Saturday, August 6, 2011

Peace is a dance, not a stance

This was the talk/presentation I gave at BYM Annual Meeting for Business as clerk of the Peace and Social Concerns Committee:

“Peace” is a dance, not a stance. We can easily dance among ourselves, but when we also learn to dance joyfully with people we may not know, and with whom we may not agree, we are bringing greater peace. To joyfully seek that of God in all things is to see all people and things as dance partners.

We also recognize that the greatest marks left by Friends in the world – from influencing the ideals of our country, to the abolition movement, to voting rights for women – have often been the work, passions and leadings of individuals, not committees. What these individuals shared was a fire and a passion that could not be extinguished. Knowing that their objectives would not be achieved in their lifetime, they remained undeterred in working towards how they envisioned the world should be. Quakerism was often the source and inspiration of their work, and what emboldened them to take leaps of faith, to speak their truths, and as a result, the world is better.

As the 21st century unfolds, however, we face new challenges – within ourselves as well as in the world. Within this Yearly Meeting, we know that there are a great many good things happening in the name of peace. Support for and active involvement in the works of African Great Lakes Initiative, the Zarembkas and Ann Riggs in east Africa; Bolivian Quakers; the work of the Intervisitation Committee and involvement with FUM are but a few of the things worth mentioning. There are also the leadings of individuals within our Yearly Meeting, and some Monthly Meetings that are doing wonderful works in their community, too many to mention here. At the same time, we recognize that some PSC Committees struggle and may even be inactive. Just this week we heard, for example, that the Ad Hoc committee on gender and sexual diversity is laying itself down, and yet even in Friendly circles we hear people and things being called “gay” in a world where this kind of benign intent can do harm. So while a committee’s work may be done, there is still work to be done. While it is easy for us to look outside of ourselves and see fault, we must also seek to be ever-vigilant and increasingly conscious of our own blind spots. As Moliere said, “it is not what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”

For this committee, we find it both important and challenging to harness our efforts so that we are greater than the sum of our parts and the world continues to be positively influenced by our presence. We recognize that all things are connected. Torture, hunger, and the fuel and energy we have all consumed to be here this week are connected. We cannot shy away from this fact, but should instead be willing to embrace it. A challenge for all of us is to take the learning, wisdom and passions we share to not only support the issues, causes and programs we care about and deem worthy, but to apply them in our daily lives so that in the communities where we live, eat, sleep and work, we can know that the world is ever so incrementally better for having had this day. It is important to daily challenge ourselves to move in the direction of the world we seek. Supporting programs and building relations in remote places – whether they be in prisons, in South America, on a Reservation, or in Africa – is necessary, but if we do not also expand our circle of dance partners in our own backyard joyfully seeking that of God in all, we are missing something. Issues help bring unity among like-minded people, but are also used to divide and conquer. It is relationships – honest, genuine relationships that we live out every day – that bring unity to our global community.

As the Peace Testimony marks its 350th year, this committee will be looking for more opportunities to create more dancers and partners, seeking to nurture the leadings of some while creating opportunities for others to explore the world in new ways, with new lenses, learning new ways to engage or to simply re-contextualize the issues. Some examples of our work include:
• Prison Ministry. We have members and attenders on the committee who do prison mediation, AVP and teach non-violent communication in the prisons. There is also a pen-pal program. These are not only opportunities to connect to prisons, but also to deepen these practices in oneself. There are opportunities for people to be trained in mediation, as well as to simply be a pen-pal.
• Gleaning. Every year, in all of our communities, thousands of tons nutritious food is wasted simply because it is not transported. In an era when hunger and malnutrition is on the rise, this is unacceptable. We will be embarking on an effort to organize a few days this year to have Friends go to an identified farm, pick crops and get them to our local foodbanks. As an added bonus, because most gleaning programs are currently populated by Christian churches, this is an opportunity to build relationships among our neighbors whom we may not know and even hold judgment against without having known yet.
• Torture. We have a member who is actively involved in programs and activities that educate and inform people about the practice of torture and a call to end the practice. There will be a variety of opportunities throughout the year to engage and learn more.
• Workcamps. We will be looking to develop a Workcamp somewhere in the region over the next year that will be an opportunity for people to perhaps see things anew, or with new energy or sense of empowerment. These are also wonderful ways to bring community together across age, religion, culture and economic divides. Once one has learned to build and cross a bridge, it is not where the bridge has landed but that one knows how to build a bridge that matters.
• HIV/AIDS. As we continue to support the works in East Africa where AIDS is devastating, we must also recognize that the trends in the US are not good. However, a “game-changer” is in the works: self-testing for HIV. When the FDA approves this (perhaps as early as spring 2012) we will be approaching Friends Meetings to embrace this as an opportunity to “lead by example” by nurturing this option. There are those who say testing without education and support is dangerous. Possibly, but even if so, support and education doesn’t have to happen in an office; it can happen in safe places where people know they are loved and informed.
• National and International legislation. We will strive to have more effective pipelines with FCNL, AFSC and QUNO to provide guidance on issues, so we can get in a flow of discerning how to best use our voices while also becoming better educated and informed so we can reach into our own communities effectively.

To bring about the world we seek, many things are necessary, and none are sufficient. It is our strong hope that Friends can find their piece of the puzzle – their gift, their voice, their leading – and to invite this committee to be a part of nurturing it and being nurtured by it. Ultimately we are seeking to move towards the day when there are no destructive barriers of “us” and “them”. In this world, there is only “us” – all of us. Despite best intents, many of our movements of the past have become institutions of the present and do little to promote unity. It is the artist, the creative spirit, the mystic and the visionary who can envision the world as it should be as well as the person who recognizes the problems of the world as it is that are a part of this dance. We welcome people to attend our meetings with their ideas. We encourage folks to join us on September 10 for our annual Networking Day, as well as at William Penn House for our Sunday, 9/11 potluck when we will be talking about what we can learn from this past decade that we can take into our future with meaning and purpose, rather than lamentaion. We also ask that active PSC committees share with us their works. Our desire is to add value as well as support innovative and new works.

- Brad Ogilvie

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Of Sundances and Yearly Meetings

Last week I was on Pine Ridge, SD as part of a Workcamp. Our work focused on preparing grounds on a point overlooking the Badlands for a Sundance Ceremony. Sundance Ceremonies are the most sacred of ceremonies – four days of praying, fasting, singing, dancing, sweating and piercing by Sundancers (all of whom have native/indigenous ancestry) surrounded by an extended adopted family that spiritually supports the dancers while also supporting each other through community. For those of us who were there as part of the Workcamp - 7 teens and 3 adults - it was an incredible honor to be entrusted with helping to prepare for this sacred ceremony. We helped rebuild the dance arbor, build new sweat lodges, clean the grounds, and dug a pit for an outhouse that had fallen over.
We were invited to participate in sweat lodges, another sacred tradition. One of the adults with us also participated in a traditional buffalo killing/butchering. It was a week that deeply touched and challenged us to stay open to doing what we were asked to do and had opportunities to do. Soaking rains and hot temperatures could fray the nerves, but we stayed with it. We also got to know some of the dancers who are spending this current week in even more trying conditions, making incredible sacrifices in the belief that this is what helps to keep the cycles of the year. (It should be noted that both Sundance ceremonies and sweat lodges are sacred ceremonies; news that they are harmful are often connected to people who have adapted them to events for profit and, with so many things, money and profit often corrupt the goodness and original purpose of things – sometimes at great harm).

I left the group on Sunday (kicking and screaming, I must say) to join Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Annual Sessions. I had been asked to lead a retreat for Friends, and had developed a theme of “Simplicity, Truth and truths.” For me, the motivation for this was my belief that has been validated by experiences that when we truly engage in the world in the spirit of deep appreciative listening and staying open despite discomfort, some incredible things can happen. For me, this is what it means to be a Friend - to joyfully seek that of God in all. To do this to any large degree takes discipline and commitment – the ability to hold true to one’s convictions, not be intimidated by others, and at the same time truly honor others as sacred beings (“seeking that of God”). During the retreat, I know I stepped on some toes and sacred cows as I questioned how well we Friends are at doing this, and going so far as challenging us that we are stuck holding on to social and political ideologies more than our core truth. As an example, I noted that Friends cannot easily say what Quakers believe, but in Quaker circles people often and easily state what “others” believe (including Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Tea Partiers and Republicans). In my pushing some of these issues, there was at times a tension that rose in the room as people were uncomfortable with being challenged, avoiding conflict and pain.

This has had me thinking about annual rites and traditions, and their purpose. The Sundance Ceremony – one full of sacrifice, pain, spirit – is done selflessly and completely on faith. The people who participate give greatly of themselves, and are challenged every day to make it happen. Even among the Workcampers, we were sleeping in the elements, using the outhouses, working outside in hot conditions, and being challenged both physically and emotionally, intentionally as well as inadvertently, as we were called to look out for each other and take leaps of faith that our works matter. We became a community and became a part of a larger community. Deep and meaningful conversations took place at the most unexpected times about humanity (ours as well as others), about compassion and judgment in our lives and the world, and how we can support each other simply by letting the experience of deepening relationships unfold. These were conversations that could not be planned for, but are deeply meaningful and transformative. To me, it is Quakerism in action – letting our lives speak. The irony is that all the teens attend a Friends school, but could say little about what going to a Quaker school means other than that the Testimonies are on the wall. However, as our week together progressed, through our work and talk, I think there was a deepening of the sense of Quakerism through our words and actions.

But among Friends, I sometimes observe that our gatherings ask little of us. All our meals are prepared; we mostly stay in rooms (but for a smattering of tents) and can easily get out of the elements. No doubt there is great information, networking and sharing that happens at these gatherings, but I wonder if we are not missing out on opportunities for even deeper spiritual growth and outward connections by avoiding challenging ourselves on our faith, our beliefs, and how we interact with one another. The message of my Workshop was that kindness – the authentic kindness that I experienced when I did the AIDSRides in the late 1990’s when thousands of us took to the road for long, painful bike rides while intentionally supporting and cheering each other rather than focusing on our own pain, the authentic kindness that truly welcomes the stranger - can really transform and revolutionize relationships, and it is the simplicity of intellect and emotion that opens us to truly and joyfully seeking that of God in all. I question whether we as Friends are very good at this these days as we have developed great attachments to issues over the past few decades. In challenging us, maybe we can support each other in being better at it. But if we are afraid to challenge each other at our gatherings on what we believe and in the ways we do and do not live in accordance of those beliefs, can we really be any good at (and do we even have a leg to stand on) in challenging others on these very same things?

The Sundance ceremony taught me about how faith, prayer, challenge and sacrifice prepares and propels the participants (and the world) for another cycle around the sun. Can we likewise learn to be uncomfortable at our annual gatherings as Friends? The fellowship and sharing of information is important, but if we are to also challenge ourselves to a deeper radical connection to our core truths – the kind that revolutionizes and transforms, we have to be willing to be made uncomfortable. I’m not suggesting we adapt any traditions or practices, but am suggesting that we be more willing to feel a bit more heat around our faiths and practices so that we can more deeply embrace the things that really matter. The heat and fatigue in South Dakota wore away our facades as we got to know more deeply the spirit in and around us; can our Annual Gatherings help to do this as well? If we remain solely in our physical and emotional comfort zones, I suspect this may be harder than it needs to be.

-Brad Ogilvie