American Friends Service Committee
A little more than two weeks ago, I joined with maybe 200 others to celebrate the life of Macy Whitehead, who had died on May 16, just two days after his 88th birthday. We deferred our normal daily routines – work, play, attending to homes and families — and sat together in prayerful silence inside the Phippsburg Congregational Church. Quakers call it “waiting worship” and it’s an apt description of what occurred that Friday morning during a unprogrammed period of silence in which we listened with open minds and hearts to the innermost voice of our being and reflected on the life of our departed friend.
Out of that waiting worship, quite often, a kind of collective wisdom emerges. It’s conveyed in the stories, insights, poems, prayers and songs that arise during an hour or two of mindful, reflective silence and are shared in a spirit of love and celebration. Each person's experience is unique, of course, but more often than not there's a unifying thread, a common narrative, that pulls all the disparate sharing together into something that feels — and I'm going to go out on a limb and say 'is' — greater than the sum of the parts.
Listening to the stories being told I was struck by how often they were based on small mundane events ... the stuff of everyday life. We tend to think that it’s the big occasions, decisions or accomplishments that measure our lives. In Macy’s life, those measurements were indeed large: his conscientious objection to war during World War II; his volunteer service with the American Friends Service Committee in rebuilding Italy after the war, peacemaking work recognized in 1947 by a Nobel Peace Prize in a joint award to AFSC and its counterpart in England; his marriage to Edie Lamb, a Quaker from Ireland “who could sing” and became the bedrock of their 60-year marriage that was blessed with four children and five grandchildren; his ministry as a Congregationalist pastor that invariably took him and his family to poor parishes in rural areas, including a Lakota reservation in South Dakota that was one of the poorest communities in the United States; his retirement career as a family counselor; his singing in barbershop quartets and the Oratorio Chorale … to mention just a few highlights.
I chose to share a story Macy told me when I interviewed him a few years ago for a six-part newspaper series about his experiences as an American Friends Service Committee volunteer in Italy after World War II. He cared little about the Nobel Peace Prize recognizing that work. He remembered feeling it was “no big deal” when the announcement was made in 1947. He simply felt a calling to help Italians rebuild villages in Italy’s Abruzzi Mountains that were completely devastated during the war.
In the town of Montenerodomo, Macy was given the assignment to lead a work group in building an asilo — a day nursery that would enable young mothers to leave their children their while they planted and harvested in the fields of the lower hills. Initially, he couldn’t get any Italians to join the volunteer effort. They were too demoralized to even begin clearing away rubble from the project site.
Macy and two Italian teachers decided put on a marionette show in the village square. In the simple script they wrote, a marionette depicting a peasant laborer — a ‘contadino’ named “Peppino” after his landlord’s son Giuseppe — engages a skeptical clown marionette in a conversation about the need for everyone to pitch in to build the asilo. The clown can’t understand why anyone would work without getting paid, forcing an exasperated Peppino to explain step by step just how the project would benefit the entire village. Repeatedly, Peppino exclaims, “What’s wrong with this dumb person? He doesn’t understand!”
The day after that street theater performance in the village square, Macy had no trouble enlisting volunteers to clear rubble and begin laying the asilo’s foundation. The villagers understood what the clown did not: They had to work together, otherwise the future held no hope. It was his last project in Italy before heading back to the States in August 1947.
Almost 50 years later, Macy returned to Italy to revisit villages he had helped rebuild. Hardly anything looked familiar. The asilo in Montenerodomo was gone, replaced by a bell tower. An Italian named Nicola, who had been a teen-ager during Macy’s stay in his village, made a special point of seeking Macy out and thanking him for some carpenter’s tools he had been given a half century earlier. Macy didn't remember the occasion, and wondered why it was so significant to Nicola.
“You gave me a job to do,” Nicola said. “That started me doing something with my life.”
Some carpenter’s tools … a glass of fresh lemonade for a young girl … careful listening and support for an 18-year-old boy struggling with whether he would register with the local draft board … getting lost on the backroads of Maine with his out-of-state grandson and making an adventure out of it as they continued their quest in search of the Angora rabbit for sale. A love of music, animals and the outdoors passed on to his children … navigating a small sailboat in the New Meadows River … introducing homemade hummus and Birkenstock sandals to a young friend and helping him discern his calling to become a minister. Together we stitched a patchwork quilt of stories and memories and it was wonderful and beautiful and true to life.
We laughed and cried as shared memories, in the manner of Friends, filled that cozy white-steeple church with the deep peace of Macy’s gentle loving spirit.
sad hearts can’t help but laugh
at the puppeteer’s peasant
sowing seeds of peace