Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Recent Identity Crisis

While I was traveling in Mexico earlier this month, I lost my wallet. For the first few hours, I was devastated and angry with myself for not putting my wallet in my front pants pocket. My wallet contained about 700 pesos (around $55 US), credit cards, drivers license, ATM card, and health insurance cards. Luckily I had just put my passport and 1000 pesos in my money belt and I was traveling with a friend who spotted me money during the rest of the trip.

For a moment, I felt like I lost everything that said who I was, except for my passport. But after a short time, I developed a clearer thinking pattern and was able to cancel my credit cards and my ATM card. It seems amazing that the smallest object I was carrying on the trip, was the most head-aching thing to replace. During this time, I realized that my wallet doesn't define who I am. I do know who I am. I am Greg Woods, a son, a brother, a friend, a Quaker, a Follower of Jesus, an American, a resident of the District of Columbia, Coordinator of Washington Quaker Workcamps, Co-Coordinator of Project Lakota, a writer, a joke-teller and a traveler. These are the ways I connect with people across the world and how people know me. No wallet can or will ever be able to entirely hold all the aspects of my identity (Yes, I have cards that say I am an American and a DC resident, but these cards will never hold my experiences as an American and a DC resident.), because you cannot really ever quantify these parts. Actually none of my possessions define my identity. If I were to lose every material possession I own, I am still the same Greg Woods albeit a materially poorer Greg Woods. Surely some of the aspects of my identity will change over time, if I move or change jobs and also I hope to add some more aspects like husband and father, in the future.

The next weekend, I was talking with two non Quaker friends in La Casa de Los Amigos in Mexico City about what Quakers believe. I cited the peace testimony, the belief that God can speak directly to us without the need for an intermediary, having silence mediation in some form in many of the Friends meetings, among other things. While I was talking, I thought to myself this religion can sound very weird out loud, but I still want to be a Quaker and follow in the path of George Fox,Elizabeth Fry, and other early Quakers. This radical religion is still very much needed in a troubled, violent world. Even though my friends seem satisfied with my answers, I wasn't. The conversation opened up the question: What keeps me in Quakerism, beside the legacy? This question reminded me of the panic I felt a week earlier when I lost my wallet. Like am I tired of Quakers? Does Quakerism still inspire me?

The next day, during the meeting of worship with Mexico City Meeting, I continued praying about my connection with Quakers. Near the end of meeting, the clerk read queries about environmental stewardship from the Pacific Yearly Meeting Faith & Practice in connection with the ongoing climate change discussions in Copenhagen. While sitting with the queries about being conscious about individuals' impact on the environment, I realized again why I am Quaker.

Having growing up in the Friends tradition, I have become a conscientious person about how my actions affect the community around me, whether it is thinking about where I shop or whether I am being faithful to my leadings. For me, Quakerism isn't just a religion that is just practiced on First Day mornings, but a religion to be practiced in every part of my life everyday and this is expected of me by my fellow Friends.

For this reason, I am a Quaker.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Evangelizing Quakerism

As 2009 starts winding down, I have been reflecting on the events of the past year. I have had the amazingly good fortune to work at a place like William Penn House where we are given the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life - not only those who come through our doors, but the countless people we meet at Monthly and Yearly Meetings and other gatherings. 2009 in particular has been a good year to do this work, as it is a year of great change that has been running head-long into resistance to change, the natural reaction that most of us have to true transformative change. I think there is a huge opportunity for Quakerism to step forward and help our communities through this process, but I also think that for this to happen, Quakers may need to step out of the way.

Let me explain. I think that the greatest gift of Quakerism is not the stance we take on issues, but the process we go through (consensus, discernment). Unfortunately, to our detriment, we too often bring like-minded people together, discern what the "sense" of the meeting or gathering is, and then we roll out into the world in a righteous fashion, with a judgment of others (Republicans, conservatives, military). We hold gatherings where we talk about our concerns and how we can serve ourselves and get what we want. We have threshing sessions but not enough fact-finding sessions. It often feels to me like "navel-gazing".

If we could instead appreciate that it is not what we have reached consensus on that matters, but our ability to go into any arena with the skill of building consensus (or finding the sense of the group) that really matters. For example, if I, a liberal/progressive pacifist gay man, sit with a group of conservative military heterosexuals, the sense of our gathering is more to my liking simply because I am at the table. For me, it is trusting that there really is "that of God" in all, not just those with whom we agree. I have also been repeatedly and amazingly surprised to find goodness and agreement where I had been taught to least expect it.

I also believe that now, more than any time in our recent history, the world needs this kind of work. Many of the institutions and organizations that we have become dependent (co-dependent?) on are facing financial crises, and are bunkering down. Our political system is as divisive and partisan as ever. Despite what I believe are the good intentions of President Obama, the system itself is made up of a two-party system that seeks nothing but power - a power that can only be gained through a "divide and conquer" mentality. Even Quaker organizations, as they struggle financially, tend to reduce collective energy and spirit to less than the sum of its parts. What we need is to start turning to each other - not in our Meetings, but in the broader world - and finding the common ground ("sense") of our communities. We need each other, and most people want the same thing. We just have to open the space to allow for this to happen. This, I believe, is the real gift that Quakerism can bring to the world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Listening and Dialog

What is the difference between listening to listen and listening as part of dialog? I had not given much thought to this, other than intuitively knowing there's a difference, until recently. At William Penn House a few weeks ago, we hosted two Navy Midshipmen. In announcing this event, it was stated that "these students will be here to talk about their dreams for the world, selection of service as a vehicle for pursuing this dream, and what it means to be of service. We look forward to this being an evening for pacifists and people committed to a world without war to listen with appreciative ears and to find common ground."

By referring to their commitment as "service", a listserve became energetically engaged in questioning why we were doing this event, that what these young men do is not "service" but "murder", and that we should give equal time to real service (neglecting to notice that just about all we do at William Penn House is service). It was interesting to see "pacifists" going after like-minded people, and to observe that, while these Navy Midshipmen were able to answer questions clearly about why they have made the commitments they have made and the struggles and dilemmas of these choices, the pacifists struggled with articulating their "hard" questions and making connections between what they/we are against and what we are for. I could go on about many things, but perhaps most simplistically, I have been pondering what it is to listen as an exercise vs. listening as part of a dialog.

Here are some thoughts:
Neurologically, listening/observing is what some call an "alpha" brain activity, where the rear hemisphere of the brain is engaged, but what is going on is just letting things enter. Imagine walking through the woods as part of a meditative exercise in noticing what is going on, vs. thinking about work, what is around the corner, or some other mental activity that takes one out of the moment. This is the alpha activity, whereas "beta" activity is that latter part - thinking of something next. To just be present, to listen, is really a discipline in being in the moment. It does not mean to not think, but to instead let information fully enter for discernment, rather than discern what is allowed in. The blocks to this are emotions - anger, fear, etc. - and too much thinking that looks for where the speaker is "wrong" (or a fear that I am wrong).

In dialog, I suspect that we are always listening with one foot in the moment, and the other in "what am I going to say next?", which interferes with being fully present to the other. This can be especially challenging when we have firmly held beliefs (in this case, about the military). Unfortunately, when we demonize things like the military, we tend to develop blindspots about many things, including that we might be complicit in the need for the military to protect us.

Are there things we can do to handle this better? In my experience, Appreciative Inquiry has been a good tool. Quite simply, to learn to listen fully, with appreciative ears, has been helpful. It does not mean that I simply accept all that is being said, but for the moment my job is to listen and to appreciate. I can later go back, more fully informed, and look at things more deeply, exploring where my own values lie on issues. I think it adds to integrity. It certainly beats "pacifists" creating conflict among like-minded people.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FDA and OTC Tests

I attended a part of an FDA Blood Control conference yesterday, and was one of 7 people to have 3 minutes to present my opinions on whether FDA should approve over-the-counter (otc) rapid, self-administered HIV tests. In partnership with RJ Hadley in Chicago and Christine Harris in Austin, TX, we had submitted a written statement the week before.

Here’s how things went yesterday: I arrived at 11:30 with Amanda Haase, a William Penn House intern. We went to the lunch that was hosted by OraSure. At the table, we had some great conversations about how entrenched “AIDS, Inc.” is, and how it is only money that is asked for. We shared the same passions that bureaucracy and institutionalization of services is as much if not more of a problem than the lack of funding. Amen to all that. It’s always nice and affirming to connect with someone that shares sentiments, especially someone in her position. We will certainly continue this dialog.

Then it was on to the committee hearing about the approval of otc tests. The first part of the afternoon was 20-30 minute presentations on the science/technology of rapid tests, and the hoops that have been jumped through so far. While all of these people are clearly smart and dedicated people, what I noticed was how, as is so often the case, they seem to have developed a myopic approach to stopping the spread of HIV that is reliant on the status quo, institutionally. It was the same song and dance about high-risk groups (labels, labels, labels), and a limited appreciation of how otc tests could fundamentally change the landscape. One guy even presented detailed stats and graphs of a model – not even real numbers. I think we would all get more for our money if he were paid to study something that is happening, rather than what could happen.

They were looking at the challenge of marketing and packaging otc tests so that people the highest risk individuals could buy them and use them properly, but never mentioned the power of facebook and youtube to play a role in this, let alone that there are many of us out here who in no way will mark the shift in the landscape of HIV-testing by just letting them sit on the shelves. One epidemiologist, in particular, who kept insisting that “hard science” is needed to prove that these tests can be used effectively before approval can be given, but seemed to be relying on physical science, not social science which is needed here. He even made an analogy between these rapid tests and the development of a vaccine as holding out false hopes, even though these are two very clearly different beasts. Again, the myopia of one’s profession interfering with the big picture.

One option they are considering is buying these tests with a pharmaceutical consultation. It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think it will make much of a difference. There was also a healthy discussion of concerns over false-negatives and false-positives. Clearly the latter is more anxiety-producing. Their concern was that false negatives were terrible because of the erroneous security. One panelist, however, felt that in the entirety of all people getting tested, false positives among a few are better than not getting tested at all. I agree with this, especially if there is solid education about all of this that includes that false positives are a distinct possibility, so the person taking the test is more educated regardless of the results.

During the open comment time, every single speaker read statements supporting otc approval. They cited that rapid tests have helped dramatically improve test access, and otc could improve that. Some talked anecdotally; some talked with numbers. One presenter, a rep from a test manufacturer, showed stats from Europe that clearly indicate this can be done well.

As I got ready to speak, I decided to trash what I had prepared, as it was all being said by others, and went from the heart. I talked about how these tests in and of themselves won’t make a difference – that there are entire armies of us that will be the vehicles of change. I mentioned that I have sat around similar tables as they are, and seen great energy and intelligence wasted while ultimately maintaining the status quo. I observed that we are all pieces of a puzzle, and that community efforts are a piece of this puzzle (including the social networking) that they are missing but I know stands ready. I said that it has been over a decade since there has been any big shift in the HIV/AIDS landscape, and that approval of otc tests could be just the ticket. I also held up a sample of the tests we have bought, and said that I already know that these are being used by people who don’t feel comfortable or need the present testing system, and it makes a difference. I challenged the committee to see for themselves what the present HIV-testing experience is like. Go to an MD in Kansas; go to a clinic in Elgin, IL, Salt Lake City, or Washington DC, and do it without fanfare. Experience first-hand the questions, the time limitations, and the costs, and then come back and consider the issue of this option.

We’ll see how far they go with this and how quickly, but without a doubt, the public support and willingness is there. Interestingly, that afternoon, I received an e-mail of a study out of Johns Hopkins that self-administered testing is safe, effective and desired, so now the stats are coming out to.

I think it is really going to take a rise-up in activism akin to what ACT-UP did in the 80’s and 90’s to get medications and research going. There were some on the committee who did react to and seemed to be moved by the passion of the public comments. We need to increase the volume of this ten-fold, a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold. It will make a difference.

On a related note, I also saw that POZ magazine has an article about how youth are not talking enough about HIV. As I observed from this FDA meeting, I don’t think it’s that they are not talking enough; it’s that we have not adapted our communications and our relationships enough to keep the issue present. Heck, we are barely doing it among our peers. As always, it is easier to blame the youth rather than ask what we can do about it. I much prefer to be open to what I can do.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Faith and Hospitality

I have now been here at the William Penn House for two years. First as an intern and for six months as the “hospitality coordinator.” My job description contains what you would expect- check guests in and out, do laundry, make the House a welcoming place. Hospitality is an integral part of what we do here at the William Penn House and has been the main focus of our mission since the Corys opened their home to young peace protesters in 1968. But as I approach my two year anniversary with the House, I find myself wondering what exactly hospitality is and why it matters.

If hospitality is just giving people a bed and a meal, then it is easy and requires little of me or the rest of the staff besides showing up on time in the morning with a service-industry-required smile. And many hotels and hostels work on that level. But the William Penn House is a special place. Here we try to answer the question of what does God require of us in response to the stranger, the other, the traveler. At first the answer seems clear and easy. Jesus told a parable in which the faithful are commended by the King because “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” When we welcome others, we welcome God.

But the truth is it is hard to welcome the stranger who is demanding and angry, the guest who is needy and always seems to want more, and the guy who creeps you out just a little. It is hard to see that of God in those who are not grateful or treat me poorly. Also, in the day to day running of a hostel I tend to get caught up in the details and tasks. I can easily lose sight of the moment and brush the guest aside so that I can get my “work” done. But in fact, my work is in welcoming that stranger in, not in giving them a bed and breakfast, but by engaging with them, listening to their story and not just going through the motions of reception.

Every day here I am challenged to take what I believe to be true, that God calls us to reach out to the other, and practice it in my interactions with guests. I need to slow down and be willing to hear from a lonely traveler about where he’s been. I need to be patient in explaining six times where the bathroom is to the guest who doesn’t speak English well. And I need to be willing to give grace to the grouchy and rude guest who doesn’t seem to appreciate that I am bending over backwards to help her. In this, I hopefully grow closer to the individual that God calls me to be and our guests receive a tangible example of God’s love in their lives. This is hospitality.

Faith Kelley, Hospitality Coordinator

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Uganda and anti-homosexuality laws

Dave Zarembka is a member of the Bethesda Friends Monthly Meeting, and is the head of the Africa Great Lakes Initiative. Like me, he has been pretty passionate that we maintain open relations with Friends United Meeting despite its hiring policy that does not allow for the hiring of anyone in a relationship that is not recognized by law (meaning any gay couple, or a hetero couple not legally married). It is with this in mind that I think serious consideration needs to be given to this letter sent out by Dave:
Dear Friends,

The Uganda legislature is considering one of the most repressive laws
that I have ever heard of. This law is geared against homosexuals, their
parents, teachers, counselors, landlord/lady, medical practioners, etc.
Punishment for homosexuality includes life imprisonment or the death
penalty. In addition everyone in the society will be an informant. Here
are some of the provisions:

- any parent who does not denounce their lesbian daughter or gay son to
the authorities will be fined Ush 5,000,000/= (about $250 in a country
where many live on $1 per day) or put away for three years.
- any teacher who does not report a lesbian or gay pupil to the
authorities within 24 hours will be fined Ush 5,000,000/= ($250) or put
away for three years in prison.
- any landlord or landlady who happens to give housing to a suspected
homosexual risks seven years of imprisonment.
The Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional
Law concludes, "In short, this bill targets everybody, and involves
everybody: it cannot be implemented without making every citizen spy on
his or her neighbours."
It is time for folks to organize like the anti-aparteid movement in South
Africa. Boycott visitng Uganda, no investment, withdraw current
investment, ban on visas for politicans and atheletes, etc. Pressure the
US Government to confront President Museveni of Uganda who is reported to
be supporting the bill. Uganda is one of the US's stongest allies in
Africa so the US Government can put a lot of good pressure on Uganda.
(Uganda supports the US against those "bad guys" in Sudan, has AU troops
in Somalia). There is lots of potential for action and should include
both North America and Europe. Campaign to get them kicked out of the

I suggest that these actions begin immediately before the bill is enacted
into law.

David Zarembka
Lumakanda, Kenya

I will get in touch with some folks about what actions we might be able to put
together on this. I am pretty sure that Bishop Akinola's Anglican church, which
has strong moral and financial support here in the US, is a part of this, so action
may not only be about Uganda, but some of the congregations here that have
left the Episcopal church to join Akinola's church.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Beware the Common Enemy

What do Stalin, Saddam Hossein, and the Taliban all have in common? Each one, at one point in our history, was an ally of the US. It was not that these people were at one time fundamentally different in character than what we now know them to be, but it was that we shared a common enemy; with Stalin, it was Hitler; with Hossein it was Iran, and with the Taliban in Afghanistan, it was Russia. In the latter two cases, there was much more to it than just the common enemy. There were also issues of corporate greed, and the desire to control oil that was the underpinnings of the US economy that was dependent on the auto and housing industry. As Franklin Roosevelt said about a mid-20th century Nicaraguan ruthless dictator, "Somoza may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch". (Note: there is some question about whether Roosevelt said this, but there is no doubt that he was a strong supporter of this corrupt, greed-driven dictator because he was against communism)

What does all this have to do with current events? Beyond international policy practices that still continue, this phenomenon of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" has reared its head in the healthcare debate as well. The "enemy", in this case, is Obama. For some, it is his policies, including a proposal for a single-payer option in healthcare. There is certainly room for debate here, as there are legitimate concerns about funding a program like this. (I personally have two concerns about the healthcare issue: the first is that we expect too much from healthcare, and the second is that government is an institution that is way too slow and bureaucratic to really get anything done, but I welcome the discussion).

For the fiscal conservatives who have legitimate concerns about either the financing of a program or merely have concerns about the role that government might play in healthcare (keeping in mind that Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA are already in place), having your issues heard is currently being drowned out by other "anti-Obama" allies who have more insidious motivations. Among the allies include a colllusion of: corporate greed folks, the Republican leadership that is looking for any opening to regain some power, a right-leaning media looking for viewership, and blatant racists who simply cannot believe that a black man is President. Here's how, to me, it seems to be playing out: The more corporate folks (Dick Armey, healthcare corporations, Fox News) whip people into an emotional frenzy that then comes out in the form of fear of communism, fascism, government killing old people, loss of gun rights. The racism gets thinly veiled by comments about the country being taken over by Muslims. The success of this movement is dependent on keeping people's fears heightened, and calling these fear "patriotism".

For the benefit of all of us, it would be great if we could all take a deep breath, relax, listen, and re-engage the frontal lobes. If we could open up dialog with real exploratory questions, and seek common solutions, we would all benefit. But for those who really have concerns about any government expansion in the role of healthcare, it is important to pull apart from those who are dependent on polarizing effect of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" approach. The blatant racists, partisans looking merely for power, and corporate greed folks are exploiting you for their personal agenda and care little for your real concerns. In fact, they don't want you to think. They just want you to be angry.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pigs at the Trough

I just got back from a presentation at the DC Department of Health's AIDS Administration. Let me start by saying that all the people in the room were caring people who have their hearts in the right place, so this is not about them as individuals. This is, however, an absolute slamming of "AIDS, Inc." - an institution that has completely taken over and has no intention of going away.

Here's why: The presenters gave a lot of data about the sexual behavior of "msm" (men who have sex with men). What the data showed is that msm still make up the highest number of people contracting HIV and that sex and drugs impact behavior. There were lots of slides with numbers, statistics and terms - including one item that showed that 64% of respondents knew the HIV-status of their last sexual partner. The problem with this last issue - which I raised - was whether this information was reliable. The presenters said that it was a good thing that these people think it is, but I would actually say that it may not be good - it could be reinforcing the false sense of security that you could just tell if someone has HIV based on their word and how they look.

There were many other issues I had with the presentation (including the usual - what does any of this tell us that changes what we know? how does this help get people to get tested? How does this change the stigma? etc.). The fact is that this study only reinforces the stigma of HIV as a gay man's disease. But the real kicker is this: these presenters referred to this study as their "baby", that it's only three years old, and that they will be replicating it to two other high risk groups over the next 6 years (3 years each group), and then repeat as they fine-tune their data collection. Meanwhile, there were giggles and chuckles as they talked about the limitations of their work, how they defined msm, and how good they all feel about the data.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! We are talking about lives here. Where is the talk about stopping the spread of HIV NOW! Where is the concern that this is not a gay disease, a black disease, a women's disease, but a public health issue?

I did raise the question, with passion. It was heard, and I think registered. I also wonder, however, where is the community outrage?! These people are talking about multi-year studies that tell us what we already know (really, it seemed like what they were studying was a new methodology of epidemiological data collection rather than collection of useful data).

There was some talk about the high levels of support from among people ages 18-34 to make HIV-testing routine in doctor's offices. Two things about this (I mentioned both of these): this is the age group least likely to have a routine around medical care so it's less of a reality, and this is a group that is most amenable to testing, so let's get the tests to them. I made this impassioned plea: the community is ready to take action, to self-administer and make HIV-testing more portable. We either need people like these epidemiologists to help us make the case statistically, or to get out of the way so we can do it.

What is clear, based on all the meetings and conversations now at the highest levels of HIV-administration at both municipal/state (here in DC, sort of the same thing) and federal levels, is this: all people mean well and want well, but the bureaucrats are limited in their power, and the epidemiologists are calling the shots. Unfortunately the shots they are calling are for more studies. We know enough. We need the psychologists, social scientists, sociologists, theologians and artists to now step up and create more options. And, most importantly, the community voice and passion must be raised. This is the only way that change will really happen in any timely matter.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What we did on our summer journey into HIV-testing

In June, we ventured into a new area with regards to promoting HIV-testing and “KNOW YOUR STATUS”. We joined with people from Washington DC and DuPage County, IL to coordinate and support HIV-testing events, while also handing out materials about testing options (including home-based/portable HIV testing that is available on-line and not FDA-approved). Awareness that we had these tests led to, at first, admonition from the FDA to “cease and desist” with having these test. After receiving a call from FDA and talking further about our desire not to break laws but to give people testing options, while also being clear that the current system is laden with limitations, bureaucracy and wasteful spending, we found some doors opening to promote our ideas and energy flowing in the right direction. Subsequent conversations with FDA and CDC also led to a meeting at the White House Policy Office that took place on Thursday, August 13. Joining this meeting were Byron Sandford, Ex.Dir. of William Penn House, Lois Johnson, a Wheaton resident who lost her son to AIDS in 1995 and has been very passionate about stopping the spread of HIV, and Hannah Kelley, an intern at Penn House. The meeting was very exciting for us, as a grassroots group, to be at this level of conversation. The person we met with, Greg Millett, is an epidemiologist who is new to his White House position (having moved over from the CDC), and is one of only two people in the White House AIDS office (Jeffrey Crowley being the other). They are awaiting clearance of more people to work with them.
Rather than focus on just the White House meeting, I am going to summarize here all that we have learned about HIV-testing, the HIV/AIDS system of testing and treatment, and where we might go from here. Included is some information that was given “off-the-record” which to me means that, as a grassroots person, I can be affirmed in what we have suspected, and we need to exert pressure to bring about change so that fear of knowledge is no longer a deterrent to doing what we need to do.
• There is a lot of agreement from people in all these governmental offices that there is waste, there is frustration, and no one really knows how to implement the best plans. For example, the CDC has been encouraging all people to get tested for HIV, but at the state level, HIV-programs continue to ask discerning and intimidating questions that date back to the time when the only people being tested were people who had discerned a certain level of risk. Routinely, we asked “how do we eliminate these questions from the testing process?” and no one really had a good answer.
• The current HIV-tests in this country are considered a level 3 community risk, meaning a rigorous approval process by the FDA. The current issues have little to do with efficacy or toxicity of tests, but are more a question of whether our society is ready for portable/home-testing. There are also arguments that accurate data cannot be collected, but we already have that problem.
• The current, approved HIV-tests in the US may be inferior to tests that are used overseas.
• It seems like “AIDS, Inc.”’s solution is simply more money for to pay for tests and testers. This is a costly and risky proposition, especially if the current testing protocols remain.
• “HIV-testing is free and easy”, according to one activist. Testing, in fact, is not easy everywhere, nor is it always free. Consider my experience at a testing clinic in Washington: a 4-page intrusive questionnaire, and sitting in a waiting room where any semblance of anonymity is lost. In addition, pragmatically, this clinic is not a place that all people would find comfortable. Going to the MD for testing is an option, but not all MD’s are up-to-date on HIV-testing issues, and there is a cost here. Other anecdotes: in Salt Lake City, clinic hours are from noon to 4, weekdays, and cost $25 (for a $10 test), and in Elgin, IL, because of funding, one clinic is discouraging people from coming to them for testing if they are not in a high-risk group.
• Perhaps one of the biggest problems we face is this: the Obama Administration is committed to following hard facts and stats, not morality, as the guiding principle. This is great, but presents its own challenge: how do we get stats about the community ability to self-administer HIV-testing unless we roll-out self-administered HIV-testing? This seems to be the big catch-22, and perhaps one reason we need an anthropologist, sociologist and psychologist as well as epidemiologists calling the shots.
Ultimately, what I think we take away from this is that within the various departments, all people mean well, are intelligent, passionate and committed, but our biggest challenge is that we need to shift the paradigm in our society of responsibility for prevention and testing from “them” to “us”. It seems like the only way to do this is to just do it. Lengthy multi-year studies will move policies forward, but won’t shift the paradigm of responsibility; meanwhile, HIV will continue to spread.
Here are some specific next steps for us:
• Continuing to work with Bernie Branson (at CDC) on having input on an NIH-led trial to promote and increase testing among gay men.
• Apply for CLIA waivers to be approved as a testing organization (perhaps 2 – one for WPH, one for Mosaic).
• Promoting community participation in White House Office on AIDS town-hall meetings around the country in developing a national strategy to end AIDS.
• Continue to work with developers of HIV-tests to get the FDA to open the doors for “over-the-counter/portable/home HIV tests”. This will also take input from community voices.
• I will also continue to promote that people who do not necessarily want to go to through the current testing process look into buying tests on-line ($10).

After all of this, it seems increasingly clear that we really do have all that we need to stop the spread of HIV – tests, willingness to get tested, desire within the “powers that be” to change the system, etc. What we seem to be missing is that “leap of faith” moment to make it happen, or perhaps more accurately, the paralysis of bureaucracy and comfort within the status quo. In my work at William Penn House and through Mosaic Initiative, as I am able to, I will continue to promote the community change. Outside of these organizations, I will also continue to offer demonstrations and sample of the portable tests. I truly believe that all people can find out their status, and we don’t need to sit around waiting for others. We can make it such that no people ever get turned away or are discouraged from testing. I also believe that you empower by giving options, not limiting them. I’ve learned over the last few months that there are kindred spirits working in this vein in the system, but the real change may need to take place outside the system.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Healthcare, living well and letting go

Last week I was going through the mail during my few days at home and, among the many pieces were a few bills for a medical appointment I had in the spring. The total out-of-pocket expenses for this one appointment: nearly $1000. Granted, this includes the $750 deductible, but given the salary I make, it's still alot (considering that on top of this there is an additional $60/month for the co-pays of medication). As I perused the bills, I looked through the labwork that was done and it was filled with things I have no clue about.

At the same time, I was listening to the radio and the on-going debate about healthcare. No doubt we have a broken healthcare system and we need to do more to see that people have access to healthcare, especially preventive medicine. But looking through my own bills, and reflecting on my own recent interactions with my doctor (whose biggest concern seemed to be that I was rejecting the idea of pursuing elective cosmetic surgery to fill out my cheeks that have thinned out as a result of the HIV-progression or treatment).

What I am noticing that seems to be completely absent from the debate about healthcare is that not only should all people have access to healthcare, but perhaps we should also be having a national dialog about what we expect from healthcare and why. I suspect, based on my own bills, that my MD is milking me for billable services. I know that he needs to be monitoring certain things because of new medications, but I also know that in some cases, if something were off, the prescribed course of action is more medication. Do I really need to know that certain levels of something are off, if I am going to refuse the treatment?

That very week, the woman (Hilda) whose house I am living in died. She was in a nursing home for the past 2 years and had not been out of bed for that time, but on Sunday night she got out of bed and fell, breaking her leg and hitting her head. My friend Marilyn (the woman's guardian) got a call at 6:30 in the morning asking whether she wanted to have brain surgery performed on Hilda. She was told she needed to make the decision immediately, not for the patient's sake, but because this was when the operating room was available. Marilyn was told that the surgery was to remove a clot (for a woman who had been basically comatose for a few months). Marilyn was not told about the broken leg. It all smacked of a healthcare decision trying to milk this woman's estate before she died.

Basically, I think we need to open up the national dialog to include a frank discussion that, yes, we are all on the same train progressing to one common end result. We want to use healthcare to help us get there as safely, happily, healthily and productively as possible. But we perhaps should depend less on healthcare for the quality of life things, and focus on some of the basics, while we also commit to healthier living. I don't know that statistics, but have heard about the high proportion of healthcare dollars spent on the last month of life. A part of this makes sense - trying to extend lives is costly. But we should know that all we are doing is extending life, not saving it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Friends and Indians

Over the centuries in the US, Quakers and Indians have shared a special relationship in the hearts and minds of many people. Artwork and lore have commemorated William Penn’s Peaceable Kingdom efforts in establishing the Pennsylvania colony in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. Relative to other settlers and landowners of his time, Penn made a concerted effort to demonstrate that settlers and natives could live peaceably together. As we know now, the vision did not hold, but the reputation of Friends as protectors of Indians persists. Is it deserved? How accurate is it? To put it bluntly, Friends have benefited greatly from the relations with Indians, but have Indians benefited?
I recently had the opportunity to join the Joint Service Project/Western Quaker Workcamp to do some service work on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. The group that was on this trip was Young Friends from Downingtown (PA) Monthly Meeting. Among the things we saw and visited was Wounded Knee, and we heard history presentations about the various treaties, broken promises and violence that took place in this region (including that Mount Rushmore was carved on land that had been previously given to Indians). At the same time, coincidentally, I was reading a newly written book called “Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment” by Kevin Kenny. This book had been given to me by Byron at WPH prior to my even knowing about going to South Dakota.
So, here I was, touring new (for me) territory in South Dakota, hearing about the massacres of the late middle to late 1800’s, while at the same time reading about the violation of treaties and subsequent massacres that occurred in eastern Pennsylvania roughly 150 years prior. It was striking me that the template for what occurred to the Indians from the late 1600’s to the late 1800’s (and really continues to this day to some extent) was established in Pennsylvania. Throughout that history, some very familiar names (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Penn, Lincoln, among others) can be seen in a variety of lights. But for differences in time, names could be changed (Massacre at Wounded Knee, Massacre of Conestogas, for example) and the same narrative would unfold.

Some of my observations and thoughts, specifically regarding Quakers, are:
• William Penn, while certainly a progressive for his time, was no prophet. He was committed to trying to live peaceably among Indians, but he was also trying to protect his own extensive land-holdings that were granted to him by the King of England.
• Penn established one of the earliest treaties with Indians, but perhaps did not fully appreciate that the relation that Indians had with land ownership was very different than his. This misunderstanding led to future conflicts.
• Penn’s children were greedy.
• Penn’s early treaties were some of the first treaties to be broken, setting the template for making and breaking treaties.
• Pennsylvania and east coast Quakers were not necessarily good community members and leaders. They wanted to take Indian lands, be rulers of the government, but were not willing to really deal with the conflicts that were emerging. This avoidance of conflict in its early stages continues to challenge us.

It seems clear to me that Friends have greatly benefited (and perhaps we pat ourselves on the back as well) for our intentions with regards to Indians over the years, and to be sure we have compassion for all that has happened. But I also think that because we have benefited from this reputation, we have work to do. We cannot turn the clock back, but perhaps we can look forward with a vision of the Peaceable Kingdom once again. One of the things we heard in South Dakota was that the US government has never apologized for the Massacre at Wounded Knee. That has started some of us thinking that if we are going to be a force for creating the Peaceable Kingdom, perhaps we should start with promoting reconciliation and forgiveness, and then following this up not just with our own trips and project on the reservations, but also with our advocacy to keep promises that are currently in-place but not being met. Basically, it seems like a great opportunity for Friends to earn the reputation of being good Friends to the Indians, rather than simply resting on our questionable laurels in this arena.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Portable HIV-Tests: Do we have to break the laws to change them?

What happens when an entrenched system faces competition?

We found some of this out last week. For years, I have been working with a diverse group of people to promote that all people know their HIV-status as the starting point for stopping the spread of HIV (see for more about this work). We have worked with HIV/AIDS organizations in Illinois, DC and western Kenya. I have seen people who want to volunteer their time to helping stop the spread of HIV, and be told that they can deliver meals once a week. I’ve met with senators, elected officials, and other government folks to see what we can do to make testing more accessible – including making tests more portable, and removing the pre-test history questions from the process. All to no avail, despite conflicting messages and policies between federal and state authorities. There has been a protective nature to tests and testing that borders on territorial. I have seen people turned away because there are not enough tests, while also hearing that testing is being under-utilized in other areas. I’ve seen “Catch-22’s” where there are no laws against distributing HIV-tests, but no access to acquiring tests. And I’ve seen panel discussions where organizations blame everyone else and call for National Strategies, but resist change. No wonder HIV continues to spread – the institutions need it to stay viable.

A chink in all of this took place last week. A few weeks ago, I heard about a home test kit that can be purchased on-line ( It’s not FDA-approved, but I ordered some anyway. We started to promote that we were going to be distributing these tests. Out of the blue, last week 8 FDA administrators got on a conference call to tell me to cease and desist. I responded that, unless there could be some kind of movement (speeding up FDA approval of home-test kits or removal of pre-test questions to name two possibilities) that I did not see why I should. Plus, after years of trying to reach people to see how we can make a difference, it took possession of these tests to catch attention. Now, a week later, there has been a meeting with one of these FDA people, plus the head of the White House office on AIDS and an MD within CDC who has done research to support greater access to and portability of tests. In talking with these folks, one thing is clear: the current system is not working. The other thing that is clear is that “AIDS, Inc.” is as entrenched in maintaining the status quo as anything else that is out there. Perhaps what has been most interesting is the extent to which people have been forthcoming with information, although there is tacit agreement that much of this information is “off the record”.

Interestingly, as we promoted and collected signatures for home-based HIV-testing (or, perhaps more appropriately, since we are really looking to promote a creative dialog, we should call it “portable testing”), it has been mostly the white gay community that has been the least receptive to this idea. I think there are two possible theories: the gay community still very much carries the scars and trauma of AIDS, and/or AIDS was the first legitimate social institution to have openly gay people leading. It has also been gay people that have said we have to do testing within the law. I maintain: when did any good laws come about without the bad laws being broken?

So, what to take from this:
• Viable options creates more opportunities for change than simply staying within the status quo.
• There has not been a real new idea regarding HIV-prevention. “Portable testing” might be just the ticket to spur new, creative dialog. Look at the doors possession of such tests opened.
• When you can catch people’s attention, you can take a 30 second conversation and turn it into a 5 minute conversation. For example, when someone says he/she is against home-testing, consider where these might be useful (i.e. for women who take home-pregnancy tests, or for repeat testers, or for couples where one partner is positive). I like to envision doing college classes, with visualizations of testing, and then giving options for testing.
• For HIV-testing organizations that say they want to empower people, I say you don’t empower by limiting options.
• On the sly, I was also told by a reliable source that the US-approved HIV-tests are inferior to what are used in other parts of the world.
• I have also now seen research that shows:
o 93.6% of people who do home-sample collections can do it accurately. 95% of clinics do it accurately. So the issue of poor sampling at home is minimal.
o The majority of people who do home-sample collections (the Home Access mail-in tests) are people who would not go to an MD or clinic for an HIV-test).
o People who have access to testing of any type are 47 times less likely to contract HIV.

Where do we go from here? I’m going to be following up with exerting pressure to speed up and open up approvals for options. I’ll also see how we can help facilitate community dialogs and pilot programs. One of the messages is that we don’t need a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to raise awareness; we need a 2 year campaign to get everyone to know his/her status, and we need to change the starting pronoun from “them” to “us”, including all of us.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Home-based HIV-testing and the AIDS Inc. Racket

There was a time when people with HIV and those around them were actively banging on and banging down doors of legislators, public health officials, and pharmaceutical companies. If there was even a whiff of a possible treatment there were calls, letters, and protests to get these treatments out to people with HIV even if the treatments had not completed their rigorous trial phases. At the same time, countless alternative and experimental treatments were being done. Some of these at worst were benign (such as massage, acupuncture, meditations, etc.), and for many of us, were instrumental to our need to stay actively engaged in our treatment. There were other types of remedies that were being promoted – such as drinking one’s own urine – that spoke to the desperation of the times. Clearly, the big enemies of the times were the politicians, federal regulators, and the corporate pharmaceutical companies that were slow on investing in the development of products that could help slow the progress of the virus.
At the same time, there emerged a similar fight around means to stop the spread of HIV Condom distribution and needle-exchange programs continue to be political and cultural hot-potatoes, as the liberal left tend to be for full-dissemination of these programs, whereas the conservative right tend to resist such programs, regardless of statistics. The two sides have become so polarized that they often don’t see the emerging new threats out there such as the energized gay porn industry that is increasingly marketing unprotected sex, and the rise in unprotected sex in bath houses, events like the International Male Leather convention in Chicago every Memorial Day, and in solicitations on-line. This, for much of the gay HIV-industry, is like the crazy aunt. We know she’s there and a member of the family, but we don’t dare speak too loudly about it lest our enemies catch wind of what’s going on. Some of this has to do with an AIDS bureaucracy that, to this day, still has not adopted its message about HIV/AIDS to meet the new realities – that HIV is not the deadly disease it was, but is very much something we don’t want to see spreading. This is really a topic for another time.
Despite all of this, however, there is one interesting observation that I have seen over the past few month, that I find both interesting and troubling: home-based testing. For clarity’s sake, home-based testing is simply a test that one can self-administer and get the results within 20 minutes. The technology for doing this has existed for twenty years – it’s a simple assay test that screens for HIV anti-bodies It’s the same test that one gets in a clinic. For many who are afraid to go to clinics to get tested because of the lack of anonymity (you can’t be anonymous if you have to go to a public place, can you?), or for those who live in areas where medical providers may not be warm to the idea of testing their patients, or for those who do home-pregnancy tests and want to also make sure of their HIV-status, or for those who are in mixed “HIV” relationships and want to simply do what they can to insure that they are being responsible, or for those who are willing to spend $10 for a test at home rather than go through a lengthy process, or for countless other reasons, the option of home-tests may be just the kind of thing that can help people access testing and ultimately slow the spread of HIV.
So, where’s the outrage? Why is the FDA making Orasure, one of the manufacturers of self-administered HIV-tests (the very ones that are used in many HIV-testing clinics) go through a lengthy process to get approval to sell these directly to the general public? Where are all those organizations and activists that are demanding more funds and looser rules regarding needle-exchange programs, condom distribution, and mobile testing units? Why aren’t they lining up demanding that the FDA speed up this process, just as they did with HIV-medications that we now know were sped through an approval process despite minimal positive effect and high toxicity? Because they are lined up against approval of greater distribution of self-administered HIV-tests, and for many of them, testing is a job.
I have been engaged recently in an effort to advocate for approval and dissemination of self-administered tests. Perhaps naively at first, I was taken aback by the resistance of HIV-testing organizations. Over time, as I have settled into listening to the reasons why there is the resistance, I have come to see that many of the concerns are not permanent barriers. But there is a lack of conversation stifles creativity and possibility. Furthermore, many of the concerns about home-based testing already exist: many people do not follow-up with care, and the current tracking system is not accurate (notice the sharp increase in the estimates of newly-infected last year from 40,000 to 56,000 – still just estimates), nor is it timely as it tends to track where the leading edge of the virus has already been, not where it is going next. Finally, if the current system worked well, there would be no need for this conversation.
Cynically, I have to say that what I have seen is this: the very people who were demanding more action twenty years ago to get government to do something, still will make demands, but have also staked a turf around testing and do not want to see that go away. I don’t think that there is a real consciousness on the parts of the people working in these systems to do this: I really think it is more a matter of a movement becoming an institution (and perhaps becoming a bit of a racket).
One of my favorite expressions: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Other than when applied to computers, this generally holds true. I am not saying that home-based, self-administered testing will solve all the problems. But I do think it can bring about a new level of dialog and passion. That’s what we are venturing into (see Join us.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


In this morning's Washington Post, some military folks wrote an editorial about gays in the military - and how they should not be allowed (see What is most interesting for me is not so much what these writers adhere to (and the amazing loopholes in their thinking - it's not as if you can tell who's gay by his/her skin color, and it is not uncommon for people to come to grips with their sexual orientation at about the same time they would be in the military); what is most interesting are the comments made by readers. They are a clear example of the desperate need for the art of dialog. I have written before that love and logic will be the means through which our world will come together; both of these are necessary. Unfortunately, we too often start with logic; I think we need to start more with love, and then engage in dialog. (Perhaps one of the internal dialogs could also be that we actually support no gays in the military as a starting point to getting everyone out?)

I also think learning, practicing and engaging in dialog that is led by love is something that those of us who are truly passionate about non-violence and doing what we can to remove the occasions for future violence should start to embrace. Anywhere we turn in the world, it seems that there is an edge of violence in the air, and we can expect more as people become more fearful, and more vulnerable. I know that for many, glbt issues are not at the forefront of people's minds but, as with HIV-prevention, I think that how we can engage in these issues can be good opportunities for practicing how to deal with some of the more difficult issues. The issues are becoming more prominent in the media (two examples:, and, so we may as well get involved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Progress on Gay Rights

Over the past few months, there has been an enormous amount of movement on the rights of same gender-couples to get married. We all know about California and the voter decision to support Prop 8. There was also, in November, legislation in Florida and Arizona that put various restrictions on same gender families. But then, this week alone, Iowa courts and Vermont legislature made same-gender marriage a reality in those states. The District of Columbia is taking similar action. On a national level, there has been increased discussion about letting civil unions be the rule of the land for all people, and marriages be the acts of churches - a compromise that for many seems to have merit.

At the same time, in Iraq, (see NYTimes article: there is a backlash in some of the more conservative regions against gay men. As quoted from the article: "Clerics in Sadr City have urged followers to help root out homosexuality in Iraqi society, and the police have begun their own crackdown on gay men. 'Homosexuality is against the law,' said Lt. Muthana Shaad, at a police station in the Karada district, a neighborhood that has become popular with gay men. 'And it’s disgusting.' For the past four months, he said, officers have been engaged in a 'campaign to clean up the streets and get the beggars and homosexuals off them.'”

All progress has elements of violent reactivity. No doubt that there is a rapid change in the expansion of gay rights, but we can expect an increase in reactivity as well, unfortunately. It always seems to be a part of the struggle.

I think it is important that we as Friends and Friend-communities look to see what we can do to support the movement. Paradoxically, I do not think that what we should do is create a litmus test for gay marriage. I just don't think society as a whole is there yet. But I think we can create allies for gay marriage among those whom are not yet there, but who are repulsed by people such as Fred Phelps (see, and by the attitudes of Lt. Shaad as quoted in the Times. Patience and perseverance will get us there, with a dash of faith. We know that opponents to gay marriage are gearing up, and their tactic is going to be to divide, and let gay marriage be the dividing issue. If we react along these lines, rather than continue to reach across these lines to those who are not at the far extreme but just on other side of the line, we will do more harm than good. To react divisively plays right into the "us vs. them" game. I, for one, will continue to look to expand who the "us" is rather than focus on "them".

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Voting Rights vs. Statehood

As recently as Sunday afternoon (three days ago), I would have been much more joyful about the prospect of the citizens of Washington, DC getting a vote in the House of Representatives, and very skeptical of the notion of statehood ("are you kidding me? A governor, statehouse, two senators, etc., all for one city?" I thought).

Then, along comes Mike Brown, one of the Districts two elected "Shadow senators", and within 15 minutes, there goes my worldview (again!) Here's what I quickly learned:

1. Getting a vote on the house floor will not effectively change the governmental structure of the District, nor will it give the government any more autonomy.
2. The trade-off at the house level is that Utah will be granted a new seat in the house as well, giving that state 4 seats (and almost assuredly a Republican seat knowing that Utah is, by voting record, the most Republican state in the nation).

So, while the citizens of the District will most assuredly now have a voting person in congress, the District government will be no more autonomous, and in fact could very-well be further away from that autonomy. Why? Becuase on a national level there could very much be a sense that now that there is a voting voice in the House, the District should just be quiet about any other complaints.

What other complaints could there be? Well, here's three examples:
1. This city, with its high rates of HIV, cannot establish its own policies regarding such things as needle-exchange programs (which have been proven to be effective in reducing HIV-transmission). Thankfully, last year, President Bush authorized needle-exchange for the district, but it should not come to this.
2. The district cannot tax the incomes of people who work in the district but live in Maryland and Virginia. This is the only city in the country not doing this. As the Brookings Institute pointed out, it's like a restaurant being forced to serve all-comers, but only being able to charge one-third of the clientele.
3. The federal government effectively can establish gun laws in the District, moreso than in any other city.

This lack of autonomy effects so many things, including environmental policies, water policies, education policies, and the list goes on.

This city has so many challenges - internally and externally. It is a very divided city (just sit in Starbucks in Potomac Palisades, and Starbucks by Eastern Market, and you'll see the difference - and that's just within Starbucks). It has such a long history of disenfranchisement. That history continues. So, while it seems certain that there will finally be a DC voice (1 in 436) on the House floor, and Holmes-Norton may finally get her wish, it may be the long-time citizens of the District who will continue to suffer.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A model of non-violence is detained

Over this past weekend, I heard through the facebook network that Phil Rizk, someone I had known when he was at Wheaton College, had been abducted by the Egyptian police. The circumstances surrounding Phil’s detention are still not clear, and are unfolding as I write this. Phil’s parents have gone to Cairo to be with his sister and to do what they can to get Phil released (Phil is half-Egyptian and half-German). Amnesty International has sent lawyers in to protect the family from unwarranted harassment by the police (who were apparently trying to force Phil’s father to go with them to the police station as well, and were doing illegal searches of home and office without warrants). Technology (in this case facebook) has allowed hundreds of us who know Phil to follow things minute by minute. It has been as eye-opening as it is troubling to get e-mails and updates of what is happening in the moment, as opposed to an event that is in the recent past, for example, seeing posting from Phil’s sister asking people to make calls for an immediate intervention.
I first met Phil in late 2002. He was a junior at Wheaton College, and had become actively involved in Student Global AIDS Campaign fresh on the heels of Bono’s Midwest AIDS/Poverty caravan. Phil and a fellow student, Brian Davis, were the two early leaders of SGAC on this Christian campus, and were also two of the handful of students who fairly quickly looked beyond AIDS in Africa, building relationships with local people with HIV (such as myself) and local services (such as the one I was working for). The passion, compassion, and thoughtfulness of Phil and Brian (I also need to mention John Campen here as well) opened my eyes to something I had not expected: openness, respectfulness, and a profound dedication to service and making the world a better place. All three of them continue to be models for doing what Quaker author Parker Palmer wrote about – letting one’s life speak. John remains dedicated to his love of music and his dedication to family – sharing the joys and the struggles with friends and family while addressing some of the social and corporate inequities of our world. Brian has spent much of his post-college career with his now-wife Susan in Kenya and Uganda committed to serving others, most recently opening up a cyber-café in Uganda that is both a social and a training center for youth. He and Susan have also included me in family events both in Illinois and in Kenya, further crumbling the misperceptions I had about Christians and not just tolerance but real acceptance of sexual diversity.
But it is Phil I really want to write about. While I have kept in some contact with Brian and John over the years, I lost touch with Phil. After helping open the door for Wheaton College to get involved in HIV/AIDS work, I remember Phil spending his last winter college break in Iraq – this was after the US invasion. Phil went on a mission trip to try and bring healing and reconciliation through community-building. After that, we maybe saw each other once more before he graduated. Then, earlier this year, came across a blog written by Phil. Apparently he had been spending much of his time in the West Bank, mainly, from what I could tell, writing about the impact that the Israeli/Hamas battles were having on Palestinians. He has also done some films that are meant to simply bear witness to the day-do-day lives of people caught in the crossfire (To see more, go to It seems that it is because of some of these writings and films, and his subsequent involvement in calls for action that focused on human rights over nationalism, that he has been apprehended (he was part of a demonstration in Cairo over the weekend; all the other demonstrators were released).
For those of us who consider ourselves pacifists, I think all three of these young men are models for us, and in very different ways. John demonstrates the importance of caring for family and friends (it was John who first drew my attention to Phil’s plight), and Brian completely dedicates and immerses himself in what he does. Unlike so many people who stay in the comfort of their own homes and try to solve problems elsewhere, Brian and Susan have completely dedicated their lives to what they are doing.

Phil takes this to an entirely different level. He has gone into the heart of conflict – first Iraq, then the West Bank – not to engage in military conflict, but to intervene on behalf of human rights. A quote from the article linked above says it best about Phil’s latest movie: The other unspoken message that Rizk captures through his lens is a creed of nonviolent resistance that each of the individuals portrayed in the film have made part of their daily lives. In continuing to cultivate fields, rebuild destroyed homes and simply refusing to yield their places on the land to others, these Palestinians embody a relentless steadfastness, shunning the weapons of their adversaries that would’ve automatically allowed the world to question their moral authority had they been employed. For Rizk, showing the rootedness of nonviolent resistance in the lives of his characters was a central aim of the film. “We wanted to address the fact that violent forms of resistance, widely reported by international media outlets, overshadow more common non-violent forms of Palestinian resistance like sumoud, longsuffering and perseverance in the face of Israeli occupation,” he explained.

Military soldiers are often noted for what they are willing to die for. Each one of these men are models of what it is to commit your life to something, at great personal sacrifice and commitment. When I think about the Quaker youth that we work with, and all youth who refuse military service, I think about people like Brian, John and Phil who also do not pick up guns as service. But they also do not pick up protest signs from the comfort of a safe place. They put themselves out there. And, as we have seen over the weekend with Phil, at great peril. It is a reminder to me of what true pacifism is all about – not just standing on the sidelines in judgment, but a full-on life-and-death commitment to create a better world through non-violence no matter what the personal costs. At times over the past 7 years, they have been my inspirations to step out my comfort zone, and to really see what my commitment is to a more just world. Especially these days, perhaps we can all look to Phil as the ultimate model, and pray that he can continue to be that model.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unjust Prejudices

The other morning, I was sitting in Meeting for Worship, and there was a man sitting doing some kind of knitting. This completely disturbed me and was something I have noticed about. It is completely against everything I believe and stand for to have the kinds of reactions that I have to men knitting. I try to really promote and live that we love and accept things as they are without judgment. Heck, as a gay man living with HIV, who am I to sit in judgment of anyone? But when it comes to men knitting, I struggle.

So, what do I do? I think I have found an answer that works for me, at least for now. Rather than try to repress my negative feelings that morning, I reveled in them. I let the vision of me going up to this complete stranger, slapping the needles out of his hands, and saying "what the heck is wrong with you?" As I did this, what I released was not a cathartic sense of my righteousness, but instead the complete absurdity of my prejudice. Am I completely over it? No way. But what is different, is I have embraced my prejudice - my emotional reactivity - for what it is, just silly and funny. I have defused its potency. I think when we deny our prejudices, the repression may come back to bite us. It's tricky business. It's not pleasant to admit we have prejudices, but we all do. Perhaps when we can learn to accept them, we can learn to dishonor them and laugh at them. At least, for me for right now, it's a way to move through it and perhaps now connect in a deeper, more meaningful way with the male knitters of the world.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Well hello there. It’s been a while. I’m still around, being anal about little things like jelly dishes and slacking off on important things like laundry. Despite working in a community that’s fecund with social justice study and discussion, I find that my loves are still the same: food and psychology. So I’ll write about my inauguration experience and hope that you’re not a DC native because this will likely be inaug-tale number 129 for you.

The day before Obama’s induction, once some financial duties were sloppily completed, I ran off into the cold to accomplish two things: 1) Get my inauguration ticket from my representaitive’s office and 2) see if I could get in to see Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center (after which I could die a happy, happy girl).

You’ve really got to pay attention to this Southeast, Northwest, etc. thing in DC. You might be looking forward to an evening of smooth jazz and instead find yourself at Frank’s Cubicle Storage in a squalid riverside community in Southeast. That day, in my haste, I failed to note that the representative’s office was a very quick, four-block walk from William Penn House rather than on some non-existent 2nd Street section downtown. “Funny, there isn’t supposed to be a tunnel here...” Toward the end of my search I was running through the crowds in a frenzy, upset and harried, before a kind café owner told me that I was a good fifteen minute walk from my 3:00 deadline. It was 2:57.

Defeated, almost broken, I decided not to be a weenie and keep trying for my second goal. The office would be open again tomorrow morning, and calorie burning will justify almost any presumably useless trip.

The first train rumbled in. Full to the brim. The second train came in. Almost empty. Weird…but OK. I spent the rest of the afternoon (no tickets left for Aretha of course) wandering around in a peevish haze, people watching and trying not to think too hard about how much time I’d wasted.

The following morning I woke up at 6:00am to get the ticket, which was just as easy as walking into a country corner store and buying a Zagnut bar. A memory came rushing in: The day before, I walked past that very same building on my way to the imaginary rep’s office and thought, “Hm I wonder what all those people are waiting in line for?”

Now, as ex-boyfriends and family members will tell you, when I don’t get enough sleep, I am a grumpy, unpleasant human being. On inauguration day, I was downright unlikable. Stupid inauguration. Stupid ticket. Stupid crowds of people. Stupid moment in history. But I headed down. When I reached the inseparable, unorganized lines of ticket-holders down by the Capitol Building (a.k.a the “ticket-thicket”), a patient, neighbor-loving crowd swept me up in their mass and had me going in some direction that was neither planned nor desired. Thank God for the group of friends behind me who, equally disoriented, called out “School of fish! Change directions!”

Somewhere down by the freeway (where it appeared zombies had attacked the city and throngs were waiting in line to escape to the epidemic) I lost my ticket. Yes, yes, yes – rib me if you like, but there it is…and I almost turned around. Not because I was grieving the loss of my chance to stand in a dreary line of over 1,000 people, but because this crowd crap wasn’t my thing. I wandered a little further in a state of indecision, and down around 7th Street I saw something; a beautifully plump young black girl with short blonde hair, blue contacts and glossy, glossy lips. Unmistakably, she was one of the more conspicuous subjects of my people watching from the day before, all the way up at the Kennedy Center. “Alright God. Let’s do this then.”

The poor man’s section down by the Washington Monument turned out to be way more sunny, hot chocolate-filled fun than the ticketed Silver Section ever could have been, and the sight and feel of that day will be with me forever.

So here’s to mistakes, here’s to the absent mind that God gave me and here’s to a new president who is already ruling in a spirit of intelligence and tolerance. With any luck, he’ll stick to the running the country, and I’ll stick to folding laundry…sometimes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

But Who Is My Neighbor?

“And who is my neighbor?"
-Luke 10:29

A couple Saturdays ago a committee member bought up this passage from Luke during a discussion about the Washington Quaker Workcamps Program that I coordinate. Over the rest of the day I thought about this passage and how it related to my previous week.

In many ways, I had spent that week with my diverse neighbors without fully realizing it.

During the week, I started working on a Convergent Friends workcamp for high school age Friends that will take place here in July. The focus of the workcamp will be about living out the Friends Testimonies in the 21st Century, because through the past several years that has been a recurring theme in conversations I have had with Friends from all branches who are in high school and college.

Also about the same time I started emailing with a youth leader from a programmed meeting about organizing a workcamp for her meeting's youth group about what it means to be Quaker and Christian in the US and the impact it has and can have. In our dialogue about the workcamp, we had to overcome both of our preconceived notions about each other's background to find out our similarities. I realized during our conversation is that the workcamp I am planning for July will be based more on our common Quaker beliefs and letting our life speak than on the differences that divide us as a religion. Once we can see our similarities in each other we can start to see how we can connect on a deeper level.

On Tuesday that week, I participated in a peace vigil with a friend to remind the incoming Congress about the lives that are still being lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We marched in silent around the Capitol bearing the names of the dead. Ironically I had to leave this vigil early, because I had to attend a meeting at a military hospital located in NW Washington. At the meeting I asked about ways that the workcamp program could be involved with the hospital and what groups could do for the wounded soldiers and their families.

The next day I went to a very small memorial vigil for a homeless man, who I met at the Friends Meeting of Washington once. On Christmas Eve, he was found beaten to death. This murder largely went unnoticed. No articles in the Post. A Friend saw an article about it and she thought the name sounded familiar, so she let the listserv know. Two vigils were immediately planned for this man that the meeting barely knew. At the vigil I went to, three of us gathered in the cold rain to remember this man who died on the streets from a senseless act of violence.

As I thought back, I realized that week consisted of spending time with my neighbors, whether in person, by email, or in memory, whether I agreed or disagreed with them or even if I knew them at all, because they are fellow human beings, children of the Light, like me.

The week also left me with some queries for fellow Friends:

Why do we attend other churches for interfaith events in our communities, but not another Friends meeting or church of another branch than us down the street?

Why do we show compassion for the injured victims of war, but not for the injured soldiers that are sent to fight? Aren't they themselves victims of this war industry?

Why did a man have to die on the cold December streets? If we could organize two vigils to remember him by, why couldn't we invite him into our homes for a warm place to rest?

Witness to an Inauguration

January 20, 2009 is a day that will long be remembered for changing the world. How much? Much of that depends on us, and some of the events of this day are perhaps windows to both our challenges and our opportunities.

Below are some random observations and musings along these lines:

• “Me” vs. “We”; there were lines everywhere to get into any part of the Capital Mall to see and hear the festivities and swearing-in. And there were incredible struggles among the crowd to make sure that we as individuals were a part of it, and to honor President Obama’s call for unity. The struggle was palpable, as people tried to balance the commitment to something bigger than ourselves with wanting to be so much a part of it. I think that this will be the monumental struggle for our society if we are going to do all we can to heed Obama’s leadings. He is going to call on us to be a community, but we are used to being individuals.
• Boos for Bush – as he was introduced, there were plenty of boos for Bush. I certainly understand the pent up frustration – this presidency will easily go down as the worst two-term ever, if not the worst ever. Outcomes, not effort, really are important here, and he has left an absolute mess. But he has had a lot of accomplices, and much as we might not like to admit it, one thing he was trying to do was maintain the American way of life. Instead, he exposed us for what we can be at our worst. The fact is we cannot change our world effectively for the better unless we can look honestly at who we are. He helped us to see much of the worst of ourselves – addicted to oil, potential for greed, arrogant, easily swayed by fear. Sometimes we only learn things by suffering from the consequences of them. So, as Obama calls us to a higher level (even a national maturation from our adolescence) we all have to look at what lessons are to be learned. I don’t think an Obama election would have been possible for another 12 years were it not for Bush showing us at our worst. We as a nation put him in power (I know, most of us didn’t vote for him, but it’s still our system), and many of our elected officials went along, and let’s face it, for decades we’ve all benefited from this way of life).
• There was a lot of Quakerism during the event, not that Quakers hold any license to these things. First there was the inaugural poem which spoke of light and love. And then, there was the musical performance of Simple Gifts, the unofficial Quaker anthem that is an old Shaker song. (The irony – a simple song, praising simple things, turned into a masterful musical piece – what I’m trying to say is a simple theme but not simple to play). I think in many ways, Obama may help Friends to see that of God in all things, as he reaches out across ideologies, parties and nations.
• Cameras, cell phones, and leaving early: It was interesting to observe people trying to capture moments, rather than being in the moments. The former involves cell phones and cameras – really distractions from being in the moment. From where I was standing, for example, the view was really not great. I could see the main stage, but no one was distinguishable. The jumbotron was barely visible, and far away. And I’m 6’2”. Most people could not even see that. But arms were raised, cameras clicking, cell phones going with messages (the system was overloaded). Then, there were people who just seemed to “be”. Listening meditatively, many with tears. It was a reminder to me of the importance of both. I chose to just be. It moved my heart.
• My favorite line of the inaugural speech: the old way of doing things will not serve. It’s not a matter of less or more government; it’s “does government work?” This is a paraphrased quote, but the essence is I think what Obama will be all about. Barack Obama is not an ideologue: I think he will challenge Democrats and Republicans to come together in ways that are going to be real hard for people. We are so used to being divided, and not talking to our adversaries. He’s going to talk to everyone.
• Last night, as I was waiting for an hour for a bus in the cold (traffic problems), I saw countless limousines, tuxes, and lines for balls. Funny thing in NW DC: so much celebration, but done with wealth, and crowds mostly white. I suspect that if Obamanation really takes root, this too may all have to change. Think about how many hungry people could have been fed last night with all that money going elsewhere.

We have seen ourselves at our worst over the last 28 years (yes, 28!), as a nation. While Clinton was a bit of a respite, he did little to stem American hedonism (it’s not part of his nature – he is more of a “if it feels good, do it” kind of guy, and under his administration we saw the explosion of big cars, big houses, dot-com millionaires getting rich off of nothing, and far less done for AIDS, the environment and energy than could have been done, especially given the post-administration popularity for both him and Gore).

As Obama-nation sets in, I suspect it’s going to be like waking up with a hangover. We hold our heads, look around, and say “what the hell happened”. Then as the head clears, we are going to have some hard lessons – about greed and compassion. I think Obama can set the road map, but it is up to us to see it through, and that’s going to be a lot of change on our part. Many Democrats/liberals I know are already disappointed with his “moderate” actions so far (i.e. Rick Warren). I think Obama is operating on a whole different level – on a plane that is not liberal-moderate-conservative, but all of us. He can’t do this unless we are all willing to show up, and instead of “demand for me”, dialogue in a way that I am heard, you are heard, we all are heard, and then we can discern, together, a way that collectively meets basic needs first. We do need all hands on deck, not 51% beating 49% into submission. I’m optimistic that yesterday set us on that course.

Submitted by Brad

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Gay bishop...

"Gay bishop will kick of inauguration event" was the title of the e-mail that came in to my inbox from Human Rights Campaign.

Is that all that Bishop Robinson is?

There's not a whole lot to ponder about or to profoundly say about this. It is a sad commentary, I think, on the myopic vision of an organization as big as HRC that is supposedly out there representing all of us. It does speak to how I think the institutionalization of a cause ends up demeaning and dehumanizing the very people it is meant to serve (I've seen this in AIDS work as well).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I noticed on one of the DC buses recently an ad for Ikea. The message of the ad was “Embrace Change. Change begins at home”. I’ve also recently noticed both Coke and Pepsi are latching on to the “community” and “change” message. British Petroleum, the gas company, changed their logo a few years ago to look like some combination of sun and leaves, promoting a feeling of environmental awareness. Some other company had a “pay-it-forward” kind of ad (where a good deed comes around). All around us, the corporate world seems to be creating a feel-good message of change and community. Clearly, they are responding to something that is going on in our society and world. But we need to be careful. Yes, change is afoot, but the change that I think we are facing, is not just to feel good about drinking coke or shopping at Ikea. It’s got to be something much deeper, and I don’t know that I’ve seen much of that. Yet.

What I have seen is this: the same unfriendliness, impatience, and mean-spiritidness. Walking down the street and greeting people still garners no response. Bikers on the bike path still rarely announce their passing (except for the occasional bell-ring). Most amusing (and disappointing) is seeing the impatient, racing, horn-beeping driver with the “Yes We Can” and “Change” bumper sticker. It reminds me of the tail-gating Sunday morning driver in Wheaton IL who, when given the marginal opening to pass, displays a Christian fish on the back. Impatiently and rudely racing to church to be a good Christian.

See, the kind of change I think we need to be making is not a transactional change, but a transformational change. Transactional change is all externally-focused. It’s replacing a gas-guzzler with a hybrid. For someone like me, it’s taking HIV-medication to stay alive. For our society, it’s electing Barack Obama. For the above-mentioned corporations, it’s about buying their products.

Transformational change, however, is much more difficult, but is also much more lasting. For me, it includes:
• Being kinder, more loving.
• Not just driving a hybrid, but driving less and using alternative transportation more.
• Don’t just buy differently (paying attention to the social and environmental impact of the purchases), but perhaps consume less.
• Not just taking medication, but taking care of the spirit and soul, as well as doing exercise and attending to nutrition. And also increasingly being ok with the impermanence of life. Everything here could be a whole book.
In essence, transformational change really is an internal change, one that moves from being eternally dissatisfied to being eternally grateful, with a commitment to making all that we see in the world as kinder, better, less harmful, more peaceful. It is part existential – there is no “there” – and very spiritual.

It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out in the next two to four years. Clearly, the election of Obama creates an opportunity for change. But, are we going to look to him to be all the change we need, or are we going to look at this time as the opportunity to truly, fundamentally change the way we all live and work? Crisis is always a good time to look at these things, and we are certainly facing one of those, financially. Already, Obama has challenged us to be more open, more inclusive. He’s got Rick Warren and Bishop Gene Robinson (the “gay bishop”) participating in inaugural events. He’s going to call on us to make the change happen. Are we going to be there to make Obama a success? Or are we going to sit by, and watch with disappointment as we let him fail? As Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. Now is the time. If we want to see a more peaceful, more kind, more friendly, more just world, it’s going to be up to us to start living it.