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How Well Are We Guarding The West Gate?

by Michael D. Nanny,
Grand Master
The Grand Lodge of Texas A.F. & A.M. 

Generally speaking, the ritualists are the only well-organized group in our Lodges today. They are organized because they have specific duties and responsibilities, and as a general rule it is a group who take pride in the quality of the ritualistic conferral of the degrees. There ought to be many such groups in our Lodges, each with specific duties and interests, and each with its own enthusiasm and pride. For instance, many Lodges have a Funeral Group - composed of Brethren, many of whom are either retired or self-employed - who attend and participate in Masonic funerals and memorial services. Some Lodges have a well informed group who keep track of the sick list, and another group who keep track of the widows, etc.

There is another group of even greater importance to the reputation of the Lodge - indeed of utmost importance to the reputation of the Fraternity - and that group is the Investigation Group Unfortunately, in many Lodges, it is a rather loosely organized group of members who are called upon from time to time to investigate the character and reputation of those who knock upon our doors for admission.

It is impossible to be too careful and painstaking in the investigation of a petitioner for the Degrees of Freemasonry. In these days, nothing is more dangerous - nor is there more potential for serious damage to the good name and reputation of our Order and to our Lodges - than a slipshod investigation of those who seek admission into our Order.

In some instances our own members have become more lax when it comes to recommending a man for membership; thereby placing an even more demanding burden upon Investigating Committees to ferret out the undesirable applicants. Such demonstrated laxity is doubtless generated to some degree by our zeal for new members, and the eventual outcome is dependent almost entirely upon those who perform the investigation.

The present “three black ball rule” has placed even more pressure upon the investigators, and has added to the frustration of well-meaning and sincere Masons whose sole purpose in exercising the black ball privilege is to keep undesirables applicants out of our Fraternity.

There are documented instances of well meaning Masons recommending a man for membership whom they have known for only a few days, and  - yes, there have been instances of a man walking in off the street, and a member of the Lodge has recommended him; relying solely upon the Investigating Committee to dig into his past and make their recommendation - and in some instances - during the short span of a couple of weeks. Some are found to be convicted felons on probation, and the recommender knew nothing about his past. And, yes - some are elected to receive the Degrees of Masonry simply because lazy and indifferent members of the Investigating Committee have not been honest - either with themselves or with the literally thousands of good Masons who have completely relied upon their investigation of the petitioner. 

For whatever reason we are unable to explain, the average member of a Lodge is reluctant to share any information about the petitioner - either good or bad - with the members of the Investigating Committee. Such sharing should be emphasized and encouraged by the Worshipful Masters of our Lodges, and it should be respected by the members of the Investigating Committee and by the Lodge.

Curiously, in a great many of our Lodges, little thought is given to selecting members of the Investigating Committee. Regrettably, there are Lodges whose process is to simply pick the next three names from the Roster. Such practice is not logical. Would you pick a degree team in such a manner? Would you select a name from the Roster, call the Brother on the telephone and tell him to be at Lodge next Monday to confer the Entered Apprentice Degree? Of course not! If you want a degree conferred with dignity and in an impressive manner, you choose a special member for his special skills and ability to fill whatever place on the degree team that would contribute to an impressive degree. 

So, why should we not be equally selective when it comes to selecting those members whose special job is to carefully scrutinize those who knock at our doors? We are talking about scrutiny that should consist of much more than a casual interview, or a couple of hurried telephone calls to a petitioner’s references, or an exchange of information with other members of the Investigating Committee. Let’s be honest and admit that an increasing number of Texas Lodges have taken in members of whom neither they nor the Fraternity can be justly proud, and who - had they been thoroughly investigated would never have passed the ballot box.

Each Lodge needs a group of men who will not only consider the statements of the petitioner, but will go behind them, and take them to pieces to see if they are really true in fact. If a petitioner is honest about the information he gives the Lodge, he should welcome a thorough investigation of his background - consistent with the relative laws governing individual privacy. If he is sincere in his desire to become a Mason, he will be patient with the process, and if he will make a good Mason, he will maintain his interest throughout the process of investigation. 

In addition to being just plain difficult in many instances, our efforts are complicated by an ever increasing number of federal and state laws, rules and regulations concerning the privacy of individuals. Sometimes, we run the risk of beinga criminal in our efforts to identify criminals. But, we have a job to do, and we must find a way to develop trained investigators - that is - trained to the extent of understanding  the basic fundamentals necessary to thoroughly and properly do their job, and attempt to train and develop as many potential investigators as possible.

Needless to say, most potentially good ideas are beset with questions posed by nay-sayers whose standard offering is the age old; “We’ve never done it that way,” but Worshipful Masters - there IS a way to ensure good and thorough investigations of petitioners. Select members with a sprinkling of experience, wisdom, discretion and knowledge; and bring some of the younger members into service to the Lodge so they can gain useful experience for future benefit of your Lodge. 

Locate a Mason in your Lodge ....or possibly in your area .... who is in some area of law enforcement .... - and have your members meet with you, the Wardens, the Secretary and the “expert.” Rely upon the “expert” to point out the many facets of the investigative process; availability of information sources; legalities of certain procedures --- what should be done and what should not be done, etc. Add new talent from your newer members, and invite them to meet with the others periodically for review - even if you have no petitions to investigate. Keep them interested! In the long haul, qualified investigators will not only increase in ability, but in credibility as well. 

The membership will learn to rely in great measure upon their expertise, and as they approach the ballot box to make the decision for themselves, the Lodge and for the Fraternity, they can do their duty with a great deal of confidence that the Investigating Committee has done its job. It is a decision that should - and must be made - with the best interests of Masonry in mind.

The Worshipful Master should appoint a Chairman of the Investigating Committee, and he should insist that the Chairman call a meeting of the Committee -- to meet at the Lodge as soon as possible. As “coordinator,” he should be in complete charge of the investigative process.

The first thing that should be done by the investigating committee is to review the petition itself. That instrument is literally loaded with vital information which is too voluminous to be transferred to the report blank furnished each member of the committee. In many instances, the Secretary is the only member of the Lodge - other than the recommenders - who actually sees the petition, but the Investigating Committee needs to examine the petition for comparison to answers given by the petitioner  during the investigation. As a matter of fact, it would be an excellent idea to invite the petitioner and his recommenders to meet with the Investigating Committee at some point during their first meeting at the Lodge. For one thing, it would impress upon the petitioner  the importance and seriousness of the step he has taken, and  would put him on notice that he must be honest and forthright with the committee during the investigation. 

Then, after the petitioner has been excused from the meeting with the committee, the Chairman should assign certain line of inquiry to be followed by each member of the committee. When this has been done, they should meet again to compare and correlate their findings, and finally should go as a body ..... or one member could be assigned ..... to visit the petitioner in his home.  A petitioner with honest motivation and sincere desire to become a Mason should not be intimidated by such a visit. 

Then, the committee should meet again for a final conference and decision as to their report and recommendation to the Lodge. Thus, each member of the Investigating Committee has made his own investigation as instructed on Form 28.  A good report should and must reflect the opinion and recommendation of each member of the Investigating Committee.

How should we arrive at our recommendation to our Lodges? Well, we simply base our recommendation upon what our investigation shows to be in the best interests of a world-wide Fraternity of good men who desire to be better men. We do not base our recommendation on the possibility that our Fraternity might be able to reform a man of questionable character by the lessons of Freemasonry. We do not concentrate upon finding what is wrong with a petitioner. 

Of course this is important, but it is equally important - if not more important - to find out what is right about him.

Here, then are some things about a petitioner upon which the members of the Investigating Committee should satisfy themselves. The suggestions which follow are not all-inclusive, but provide a basis for thorough investigation of petitioners:

FAMILY LIFE: If married, is he a good husband, father and provider? Is he kind, gentle and considerate with his wife? Does she support his desire to become a Mason? Do both of them understand that some “time away from home” will be a part of his Masonic endeavor?
 Does he guide his children by example? If divorced, does he provide for their education, share in and maintain interest in their activities? 

REPUTATION IN HOME NEIGHBORHOOD: What do his neighbors think of him? Part of the Investigator’s job should be to visit with his neighbors - tell him that you  would like to know how he is regarded by his neighbors. There is really no reason to go into detail unless his neighbor happens to be a Mason. Ask his neighbors what kind of a neighbor he is. (You need to keep in mind that in today’s society, many neighbors never see each other, much less visit “across the fence” as in the old days.) Does he take pride in his home and property? Many petitioners live in apartments and/or townhouses, but: what does his residence look like?

RECORD IN FORMER PLACE OF RESIDENCE: A good Investigator will not overlook information to be obtained by such inquiry. True, it will take some extra time and work, but is well worth the effort when it comes to a good, solid investigation. If he recently moved into your area from another city, call the Secretary of a Lodge in the town or city where he moved from, and ask for help - particularly in those instances where a petitioner has recently moved from a smaller community where people know people - what they do, and how they have been regarded as residents of the community.

CREDIT RECORD / LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES: Although the credit record of a petitioner cannot be obtained without his written consent for the purpose of Masonic investigation into his character, you may obtain at the county courthouse in which he resides, or has resided, copies of any civil judgement that has been filed against him, including those that arise as a result of  failure to pay indebtedness, and copies of any criminal conviction; you cannot obtain criminal background information from law enforcement officers, as it is illegal for them to provide it. Also, you may obtain from the bankruptcy court that includes such county in its jurisdiction, a copy of any bankruptcy discharge. 

It is the Grand Master’s desire that the lodges know how to obtain such information from proper sources and the availability of such information while doing an investigation concerning a petitioner for Masonry. Our present form of “Petition for the Degrees” and the “Investigation Report Form” are woefully inadequate instruments by which desirable information may be gathered for benefit of the good name and reputation of our fraternity. 

Steps will be taken, and recommendations will be made to implement the ability of the investigating committee to gather such information about the petitioners - possibly on a subscription basis through a designated source - and to make such information available to all Texas lodges.

CIVIC ACTIVITIES: Does he share in worthwhile community activities? Is he interested in the area of Public Education, in the School Board, in City and County government? Is he willing - if given the opportunity - to serve on Committees and Boards? Is he a registered voter? Does he participate in local, state-wide and national elections? Such information need not - indeed ...MUST NOT ... involve partisan discussions, but such matters can tell an Investigator a lot about a petitioner. Among other things, it might provide some insight as to whether he plans to be involved in Masonic activities, or if he plans to be satisfied to simply be a member.

CHURCH MEMBERSHIP AND RELATED ACTIVITIES: Does he belong to a church? While church membership isn’t required for Masonic membership, such information is useful to a serious investigator. In your opinion, is he genuinely “religious” or does his “religion” appear to be a per functionary thing?

REPUTATION IN BUSINESS AND OCCUPATION: Is he self-employed? How do you perceive his competitors regard him? Is he ethical, or does he take advantage of others? If he works for others, what does his employer think of him? Does he give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay? What about his fellow-workers: do they hold him in high regard?

ARMED FORCES RECORD: Many petitioners either have served, or are presently serving in the Armed Forces. If a petitioner has served in the Armed Forces, ask to see his discharge record. You might learn something by such request. All discharges are NOT “honorable.” On the other hand, if he HAS been honorably discharged from the Armed Forces, he should be very proud to share his record with you.

REASON FOR PETITIONING: Such information is getting down to the nitty-gritty, and gives the investigator an opportunity to allow the petitioner his time to express himself. Does he want to be a Mason for “social, business or political reasons?” Does he want to be a Master Mason as a stepping stone to other “Rites?” Has his wife suggested that he petition to accommodate her desire to get into some organization predicating membership on her husband’s Masonic membership? Ask leading questions. Let the petitioner express himself. There are several reasons for a man to want to be a Mason. Perhaps the example set by a friend, family member - or simply following a family tradition. There is nothing quite so comprehensive as digging into motives!

It is undeniable that our gentle fraternity has - in some instances - sown to the wind with indifferent, hurried and incomplete investigation of the character and qualifications of some who have knocked upon our doors for admission. The result of such carelessness and indifference on our part has been characterized by breaches of morality that have reflected unfavorably upon our gentle fraternity - traditionally composed of good moral men. 

A prominent utilities company has a slogan for its employees: “No job is so important, and no service so urgent, that we cannot take time to perform our job safely.”

Let’s paraphrase that slogan, and adopt the practice that: “No petitioner is so important, and no increase in numbers is so urgent, that we cannot take time to thoroughly investigate all who knock upon our doors.”

And, Worshipful Masters, when you assign a Brother the task to investigate a petitioner, you might remind him that he not only has the responsibility of investigating for your Lodge ....indeed .... his responsibility is to Freemasons throughout the entire world. His is an awesome responsibility to say the very least. It should be treated as such.

Guard well the West Gate! Your reputation is at stake!

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Last modified: March 22, 2014