Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Open and Affirming" is not the same as "Reconciliation and Forgiveness"

A week before Thanksgiving, at William Penn House, we hosted Danish Quaker K. Renato Lings who talked about his book "Love Lost in Translation" and his personal faith journey to reconciliation as a gay Christian.  It was a very enlightening presentation.  What I found most interesting was to hear Renato talk about the importance of finding comfort in his faith in order for him to really deal with his depression.  From a clinical standpoint, what I was hearing was that he had been traumatized growing up in a faith tradition that condemned him for being gay.  He subsequently spent many years avoiding his Christian faith, but was out to the world as a gay man.  Despite all the acceptance he felt (including among Quakers with whom he worked and worshiped), he still exhibited the lingering effects of the trauma (avoidance and other signs of depression).  It was not until he started to confront the "abuser" (The Bible as it had been used against him), and did extensive research into interpretations, meanings and historical factors, that he realized he could find a way to be both gay and Christian.  He no longer had to go through life being afraid to face the very thing that had caused him so much hurt.  (Side note: Andrew Marin has done some great work on the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, including showing up at Pride parades with "I'm Sorry" signs.  See more here.)  
As the conversation unfolded, we discussed the importance of reconciliation and acceptance, but also the importance of recognizing that overcoming the traumatic experience that many gays and lesbians takes more than being "open and affirming."  To fully overcome the impact and control that traumatic experiences can have on people, it is important to work through the fear that leads to avoidance as this can habituate into a paralyzing way of life.
Many Quaker congregations consider themselves welcoming places for the glbt community, which is fantastic.  What we discussed at this evening event, however, was that to be welcoming without fully appreciating the depths of hurt that religious rejection can leave with people has the potential to cause inadvertent harm, and we do this by not better understanding the Bible.  Our own avoidance or lack of comfort with the Bible - the agent used for perpetrating the abuse - can leave us ill-equipped for being the reconciling place we would hope to be for those who have experienced the trauma.  This is where we might actually do more harm - by promising acceptance but missing the mark by not appreciating the depth of the harm.  Renato Lings' book might be a good place to start the journey to greater healing for so many.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Giving Thanks

It's the season of reflection and appreciation.  There is much to be thankful for, so here are a few:
  • Janie Boyd.  Her spirit, wisdom and love just about move me to tears when I am with her.  And now she has me hooked on getting out to the farm as often as possible to pick greens in the morning, an amazing way to start the day.
  • Rob Farley and Margot Eyring.  The breakfast they host every weekday morning at Capitol Hill Methodist Church humbles me, and the daily reflection often really hits home.
  • The American Institute for Urban Psychological Studies, Dr. Grady and Helen Dale.  I met Helen when she was hosting a workshop at William Penn House, and they invited me to speak about HIV and depression at their conference on depression in Baltimore in October.
  • The Southeast White House.  Sammy, Scott, Tina, Kathy, Ernest, and everyone who regularly partake in the fellowship lunches - if only the rest of the world could show the hospitality you do, we really could have peace in the world. 
  • Brian Rodgers and his vision for a sustainable and healthy community in places many people would rather ignore even exist.  Your wisdom and quiet leadership are a model for all.
  • Friends in Pine Ridge, SD, Caretta and Buckhannon, WV.  As I've learned from the High Horse family and the Sundance, annual traditions that are sacred help keep the cycles going.  For me, you are all part of that cycle.  And to Mike Gray - you continue to show what real commitment is.  
  • Goodtherapy.org, for the opportunity to hone my clinical skills and to share my passion for integrating HIV prevention into the broader clinical/helping professions.  
  • Byron Sandford - for his selfless dedication to doing whatever it takes to keep William Penn House going.  And to Josh, Ana and Allison - you've been great this fall during a busy transition.  
  • Katy Swalwell (author of "Educating Activist Allies"), whose academic research has been affirming the spirit of how we have been developing Workcamps intuitively.  I look forward to an exciting future together.
  • All the Workcamp participants, especially those who humble me with your on-going friendship and continued participation.  For the youth among you - especially those who take time to really question what difference we can make - you give hope for a bright future.  
  • People I've met in Kenya, Israel and Palestine.  You remind me that we are all in this together, and I hope to continue to be an ally and friend as we struggle together to bring peace and health to our families everywhere.    
  • There is also my family (Walter, mom, dad, sis, bros, steps, halves) - you mean the world to me and know how to keep me in my place, even when I don't want to be there.  And to "all my relations" - past and present - you are always with me.  
  • Dogs.  Doesn't matter whether I've met you or not, you embody all that is good - love, play, being in the moment.    
These are the reasons I wake up in the morning with enthusiasm and anticipation.  You affirm my Franciscan/Benedictine/Quaker belief that when we seek the goodness in others, stay open to listening and understanding others, connect with a loving heart, and stay committed to a more peaceful world, it just might be possible.  From the bottom of my heart, thanks!
Brad Ogilvie

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bonhoeffer, Community and Quakerism

"Community" is one of the oft-cited Quaker testimonies.  This morning, in my daily Bonhoeffer ritual,  the writing was about community.  While I often try to adapt some of the language of Bonhoeffer to a less Trinitarian Christian message, this one is a stretch, so I'm going to leave it as is, relying that "Christ" for me means an unabiding love for and deep faith in the goodness of all, and the call to live in grace.  So, here goes:

"Because Christ stands between me and another, I must not long for unmediated community with that person.  As only Christ was able to speak to me in such a way that I was helped, so others too can only be helped by Christ alone.  However, this means that I must release others from my attempts to control, coerce, and dominate them with my love.  In their freedom from me, other persons want to be loved for who they are, as those for whom Christ became a human being, died, and rose again as those for whom Christ won the forgiveness of sins and prepared eternal live.  Because Christ has long since acted decisively for other Christians, before I could begin to act, I must allow them the freedom to be Christ's.  They should encounter me only as the persons they already are in Christ.  This is the meaning of the claim that we can encounter others only through the mediation of Christ.  Self-centered love constructs its own image of other persons, about what they are and what they should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person as seen from the perspective of Jesus Christ.  It is the image Jesus Christ has formed and wants to form in all people."  - from Life Together, pg. 43-44

So much of this resonates for what has long attracted me to Quakerism - the belief that there is that of God/innate goodness in all people.  It also reminds me of the Benedictine "radical hospitality" and the Franciscan spirit to sow love where there is anger and to seek to understand rather than be understood, both of which are vital aspects to my own faith and practice - or at least to my faith, and hopefully a part of my practice.

To live with this faith, we must challenge ourselves to resist our impulses to coerce others to see the folly of their ways - political, religious, social - but to instead believe that when we invite others into our lives as they are, and vice-versa allow ourselves to be as we are, we are living our faith.  I have certainly been on the receiving end of this, especially when I have been welcomed in places I did not expect - such as when I lived in the more conservative Wheaton, IL, or when I go to places like the Southeast White House where I am frequently in the minority with regards to my faith (more universalist than Trinitarian), stance on social issues, and sexual orientation.  It is times like this that I really get what Bonhoeffer is talking about here.  I only hope that I can be that I can always be better at doing this for others.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reflections with Bonhoeffer

Sometime in the last year, I started reading a daily reflection with writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I had read portions of some of his books, but he is very heavy and I find it hard to digest too much at one time, so this book has been great.  Just small but often heavy doses once a day.  What I have also found helpful, as I read some of his writings, is that since I do not consider myself a trinitarian Christian as he clearly is, that by secularizing his language I find his message more accessible.  The basic translation I find helpful  - and I hope still keep with the spirit of his writings, given his messages of inclusiveness, love and humility - is to consider "Christian communities" as "loving communities", "Christian service" as "loving service", and so on.  My belief is that God is a loving God, and our calling is to be loving people towards all, so it works for me.

Periodically, in this blog space, I'll be putting a writing of his that moves me and seems applicable to the work of William Penn House and Quaker Workcamps.  Yesterday's message was one such message, especially as it was a day that we were doing a few hours of service with students from Baltimore Friends School.

"The basis of all pneumatic, or spiritual reality, is the clear call to love and to live with grace.  At the foundation of all psychic, or emotional reality are the dark, impenetrable urges and desires of the human soul - the ego. The basis of spiritual community is truth; the basis of emotional community is desire.  The essence of spiritual community is light. For 'God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all' (1 John 1:5); and 'if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another' (1 John 1:7).  The essence of emotional, self-centered community is darkness, 'for it is from within, from the human heart, that egotistical intentions come' (Mark 7:21).  It is the deep night that spreads over the sources of all human activity, over even all noble and devout impulses.  Spiritual community is the community of those who are called by love and grace; emotional community is the community of pious souls.  The bright love of service, fellowship and grace lives in the spiritual community; the dark love of pious-impious urges burns in the self-centered community.  In the former, there is ordered, loving service; in the latter, disordered desire for pleasure.  In the former, there is humble submission one to another; in the latter, humble, yet haughty subjection of other people to one's own desire."

Friday, October 18, 2013

"Never in Doubt; Seldom Right"

Living and working in Washington, DC, it is not possible to hide from politics.  This is a political post. 

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that the government shut down for almost three weeks, and re-opened yesterday.  What has been fascinating and troubling to me is how some key players (Sen. Cruz most notably, but pretty much the Tea Party-elected representatives) have so much influence in all of this.  Their claim to act as they have is that they ran on and were elected a platform of shutting down Obamacare.

What is disturbing about this mindset is the lack of appreciation that we live in a pluralist society and, in this kind of society, "my" or "our way" is not always the way things can and should go.  It's offensive when people claim to speak for "real Americans" as Cruz, Bachmann and Palin so often do.

But, this is not just the purview of the Tea Party.  The far left has often acted just as smug, righteous and divisive.  When I lived in DuPage County, IL - a fairly conservative county - in 2006, Tammy Duckworth was first running for congress. She narrowly lost to Peter Roskam in the election for the seat vacated by retiring Henry Hyde.  Duckworth had not been the favorite of many of the DuPage Democrats because she was a military veteran and not "liberal enough."  This tepid support may have negatively influenced her chances.  Similarly, the Green Party of 2000 basically paved the way for Bush.  And in 2012, there was the incredibly wasteful "Recall Walker" effort in Wisconsin.  It seems to me that, as we become increasingly polarized as a society, we are also entering into a period of shut-downs (or taking things to the edge) and recall efforts (as seen in Wisconsin and Colorado).  This is also perhaps influenced by our increasing need for immediate gratification (as much of the left demonstrated with the rapid disappointment that Obama did not immediately shut down Guantanamo, end "don't ask/don't tell", etc.).  Certainly, Quakers are also susceptible to this, with our "War is not the Answer" and other righteous statements. 

A few years ago, I read a book titled "In Praise of Doubt: How to have convictions without becoming a fanatic."  My big takeaway from that book is that, in a pluralistic society, it is important to have deep convictions, but to hold them with just enough doubt that it doesn't serve to divide us further.  This means that, while I may always be the voice for gay rights, environmental responsibility, non-violent actions, I do so with the awareness that mine is one of many voices in the choir that needs to learn to sing together. Remembering the line from the Prayer of St. Francis - that I seek to understand, rather than to be understood - helps ground me here as well. 

For sure it is easy to point the finger Cruz and his cronies for the recent fiasco.  But just as easily, we could be pointing fingers at Nader and the Green Party, and all people who feel so certain of their stances that they live a "with me or against me" sense to them.  We need to do better.  I can say that this is one of the things we try to nurture in our programs at William Penn House - the practice of listening and noticing, not reacting and judging.  We have plenty of opportunities to do the latter; what we need is more of the former to raise civility in the world. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Paying Attention to Economic Injustice

Like a good liberal, I woke up this morning listening to NPR.  There was a piece about Clarence B. Jones, one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington that is being commemorated this week.  He echoed one of the persistent themes that, while there has been much progress over the past 50 years, there is much to "the Dream" that is as yet unfulfilled.  The reporter states: "From his book 'Behind the Dream', Jones writes as long as there's a need for a legal category for hate crimes, police officers 'pulling over African Americans because they're driving cars considered out of their financial reach,' and people 'selling their houses because too many black families have moved in,' the dream remains diluted, tarnished and unfulfilled."

Now, I would never deny that these are certainly true and important, but I do see these as largely middle and upper-class issues that ignore the deeper economic injustices that are playing out.  As long as we dance around the fact that the overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of people in prisons, unemployed, in underfunded schools, and with higher rates of poor health indicators are people of color (including Native Americans), and as long as poor people across the board have unequal access to opportunities as well as protections, the dream is unfulfilled.  And as long as people like Jones and entities like NPR neglect these facts, the dream will remain unfulfilled. 

I see the injustice in the wealthy corporate executive who is either a black man or a woman and receiving less than his/her white male counterpart, but it's at the other end of the economic spectrum that we need to be serious about if we are to break the cycle.  It's great to have models of success to break stereotypes, but if we don't address the education and nutrition issues.  It's great to ride my bike by the White House - as I was yesterday - and see all the black leaders getting out to attend a function.  But to also attend a regular breakfast as I did yesterday morning, consisting mostly of poor black people who seem to be left out of the Dream, reminds me of the real work to be done. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pine Ridge, 2013: Reflections of power, privilege, peace and service

“Welcome Home.” 

This was how Dwayne, one of our hosts in Wanblee, greeted me.  This was my fourth trip to Wanblee and it is becoming a spiritual home of sorts.  It is becoming an important annual ritual that takes me out of my routine, and brings old and new acquaintances together in a deep and spiritual way.

This year, we had a great few weeks helping Earth Tipi work towards a model of sustainability on the Rez, and reconnecting with friends as we helped prepare for the Sundance.   We created a space to practice what we preach, and to work through the physical, emotional and interpersonal challenges in a safe, loving and trusting environment.  Through conversation, action, silence and reflection, we practiced grace, putting the ego aside. We went as way opened. 

One of the openings was a mud volleyball game at the Eagle’s Nest District Pow Wow.  Our $50 entry fee
made way for a filthy four games of fun and laughs.  We ended up winning the $100 pot, and contributed that to the local youth program.  Something else happened that gave pause for reflection and consideration.  While playing, some of the local youth threw mud at us, at times with rocks mixed in.  One of our players got hit in the eye.  We asked the kids to stop.  They didn’t.  We asked some of the adults to intervene.  They did, but the kids returned and continued sporadically. To the credit of the Workcampers - and perhaps to the credit of the pacifist teachings that come from Quakerism - there was no consideration of reacting with violence or in-kind.

Over the next few days, we had some conversations about this experience.  We struggled to overcome our egos (“Why would they do this to me?  I’m a good person, and I’m here to help”), and as we did, we got to deeper conversations. For example:
·         We often find it understandable and excusable for an oppressed and abused community to exact revenge (a la much of what I hear about Palestinian violence against Israelis as “understandable”).  However, when we represent that power, and find ourselves vulnerable, it feels very different.  The fact is, we have benefited from oppression and exploitation.  Our experience this day was a taste of what many Lakota feel every day – especially when they venture off the Rez.  It was a real eye-opener about power and privilege.
·         In talking with Dwayne about this situation, he affirmed that we acted in the right way.  We did not have the leverage to do more – other than leaving the game, but we were having too much fun.  We could have yelled at the kids, but that would have further agitated the divide.  We were already the outsiders.  But Dwayne also said that if he were there, he would have come down hard on the kids and the adults.  As a member of the community, he could. 

We often talk about Quaker Workcamps as opportunities for experiential learning.  I learned more about power and privilege because of this.  And I am affirmed that change comes from within.  We were the outsiders, but because of how we were in this game, perhaps when we return we will be a bit less so.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mrs. Janey Boyd: A model of mercy in our midst

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to connect with Janey Boyd.  Janey is in her mid-80's, a long-time DC resident (over 60 years), and has been in food justice work going back to the Kennedy administration.  Our connection has been through the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network where she helps get crops from fields to poor families of all ages  We share a belief that when we work together, we can solve the world's problems better than when we myopically choose sides or focus on single issues.  She is the kind of person who breezily says children can't learn in schools if they don't get proper nutrition, which is why we can't let those good foods on the farms go to rot, but instead get them into the stomachs.  This sums up our work together.

Mrs. Boyd with Harford Friends School
Despite knowing her over these two years, it was only this past month that I got to personally meet her.  All previous communications had been by phone.  Last week, with a Workcamp group from Franklin, TN, we went twice to her house to drop off fresh collared greens and kale that we had gleaned from a local farm, and I stood in awe as Mrs. Boyd connected with the kids with her message of love, hope and justice.  Her commitment for speaking truth was on display as she told stories of confronting aldermen and judges on elder-care issues, and at the same time motioning for a car to slow down in her alley ("I'm not waving at you, I'm telling you to slow down", she said Friday afternoon as a car drove by).

This morning, I read this in my daily Bonhoefer:
The Merciful
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
These persons without possessions, these strangers on earth, these powerless people, these sinners, these followers of Jesus, have in their life with him renounced their own dignity, for they are compassionate.  As if their own needs and their own poverty were not enough, they take upon themselves the needs and humiliation and sin of strangers.  They have an irresistible love for the down-trodden, the sick, the wretched, the degraded, the oppressed, for those who suffer unjustly, for the outcast, for all who are tortured with anxiety.  They go out and seek all who are enmeshed in the toils of sin and guilt.  No distress is too great, no sin too appalling for their compassion...They will be found consorting with publicans and sinners, careless of the shame they incur thereby.  In order that they may be compassionate they cast away the most priceless treasure of human life, their personal dignity and honor.  For the only honor and dignity they know is their Lord's mercy, to which they owe their very lives.
- from A Testament to Freedom 315-316

This sums up Janey Boyd to me.  From her planting of seedling tomatoes to give away, to her connecting people to service and food, to her speaking her truth to the most powerful, she inspires me.  She is a woman of limited financial means, but endless energy and love that she gladly shares with any and all. I am honored to know her and to share her with others.  May she inspire more to be as merciful as she is.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Reflections from West Virginia: Energy, Army and Opportunity

Last week, Washington Quaker Workcamps led the annual Sidwell Friends School Workcamp to Caretta, WV to work with Big Creek People in Action, partnering once again with the great folks from Upshur Helping Hands from Buckhannon, WV.
 It was another great week of fun, fellowship, hard work, community-building, deep conversations, love, and learning - all the things that create opportunities for on-going bridge-building across economics, faiths, and geography as we do what we can to promote global community visions and action that belie notions of socio-poltical-economic "bubbles" that really do not exist.

As with all Workcamps, each person has a different experience, high point, or takeaway.  One of the biggest ones for me this year is this:
One evening, Chester Ball made his annual visit to perform, entertain and engage the group in music, games and dance.  This year, he brought with  
him three teens and one pre-teen.  The teens played guitar and sang with Chester - part of his way of preserving a music tradition from this troubled region while nurturing positive activities for youth.  At one point during the evening, I sat with the teens to thank them for coming and to learn more about them.  When asked about post-high school goals, the female among the teens stated she planned to go to cosmetology school.  The males all stated that they planned to either work "in coal" or join the Marines.  I asked whether they wanted to go to the Academy or enlisted; they all said they wanted to go enlisted so they could get to the front lines fully armed and ready to fight.  Coal or Army.  That was it as far as options.  College is prohibitive because of rising costs as well as the fact that they live in a community that does not nurture the pursuit of higher education.    

As I engaged with fellow program participants in sharing this conversation, it led to even more conversations. The wonderful thing about conversations as opposed to arguments and debates is that conversations seem to lead to new insights.  One such insight I had was the irony that, in the circles I tend to float in, there is a unified sense that coal and the military are bad.  The military often is engaged in fights to protect and acquire
Testing a coal tram
fossil fuels (notably, oil), and what we need to be doing is steering people to careers in sustainable and renewable energy.  The ironic part is that the military is starting to step up in a big way in developing alternative energies, with the goal of having 50% of its energy come from sustainable/renewable sources by 2025.  

It's a dilemma.  We want to be a part of creating opportunities as well as supporting people in following their leadings.  At the same time we know that better stewardship of human and natural resources is vital to a healthy world.  For these young men, their leadings right now are to coal and/or the military.  When it comes to renewable energy, we know that coal is not the way, but the military does open that door.  I don't see easy answers, but if I did, then it would not be a dilemma.  I do find that these Workcamp experiences create opportunities to become more open to creating a safe space and talking about the issues rather than choosing sides and fueling partisanship.  Last week affirmed that.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Workcamps, 2013: Breaking Barriers, Nurturing Leaders

As we get ready to shift into high gear with the summer Workcamps and programs, I have also been reflecting on ways to integrate new ideas and opportunities so that we do not fall into a rut of relying on a template, but instead keep things new and fresh.

For starters, I am ever-more convinced that the responsibility that comes with planning and running service programs is to not just meet the expectations of participants (i.e. to feel good about making a difference, or understand a social injustice better), but to also challenge these expectations in a way that promotes thinking critically about what kind of world they envision and what else they can do in their lives to move closer to that vision.  It is in this kind of conversation that we talk about the importance of relationships - you don't create your vision of the world that includes others without including them in the conversation and the creation of that world - and about the role that privilege and responsibility have in social justice work.

In addition to these "continuing revelation" conversations, here at William Penn House we have an added dimension of progress this summer: we are focusing a concerted effort on nurturing the leaders of the next generation in leading these conversations.  Our summer intern, Nate Anderson-Stahl, joined us last summer for 2 weeks on Pine Ridge.  Prior to that, he had attended Baltimore Yearly Meeting summer camps and the teen adventure program.  Now he will be applying his knowledge and experience of Quakerism, Quaker process and Workcamps to developing and leading them as part of our team. In addition, we have three rising seniors from a DC-prep school who will be joining us for 2 weeks in late July.  The first week will be to experientially learn about Workcamps, the kinds of service we do in DC, the importance of relationships in doing service (I often think that, without a relationship, there usually is not service), how things are connected, and the importance of critically thinking and questioning things.  The second week, these students will then be leading the process for a Workcamp group coming to DC and, hopefully, taking the relations they establish with them to their school, bringing a new dynamic of service and opportunities with them.

It is always an honor to be able to work with the leaders of tomorrow.  My hope is that this summer will be the start of breaking down the compartmentalization we sometimes create around programs and issues, as we weave more connections into the fabric of community.  One vision: to create a flow where youth who have been introduced to Quaker ideals (in schools, Meetings and/or camps) and had an opportunity to practice them in a larger arena (Workcamps), become the farm system for Workcamp organizers, creators and leaders where they get to experience facilitating visioning and implementation built on relationships, and then take these experiences into the rest of their lives with greater consciousness of stewardship, compassion and persistent hope that overcomes the frustrations and disappointments that are sure to be there as well.  This is something I have been envisioning for the past few years; this year is looking like it is starting to take root.  As with all things, patience and perserverance seem to pay off, but now the real work begins.  
-Brad Ogilvie

Monday, April 29, 2013

From "I'm Shy" to "Let's Dance" in 60 Seconds

Last week, we hosted two separate groups for a day of Workcamps.  One group was made up of 12 students from China who had just graduated high school there and were part of a cultural exchange program before heading to college (some in the US, but most back in China).  This group arrived early and headed out to work on the beginnings of a project to turn a neglected bit of land into a healthy community space with a tiered rain garden, community garden and basketball court (this will be a project we will be a part of for the next few years).

The other group, from Harford Friends School in MD, consisted of the entire 8th grade class (all six of them), their Head of School, and one of the parents.  They proceeded to go from William Penn House to assist a remarkable woman, Janey Boyd, who has been addressing the problems of hunger in DC since the 1950's. Their work this day was to help unload food that had been gleaned from a local farm and package it for families to pick up at the school where the truck met the group, illustrating the fact that there is good nutritional and fresh food available if we can just get folks to help get it from farm to table.

When it came time to consider what to do for dinner, I thought of simplifying things by having the groups share dinner.  I was a bit unsure how this would play out.  There were differences in both age and culture, as well as language.  But these groups were sharing the house for the night, and Community is one of the testimonies that guides our work at William Penn House, so let's just have faith in it, I thought.
At first, it looked like the groups were going to share food, but sit separately.  I encouraged the Harford students to split in two groups at the tables we have.

"I'm shy" was the immediate response of one of the students, but they took the suggestion anyway.  Within minutes, what was a quiet room with the exception of some subdued Chinese language conversations became a boisterous room as people talked about everything from video games to dance.  The energy and spirit lifted as folks became aware of how much we are not separated by our nations, culture and language, but by how much we are united by our humanity.  I remember in particular, the "shy" student who is a dancer reveling in how she connected with one of the Chinese students who has a passion for dancing as well, and how she really wished she could see him dance.

I know this is just one meal, and who knows what impact it will have.  I do know that transcending one's fear, stepping out of one's comfort zone, and having a wonderful experience can be the building block for doing more of this.  Perhaps one day, the dancers will share that dance.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Moving from "Crisis" to "Sustainability": Reflections from New Orleans 2013 Workcamp

"Mercy that doesn't move intentionally in the direction of development will end up doing more harm than good - to both giver and recipient." - Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity

When Katrina hit New Orleans, there was an immediate disaster - flooded homes, unsanitary and inhuman
living conditions, death.  Once the waters started to recede, it became clear that the depths of the loss of life and property were greatly exacerbated by neglect of our environment and our fellow citizens.  This is the common narrative of our times: storms, earthquakes, tsunamis and disease draw our attention to the deeper injustices as the crisis preys on the more vulnerable among us.  Unfortunately, as we respond to the crisis, we tend to get entrenched in a crisis mode of thinking and acting, rather than doing the hard work of community building/rebuilding with a vision of sustainability.  The crisis response seems heroic and can be very gratifying, but if it is not in direct response to the crisis, it is often doing more harm than good.  So it is with New Orleans.

I just returned from taking Sidwell Friends School students to New Orleans during their annual spring break Workcamp.  The origins of this trip  trace directly to Katrina.  Most of the Workcamp activities in past years focused on rebuilding houses and cleaning up.  While this is important work, and it is important that we provide opportunities for people to engage in service in a way that they feel good, it is also important that distinctions be made between "crisis response" and sustainability, as well as between meaningful service and "feel-good" service.  So this year it was time to not just look more deeply but also engage more deeply at the issues and to challenge ourselves to be realistic about what we can do for one week each year. I wanted to challenge us to look at the fact that real community change has to come from within, so it is up to the people of New Orleans to make those changes just as it is up to the people of DC to change their community.  On the other hand, looking at things from the environmental angle and engaging in service there can help all of us address things where we are interconnected.

Our service projects included urban gardening at a charter school, helping exchange lightbulbs as part of Greenlight New Orleans' energy program, learning about the water threats of the Gulf and the Mississippi (which, through oil drilling, shipping, and snow melts connect to over half the country), and getting dirty helping restore some bayou spaces.  This offered a wide-range of activities that allowed for participants to see that there are many ways to serve.

Most importantly, however, as is so often the case with these week-long Workcamps, it is the fellowship that seems to really bring it all together.  Great questions were raised about what kind of difference we were making, why certain types of service seem more gratifying than others and how to do these services locally and why that matters.  In addition to service/justice-related conversations, there were also great conversations about race, segregation, equality - all the things that we
aspire for but find so elusive to practice in our daily lives.  These are the conversations that matter, and the establishment of deeper relations guarantees that these will be the foundation for even greater community change as we support each other in stepping out.

Of course, these trips have lots of laughs - many of which stem from
content not for public consumption given the lack of context.  But these laughs bring the positive energy to what can otherwise seem daunting work, establishing bonds of fellowship, friendship and care for each other that can carry us to being better stewards of each other and the world around us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Focus on Material Resources Ignores the Untapped Resource of Compassion

We live in a world that is interconnected.  This is a readily-acknowledged sentiment. From the Christian belief that we are all a part of the body of Christ to the secular understanding that everything from poverty to disease to environment connected, we have many ways to engage in conversation about this largely agreeable fact.  But turning this conversation to unified action is very difficult.  Why?

Because live in a world where attempts to address issues, bring solutions and bring justice are compartmentalized.  Most non-profits focus on specific causes and needs, segregated by income, race, geography, or disease.  The fact that our world is interconnected with each part effecting the other seems to fall by the wayside.  Many of these well-meaning efforts are also deeply entrenched in a bureaucracy that is rigid, resistant to change and is more focused on institutional survival than mission-completion.

I was talking recently with folks about the kind of service and activism we engage in here at William Penn House.  It is always difficult to articulate exactly what we do here in familiar vernacular because we are not focused on one issue or another.  We truly believe that everything is interconnected.  We view our role as nurturing greater consciousness. A few years ago, we embraced the term "radical hospitality" to define our work.  It fits nicely with our belief that there is that of God/goodness in all, and as we build relations based on this deep faith in each other, good things and a more peaceful world emerge.  What this also does is affirm another aspect of a fairly universal belief: all people have  But in the world of social justice and social service with countless compelling issues, especially in a town that has hundreds if not thousands of cause organizations, it can feel isolating.

We also live in a world of finite resources.  The waters that flow around us now are the same waters that have flowed since the dawn of time, albeit now much more toxic and yet needing to nourish more people than ever.  Our capacity to absorb garbage is seriously limited.  The fossil fuels that take thousands of years to create are being depleted within decades.  We also work against ourselves with health issues - making healthcare extremely expensive while supporting unhealthy nutrition and health habits, and not using all the resources (such as self-testing for HIV) to encourage people to do for themselves what they can, instead fostering a dependency on others.  We basically keep going back to this notion that we have endless pockets of material reserves, that we can talk about the needs magically meeting the needs of others while continuing with our own over-consumption.

But there is a resource that is unlimited - our capacity to care for and love each other, and to do so with at least an effort of grace, rather than ego.   In attempting to live this way, I have also learned to appreciate a Jewish way of doing things that is build on concentric circles: we start in our immediate surroundings, tendign to the things closest to us (such as the environmental work in our backyard, being in fellowship at Capitol Hill Methodist Church's morning breakfast with many who are unhoused) and going out from there, never ending but not starting with a vision fixed on a far-away place that ignores those around us.

In doing this, we really see how it all is interconnected.  Tapping into these limitless resources of compassion that is good work, even if it does feel lonely at times in a society where material things continue to be the idols of worship.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Workcamps mean to me

Thoughts on relationships and the Workcamp experience
by Mark Sundermeyer

In its truest form, a work camp is something that goes beyond providing a service. Far too often service is viewed as doing something to help someone, when the reality of the benefit is mutual and harmonious. When we look beyond the simple task of service, when we create meaningful and lasting relationships with those that we work with, those relationships color our view of the world and our place within it. 

  1. Relationships
Building relationships with the people that we are working for and with is the heart of the Workcamp experience, without it, Workcamps are simply physical acts of service. Through several trips to Caretta, West Virginia, I developed relationships with some of the people we were working with, relationships with people that I would never have imagined I would come into contact with, much less become friends with. These relationships transcended any preconceived notions that I may have had about the people of Caretta and caused me to look inward and examine how I fit in with this group of people. Surprisingly, I had very little trouble feeling at one with the community. It became clear to me that there was very little difference, if any between the people of Caretta and myself. This realization is paramount to the Workcamp experience and one that is directly in tune with Quaker philosophy. Building relationships with those that we work with allows us to see that of God in everyone, including ourselves.
  1. Bearing Witness
Another key aspect of the Workcamp is the simple experience of immersing oneself in another person’s life and struggles. This may be the most underrated part of the Workcamp, and does not require a physical outcome, but is surely a powerful component. In my trips to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I began to notice that simply viewing someone’s struggle could be affirming to even the most devastated victim. I am reminded of a sign I saw in the lower 9th ward that read,
“This is what has happened to us,
We have lost loved ones and our homes,
See this devastation and know that this is our struggle.”
People’s struggles go unnoticed in the blur of news media that engulfs us everyday. Simply acknowledging the depths and seriousness of people’s struggles is something that ties directly into our relationships with the people that we work with. If we cannot understand what other people have been through, then the work we do is nothing more than a favor. When we bear witness, we can begin to see parallels to our own lives. It is not a belittling parallel, but rather a unifying experience that solidifies our relationships. To bear witness is not limited to struggles; bearing witness is a holistic practice that includes seeing the joy in people’s lives as well. When we can truly understand each other, our sorrows, our joys, then we can begin to create meaningful relationships. This is the power of the Workcamp.  
Through the experience of creating relationships and bearing witness in service, the Workcamp gains meaning on an internal level. When service is no longer viewed as something that is done to someone else, but as a mutual exchange of experience, both parties leave the Workcamp changed and with a better understanding of their selves and one another. This change may not be predictable but it surely is a strong one. For me, this change was a gradual awareness; I began to see in my life in a different light over the course of many Workcamps as I built relationships with people and places. To the best of my ability, I began to see people as they truly were, not defined by a single struggle, but as a whole person. When Workcamps focus on building meaningful relationships and bearing witness, i.e. working in a place for more than a day, and not just painting or building, then the outcome of the Workcamp will be such that people will naturally be drawn to service, a truer service, one that would be immediately relevant and powerful in their lives.