There’s a lot to love about the women of Saint Lydia’s in San Francisco. Head Beacon Beka and her sidekick Dot turned out to be very good at getting rid of a predatory male pastor. Female church leaders were rare in 1976, but they found an ordained woman to shepherd their flock. The five Beacons, their prickly minister and a young Mexican prostitute all took risks, made mistakes and followed their hearts to set a wild new course for their historic interracial, interdenominational congregation in “The City.”
The Beacons reveals the souls of lay leaders, how they sought spiritual guidance, earned the respect they deserved and gained the freedom to run their church in an egalitarian way. Younger readers of diverse ethnicities and orientations will glimpse pioneering feminine faith in action. Older women will almost certainly remember fights for equality during those chaotic 1970s, and San Franciscans will get a fresh view of that infamous era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll through the stories of a few memorable Christian visionaries.
Judith Favor offers us a delicious, saucy slice of mid-70s San Francisco. The Beacons provides generous servings of the beautiful city plus a kaleidoscope of characters, lifestyles and spiritual practices. Deeply textured and finely tuned, this novel crackles with lively energy.
Mary Atwood, Episcopal priest
It isn’t often that readers interested in religion have a chance to learn about the inner workings of a small but active congregation, especially when the story entails conflicts between clergy and parish leadership. Judith Favor has beautifully provided such a look with her fictional well-trained older Episcopal priest. The long-time church “Beacons,” each well-described, struggle with their pro and con emotions while the first-time reverend agonizes over her inability to persuade them to an orthodox faith. A carefully crafted microcosm of American congregational struggles in our post-Christiandom era. [Christendom?]
Jean Lesher, religious book editor
Judith Favor has created a delightful gang of deacons here in The Beacons! You will come to know and love them as they grapple with their own psyches, their collective mission, and the evolving conditions of their time and place. The superbly drawn focus of this tale—the trials and tribulations of their courageous choice for replacement priest—rings true and deep, and will leave you hoping for more.
Michael Kirk, artist/designer/editor
Judith Favor’s novel lives next door to Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco of the Seventies. In The Beacons we glimpse a radical Christianity—radical because women took over leadership of an interracial church. Favor gives an insider’s look at what happened in a place few of us have imagined.
John Brantingham, author of Let Us All Now Pray to Our Own Strange Gods
[John Brantingham’s work has appeared in hundreds of magazines in the United States and England, and his poetry has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. His other books
Pick those that spark a strong response in you…
The GATE: ENTRY POINTS
- What pulled you into the story; conflict, collaboration or something else?
- Which character made you care? What about her sparked your interest?
- Which themes kept your attention? Say more…
- Have you ever served on a pastoral search committee? Any regrets?
- Have you ever made a life-changing decision, only to wind up doubting your own wisdom? Describe a bit about this…
The TUNNELS: UNDERNEATH
- Have you ever been groped? More than once? What happened?
- Have you ever confronted a sexual predator? When? Where? How?
- Have you ever worked with strong women to get rid of a predator, or bring about needed change in your school, church or neighborhood?
- Have you ever felt oppressed? When? Where? How?
- Have you ever led a guided tour with someone of a different class, age or place so she could come to appreciate your original neighborhood?
The SHORES: LAND’S END
- Do you usually say YES or NO when asked to serve in a leadership role? Why or why not?
- When does the fear of looking bad or sounding stupid keep you from speaking up?
- How might you rebalance a situation of power-over with someone in a position of authority? What might a power-with situation look like?
- Do you like the feeling of blood rushing to your head, making everything heightened and fast and wild? Why or why not?
- What role has the public library played in your intellectual development?
The HILLS: STEEP CLIMBS
- Tell about a time you challenged authority or witnessed others doing so.
- Tell about someone you consider a saint? Describe why…
- Tell about your experience with spiritual-practice circles.
- Tell about someone you know personally who speaks truth with love.
- Tell about something that triggers your animosity, maybe aggression.
The PRESIDIO: TRAIPSING
- For you, is Holy Communion a revered sacrament, an occasional liturgical experience, a paradox, a sacred mystery or something else?
- For you, is heresy a holy truth, an outmoded concept, a way to separate insiders from outsiders, or something else?
- For you, is aggression your first response, a rare but useful form of expression, avoided most of the time, abhorrent or something else?
- For you, which person or situation irritates you like a thorn in the flesh? We aren’t sure what Paul meant by the metaphor; what’s true for you?
- For you, what emotions rise when you read of a modern woman giving herself a penance or setting out to become a connoisseur of pain?
The BRIDGES: CONNECTING
- What did you hunger for when you were a teen? And these days?
- What did you do to ground yourself when you were young? Now?
- What happens when people share food? How does eating together nourish emotional connections and deepen relationships between folks?
- What might happen if more transgender folks had a place at the table?
- What connection do you see between the Beacons’ total acceptance of her and Paige’s capacity to be merciful toward Rev Ruth?
The TENDERLOIN: LURES
- Have you had personal experience with someone who was lured into the sex trade? Tell what you heard, felt, wanted, said or did…
- Describe any links and/or tensions you might have experienced between your own emerging sexuality and your developing spirituality.
- What delights you about San Francisco’s Night Ministry? Discomforts you?
- How does your own faith community respond to the needs of those who are trapped in prostitution? Poverty? Madness?
- Does your town have a Safe House? Do you see the need for one?
The VALLEYS: SHADOWS
- How is your view of Holy Communion affected when you envision it as Rev Ruth and the Beacons do, as a sacrament of feeding?
- Have you ever had a crush on someone? Were you aware of God’s Presence with you during the crush, after it was over, now, or never?
- Have you ever had cancer? Describe your awareness of God during your illness. Did your connection with Sacred Presence change after cancer?
- Have you noticed the little phrase AS IT IS midway through The Lord’s Prayer? What might it mean to you now? In the future?
- Have you ever offered your traumatic memories to Creation for healing? What happened?
The AVENUES: PASSAGES
- Have you ever feared you were losing your mind? Say more…
- Nobody likes everyone. Is there one neighbor, one person at church or at work toward whom you feel a puzzling sense of aversion?
- When have the blues swept over you, and how did you get through it?
- Imagine yourself yourself sitting in the tableau, silently embodying one of the Twelve Madonnas. What are you wearing? Feeling? Wanting?
- Have you ever organized a rummage sale or shopped at one? How do you feel about hearing You can’t put a price tag on love, but you can charge a fair price for the accessories?
The MISSION: ANIMATION
- Have you ever been blessed by a great kindness, a kind of sunlight?
- Ever had an intensely lucid moment, a sudden solution to a dilemma? Some call this ‘women’s intuition.’ How do you name it?
- Have you ever observed someone near and dear, wavering on the edge of cognitive diminishment? Tell about it…
- Have you ever repeated the name of Jesus to connect with the mysterious power of love embodied in this frail scrap of language?
- Have you ever sensed the gravitational pull of love while listening to someone’s truth?
The PIERS: SUPPORTS
- Imagine yourself at the bedside of a loved one, someone who has not yet decided whether to stay alive. What do you say? Do? Want?
- Imagine yourself cleaning house in a flurry of righteous indignation. What do you think? Feel? Want?
- How does angry aggression, when expressed to a trusted person in a safe setting, restore vitality for females?
- How does voluntary withdrawal from everyday responsibilities help women gain perspective and renew inner strength? Can the same benefits come through involuntary withdrawal?
- If power is the capacity to move and be moved in relationship, how does Rev Ruth’s illness change power dynamics among the Beacons?
The BEACH: CURRENTS
- When have you had to put pieces of a challenging situation together without knowing the whole picture?
- Do you believe it’s possible to have a soul connection with someone who has died? Have you ever received a bit of ancestral guidance?
- What do you see, hear and feel when you witness flights of expressive imagination in others? How does expressive imagination happen for you?
- Have you ever gone through a dark night of the soul, a cloudy evening of the soul, or a spiritual rummage sale?
- How is being socially isolated similar to, or different from, choosing to live in a contemplative way? Does seeking to be rooted and grounded in Love have anything to do with it?
Reading connects people;
so does writing.
Writing helps clarify ideas,
keep track of details
and discover hidden meanings.
Expressing our truths with love
connects us—physically, mentally,
emotionally and spiritually—
to our readers
and to our deepest selves.
We read to know we are not alone.
- The Beacons of Larkin Street is a Nineteen-Seventies historical novel written by a contemplative feminist great-grandmother, an ordained minister who once pastored a church in San Francisco.
- Where do you see contemplative perspectives influencing the stories? Feminist perspectives? Grandmotherly points of view? Ministerly perspectives?
- Set in San Francisco, twelve aspects of the City structure the novel. What connections do you see between the human characters and the character of San Francisco?
- Tales of The Beacons move between the perspectives of seven women. Do you find the author’s omniscient POV to be confusing, credible, clear, challenging or something else?
- If Beka were the sole narrator, the reader would get one singular angle on each character. Do you think Beka’s POV would have strengthened the novel? Why or why not?
- If she were the sole voice, Rev Ruth would have told the story very differently. Would you prefer her first-person voice? Why or why not?
- Which of Rev Ruth’s difficulties as a first-time pastor give you the greatest insight into her character? The most compassion for her?
- How about Beka’s efforts to guide things as Saint Lydia’s Head Beacon?
- The seven women have different sexual orientations and diverse attitudes about sexuality and spirituality. Did the author convince you that each is justified in her beliefs and practices? Why or why not?
- In Dot and Rev Ruth’s conflict over communion, do you think the resolution took too long, or came too fast? How might you have done it?
- Who was your favorite character? What about her intrigued you?
- Which scene was your favorite? What made it memorable?
- At the end, several story lines are left unresolved. Do you wish the author had resolved the characters’ dilemmas?
- Do you think Rev Ruth will live or die? Return to guide St. Lydia’s, or go to Cleveland?
- What do you think will become of Paige? Dot? Hope and Millienne? Luz?
- Are there other subplots you wonder about?
- This is the first in a trilogy. Which dilemmas and storylines do you most want resolved in a sequel?
Is silence collaborative, complicit?
“You know your part in this,” Sheriff Bowen once told him, and he did. Leo had not spoken up. He should have told someone about his brother torturing dogs. Leo knew he had been a coward.
- from Silent Voices, Part One: Boy
Is silence the space between words, a pause between heartbeats?
That evening, Cordelia heard Leo’s baritone sounding the overture to an opus, one she would be hearing for nearly thirty years. It took longer for her to discover the complexities of this opus, to make out its woodwind harmonies, its percussive dissonances and its long, silent rests.
- from Silent Voices, Part Three: Coming Together
Does silence signify absence? Does it entail presence?
Leo didn’t quite know how to be normal under the shadow of goodbye, although he had lived through it once. In Granny Phoebe’s case, he had her love to live up to. In Margaret’s case, his mother-in-law’s temper outweighed most everything else.
- from Silent Voices, Part Three: Coming Together
Does silence make you nervous? Can it be menacing?
The silence that followed Leo’s departure was like a held breath. Chastened by her husband’s outburst, Cordelia wilted into a state of rebuke. Little did she know it would become a permanent condition.
- from Silent Voices, Part Four: Wife
Is silence voluntary, even communal?
What are Leo’s mother and I doing here, sitting quietly like this, Cordelia wondered. Praying, she supposed, though neither said anything remotely prayerful. She didn’t want to break the peace by asking.
– from Silent Voices, Part Four: Wife
Is silence a refusal to speak, or to respond?
Nothing had ever been said about her husband’s mother leaving the convent. Cordelia felt the pressure to ask, but was relieved by the silence. She was not at all ready to hear about private matters between a failed nun and her God.
- from Silent Voices, Part Four: Wife
How may silence and gender be related?
On this winter day she felt it again, the race of her pulse that propelled her to keep after him. “You may have uncovered a terrible crime. What will you do, Leo? You must do something about this.”
He hung his head and went mute, not for the first time. She was desperate for him to speak, to say anything, but he was too busy breathing. No matter how hard she pressed, no matter how urgently she pleaded, Leo kept his mouth shut, saying nothing for such a long time that she eventually stopped waiting for an answer.
- from Silent Voices: Part Seven: Widow
Can silence be pleasurable, even palpable?
Nobody knows about our sexual chemistry during my first two pregnancies. Our secret. She used to wonder what the men at the bank thought when Leo came to work with his face aglow, but never dared ask.
- from Silent Voices: Part Seven: Widow
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.
Wendell Berry, from “Rising”
1902 ON THE RUN
The boy slumped, forehead resting against the grimy window of the train. Leo removed his spectacles and put them in his shirt pocket. He couldn’t see much without them but that was how he wanted it today. He was too ashamed to look anyone in the eye. The past two weeks had been tense with accusations and threats. Now – all because of his younger brother – his family had been run out of town. He was furious at Albert, humiliated about being forced to leave his home in Montana. Leo had found a seat as far as possible from his family and pretended he didn’t even know them. His brother had a problem with violence. It was a form of madness, Leo thought. Albert’s madness had already caused more heartache than he could bear.
The last glimpses of home made his belly ache. After Dad announced they’d be settling in Oregon, starting over, Leo already hated it there, just as he had begun to hate it here. He kept his back to the aisle, shrugged Mother’s hand off when she touched his shoulder and ignored her until she went away. Tears rose, threatening to spill over. Leo tightened his throat, forcing back the tears, clamping his jaw so hard it made his molars ache.
“Bull.” That’s what Dad called his younger brother, sounding proud. “Loner,” he called Leo, sounding mean. He hated it when they made fun of him. Sheriff Bowen had said “solitary.” Leo rolled the word around in his mouth. Solitary tasted better than loner.
“You and I are a lot alike, son. We both tend to be solitary,” the sheriff had told him on that awful evening. “Yes,” he’d repeated, “we have something in common. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to get right with what you’ve done.”
Tears filled his eyes again. Remembering the sheriff’s gentle tone made his nose run. Leo wiped his coat sleeve across his face and hoped no one noticed. Mother told him to use a handkerchief but he didn’t have one now. Dad told him boys don’t cry and his younger brother didn’t. Albert – who told everyone to call him Bull – hadn’t shed a tear since he was in diapers, at least not that Leo had seen. They had to share a room but that was no place to let his feelings out. Leo went into the woods whenever he had to cry. Will there be any woods in Oregon? What if I can’t find any woods?
Alongside the tracks Leo spotted a railroad storage shed painted the same dried-blood color as the one he’d vomited behind a few weeks back. He shuddered in his seat, remembering what he’d heard on his way home from school that afternoon. Slugger, Albert’s buddy, was showing a second-grader what they’d done to a stray dog in the rail yard. “Bull said this here dog is shivering, let’s get it warm. You shoulda seen that dumb dog dance.” And I shoulda told Dad, Leo thought, except he woulda told me to quit making up awful stories. And to quit trying to get my brother in trouble. The bile rose in his throat again. He had to swallow hard to keep his breakfast from coming up.
Leo gazed unseeing at the rough terrain as the Great Northern labored into Idaho. His thoughts were in Billings, on what he’d been doing before Sunday turned bloody. His mother made him go to Mass but she didn’t care what he did the rest of the day as long as he was home for supper. Leo liked to ramble in the woods, moving up mountain trails and down steep ravines. Sometimes he sat on a rock, breathing the pine-scented air. Sometimes he’d see a shy animal go by. Occasionally he caught sight of a doe with her fawn or a buck with a great rack of antlers. Once he’d even spotted a mountain lion, the most elusive of creatures.
On that terrible Sunday, two weeks after his thirteenth birthday, he’d paused at the top of a ridge to look around. He picked up a pine knot, turned it this way and that, looking for the face hidden in it. He thought of pretty Alice, who sat in front of him in history class. Leo’s face flushed, remembering how embarrassed he’d been after splattering egg yolks on her pretty green dress. Maybe he’d carve a gnome for Alice, something to make up for his clumsiness.
He balanced the pine knot on his left palm and had just slipped the blade of his jack-knife into a seam when he heard something that made his ears stand straight out. It sounded like an animal in pain. Leo heard it again. The scream split the afternoon. Oh no, only a wounded creature makes a noise like that. Just yesterday he’d heard a customer tell Mrs. Mac that her beagle had disappeared. “I can’t imagine what happened to my little Buddy,” the woman said. She’d looked so sad.
He snapped his jack-knife shut and headed toward the trouble. Dodging branches on the ridge and sliding feet-first down a rocky chute, Leo gave no care to his britches. They were old, already torn at one knee, now ripping in the seat. The closer he got to the shriek, the faster and higher it came. Not just caught in a bear trap, he figured, but tortured somehow. The more the screams increased in pitch and intensity, the more frantic Leo felt.
Bursting into a clearing, he gasped to see his brother bent over a small dog, one boot on its hindquarters. He saw the flash of a knife and a quick spurt of blood. “Stop!” Leo shrieked in a high, girlish voice. But Bull did not stop. He slashed again, carving deep into the dog’s belly. Leo kicked the Bowie knife away and slammed his body against Albert’s, powered by adrenalin beyond the strength of his medium frame. Leo pummeled his huskier brother until Slugger pulled him off. By this time the dog had shuddered and gone quiet.
“What is the name of this boy, your brother’s friend?” Sheriff Bowen asked the night he picked Leo up. He spoke in a calm, even tone despite the gory details he’d just heard. To Leo, his words felt like boulders cracking the sidewalk.
“Sam Tucker, but he tells everyone to call him Slugger.”
“Ah yes, the Tucker tribe. Time to make another visit out to their place.”
“You won’t say it was me that told, will you?” Leo’s voice trembled.
“No, son, I protect my sources. But I will be coming to see your folks. I need to have a little talk with Albert.”
“I was afraid of that.” Leo blinked back tears. He suddenly knew that nothing would ever be the same. My life will never be the same.
What would you call this category of writing?
The Edgefielders is my great-grandmother’s hidden story. Public records show only birth, marriage and death dates so I composed a biographical novel to knit imagination into these bare facts. I invented scenes and dialogues to illustrate what happened before and during her four years at Edgefield.
How does imagination work with facts?
Margaret Mary was born in 1869 in rural Ontario and erased from family lore after she died in 1938 at the Multnomah County Poor Farm. I’d not heard of her until Aunt Margo handed me a stack of genealogy documents including a death certificate. Place of Death: Multnomah County Poor Farm. What? How could this be? Who sent my elderly ancestor to an institution for paupers?
Stories hold us together but hers had been deleted. I had to find out, even though it felt risky to probe into family shadows and secrets. Remaining elders had erased memories of Margaret Mary and they resented my questions. Shame went deep, it seemed, the shame of allowing Grandmother to end her life on the dole among strangers. I hate to stir up conflict but could not let this go. Someone had to bring Margaret Mary out of the dark and into the circle of light.
What did you hope to accomplish here?
Beyond telling a good story, my real purpose was to capture the truth of Margaret Mary’s soul and to illustrate the power of mutual spiritual care. The Edgefielders’ tales show how each person – no matter how poor – can contribute to compassion and generosity in the wider community.
And how did you do that?
Soul-seeing is tactile so I sat with my dearly departed ancestor and kept quiet, waiting for “something” to arise. The song of a canary evoked one story. The sensation of fingertips on a tiny golden cross brought forth romance. Cold bacon grease beckoned me into her melancholy, keeping watch with Margaret Mary where “the ocean moaned, tossing eternal waves of sadness against the shore.”
Where do meditation and imagination meet?
In stillness. And in love. Meditation offers a way to be with dread and fury, anxiety and confusion, to stay present to all those vulnerabilities we usually try to avoid. Meditation invites us to see through the surface of things to the light source of everything. Imagination arises from the power of love, the force of love between the generations. In this book, meditative imagination is the active, conscious practice of finding my way – with Margaret Mary – to the heart of Presence and recording what is revealed there.
But this is not the story of a life.
It is the story of lives, knit together,
overlapping in succession, rising
again from grave after grave.
Wendell Berry, from “Rising”
From the start, the stories of Leo James Wright and Cordelia Davis Wright were never solely their own, but continuations of lives that began long before they were born. And how did I come to discover what happened to my grandparents in events preceding my birth? Where does such information come from?
A curious child, I learned to listen between the lines when the Grans spoke, guessing at what they were trying to hide. I watched the way they looked at each other, held my breath during false starts and sudden silences. I waited patiently for bits of truth, sensing emotional codes hidden beneath the social ones, wondering what was beyond regret. I tried to imagine a family where it was safe to ask questions and to tell secrets of the heart, but that was not the world in which I grew up. Leo and Cordelia maintained order through silence. As a young adult I wished I could be part of a less frustrating family, one with fewer conflicts and hurts, maybe one that knew how to have fun. Over the decades I’ve come to realize that most of us cannot go out and form the kind of family we think is ideal. I have had to accept being part of a long chain of wary ancestors. No amount of wishful thinking can change that. Now that I am growing old, I have also grown more curious about genealogy and genetics, more interested in the forces of history, economics and DNA that shaped my forbears. I see this happening all over America, people my age getting interested in family history. You’ve got to start where you are, with the ancestors you’ve been given. So I asked the Grans for their stories. Leo and Cordelia obliged, offering their lives in bits and pieces, hints and glances.
Silent in life, the Grans now rest in eternal stillness, but in these pages they do not stay dead. As far as Ancestry.com is concerned, the lives of Leo and Cordelia Wright are a closed book, but I brought them back from the grave by “hearing them into speech” and composing their stories from a combination of intuition and imagination. Family memoir, like fiction, requires the reader to act as if things really happened this way and each act of reading SILENT VOICES brings Leo and Cordelia Wright back to life. Essayist James Wood terms it “an allowable resurrection” in his New Yorker reflection titled “WHY?” He insists that it’s never too late to listen for untold family stories and to put them on record even if the writer wasn’t there when they happened. I would add that it’s never too late for compassion, either. If a grandchild can offer any gift to her ancestors, let it be an allowable resurrection.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT SILENT VOICES
“Silent voices” is a fresh idea, a truth-filled story (almost a long parable) inviting us to really listen to our own families. Judith Wright Favor made the characters real and the times familiar, reawakening details of food, décor and events with my own grandparents. Not only did I enjoy accompanying her grandparents through their lives, I made mental notes of what I might say if ever I set out on the same journey. In the family tree, the seven sections, the reminder that the sheriff is fictional, the influence of dogs and birds, this book modeled a way to write about my own grandparents.
Nan Cooney, Grandmother / Author
I enjoyed Silent Voices because I can envision the people while reading it. I love that about Judith’s writing. I was glad to know more of the story about how her great grandmother ended up in the poor house, the difficult decision her grandfather had to make, how he and her grandmother had to live with that decision, and how it affected their lives. I really look forward to reading more books by this author.
Deb Noll, Pastry Chef
Reading Silent Voices brought to mind my patrician paternal grandparents behind their polished masks, and my maternal grandmother deserted by her philandering husband and left penniless with four young daughters. Here Judith Wright Favor has dared to inhabit her own grandparents and those with whom their lives intersected, vividly describing and giving voice to the loves and losses that impacted their lives. Silent Voices is part memoir, part meditation and part masterful story; I think the author has invented a new genre!
John Denham, Pastoral Counselor, Retired
I was drawn into this story from the beginning. Having previously read The Edgefielders, the thread that kept drawing me along in Silent Voices was the author’s unspoken hope for her grandparents. Near the end Cordelia asks herself “How long does hope live?” then responds “For an eternity.” The Wrights remind me of my grandparents and leads me to reflect on what may be hidden in the crevices of my own family story.
Joan Stock, Spiritual Director
Do you think about your relatives and wonder what experiences shaped them and contributed to their particular personality characteristics? In this engaging story Judith Wright Favor has found a way to understand and develop compassion for her kin. Drawing upon memory, imagination and intuition she gives Leo and Cordelia Wright new life through poignant vignettes in this highly readable memoir.
Judy Leshefka, Meditation Instructor / Psychotherapist
Silent Voices gives a glimpse of the lives of a man and a woman, from their difficult early days, to their coming together in the bloom of young adulthood, to raising their family. The reader is linked to Leo and Cordelia amidst the story of our nation, Depression, WWII and Hiroshima. It is a captivating read.
Peggy Deal Redman, Professor of Education, Emerita
I saw this as a story of redemption, was very caught up in it and read the book in one sitting. I appreciated the author’s desire to speak to the silences and secrets of our lives. Silent Voices is imbued with the person Judith has become, including her spirituality and her understanding of what people do to make meaning from difficult circumstances.
Lynn Rhodes, Seminary Educator
Please Visit Ghost Ranch
& Donate Generously!