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.