Interviewed by Pamela Leach, Tasmania Regional Meeting

Robin with her parents

Robin with her parents, Dougald and Carol McLean

AF: What does it mean to you to be a Friend today?

To me the Quaker community is a warm family of like-minded people of all ages, surrounding and helping me in my spiritual growth. The belief that each person has a spark of the Divine Spirit held within the deepest part of our beings resonates with me. I like the freedom and responsibility to search out my own truths, to be upheld by a community of others and to offer “ministry” if moved to do so. The peace testimony, such a basic tenet of Friends’ beliefs and actions over the centuries, is a strongly held conviction.

At my stage of life service is important in building community. As Edith Hamilton said, “Faith is not a belief. Belief is passive. Faith is active.” That is my philosophy: it is a two-way street. I have time to be involved. Being a resource person, working on committees, providing help and assistance also gives back to me in deep, fulfilling ways as well as bringing welcome challenges.

Ben Pink Dandelion’s ease of writing, wisdom, knowledge and plain speaking resonates with me.

Our Quaker identity and community supports us when we are in the world and countering its assumptions, and it informs and changes our lives. It helps me in the stands I want to make and it helps me see others I should be making. A core set of values and principles travels with me and through me, so that my life may preach. I am given support and inspiration, aspiration and affirmation. Celebrating the Quaker Way

Parker Palmer’s advice to “let your life speak” is insightful and transformative. I try not to be a “Sunday Quaker” but to see the world through Quaker lenses. At the end of day I reflect on how I have lived up to Friends’ principles.

AF: What have been the strongest influences on you as a Friend?

My parents (Dougald and Carol McLean) led by example and helped me understand that there were important social and moral issues that needed to be challenged – racism, sexism, conflict and war. The Quaker values of nonviolence, peace, simplicity and equality were their guiding principles and they passed these on.

My mother’s Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) (from 1975 on), although limiting, brought out many hidden talents – her creative writing, her empathy and connections for those less fortunate, and new approaches to her passion for peace. I thank my mum for teaching me about courage, determination, resilience, patience and tapping into one’s inner personal resources.

My father has taught me many things, especially caring for people. Look not at what they might have done but to seek out their potential. This was critical learning for me as a young child, teen and later as a social worker with people who had psychiatric illnesses, drug addicts, youth gangs, people who were disadvantaged and unemployed, and people with disabilities.

AF: How has your experience and understanding of being a Friend evolved over time?

My earliest experiences as a Friend were wrapped up with my parents’ strongly held principles. My father, Doug, spent 11 years in the US Army medical corps. This was formative in their decision to become Quakers. In Lincoln, Nebraska we attended the Presbyterian Church, where I enjoyed singing in the choir. Yet my parents were both convinced, after experiencing a Friends’ Meeting, that it answered their search for a meaningful spiritual home. Much later, my mother wrote “The spiritual strength that flows into my being from the listening silence and waiting of the Quaker Meeting is the central pivot around which all else moves.” At eight years old, I did appreciate Children’s Meeting and learning about other religions. I later had a transformational vision of an angel, which tweaked my lifelong interest in spirituality. It is a very comforting awareness that there are things beyond what we know.

I was a reasonably serious little girl, my younger sibling (by 13 months) Kath was a tear-away and I took the role of the big sister responsibly. We hosted foreign students in the early 60s for a year each – one from Cambodia and the other from Kenya. The Cold War escalated. Our parents founded a local chapter of “The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy – SANE” and became increasingly involved with Quaker activities. Family life was radically altered when, as pacifists and nuclear refugees, they moved us (including four children) to Australia in 1963. I was 12.

We worshipped at both Devonshire St and Wahroonga, becoming close to many Friends – the Wohlwills, Eileen Barnard–Kettle, Margaret Watts, the Tuck family, and the Pollards among others. At Wahroonga the Junior Young Friends (JYFs) put on a Christmas pageant. Dressed as angels, we all jumped in the swimming pool in costume! I loved listening to Rudi and Hannah Lemberg talk about their life in Germany. JYF camps and Sunday school became important to me. Friends were my first social circle in my new country. They have remained the most meaningful group. I spent 10 years in Sydney, and was the only child in the family that stayed with Friends.

Doug and Carol were constant activists. He was a psychiatrist at Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital and we lived in the grounds. All my teen years and into my 20s I lived near people with mental illness, giving me a lifelong comfort and concern in this area. My parents’ innumerable initiatives included: Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF), the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament (AICD), and the Committee of Responsibility for the Children of Vietnam. They were camp parents for Young Friends (YF’s) and rural Aboriginal children coming to Sydney to learn of job opportunities. They also were involved in work camps with YFs at an Aboriginal orphanage at Bomaderry south of Sydney. In 1969, Doug and Carol were among Quakers who purchased 100 acres at Kangaroo Valley, offering a serene sanctuary for Conscientious Objectors while protecting over a kilometre of natural river frontage. We spent many memorable weekends and working bees there building a bark hut and a simple Friends’ House.

I had a very inquiring mind, and was stimulated by YF camps at Kangaroo Valley and Kuipto, South Australia, where we wrestled with difficult questions about God and the spiritual search we shared. While living for a time at the Donald Groom Centre in Redfern, I also attended Macquarie University, studying Psychology and Anthropology, graduating in 1971. I was then enticed by a friend to do Social Work at Flinders University in Adelaide. Arriving on my 21st birthday, I didn’t know anyone, but the Whitney family took me in – again Friends offered me a home!

AF: How have you navigated the complexities of having a spouse who is not a member?

My spouse Mark Nicholson (Nick) was Hobart born and Friends’ School bred. Some of his best mates in High School were YFs. He attended a YF camp, lived with some, and they remain among his best friends. I met him when I came to Tasmania for a holiday in 1977 and stayed with YFs I knew through YF camp. With my appointment as student counsellor at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education, I was able to make Hobart home. We were married under the care of Wahroonga Meeting in 1980. Nick is comfortable with my Quaker commitment. We both respect the other’s distinct interests and journeys.

AF: Have you ever taken time out from Friends?

I did. I kept touch, but raising three kids and working full time I attended irregularly in 1980s and ’90s. As a YF I was put off by the membership process. In July 1999 I was truly ready. For several years I had been wanting more balance in my life and a greater spiritual connection. In 2002 I felt honoured to join the Friends School Board, where I served for 8 enjoyable years. Our three children were at the school and Nick was teaching there. At that time the Quaker coordinator position was established. Good things were happening.

AF: What are your hopes for the future of the Society?

My parents have been remarkable and constant examples. Carol didn’t let her CFS stop her until her death in 2011. She wrote extensively, remained on numerous Quaker committees, and set up a SAGE group (Seniors for Growth & Exploration) in Sydney that still meets. As founding members of P–FLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in the early ’80’s, they spent years talking with parents, lesbians & gays wanting to come out to their parents and families, and to media.

Moving to Tasmania in 1982, they joined People for Nuclear Disarmament (PND); Doug was state coordinator of the “Medical Association for the Prevention of War”; Carol co-edited Peace Priorities (which produced over 150 issues); they supported the Peace Centre. The purchase of an orange “Peace Wagon” afforded access to rural areas to show videos and promote peace. Doug and Carol remained involved with the Quaker Peace and Social Justice committee and the Tasmanian Peace Trust. Today Doug is still “hanging in there” at the ripe age of 94!

So what have I learnt from them and other wise Friends? What can I say? This: I would like Quakers to be more active on the social justice front. Why aren’t we doing more in the community? I believe in faith in action. Might we rest too much on our reputation? We are in danger of being self-absorbed, where we should be living corporately through our values and ideals…that is my hope and my wish. When I think back to the 1960s and ’70s, we were supporting and even hiding Conscientious Objectors. Friends were doing good works corporately. I would like to get back to those historical roots where we lived our ideals. I am concerned about refugees, people in prison, the homeless, those with psychiatric needs, the aged. Divestment is an issue where we are making a difference. I am very inspired by that bubbling up from grassroots that we saw at Yearly Meeting 2015. It got Friends following through with action. My parents said it well in their 1987 Backhouse Lecture, entitled “The Vision that Connects – Building the Future We Choose”:

…separation from our spiritual lives, one another and the natural world seem to us to be the basic causes of the fear, greed and selfishness leading to present and possible future disasters…we were hopefully beginning a process – opening doors. That’s the way we’d like to leave it, hoping we can remain open, trusting our Inner Light, letting the Light guide us, not away from the world but into the world.

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