is typically female. Some women are often called “Miss Ruby” or “Miss Helen”, which can indicate a) age b) status c) love and respect d) all of the above, and has nothing to do with whether they are or ever have been married.

People here still pull over to the side of the road whenever a funeral procession goes by. Cemeteries are meticulously maintained, with flowers changed regularly several times each year. Even though Baptists make up a very large percentage of churchgoers, they come in for a good deal of kidding – people here tell Baptist jokes in the same way people told Polish jokes and Italian jokes when I was growing up in Buffalo.

There’s also a great deal more publicly expressed faith here – the first week we were here, we were startled to have the check-out clerk at the supermarket, the cashier at the bank, the attendant at the gas station and the waiter at the restaurant all say, “Have a blessed day!” I’m not sure who’s teaching people to say this, but it’s nearly universal.

“Bless your heart” is different – it can be used in a straightforward and warmly sentimental way, but it’s also used with irony to suggest that the person being blessed is slightly stupid. “Special” can also be a put-down, depending on the emphasis given by the speaker. “Isn’t that special?” can be a real zinger.

Food is a big deal here (isn’t it everywhere?) and in North Carolina the staples are sweet tea and barbecue. I find sweet tea almost cloyingly sweet and usually opt for ice water – another local alternative is a carbonated beverage called Cheerwine (similar to Cherry Coke).

Barbecue is something people here love to compare and argue about endlessly. Old-timers swear it’s best cooked over a hickory fire (even though 90% of restaurants now use an electric oven). Here in the Triad, they favor a vinegar-based sauce, and scorn the ketchup-based sauce preferred in the eastern part of the state. Last week, one of the elders of the meeting took me to his favorite barbecue place, Speedy’s in Lexington. He worships there at least once a week, and claims it’s the best in the whole state.

Fried chicken runs a close second to barbecue in the hearts (and appetites) of people from North Carolina. Home-made is best, but Bojangles is a favorite place for families to take their kids after meeting on Sunday.

Other North Carolina foods to try include pimento cheese (used as a dip or as a sandwich spread), hush puppies (cornbread mixed with grated onion and deep fried), nabs (snack packs of peanut butter crackers, originally made by Nabisco), ‘maters (fresh tomatoes) and of course Krispy Kremes (freshly made doughnuts with an almost toxic level of sugar).

It sounds as though my first impressions of North Carolina mainly revolve around food, and you’re right. People here love to eat! Almost every conceivable occasion involves food, often jokingly referred to as Quaker communion. The standard meal at the meetinghouse is a “carry-in” (known to Midwest Quakers as a “pitch-in” and Quakers in most other parts of the U.S. as a “potluck”).

The old ways of speech and the old culture have been affected by the hordes of people who have moved to North Carolina from out of state, attracted by the climate, jobs or the more rural atmosphere. It saddens me to see the old ways fading, and to meet kids who have never heard the lovely, haunting ballads of the Appalachians which I’ve learned and shared for years.

For generations, the economy of this area centered around furniture, textiles and tobacco. All three have taken major blows in the last few years. During the Reconstruction, a couple of Quaker families started a small factory making chairs. This grew and grew until High Point, North Carolina became the furniture-making capital of the entire country.

Today, much of the manufacturing has shifted to China, and many of the remaining jobs are taken by immigrants from Mexico and Pakistan (at the Allen Jay Elementary School, the first language of over 50% of the students is Urdu). This fuels a lot of low-key resentment in the community, although Quakers are trying to reach out and start new community ministries.

It’s a different world, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. The Friends here are great, and they’ve accepted me in spite of my ignorance and lack of experience. I’ll post some other impressions as time goes on, but meanwhile, thanks for the welcome!

Church keys

One of the most moving moments in starting work at a new meeting is being given the keys to the meetinghouse. It’s a symbol of trust, of having arrived, of being one of the meeting leaders.

Many years ago I attended an unprogrammed Friends meeting in a rural area. Seven miles out in the country. After I’d been coming for about a year, I was asked to come early each Sunday and unlock the meetinghouse and turn on the heat. The key was kept at the neighbor’s house about 200 yards away. It hung on a nail on the door leading from the garage into the kitchen, and anyone who needed to get into the meetinghouse knew where to find it.

When I came here to North Carolina, I acquired a new set of keys – one to the meetinghouse door, and one to the office. That’s plenty for me – I hate carrying around a heavy, bulky key ring. But over the next few months, I found out that different people in the meeting had other keys that I didn’t have – a key to the back door, a key to the kitchen door, and so on.

There was a moment of panic in January when the fuel oil for the meetinghouse ran out, and nobody knew where the key to the oil tank was. We could get more oil delivered – but without the key, we couldn’t put it in the tank! I finally called the former handyman, who told me where it was hidden in the boiler room in the basement.

I kept finding places for which I didn’t have the key, and no one could tell me where to find one. In the office there were three large key rings with dozens of unmarked keys – probably over half for locks which don’t exist any more.

So I spent an hour going round the meetinghouse with the key collection. As I discovered a key that worked, I tagged it with one of those round metal-rimmed tags and a Sharpie marker.

A couple of people in the meeting thought it was a mistake to put tags on the keys. “What if someone broke into the office? They’d take the keys and be able to get in anywhere?” These folks would rather have an anonymous collection of keys, and be able to choose the right well-worn key from memory – even if it means that the new pastor can’t find anything!

It made me think that there must be many other “keys” in the meeting – not just physical keys, but ways to open people’s hearts and memories, their longings and fears and dreams. Just because I’ve got the key to the meetinghouse doesn’t mean I can get in anywhere I want.

Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the right phrase, the right prayer, code or password. I’ve had to wait and listen to people for a while before they let me into what they’re really thinking or feeling.

A key is a complicated thing – a carefully shaped piece of metal, with a unique pattern of ridges and grooves which lets it move the invisible pieces inside the lock and free it to turn and open the door. Compared to the size of the door, or the whole building, a key is a tiny thing – but if it’s lost or missing, a whole church can be kept waiting outside till it’s found.

Sometimes a physical key can unlock a door into a chapter in the meeting’s past – no one knew where the key was to a large room which was used for many years for a school aftercare program. The program was laid down at least 10 years ago, but it’s still an important memory for many people who came to this meeting because of it. Now that I’ve found the key again, maybe we could re-purpose the room for a new ministry that will help bring life here again.

In some churches, the key is a symbol of power and control – the person who has it doesn’t want anyone to come in, or to have access to whatever they’re fiercely protecting. Fortunately, the meeting where I am now doesn’t have many locked areas.

I expect to keep finding more church keys – ones which open my understanding of the budget, unlock the hurts in an extended family, or open the doorway to all kinds of gifts and ministries. One key doesn’t work in every situation, and sometimes I have to call in a locksmith.

What are the keys to your meeting?


P.S. – just as an historical and cultural note, when I was growing up in Vermont, a “church key” meant something else entirely. It was an item at the bottom of the fishing tackle box which came in handy on a hot day. This meaning has gone out of common use since the invention of pop-tab cans.

can opener


Welcome to North Carolina

It’s been a while since I last wrote on this blog. Since my last post, I’ve moved! I’ve served in several different yearly meetings – New England, New York, Indiana and now North Carolina. Each move has meant leaving old friends behind and making new ones, and each new ministry has a huge learning curve.

I plan to start posting more frequently again, but meanwhile, thanks to all of the folks at West Richmond Friends Meeting who supported me and my family for 22 years, and thanks to all of the folks at Springfield Friends Meeting in High Point, North Carolina, who have done so much to welcome us!

When a meeting calls a new pastor, there are so many things to learn and unlearn, so many faces to match with names, to many traditions to understand and plans to make. I hope that this thank-you list gives you some ideas about what you can do to welcome and support a new pastor.

Special thanks during the last 8 months to:

  • Millie told me who was sick, who’s related to who, and forgave my many mistakes in the meeting office
  • Tom and Gaither opened their home to us during the first week we were here
  • Donnie got our furnace and A/C working
  • Sandra showed unfailing patience with me on financial matters and invited my wife to Zumba
  • Brockie brought food and sweet tea for everybody unloading the moving van; also shared Christmas trees with us
  • Eldora shared the meeting’s history with me
  • Vivian planted flowers in front of our home
  • Javier brought us tacos and introduced us to our Latino neighbors
  • Jerry shook my hand every week and told me how glad he was that my family and I are here
  • Judith brought us farm-fresh eggs and home-made jam
  • Betty brought us pimento cheese
  • Steve got the leaky roof fixed
  • Janet supported all of the new music I introduced
  • Julia played all of the new music with skill and spirit
  • Donald took me out for barbecue at his favorite restaurant
  • Pat took us to her favorite Christmas show
  • Heather let me hold her dragon
  • Travis and Sarah honored me by asking me to officiate at their wedding
  • Becky sewed weights for the marriage certificate
  • Mike asked us to lunch at his restaurant
  • David spent a whole day with his chainsaw cutting trees at the parsonage
  • Curtis brought us a bushel of pecans
  • Gary brought us a pork shoulder still hot from the barbecue pit
  • Butch put up new signs everywhere
  • Peggy told me every week that she was praying for me
  • George invited us to his favorite gospel groups
  • Kevin and Angie let me hold their newborn baby
  • Jim showed me his pictures from the Second World War
  • Sharon gave us flowers on every possible occasion
  • Rita insisted that I go through the line first at Circle meetings
  • Helen brought a couple of deviled eggs just for me because I complained they were all gone at monthly fellowship lunch
  • Jane shared the wonderful art her husband painted and the pain of her grief
  • Gene helped me carry truckloads of boxes to the dump
  • all the women of the meeting gave us their favorite recipes
  • Barbara showed me the house where she grew up
  • Dwight gave me a kit to build a mandolin
  • Robert made me feel a part of the fish fry crew
  • Ken helped guide my ideas through monthly meeting for business

There are dozens of others I could thank – sorry I couldn’t fit you all in!

Now, just one quick question – what on earth is a Tarheel?

Report from Friends General Conference

This summer, I was invited to come to the Gathering of Friends General Conference to present a series of five daily workshops on the history of Friends in the 1800’s, as seen through the eyes of Allen Jay, who was one of the best known Quakers in the 19th century. Full disclosure: Allen Jay was also one of the founding member of West Richmond Friends, where I’ve been serving for the last 22 years, and a leader at Springfield Friends in High Point, NC, where I’m moving this summer.

Over 1,400 people were at the FGC Gathering, which was held at Western Carolina State University in Culhowhee, NC, high in the Smoky Mountains. At the opening session, people from all of the different yearly meetings and Quaker organizations were asked to stand. I stood when the New Association of Friends was called, and all week long people came up to me to ask about our group.

Nearly everyone I met at FGC knew about West Richmond’s welcoming and affirming minute – many FGC folks have been welcoming and affirming for much longer than our meeting. Everyone who spoke with me expressed support and prayers for our meeting.

The workshops I gave were extremely popular – I’d expected about 20 attenders, and wound up with 32! All of the copies of the Autobiography of Allen Jay were sold out at the bookstore on the first day of the gathering. The workshops met every morning from 9:00 to 11:45, and included worship, a hymn, an hour of lecture, discussion, and reading aloud from Allen Jay’s comments on the changes in Quaker life and practice in the 1800’s.

Afternoons for me were filled with workshops and interest groups, visits to the bookstore, rest and reading. Late one afternoon I was playing my hammered dulcimer out by the fountain in the plaza near our dorm. I looked up and found that a group of 12-15 Quakers had joined me and were all doing tai chi nearby, standing on one foot like a flock of Friendly flamingoes!

I especially enjoyed workshops on how to promote your meeting on social media, theological diversity among Friends, and a deeply moving presentation by an elder from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee people, who have a reservation near the campus where we were meeting.

Max Carter also led a standing-room-only interest group where he shared recent developments in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), which is facing pressure to divide the yearly meeting, mainly over the issue of homosexuality. I was asked to share our meeting’s experience with the breakup of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

In the evening plenary sessions, we listened to two attorneys from North Carolina talk about their work to oppose mass incarceration of African-Americans; an inspiring talk by educator and writer Parker Palmer; and a great concert by Indiana Quaker songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

My wife often criticizes me for not standing and cheering at concerts. I think I was the first person in the auditorium on my feet for the standing ovation after Carrie’s song, I Heard An Owl, with its chorus:

So don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will,
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves,
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love

My room mate, Eric, was an African-American Quaker from Atlanta, Georgia, who phoned home twice a day to his wife and joked with me constantly about how Quakers take themselves too seriously. He was deeply interested in what I had to tell him about the Alternatives to Violence Project and about Open Arms Ministries, a group of 15 churches in Richmond who work together to help people who have fallen between the cracks of other programs.

Unlike many Quaker groups, FGC does not hold business sessions at its annual gathering – which may be one reason why so many people enjoy it! As Parker Palmer commented, “People are leaving religion because of theological food fights…” He also commented that “conflict is not the end of community”, and quoted Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, who said – “Community is a continual act of forgiveness…”

As a Quaker pastor at an overwhelmingly unprogrammed gathering, I had expected to be challenged by angry Friends lecturing me about how “Quakers don’t have pastors!” (this is an experience I’ve had at a number of FGC yearly meetings). Instead, all through the week, people kept asking to sit down with me at meal times to ask about the New Association of Friends, to learn more about Allen Jay, or to talk about their ministries or challenges in their lives and meetings.

Did I agree with everyone I met at FGC, or with everything I heard? Of course not – I never expected that! But there were so many opportunities for prayer and worship, for conversation and listening, for learning about how different people are following their leadings, for making new friends, for browsing delicious books at the bookstore, for seeing new forms of art, for seeing how lively and diverse Quaker faith can be.

Back again after a while

I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a while — it’s been a difficult year and I didn’t have the time or energy.

At the end of this summer I will be moving to High Point, North Carolina, where I’ve been called to serve as pastor at Springfield Friends Meeting. Thanks to all the Friends who have shared their good wishes and blessings!

Josh Brown

Pastoral calls

Hi, all – I’m back from vacation, during which I did my best to put aside my work and not to think any Quaker thoughts at all!

In my last post, I said that one reason that I’m a Quaker pastor is that I love visiting people. In a typical month, I make between 30 to 50 calls and visits.

Many people today don’t seem to know what to expect in a “pastoral call”. In the old days, a visit from the minister meant cleaning the house from top to bottom, everyone scrubbed and on their best behavior, the family Bible dusted and on prominent display in the parlor. Those days of artificial formality are past!

Folks in our meeting are pretty busy, and I make lot of “quick visits” by e-mail or phone. I also get dozens of messages every day from people who want to share news, ask questions or ideas. People often pull me aside for a moment during coffee hour, but those conversations are usually interrupted and always short.

Even in today’s high-tech world, many people prefer a face-to-face visit rather than a phone conversation or e-mail. I hold regular office hours 4 mornings a week for people to drop in at the meeting office. Office hours are “interruptable time” when I can set aside whatever I’m doing and spend time listening.

Visits take place in homes or hospitals, but can also be at work or at a coffee shop. Several times a month, I run into people from our meeting in the grocery store. We block the aisle and catch up on things for 10 or 15 minutes. Not everyone likes to sit down in a chair and open up – some people talk more easily when we’re out on a walk, or working together on some manual task.

Sometimes people want to talk about an illness or personal problem, but often folks just want me to get to know them better. I’ve started thousands of conversations by asking people to tell me about the photos they keep on the mantel or by their bedside.

If we talk about important personal issues in a pastoral conversation, people can expect complete confidentiality. One of the most important ministries we can offer is simply listening – providing a safe place to share doubts, difficult situations and deep questions.

People talk about every subject under the sun – parenting problems, whether to sign a living will, whether pets go to Heaven, questions about a book they’ve read or a message they heard in worship. Sometimes a pastoral conversation is a kind of mini clearness committee, other times it’s a celebration of life. People share journals, recipes, meaningful mementoes, crafts they’ve done, job applications they’re working on. We talk about divorce, illness, career changes, aging parents and moral crises as well as vacations and grandchildren.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is simply be there – in an emergency room, or in a surgery waiting room, or in the long hours sitting by the bed when someone is dying. Holding someone’s hand can be the most important kind of ministry there is.

When I come calling, I never ask for money. In fact, I don’t know how much anyone gives to the meeting, unless they choose to tell me. That’s the treasurer’s job, not the pastor’s. I may use a visit to share some news, invite people to participate in a meeting-related activity, or talk about an opportunity for ministry.

In the old days, the pastor was expected to pray at every visit. I’m always glad to pray with people, but I don’t like to be pushy – prayer isn’t something to be embarrassed about, but it is very personal. Some people in our meeting like to have quiet prayer time together. Out of the quiet, it may be easier to share what they’ve been thinking about.

As Friends consider new patterns of ministry for the 21st century – new forms of worship, new spiritual communities, new ways to organize – I hope that we’ll remember that direct, person-to-person care is one of the most important ministries of all.

Dealing with silence

Quakers are world-famous for our love of quiet worship. Nearly every article or online source you’ll find refers to our long history of worshiping in silence.

I never read the articles and books before I became a Friend. I stumbled into Quaker worship when my college room mate invited me to visit Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. My first-year room mate was an inveterate explorer of different religious traditions – he was into every kind of spirituality and mystical experience he could find. He’d been to an unprogrammed meeting the week before and asked me to come and keep him company.

For me, Quaker meeting was like coming home to a place I’d never known was home before. I fit effortlessly into the silence, as though I was putting on a well-worn, comfortable shoe. I was surprised when the hour was over and everyone started shaking hands.

When I started looking through the books in the meeting library, I found this quotation from Robert Barclay:

“. . .when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart. . .” (Apology, XI, Section 7)

For almost 10 years I attended and was a member of unprogrammed Friends meetings. I went to Earlham School of Religion for 3 years because I had questions I wanted answered, books I wanted to read, and skills I wanted to learn.

But like most unprogrammed Friends, I had no idea that there was another branch of the Quaker family – or that those “other” Friends actually made up the majority of the Quaker world.

I wound up being a Quaker pastor – something I never imagined doing – more because of my love for visiting and helping people than because I wanted to preach. I also felt that most unprogrammed meetings neglect the rich tradition of Scripture, do a pretty poor job of sharing their story, and tend not to have very good educational programming.

I also found out that not everyone likes extended periods of quiet worship. I still find that surprising – quiet prayer feeds my heart so deeply, and I find the sheer noise of most contemporary Protestant worship almost unhinging. But not everyone is built that way.

This week, a friend sent me an article about an experiment that many people would literally rather give themselves electric shocks than sit in silence. (NOTE: the point of the study is actually that many men would rather jolt themselves than sit quietly – women apparently have more tolerance for silence.)

West Richmond Friends, the meeting where I work and worship, is a “crossroads” meeting – we have folks from both the programmed and unprogrammed branches of the Quaker family, as well as refugees from other traditions and people with no previous religious background. We usually have 2 or 3 hymns, a children’s message, a Scripture reading, a very short sermon, and 15-25 minutes of quiet, called “open worship” in our meeting.

In an effort to keep everyone satisfied, we also have a full hour of unprogrammed worship several times a year (usually on the last Sunday of any month when there are 5 Sundays).

It’s clear that some people in our meeting deal with silence more easily than others. Even on a “normal” Sunday, some Friends start to squirm and wiggle after only 5 minutes of quiet, and looks of glazed-eye, near-death boredom set in after 10 or 15 minutes (I’m usually on the facing bench and can observe these things). Other people in the meeting tell me they’re “just starting to settle in” after 20 minutes, and complain if anything cuts into or shortens the “open worship” time.

In my 30+ years of work as a Quaker pastor, the most consistent and persistent issue which comes up in committees, evaluations, and surveys is this tension between Friends who love and value the silence, and Friends who are completely satisfied with 50%-90% less quiet time. (At West Richmond, our attendance typically drops about 40% on completely unprogrammed Sundays.)

This isn’t just an issue for programmed and semi-programmed meetings. When I worked in New York Yearly Meeting, and a Friend there once told me that he had attended his unprogrammed meeting faithfully for more than 40 years without having any kind of “spiritual experience” like the ones his fellow worshipers described. He told me that he came to Friends, and stayed with Friends, because he deeply appreciated Quakers’ stance on various social and political issues, which gave him an outlet for the kind of witness and action which was the center of his life.

I don’t know how to deal with this difference. Whatever winds your watch, I guess. Whatever floats your boat. For me, silent prayer is great, and I can never get enough of it. (When I go on retreat, I often spend several days with the Trappist monks, who have been practicing silent prayer for the last 1,000 years or so.)

Other Quakers (not all of them programmed Friends) seem to have a much lower appetite for silence. An earlier generation called them “fast Friends” because they were ready to end the quiet time much more quickly. I don’t think they’re wrong, or unspiritual. I don’t think it’s a matter of education, or acclimatization, or appreciation for silence. These Friends are equally wonderful, love God, and are devoted to serving their fellow human beings. They’re not “second class Quakers” in any sense.

A large part of my ministry has been spent building bridges between Friends who want more quiet worship, and Friends who are happy with much less. I feel at home and at ease in both groups, and I’m sensitive to the different theologies which each group tends to hold dear, which flow from their different ways of worship.

I’m still convinced that we belong to each other as Friends, that it’s not just our name and our common roots which keep us together. I wish we could stop hacking at each other, denying each other, and anathematizing each other, and simply realize that not everyone is the same – but that God calls us together, even though we’re different.

What do you think?


All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.


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