Monday, February 24, 2014

The Wisdom of Elders

"What an elder sees sitting, the young can't see standing."  - Gustave Flaubert

April 24, 2014 - Last night, William Penn House hosted a dinner honoring Janie Boyd, a remarkable woman of 84.  I have written about Janie in the past for her inspiring and seemingly tireless work to make sure that people in her community do not go to bed hungry, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, young or old.  She gets out there on the farms to pick greens, organizes food deliveries, and challenges all who cross her path that it is not only criminal but against God's will that we let greed, power and complacency stand in the way of getting readily available and healthy food to the homes of the working poor.  The event last night was great, and the preparation for it had me learning even more about all who have been not just touched, but motivated and inspired - as well as lovingly burned - by her love and faith that we can do better.
This morning, I went to the office to wrap up some loose ends as I prepare to take the rest of the week off. I'm having surgery on my left lung, and the process to get to this point has been a bit of a drag.  But, every step of the way the past few months, Janie has reassured me that all will be fine - that we are in God's hands.  She has been sharp with me about taking care of myself physically as well as emotionally.  At about 10AM, Janie called me to simply state that if I need anything, to let her and the folks at her church know.  More importantly, Janie wanted to let me know that I am loved.
So all day I've been reflecting on how lucky I have been.  The reason?  I have always had elders in my life, and I have mostly been open to hearing their wisdom.  From the late night conversations with my grandmas, all the way to the present, they have been there imparting their wisdom and nurturing my values.  I first heard that God did not put us on this earth to fight not from a Quaker lesson, but from my Presbyterian grandmother as she stopped the car and got out to pull two fighting kids apart that she did not know. I learned that it's important to drop things once in a while and go for a walk or spend time with nature from my grandpa. I learned that late night conversations matter from the many I had with my other grandmother and, in more recent years, from my great aunt, as well as from my first service experience - snow shoveling for a man in his 90's.  The shoveling took 5 minutes; the hot cocoa and cookies and stories took a few hours.
Then, as I journeyed through life with HIV front and center, there was Lois Johnson, always showing that love matters more than anything. Lois had lost a son to AIDS in 1995, and spent much of the rest of her 18 years on this earth doing what she could to make the world of more loving place so people did not have to suffer life in shame or isolation, or from unnecessary disease.  Not only was love the lesson, but that life is not so much about problems but opportunities.  And now there is Janie, and the lessons continue as she imparts her wisdom not just with me but with the youth groups that come to William Penn House.
The lessons of each of these people are a part of who I am now.  They guide so much of my work and life. Their lessons are not separate, but sequential, each one building on and integrating with the previous. My hope is that all people be open to this wisdom that is readily available in people like Janie, Lois and countless others. Wisdom comes from life experiences, and is often found in the humblest of places.  It is out there, to be shared. It is a source of hope in the face of adversity. May we all be so fortunate to find that wisdom in our lives. More importantly, if we truly want to bring justice to the world, I believe we need that loving wisdom to guide us.
-Brad Ogilvie

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Skin in the Game

"'Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven' (Matt. 5:10)... With this beatitude Jesus thoroughly rejects the false timidity of those Christians who evade any kind of suffering for a just, good, and true cause because they supposedly could have a clear conscience only if they were to suffer for the explicit confession of faith in Christ.  Jesus cares for those who suffer for a just cause even if it is not exactly for the confession of his name."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Yesterday, I wrote about how change at the micro-level (meaning, starting with me/us) is a vital component to bringing about macro-level change.  Then I read the above reading from my daily Bonhoeffer.  For modern day purposes, I am not sure I agree with the notion of being persecuted.  Persecution connotes harassment and oppression.  Certainly these can be a part of the consequence of standing up for a just cause, such as with the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960's where people risked their lives in the name of equality, and suffered great harm, while responding with remarkable non-violence.  To me, this is a far-cry from what we often see today with protests so highly orchestrated that there is no risk or sacrifice, or calls for boycott that ask for nothing of the consumer. An exception might be preachers in Indiana who perform same-gender marriage if the state constitutionally bans gay marriage, as these preachers would face possible imprisonment.  
For me, however, the call is not to seek to be persecuted, but to put skin in the game - to make sacrifices, take risks, to be the change.  This means more than championing an issue, but to build relationships across divides. This means being willing to be vulnerable, to be uncertain, to act with doubt.  This means making the sacrifice while practicing kindness.  
I fail at doing this miserably and daily.  It is the humility of this that keeps me from feeling that I have the right to tell others what to do.  Instead, I hope to walk the journey with people.  I certainly don't want to seek out persecution as a validation of my sacrifice, but I am willing to be made uncomfortable, and to try and do things differently.  If we want the world to be a kinder, more compassionate and caring society where people are not so ego-driven, we have to start with ourselves.  For me, this starts with the willingness to make sacrifices, to be uncomfortable, to practice kindness, to do with less, and every day to try a little bit more.  It certainly doesn't end there, and just doing this is not enough, but the change won't happen without it.  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Macro-Change Starts at the Micro-Level

Over the weekend, I was talking with a good friend about politics, justice and equality issues.  We come at things from very different angles politically and policy-wise, but we know that we want the same things in the world - less conflict, less injustice, more opportunity, more equality.  As we were talking, Mike (not his real name) kept citing data showing that many of the social programs (mostly in education - Head Start, college funding programs) are simply not producing positive outcomes.  We shared sentiments that there is too much bureaucracy and there is too much self-interest from professional organizations, lobbyists and politicians, and once programs are established, the cultural dependency often overlooks outcomes while keeping the funding going.  Mike kept referring to the fact that government-funded programs need to support programs that are proven to bring about change on the macro-level, and the simple fact is that many of our entrenched programs - many of which seemed like great ideas - are not producing the outcomes to justify their continued funding and policy control.

So much of this certainly resonates with my experiences.  I've seen first-hand a deeply-entrenched bureaucracy dictating policy and operating a rigid paradigm in AIDS services.  What I realized, as we were talking and finding that we were not in sync, is that we were talking at different elevations.  Mike stated that new ideas can get funded to ramp up if they are proven to work on a small scale.  While I know this is true, to be able to even get these preliminary outcomes requires a level of funding and administration that small organizations don't have.  Effectively, to implement totally new ideas requires a funding that few innovators have.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” - Rumi

More importantly, though, was recognizing that, while we absolutely need macro-level change - in education, in energy, in environment, in jobs and income - this change does not start at the macro-level.  It starts at the micro-level - with individuals, small groups.  You. Me.  It is at the macro-level that we can measure the success of the effort, but it is the individual action that the change really takes root.  Taking two issues of the day as examples:
  • Energy: As the Keystone Pipeline seems to be nearing approval the voices start to rise up against it, out of concern for the environment as well as the land rights of the Lakota.  But just as I saw after the BP blowout in the Gulf a few years ago, the focus is on the high-level of national and international policy.  To date, I have yet to see a call for less consumption to go along with this, and our consumption is just as complicit in the problem as is greed of the stockholders.  I remember the days when we were encouraged to lower our thermostats, and to "drive 55" not for safety but for fuel efficiency.  These days, the call for sacrifice in combination with better policy seems lacking. 
  • HIV/AIDS: Bank of America and U2 join forces during the Super Bowl evening to give $1 for every free download of U2's latest song (although, if you look at the fine-print, there was a $2 million - a drop in the bucket for BofA and certainly provides great publicity and revenue for both BofA and U2).  The people downloading a free song were feeling good that they were making a difference - by getting something for free.  All in the name of ending AIDS.  Except for one thing.  Not one message to encourage people to know their status, to act or think different. What a lost opportunity.  It is rare that you would have such a wide audience and could really change the message or at least challenge the status quo - raise the conversation, make people think.  Kudos to Coca Cola for doing just that with their ad.  
In both these cases, it may be true that we need more funding and/or better policy that considers the potential environmental impact.  But no matter what the policy - the macro-level work - it is ultimately going to take each one of us to DO differently as individuals on a mass scale - that will bring the change to that macro-level.
-Brad Ogilvie