Drawing inspiration from his Hoosier friends and neighbors, author and Quaker pastor Phil Gulley may be the region’s premier storyteller.
PHIL GULLEY HOPPED on his bike in Plainfield and started racing 100 miles down highway 37 towards Paoli. It was Fourth of July weekend in 1981 and temperatures were up to 98 degrees. All he had with him was one change of clothes.
A few weeks earlier, at the age of 21, Phil had caught a glimpse of Joan Apple from his apartment window. She was carrying a baseball mitt, he remembers, which sparked his interest. He rushed down to introduce himself.
He quickly discovered she had a steady boyfriend, but he played it cool, telling her he just wanted to be friends while she was in town for a summer internship. And friends they were. They shared their unwritten biographies. She told him what it was like to grow up on a farm in Orange County. “Joan was both easy to talk to and easy to be silent with,” Phil says.
One day, Joan mentioned she was bringing her boyfriend home to meet her parents, and Phil saw his chance slipping away.
So he made a plan. Even though he had a car, he decided that biking to Paoli would make it seem less obvious he was interrupting the boyfriend’s visit on purpose. He was just enjoying a day ride.
Luckily, Phil knew a Quaker pastor he could stay with in Paoli. When he got there he called Joan to tell her he just happened to be in town and wondered if she’d like to grab dinner.
Of course, she was having dinner with her boyfriend and parents, but she drove into town and picked him up. As the car turned down windy back roads, Phil saw vast expanses of green pasture to the left and giant overhanging trees to the right.
Amazingly, the plan worked. Joan broke up with her boyfriend the next day, and Phil asked her on a real date. She said yes.
TODAY, THAT ORANGE COUNTY farm is where Phil goes three or four times a month. It’s where he finds inspiration for his popular eight-book series about life in the fictional town of Harmony. It’s the place where he finds the rest that gives him energy to write and preach. The rest many of us find in a quiet Hoosier night.
Phil never planned on being a writer. He wasn’t an English major and didn’t study creative writing. But he is a natural storyteller. His 19 books of fiction and nonfiction, published by Random House and HarperOne, have sold over a million copies worldwide. Of his first Harmony book, Publisher’s Weekly said, “Occasionally, a simple book feels like home, and its characters become cherished friends. These vignettes will doubtless become favorites, not only for the quarter of a million people who enjoyed Gulley's Front Porch Tales, but also for new readers who will respond to the Garrison Keillor-style humor and pathos of fictional Harmony, Ind.”
Phil writes a humor column for Indianapolis Monthly, contributes to The Saturday Evening Post and Salon and makes multiple Facebook posts a week that draw 150 to 200 comments from his more than 5,000 friends.
“I think one of the things that draws people to Phillip Gulley and his work is that it has this deep down sense of kindness to it,” singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer says. “He will approach very serious topics, but it’s honesty and truth that approaches you like a friend where the goal is to walk with you.”
NOW, PHIL WRITES a book a year and travels across the country doing speaking tours. “It’s one thing to read Phil Gulley’s stories on a page, I’ve done it and enjoy it,” Scott Russell Sanders says. “But to hear Phil deliver a story is a delight.” The trips take him away from Joan and their sons, but they give him the chance to see new places and reconnect with his friends.
His writing isn’t fast, but it is steady. Every day, without fail, he sits down and writes. Winter is his heaviest writing season, and he either works at the farmhouse or in his home office in Danville. He’s a morning writer for sure and will only pound out 500 words in the three to four hours he writes. But this steady pace is enough to meet his book-a-year quota. His next nonfiction book will be titled Awakened Soul and will be about the people Phil sees to be fully alive, fully engaged and fully happy.
Phil believes his grandmother was one of these people. “Incidentally I don’t think these people are rare,” Phil says. “I think they’re unknown. But I think these people are gifts from God and what they do is point the way for the rest of us.”
In his series about the town of Harmony, the main character, Sam Gardner, is a lot like Phil. He lives in a small town in Indiana and is the pastor of a Quaker meeting. According to Phil, Sam is a bit more neurotic and anxious, but he says that’s because being a pastor is all Sam has. Phil has his writing to fall back on.
Occasionally, those in Phil’s life think they are characters in his books. “I’ve had people, especially with someone in the book who is more virtuous, assume that I was writing about them,” Phil says. “And I just tell them, ‘Yes that was you.’”
ON A RECENT Sunday morning at the Fairfield Friends meeting where Phil is a pastor, he opened his sermon with a story from his childhood of when he unplugged a meat freezer for an entire week while the family went on vacation. Other than his kind eyes and wide, dimpled smile, Phil’s laugh characterizes him the most. It’s unapologetically loud, but slightly raspy, and he’s often already laughing when he shakes your hand to greet you.
As friendly as he is, though, the man has a fiery side. He doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions—on televangelists, mixed-breed dogs and logging. As he drives past cut-down and dead trees near the farm, Phil says, “Thank you, Mike Pence.”
At the Fairfield Friends meeting, he dives into gay marriage, despite his congregation’s division on the issue. Sometimes his fieriness gets him into trouble. Once, it threatened to end his career.
PHIL GREW UP as a Roman Catholic. Like many children, he found religion boring and still believes religion doesn’t answer questions young children have. At 16, he started hanging around the Quaker youth group, mostly because he liked the other kids. He didn’t really become interested in religion or spirituality until 21, when a drunk driver killed his best friend, Tim Hadley. When the accident happened, Phil had only been attending his Quaker meeting for around three weeks.
“The people from my new meeting came to the funeral home,” Phil says. “To see me and sit with me, and I was just so touched that they would do that. I grew more deeply attached to Quakerism.”
Not all Quakers were equally attached to Phil. He first stepped on toes when he announced to his meeting he was going to become a Quaker pastor. What he didn’t know was Friends shouldn’t say they are going to be a Quaker pastor. Instead, the congregation approaches an individual they think is suited to the role.
He created bigger waves with his non-fiction books, If Grace Is True, If God Is Love and in If the Church Were Christian, which challenge commonly held beliefs.
His first two theology books were co-authored with his friend Jim Mulholland. They met at Christian Theological Seminary standing in a line at the bookstore, where they found not only were they both pursuing their masters in divinity, but they both were cheap, Jim says. The two went camping in Morgan-Monroe State Forest, and as they sat around the campfire under the Indiana night sky, they talked about whether they really believed in heaven or hell. Those conversations turned into If Grace Is True and If God Is Love.
Eventually, Jim started referring to Christians as “they” and “them,” no longer as “we” and “us.” He gave up his pastorate in 2008 and now blogs at “Leaving Your Religion.” When Jim told Phil of his change of heart, he says Phil hardly batted an eye, and it hasn’t changed their friendship. “I don’t pick my friends based on religion,” Phil says.
PHIL HAS AN inclusive mindset in his theology, and it shows in his novels as well. In his most recent book, A Place Called Hope, a Quaker pastor marries a lesbian couple and then is at risk for losing his job. A feeling he knows all too well.
Back in 1992, when Phil was a pastor at Irvington Friends in Indianapolis, he got a late night phone call everyone dreads. His younger brother was in the hospital in Columbus, Ohio, after a suicide attempt. Phil drove to see him and asked what was wrong. His brother tearfully came out to Phil as gay and said he was afraid his family would reject him. That moment, Phil says, changed his mind about LGBT equality.
Phil says his inclusive theology is also an outgrowth of Hoosier hospitality, a tradition of being polite and welcoming to strangers. “I support marriage equality because I believe in not only our constitutional promise of equality, but I believe in the Hoosier principle of hospitality,” Phil says. “So, by golly, everybody’s welcome, and I’m going to make everyone feel at home.”
A few years after the scare with his brother, Phil’s kind writing was lucky enough to be read on Paul Harvey’s radio program to 24 million listeners. One of those listeners happened to be a publisher who called Phil asking for a book. In 1997 that book was Front Porch Tales.
PHIL WAS ALWAYS bucking the system here and there, but it was his claims about whether or not Christ was divine or just human that caused some Quakers to have enough of Phil. In 2003, at the regional Quaker conference of Western Indiana and Eastern Illinois, a few attendees stood up and called for Phil to lose his pastor title. However, Quakers don’t have defining creeds like most religions, and they don’t vote on issues. Instead a clerk is chosen who is said to have the gift of discernment. As Friends discuss and debate issues, the clerk tries to hear God’s will.
These debates came up at the conference for eight years, but the clerk never thought it was God’s will to defrock Phil. Finally, his opponents gave up. Phil says he felt angry and disheartened at first. “Now it’s a gift,” he says. “It proved to me I have a lot of friends and support from wonderful people.”
PHIL AND JOAN spend most of their time in Danville to be close to their Quaker community and Joan’s job as a school librarian. For the past 32 years, though, they’ve been going down to the farm that’s been in Joan’s family since 1843. Her grandfather built the small two-bedroom, no electricity house in 1913, and it’s been renovated several times since. When Joan’s mother, Ruby, passed away in 2009 at the age of 91, she was buried in a nearby graveyard where almost every gravestone bears the Apple family name. As the funeral procession drove by the old house, Joan realized she wanted to keep it in the family. Her three brothers and one sister agreed, and they bought the farm together, with Joan and Phil buying and fixing up the house. The whole family gathers there twice a year, once for Christmas and once in the summer.
Phil says the farm is his cut-off from TV, cell reception and sometimes even his writing. “All day only six or seven cars would have driven by,” Phil says. “The stars at night are incredible. The animals, the birds, the wildlife. It’s so peaceful.”
Much of Phil’s writing and theology is influenced by the peacefulness of Southern Indiana. He says the farm and people here keep his head in a small place. “I don’t write about city life—I write about small towns,” Phil says. “The farm lets me keep a foot in rural Indiana.”
It all comes back to writing about what you know. Indianapolis Monthly deputy editor Daniel Comiskey loves working with Phil. “He’s a Midwestern man, and it comes through loud and clear in his writing,” Daniel says. “If you grew up in the suburbs or rural Indiana you know these folks he’s writing about.”
PHIL STILL DOESN'T FEEL the need to change or convert people from their beliefs. When he started out as a pastor, his goal was to get people into heaven. Now, he believes there are multiple ways to God. “My goal in being a pastor can be explained by the definition of love,” Phil says. “To love is to be committed to the beloved’s growth and wholeness and well-being. I am a pastor because it affords me the opportunity to help people grow, be well and experience wholeness. That’s why I am a pastor and that’s why I remain a pastor.”
Sometimes Phil’s beliefs are challenged even at home. Quakers are well known for being pacifists, so when Phil’s son Sam wanted to join the army after high school, Phil did his best to persuade him to not enlist. One day they had a conversation.
“Dad, if we lived in Syria, and soldiers were killing our family, wouldn’t you want someone to come help?” Sam asked.
Phil answered he would.
“I’m that person. That’s my job in life,” Sam said.
“Okay, then you make it your job to help, not hurt,” Phil said.
Sam became a medic and is currently attached to the Army Rangers. Though he’s still in the States, he’ll go wherever they go.
Phil’s other son, Spencer, married last year and he and his wife are expecting their first child, making Phil and Joan soon-to-be grandparents. The name Madeline is already picked out for their granddaughter, and Phil looks forward to “being kept young” by the little tyke. In a few months he’ll likely be rocking her to sleep on the front porch of the farmhouse where two previous generations were rocked. One thing is for sure: Phil will be laughing.
PHIL FUN FACTS
Greatest accomplishment: His marriage.
Biggest mistake: Once in Wisconsin on a book tour, Phil used the women’s restroom by accident and was washing his hands when a few older ladies walked in.
Favorite Artist: Bruce Springsteen. Of all his songs, Phil likes “Promiseland” the best. “It just works for me on so many levels,” he says.
Most admired author: E.B. White. He has a stack of his books on his bed’s headboard at the farm.
Epitaph will read: Just a dad and a husband.
Advice to living simple: Don’t get divorced because it leads to great complexity in life.
IN PHIL'S WORDS
“In the end . . . . . . . Stand where we feel led. Stand straight, stand tall, and try to remember that other folks might be led to stand elsewhere.”
― Philip Gulley, Home to Harmony
“Love, even that love which is imagined, is sometimes all we have to get us through.”
― Philip Gulley, Home to Harmony
“Raw pain alarms. us. It reminds us that life isn't as orderly as we'd hoped. We demand that pain settle down before we shuffle it off to the quiet table. We want pain to stay in its own little section, want to keep it from spilling over into the other parts of life. Just like . lunch trays. Keep pain in its own little compartment.”
― Philip Gulley, Home to Harmony
“There’s danger in thinking joy is a matter of location. If we can’t find joy where we are, we probably won’t find it anywhere.”
― Philip Gulley, Home to Harmony: A Harmony Novel
“If you can go home to someone who loves you, if your children are proud of you, if you can keep your integrity, you’ve hit the jackpot. You don’t need the state to call your number. It’s already been called.”
―Philip Gulley, Home to Harmony: A Harmony Novel