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Seeking Ingrained Spirituality in the Face of Systemic Opposition

October 10, 2023

Repost with permission from The Philadelphia Yearly meeting Written on:

An Interview with a Senior LGBTQ Friend

Tom Woodward is a retired Westtown School English and Latin teacher. Chatting with Tom about the challenges of his personal life and highlights of his teaching career was both heartwarming and enlightening. It was at Westtown School in West Chester, PA, Tom truly began his spiritual journey and discovery of Quakerism.

Tom studied at Oberlin College where his commitment to inclusion and diversity was planted and a desire to explore Quakerism nurtured. Although there weren’t any Quaker meetings in the area, Tom joined a group of faculty members and students who worshipped together each week. Shortly thereafter, as a college senior, Tom was recruited to teach at Westtown School.

After six years of living in the Westtown Boys dormitory, Tom found life at the school both tight-knit and intense, finding himself entrenched in a robust schedule of community events often as rigorous as his role as a teacher. During the summer season, he spent time earning his master’s degree in literature at Middlebury College in Vermont.

In 1973, while living at Westtown School, Tom met his partner Sam. The couple experienced significant opposition even within the Religious Society of Friends, but also found support for their same-gender relationship. The Head of School at Westtown negotiated between those supporting and those in opposition to same gender couples living together on campus. Eventually, Tom and Sam were told to move off campus and so started to live together in West Chester, a major step forward in the mid 70’s. Offering empathy, support, and sensitivity to LGBQT students became a subtext to Tom’s teaching. It was then that Tom was fully and, more important, openly committed to helping students avoid the “nonsense” and opposition to living honestly, an all too familiar experience he navigated through his own adolescence.

In time the Westtown school community began to grow in understanding and acceptance, resulting in a student-led gay-straight organization, called Rainbow Alliance. Eventually, Tom was able to offer an LGBTQ course amid other English electives. This started and facilitated a lifelong practice for Tom to stay in touch with students. Since then, he has provided much needed support to many – including those navigating gender reassignment as adults.

Tom and Sam truly pioneered within the Quaker community at that time, by living openly and freely in their relationship as a gay couple. Tom recalls the often-traumatic experiences of living in the closet and coming out of the closet and much prefers being out. Together, Tom and Sam lived a happy, fulfilling, and long life as a couple for 47 years. They were finally able to officially marry in 2015 after legalization of same-gender marriages. In 2019, Sam passed away just as Tom was getting on his feet after open heart surgery, and so began the grieving process with the passing of his partner of nearly half a century. After Sam died and at the suggestion of a friend, Tom started a journal in which he explored many internal issues of conflict and conducted spiritual exercises to find and practice gratitude in the most minute of moments in his day-to-day life.

After several emergency hospitalizations and rehab stays, Tom found living alone in the house where he and Sam had lived since 1976 was unsafe and that he was in need of living in an assisted living community. Ultimately, he made the difficult decision to sell his West Chester home that he and Sam had completely restored. During this process, Tom recalled how his own father spent his last year of life in a Quaker assisted living facility in West Chester; he realized such a move was his logical next step. After much thought and fueled by the need for assisted living, Tom chose to live in community at the Hickman in West Chester.

Nowadays, thanks to Zoom, Tom finds nurture and fellowship online. He revels in his Florida-based Monday night discussion group, and together, the group has explored varied texts of Hindu scripture and indigenous spirituality. Tuesday evenings, Tom can be found in his meeting’s Power of Eight group, recalling the support both he and Sam received the night before Sam died in hospice. Midweek meeting in Massachusetts has an important role each Wednesday morning, and Thursday night Downingtown meeting’s Friendly Bible study rounds out the week. Finding a spiritual home where he’s nurtured and can grow is Tom’s primary focus as he ages. He is grateful that meetings have become more open to technology and that these meetings have reaped the benefits of such outreach.

Tom continues to foster his spiritual curiosity while actively investigating, re-evaluating, and growing his faith and fortitude. He often begins his days with meditations by American Franciscan priest and writer on spirituality Richard Rohr. Daily meditations combined with Eastern rite theology and mysticism, Indigenous Spirituality, and Quakerism are the building blocks of Tom’s worldview and premise for living out his faith and cultivating a solid spiritual foundation. His advice, from Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, “There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness but transforms it to fertile soil for more joy.”

As we concluded our time together, Tom recalled a thought that summarizes his experience, again from The Return of the Prodigal Son, “Community life has opened me up to the real spiritual combat: the struggle to keep moving to the light precisely when the darkness is so real.”

This article was prepared by Sheila Sorkin, PYM Aging Support Coordinator in collaboration with Tiffanie McKinnon, Senior Content Manager and member of the PYM Communications team, to provide support, resources and engage the aging community of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as part of the “To Brighten Your Day” series.