Thursday, April 14, 2016


Thanks to Facebook I heard this morning that Helen Steven has died. It is many years since I last saw Helen, but she has long been a huge inspiration to me and I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to meet her.

The first of those occasions was probably the most memorable. I was 16 years old and attending a Northern Friends Peace Board facilitators training day in Leeds, I think it was at Adel QMH. I'd been to Junior Yearly Meeting earlier that year and the session Marion McNaughton had led, and the Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) workshop she ran with us, had made a huge impression on me, so I'd jumped at the chance of going to something else she was running. It was a bit scary though, I went on my own which required a bus, a train and then another bus in Leeds to get there. I wasn't to know then, but it was to be the first of many times I'd set off for a QMH I'd never been to before putting my faith in a hand drawn map on a photocopied bit of paper to ensure safe arrival. No Google maps, no smartphone apps (not that I have those now either mind), and only a supply of 10p coins for the phonebox to call for help if I got lost! It was also the first time I'd gone to something 'for grown-ups' rather than all age or aimed at teenagers.

I arrived at the QHM to find that there was at least someone from our MM whose face and name was familiar to me, even though I didn't really know them. Also there was another Young Friend, albeit a good number of years older than me, and Woody quickly took me under his wing for the day. So there I was, still a little nervous, but reassured some that it was okay to be there and those gathered either didn't think I was 'too young', or at least were kind enough not to say as much!

We settled down into worship to start the day. This at least was very familiar and I started to relax. As the silence gathered there was a creak as the door opened, and two women tiptoed in to join us. I expected they'd quietly take up a couple of the empty chairs in the circle and the silence would continue as with most Meetings for Worship. But no, Marion leapt up out of her chair, flung her arms wide open and cried out 'Helen! Ellen! But I thought you were in prison!' Their quick reply was they'd been released the day before and had got the train down from Scotland first thing in the morning.

After hugs had been exchanged they did indeed join the circle and the silence continued until its appointed time. After which explanations were made and the rest of us discovered that Helen & Ellen had been in prison for about a week I think, as a result of NVDA at Faslane, the nuclear submarine base in Scotland. (A place where Ellen was to later make international news as one of the Trident Ploughshares 3 who broke in to the base, boarded a submarine, damaged the computer control panels, throwing bits of it overboard, and then when still no-one had come to investigate rang to let the base know they were there, and then sat and ate their sandwiches whilst they awaited arrest. The ground breaking ruling by Sheriff Gimblett followed, being that they were preventing a greater crime and nuclear warheads had no place in Scotland. Sadly the warheads are still there)

It was a rather sobering reminder about the possible implications of taking part in NVDA. But the focus that day was more on facilitating groups within the peace network and we got stuck right in to the days programme. As the day passed I got to hear snippets from Helen in our small group discussions about her seemingly tireless campaigning for peace, and against Trident. As the years rolled on I learned much more, from her, from others speaking about her, and from reading her 2005 Swarthmore Lecture No Extraordinary Power. I remember her wonderful sense of humour, that twinkle in her laughing eyes, and the quiet confidence that seemed to flow out of her to embrace everyone else in the room. But most of all I will remember her has one of the first Friends I got to know who somehow seemed to embody speaking truth to power, walking cheerfully and letting her life speak. Quaker phrases that I was just starting to really understand were as applicable to people in my lifetime as they were to the historical Friends I'd learned about in Children's Meetings.

Helen was a remarkable woman, and her loss will be felt keenly by many. So many people I know, either amongst Quakers, or those who knew her through the Iona Community and/or Peace House in Dunblane, of my generation and younger, have spoken of her lovingly over the years. Whilst she probably wouldn't have thanked us for the analogy 30 years ago, I think she would've understood what we meant by the description of being everyone's Quaker granny. She had time for everyone, of all ages, and had the ability to help you see value in yourself and yet be very self depreciating about her own doings and made sure she didn't get stuck on any pedestals! Helen helped us believe we could make a difference, and in doing so she certainly made a difference to many lives. Sadly the peacework and campaigning Helen was renown for is still needed as much today as it was when I first met her, but I'm pretty sure her legacy will live on for many generations to come as those she inspired go on to inspire others.

Mā mua ka kite a muri
Mā muri ka ora a mua

Those who lead give sight to those who follow
Those who follow give life to those who lead

The Herald obituary refers to her imprisonment in Cornton Vale as happening in 1987, so it must've been a few months later than I remembered. But I'm pretty sure it was still before my first YFCC in February that year.

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