Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A New Kind of Quaker

This last weekend I traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina for "A New Kind of Quaker." Most of those gathered there were young adult Friends from the eastern part of the country. We were joined though be a good number of older Friends who were interested inter-generational conversation. The conference was very short, taking up only Friday night and Saturday till dinner time and consisted mostly of workshops and a little bit of open worship. Many of us however extended our time there by visiting F(f)riends on Thursday and Friday and hearing Nathan Sebens preach at First Friends on Sunday. For me, those extended times of fellowship were during meals, before bed and during car rides were some of the weekend's best moments.

I spent Thursday and then later Sunday night at Pickard's Mountain, an organic teaching farm, where several YAFs work and live. It was exciting to see Friends living out the testimonies of simplicity and peace as they live off the grid in yomes (a mix between a yurt and a geodesic dome) and raise a portion of the food they eat. I realized that here at the William Penn House I have grown use to the noise of passing traffic and the lights of the city. At the farm the full moon lit up our surroundings and we could see the stars and we played a board game by the light of candles. On Friday morning we worshiped together outside in the garden next to the goats. Often in the city I get disconnected from nature, but at the farm I was always in and apart of it.

The conference itself began with a talk by Betsy Blake, a time of small group worship sharing and finally open worship together. I found myself, in the silence after Betsy shared, longing to stay in worship together, instead of break up into small groups. I felt like I should stand up and offer this to Friends, but was scared. Scared of appearing rude, scared of changing the schedule, and so I didn't. Now looking back on it, I regret not being more faithful to the leading of the Spirit. As Friends, are we not supposed to be open to where God is leading us in the moment? And yet I thought that asking for the schedule to be changed would be stepping on others toes.

Much of the weekend felt this way to me, rushing from one thing to the next. The question that many Friends seem to have came with to this weekend was "What is God calling us to?" There were many workshops that talked this issue up and down. I represented Evangelical Friends on a inter-branch panel and spoke about what I saw in the future of my own branch. During the day and a half I poured out to others, talking about my own spiritual journey and trying to feel out what this "new kind of Quaker" will be. But I felt like we had little time to listen to where the Spirit is calling us, to lay down what we expect God to do and just let Him lead us. Many of us spoke of a desire for renewal and rebirth, to commit radically to our faith. I long for that, deeply. But often my yearning gets in the way of allowing God to possibly call me to something completely different than anything I can imagine. How can I get past my own impatience for God to move so that God can really move?

This being said, I did have deep and productive conversations with others at the conference. I enjoyed the experience of sharing deeply with others and finding common ground. That kind of connection is invaluable as we try to together discern the way forward. I met new people who I value as part of my spiritual community and I learned to appreciate old friends in new ways. I am particularly grateful to those who showed us out-of-towners hospitality during our stay by providing us a couch to sleep on and welcoming us at meeting on Sunday morning. The community, love and joy among us was where the Spirit was this weekend. That was where I saw transformation.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The liberal Moral Majority

Earlier this week, John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, worte about a student in the 8th grade in Oak Park, IL, a town I lived in for a few years in the late 1990's. This student, in order to test the open-mindedness of her school, alternated between wearing a "McCain" t-shirt and an "Obama" t-shirt at school. What she found, and the treatment she received, is somewhat disturbing. You can see the original column here:,0,2881384.column.

There is a follow-up column with reader comments here:,0,3405674.column.

When I lived in Oak Park, there was a lively discussion about offering same gender benefits. This was on the ballot, and was a pretty hot issue. Oak Park is considered a very liberal town, but I found that actually there was a fair amount of resistance to same gender rights. Now, with the Kass article, it seems pretty clear that even though Oak Park is somewhat liberal, it is not necessarily open-minded.

All of this rang so true to me. I recently attended the Friends General Conference Central Committee's annual gathering. While there was variance on the role of God and Jesus in the faith, there was unanimity on Obama. While I am an Obama supporter, I was looking for a way to get a McCain pin to wear just to see how much we Friends can walk our walk that "there is that of God in all people".

The lesson for me in all of this is we have to be careful not to have our politics be our faith. It leads to a hypocricy, and can clearly lead us to a place where being liberal does not mean being open-minded. In fact, my experience over the past 10 years of working with conservatives and liberals is that liberals can be more challenging. The reason is not that I do not agree with liberals, because the fact is that I do for the most part. Liberals are more challenging because of the self-proclaimed "open-minded" that really seems to be only as long as others agree with them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The challenge of prevention

Recently at the William Penn House, we held a workcamp for two Quaker schools - one is a prep/boarding school, the other an alternative high school. One of our reasons for this work is to promote the idea that when we can identify common threads among us we can build community partnerships and friendships to help make the world a better, more peaceful place while working together for the common good. With these two groups, "Quakerism" was the common thread, but what emerged was another common thread which really is a common challenge to our society, perhaps even our species, as we face challenging times. Briefly, what emerged after the groups participated in three very different kinds of service work, was that when the work had no immediate gratification, the students not only did not enjoy the work, but even questioned the validity of the work. In this case, it was pulling invasive plants from the banks of a water tributary (note that there is a difference between weeds and invasive plants; weeds can be natural to an environment whereas invasive plants are brought in by humans, and often can completely kill the eco-system by choking everything else out). Despite the fact that environmentalists everywhere are calling for this kind of work, the kids were skeptical. I have seen the same mechanism in operation with HIV/AIDS work. People are more than kind, caring and generous when someone is suffering, but often when you ask these same people to get tested for HIV, the answer is "no", despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control is encouraging this, and the fact that the only we will really stop the spread of HIV is when everyone is diagnosed - not as having HIV, but as confirming their own status as "positive" or "negative" (plus, doing this helps to change the stigma of who "should" get tested, and becomes an opportunity for education). I have often talked about this work as "transformative" vs. "transactional", and perhaps another way to look at it is when we get the immediate gratification of our work, both giver and receiver may be better at least in the short term, but when the gratification is not so clear, we are all better off in the long term. And here's the real kicker: often with immediate gratification, we need someone to be suffering, only a few can respond and it often takes resources. With the other kind of actions, all people can do things (get tested, pick up litter, remove invasive plants), we are trying to prevent harm and suffering, and it costs little to nothing. How can we learn to really value this and transform our society?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Helping Our Neighbors

Back in September, a chaperone for a upcoming trip I am leading to New Orleans sent me an article from the Washington Post

The article is about how two people from Washington DC moved to New Orleans to help out the victims of Katrina. The article was very inspiring, especially since I try to do similar things in my work in DC. (Note: My comments here are not meant to negate any of the great work they are doing in New Orleans.)

After a couple days of thinking about the article, I found myself asking, "Why did they have to move a thousand miles to do this kind of work?" I felt led to write an editorial to the Washington Post, which was never published, probably because it was several days afterwards.

Here is the letter:

Dear Editor,

I enjoyed reading the article about the St. Bernard Project. I am really inspired by Liz's and Zach's work.

At the same time, a similar need for help exists here less than two miles from their former residence. DC has the highest rates of AIDS in the country, is home to the largest homeless shelter in the country, and 1 in 2 children are at risk for hunger. I have been in houses that
are in bad shape with leaky roofs and holes in the walls that let in cold air.

As we go out to help in other parts of the country, lets not forget about helping our fellow neighbors down the street.


Greg Woods

In the last month and half of thinking about this article, I have finally gained insight into what my real problems with this article.

First it is a common narrative. White people move into a depressed area and save the day! Recently I have been reading books like Three Cups of Tea and Mountains Beyond Mountains that have this same narrative. In New Orleans I have met native New Orleanians who are
doing amazing work down there as well.

The other problem I see has to deal with guilt and silence. When we go to another area, like Zimbabwe or New Orleans to help, we are then only part of the solution, but if we work in an area where we have been living for a while, we have to face the fact that we have been
part of the problem too. At the very least, we have been silent about the problem for a while. Before we start fixing a problem in our community we have to deal with our guilt and overcome that before we can be effective. Here in DC, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Also if we are only part of the solution, we don't know the history of the situation, so sometimes we can do more harm than good.

When I have groups coming to Washington DC, I try to take the group to the Holocaust Museum to connect the parallels between then and now.

One critical parallel is the role of silence. In Germany, people saw their Jewish, disabled, trade unionist, etc neighbors being taken away and most of them stayed silent as this was happening.

Here I see the silence in our neighborhoods, when one neighbor is struggling, the neighborhood is often silent. With one of the people I work with, her house is obviously in disrepair next to houses in pretty good condition. The difference is very visible in the back of the house, where most of the other residents park their cars. Looking at the back of her house next to the backs of her neighbors' houses, the contrast is immediately apparent. When I first came, trash was pile up in the backyard. Her back door needs work and she is missing some siding from above the back door. Until recently her backyard was full of tall weeds.

One day, while I was cleaning up from a workcamp that day, one of her neighbors told me, "Thank you for helping her! She really needs it!" I thanked him for his compliment. Later as I was thinking about this interaction, I should have responded, "Why didn't you help?"

Before a group leaves, I try to ask, "What will you do when you go home to help your community?" So I pose this question to the readers, "What will you do to help your community?"

I think this question need to be asked more .

Friday, November 7, 2008

Sustaining our Spirit Led Service

On the weekend of October 3 through 5, eighteen young adult Friends, including myself, who currently are working for Quaker organizations gathered with us at the William Penn House for “Sustaining Our Spirit Led Service: A Consultation for Young Adult Quaker Professionals.” Cosponsored and planned with Sadie at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the weekend was a time for YAFs to share their experiences, develop new skills and be encouraged in their work. The William Penn House donated lodging for any of the participants who chose to spend the weekend at the house. The young adults were joined by four seasoned resource people with experience working for Quaker organizations to help facilitate discussions. Participants included employees from twelve Quaker organizations from the East Coast and Midwest.

On Friday night Mary Lord, former American Friends Service Committee Assistant General Secretary for Peace Building, spoke to us about what the title of the weekend meant and her own experience working for a variety of Quaker groups. Saturday began with worship and was full of small group discussions and workshops. We then had the evening free to explore DC, with many in the group going to dinner together. Sunday morning consisted of worship at the William Penn House with local Friends and then a closing discussion of the weekend, including what else would be helpful for young adults who work for Quaker organizations.

Topics discussed over the weekend included how YAFs working for Quaker organizations can be spiritually nurtured and included in the faith community they also serve, how to be effective in a workplace where many coworkers are not Quaker and what Quaker service looks like. The weekend was also a great chance of young adult Friends to connect with others with similar jobs, goals and callings.

I was so happy to have this opportunity to host YAFs here at the house. For me, it was a time of renewal and encouragement. I was able to step back from my job for a weekend and reflect on what my gifts and call are. I had a moment of clarity, thanks to a question asked by Mary Lord, that the thing that I find meaning in is bringing people together for the opportunity to become more whole and complete children of God. I am thankful that many other young adults at the weekend had renewing moments like this.