Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Dilemma of Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning is the Army Private accused of releasing classified documents to Wikileaks that created a global scene in the past few months. He has been kept in a military prison for over 215 days. No doubt, we should speak out that he be treated humanely and not be subject to any cruel and unusual punishment. We should also be vocal in our support that he be given a fair trial, and not be a scapegoat for something much bigger. But at the same time, I think it is important that we, as Friends, not blindly join in calling Manning a hero for being a whistle-blower in the name of justice. There is much more to the story of Manning himself and to the consequences of the information he has released that should concern us.

The first wave of information that Manning supplied to Wikileaks was about questionable military tactics in Iraq that resulted in civilian casualties. From the "whistle-blower" world, the military is denounced for violating the rules of engagement that call on the military to only attack opposing forces in uniform. Unfortunately, the opposition in both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not playing by these rules but are, instead, specifically hiding among civilians. I abhor war as much as the next person, but given the current state of affairs in this region of the world, it's actually surprising that there are not more civilian casualties.

It is because of my abhorrence of war that I am most concerned about the efforts to put Manning on a hero's pedestal. Other than the leaked video, the rest of the Wikileaks have not been in the "whistle-blowing" category. They have not exposed anything subversive or shocking. They have been full of, basically, gossip in the form of private communications among diplomats. The information itself is, for the most part, nothing new or shocking, but rather personal opinions among diplomats to help prepare for meetings and further diplomacy. It's the kind of stuff we all do - paint broad characterizations of people to help others prepare for interactions. Some of it is really no news at all - such as news that Berlusconi of Italy is a womanizer. Much of this has been amusing stuff from the outside; from the inside, the damage is not to the military but to the world of diplomacy and it is in the diplomatic world that we have our best hopes to avoid military conflict.

I would love to know what motivated Manning to release documents that are not at all related to "whistle-blowing" but only serve to hamper diplomacy. According to this Washington Post piece, there is a biographical narrative that seems to indicate he was driven not by moral outrage at his government, but something more personal.

I have seen flyers at a few Quaker Meetings and among writings of Friends calling for the unconditional release of Bradley Manning. I think it is easy for us to jump on this bandwagon because of our dislike of military action and this can be an outlet of moral outrage. But it seems to me that Pvt. Manning was not motivated by the same outrage. The State Department leaks are not of that nature. In these leaks, it seems to me that Pvt. Manning violated confidentiality by confiscating information that had nothing to do with government wrong-doing, and the result is embarrassing at a minimum and, more troubling, harmful to diplomacy. I think we have a responsibility, as Friends, to look more deeply at the issue rather than risk being over-reactive anti-military but uninformed or inconsistent with our values. Our integrity calls on us to ask for humane treatment and a fair trial, but also that we understand the difference between whistle-blowing of blatant wrong-doing and violating confidentiality for less clear reasons.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Friends and Patience: Rushing Transformation

(Written December 12, 2010)

As I sit on an incredible spot in the world - a home about an hour west of San Jose, Costa Rica, looking out over the mountains to the distant bay and sea - listening to the breeze and the birds, knowing that 17 dogs are all quiet, I am slowing down from the pace of life that we have set for ourselves in the US, in particular in the northeast. There are many ex-pats living down here; the majority of these folks are retired, and many that I have spoken with say they have retired here because they cannot afford to live in the US where they spent their careers. (The irony of this is that, as more folks from the States come here to retire, the cost of living goes up here, but that’s for another day.)

I have asked folks how they like living down here. To a person, so far, everyone has stated they love it. Sure, there are issues they face (bad roads in some areas, for example, crime in cities – especially pick-pockets, and a somewhat chaotic government system), but one thing many say they appreciate is the simplicity of life. One person commented to me that many of the houses owned by “Tikos” (native Costa Ricans) are small, but this is not necessarily a reflection of wealth as it is priorities. He said that the culture here is much more about living simply. As I have experienced in just about every place I have been outside the US, I see much the same thing. People live at a more casual pace, seeming a bit more content with what they have rather than constantly pursuing what they don’t have.

As I was leaving for vacation, the idea of patience and taking time was very much on my mind. In the month prior to leaving, I had had a few experiences of Friends expressing an interest and desire in exploring peacemaking, social justice and hospitality in what seems to be an increasingly divided and hostile world, and what we as Friends can and should do to bring about change. In both cases in which I facilitated either a workshop or presentation, there was limited time, and in both cases, after the workshop/presentation, it was clear that not having enough time was a problem. Then, just before leaving for vacation, we had a board retreat at William Penn House that was all-about story-telling. We spent the day telling stories – individual as well as collective, as we learned the art of storytelling. We were gently guided through an awakening process – external as well as internal. It was a great day, and something we want to continue. In some ways, it was a transformational experience in terms of self-awareness and in knowing about others. I also know that there are folks within Baltimore Yearly Meeting who want to explore singing and story-telling as part of our spiritual and community development. So I floated this idea to folks, with the proposal of a two-day workshop. Time was quickly raised as a barrier. People want to engage in, experience and learn tools for transformation, but don’t want to take the time.

I understand the pressures of time, and how full our calendars are. And yet, as Friends, if we are truly to be a part of a broader community in which we bring a greater sense of peace, and we want to see a transformation take place in our community, we are going to somehow have to learn to take time. That in itself is a part of the transformation. We need to take time to let things sink in, see what sticks, and come together after a good sleep and “non-task” time. But when we don’t allow for time, we do great disservice and perhaps even harm to the work. Things become hurried. Comments are made without the time for understanding and listening. Instead of healing, people can leave feeling unheard and perhaps discounted. It’s like making a cake. You can have all the ingredients, mix them together, put them in the pan and put the pan in the oven. You may then do other things, but your primary task is still tending to the cake. If you let it slip completely from your consciousness and drift too far either physically or, say, by falling asleep, the cake is ruined and all that work is for naught. This is why I am increasingly convinced that, if Friends are serious about wanting to make something beautiful with all the gifts of the people in our midst – including the transformational workshops – we are going to have to learn to attend to the importance of allowing time to do its transformational work.
We are going to have to engage in a practice of patience that we bring to the world, and not just practice when we remove ourselves. It can’t be rushed. Baking the cake at 500 degrees won’t make the cake better. It will only ruin it quicker.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bridging the Generations

This past weekend was busy, but also provided an opportunity to reflect on the intersection of theology, culture and politics as they relate to William Penn House, our mission, Quakers/Quakerism, and multi-/inter-generational work in a pluralistic society.

A brief recap:
Saturday was the board retreat. For the retreat this year, we had a 27 year-old man named Mike lead us in a workshop on storytelling as a craft. I had been a part of a storytelling workshop this past summer at Philadelphia Young Friends Camp Onas, and was fascinated and inspired by the experience, so I thought it would be a great exercise for the board in helping to do storytelling about William Penn House. What I am learning about this art is that it is not just about telling a narrative, but it is about bringing one's own narrative to life - exposing oneself, speaking from the heart, and, in doing so, becoming more conscious of it. It is a way of bearing witness. But, just as important, in engaging people in storytelling, we also learn how to listen to their story. We learn to use questions to elicit a story. It has the potential, I think, for building community as we learn to listen more deeply. This can then help to bring reconciliation, healing and peace to the community. We also can attune ourselves to listen for the societal narratives, and look for ways we can bring our voice to that narrative. Storytelling becomes a way to hear for process, not content and it really is process that needs to change in our lives and world.

Sunday started with a "second hour" discussion at a DC-area Friends Meeting about the responsibilities of Quakers in these times of two costly and seemingly-endless wars. (While we have ended military involvement in Iraq, there is still a strong military presence and what we have left behind has stronger ties to Iran, so this story is hardly done). The pragmatic reality is that not much can really be accomplished in one hour when we are talking about wars and what pacifists can do. Essentially, I just wanted to introduce some of the program ideas we have been developing at William Penn House that help us deepen our understanding of the root causes of war and unnecessary violence (for example, when our passions can create divisions and recognizing that divisiveness is a main building block for physical, cultural and biological violence). We talked about core truths, the importance of reaching out (actually not reaching out, but going out into the world) - basically the work of Radical Hospitality. In one hour, I wonder if actually it is counter-productive. Here's why: there were three people who raised issues. One made the claim that, until there is a safe place to say that Muslims - even radical Muslims - are inherently good people, there can be no end to war. A second person presented a flyer from AFSC about where our tax dollars are going, and people need to know this. A third person made the comment that people just need to know that the war in Afghanistan is wrong, and we need to protest a la 1960's and '70's as that is what ended the Vietnam war. These people are all my age and older.

Sunday evening, then, we had a potluck at WPH. Bryan Montanio, a grad student in architecture, presented on the earth building movement. Bryan is in his mid-20's, and has a gentle passion for this movement not just as an industry but as a means of social justice. He recognizes the time and effort it will take for this movement to take root on a broad scale, but his presentation left us with the impression that it can be done. It was energizing and inspiring. It was also not well-attended.

Here's what I take from the weekend: Between Mike and Bryan, I saw two people in their mid-20's using their talents and interests to make a difference. They don't necessarily have the "key" solution, but they see options, and they have optimism - hope. In Bryan's case, it's a career pursuit. In Mike's case, he does other, less-satisfying work so he can let his life speak through his side-interests. They are engaged in creatively developing new ways to address age-old problems and, as they engage in the telling of the stories, we become more conscious of our roles, narratives and options. Contrast this with some of the comments of people my generation and older at the Sunday morning meeting: "people just need to see what I see, and take the action that I think they need to take, and speak what I think needs to be spoken, and the world will be ok". There was anger, despair, hopelessness.

So the challenge is, how do we bridge these generations? Among some of the "elders", there is certainly wisdom and experience. No doubt, the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era were a part of bringing an end to the war. But what we need to have is conversations, not lectures. Wars during times of draft during times of voluntary service are very different beasts. I think the challenge is we have to look to those who don't volunteer for the military because of pacifism and ask "so how can you/I/we serve?" In asking this question, my experience is to ask people to consider visioning solutions, not getting stuck on problems because that is then all one sees, and to be creative in developing action steps that start with "I/me", not "them". This is the heart of my experience over the weekend: Bryan and Mike are starting with "here's what I'm doing" and inviting others to find what is theirs to do. The push-back I got from some on Sunday morning was "people just need to see and do what tell them" with a mix of righteousness and despair based on real experiences. It is this dance of life and hope that we must constantly do if we are to really make a difference.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Peace and the Struggle for Peace

Annually at William Penn House, we host our National Consultation Committee. Most of this committee's members are reps to the Friends Committee on National Legislation as well which starts the evening after we wrap up our gathering. Because of the FCNL connection, many of the people on our NCC are active and involved in social justice issues with an awareness of the role that advocacy and service play in our faith community.

This year, as the WPH staff and interns were presenting the continuously evolving programs and mission of William Penn House, it was evident that we have become much better at articulating what had been intuitive processes (such as "Radical Hospitality"). Because of this, conversations that ensue become a part of the evolving articulation which can then bring greater consciousness to the work as it relates to our core truths and our faith practice. It is a cyclical process that really highlights the power of conversations when we engage from a deep place of faith and respect.

On this particular day an observations made by the NCC members, as he listened to the story of how "Radical Hospitality" came to be and our on-going commitment and challenges to move towards being able to live this every day, is that he sees three main camps of Friends: birthright Friends for whom being Quaker has always been a part of their lives; people who are drawn to Quakerism because of it's "quietude" - the practice of silent worship that, for many, is so different than the chatter of their previous experiences; and those who are drawn to Quakerism because of the "Peace Testimony" and the struggle for peace. To over-generalize each of these, "identity", "faith-practice", and "values-aspirations".

Each one of these, in and of themselves, come with challenges and, when held up against each other, can become sources of further tension. The Quaker identity, for example, can become a source of division when it is held up against other faith identities. Our faith practice (sitting in waiting silence for the spirit to lead) can lead to some wonderful revelations and actions, but can be a paralyzing process when it mires us in mundane decisions, and can actually bring unnecessary tension to a faith committed to peace. The "value-aspiration/struggle for peace" work can also be a source of conflict internally as people with passion for action can get frustrated with inaction, and in the larger world, can be a source of division when we judge others who hold a different worldview, or proclaim that our course of action is the right one. To be sources of division as we struggle for peace can sometimes mean the we add unnecessarily to the struggle.

It seems that we, as Friends, have an inherent challenge and responsibility to nurture a flow among all of this - a flow that takes us out into the world, and back deep within ourselves, using the silent presence of spirit to ground and quiet us to go back out. But each time we go out or in, if we are doing this well, we become changed, perhaps even transformed. Going to the quiet space is not just a personal "time-out" to calm down, but to again sit with the spirit that was with us as we were out in the world. As a nun told me once, the real spiritual ministry work is when we cycle through going out and in, like a pendulum, throughout the course of our days, and not just as we go from one interaction and task to another, but even while in the doing of one task or interaction. We listen externally, and we come back to listening internally. I have found that in the rare times that I can consciously do this - struggle within my daily practice - greater peace can actually come.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"How was the Rally?"

After I broke my leg in 1999, I was in a hip-to-toe cast for a few months. Sometimes during this period, people would ask how my leg was as they stared at a completely immobilized leg while ignoring the "body". At other times, people were disbelieving when I would say I'm doing great. See, what I was learning during this period was life-transforming. I was learning how to not always run to the next thing, but to be in the moment, and to take time to consider my actions with greater forethought rather than be impulsive. All these were great things that, perhaps, would have come to me at some point, but basically having the use of one leg for 4+ months really deepened the lesson.

I was thinking of this yesterday as I was being asked "How was the Rally (to Restore Sanity)?" It was a great time. A huge crowd on a beautiful day. Both before and after the rally, I have had friends and family asking for reports. I find it difficult to give simple information about things such as this because of the context in which they are happening. Crowd estimates vary from 150,000-250,000, so something is going on outside the rally to bring that many people to one place at one time. I'm not sure that the sense of this can be captured easily. So here goes, in two parts. Use this as an analogy: "How was the college?" 1. The buildings were beautiful. 2. The education really has made a difference.

How was the Rally? The facts: I was riding my bicycle down towards William Penn House. I left my apartment at around 8AM. At first, I was surprised how little traffic was on the road and bike path, but as I neared the Air and Space Museum, the energy was buzzing so I opted to instead park my bike by the American Indian Museum and set up my chair and blanket under a tree on the first block near the stage. A real stroke of luck. By 9AM, the police closed off entry to this section. Like me, there were a few other people around me who laid out extra blankets and chairs for friends who could not get in, so we filled in for each other in sharing the experience. I walked around periodically to take in the signs and get-ups, so the 3+ hours went by fairly quickly. I had brought a book to read, and an Mp3 player to listen to Car Talk if I got bored, but being there was absorbing. There were people of all ages. Most of the signs were non-partisan. Many picked up on Jon Stewart's theme that Obama and Bush are not Hitler. I think that many of us who saw the "Bush=Hitler" signs and were silent need to perhaps to some reconciliation around our silence.

The performance started right on time. I won't go into the details of the performance itself as this is readily available on-line. But among the highlights for me were:
- Hearing John Legend's amazing voice singing "Dear God, I'm trying to believe in you. Dear God, I see your face in all I do." Stunning.
- Yusuf (Cat Stevens) coming out to sing one of the 1970's anti-war anthems ("Peace Train"). Rather than settling in to a serious peace message, though, Colbert almost sacrilegiously cutting him off, saying he can't get on the Peace Train, and bringing Ossie Osbourne on to sing "Crazy Train". The back and forth banter culminated in Yusuf and Ossie singing their songs simultaneously until the O'Jays ended the dispute with "Love Train". Colbert signed on to the Love Train because love can hurt and cause std's. Good stuff!
- The awards for sanity and fear were great. A really nice touch was Colbert giving one of his fear awards to Anderson Cooper's shirt rather than to one of the easier media targets (Limbaugh, Beck, Olberman). Cooper in general is perceived as a good guy - especially some of his recent work on anti-bullying. He is, however, one of the subtle fear-mongerers. Recognition of this is a good reminder of how pervasive the fear in the media is.
- Stewart's message was great. Not political (despite how some - including McCartney in the Washington Post - are shamefully representing it) but a reminder that we are all in this together, and only together will we be able to come out of this. "These are dark times, but not the 'End Times'" he said. I appreciate, as a fellow Jerseyite, the reference to the fact that, sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey. Even his message at the very beginning of the show asking the crowd to leave the mall cleaner than we found it ("plant topiaries if your a lanscaper") resonated with me. I often use this message in both Workcamps and program messages: the essence of peacemaking as a lifestyle is a commitment to leave a place better than it was upon arrival, regardless of whether it's in the daily routine such as re-stacking weights mis-laid by others at the gym and picking up trash while on a hike, or more pronounced such as mediating a conflict. It's about Stewardship ("Stewart-ship"?).

All in all, a wonderful show.

How was the Rally? The night before, I led a group of 8th grade students from a local private school on a Workcamp to help prepare foods as part of an all-encompassing meals/job-training/employment program in DC. These students chose to be there, as did all the other volunteers including some young adult professionals looking to be a part of and to give back to community. The private school (Norwood School) seems to do an amazing job of giving kids an opportunity to see the world and reflect on purpose. One of the kids even remarked that they were having more fun than being at home watching TV. This school also hosted a viewing of the documentary "Race to Nowhere", which speaks volumes to their admirable commitment to youth development, not test performance. I only bring this up to note that I already was in a pensive mood having spent the prior evening with youth and young adults with a passion for a better world - so much so that they were spending their Friday evenings actually doing something.

As I mentioned above, the rally itself was attended by, what I could see, people who really want to be a part of something different than the status-quo. But it was after the rally that there were deeper conversations about this. At William Penn House, we had an open house after the rally, inviting people to come in for cider and cookies. Many people came in, much appreciative of and a bit taken aback by the openness to strangers, but this is something we have embraced as a part of our "Radical Hospitality" (if I had been more on the ball, we should have done something similar during the Glenn Beck rally if we want to really walk our talk). When I first got back to the house, there were some older folks from Gettysburg at the table. Nice folks who were heading back to PA that afternoon. Most of the folks who came in afterward were also leaving town that afternoon, and were walking to the bus parking at RFK. For us, by opening our doors and welcoming in strangers, it was a good opportunity to quietly be an example of what the rally's message was - being civil.

One of the conversations around the table that flowed from one group to the next was "Do you think the rally will make a difference?" This, to me, is the real heart of the matter. Clearly, there is something stirring in society, but can a "call to Sanity" become a movement? Is our society really ready to take this on ourselves? The media and the politicians are not going to take the lead on this. The political parties are too much about power - so much so that they often penalize their own who try for some civil discourse (witness how Sen. Lindsey Graham has been treated). I do have to say that Republicans seem a bit better at this than Democrats, but I sometimes think that this is because Democratic leadership is lame and unfocused, not more civil. I reflected to one group from the Philly/Poconos area when asked these questions, "Isn't it up to us to have it make a difference?" I know from my experience working with people and groups not necessarily pro-what-I-want that we really can find the common ground and civility that is beneficial to our collective responsibility to leave the world better than we found it. A lot of the people at the table said that it won't be easy to bring about these changes - something as simple as turning off the 24-hour news - but, hey, no one said this would be easy.

So, how was the rally? Great! How would we like the rally to have been as far as making a difference? That's up to us. I'd encourage that we start now - by turning to each other to continue the momentum, and not read what the "pundits" have to say. They are already trying to snuff out any glimmers of light and passion that might spread. We don't have to pay them any mind. Between the kids on Friday evening and all the folks I spoke with after the rally, there is much to build on. It's not your parent's movement, for sure, but the hope and willingness seems to be there.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Are Quakers Prophets?

"Prophecies" are inspired declarations of divine will or purpose, according to Merriam-Webster. Synonyms are along the lines of predicting, prognosticating, foretelling and the like.

This has been rattling in my brain since early this weekend. I was present at Friends General Conference's Central Committee - a wonderful gathering of inspiring people who have accomplished a lot, cumulatively, over the course of their varying lengths of lives. As a collective body, however, I left wondering whether we are caught in a system that is less than the sum of our parts. A gelling, jarring and telling moment came when the word "prophetic" was used in describing one of the program proposals. Without going into too great detail, this had to do with a proposal to upgrade the web-presence of the organization so that its messages and communications can be more egalitarian and timely. I had to be honest (and spoke to this at the gathering): upgrading the web presence and technology is essential to today's world, and, given that we are now wrapping up 2010, this can hardly be considered "prophetic". "It's about time" is more appropriate although, given the challenges on the road ahead for FGC, and the fact that the plan calls for this process to take 3-5 years, "too late" might be even more apt.

One of the Quaker testimonies is "Community". There are only 5 testimonies. Technology has profoundly changed the face and networks of the global community, how things get communicated and how things get done. It is a wonder what community FGC has had a covenant with that it finds itself, technologically, this far behind the times. I wonder if this is not reflective of a deeper challenge not just of FGC, but of all the Religious Society of Friends, and our corporate process. Certainly, among Friends, there are countless folks out in the cyber-world active and engaged. Why have none of the governing bodies of Friends (FUM, EFI, FGC) embraced some of this energy and integrated it into their web-world?

Beyond the mere integration and adaptation issue, for FGC-Friends, I am troubled by the use of the word "Prophetic" as a self-descriptive term. To what extent are we, as Friends, so enamored with our prophetic, cutting-edge and radically-progressive past that we are completely blinded to our present? We talk about embracing diversity, but there was more diversity at the local bar in New Windsor with 20 people than at Central Committee with a gathering of 150+ Friends (I'm talking real numbers, not proportions). I continue to find little movement among Friends in promoting HIV-testing - a small thing that we could do to show greater unity in our communities. To not do so is an act of white-privilege, especially here in DC. I increasingly feel that their are a rising number of Quakers who are and can be prophetic, and some of their messages of the need for change are directed not at the outer-world but at the Friends institutions themselves. If what I witnessed this weekend is any indication, these institutions have a long way to go before their actions can really join the world in sharing prophetic messages again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thoughts on "Meaningful" Work

As I am about to end two plus years of leading a service-learning program, I am reflecting on my time here and the lessons I have learned. A common phrase I hear a lot is “meaningful work”. Pastors, youth group leaders, and parents have all use this term when they call to inquire about my programs. Over time I have found out that this is actually code for “instant grafication”.

Yesterday the phrase came up again, while reading a document on Quaker workcamps. In one section, the writers wrote that meaningful work needs to be important and effective, then they go on to give an example of how cutting back invasive species is not meaningful work.

For the past two years, I have collaborated with Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), an organization devoted to removing invasive species from the local watershed in Washington DC. From the dedicated employees of AWS, I have learned about an epic environmental disaster happening in our midst. This disaster threatens our whole eco-system, because the invasive species only support, on average, 5% of the species that native flora support and in many cases, the invasive species have been growing wild for more than a hundred years. This disaster threatens our food supply because of the way the food chain works, i.e. if insects disappear, then their predators are at risk, and so on. AWS have developed a five to seven year plan for sites of eradicating invasive species. The organization is always in need in volunteers to help with this work. In an afternoon, a group can make a tremendous amount of progress if they are part of an organized plan, like the one developed by AWS.

Instead of these types of projects, leaders want their groups to volunteer at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc… These places have a need for volunteers too, but most of the time, they are filled to the brim with volunteers, sometimes a year in advance. Adults ask for these places, because they want to get to know people in need. I can count on one hand the number of conversations I have had at soup kitchens with the clients, because when you are serving food or cleaning up after people there is not time to sit and talk. But, the volunteers leave feeling good about themselves when they go home to their own bed, because they have “helped” someone. Where is the volunteer when the client needs something to eat the next day? How many tested models are there for eradicating hunger or homelessness in five to seven years from an entire section of a city?

For the adults who ask for “meaningful” work, they are great adults who are dedicated their lives to working with youth in their community and they want to ensure a great experience for their group. In addition, groups are needed to volunteer in all areas. I try to plan workcamps that include all types of volunteering, because these issues are all connected. How can you help people out of hunger and ignore a problem that threatens our source of food? The error is calling one type “meaningful” and another “unmeaningful”. If we are unwilling to work on an issue affecting our community, then who do we expect to work on the issue?

I see in the history of Quakers as investing in long-term struggles, whether the issue was slavery, peace, suffrage, civil rights. Friends devoted their whole lives to causes that did not end in their own lifetime. Friends, generation after generation, continued working on the same issues and changing their own lives to bring about the change they advocated for. Friends today are continuing in this tradition by working on a wide range of issues. Friends Testimonies remind us to consider how our lives, individually and corporately, affects the rest of the world.
In our youth programs now, are we teaching our Young Friends about how solving problems take a long-term plan and vision or are we more interested in teaching band-aid solutions that ignore larger less glamorous issues?

-Greg Woods

Monday, September 27, 2010

Does God speak only through the Silence?

As I have had conversations with people about core truths of Quakerism, reflecting on our faith, values and practice, there has been one level of thinking that keeps popping up. To put it into a query: "To what extent do we act as if our practice of silence feeds a sense of righteousness because we believe God only speaks through the silence?" I quickly take this to another level of query: "To what extent might it not be that God speaks to us, but that we can become more practiced in deep listening that is perhaps our greater asset to the world?"

Here's what I mean: Our practice is to wait in silence and to be spirit-led in our Meeting messages as well as in our Meetings for Business. What seems to happen is that we go through this process and then take what emerges as our marching orders. We often proceed with a clarity of "here's what needs to happen", "here's where the injustice is", etc.

But what if we instead went forth with a commitment to nurturing and seasoning the sense of the group no matter where we go? Imagine going and sitting in conversation, fellowship, and service with people of other faiths, cultures and beliefs, and listening for the spirit and sense in that gathering. I don't mean sitting with fellow liberals or moderates of different faiths or colors - that's too easy. I mean, sitting with people where we are not necessarily welcome or may not feel comfortable, and being a loving presence, listening for God.

I am learning to view our practice in our Meetings for Worship for Worship with a concern for Business (or any other issue) as just that: PRACTICE. But, as a former runner, I know that practice is what we do in preparation for the real events, the ones that engage the "other". And, rather than look at this as a competition where we want to be the better/wiser person, we instead want to be the best bridge-builder, listener, loving-presence. Let it be our practice and our process that we bring forth externally, rather than hold it internally while sharing the outward message.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Too busy to notice?

We were sitting in the office at William Penn House the other day, and Greg showed Susan (Byron's wife) a trailer clip of a documentary called "Race to Nowhere". The main message of this documentary is that we have become a society in which our children are not allowed to be children anymore. There is too much pressure coming from all segments of society (parents, colleges, media, government, performance tests) that children need to succeed in school to the point that they are overburdened. One of the quotes is "our children are pressured to perform, but are they really learning?"

This past Spring, a student at a NY state high school gave the valedictorian speech in which she called out the education system. In her speech, she talked about the goal of the education, from her experience, is to excel and to get out, but not to learn. She said "while others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it." She referred to herself as the "best slave" by doing what she was told "to the extreme".

At William Penn House, we run Quaker Workcamps. We work with many youth groups from schools all over the country. For many of these youth, the reality is that they are doing the service not because they care, or because their strength is in service, but because they have to meet the school requirements. When I fill out the forms for students, I don't think I have ever seen a question about whether the student seemed to have a passion or gift for service. Most of the questions are about whether the student participated and was cooperative - basically, was the student obedient. Questions are asked about whether hours were completed, but not whether a project was completed. Even the organizations we work with and advocacy groups I am connected to don't encourage thinking. Scripts are given, but thinking about solutions to problems is not encouraged.

Almost thirty years ago, when I was first starting my work career (working in a mental health center with children not able to make it in public schools) I read a book by Tufts sociologist David Elkind called "The Hurried Child". This book called attention to the dangers of exposing our children to overwhelming pressures that can lead to low self-esteem, pregnancy and suicide, and that in blurring the boundaries of what is age-appropriate, by expecting - or imposing - too much too soon, kids are forced to mimic adult sophistication while secretly yearning for innocence. The third edition of this book (published two decades later) found that the problem had only been compounded by media, schools, home, and new technology such as the internet and video games. The subsequent decade did not alter this at all.

In all the meetings and networks I have been involved in, including Peace/Justice committees and networks, not once has the concern for this pattern been raised as a serious issue. But to me, nothing is more important than education, and not the kind that tells people what to think, but actually nurtures the ability to think. Real deep learning, I think, is as much art, play (one of the reasons I enjoy the workcamps is it is an opportunity to bring play to service), creativity and research as it is performance, but we have come to put way too much emphasis on performance.

Recently, as I was stepping into the clerking position for BYM Peace and Social Concerns Committee, I requested that the committee take a day together to discern, as a committee, what is ours to do. I sent this suggestion out to the committee of about 12 people. Only three responses came back and were the same: "we are too busy". And yet, when I see what people are doing, I don't see a whole lot of collaboration which, in its purest sense, is about making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I do see a lot of networks and activities that, because they lack creativity, play, and visioning of solutions, end up often producing less than the sum of its parts. As an aside, in my experience, when true collaboration happens, we can actually be less busy but more effective.

There is a societal pattern here of keeping people busy without really thinking about what we are doing. It gets even worse when you consider that there are people working in various systems (including non-profits) who are doing studies and running programs as they always have not because it is the right thing. In some cases they know what they are doing is pointless, wasteful and even counter-productive, but they do it because they are being told to do it and it is the way it has always been done.

In the documentary "Race to Nowhere", one person says "This has to stop somewhere!" But where? Dr. Elkind warned of this almost 30 years ago, but few seemed to notice - in fact, things have gotten worse. The NY state valedictorian spoke up, so maybe that's a start. The fact that Norwood School in Bethesda MD is hosting a screening of "Race to Nowhere" and publicizing it on their website could also be a part of that start. But where are Friends schools on this? I was fortunate to go to Cambridge Friends School in a time when play, creativity, and self-directed learning seemed more weighted than they are now. I never even saw a letter-grade until high school (thanks, Mom and Dad, for that one - seriously!) Are we, as Friends, going to live our gospel truth that there is "that of God in all", and take the time to allow for the youth to develop their own soul and their own way, or are we too busy? As the Religious Society of Friends that includes Friends Schools, can we follow Norwood's lead, recognize that the performance-driven world is doing nothing to break the cycle of violence and unsustainability that we are currently on. Should not Friends schools, because of our gospel truth, be at the forefront of this? When I see so many such schools committed to their students going to the best schools, I have to say "no, not now". But when I get to know the kids, and some of the people working in these schools, I can see that the potential is there. It's just going to take some courage for us all to stand together, as the valedictorian courageously did, and say "This has got to stop".

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Root Causes" vs. just roots

I was attending the BYM Peace and Social Concerns Networking Day on Saturday. It was a beautiful sunny day, and Sandy Spring Meeting is a beautiful surrounding. The gathering was a spirited and passionate group of Friends who vary greatly in where they focus their passions and social justice efforts. Among the issues: Israeli/Palestinian conflict (with an leaning toward Palestinian rights); mental health services; Muslim relations and understanding; peace scholarships; and environmental laws and policies. Among the various actions: prayer vigils, letters to Obama and elected officials, petitions, education and awareness events, and relationship building efforts (notably between Friends and Muslims).

Among the discussions, there were a few things about the process that struck me. First, there were two Monthly Meetings that seemed to reflect where my own passions are - that all things are interconnected. One of the Meetings started their report stating that they were "all over the board", as they see our current path (globally) is unsustainable, using the concept of "peak oil" as an example. Having this vision of the world - that not only is reducing fossil fuel consumption a good idea, but is a harsh reality that will happen whether we want it or not - influences the way one sees all the other issues of the world. We have an infrastructure that depends on fossil fuels for existence - our homes, our cars, our economy - and we have not made the paradigm shift needed to move away from this. The result is an increasingly volatile geo-political environment as pipelines for oil are extended deeper and farther into more hostile environments of all sorts. This view can do two things: bring a greater sense of clarity of what we need to change in our lives, and make many of the other social justice efforts seem like "window dressing", sort of like fiddling while Rome burns.

Second, there was one Meeting's committee that was not looking at topics, but process. It was considering the extent to which it can nurture individual leadings, serve as a source of education for its members, take on issues as a committee, and reach out to others on common causes. Basically, this committee seems to be considering how to do things more holistically, and how it can get the "most bang for its buck" in terms of energy. I personally think that this is one of the most important things that we can do as Friends. Minutes, epistles, and prayer vigils are fine things, but they are also actions that place the responsibility for problems and how to fix them on someone else, somehow conveniently elevating our own lives and lifestyle above reproach.

This leads me to another thing that has stuck with me from this meeting: a discussion of systemic and root causes. I think it is real easy for people to regress into a highly intellectual discussion about the "root causes" or "real problems" of the world that tend to accomplish very little other than perpetuate blame while fostering a sense of powerlessness. For those of us on the left, this tends to boil down to terms like "multi-nationals" (including banks) and "oligarchies". I am in no way denying that these are not fundamental to our challenges in working for a more just and egalitarian world, but, in pontificating about "them", we are in denial of how we who live in comfort and have thrived off the backs of the disenfranchised for centuries have been beneficiaries of these institutions. We can talk about root causes as if there is some linear cause/effect formula in play, but I prefer to just see that the roots of all we face are deep, connected and have been there a long time. Moving to community banks will not end homelessness - we are going to have to drastically change how we live. I don't mean "we" in a euphemistic "them" way, I mean "we" as in you and me. In fact, I would say that our ability to sit in comfort and talk about the big problems of the world, while our actions are whittled down to pointing out where others are flawed is a form of oligarchy in itself.

I juxtapose this with the main speaker we had that morning. Nathan Harrington is a young man who has started an intentional community in southeast DC while working in some of the more challenging school districts (currently in Prince George's County, MD). His story is full of courage and humility, a gentle balance of following a moral compass with meeting his own needs. He readily admits that finding a home in southeast DC was as much driven by affordability as motivated by conscience. But the entirety of the story is simple: he is bearing witness, and is a vehicle for consciousness. In doing so, I believe he sees more clearly the nuances of social trauma as it has played out over the centuries, and how painstakingly slow the work of reconciliation and sacrifice will be. It is his radical example that I hope to inspire in the real work of the Peace and Social Concerns committee as the real justice work of Friends.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Where are my First Amendment rights?

Last week, after more than 8 years of discerning, I signed up for the Selective Service.

Every male resident of the United States of America, between the ages 18 and 26, have to sign up for the Selective Service, which will supposedly help in the time of a draft. (This is debatable if the Selective Service would actually help at all in the time of a draft.) If males do not to sign up, they could face jail time or fines. When the government pursued legal action against non-registrants (males who didn’t sign up for the selective service), they were highly unpopular and resulted in more males deciding not to sign up. So, in the early 1980s, Congress passed the Solomon Amendment, which prohibits non-registrants from receiving federal financial aid for college. Since then, there have been more restrictions, such as denying non-registrants access to most federal jobs. Most states have also passed laws denying non-registrants drivers licenses and barring from attending state colleges.

I believe that the Selective Service is a part of war and I oppose participating in war. My belief comes from my Quaker upbringing. In a 1660 letter to King Charles II, a group of Quakers wrote in their first statement of pacifism:

Our Principle is, and our Practices have always been, to seek peace and ensue it, and to follow after righteousness and the knowledge of God, seeking the Good and Welfare, and doing that which tends to the peace of All. We know that Wars and Fightings proceed from the Lusts of men (as James 4: 1-3), out of which Lusts the Lord hath redeemed us, and so out of the Occasion of War. The Occasion of which War, and the War itself (wherein envious men, who are lovers of themselves more than lovers of God, lust, kill, & desire to have men’s lives or estates) ariseth from the lust. All bloody Principles & Practices we (as to our own particular) do utterly deny, with all outward Wars, and Strife, and Fightings with outward Weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our Testimony to the whole World.

When I was in middle school, I sent letters to every representative and senator I could asking for them to end the Selective Service. I had hoped that the Selective Service would end before I had to sign up, so I wouldn’t have to decide whether to register or not.

Sadly the law did not change. On my 18th birthday, I thought I would make a stand and write a letter to the editor decrying my position, but I did not. Over the past eight years, I have been a conscientious objector. I have not been able to apply for federal aid for college, apply for state jobs in my home state of Missouri or most federal jobs.

During the past eight years, I started reading the Bible and I am now call myself a Quaker and a follower of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9) I believe that killing people and war is against Jesus' teachings. I know people have other interpretations, but this is how I read His teachings.

I ended up violating my conscience and my religious beliefs and signing up for the selective service because in less than a month I turn 26 and I would be bar permanently from most federal jobs. I found that I have been silent about being a conscientious objector, so what is the use of holding onto a belief if I am too scared to publicly voice a belief? Also, I hope to one day be married and have a family and I don't want my decision to adversely affect my future family.

I comprised my moral and my religious beliefs against war to comply with this law. Where are my First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion?

For more information about Selective Service and Non-registrants, visit
Center on Conscience and War

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Core Truth of Quakerism?

Earlier this week, I sent out a one-question survey asking people what they thought the core truth of Quakerism is and has been since the beginning. So far, 80 responses have come in. We will be doing much more with this information - mostly using it for further discussions and conversations and encouraging Friends how our individual and collective belief informs our actions and our stances on issues. What I want to do here is to give people who are curious the most basic overview and observation about the responses
First, an observation about the responses (something I would encourage people to have further reflections about): it was not always clear whether people responded based on what they as individuals believe the truth to be, or what they believe it is based on what they know and observe corporately. For others, it also seemed that their responses were what they felt this truth should be, but is perhaps not what it is.
Second, about the responses themselves: they seem to fit into 3 main themes. The first (and the one that received almost half of the responses) is along the lines of "There is that of God in everyone." The second was similar, except for a "continuing revelation/availability" component. For example, the Light of God is available to all, but there must be some seeking for it to be there. The third area was the Quaker Testimonies (mostly, Peace, Integrity, Community. The few "Equalities" I categorized with "there is that of God in everyone"). The last category, at this point, is more of a miscellaneous, very Christ-centered. I'm going to ask Faith to spend some time with me on these.
Each of these areas can be good for reflection. One thing Byron and I talked about, however, is that the first two themes ("There is that of God in all" or is available to all through continuing revelation) I think call on us Friends to look at how we engage with others. In both these cases, if we hold them as unequivocal truths, shouldn't we commit to engaging with all people - including FUM? In the first theme, if God is in all, it is there as well, and we won't see it if we disengage. In the second theme, continuing revelation means staying with things and seeing what unfolds. Of course, revelation is different than strategizing and planning - it takes that leap of faith, trusting that core truth.
As for the theme of the Testimonies, these present a different level of discussion. For example, if our core truth is Peace, what does that mean? We live in a violent world, so just saying "peace" accomplishes what?
My hope is that this starts a vibrant exploration among Friends: What is your individual core truth? What is the Truth of Friends? Are they the same? How can they be the same when the answers are so different? Can we find a "common denominator"?
More to come...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Racism, White Supremacy and White Privilege

Over the weekend, there was a bit of a media firestorm about comments out of the NAACP that there are elements of the Tea Party that are racist. Despite the protestations of Sarah Palin and the denial by VP Biden, it's clear that there are certainly elements of racism in the Tea Party. Denial of this is not good, but so is over-generalizing. But this has had me thinking about racial issues in our society, and how ill-equipped we are at having real conversations.

Coincidentally, two weeks prior, some friends and I were having dinner, and the conversation turned to race. I made the distinctions between racism, white supremacy and white privilege. One friend said that these are all racism, and the effort to distinguish them was more to placate myself. Maybe so, but as I pointed out to him (also a gay man), people that are for 90% of gay rights are not in the same category as people like Fred Phelps who think the glbt community should have no rights.

But I think these are good questions for conversation: what are the differences between these terms, and why does it matter? I would say that the differences of these have to do with variations on two scales: intent and consciousness. For conversation sake, I'll apply this to blacks and whites, but we could, with adaptation, apply it to gender and sexual orientation. Racism, to me, suggests intent to keep others down based on race. White Supremacy is a belief that white people are a superior race to black people, but that does not necessarily mean people should not have the same rights. Abraham Lincoln and many of the Republican abolitionists of his time were white supremacists, and were more driven by the ideals of freedom for all than out of concern for blacks. No doubt, Lincoln detested the institution of slavery, but he did not view the black race as equal. (Lincoln was truly remarkable and was very much a product of his time; this is not to knock him, but to try and look at him objectively, compared to the "liberals" of his time).

White privilege seems to be a bit trickier and elusive but, to me, is rampant in our society. It is trickier because there are many of us who believe that all are created equal and should have equal opportunities, but are perhaps not aware of the privileges our own skin color affords us. Nor are we willing to perhaps give up these privileges so that we can work towards the true equality we believe in.

Working at William Penn House continues to give me an opportunity to explore these issues - not with a vision to the past but a vision to the future. I work with and interact with many Friends organizations and meetings and there is rarely much in the way of racial diversity. Often these groups may lament the lack of diversity in their "body", but do little to go out and be a part of creating that diversity - not by having people "come here", but by going there, congregating at other places, moving to different neighborhoods, etc.

I think all of this is tricky, and certainly not easy. But as Friends, I do think that we would do well in times like this not to jump on the "Tea Party=Racists" bandwagon, but to instead reflect on our own white privilege and what we can do about that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Transformational Experiences

This year, at the annual Friends General Conference Gathering, held last week in Bowling Green, Ohio, I noticed a theme of personal transformation in the three evening plenaries. On Monday night, George Lakey addressed not avoiding conflict. During his talk, George shared several stories about how he and groups he has worked with have been transformed though taking a nonviolent approach to conflict, instead of acting violently. For instance, he once led a workshop where he conscientiously allowed a bitter debate to happen between two groups of young people coming from two different sides of an ongoing bloody conflict. This idea frightened his co-leaders, but they allowed the debate to happen and the debate revealed more than two sides to the conflict they had come from. This realization allowed each group to see that common ground was possible between the two groups. At dinner that night after the debate, the groups were intermixing and laughing, which didn't happen before the debate.

On Tuesday night, Phillip Gulley talked about universalism and Quakerism. During his talk, he spoke about a transformative experience he had where he realized, at age 24, that he believed in universalism. He called this a "peak experience". He defines universalism as everyone is invited to God's "party". Then on Thursday night, Amanda Kemp shared her wonderful play, "Show me the Franklins! Remembering the Ancestors, Slavery and Benjamin Franklin", which focus on having people recognize past history of slavery in the United States in order to help transform race relations in present day.

For me, amid listening to all of these plenaries, I started to reflect on the transformations I have experienced in my life, especially a transformation that led me to become a follower of Jesus in the last couple years.

For most of my life growing up, I believed in a higher power of some sort, but I couldn't put a name on this higher power. As I transformed to become a follower of Jesus in my early 20s, I was heavily influenced by the actions of several Christian friends who lived out their faith in their daily lives. I remember, during World Gathering of Young Friends in 2005, hearing Latin American Friends talk about the love of Christ that they had felt, which was the first time I heard about the love of Jesus. Growing up I heard much more about the wrath of God or, if I didn't believe in God or call myself a Christian, I would go to hell. Then I would see these same people, who had told me this, live lives full of lies and deceit, so I wondered often why I would want to identify with that kind of religion.

As I reflect on this experience, I realized I wasn't alone in my journey, even through it was a personal transformation. When I started exploring living a life following the teachings of Jesus, I had people willing to listen to my questions and reflection, even if they didn't think or feel similarly. These friends would pray with me, or offer books for me to read, or even just offer to sit with me. Looking back, my transformational experience resulted from inward reflection, being open to change, and soaking up several different experiences while practicing mindfulness, rather than any one specific profound experience. This is where my transformational experiences differ from what George and Phil talked about in their plenaries, because they talked more about particular, specific turning points. I can't remember any specific moment that I felt transformed immediately. For me, my transformations have usually been the culminations of a variety of experiences.

With my transformations so far, I have also realized that these transformations have come from inside me, not from outside influences. Nothing about me changed physically after any transformational experience nor did I become a new person overnight. I am the same person, but these experiences have caused me to view the world in different ways than before.

Currently I run Washington Quaker Workcamps, when I try as best as I can to include the ingredients for a transformative experience during each workcamp, like having different activities each day, hosting outside speakers to come talk about the topic we have, and leaving space for ample reflection each day. I do know fully that I cannot create, manufacture, or guarantee a transformative experience for the participants, because I know it will be a inner realization that will cause the experience to happen, rather than anything I can ever try to plan.

In thinking about transformational experiences, I find myself wrestling with these two questions:

How can I further open myself up so I can be transformed again by the Inward Light?

How can I assist others in opening up themselves to transformations in their own lives?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"We Believe that Peace is Preferable to War"

These were some of the words listed on the Welcome sign at Pipe Creek Monthly Meeting in Union Bridge, MD. I will get back to these words later, but here’s what was going on:

I was with two Friends who are members of Gun Powder Meeting, and actively involved in Friends Schools as educators. They are also kindred spirits in our shared desires to challenge ourselves to connect to the core values of Quakerism and peace-making in a divided and contentious world. With these Friends and 5 others, we had just spent the prior evening sharing a picnic supper in a meadow surrounded by woods and hills. I had asked to get together with this couple as a part of my own clearness and discerning process about Quakerism in the world, and the potential role that William Penn House can play in both that larger world and in the Society of Friends.

The evening discussion was very enriching. Increasingly, as I venture in the world of Quakerism while deepening my own internal journey of what it means to identify with and be called to Quakerism, I have been asking people “what is the core, unshakable truth and value of Quakers?” The answer has been almost universally in the spirit of “there is that of God in all” (with secular/universalist/Christian variances). Much of our discussion from there revolved around, if this is our unshakable truth, then everything else must be held open with an element of doubt; that, when we adhere to an issue – from war to Republicans and conservatives – we have to challenge ourselves to not place this ideology above our core value. It is not easy, we all agreed. We shared some ideas about resources that can help us to do this work, and we shared personal experiences of when we do really put ourselves out there, letting go of our ideology and trust in that core belief that there is that of God/goodness in all, and we operate with love, the world really can seem wonderfully changed. “Continuing Revelation” was a term used to describe this. We also discussed how Friends are ideally not holders of Truth, but Seekers of Truth, and seeking is a journey of continuing revelation.

One of the topics we discussed was the role that Quaker process plays in both our faith and practice. We talked about how the practice at its best works well, as God moves in all of us. We also acknowledged the Quaker process can be misused to the point that it creates paralysis, such as when lengthy Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business are tied up with wordsmithing minutes and epistles for hours without perhaps a healthy discussion of whether this effort will ultimately make a difference. I questioned whether, sometimes, we are more committed to seeing that we do our process right so that we sometimes are hindered from doing the right thing. Other side conversations included the role that service can play in helping us to go out and explore the world, recognizing that it is important that service be truly transformational not just for those who serve, but for those being served and the world, and that, for some, service and Workcamp experiences can help ground and deepen people in their faith. All in all, it was a very rich and rewarding time together.

Then, the next day, as I was graciously being given a ride to Shady Grove Metro (I had ridden my bike up on Friday, and the rain Saturday gave me an easy way to accept the ride offer, as I was whipped from the hilly humid ride), we drove through Union Bridge. My hosts had never been to Pipe Creek Meeting, and had been wanting to. Just when we thought we might be on the wrong road, there was the Meetinghouse and, after a tour of the wonderful cemetery, we saw the welcoming sign that included citations that Quakers do not have credes, but that we are seekers of Truth. But it was the statement “We believe that Peace is Better than War” that really struck us and has stuck with me. I find this so much more open and engaging than “War is not the Answer”. While I truly believe war is not the answer, I also know that this is truly my belief. By holding it as that, rather than as a definitive statement, I think there may be more openings for conversation. By also believing that peace is better than war, I suspect many people who may at times see war as an answer will also agree with our this statement, and from this common ground, who knows what might come. As many of us who gathered Friday evening can attest, if we hold true to our core faith, and trust in continuing revelation, wonderful things will come.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Friends' Gatherings: Exercises in High-Mindedness or Humility?

“Originally the Lincolns were Quakers, but gradually they fell away from the beliefs and habits of those high-minded folk.” This sentence comes from “With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln” by Stephen Oates, a book I started reading yesterday. As we enter the high season for big Quaker gatherings (Yearly Meetings, FGC), I sometimes wonder how sentiments such as this should be held up as challenges for us at these gatherings. Do gatherings nurture humility or high-mindedness? Do they support our ability to live in the world as one of many, with an ability to engage diverse ideas and theologies, celebrating each others truths? Or do they reinforce in us what we believe to be true in such a way that we are condescending to others?

At various things I have attended, I have often been struck by the “segregationist” tendencies that can arise. Interactions with “others” are minimal – whether it is among people sharing conference spaces, or venturing into nearby towns. I understand that these gatherings are for fellowship, and it is important to spend time among ourselves, but I wonder sometimes how much of this fellowship is about deepening the faith that grounds us, or how much is about nurturing a sense of righteousness that contradicts the core value of our faith. I have heard young Friends at gatherings talk in condescending tones about others in their schools not because of any acts but because they are “Christians” or “Republicans”. These sentiments are often received with agreement and therefore reinforced. Likewise, at a workshop I was running at one gathering last year, participants expressed that they never have an opportunity to interact with more conservative folks despite the fact that the Annual Sessions were held in a conservative town. It’s not that the opportunities are not there; it’s that at these gatherings, we have not nurtured the ability to see them. This plays out far beyond our gatherings. Throughout the year, I hear liberal Friends condescend “Christians”, “Evangelicals” and “Republicans” but perhaps not really having relationships. It’s a process that keeps us blinded to seeing their goodness.

Juxtapose this with this Chinese Proverb I saw yesterday: “The broad-minded see the truth in differences: the narrow-minded see only differences.” To be broad-minded does not mean being uncertain, but it does challenge us to see the limits of our certainty, and to be willing to look at ethical and moral dilemmas that confront us as we strive to live our values with integrity in community. As we move forward, can these gatherings influence be places that broaden our minds while deepening our faith? Can they be places where we spend more time looking at what our core unshakable values are, and where we practice living these among ourselves and in the world?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Love, Authority, and Effectiveness

This past weekend, an announcement was made at the end of the Meeting for Worship I was attending. After a series of ministry messages about love, authority and effectiveness, an elderly woman rose to say that the next day, Monday, she and another woman were going do camp themselves outside of a bank in town and hand out flyers denouncing this bank’s continued investment in coal companies that do mountain-top removal. Why were they choosing this bank in particular? Because the bank had just recently completed construction of a new, green building in town. I find it a bit ironic that this bank was being targeted not because it doesn’t care about the environment, but because it does, but perhaps not enough. When I related this story to my sister, she said that this bank has also been a big backer of a lot of community programs including support of affordable housing.

My gnawing question has been: Is this an effective strategy for change? Because this bank has taken action and gotten some good publicity on environmental issues, should they be in line for a protest because they lack full integrity by continuing to profit from mountain-top mining? Do we leave other banks and companies who have more integrity – they don’t care about the environment at all? And what about our own integrity? Really, don’t we all benefit from the destructive but cheap mining of coal that helps keep energy costs down? And what about the printing up and handing out of flyers – the majority of which would end up in the garbage?

All of this creates a dilemma for me. I definitely think that we need to address issues such as mountain-top removal for coal. It’s a horribly destructive way to get energy. But I’m not sure that alienating a company that has made some environmental strides and has been a fairly responsible community partner is effective. This also has me wondering about the effectiveness of protests in general. Perhaps early in movements, when no one seems to be caring or taking action, these are effective ways of getting people to just pay attention. But as we get to the root causes and the challenges of community transformation, the work of change becomes more complex.

One of the ministry messages in Meeting that morning had been that Love is our ultimate authority, and our effectiveness increases not when we use love to manipulate people to what we want, but when we engage in people and situations so that we can be more loving. With this bank, I wonder how we can be more loving in expressing our gratitude for what they have done and concerns for what they continue to do. I know we will also have to look at our own complicitness if we want to truly be effective.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Quaker Universalist

I am reticent to voice views on religion because the true believers seldom listen and if they do it is for the gotcha moments. But here goes. I think that the bible and other tomes of faith are superb marketing manuals. They sell their products primarily to the choir and make their arguments to the skeptics as if there is but one path and the skeptics already know that but just need to be reminded. And the warranty is eternal life. No proof, no documentation, no buy back. And if you missed the first boarding you can be born again and get a free pass.

And none of this has anything to do with how you live your life, how you treat your fellow humans and even less how well you steward your corner of creation. And then, if you don’t subscribe to the sales pitch, your warranty is voided even if you are Ghandi, Buddha or Moses. So individuals who live exemplary lives, caring for others, for the earth are excluded not because they have not met all of the requirements but because they have not met the litmus test based on interpretations of a book that was written decades or centuries after the death of the prophet.

We tend to overlook the history of Christianity. The state religion of Rome, of the Spanish, the British, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Flemish and their roles in conquering Indian and African peoples. In the US there is the legacy of slavery, segregation, genocide and now homophobia. The history of the bible justifying hatred continues and this from a church founded in the name of a man of great love, caring, concern and selflessness.

How have these sins of the past affected people who were colonized by these Christian nations? And has the church or the churches owned up to this horrid legacy and made amends?

When I hear or see evidence that current Christians are serious about righting their wrongs, then I will be interested in a dialogue. With this legacy, it is understandable why the true believers talk about Their faith but are closed to the messages of others.

The Religious Society of Friends has been enriched by other faiths and by the moral leadership of non-Christian leaders such as the Dalai Lama. How long has it been since there was a Christian of his stature? To restrict our faith to one path is counter intuitive and deepens the divides that we already share.

I am not a Christian but I am a Quaker.

"You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Book of James

Sunday, May 23, 2010

If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish

Recently I have read several contemporary Friends' writings that tries to align themselves with early Friends. I also have witnessed numerous occasions during discussions early Friends being brought up and used against others to bolster claims of un-Quakerly acts and thoughts. Are we listening to God or to our egos when we enlist early Friends to support our claims? These holier-than-thou statements help to reinforce deep divisions within Quakerism and drive people away.

For a long while, I have been frustrated with this problem of Holier-than-thou stances made by some Friends, but I have not been able to articulate my concern. As I have thought about this more, I realized that I had this same frustration for a long time with Christianity in general. I believe that the roots of Quakerism are fundamental to our faith, but Quakerism should not be fundamental towards the roots, because we are a faith of continuing revelations, which is a similar view I currently hold of Christianity. This is why we as Friends still gather each week in our communities to hear the continuing revelations from God. If we believe that early Friends really figured it all out, why should we still gather for waiting worship? Maybe we should then just study early Friends' writings for an hour, instead of having meeting for worship.

Personally I don't want to be an early Friend. I am a 21st Century Friend. I do indulge responsibly in the tavern culture, I like to date non-Quaker women, I enjoy listening to sermons at other churches on Sunday and several other things that early Friends frown upon.

Even with that statement, I do recognize the roots of Quakerism came from these valiant Friends, who under threats of jail and death, continue to speak out their convictions. They carried forth a powerful, revolutionary messages of peace, of continuing revelations, and of being able to have a personal relationship with the Lord without the need for an intermediary, all of which are still very relevant in today's world. They successfully sought to have equality in spoken language. I am grateful that I can trace my beliefs back to these roots, but my beliefs are updated to current day. I do not have to reconcile if I am willing to be hung in Boston Commons for what I believe, like Friends who first came to the New World, but I do consider how to maintain integrity while I am on the internet.

Quakerism today is very diverse and looks different than it did in 1660 or even 1850, just like the whole world has changed in the last 350 years. Quakerism has changed as the world has changed. As I look at the branches of Quakerism and reflect on my vast experiences with the different branches, I am amazed at how diverse our faith is and how thankful I have been to be able to worship with fellow Friends from all of the branches. Each branch have retained the essence of the roots, but each branch chooses different ways to live out the Quaker faith. We may disagree, but lets not forget that we are all related in this continued discernment.

These debates about who is truer to Early Friends turn people off to Quakerism and they are not relevant. For me, I am more interested in questions, like: What is God calling us to do today in this time? Our religion does have standards for accountability within the community by using Faith and Practice and the Bible as guides, so we do not need to hold ourselves accountable to people who died 300 years ago. For myself, I am attracted to monthly meetings and churches that are alive with the Holy Spirit, not ones trying to live according by 1600s standards. If I was, I would be Amish.

-Greg Woods

Monday, May 17, 2010

Musings on Radical Hospitality

Last fall at William Penn House, we were called to respond to why we were hosting Navy Midshipman for an evening conversation and allowing them to call what they do “service”. Among the sentiments that challenged us included: 1) being in the military is less about “service” and more about “murder”, and 2) that these young men and their peers were nothing more than pawns in the military industrial complex. During the evening, while people were civil (for the most part), what became clear was this: these young men were articulate and thoughtful. They could talk about their vision for the world and how they see what they do as serving that vision. They could articulate some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of serving. They talked about how the military community has, over the last decade, recognized that humanitarian work is vital to preventing unnecessary violence and casualties, citing the examples of the shift in strategy in Iraq and the creation of floating Navy hospitals that respond to such things as earthquakes and tsunamis.

What also happened that night was this: while these young men were calm and easily answered any and all questions, the questions from the people in the room were not up to the task. There were certainly some questions about specific acts of war and what these young men do when they don’t agree with the orders that come to them, but there was a lack of articulate questions grounded in the philosophy and practice of pacifism. There were passions and emotions, and there was a desire to ask good questions, but the ability to clearly state these questions was not there. What I saw was that the reactivity drowned out the peaceful messages that we seek to bring forth. So what can we do?

This brings me to Radical Hospitality. As we at William Penn House have adapted it and strive to practice (notice "strive"), it means “welcoming everyone as if he/she were Christ”, or in Quaker-speak, “seeing that of God in all”, or for the more secular among us, recognizing the goodness in people. To live this way takes a leap of faith – a leap that can take us right out of our comfort zone about what we have been taught to believe about good and bad in the world. But it does not at all mean being soft or wishy-washy. In fact it is quite the opposite: To me it means that if I really believe there is that of God in all, I want to see it in others and while I share mine with them. In order to do this, I have to do what I can to create a safe and respectful place. My experience is that this actually works in making the world a better place. One of the basic tenets is this, I’ve learned: we have to be fully willing to be wrong. It’s hard in our polarized work, but take gay rights, for example: if you ask people how they feel about laws supporting gay marriage, you’ll often get a “yes” or a “no”. But if you can hold a real conversation beyond the legislation, you often find a much more enriching conversation about the rights and responsibilities of legal couples. As a bonus, I’ve often found, people become more gay-affirming. They may not be where I am on the spectrum, but the gap between us has decreased when we see that, really, we want much of the same thing in the world. Just yesterday, in an almost "comedy of errors" way, when I was stopped by CIA security in Langley Hill VA, the ability to consciously practice this rather than get fearful or angry led to a positive experience where I saw a good person doing his job and, hopefully, a CIA policeman has another example of Quakers being good people, not just reactionary "peaceniks".

What are the keys to living this kind of spiritual and disciplined life? First, I readily acknowledge that I more often fail than succeed in accomplishing this, but I am doing better. I recently read a book called “In Praise of Doubt: How to hold convictions without being a fanatic”. It’s a great read, and really reassured me that there is a great need in our multicultural, multi-religious society for people to commit to the spiritual discipline of bridge-building for peace-making. It’s a calling that I think easily fits with Friends testimony when we can really push ourselves to put ego and self to the side, and consider that we are part of a much bigger societal fabric. It is a life practice that calls for curiosity (“seeking”), and realizing that there really is no “other”, there is just “us” in this world. Even for the military, it is not the alternative to peace. It’s there for those times when pacifism is just not up to the trick. When we can share in this, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Now the hard part for Friends: to learn to really do this often means that we be experts in listening – “bearing silent witness”. Just like running a marathon, however, we actually have to practice, not just think about it. So how well-trained are we at the art of listening? What can we do? Just as “there is no way to peace; peace is the way”, I would say “there is no way to listening; listening is the way.” Let’s get out there and practice it. Let’s step up our commitment to congregate with people of other faiths – and do the real hard work, congregate with those who not only have a different faith tradition but more importantly with those of the same faith but different interpretations and who may disagree with us on some of the issues of our times. When we feel the need to respond, let’s try and sit in appreciative silence. If we really believe in our faith, let’s put it into practice.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Demands and Petitions: Is this all we have?

The recent oil spill in the Gulf is awful. The impact of this environmental catastrophe is still to be told, but no doubt it is going to have a lasting effect on all of us. For this, my heart aches. I hate to see the wildlife that suffers so much because of our complacency, greed, and desires for comforts. I can't help but think during these times that we really seem to give little thought for the future generations, despite all the signs and opportunities to learn.

At the same time, I am pretty disgusted with the internet campaigns that are spreading from environmental and environmentally-minded groups right now. Take 350.org. Their mission is to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis—to create a new sense of urgency and of possibility for our planet. So what is their message regarding this oil spill? It's "a moment when we can help the US and its leaders understand the depth of their addiction to fossil fuel, and the real need to get off dirty energy now." What are their action steps? Sign a petition demanding clean energy now and no more drilling, join a facebook group, donate money, and then click through about how to build momentum in your community. Now look at 1Sky.org. They want you to print up a sign that says "No More Drilling/Clean Energy Now" - with the 1Sky logo on it; take it to the local BP station and protest them, demanding that BP be held responsible, take a picture of yourself, and send the picture to 1Sky.

Is this the best we can do? When 350.org talks about "their" addiction to fossil fuels, don't they really mean "our" addiction? When it comes to demands for energy, how about raising a stink among ourselves that we consume less? That we commit to driving less, and significantly changing our daily habits? That we stop using so many plastic bottles? (To see the impact of plastic water bottles, see http://www.williampennhouse.org/sites/default/files/Water%20and%20Bottles.pdf). If all we can do is make demands and shame people for "their" addictions, it's a bit hypocritical, I think. All that is going on is really a reflection of all of us, and until we decide to stop being victims to it and take proactive action in our daily lives, I suspect very little will change.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What Should I Eat? Community and the Individual

As Quakers, we talk a lot about community, one part of the handy SPICE testimony acronym. And in a world that often isolates and estranges us one from another, the idea of a real community gives us all sorts of warm fuzzies. As part of a true community we receive support, nurture and love. We find meaning in providing that same care to others and in identifying as a member of something bigger than ourselves. But as just one of many members in a community, these connections with others sometimes rub against, or even clash with, the individual. The group as a whole may have different needs or expectations than I, as an individual, do. Some other individuals in the community may feel strongly convicted about something in a way I do not. Greater society tells us when this happens that it is always the rights of the individual that override the constraints of the group. I, the individual, am the ultimate authority on all things pertaining to me.

But, is this the way that we, as Christians and Quakers, are called to live? Does this reflect the kingdom of God? Can I be part of a community and do whatever I want? To me, the answer seems clearly no. Jesus calls us to love one another, be in community with one another, and be members of a body. And sometimes this will mean that I will give up some of my individual agenda in order to be caring for others in the community.

As a newlywed committed to living her life jointly with another individual, this situation is often before me. In a somewhat mundane example, I like boxed macaroni and cheese, especially with tuna in it. My husband, Micah, is not a fan. And so, I choose to not eat boxed mac and cheese when we have dinner together, instead eating something we both will enjoy. Of course, I could say “I want macaroni and cheese and that’s what we’re having. So there.” I would then get what I want to eat, but I also would be selfish and choosing my own needs over those of a person I love. The beautiful thing about this situation is that I know that Micah would eat boxed mac and cheese for dinner because he knows I like it. He too would surrender his own agenda so that I could enjoy my cheesy noodles.

This surrender of our own demands so that others might be welcome and a full part of the community is part of being a family of faith. A youth pastor I knew growing up once told a story of a kid he had in his youth group who had been previously involved in some really dark satanic stuff. One day, the guy came over to the pastor’s house and his kids were watching a movie. The movie deeply disturbed the teenager as it reminded him of the satanic things he had been involved with and struggled to leave behind. The pastor turned the movie off and from then on when the guy came over the family made certain that movie and any related toys and games were put away. They themselves did not feel convicted about stopping watching and enjoying the movie, but they choose to not put a stumbling block in front of a brother.

For a third example of this balance between individual freedom and community, there are those among my friends who choose not to drink out of religious conviction. I personally do not feel convicted in this way. But when I am with these friends, I do not drink and a certainly do not suggest that we go out to a bar during our time together. It is the kind and understanding thing to do. I choose to abstain from behavior I would usually take part in so that I can be in fellowship with them.

That in one community there would be people who have different convictions on how we live out our life is nothing new. Paul felt the need to write in Romans advice on how to proceed when we differ on such things.

Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval. (Romans 14:1-4)

Paul goes on saying:

Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. (Romans 14: 20-22)

And what is more loving for a community than that? I show I care for other’s by putting their needs above my own. By loving their spiritual health more than I love my freedom to do whatever I want. And as a reward for such a sacrifice, I also have my spirit cared for and am in communion with my brothers and sisters.

-Faith Kelley

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sacred Space

Yesterday afternoon a guest asked me, in tentative English, if there is a church here at the William Penn House. I told her yes, we have worship here every morning from 7:30 to 8. She then asked me where it was and if it was open now. I was confused for a moment and then realized that she when she asked about a “church” she was wondering about a physical space. I explained that we met for worship in the very unassuming conference room that she had been store her luggage in all day. She too was confused for a moment, but then realized what I was trying to tell her.

In this misunderstanding I was, once again, reminded of the very real temptation to view a certain space as being more sacred, more full of God’s presence, than other spaces. But of course, we’re all good Quakers here and never make that mistake. We point to it with the language we use, not calling our buildings “churches” but rather “meeting houses,” not wanting to blur the line between the community that is body of Christ and some drywall and bricks. We often explain to non-Quakers that we think that all of life is sacred. No one day of the week, no one space, no one physical object is more blessed then the rest. God created everything and continues to be among us and in us, making everything hallowed. The physical space is irrelevant. Only our openness to the Spirit’s moving in us in a particular moment matters.

When in town, I often attend Sunday morning worship at Takoma Park Preparative Meeting, which holds worship in a dance studio. We all have to take our shoes off so as not to scuff or dirty the floor and we sit in medal folding chairs. There’s only a small window high on the wall and the rest of the lighting is florescent bulbs. This is nothing about the space the cries, “Communion with the Creator of the Universe going on here!” But God is there making the space sacred, when we are attentive enough to notice and respond.

But do I really live my life this way? Certainly I enter the National Cathedral here in Washington with more reverence and awe than, say, I enter my bathroom, for example. The cathedral is large and grand. It has an altar, stain glass and stone. My bathroom is small and normal. It has an old tub, linoleum and a leaky skylight. (Part of difference in attitude might also have to do with how often one space gets cleaned versus the other too.) The beauty of the National Cathedral makes me feel like I am closer to God there than my bathroom; even though I claim to know God that exists and can make himself known in both spaces equally.

If I was to live my life really in the truth that God has made all and is present always, what would it look like? Would I be more centered and aware? Would I notice God’s working in the suburban sprawl as much as in a forest? Would I be closer to living my life as one continuous act of worship? I am not making an argument that everything is beautiful- certainly a Wendy’s parking lot is less beautiful then Sequoia National Forest. But God is there in both those spaces. Miracles and epiphanies can happen in both those places. God calls us to be part of his work in the world in both places. The parking lot and the forest, the cathedral and the conference room are all part of the sacred space that makes up our lives.

-Faith Kelley

Friday, April 2, 2010

Middle school students participating in an after school music/theater program in DC
Women from Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon and Uganda working in HIV/AIDS here in the states while supporting children in their home countries
A DC resident artist from Cameroon
8 exchange students from China
8 students from a PA private school
3 high school students from Hiroshima
1 Holocaust survivor

This is just a sampling of the range of people I have had the honor of crossing paths with, working with and sharing meals with over the past 6 weeks.

One of the things I am really learning to appreciate about working at William Penn House is the amazing diversity of people that we get to meet, and how, in meeting all these people, we see not how different we are, but how similar we are.

What is so incredibly moving to me is that people really do want to be a part of making the world a better place despite, in some cases, incredible adversity. The adversity of each person also brings a different level of gift to the world. The students from Hiroshima and the Holocaust survivor are/were visiting DC as part of telling stories of reconciliation and healing. The artist and the music/theater students are using the opportunities of the creative arts to tell stories and to bring their voices to the world - stories not of gloom and doom, but of hope and love.

In our most recent newsletter, Faith Kelley wrote that what we do at William Penn House is provide a space for conversation and a place of welcomeness, and then get out of the way so that new things can happen. I am really learning to appreciate this as a means of making the world a more peaceful and hopeful place. It means making a conscious effort and commitment to being open to the possibilities - not an easy task and not always achievable, but as the past few months have shown me, well worth the effort.