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.