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.

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