Monday, February 23, 2015

Taxes, Lodging, Faith and Service: a deeper look at the work of William Penn House

Thanks to the wonderful world of 21st century social networking, many people now know of some of the challenges that face William Penn House, specifically the possible revoking of our property tax exemption. Just to clarify, this does not effect our sales tax exemption or our status with regards to accepting donations for charitable purpose. We greatly appreciate so many messages of support, and hope to harness these to influence the DC government to change this. At the same time, based on some of the comments, it seems that this is a good time to help educate the supporting community more about why we are so passionate about changing this.

For starters, while it is true that we are a 30 bed hostel, offering affordable, comfortable and safe housing is not about lodging but is embedded in Quaker values and is an express part of our mission. It is our "Ministry of Presence" in the nation's capital. It is why we talk about it is a practice of "Radical Hospitality" - all are welcome.  Lodging is just the starting point. It is what happens around the lodging where the ministry gains traction.  Here is some of what happens:
  • Young adult internships – giving young adults, most often recent college graduates, a chance to live in the heart of DC and continue personal/professional/spiritual development. While interns do have responsibilities to the hospitality, we also encourage and allow for their engagement in other pursuits and consider that their “work time”. Examples from the past include development of Quaker Camps, serving on Quaker committees and with Quaker organizations (Yearly Meetings, FGC, Pendle Hill, AFSC), and developing new Meetings and Worship Groups. We also have active representation in working to stop the spread of HIV in DC with service in the HIV Prevention Planning Group. 
  • Gap Year – providing an opportunity for high school grads who are not sure where to go next to develop independent living and work skills, as well as vocational/avocational direction. In an era where college costs are so high, we owe it to the youth to provide viable options for development.
  • William Penn Quaker Workcamps. These serve multiple purposes – education, spiritual formation, outreach, and service. This section can be a whole pamphlet, but for now just know that these are ultimately about building bridges between issues, within community, and within ourselves, paying attention to everything from Quaker testimonies to neurological development that supports more open learning and mental health. At the same time, we are committed that these are deeply embedded in the community rather than created for those who wish to serve. To do this takes time, and means we – the staff and interns – are a constant presence in the community, especially when we don’t have Workcamp groups. Integrity demands this of us, and it takes time. Our involvement in the urban and community garden movement is how this is playing out right now. And as Friends Schools continue to explore service learning and Quakerism, these Workcamps and what we learn from them are (for some) and can (for others) a vital resource. In addition, we bring back veterans to help run Workcamps, furthering their own development while expanding the values.  
  • Other regular activities such as weekly yoga classes and monthly potlucks, as well as providing meeting space for small non-profits who cannot afford larger spaces but also are doing important work. Each of these has maintenance costs.
  • While so many Friends organizations talk about diversity, racism and intergenerational work, as well as outreach and spiritual formation, these are all very much a part of the fabric of our being on a daily basis. It’s truly striving to let our lives speak. 
Income from the lodging subsidizes all of this work. The staff and interns do much of what we do because it is a passion and a calling, but each of us also has to make ends meet, as does William Penn House. We have done a lot to make sure that fees do not exclude participation in Quaker Workcamps, and this, too, is possible because of the lodging. These are our values; they flow from our faith; the outcomes are not always quantifiable, but their presence is undeniable.

So where does this leave us? The immediate challenge is the financial burden that stretches our budget, no matter what our options are. If the final decision is we have to pay taxes for the percentage of guests who are not here for service/education purposes (although that is not as easily discernible as it sounds and would add to the administrative work), we can do this moving forward; sadly, this would mean having to raise rates which, as is always the case, felt more by those with less. Having to come up with the $18k+ is the challenge.  We have talked about increasing staff/intern workloads and reducing salaries to make budget, but how sustainable is that, really? We are already fairly stretched. An influx of new funds is really crucial to keeping our options open and the programs and services vital. (As I write this, we are awaiting the arrival of the plumber to fix the hot water heater - a reminder that a 100 year-old house also has physical needs.)

Again, we thank you all for your words of support. They warm us. Your voice in DC can certainly help. More importantly, if you value a presence like William Penn House not just in DC but as a part of the Society of Friends bringing Quakerism to the world now and for the future, voices alone may not be enough. Donations to cover immediate financial needs are necessary, and, moving to greater sustainability, either organize a Workcamp, make it possible for others to join or join us yourself on either our Pine Ridge or DC Workcamp this summer, or invite us to help you with your own challenges of outreach, spiritual formation and service are other ways to help. These are what flow from our building, and what give it life beyond the lodging.  Please get in touch with Byron (Byron@williampennhouse.org) to explore more ways to get involved.
                                                                                                                               -Brad Ogilvie

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.