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.