Eugene Ackerman, PhD, Emeritus Professor Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Minnesota died on September 25, 2014.
Active in the Religious Society of Friends, Gene was member of the Prospect Hill Friends Meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, a supporter of Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF) and a member of the QUF Legacy Society.
Married to Dorothy Hopkirk (1920- 2011), he became a Conscientious Objector working in Civilian Public Service camps during World War II. He was a professor of Biophysics and Biomedical Computing at Pennsylvania State University, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, with a prolific life’s work in teaching, research, writing and work with students.
Gene’s pioneering work in the field of Health Informatics was recognized in 2015, as the University of Minnesota celebrated the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Health Informatics Educational and Research Program that he helped to initiate.
Gene wrote many letters to his family (called Famlets) that included essays, poems and letters. Thoughtful and contemplative, many of these reflect his deep commitment to Quaker faith and religious topics. His writings bear deeply on themes of Quaker Universalism. In his own words….
Quaker Universalists seek diversity, feeling that we benefit from having as great a range of types of people and beliefs within our Meetings as is possible whilst still retaining and strengthening these Meetings. Yet, at the same time, we strive to have discussion groups and worship groups that are more specialized. This need for small worship groups who are bonded to one another by some common interests or beliefs or characteristics is found in many religions and religious groups.
There can be no doubt that the appreciation of diversity within Quaker Meetings has grown during my lifetime. It has led me to try to redefine my own variety of Quaker belief. My strongest religious commitment has been to Quakerism itself. Within this, as noted earlier, I identify most strongly with the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. As most members of QUF, I am a member of a Monthly Meeting that is a member of a Yearly Meting that is a member of Friends General Conference.
Gene reflected in the closing of his last letter with the words of this song.
“Follow the Gleam”
by Sallie Home Douglas
To knights in the days of old,
Came a vision of Holy Grail,
And a voice through the waiting night:
Come follow, follow the gleam.
Let us follow, follow the gleam,
Banners unfurled, o’er all the world;
Come follow, follow the gleam,
Of the vision that is the Grail.
And we who would serve the King
And loyally Him obey
In the consecrate silence know,
That the challenge still holds today.
Let us follow, follow the gleam,
Standards of worth, o’er all the earth
Come follow, follow the gleam,
Of the Light that shall bring the Dawn.
We share here one of Gene Ackerman’s reflections on the Quaker theme of diversity. QUF thanks the Ackerman family for permission to share his thoughts here.
“Living with Diversity (Searching for Limits)” is excerpted from Eugene Ackerman’s work entitled Stories for a Rainy-Day or for a Snowy Night II, which is available at the archives of the University of Minnesota (Eugene Ackerman Papers, 1939-1991)
“Living with Diversity (Searching for Limits)”
by Eugene Ackerman
Prologue: Quaker Universalists seek diversity feeling that we benefit from having as great a range of types of people and beliefs within our Meetings as is possible whilst still retaining and strengthening these Meetings. Yet, at the same time, we strive to have discussion groups and worship groups that are more specialized. This need for small worship groups who are bonded to one another by some common interests or beliefs or characteristics his found in many religions and religious groups. Buddhists have their own specialized worship groups or communities; for Buddhist monastics, this often includes all the people living in a given monastery.
Maintenance of a worship group of any sort has to set limits. One of our local Quaker Meetings that prided itself on the use of nonviolent means and being open to anyone who wished to walk in to the Meeting, was adopted by a person who insisted on coming each Sunday and delivering lengthy oral diatribes again same sex partners. Eventually that Meeting had to resort to help from the police. Benedictine Communities have prided themselves about following the Rule of Benedict, which includes welcoming any stranger who appears at the door as an honored guest and treating the guest as if it were Christ Himself. As long as there aren’t too many uninvited guests this works well. But when too many appear and are clearly interested in free board and lodging with free hotel services, the Benedictines find it necessary to use some discernment to recognize that some of the guests are certainly neither Christ nor someone sent to their door by an act of God.
Yes, we seek diversity, but not so much diversity that it will washout our entire worship group and deprive it of its meaning. How this is accomplished is not easy to define. It takes the mature judgment of a serious worship group. This poorly defined dividing line results in a need for us either to live with uncertainty or to give up regarding diversity as a virtue. Speaking only for myself, I continue to regard diversity as desirable in spite of its implied uncertainty. Siddhartha, the Gautama Buddha, said that all is impermanent; only change itself never changes. Diversity requires recognizing the truth of this aspect of Buddhism.
Logue: I would like to think that everyone who might read this document accepts the desirability of including within our worship groups persons with as wide a range of skin pigmentations as is possible. ‘Everyone’ is a dangerous word to use; it is likely to turn around and bite me if I don’t qualify it or include some sort of caveat. So I suppose I should say that I hope that anyone who reads this accepts the desirability of seeking multiracial worship groups.
Another type of diversity that has been with us since the founding of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker Meetings) has been the inclusions of persons of both sexes. A more recent type of diversity the acceptance of which has spread rapidly through many Quaker Meetings that include members of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, is the inclusion of person with a variety of practices concerned with life partners (Same sex, lesbian, gay, bisexual and so forth).
A practice that has attracted less attention is the approval of dual memberships. Some Quakers are members of more than one Quaker Meetings; others of a variety of other denominations such as Lutheran, Baptist, and so forth. The latter sets are often disallowed by the other religion. Some Quakers are also Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Wiccans. All of these can satisfy interest in other religious practices and can help those who are only Quakers to better understand their own beliefs. The original Quakers were Christians and the majority of Universalist Quakers remain with the Christian Tradition. By and large, non-theistic Quakers find their greatest affinity with Buddhism because many Buddhists are non-theists. However, Quaker interest in Buddhism is not restricted to non-theists, but is more widely spread.
Epilogue: There can be no doubt that the appreciation of Diversity within Quaker Meetings has grown during my lifetime. It has led me to try to redefine my own variety of Quaker Belief. My strongest religious commitment has been to Quakerism itself. Within this, as noted earlier, I identify most strongly with the Quaker Universalist Fellowship. As most members of QUF, I am a member of a Monthly Meeting that is a member of a Yearly meeting that is a member of Friends General Conference.
I have also been very interested in and inspired by reading Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism. I do not feel that this in any way competes with my Quaker identity; rather it reinforces my understanding of Quakerism. Nor does my interest in Buddhism, in any way, detract from my feelings that the Religious Society of Friends is a basically Christian group and that as a member of it I am a Christian. Somehow that last sentence should be qualified, [but] I’m uncertain how one should do it. There are two extremes of the meaning of the word ‘Christian’, one that emphasizes the Virgin Birth and the Death on the Cross to atone for our sins and the other that focuses on Jesus’ teachings, especially through the parables and the Sermon on the Mount. Most of Christianity takes a middle road and tries to include both. I suppose that I also do to some extent, but I lean heavily towards the second extreme.
Within Christianity, I have been quite attracted by the Benedictine Community at Collegeville, MN and also by a Benedictine Priory in Vermont whose service (Eucharistic Celebration) particularly appealed to me. The “Rule of Benedict” (Similar in intent to a Quaker “Faith and Practice”) has several appealing attributes that I try (often unsuccessfully) to incorporate into my daily life. It also has some negative qualities for me.
This essay carries a parenthetic title “Searching for Limits”. On rereading the preceding, I realize that I have described several types of diversity, some within the Religious Society of Friends, and others within my own life. I realize that I really haven’t discussed how one can welcome diversity provided it doesn’t carry with it an excessive dilution of the core of The Society and of my own basic insights. Perhaps there is no answer to the search for limits, except to learn to live with uncertainty. Let’s look further at the need to live with the uncertain in the essay that follows. I have deliberately avoided discussing living with diversity as imposed by some of Quaker non-theists. That is delayed until the finale.
“The Damsel of the Sanct Grael,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)
“Hands of Unity,” “Strength in diversity: engaging ethnic communities.”