Fairfield Friend Meetings, Camby, Indiana
Bestselling author Philip Gulley has been wandering around our meetinghouses again. And with gentle humor, he shows us who we are.
By Ellen Michaud
Friends who long to heal the schisms that separate us one from the other might want to consider Quaker author Philip Gulley’s new novel, A Gathering in Hope, as a candidate for their Meeting’s next book discussion group.
Gathering is the latest offering from Gulley, an Indiana pastor (at Fairfield Friends Meeting) whose previous novels have won raves from both Publishers’ Weekly and The Wall Street Journal. The book picks up the ongoing story in those novels of Quaker pastor Sam Gardner after he’s been fired by the Meeting he pastored in Harmony, Indiana. He had officiated at the marriage of two women at a nearby church and it had practically gotten him run out of town.
Fortunately, after the good Friends of Harmony toss him out as pastor, Sam is signed by a Meeting in the neighboring town of Hope. His wife Barbara gets a job at the local library, and the two move into a new home near the Meeting. It is close enough to Harmony that his father can rely on him for refinishing floors and fixing burst bathroom pipes, but far enough away that he doesn’t have to keep running into the Friends he loved and had once pastored.
It isn’t long before Sam’s innate kindness and inclusivity begins drawing new members to the Meeting. None would be comfortable wearing labels, but it seems as though conservative, evangelical, liberal, progressive, and universalist could all worship comfortably in Sam’s tent.
Like every Meeting, however, Hope has its share of challenges. A deceased member has left the meeting a huge pot of money—a wonderful device that gives Gulley the opportunity to create a cast of characters that, as the Meeting deals with its bequest, reveals the deep caring Friends experience for one another, our everyday oddities, and, unfortunately, the somewhat un-Friendly behavior each of us can exhibit, often without even being aware of it.
For those of us who fall into that last category, we often remain blissfully ignorant of the harm we’re causing until convicted by the Light. But in A Gathering in Hope, Gulley kindly speeds up the conviction process. He creates characters that act, in response to the bequest, in ways that make it difficult for any meeting to become what Thomas Kelly called, “The Blessed Community”—and does it so humorously and so skillfully that some of us wonder if he’s been wandering around our own meetinghouse taking notes.
One Meeting member wants to use the bequest to build a meetinghouse addition, for example, and uses every means available to convince—or trick, as the case may be—other members into supporting his position. Some follow the path of least resistance and go along with his ideas. Others shrug their shoulders and ply their own agendas. Still others remain steady, taking care to discern which way the Meeting is truly led.
The Meeting’s clerk, the epitome of faith and quiet wisdom, and Sam, panicky, all too human, and a little frazzled around the edges, manage to work through the situation.
Before they are done, however, the Meetinghouse attic is filled with a rare species of Indiana bat, and local environmental officials refuse to allow building the meetinghouse addition while the bats are, as one official reports to Sam, “mating frantically.”
“I don’t want anyone near this meetinghouse,” the man in charge said…Bats stress very easily and it will ruin their reproductive cycle.”
“We can’t go in our own meetinghouse” Sam asked, incredulous. “Where will we meet?”
“Not my problem,” said the bat man.
“How long do we have to stay out?
“Three months, maybe four.”
Within minutes Sam "then phoned (clerk) Ruby Hopper to report that bats had taken up residence in the meetinghouse attic, were engaged in loose and reckless sex, and the state had sided with the bats.”
The Meeting’s members run hilariously amuck in ten directions at once while Sam and Ruby try to encourage them into a cohesive and Spirit-led direction in which the bats will procreate, the Meetinghouse will get built, Friends will see themselves honestly—and take one step deeper into the Presence.
A Gathering in Hope is published by Center Street. Hardcover, 2016. $24