Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What can be learned "As Way Opens"

"I never knew that the US violated so many treaties with Indians"
"I learned that Thomas Jefferson brought over many of the invasive plants into Washington DC"
"I learned that we can get more done when we collaborate"
"I learned that gardens help to clean watersheds"
"I learned why Philip's Head screwdrivers are called that" (Thanks, google, for the assist on that one)
"I learned that when rainwater flows off my driveway down the street, it can add to pollution"
"I learned that there is a connection between hunger and violence"
"I learned that William Penn honored his agreements with the Indians, and his sons did not"
"I learned that you don't need to exert a lot of muscle to saw wood"

What do all these statements have in common? They were the comments of 4th grade students from Sidwell Friends School at the conclusion of spending 4 hours together as part of a William Penn Quaker Workcamp. 22 students and 2 teachers joined us on a wet, rainy/snowy, cold day to start what we look to be a growing collaboration that helps strengthen the fabric of the DC community while addressing issues of nutrition and environment and developing service leaders for the next generation.

The plan is to nurture service as an expression of Quakerism while giving the students an opportunity to see how all things are interconnected and how small steps are vital for the big things to happen. Specifically, our starting point was to build shelves that will be used for growing seedlings that will go out into community gardens in the spring, and to start cutting wood that will be used for container gardens in yards throughout DC. We started with a group conversation about some connections between gardens, nutrition and the environment, and how these also can be expressions of the Quaker testimonies. And then we got busy with the work for the next two hours, encouraging the students to give input to how to do things while also learning some basic but important skills critical to effective service (being able to measure, saw, connect). It all went as planned.

But it was what was not planned where some of the real learning happened, as evidenced by the comments above. Few of these were on our list of "learning objectives", but each probably has a deeper imprint and, therefore, longer staying power, because of how it came about: organically, through conversation and curiosity, as way opens, experientially. Many of the points came up as we were working together; others came up in conversations about the various posters and artwork hanging around the house.

This is what I find so wonderful about William Penn Quaker Workcamps: it is not the big things, the meeting with power and tackling the big issues. It is simply creating spaces for these "conversations that matter" to take place, always with a vision of coming together to make the world a better place. It is not what we teach, but that we create opportunities to engage, enquire, question and learn, that matter. It is exciting to see the seeds of this take place with 4th graders. It gives hope for the future, and excitement to see what takes root and grows.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Outside the Gates": Why Diversity won't come from within

I am currently reading "Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book", a collection of writings edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani. I know both these women through Wheaton College connections, and find their work inspiring as they reflect the growing convergence of deep faith and social liberalism.

One of the chapters, "Running from 'Healing' to Healing" by Dr. Calenthia Dowdy, is a reflection on Mark 11:17: "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." Dr. Dowdy writes about her experiences with churches and that she often found more affirmations for her talents and calling in transracial/cross-cultural ministry outside the church. She writes about how churches "loved having me in their congregation, but their objective was to change me - to heal me?- instead of recognizing that we could transform each other in community with one another." She includes a quote from Orlando Costas: "Salvation lies outside the gates of cultural, ideological, political, and socio-economical walls that surround our religious compound and shape the structures of Christendom. It is not a ticket to a privileged spot in God's universe, but rather a freedom for service." She concludes with "We are whole when we are outside the church gate, face-to-face and shoulder to shoulder with the grit and grime of a diverse humanity that, like us, is in need of Christ's healing."

As I move in Quaker circles, I often hear about desires in Friends Meetings and organizations to become more diverse. Dr. Dowdy's writing, for me, affirms that this work is not likely to happen when we-self-segregate in our congregations but out in the world. If we gloss over the word "Christ" in Dowdy's writings (at least those for whom the word does not resonate), and replace the word "Christendom" with "Quakerdom", what pearls of wisdom can Friends take from this that may help us understand why we lack diversity on our benches and pews?

Last fall, I wrote about an experience where I also felt like running - and in fact did run - from a Quaker gathering where diversity and racism was much a topic of discussion but not much of a reality among the gathered (see a blogpost about that here). It might behoove many Friends who are serious about becoming more a part of a fabric of diversity to move away from called meetings that talk about this and instead go out in the name of fellowship and service. At William Penn House, we welcome you to join us almost any day of the week with an opportunity to do this, or perhaps take a break from your Meeting for Worship and congregate with others. Sit with the discomfort of how you choose where you go, and how much race, color, politics and theology influence your decision-making. Mix it up a bit. Become a part of the healing. Isn't that a gift of Quakerism that can only take place when we venture out as Dowdy calls, "face-to-face and shoulder to shoulder with the grit and grime of a diverse humanity"? It's not going to come to us, but it is there for all to embrace.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How does Quakerism influence Hearts and Minds?

It is fairly well-known the political stances of Quakers - especially the liberal, unprogrammed branch - on issues such as energy, the environment, military engagement, and equality. Lobbying on these issues takes up a significant part of Quaker resources - financial as well as human. But how well do we influence people's thinking? I don't mean how much do we influence politics, but how much do we influence the minds of the community that, ultimately, could have greater impact?

I have often wondered how do we go about "expanding the choir", and an article I read this morning has had me thinking more. The article in question points out that big business, despite the obscene amounts of money it pours into lobbying, spends multiple times more into marketing, advertising and public relations not on its products but on the issues. It's why we see warm and fuzzy ads for natural gas and it's why we see Walmart as a sponsor of NPR programs. They are strategically influencing minds - literally infiltrating and altering the way people think that will ultimately influence how they act and vote.

But what do Friends do to counteract this, and why should we do it? Unlike big business, we do not have as clear an end game such as increased sales and profits. Big business is so good at this game that they can influence people to act against their own well-being and better judgment, something we are all susceptible to everytime our materials does not match our politics. But we do have some fairly clear goals and objectives - a more just world, a cleaner environment, greater diversity. In almost any Quaker circle you step in, one if not all of these will fairly quickly emerge, and you will also fairly quickly get connected to the work of AFSC and/or FCNL as the outlet for these. The question remains, for me, however: "What influences are we having on our neighbors, especially those who are not of 'like-mind?'"

As we start to gear up for another election-cycle, and coming off the heels of a troubling last cycle (where, like business, politicians were effective in getting people to keep them in power despite the fact that less than 20% of voters are happy with what we have), perhaps Friends should consider at least adding to the repertoire of how we seek to make an imprint on things, if not directly influence them. Rather than gobbling up candidate signs and bumper stickers, or having more called meetings where we self-segregate and consider what to do, or putting more "War is not the Answer" signs on our lawns and care, we should practice in the art of fellowship where we listen to others with open hearts, challenging our own comforts and assumptions. This does not mean we drop all the other stuff we do, but perhaps that we take time to do something different for a week or two and then see if new possibilities and new allies emerge. It's really about using Quaker process in new arenas, which also means that we would not be telling others how we are led by spirit, but how simply listening for spirit can influence all of us. This is how we are approaching the upcoming Quaker Workcamp season. We invite others to join us and perhaps reallocate how and where they spend precious human capital, and see if, as we have found, this experience re-news faith and hope and re-energizes us for the work to be done.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Musings on Religion, gay rights, HIV and systemic change

I was recently having a conversation with an ethics and communications professor from a Christian college. We had been informal colleagues about a decade ago, and developed deep admiration for each other despite some differences of opinions and beliefs about gay rights. What I always admired about Ken was that he never shut down conversations. He had me speak to his classes a few times about HIV and gay rights, always being honest about his beliefs but really encouraging others to find their own way and connecting back to their own beliefs and values. It was working with people like Ken that deepened my own sense of Quakerism and the belief that there really is that of God in all. 

As we were catching up, Ken was sharing with me his university’s current healthy challenges to try and be a presence for students of the 21st century – not just who are more open to the lesbian/gay community (I’m not sure where they are with regards to the transgender community), but also with a generation that has different sexual morality than 20 years ago – while staying true to the university’s Biblical teachings. He stated it is a good healthy discussion, but not easy as people have deeply held beliefs and ideologies, and there are also many hurts both from the past and the present that people would like to help heal.

Then we turned to my current work, especially as it relates to HIV since that was what brought us together. I told him about my on-going efforts to bring about change as best I can with the HIV/AIDS system in the era of self-testing. I related recent experiences of finally getting a prevention planning group I am a part of to talk about self-testing, and about the institutional rigidity to not acknowledge that self-testing is out there (as evidenced by the fact that few HIV organizations tell their clients about it in person or on websites despite the fact that they are readily available and 1.5 million have been sold).

Ken shook his head and said he doesn’t understand what the big deal is and what all the resistance is about.  I reflected that I suspect some of it is not that dissimilar from what he was relating with regards to the university; that there is an ideological belief about HIV testing that is deep, at one point was THE only way to engage in testing, and is not used to being questioned. This is a collectively-held belief that has been culturally indoctrinated throughout the world as evidenced by the fact that, when I post articles and opinions about HIV and self-testing that challenge the status quo, the push-backs are always the same from all over the world. While sincere, many of these push-backs (people need counseling, linkage-to-care, people will hurt themselves) are not backed up by facts. They are beliefs that are firmly held, have not been questioned or challenged until now, and do not easily adapt to modern times where testing can be done more democratically.

This has made me a bit more aware of how we can so easily embrace an ideology that we don’t even see it. When we don’t take time to appreciate the struggle to change to meet the times, and think people should just “get over it”, we do a great disservice. But when we can stay committed to each other with deep respect as we struggle to change, we will all benefit. Whether it has to do with religious beliefs and gay rights, or self-testing for HIV, the work is the same.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reflections on Friends and Diversity

This past week, I was at a gathering of Friends. One of the energized topics was "diversity." Truth be told, I cringe when I hear this topic come up. I have usually heard it talked about while sitting with an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, well-meaning group in some kind of a conference or symposium setting. Too often, the emphasis seems to be on external characteristics (skin color), while ignoring long-standing power and economic factors that make this a more complex issue. This was no different. As seems to be the pattern, there was some hand-wringing, self-effacing acknowledgment of work to be done, and recognition that it is a tough topic to talk about, let alone act on.

Then, this morning, I attended service at an Evangelical church. I went as I was in the neighborhood, and felt led there rather than Quaker Meeting as I had just spent a few days with Friends and wanted a change of pace. To be clear, there is much of the message of this church about salvation, baptism and true believers "need to do all of this" that I struggle with, let alone the fact that the most vocal, well-funded and powerful people working to deny my rights as a gay man share this ideology. But I also know some of this church community through my work and fellowship in DC, find them very welcoming and inspiring, and I have a deep respect for other parts of their message, their work, their witness and their faith.

As I sat in the church waiting for the service to start, I noticed people of many cultures - black, white, Asian, Hispanic - coming in as individuals and couples. Up front, there was a group of people communicating through sign language. People came from a real cross-section of cultures and economies. If there was one noticeable lacking of diversity, it was age. Most people were in their 20's and 30's - a stark difference from most Quaker gatherings.  The main message of the morning was about having faith transcend fear so that we go out into the world truly living our faith. "Peace" was an integral part of that message.

So I have to ask myself: "What is going on here." Quakers have a long history of being on the forefront of the rights movements from abolition to civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights. That is certainly our past, but it clearly is not our present. Just look at HIV/AIDS. There was a time that Friends were actively involved, but as the devastation moved from the ostensibly white gay male into the African-American community, Friends efforts subsided. What happened to the passion for justice for all?

We can not simply rest on the past and continue to consider ourselves "progressives." When it comes to race, we might take comfort that we are progressives because we do not have prejudice in our hearts, but our actions do not match our words. I suspect some may think we are progressives because we are not the blatant racists, and we see no one ahead of us. This is probably because true progressives are so far ahead they are getting read to lap us, but we choose to think they are still behind us.

The question is: can our faith steel us to transcend our fear, step through our walls of segregation and get out into the community? Our stances on political issues can no longer be the barometer of our "progressiveness." We need to get out there, letting our belief that there is that of God in All guide us to new places, new relationships and new friendships. Talking about diversity in closed-community meetings is not going to get it done, and it's not living our faith.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"To Love and Hate Life at the Same Time"

I attended a Meeting for Worship recently at a Quaker school. The first message was given by a youth facing a serious, life-threatening medical condition. His message was powerful, but laced with humor as well. The more serious part of the message was what to do with the question of what it is like to live with a life-threatening condition. In his wisdom, he stated that it is not easy to understand this experience unless one has faced death him/herself - "to love and hate life at the same time."

For the rest of the Meeting and the rest of the day, that term "to love and hate life at the same time" flowed through me almost like fresh air. Since being told more than 20 years ago that I had perhaps 5 years to live and have greatly exceeded that expectation, my own journey has included explorations of mortality, life, soul, death and perhaps most importantly, fear of death. I have read and written much about these from academic, spiritual and experiential vantage points. I have seen lengthy theories and essays on the topic. But never have I heard it put so succinctly: "to love and hate life at the same time."

I think many of us walk around with lots of love and lots of fear which can come across as being in the vicinity of hate. People who preach against gay rights, for example, are often labeled as "haters" even though they could very well be fueled by love for their Bible, their faith and their fear that if they don't do what they can to bring rightness to the world, they too will suffer the consequences. Then we, in turn, perhaps channel some of our own hatred to them for other reasons. The point is that we spend a lot of time compartmentalizing the ways we objectify "love" and "hate" to somehow create a buffer zone of safety from dealing with the complexity of both of these emotions. Facing death, as this young man so clearly articulated, does not allow for us to compartmentalize; we are forced to confront how much we love life and how much we hate knowing that it will all come to an end someday, no matter what our circumstances are.

One of the Quaker testimonies is "Simplicity." For issues as complex as life and death, I don't know that there could be a more simple message to sum it up than to understand that our human condition is one where we have to learn to love and hate life at the same time. Trying to keep them separate only creates internal and external conditions. When we see that we can actually do both, perhaps we will all be better no matter what comes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Quaker Workcamps: After 4 days, change really does happen.

I started participating in Quaker Workcamps about four years ago. I noticed a pattern after having experienced multi-day Workcamps: sometime around the 4th day, something shifted. It has been hard to clearly articulate it, other than to say that the group came together, shifting from being individuals to becoming a community. This was true regardless of location. It wasn't just that we became a community, but the relationships that developed during Workcamps have lasted. Strong bonds have been formed. Previous posts on this site have reflected on this (such as here and here).

Last week, I was taking a class titled "The Whole Brain Child." The instructor, Dr. Tina Bryson, commented on the first day that she is a big fan of week-long summer camps because they give youth an opportunity to open up new neural pathways in the brain, bringing balance and integration to the various parts of the brain, and to form new attachments. She commented that the research shows that all of these things happen within a relatively short period of time - a few days. For the class purposes, we were looking at the implications of this when working in clinical settings with youth and adults for whom neural integration and attachment are not healthy and balanced. For me, there was the added "ah hah!" that this is what I have seen happen on Workcamps.

All of this helps me better understand what it is that happens around that fourth day. As we become more comfortable and familiar with each other and our new surroundings, our brain moves up from the heightened "on alert" state (the amygdala) that is engaged when we are in new situations. Then the real magic happens. Through a series of activities, down time, play time, mindfulness and reflection, various parts of the left and right brain are stimulated as we have week-long conversations about service, social justice, and community. Brain integration takes place. Neural pathways are opened, and new attachments are formed.  The exciting thing is that Dr. Bryson's work and the work of others cited in the class show that these can have lasting positive impact on the mental and physical health of people.

The implications for this are fantastic. To start, there is the issue of how, when we segregate ourselves to be among "like-minded" people, we are likely to be hardening neural pathways that don't allow us to easily see the truths of others or fully engage in life in healthy ways.  For Friends, I see this as a challenge we need to address. If we are to truly believe that there is that of God in All, but we tend to be fairly partisan in our social actions while spending time among like-minded people, our brain does not stay open and integrated, and the emotional amygdala gets activated when we hear discord, leading to a shut-down of higher level thinking. So what we need to do is to more actively engage in experiences that allow us to work through this.

This is where Quaker Workcamps come in - especially the multi-day Workcamps as we run them at William Penn House. We consciously take time to be with people that are on the surface different from us, but do so from a place of equality rather than service (where roles are defined between server and the served). We overcome anxieties by going places we are told are unsafe, and experientially see that things are not as we have been told. This is where the integration starts, and continues as we play, work, reflect, converse, eat and sleep. And then there is the time factor. We take time for these processes to take root and new, lasting relationships to be formed. We do all of this as we look at issues of social, economic and environmental justice.  The next step, as we have started more this year, is to have participants of these programs take on leadership roles - furthering the process of healthy integration and attachment.

None of this is the full explanation of what happens. It does not exclude the possibility that higher powers are at play. It simply brings empirical evidence to validate what we have seen anecdotally and intuitively. But that is huge in our world of skepticism and proven outcomes.  It validates the role that Quaker Workcamps can play in our spiritual formation, outreach, community building and peace/justice work. Most importantly, as we support creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and community, new ideas and actions for a more just peaceful world can emerge. They might not be exactly what we envisioned, but just like when the brain has all aspects engaged utilizing what they do best, the more we can be engaged with others despite our differences, the better off we all will be.