Bill and Brooke

We lost two Friends in our meeting community last week.

Bill Newlin, in his eighties, was commonly referred to as Santa by every child he met, and if you knew him, you’d understand. Looking like someone from a mid twentieth century Christmas card, he was the real article, from the rosy cheeks, the twinkle in his eye, the flowing white beard, straight down to the suspenders he wore all year. But he was anything but a stereotype, or an ornament. Bill had been a contientious objector in World War II. He devoted much of his later life to a Quaker summer camp. He was a Quaker Elder in our meeting who received love and admiration from all quarters (no mean feat). I watched Bill navigate several thorny interpersonal issues in our meeting, and learned by watching him that it is possible to be stern and loving at the same time.

Bill’s ministry in worship was rare, but it was always personal and direct: delivered in a voice that grew up when speaking clearly was an acknowledged virtue. I remember once, when our meeting was passing through a tense time because of some issue so important I can’t remember it now, Bill stood and said “I know I am in my faith community when I worship with people I don’t like.” That one rattled me. It gnawed at me for days. What was he saying? That we should make sure there are people we don’t like in our meetings? That enmity is a path to holiness? Then the opening: a true faith community is bound together by something greater than our passing grudges and spats. That something is called . . . faith, a shared faith. And a unique feature of Quaker faith is our willingness to worship together with people who don’t see things the way we do. Just one way I have grown in our Society by the simple fact of being close to Friends like Bill Newlin.

Bill was married to an astonishing woman named Lois Ann, who died two years ago. A study in physical contrasts, she was the small bird to Bill’s great bear. I visited them when Lois Ann was getting close to passing on. They told me of their utter convincement of reincarnation, and speculated about their next lives. There was nothing maudlin or childish about it. It was if they were chatting about the coming football season, or what they might see on their next vacation. And yet they were devout Quaker Christians, and some the most moving ministry I ever heard about Jesus came from Bill in worship.

I visited Bill in the hospital twice during his slide towards death, which began about six months ago. The first time I came alone, and he was awake and surrounded by his middle-aged children. I got the sense I had interrupted a tense family discussion. He was glad to see me. I held his hand and told him he was an inspiration to me. The second time, last week, prompted by an announcement at the rise of worship that Bill wasn’t doing so well, I came again but this time with my children. Bill was asleep, and we couldn’t go into his room to see him. My 10 year old son sensed the closeness of death in the hospital corridor, doors opened into rooms peopled with sad old faces in dressing gowns. He slunk along next to the wall and wouldn’t go near Bill’s doorway. My 6 year old daughter, however, was deeply curious and strained across the threshold to catch a glimpse of Bill’s shape, back turned to us under rumpled sheets. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said, “he’s tired is all.”

Our second death this past week was Brooke Baxter. Brooke was 32 years old, and was killed in bus accident in Tanzania, where she was doing medical work. I knew Brooke only briefly, when she attended meeting regularly about four years ago. She was a bright young face in the midst of the customarily older crowd that is the average Quaker meeting. She had energy and charm, and I kept trying to get her to do some committee work. But as a pre-med, she always had too much to do. Then she went to medical school and we lost touch with her. But I was surprised to learn that she had become a member of our meeting and had retained that membership even as she traveled the world, healing the sick in the poorest countries. She was a Young Adult Friend, putting her faith into action. I wonder if Bill had been an example to her?

In the lives these two Friends led, I see the great scope and power of our Religious Society. I see the living faith of the long life lived, and the living faith of the young life in action. I feel grief for the loss of a beloved Elder, and grief at the shocking death of young woman with so much left to do. And I sense the bond that connects them in life and death: Haverford Friends Meeting, the Religious Society of Friends, where Bill and Brooke sat together on first days, eyes closed, and felt the beating of faithful hearts all around them, and heard the soft rush of breath, and found comfort and meaning in the stillness and mystery of that room and the people gathered there. May they rest in that mystery still, or pass through it, on their way something else contained in a distant point of light.

Bill and Brooke, originally published Saturday, August 1, 2009: