Monday, April 25, 2011

Following in the Footsteps of Thomas Kelly

By Carole Spencer

Good fortune
Divine intervention…

These are some of the words that came to mind upon finding myself in lush, colorful, exotic Honolulu in early April in the midst of a busy spring semester when the Mid-west was still recovering from an especially bitter and icy winter.  Finding myself in Hawaii unexpectedly in April 2011 connected the dots on my spiritual journey in a most intriguing way beginning with my introduction to Quaker spirituality through the writer, Thomas Kelly, many years ago.

Those of you familiar with the Quaker landscape will know the name Thomas Kelly--educator, philosopher, and Christian mystic who became legendary in the Quaker world after his early death in 1941 when occasional writings from the last three years of his life were collected andHonolulu published posthumously as A Testament of Devotion.

I first met Kelly through this slim, little book when like many spiritual seekers of the radical counter-cultural 60s and 70s, I had left my childhood faith far behind and was looking for something deeper and less “traditional” to fill the spiritual vacuum.  Ironically, in discovering Kelly’s book I found not only Quakerism, but a more ancient mystical Christian tradition that I had never known.  Kelly’s little book rocked my world and inspired me to join with Friends, go to seminary, and even played a significant part in my becoming a seminary professor.  But little did I know then that I would follow Kelly back to his Quaker home—literally!

When in the fall of 2010 a door unexpectedly opened to teach at Earlham School of Religion, I felt a strange nudge to book a flight to Richmond and interview for the position, even though I could not possibly imagine uprooting myself from my family and friends, the ocean and mountains of the great Pacific Northwest which had beenCarole and Renie home for 30 years, or George Fox Evangelical Seminary where I had taught for the past 15. Yet I felt a strong, distinct sense of call to ESR and Richmond. I could not explain the compelling leading, but it was unmistakable, and when the position was offered to me, I accepted with a sense of surprise and elation.

And through a most amazing experience of divine synchronicity I am now comfortably and joyfully settled into the house of my spiritual mentor, Thomas Kelly, which he had built in the 1920s when he taught philosophy at Earlham College.

It is not hard to sense the spirit of Kelly as I prepare for my courses in the same office where Kelly prepared, and pray in the same places where Kelly prayed.  And it appears that the spirit of Thomas Kelly is so strong in my life that it drew me to Hawaii.  So here is rest of the story….
In the middle of spring semester, in the wintry doldrums of February, an inquiry came to ESR from Honolulu Friends Meeting, which as “fortune” would have it, Mandy Ford, Director of External Relations, forwarded to me:


“I received a Traveling Ministries request from Honolulu Friends Meeting. They are looking for someone to provide a program on "Building a Spiritual Community", and I wanted to see if you would be interested. Of course this requires distant travel, although I'm sure you wouldn't mind a trip to Hawaii.”


Guessing that traveling ministry requests from exotic far-away places in the South pacific are not usual occurrences at ESR, I enthusiastically responded to the Honolulu Meeting Houserequest. Thus began a delightful email correspondence with the woman planning the program, Renie Wong.  Renie and I had what I can only describe as instant rapport; we seemed to be kindred souls.  And only much later, after spending a day with Renie on a “magical mystery tour” of the North Shore of Oahu, did I learn how both our stories connected with Thomas Kelly, but in very different ways.  It was only after accepting the call to visit Honoulu Friends Meeting, that I realized that Kelly had gone to Hawaii from Richmond 75 years before me, and I was following in his footsteps!

Kelly, I would come to learn, had grown up in rural Southwestern Ohio, and for much of his life seemed to be fleeing from his humble, mid-western Quaker roots. He once wrote “I hate the Middle West---every Meeting House Front Porchstick and stone of it.” In 1935 spiritually and intellectually restless in Richmond, Kelly wrote to a friend, “One can hardly comprehend the quest of the Buddha sitting under a maple sugar tree in a mid-west cornfield.” Shortly thereafter Kelly had opportunity to escape the Mid-west when he was offered a position at the Univ. of Hawaii where he could fulfill his deep desire to study Eastern philosophy and religion and engage in inter-faith dialogue in the crossroads of East and West.

After one year his plan of Eastern Studies in Hawaii was cut short when he was invited to join the faculty at Haverford College, his most cherished vocational dream. But in the short time he lived in Honolulu, Kelly left an indelible legacy.

My new soul friend Renie Wong, who organized the Quaker Gathering and invited me to speak, had a strong Earlham connection.  Her father, Sam Lindley, had been a student of Kelly’s at Earlham, and followed him Carole and David Woods (guide)to Hawaii, working his way across the Pacific Ocean on a tramp steamer. Thomas Kelly and Sam Lindley were part of a small group of Quakers who organized the first meeting for worship of Honolulu Friends and helped to found the meeting where I was now privileged to lead a weekend retreat on “building a spiritual community.” Sam Lindley like his mentor Thomas Kelly, became a professor of philosophy, but unlike Kelly, chose to make his home permanently in Honolulu.  A few years before Sam Lindley died, his daughter Renie returned to Honolulu and now lives in her father’s house.  Following Thomas Kelly and her father’s legacy, she is continuing to build a strong Quaker spiritual community in Hawaii where inter-faith dialogue and multiculturalism is always a part of the spiritual environment.

When I first accepted the invitation to visit Honolulu Friends, I did not make any connections between Kelly and Hawaii.  And not until I Friend-in-Residence David and Virginia Woodarrived did I learn I would be speaking to the very meeting he had helped establish in 1936.  And only after the Gathering ended did I learn that the Earlham student who admired and emulated Kelly so much he followed him across the ocean, was the father of the Friend who had invited me to Honolulu.  Divine synchronicity!

Carole SpencerCarole Spencer serves as Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Earlham School of Religion. She is a recorded minister in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Carole. Your life and words continue to encourage me. I recently watched a speech given by Steve Jobs and he said that we can only connect the dots of our lives looking back not forward. It is clear that when you connect the dots of your life that Thomas Kelly played a major role in your story. Isn't it interesting how a person can have such influence in the lives of those they have never met. Our lives are touching the world in ways that we will never see or know.