Friday, January 15, 2016

Fear of Tears

"I had to turn away. Otherwise, I was going to start crying."

These were the words of a recent WPQW participant who was in DC with her college for an alternative break week. We were taking time for reflection about what insights, experiences, or wisdom they had noticed from their time with us, so far. The activities included participating in Our Daily Bread (a fellowship community breakfast with people from all walks of life, including many who sleep on the streets and in shelters), garden winterization and soil prep for spring planting, and street outreach with people that are homeless.

Among the insights of other folks was the realization, garnered from their 1:1 time with people, that listening to people, simply engaging in conversation, being with people where they are, matters. In this was also the awareness of the fact that mental illness has high co-morbidity with the homeless population, but to really connect we have to have a relationship. Others had reflections that it all can seem overwhelming as we seek answers (I maintain that it is not answers that keep us moving, but the next good question), and that the real work for social justice has to continue in their daily lives, not just as an alternative vacation.

But it was the role of tears where things got real. One student spoke - somewhat apologetically - through her tears about how a homeless woman told her that she and her fellow-students reminded the woman of her own daughters. It brings it home - there are families, loved ones, and whole life stories that remain invisible. Then, there was the statement by the student about needing to turn away from all the stimulus. She said it was overwhelming. I suspect, and we talked about it, that what was overwhelming was not what was going on around her, but what was welling up inside of her, perhaps a mixture of anger, sadness, guilt, disgust, even love, and her all-too-common belief that we should not be emotional. And it is the fear of tears, the sadness, perhaps intellectualized as a sense of weakness, that we seem the most uncomfortable with, and it often leads us to want to flee.

And yet, we need to be with these emotions, fully present not just with our heads but with our hearts, embracing them, not fighting them, if we are truly to engage in the good work of trying to make the world a better place.  We can talk about statistics of poverty, mental illness, health indicators, etc., but as Emma Goldman said, "The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but after all, the most vital right is to love and be loved." To be loving means being able to laugh and cry. When we turn away from our tears when they naturally occur, we turn away from our emotions, and we turn away from being present with others. But when we let it flow, we strengthen ourselves, become more present and more whole to carry on the good work.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Friendly Reference: A Spectrum of Experiences in Campus Ministry

Over the past two years, I have had the good fortune of support from the William Penn House in creating Quaker campus ministry groups. At present, I serve as the chaplain at Georgetown University and as a “chaplain” at George Washington University both in Washington DC. As you read through my own particular experiences here, you’ll see why I put that second title in quotation marks. I’ve spoken with a number of Quakers in different yearly meetings and gatherings in my position as an employee with the William Penn House, and because campus ministry is an interest of mine I often find people saying something along the lines of:

“I really wish that someone would write about their experiences in setting these things up and why they’re important.”

This blog post is here to serve that purpose. Those of us within the Quaker tradition I’m sure have all recognized that many college campuses are places ripe for interested seekers in new religious traditions. It is always hard to approach these institutions of learning, especially if you have few personal connections within those campus communities. Even harder is reconciling the Quaker discomfort surrounding the idea of proselytizing. I won’t talk about concerns that others have raised with me because my answer is always the same. I have no interest in harassing others into joining my own religious movement, but rather I wish to provide a convenient reference for students who have never interacted with Quakers before and to provide a space for students to enjoy worship in the Quaker tradition. I am a reference first and a friend and confidant second.

I have had the lucky happenstance of living in a city that has many colleges to choose from and a large Quaker meeting that sees students exploring it as an option. In setting up both ministry programs, I sent out emails to the Friends Meeting of Washington listserv asking if any students, faculty, or administrators might have an interest in having a campus ministry group at their college. In the case of George Washington, I was lucky to find that indeed a student was interested, but sadly it took a little while for us to get connected. In that space of time, I emailed members of the administration who told me that George Washington University preferred that worship groups be students led, now you see why I put my title in quotations. I have been lucky in that the student that runs the worship there is driven, charismatic, and passionate about Quakerism. While we bounce ideas off of each other and I am there to support her, I would prefer to give her credit as she leads the group on that campus. I design fliers, show up to meeting, and develop personal relationships with people who attend our meeting, but she is really the driving force there. Georgetown is another scenario entirely.

When I sent an email to the listserv at Friends Meeting of Washington for Georgetown, a member of the campus administration replied. She helped me arrange a meeting with the chaplaincy office and after meeting with other members of the campus administration, it was determined that Georgetown was indeed interested in setting up a Quaker Chaplaincy. Because they have an official chaplaincy program, I am lucky enough to be invited to a number of campus events. Chaplains at Georgetown have a once-a-month meeting to discuss developments within the different religious communities and to share effective ways of supporting students. Georgetown has also asked that I run a scheduled weekly worship, as opposed to one with an alternating date and time. This has been helpful because the students who attend our worship know when and where it happens every week. At George Washington I was never allowed to post fliers, whereas Georgetown allows me to, something I always wanted to do so as to spare the student leader the hours of work.

When I first started, I would usually just set up a half hour long service of silent waiting worship. I found that students usually only gave messages after they had seen me give them. It didn’t particularly lend itself to growing interest or engaging students. After starting at Georgetown, I tried doing worship sharing with a query among the group of students. The query that first night was:
"Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention? Do I seek to recognize and respect the Divine in those with whom I have a basic disagreement? Do I look for ways to reaffirm in action and attitude my love for the one with whom I am in conflict? In what ways might I seek to do that?"
It really sparked some engaging discussion and allowed for us to develop a stronger bond. Mixing worship sharing and regular worship into our monthly schedule really helped, and I can only strongly recommend that it be considered for introducing new folks to Quaker process and tradition.  

Among many Yearly Meetings, there has been a growing concern over an aging membership. I feel that campus ministry is one of many opportunities presented to us for growing Quaker communities. While it is up to each individual to decide whether Quakerism is for them, it is up to us as Quakers to get out of our meeting houses and do what we can to make seeking Quakerism easier for those who might wish to explore it. If we are unable to provide easy and convenient means for others to explore what we offer, how can we expect a diverse and growing membership?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Equality, Race and Grace

I remember a few years ago on a Quaker Workcamp, we were having a conversation about the various colleges that the students on the program were considering attending. One of the young folks mentioned that he would probably go to a prestigious university because his family had a long list of graduates from that school (siblings, parents, grandparents) , even though he might not otherwise have qualified for that university. The conversation turned to the paradox of wanting to work for equality but, at the same time, being a product of and beneficiary of privilege. "Do you think I should not go to that school if I get accepted?", asked the young man. After a moment of reflection, I said that, no, you should not turn down that acceptance but to, instead, commit to trying to balance the equation when in a position of taking action. For example, I mentioned that, when buying a car, perhaps buying a slightly lower costing car, and put that extra money towards a scholarship to support someone else or, if in a position of hiring someone, rather than hiring the candidate with the best education or best suit, consider the one who journeyed the longest to get to the interview.

So as I was recently attending a church service at National Community Church, I listened to Dr. David Anderson giving a powerful sermon about "Gracism" (as the spirit-led counterbalance to "Racism" that he defines as "to think, feel, or act negatively of others because of color, class or culture"). One of his seven points to practicing gracism is "I will consider you." His example was to recognize that a car dealer may offer a better deal to a man than a woman, and we act with grace by doing what we can to correct this by sharing with you my benefits. I think it is essentially what I was trying to articulate on that Workcamp. I also think it would be a great lesson for so many of the private schools we work with - rather than shame privilege, have the conversation about how we can effectively share that privilege with those who do not have it. As Dr. Anderson has listed it, this is identified as "Having Equal Concern".

It is sermons like this that I find amazingly inspirational and challenging. Even though I hear these kinds of sermons at places like NCC, they are what lead me to Quakerism. To practice Gracism is to see that of God in all and truly live that out. Of course, as a gay man, knowing that the founder of this church has been, to put it mildly, less than affirming about gay marriage (sending out the double-message that being gay is a sin, but we are called to be loving, as if my higher purpose is to be straight, as he did on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last year), and "sexual identity and orientation" is glaringly missing in the definition of racism, I cannot go all in here. I think the silence about sexual orientation can perhaps do much harm by continuing exclude truly all people. But having said that, I know that if places like NCC want to truly practice gracism, I'm in for that, knowing that I can still let my life speak and find true joy in the relationships I have formed there, and in that, find more ways to bring that grace to what we strive to bring in our William Penn Quaker Workcamps. Sometimes, being open with the messiness (or 'living in the tension', as if often expressed) really seems to be where life happens.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mindfulness in the Garden

We recently spent about 90 minutes with ten 9th grade students from Sidwell Friends School at Wangari Gardens, cleaning out garden plots and organizing community spaces in preparation for winter. It's amazing what can get accomplished when you have multiple hands to help out.

Among the tasks was to pick kale that was still growing in abundance from one of our plots. Kale is one of the plants I have learned to appreciate since getting involved in gleaning and gardening here in DC. It's a low-maintenance plant that produces from spring through the hardest of frosts in the winter, and is also good for you.

As we wrapped up our time together, I asked the group, after a moment of silence, to reflect on an image or a memory from our time together that they can take with them, knowing that bringing intentionality to an image carries itself with us for a longer time. One of the kale pickers said that she will remember how relaxing it was to pick the kale. She was one of the students who had never picked kale, but quickly learned that you cannot mindlessly pick it (or, as I've seen noted other places, "mind full" and "mindful" are very different experiences). One has to connect with the plant, noting where the top of each stalk is, and gently taking each leaf and stem below it. It is not something that can be done while multi-tasking. It is being mindfully present with each stalk and each leaf for a brief moment.
Another student said she will take with her the image of the light reflecting around us as the sun was setting. "I don't usually get to see the sun set", she stated. It's not that the sun does not set every day; it's that we are so often busy doing other things to notice what is happening around us.

These are two simple examples and affirmations of how easy it is to experientially teach mindfulness. We had not talked about mindfulness, but these two students got it, and by taking a moment to intentionally connect with it, it starts to infiltrate their being. As good friend Janie Boyd has taught me, spending time in the garden is good for the soul. It's as simple as that.  I will get to work with many of these students once a month over the school year. I look forward to deepening this practice with them as we strive to do good in the world.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Investing and Community Economics

William Penn House has been involved in Quaker Workcamps for more than ten years and during that time we have been involved in community projects and partners with specific goals to helping develop the community we live in. From projects in local soup kitchens, to helping out neighbors install garden beds. Often times however, we find ourselves confronting economic forces. It can be discouraging to walk into a neighborhood and do a project only to find out that the homeowners have been moved out and their property is being renovated. Gentrification is a real problem that is extremely difficult to combat. Often communities are divided based on racial and class lines. If something you own which had no value at one point suddenly becomes valuable, how do you hold onto it if you have few resources yourself? Residents in Takoma Park rallied about a month ago against rent increases in an apartment complex as rents in some cases jumped a staggering 70%.

Its an indictment of our current economic system that incentivizes landowners to drive rates up with destabilizing effect and for prospective residents who are willing to pay whatever to just get a space to live. While  Residents coming in are so desperate to get a space that they don’t question who they replace or even the pricing. So concerned with consuming out of fear or out of desperation or even out of a need for self fulfillment by proving that we can, we often step over and hurt other people in our community. Consumptive economies, ours especially, are wasting resources, creating great inequalities, and is harmful to life on earth. In particular the way we easily use and discard resources has become the hallmark of our consumptive economy. From styrofoam cups, to water bottles, from fossil fuels to electronics, Americans have a problem of using something until it doesn’t meet a particular need before poorly discarding it. It’s completely ingrained our culture.  

While progress has been slow towards sustainable economies, Quakers have begun pushing wall street and the business to be more ethically conscious. After our October potluck discussion at William Penn House, we heard about Friends Fiduciary Corporation’s push to invest in morally sound companies that use ethical business practices that follow Quaker testimonies. Jeff Perkins suggested that using the power of shareholder ethics and a fear of reputational risk, Mutual Funds and shareholders might be able to motivate companies into right action through proxy votes and shareholder resolutions. He told us that there was a time when Wells Fargo engaged in predatory lending practices and after Friends Fiduciary brought the matter to a shareholder meeting through a shareholder resolution, other shareholders felt that the reputational risk was to great to continue those practices and the shareholders voted against providing predatory loans. Having a stake in a company keeps

At that point a local consultant from green eagle consulting sat and talked about a number of great efforts to help the DC community such as micro-lending and smaller investment groups one could support. After the talk, I went and spoke with the individual and asked him, “is there any particular way in which people are combating gentrification at an investor or economic level?” to which the he answered “not that I know of”. So what has been the current recourse for residents facing the loss of their homes to high rents and property taxes? According to Curbed, in Takoma Park, residents have protested and have told authorities about the raising rates, but so far they have seen little success. So what is an organization like ours supposed to do? Follow the words of George Fox by “walking cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”, which requires us to remain active in our community.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Faith in the Process is more important than the Outcome"?

Keith Barrett X with his wife, Veronica
and kids Prophetshabazz Muhammad,
Jesus, Goddess, and Chief, saying
"One God" for the camera.
As I sat in Meeting for Worship on a spectacular fall day, I listened to a few messages enamored with Quaker process. These messages included that decisions made without Quaker process were not as significant as those done through process and, from one message, faith in the process is more important than the outcomes. Sitting among a 100% white congregation on the day between the Million Man March and Columbus Day, two events that are stark reminders of enslavement, suppression and discrimination, I wondered about these messages. I sometimes think that Friends can be too enamored with the process, especially as it is so often practiced among "like-minded" people. I think that the gift of Quaker process is when it is practiced out in the world, among people of very different opinions, beliefs, cultures and priorities. This is when true peace happens. And this is also when faith in another Quaker sentiment is vital: going "as Way opens".

Keith with Prophetshabazz
It was with all this rattling around in my brain that I walked into William Penn House the next day with a sense that the weekend had been a bit chaotic. Some of the chaos was because a family from Montana was sent to us on Saturday by a local TV reporter with an understanding that a local church was going to cover their lodging fees. As I started to try and make the connections between the various parts of this story, I met a remarkable family. Keith Barrett X and his wife, Veronica Lynn Illig-Barrett X, had journeyed 60 hours from the Flathead Reservation in Montana to be a part of the Million Man March. Keith told me that he was unable to attend the first one 20 years ago because he was in prison, but pledged to make the next one. Despite the economics, he made it with a bit of faith in the goodness of people - going "As Way Opens". Keith shared with me his story - growing up in Beaver Falls, PA, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the son of a man in the music industry (who worked with the likes of Barry White). At 18, breaking out on his own, he moved to Washington State. He bounced around between WA and AZ until 11 years ago when he met his wife. Keith is part Blackfoot, and his wife is Flathead, so with this lineage, they made their way to Montana.
Barrett X's garden

As Keith and I talked, he spoke of his belief that good people and oppressors come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and his stay at William Penn House was an opportunity to show that to his kids. He shared that he is a member of the Nation of Islam, but believes in one God that loves all of us. He showed me pictures of the 1/2 acre community garden he put in this spring, and had his 5 year-old son tell me about the lettuce, cabbage, onions, corn and tomatoes they are growing. It was an energizing connection.

Will we actually get the fees to cover this family's lodging? We don't know yet. Is this a vital part of continuing our missional presence in the Nation's Capital? Absolutely! Do we have the means to cover this ourselves (although a special thanks does go to Sam Ford from ABC7 News for covering a portion of this)? Not yet. My deepest faith is that way will open for us to continue to do this. It was not Quaker process that brought all this together, but Quaker faith.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Prayers for, prayers with, and just praying

"Is it ok if we ask the people we are serving to pray for them?" asked the man on the other end of the line. I had been contacted to set up some service opportunities for people coming to DC on church missions on behalf of his Christian service organization. I paused. In that pause, he asked "do Quakers not do this?" I answered that my silence was not so much about the "prayer", but the "for". It was something I had not ever articulated, but had been struggling with. To pray for people based on assumptions of need because of a perceived condition, even though we did not know them (yet), did not sit easily with me. What I said was that I think it would be great to ask people to join them in prayer, but with an openness that we are praying together, and be open that the person may not want to do this.

The other day, as Pope Francis made his rounds in DC, two things struck me: As he met with John Boehner, he asked Boehner to pray for him. Boehner was floored by the gesture. Usually, in Boehner's view, a person asked the Pope for prayers. (It was with some interest that Boehner resigned the next day). Moments later, the Pope was out on the Capitol porch, asking all people for their prayers, but "if there are among you those who do not believe or cannot pray to send good wishes my way." What a statement of humility.

Over the past year, I have been an infrequent attender of The Theater Church (National Community Church), a non-denominational "rock-n-roll" church. I struggle with some of their theological message, especially when sentiments of "my God will beat your God" or "therefore, you must proclaim Jesus as your savior" show up, usually in the songs. But many of the folks I have met from this church inspire me with their actions. When I was recovering from surgery in 2014, I got calls from some of them and knew they were praying for me. But when I am with any of them, I revel in the opportunity to pray with them - it gives me hope and energy.  And as I listen to the words, I am mindful that, when I was laid low, they did not pray for me, but they prayed that I be comforted through the journey.

Quakers use the term "hold in the Light" often in a way that means the same thing, at least to me, as "say prayers for...".  When someone is clearly ailing to the point that their life circumstances are altered, such as through illness, I get it, although as someone who has been on the receiving end of these prayers, I have been uncomfortable with it. I sometimes think it would be better to pray for strength to make the world a better place, rather than for my recovery. But, more to the point, when we gather in the name of service and/or fellowship, I love the idea of taking time to pray/hold in the light/be thankful with folks. I think it comes from a place of equality - that we are all in this together, rather than suggesting that one has greater "prayer authority" over another.  Furthermore, when we might pray for the betterment of the conditions in which someone lives that are the results of generations of suppression, exploitation and genocide, might we not want to actually pray for forgiveness for living off the fruits of such actions?

These are not easy things, but I suspect that prayers/holding in the light is not meant to be easy. Increasingly, I think praying "for" is too easy, but to be in prayer - and fellowship - with people is really what it's all about.  These things should not be just about providing comfort to the discomforted, but to discomfort the comfortable. May our prayers, holding in the light, or good wishes then be about having the strength to carry on in the face of the hard work to be done.