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