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.)