Monday, April 20, 2015

"It's so simple"...

As spring unfolds, at William Penn House we are in the midst of connecting with the community in a new way for us. Over the past few years, starting with gleaning and then community gardens, we have connected with the urban garden movement. As with any good movement, there needs to be a strong grassroots component that is actively engaged, not simply following the call from outsiders, but transforming things from within and the ground up.  Thanks to the leadership of some of our community partners and friends, and seeing the gaps, installing raised garden beds in yards and homes throughout DC is the focus of much of the work we are engaged in this summer, utilizing Quaker Workcamp groups, volunteers and staff.

After a winter and early spring of prep work (building a space for growing seedlings of primarily collard greens and kale, pre-cutting wood for boxes and beds), last week we started going out into the community. Saturday, April 18, as hundreds of thousands trashed the National Mall  while "honoring" Earth Day, a group of 20 people joined us less than 5 miles east to slowly scale-up this fledgling garden program. It was an invaluable experience as we were able to work out some of the kinks while getting the work and word out. As our community partner RonDell Pooler said, the vision is to create a food hub in what is now a food desert; this includes the expanding community gardens under RonDell's purview and now the garden beds going into people's yards.

"It's so simple" reflected one of the participants who joined us from a church in Altoona, PA. While the work to be done is not that simple in terms of economic justice and environmental stewardship, and this work alone won't get it done, it is this kind of work that is necessary to getting it done. This kind of work is really an expression of the Quaker testimony of Simplicity. It is about simple acts (building gardens) can help build bridges between issues (such as nutrition) while building bridges of relationships. As RonDell said, it is this kind of work that can turn food deserts to food hubs, while helping overcome barriers of separation and at the same time developing opportunities (such as green job training) for sustainability.

Outside a local Friends Meeting, there is a sign asking "How does your life help to remove the causes of War?" I personally think that the focus on "war" can create blindspots to all the causes of violence of which war is merely a part of the spectrum, but I also think that this is the kind of question seasoned pacifists should be able to readily have a list of regularly-engaged actions. For me, this garden project is on that list: it's a simple act that, while addressing hunger and environment, helps to build bridges of healing, compassion and sustainability in a severely fragmented community.  Will it end wars? Probably not. Will it help us on that track? The more we can engage folks, the more likely we can say "yes."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"A Moral Call to Act" includes looking at our actions

When I first walked in the door, there was a one-slice pizza box by the front door with a piece of pizza in it. Walking further into the building, there was the expected huge pile of sheets and towels in the hall from the departing guests. There were also garbage cans filled with empty plastic water bottles, and a few stray conference give-away bags, one with full soda cans and a piece of fruit, the other with garbage, sitting on the floor. Upstairs in the guest rooms, there was more of the same, plus the half-drunk mountain dew under one bed and an apple core under another (despite guidelines of no food in the rooms). Lots of bits of garbage all over the place. Among the garbage was left-over training material for the lobbying that was about to take place. The title struck me: "A Moral Call to Act on Climate Change."

What's wrong with this picture? First of all, the consumption of vast amounts of packaged products that negatively impact climate change both in the production and disposal process. Second, this is an all-too-common phenomenon that I have seen in the lobby/advocacy/service world. Groups get hyper-focused on a target - whether it is a service project or a lobbying issue - but somehow miss the message that integrity also matters. I remember clearly, when I was more involved in HIV/AIDS work, a lobby training where we were specifically given a script and instructed not to mention any concerns about how funding was used. Then, during breaks, a substantial number of the "lobbyists" - many of whom were "consumers" of services (meaning, people living with HIV) would go on smoking breaks, and night times were filled with partying. I am not judging this, but did and still do think that it is perfectly okay to ask people who are dependent on services to perhaps try to live a bit healthier as well. It's not a demand or a requirement, but we can give voice to it. It's called "integrity". Likewise, when groups come to lobby for a better world but leave the place they have stayed in worse shape, is this not really just blame - expecting others to fix a problem that we keep creating? When we lead Quaker Workcamps to New Orleans or West Virginia, to what extent do we do the same every time we use disposable plastic?

When we use terms like "moral call", I think it is important that we do what we can to make sure the action starts with us. When we advocate and lobby for change, that is political. What we do - where we eat, what we buy, how we leave the place - is our consumption. The world is a better place when our consumerism is more closely aligned with our politics. We will never be perfect, but when we remain as disconnected or even more disconnected, and miss opportunities to practice what we preach, aren't we really just a part of the problem?

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 ( 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.