Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Israel and Palestinian Peace: What are the goals?

Since returning from the delegation trip to Israel and Palestine in early November, I have given 3 subsequent presentations about what I saw and learned, and included these learnings in a series of other presentations last week on global human rights issues.  Each time I presented and was asked questions, I learned even more about the challenges of advancing human rights in a world of institutional activism that often dehumanizes people by painting groups with broad brushes, blurring vital differences.

As I had learned from speakers in the Mideast, the goals of the peace movements are not clear.  One spokesperson (from the Israeli Coalition Against Home Demolitions) stated that his goal is to keep the hopes of the Palestinians alive "until they figure out what they want."  Then there is the  Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that has 3 stated goals, one of which is "Respecting, protecting and promoting the Rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194", which was written in 1948. (The Kairos Palestine Document echoes the same sentiment.)  But there is disagreement among the BDS leaders about what this means.  One co-founder stated unequivocally that this means he has the right to get his grandparents property back and kick all the people who have lived their for as much as 3 generations.  Another leader stated that this is not a realistic goal in the 21st century but should be the spirit in which negotiations are made.  I personally suspect that "right of return" is no more likely than Rapid City, SD being given back to the Lakotas, but I also have not heard much conversation about how this would play out.  For some it seems to be the goal, and for others it's an absolute deal-breaker.

Then, yesterday, there was this posting by a Quaker from Annapolis who is living in the Mideast.  He wrote about the "Principles of Peace", part of the Geneva Accord that is supposed to be the model for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  The first of these principles is "End of Conflict; End of All Claims."  This is the kicker among peace advocates for this region: there is a global, widespread call for peace and justice, including from Israelis and Palestinians.  But does this vision of peace include "End of All Claims" or "Right of Return"?  If it's the latter, does this include not only Palestinians displaced in 1948, but Jews from Hebron who were relocated to Jerusalem by the Brits in 1929 with a promise of right of return?

A conservative friend of mine said to me recently he is fascinated by how the desire for peace in the Mideast is dividing liberals.  I am increasingly believing it is because we can get caught up in movements that, on the surface, simply want peace but actually have very different views of what that looks like.  "End of All Claims" or absolute "Right of Return" are gulfs apart.  By signing on to the BDS movement, we are being asked to endorse "Right of Return" whether we know it or not. It's unfortunate.  I think we could rapidly find greater harmony in pushing for bringing an end to the settlements, home demolitions and occupations, and for equality for Palestinians in Israel (the other 2 goals of the BDS movement), but we have to be diligent and aware of what is being attached to this. Many good bills in our own congress are shot down because of suspect attachments.  "Right of Return" plays the same role in peace efforts for the Mideast.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Workcamp Nuts and Bolts

By Josh Wilson, Intern

After a programming and Workcamps committee meeting we had last month, it really made us here at William Penn House continue to evaluate the nuts and bolts of what a Workcamp is. While everything listed here certainly helps to make a Workcamp experience great, I can’t account for every Workcamp ever, so you’ll just have to bear with me. So what makes a great Workcamp experience? Well I am glad you asked that, dear reader.

A Workcamp in its truest and best form, I feel, is sort of like a crash course in how to form a community. Through all the sweat and work that they consist of, Workcamps truly compel us to recognize our common humanity. First of all, no one looks good while sweating doing gardening work or fixing a house. Old ugly clothes that are meant to be ruined certainly diminish any need or fear of superficial comparisons. Alongside ugly clothes, however, you’re going to have to pack whole case of humble pie. As with the most-likely home-cooked meals meant to fill ten to twenty people, you’re going to be eating plenty of it. Through the experience you’re going to learn that not all of your complaints are best for the group and that sometimes, the needs of someone else are connected with your own.

Secondly it is important to recognize that we as individuals have our own needs. Through recognizing our needs and those we serve, we can truly begin to piece together the human experience that we all share. During one Workcamp, we all gathered together for some worship sharing. One of our campers then said something quite enlightening, she stated that it’s nice to care for someone else for a change, but also it is better to recognize that sometimes its good to let others care for you too. By recognizing your own needs, you recognize your space in the community. By recognizing what it is you truly need and not just what you want, you’ll be a better member to the group.

Another important thing to know is to go into the experience with an open mind. Know that we all can learn something from almost any experience. With this in mind, soon you’ll realize that the unexpected is going to happen. Maybe that job you really hated at the beginning becomes something you start to relish at the end. We often help an older gentleman who is almost entirely dependent on a wheel chair. His house is a little old and he is rather soft spoken. During one Workcamp, some of the kids asked him more about his background and through further conversations we came to learn that he had been a cryptographer during the Cold War and had a slew of interesting stories. By opening up and allowing yourself to receive sometimes you might just find something new and exciting you never thought possible. 

Finally, keep in mind the things you learn in a Workcamp all lead to something greater in your life down the line. I once read that no matter how mundane something you do or read is, it all leads to something later on in your life as really useful knowledge. In the end all the information you pick up is going to contribute to your personality.  While you might not achieve individual perfection today, we at William Penn House hope it brings you a little closer to the kind of person you’d like to be. In the end what you put into the experience is what you’ll get out of it. Spiritually and experientially, with effort and motivation you’ll find the experience much more enjoyable when you put your heart into it. 

A good Workcamp will change you, and a good Workcamp will help you to truly recognize your place at the multi-faceted national and local level. An amazing Workcamp will help you to connect with the individuals you serve as well as to create strong bonds with those you do service.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Faith, Hope and Love: Closing Reflections from Israel/Palestine

At our last delegation meeting last Friday afternoon, we had lunch with Rev. Dr. Mitri Rahib, one of the writers of the Kairos Document.  This document was written by Palestinian Christian leaders in the model of the Kairos South Africa Document bringing together peace makers to address oppression and apartheid.

During the lunch - in a beautiful setting in Bethlehem - Dr. Rahib quoted from Corinthians that "there are these three things that endure: Faith, Hope and Love."  He went on to reflect that faith - more specifically the institutions of religion - are at the core of much of the violence we have seen throughout the world. He comments as well that love becomes increasingly challenged in the face of violence and oppression.  Hope, however, "is not what we do, but what we see."  

As I look back on my time in this beautiful land with all its conflicts and desires - human, cultural, economic, religious and political - it is where there were voices of hope that I remember being most energized.  It is not that these folks could not see the what was going on around them; in many ways I think they could see more clearly what was going on.  But through all this, they saw hope.  It was not that they could hope or wish their realities away (from the kibbutz within missile range of Gaza to the olive farmer in Birqeen); it was their insistence on not giving into anger and despair - committing to welcoming people in while reaching ever-further out.  They shared a wisdom that our politicians are not our messiahs (a lesson to remember on this election day in comparison to what many felt four years ago.)

Now that I am back in DC and sifting through the emotional, intellectual and spiritual rubble of the past two weeks, I want to put my energy into those places that see hope, not problems and solutions that I suspect will lead to more conflict if they lack hope.  There is going to have to be lots of give and take in this epic struggle over there.  For those of us here in the states, it might also be a good opportunity to practice seeing hope here at home, no matter how things play out today.  If we can't practice it here, what can our realistic expectations be over there?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Visible and Invisible Walls of Oppression

  • 25% higher high school dropout rates
  • Huge standardized test performance discrepancies, often reflecting a cultural bias
  • Discrepancies in unemployment and pay rates
  • Few opportunities to escape oppression but with a gun, either in crime or military service
  • Pervasive militarism
  • Unjust and unequal uses of the legal and penal system to perpetuate cultural and real violence
These are some of the common narratives that have been told here in Israeli/Palestine.  Before I proceed further, let me clearly state that this posting is not to excuse any bad and abusive atrocities by the Israeli Military or settlers against Palestinians. But as I hear these tails of injustice, I can't help but think we have these same narratives in the US, and by not seeing these, we are going to be challenged to get to the root causes of division that lead us all the way through the spectrum of violence.

When I have mentioned this to some people in the delegation, they say "well at least we have laws to prevent this in the states."  This provides absolutely no comfort to me.  It feels like we are saying "sorry our society is so unjust, abusive, violent and prejudiced, but we will give a pass on accountability because we mean well."  To take comfort in laws while ignoring the outcomes misses the real hard work - the same work that we seem to be expecting to be done in Israel, as if we are better practitioners.  Our walls in the states are just as entrenched, just more invisible.  Here's my take on how our walls of segregation and prejudice play out in the states, despite our laws:
  • Laws are one thing.  Enforcement and access to laws is another.  Basically one's ability to have the law work for them has a direct connection to how much money they have to pay a good lawyer.  The economic injustice prevails.
  • We may not have blatant walls and checkpoints, but we have rivers, tunnels, bridges and trains.  These often serve as real and symbolic barriers to segregation and access, and used in a myriad of ways.  In DC, there is the "east of the river" concept.  Train stops, as another example, are sometimes lacking (in the case of Georgetown) to keep some people out, while in other places in DC make getting to a low-paying job an ordeal.  
  • Inner-city violence and rural drug addiction have a direct connection to poor funding for schools, high unemployment and racism/elitism (consider how we classify people in the Appalachias as "hicks").
  • Our prison system is another tool of legalized segregation and injustice, where blacks account for 44% of the incarcerated population.  Those corrupt corporate elite who ruin countless lives in the name of greed walk freely (and in luxury), while those who suffer from their greed are stuck in cycles of violence, abuse, unemployment, addiction and debt all over the country. 
  • The cultural violence is also reflected in higher suicides and murders in many places or among certain groups.  The government/military doesn't have to do it because we do it to ourselves while the rich and powerful thrive.
  • Military indoctrination?  Considering that military service is one of the last remaining ways youth can escape the cycles of poverty in their communities all over the world, we have that.  Furthermore, we don't call people dedicated to breaking the cycles of violence in the name of peace "heroes"; we save that for the troops, and do it persistently in everything from sports announcements to priority boarding on airplanes.  Americorps folks don't get that. 
  • While we don't have home occupations and settlements, we do have predatory loans, right of public domain, and suburban expansionism into rural communities that often displace people.  One Palestinian farmer here, for example, turned down a "name your price" offer for his farm.  He could have been rich.  He chose to stay and fight in a very peaceful and honorable way.  It's inspiring, and I wish more in the states would be so principled, but he also could have been rich.  To me, this is less an example of a victim as a noble person.  
This is not a "tit-for-tat" issue to me.  It's an attempt to normalize the all-too-common narrative that takes place in Israel/Palestine, Washington DC, West Virginia, New Orleans, Pine Ridge, you name it.  Internationally, I see the same in rural Kenya.  The oppressor has a foot on the neck of the oppressed.  In places like the US, it is done so brilliantly that we hardly notice it.  This is not meant to say "so just accept it", but to say "let's unite."  To say "at least we have better laws" does not promote that unity.  Let's not look at the laws; let's look at the outcomes and come together with greater passion and wisdom that we are all in this fight together.   I believe the change will come when we stop competing for who has the greatest victim narrative.  When those of us in places of privilege deem that the suffering of a group across the oceans is worse than that of those around us, it raises questions and concerns about what we are saying about the value of all people.  However, when truly start relating as equals with a commitment to move forward together, that's when I think we will see our way to greater global justice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

War, Peace and Flipping Coins

On Monday evening (Oct. 29), our IFPB delegation split up into small groups and spent the night with host families in the ancient walled city of Acco on the Mediterranean.  My travel roommate, Deklan, and I were staying with the family of Yosef a few blocks from the water.  We were joined by Laura and Art who were staying with Yosef’s brother, Ahmed, closer to the water.  The dinner conversation was lively, as we bantered back and forth about historical facts and comparative narratives of injustice and violence – present as well as historical – all around the world. 

After dinner, Deklan, Yosef and I went for a walk.  Deklan asked Yosef how he thinks things will unfold between the Palestinians and Israelis.  “War” was his calm, somewhat sad, answer.  For him it is clear that the only way to avoid war is to return to the 1967 borders but is not going to happen.  He was clear that he does not want war, but he just doesn’t see an alternative.   I reflected my own faith that where there are signs of hope, we can help lessen the violence.  Deklan’s stance was that the Israelis simply need to stop with the lows and policies that keep the Palestinians as second class (or worse) citizens.  It’s as easy as “flipping a coin”, he said. 

“War, Peace or a coin toss”, mused Yosef.  I am increasingly thinking that it is going to be some combination of all of these.  There is already violence – blatant as well as systemic – and to reverse these will take effort and certainly some luck. If, as Yosef said, there will be no peace until there is a return to the 1967 borders, there is no way there without the upheaval of at least 500,000 settlers, many of whom are not likely to go peacefully and will be backed by many Israelis.  At the same time, many Palestinians are not enamored with their own leadership, so even if the Palestinians were to gain autonomy, I would expect a battle for power from within as well.  And then, of course, there is the insidious systemic nature of violence, as evidenced y the US-supported military destruction followed by US-funded rebuilding.  It’s a great economic machine.  It’s a mess.

As I start to reflect on my time here, I don't see groups of people.  I see the faces of individual humans, many of whom are caught up in the daily challenge of human survival.  I am awed by the beauty and the passions in these individual struggles, while shuddering at our capacity to dehumanize each other to the point of annihilation in some cases.  There is Yosef, with his exasperation of  constant arrests and harassment for speaking out but also his friendly hospitality.  There is his wife, and her somewhat defensive and unnecessary statement that Palestinians just want to support life.  There is 23-year old Mahmoud’s spirit of hope for the future while including me in a Palestinian bachelor party with festive music and dancing.  There are the sincere desires and demonstrations of a commitment to find a peaceful way forward from the members of kibbutz communities.  There are Roi and Rwan, a Jew and a Palestinian (his grandparents came to Israel in the 1930's because of anti-semitism in one case and zionism in the other; her grandparents village was wiped out in 1948) working together to bring cross-cultural learning to Jewish and Arab schools as part of their work at the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Tel Aviv.  There are organizations creating new ways forward through theater and community outreach.  And then there are people who hate, fear, resent or wish to harm the neighbor they don’t know.   

I have hope that, if we stay connected and keep acting in ways that support the common humanity of each other through the upheavals, we can come back together as a stronger global community.  Just as I believe will happen in the US as we struggle with all our various prejudices and practices of injustice past and present, my hope is that our descendants can sit around the dinner table, sharing meals from all our faiths and cultures,  celebrate each other rather than try to lord over each other, and look to the past wondering "what the heck were they thinking?"  Yes, it’s ideal, but we can start practicing now so when the opportunity comes, we are ready.  As Whitney Young said “it’s better to prepare for the opportunity that may not come, then to have an opportunity emerge, and not be prepared.” 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Faith, Justice and Grace in Israel

The thankful heart sees the best part of every situation. It sees problems and weaknesses as opportunities, struggles as refining tools, and sinners as saints in progress (Francis Frangipane)

This is now my third day here in Jerusalem with Interfaith Peace Builders.  It has been an eye-opening experience to see and learn more about this amazing region of the world.  It has also not been an easy trip for me.  As so often seems to be the case, while I share the passions and concerns that the current state of things here is perpetuating immense harm on many Palestinians, I don't necessarily share in the sentiments expressed or the specifics of the calls to action.  There are stories of farmers being disconnected from their farms, and idle farms are then deemed vacated and taken by the government.  Because of limited movement, Palestinians cannot enter into parts of Jerusalem to argue their cases for land and home.  Institutionalized harrassment is pervasive.  On the other hand, I know that there must be more to the story. Good friends of mine talk about the importance of Israel in their lives, the bombings suffered by attacks.  I see people of deep faith - Muslims, Jews, and Christians - just going about their daily lives, some trying to co-exist, others just living.  The more I learn, here and see, the less certain I am about anything - sometimes by what is said, other times by what is not said.    I do know this: people are suffering from violence.  If things remain on the present course, there will be much more suffering. I know there is anger, hatred, hurt and mistrust of scary proportions.  From terms like "the Arabs want to eradicate Israel" to "my 10 year old nephew wants to kill all the Israeli soldiers", this goes deep.  I guess much of this is understandable, but a speaker we heard today spoke my mind when she said "All violence is unacceptable.  No buts".

So what is mine to do?  I don't know.  Will BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) promote peace and justice? Given that, as one person working against home-demolition stated, the Palestinians need to figure out what they want, I can't even venture an educated guess.  I hear too many opinions.  In my role as Clerk of a Quaker committee (where reaching consensus can be a black hole of time to little positive effect) and what I hear from folks, it's a tricky thing.   What I am seeing more clearly that mine is to stay committed to my belief (that has been backed up by experience) that there is God in all things, and mine is to joyfully keep seeking.  To be a bridge-builder.  I have a long way to go, but it seems to be what my leading.  I hope to return with some possible actions people can take that don't need consensus.  I hope to bring back a deeper appreciation of why Israel is so important to both secular and religious Jews.  Perhaps I can help to develop a Workcamp trip here to tour the holy sights, reflect on their meaning and role in lives and conflict, spend time on a kibbutz and at a Palestinian farm. Perhaps even help build a personal relationship or two across the divide, building on where some already exist.  Basically be in fellowship.  Nothing dramatic, but all with a clear vision of justice and harmony. 

I find it a challenge to give voice to this whilst among people who are clearly well-informed passionate activists, some of whom say "the facts are in, and the time for action is now", reflecting a sense of urgency that current trends are dooming much of the Palestinian community.  I don't disagree, although I am not sure that referring to doers of misdeeds as the "f#cking Israelis" helps.  I can't help but go back to where I place my bets: try to practice grace, dedicating myself to hearing what people have to say rather than demanding them to hear what I have to say.  Continually try to put my ego aside, soften the heart and not try to lord what I think needs done over other people, but still hardening my own resolve for a more just world.  I suspect many people think this is wishy-washy, but hopefully people who know me know that I am not shy about speaking my truth.  I wouldn't think a wishy-washy person can disagree as much as I do, but I try to do so in a way to really here another's truth, not deny theirs, seeking to understand rather than be understood.

The issues here are a mess.  There are signs of hope, such as the Palestinian farmer who responds to countless efforts to intimidate and take his farm with love and hospitality, or the woman at the kibbutz leading the Other Voice for Peace, but the hope is in their spirit, not their situation.  The least, and perhaps best, I can do is simply be that constant appreciative voice for hope, trusting that love may not prevent bad things, but can help make whatever happens do less harm.  It's a lot of work, much of it lonely, but seems to be my lot. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Seeking Unity, Facilitating Harmony and Harmonizing

Friends often talk about how we seek unity on issues.  When there is not unity, what do we tend to do?  We talk about "seasoning", laying the issue aside for a while, continue to discern.  In many cases this is totally the thing to do, but what if the issues have broader implications - such as a minute or statement about how we think the world should be or some kind of action regarding issues beyond our congregation?  It's one thing to consider a minute of whether or not to perform a same-gender marriage or to take something under the care of the Meeting; while it may be unpleasant for many, it is about a group action in an enclosed group.  But when the issue at hand has to do the broader world around us, often people have strong feelings about either the issue or the action and want the whole body to follow-suit, the whole body might not do so for a number of reasons.  The desire for unity can be painful, as often a lack of unity is perceived as a lack of action, and people may feel compelled to support the called-for action because they feel intimidated, at times sensing that because they are not in unity they are somehow deficient in understanding the problem or they are simply tired and want to move on to something else.  For others, myself included, there is a discomfort that unity among ourselves can come across as exclusive - that somehow, because we have reached unity, this is how the world should be, and it doesn't matter what others - neighbors, friends, family, other congregations - think.

This past year I saw in the Quaker cyber-world the observation that Peace - perhaps the thing Quakers are most known for these days - is a dynamic relationship between justice and harmony.  Peace is what we strive for, and we all recognize that justice is necessary to achieving that peace.  It is often a drive for justice that is behind our calls to action or public statements.

What if, during those frequent times when we do not have unity, we try practicing harmony?  Consider the analogy of an orchestra conductor.  His/her role is to bring together the leading and talents of very different people, each with a leaning to very different kinds of instruments, and have them learn to listen to each other and play off each other while practicing their own particular piece.  They bring a peaceful experience to what could be an incredibly unpleasant experience.

Now, we Friends are not in a position to be actual conductors in most cases.  Humility should help keep the ego in check.  With the Prayer of St. Francis as a guide, we should recognize that we are simply instruments of Peace, but the whole Peace ensemble is much greater than us.  It is not ours to make everyone an instrument like us.   But we can be better practitioners of listening for harmony and learning to harmonize with others, appreciating the other instruments.  In those times when we don't have unity, perhaps we can learn to harmonize with each other.  It takes potential chaos and brings it to a more synchronized flow, but it doesn't try to make the violin a tuba.  As we learn to do this with each other, then perhaps we can be better practitioners of it in the even larger world where there are even less chances of unity.  It is a way to take our voices out and rather than feeling we need to shout down our neighbors, family and friends who do not agree with us, or feel we can't talk about things, we can learn to harmonize with them.  It's really about seeing the common humanity.  Isn't that really what we mean by "there is that of God in all" anyway?  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Principle of Harmony: Grace in Action?

At a meeting recently, as we were going around the table giving personal updates, one of the people related that she recently got hooked on sports radio.  For years, she had ignored sports on principle.  Billions are spent in sports, and countless hours of human capital are spent on sports instead of things such as war, poverty and climate change.  Many sports are also violent (hockey, football and boxing), and at the college level, teenagers are exploited while academics often suffer.  In addition, there are the countless TV and radio hours of blather that has questionable social merit.  But her curiosity led to enjoying the chatter, and she was hooked.  What she reflected on was that it is this new-found knowledge of sports that is now the catalyst of her relationship with her father, who has alzheimers.  It gives them something they can talk about, despite a breakdown of communication capability.

It was her comment "I had to sacrifice my principles (of not giving any fiscal/human capital to sports) so that I could have a relationship with my dad" that really resonated with me.

For the past few months, as I have been clerking the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Peace and Social Concerns Committee and grappling with a minute connected to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I read a quote that Peace is made up of Justice and Harmony.  Many of us are good at standing on the principle of Justice.  Many of us on the left are enamored with the idea that, as Quakers say, we "speak truth to power."  We often do so without any consideration for what others think.  We at times do this with arrogance, as if we know what The Truth is, and perhaps by pointing the finger at those who we claim to be in power we ignore our own power.  We become righteous victims, which can alienate us further from people who might align with us but don't like the action we are demanding.  We apply this to so many aspects of our life - from where we shop, to the car we drive, to the TV/radio programs we listen to - to almost every aspect of our lives.  All of this is standing on the principle of justice.

But what if we were to stand on the principle of harmony?  What if we really did not only consider what our neighbors think about social justice issues, but let their opinions influence what we do.  When I have mentioned the notion that Peace is made up of Justice and Harmony, the retort is often that it is important to take principled stands, and somehow justice would be sacrificed at the expense of harmony.  But the more I think about it, harmony is not just a principled stand but the more difficult of the two (justice being the other).  I am reminded of the opening lines of the 2011 movie The Tree of Life comparing nature and grace: "Grace doesn't try to please itself; it accepts being slighted; it accepts insults and injuries.  Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it, and likes to lord it over them.  No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end."  Grace is that moment when we are at with one another, calling on us to put ego aside, and is the bedrock of unity.  Grace, essentially, is like unconditional love,  As is written in 1 Corinthians 13:13, "three things will last forever - faith, hope and love - and the greatest of these is love."

This, to me, does not mean that other principles get sacrificed.  I do believe that we can stand firmly on the principle of harmony but also stand firm for what we believe.  It is a challenge for people whose faith - religious or secular - is embedded deeply in social action.  Conversely, to be completely and solely standing on the principle of harmony is hard for me to even fathom.  I have way too many opinions about what can and should be done.  I do think, however, that it is worthwhile to consider not brushing harmony off as an impediment to principled action, but to instead start to see that harmony is a very principled position grounded in grace and love, and that it perhaps has more power than many of our other well-intended efforts to bring a true, sustainable peace to the world.  

Friday, September 7, 2012

What really is this spirit?

by Josh Wilson, Intern

I have recently been doing a lot of reflecting about the state of my own spiritual affairs. As a member of the William Penn House staff, I often interact with religious groups to which I previously did not. Now I must state before continuing this blog post, that I have tried everything in my power to believe in this god business. Religion itself has always been very interesting to me. I have seen its many benefits and its many faults and wanted to make it work in my own life, but have come to realize that feat is rather tricky. To me, most religious beliefs were often things people told themselves to help them face the grim facts reality so often presents. I could not for the life of me come to accept with my head that any of this nonsense could ever make sense to anyone.  While I could admit those who had such beliefs to be rational individuals, I just couldn’t believe it would work for me. 
In my initial journey through religious exploration in high school, I found myself in a Quaker meeting.  Upon discussing and thinking about Quaker beliefs and testimonies, I found that at least Quakerism might give me ground to explore religious belief with my head.  I have heard the Quakerism is less about a dogmatic faith and more about getting in touch with the spirit of the divine.
I find it greatly enriching to interact with groups as they come to the WPH for service trips and that, with or without faith, these groups certainly are able to work in the sense of spirit that so many declare as belonging to the divine. It brings me to wonder then... what really is this spirit? What is this sense of belonging that unites us to help our fellow human beings? What is it that allows us to empathize with those who are so greatly different from us?
These are topics I have been struggling with my entire life and I guess it wasn’t really until I recently had two experiences that I found a working model of an answer. The first was a trip I with the William Penn House to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. There our group of fourteen was able to help a clan prepare for their family Sundance ceremony. In that process we were allowed to join them in a few of their ceremonial purification sweat lodges.
During that process I started realizing that there are some things in life you cannot approach with clear thinking. During my first Sundance experience I told myself that I would just “tough it out”. After sitting in the lodge for an hour, I realized that it was not so easily done. In my second experience, I joined the prayer songs that were going on and trusted with my heart that I would be able to make it through the whole experience. After singing with all those present, I found that it wasn’t so difficult and, in fact, it went much quicker than expected. It was through being around and engaging with the community through a shared experience that I grew close with a group I had never known and was able to make it through something difficult with the help of something much greater than myself.
The second experience was a conversation with one of our guests. As my shift was ending, a guest came in late and we began talking about her work. We then began talking about my job and my recent experiences with Pine Ridge. This forced the topic to religion and then to my awareness of my agnostic existence. We discussed mainly the communal nature of religions and my understanding that in Quaker meetings there is a sense of the personal and the communal, but that the spirit in Quaker meetings often transcends both in an interesting way.
For some reason this resonated immediately and made me think of our senses. I had heard someone speaking about how we take our senses for granted and think we only have five (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing), but we really have more than that. The speaker said we also have a sense of balance, a method in which we gain information about the world that has absolutely nothing to do with any of the other senses. Another example is exteroception, how we understand the existence of spacial relationships in our “sphere” of being without seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting the intruding object. Ever close your eyes and then have someone walk close to you and you could feel their presence without using the above senses? That’s your sense of exteroception. My point in all this is that there are many senses that we take for granted but haven’t exactly pinpointed.
Scientifically, there is still much yet to be discovered concerning our health and our bodies. To me it seems that maybe we have another unknown sense. One that we can use to feel and understand more social or emotional connections with those around us, which changes our physical state through hormonal interactions when we engage this sense in different ways. To me it makes sense, when someone says something that is upsetting, it puts forth a series of hormonal interactions that lead to anger or another emotion.  After feeling these emotions for a long period of time, it can have a major effect on our bodies. So doesn’t it make sense that there are certain experiences that can affect this other sense? That by feeling the good nature of those around me, that other physical and psychological effects can then take place? 
It seems to me that this is a far more temporal understanding of what spirituality is... this other sense of what is around us, being part of a communal and spiritual whole. Knowing our place in the greater spectrum of things. To me this is a very rough understanding and maybe I am making something too complicated, but for some reason right now this explanation works for me.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Missing from the Healthcare debate...

In the spring of 2011, I fell off my bike and broke my arm.  No cast was needed, but I did have x-rays taken 3 times and had 3 office visits to confirm that my arm was broken and was healing.  I would have been fine with just getting the information after the first or second session, since I was not getting any treatment such as a cast.  Instead, my insurance got billed for almost $2000.

In the spring of 2012, I was experiencing some shoulder pain when I worked out, especially doing a few exercises.  I went back to the same arm guy, had x-rays, was told I have tendinitis, and was sent to physical therapy for 12 sessions.  The majority of the sessions consisted of using exercise equipment, doing stretching exercises and putting a heating pad on.  I could have just as easily done these at home or at the gym.  Each of these sessions was billed to my insurance at about $90/pop, and my out-of-pocket expenses were roughly 50%.  This doesn't include the initial assessment.  I am supposed to go back to the arm doc for a follow-up, but I don't want to pay anymore or have my health insurance plan have to pay any more just to be told I'm good.  

Both of these are examples of what I consider to be an aspect of our broken and costly healthcare system that is ignored but is perhaps an area that we could all agree on: while we do need a safety net for covering the basics and the vitals, there is a strong element in the system that over-prescribes and exploits minor ailments in order to "feed the beast."  In this system, we the consumer are often not very informed about things, and blindly do what we are told.  I'm no exception.  I did just what the doctor ordered.  But here's how I would like it to have gone, and perhaps would like to see it go in the future: a frank discussion about the diagnosis, and then a more thorough look at options.  For example, I would have been fine with the initial doctor saying I have tendinitis, and getting a recommendation to meet with a physical therapist to learn about exercises and a bit more about tendinitis.  After that, it's up to me.  I'm in my 50's, am not a lefty (except when I eat).  I can live with tendinitis; I have had shin splints since high school, and have learned to accommodate.  I broke my knee, and have arthritis there, but still do ok.  I can handle this.  It was really not necessary to have the system milk me and my insurance.

This is one of the fundamental problems that I think also needs to be addressed, and I think that universal healthcare is one way to bring it forward.  There are others, but we don't seem to use them.  I did question some orders for blood tests from an MD once, stating I didn't want to pay for them since I wasn't really willing to do the treatment.  Drove him nuts, but I think we need to move to a serious conversation not just about comprehensive healthcare but also informed consumerism.  My priority is to get my HIV treatment.  Beyond that, I'll live with the aches and pains.  If I have something I need a diagnosis and perhaps some recommendations, I'd like that as well.  It's the unnecessary and costly visits that trouble me, but that's what you get when you have people whose livelihood is dependent on people having maladies.  I think that if we are to have a sustainable system, we need to become equal partners with our physicians and insurance companies, not just pegs moved around for financial gain.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Kindness and Appreciation

I just returned from a week-long Workcamp in McDowell County, West Virginia with students from Sidwell Friends School and Upshur Helping Hands from Buckhannon, WV.  These trips are always energizing, exhausting, hopeful and discouraging.  The kids are great and give a sense of hope for the future.  We do great work, but there are always the questions of "In what ways are we breaking the cycle?" and "How do we translate the experiences of service in other communities to making a difference in our own backyard?"  In this part of WV (coal country) there are few jobs available with little on the horizon; there is limited access to the basics - food, healthcare, education - so the opportunities to get out are limited.  Drug addiction is a huge problem - perhaps an even bigger problem than anything else. But there is also a beauty and a sense of belonging to the place that keeps people there and draws others there such as ourselves.  In addition, because it is coal country and we rely on coal to keep energy affordable, we are connected.  This area bears the consequences of our thirst for energy.  So in the mix of all this, we do have opportunities to explore individual and societal patterns and perhaps explore how we can learn things in a place like McDowell County that can be of benefit to that county as well as in our own backyard. What I find is that that it is rarely in the actual service that these opportunities emerge, but in the conversations as we spend time together.

This past week, the theme of Kindness and Appreciation emerged.  Here's how it came about:
We were helping a woman by nailing down her porch stairs.  After we finished and returned to our own project next door (building a porch roof), one of the kids who helped asked if we were thanked for our work.  I stated that yes, we were, but also questioned "should that matter?"  Rather than do something so that we are thanked, is it not ok to be thankful for the opportunity to be of service?  It was an "off-the-cuff" response, but seemed to resonate with both the student and with me.  For many, making sure to thank people is a golden rule - so much so that at times, the thanks seem more driven by obligation than appreciation.  I do believe that it is best when there is time taken to express appreciation, but when it is not forthcoming, does that mean we don't help the person?  Does that mean they don't appreciate our efforts?  To truly be of service, it is without expectation.  In fact, the most spiritually important service we can provide might be the kind of service that is not appreciated or even noticed.
The thing is, because we are human, it is not so easy to put our egos aside.  This can leave an empty feeling if we keep the need for appreciation externally-focused.  What we can do is practice a deep sense of appreciation for the opportunity to be of service and, in our act of service, we are serving not just another person but also a higher purpose - God, community, environment - take your pick.  If nothing else, the world is a better place.  By bringing appreciation to these interactions, we bring greater appreciation to the world.

This is where kindness fits in.  The more we can practice little acts of kindness - anything from holding a door open for someone, stopping to pet a dog, picking up a piece of litter - I have found that the heart softens and the ego-need lessens.
It really is simply said: if we want more appreciation in the world, we can practice greater appreciation.  If we want more kindness in the world, we have to practice more kindness.
These multi-day Workcamps - whether they are in DC, West Virginia, South Dakota, New Orleans, or Kenya - are opportunities to practice this through service, building community, worship sharing/reflection and simply becoming more conscious.  It is when we can use these "away" experiences to enhance our proficiency as well as energize our spirit in our daily lives, that I believe we are truly on the way to global transformation towards greater peace.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Far-ranging activities in the name of Service

This past week’s range of activities is part of why I love my job:
Saturday: Led a retreat for a local Meeting on Core Truths and Radical Hospitality. It was a day that brought together a collection of experiences and resources with the real-life challenges of seeing how difficult it is to walk the talk.
Sunday: Helped to register and disassemble 25 bicycles donated for Bikes for the World
Monday: Attended the White House Office of Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships press briefing in honor of Earth Day. The majority of people I met this day were folks from evangelical and Christian colleges, not the usual list of cohorts we liberals expect to see at events supporting our causes. But, as I have learned from the years I lived in Wheaton, IL, the commonality of being human is far greater than the differences we may have. We just have to trust it. Thanks to Jose Aguto from FCNL for including me.
Tuesday: Started with a visit to an elderly couple about 10 blocks southeast of William Penn House to assess their request for help with some home renovation and security projects that we will do with groups that come during the summer. Later, a radio interview with a Chicago news radio program about the rationale behind planning the symposiums in Illinois called “HIV Self-Testing: Opportunities, Issues and Ethics.” Pieces of the interview aired throughout that evening and the following day. I also had a phone meeting with the manufacturers of rapid HIV-tests as preparation for giving oral comments at the upcoming FDA community hearings on self-testing for HIV.
Wednesday: A supposed day-off but still ended up in the office putting up pictures of Workcamps on the hall bulletin board so people can see the range of Workcamp activities.
Thursday: Took a small group of 8th grade students from a Quaker school to do some service work for an elderly woman. Weeding, planting, cutting hedges – the little things that bring joy to this woman. As importantly, this group did in a few hours what would have taken the daughter of this woman upwards of a week to do, freeing the daughter to care for her mother and do what she does best – advocate for affordable housing in the DC community. We need to do all we can to help keep people like this out using their gifts in the world to benefit all people.
Friday: Started the morning attending a breakfast and daily reflection at a local church. The majority of attenders at this grassroots community ritual are homeless men and women. It is an inspiring example of compassion and love that flows through a warm meal and a handshake. The 8th grade students joined us. The evening was spent welcoming 12 seniors in high school from China who checked into William Penn House at about 8:30PM. These are high-achieving students on a tour of the US, and will be doing a few hours of community service with us over the weekend. This was capped off with a great conversation with a “seasoned” Friend who had been staying at WPH for a few days while attending meetings with FCNL. We compared notes on advocacy, youth leadership, spirituality, opportunities, action and service. This is a conversation that will continue.
From getting dirty with 13-year olds to greasy while taking bikes apart to being on the radio to being at a White House briefing, interspersed with planning for West Virginia and South Dakota Workcamps and dealing with other issues that arise, this is why I love the work that I do.  This list doesn't include the meetings with book authors, Tahrir Square organizers, and the countless others who come through our doors to lobby, do service, deepen their faith, or simply visit the city.  For me, all these things are connected. They are about finding one's truth while learning to listen to others. They are a part of a passion for making a difference in the world and creating opportunities for others to find they voice, while also struggling to articulate how all this is connected. Is it making a difference? I hope so.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Personal and Social Gospel of Quakerism

To what extent is Quakerism – as expressed by unprogrammed liberal Friends – a mushy religion defined more by silent worship and stances on social issues than on deep theology? Based on where Friends show up and the bumper stickers on our cars, it is clear where we stand on war, military spending, gay rights, mountain-top removal, hydro-fracking and environmental issues. We have a standard-issue car – either a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic hybrid. These tend to all be expressions of our social gospel, but underneath all of this, is there a disciplined theology that guides our principles?

I often sense (perhaps project?) among Quaker circles a feeling that if we were to drop our rigidity on socio-enviro-political issues we would not be sure what we stand for, or if we dare to suggest that we question the applicability of Quaker process to our decision-making that we are violating something sacred. We have a clear social gospel that is averse to injustice, is earth-centered and very much about the common good, but what about our personal gospel – sacred truth – that provides the ballast for the social gospel? It’s not that there is anything wrong with the social gospel, but when that is all we have, it tends to need the “other” - someone on the other side of the issue - to give it validity, and it can lead to an emotional reactivity as we choose sides and point fingers.

The challenge seems to be that when the idea of a “personal gospel” is raised, there is an understandable reaction, as if piousness, purity, sin and damnation are to follow, none of which fit easily with both our social gospel and the sometimes mushy “all people are welcome” message. I often found myself recoiling at the thought. Does this mean unprogrammed Friends cannot advocate a personal gospel?

As I have found, Friends readily embrace some form of “there is that of God in All” as a common and core truth. Can this be embraced and nurtured as a personal gospel – one that, above all else, is our core truth in a way that does not threaten or negate the social gospel, but instead informs the social gospel? Many people come to Quakerism after painful experiences with rigid and/or orthodox gospel messages of judgment, sin, hell and damnation, finding comfort in the warmth of a loving and welcoming community that also generally sits on what they find the “right side” of social issues. Our embracing of the common truth, however, tends to be fairly soft.

One does not have to spend too much time with unprogrammed Friends to seen that many – perhaps 50% or more – of the folks that live in our community are really not welcome because of their politics or stances on social issues.

Is it possible to reverse this, and to say that all are welcome DESPITE their stance on social and political issues, and that these are secondary to our commitment to welcoming all? Certainly we have the words in our materials. For example, the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Vision Statement has these two points (page 121 of 2011 Yearbook):
• “We aspire to listen deeply and inclusively to each other”
• “We seek to…witness in the world to our shared experience of the infinite love of God”

To the first point, aspiring to listen deeply and inclusively: are not our Meetings and gathering places where we practice deep listening – not to each other, but just as a practice of deep listening? We can get caught up sometimes thinking we need to be listening for something or to each other, but deep listening is more of a holistic practice.

To the second point, when we seek (and we do so joyfully – the trickier part) to share our experience of the infinite love, this is a calling to try and be an example of that infinite love, knowing that we as humans can never perfect it but we can always get a bit better at it. Being joyful about seeking keeps a sense of wonder and enthusiasm alive while keeping the judgment and negative aspects at bay, allowing us to be more open to seeing that God/goodness in others. It is this deeper connection that allows for the truths of our social gospel to be held in civil rather than divisive discourse, ultimately advancing both the personal and social gospel through faith.

This is not some mushy theology, but is in fact one that calls for some of the deepest faith. If we truly believe there is that of God in all, and ours is to joyfully seek it while sharing that infinite love, we have to constantly be practicing it, trying to improve on it, every single day. We have to know that we will never perfect the practice of it. I certainly fail countless more times than I succeed. But in deepening our faith in it, we can always get better. It means that our Meetings and gatherings are places to more consciously practice it so that when we venture out in the world no matter where we are we are better practiced. It also means finding new places to practice – going to places where there not people of “like mind”, and not try to convince them the error of their ways, but to instead practice deep listening while joyfully seeking and loving.

As this election year unfolds, unprogrammed Friends have an opportunity and perhaps a responsibility to embrace this challenge. If ever there was a time to practice advancing both our personal and social gospel, this is it. I also believe that if we only focus on the social gospel while demonizing those who disagree with it (including conservatives, military, etc.), we are doing so at the expense of our personal and communal gospel and both will lose.

(Acknowledgment: Some of the inspiration for this discernment of personal and social gospel is due to 2 books I recently read; "Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices" by Brian McLaren and "Saint and the Sultan" - about St. Francis of Assisi meeting with the Sultan of Egypt during the height of the 5th crusade - by Paul Moses.)