Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Equality, Race and Grace

I remember a few years ago on a Quaker Workcamp, we were having a conversation about the various colleges that the students on the program were considering attending. One of the young folks mentioned that he would probably go to a prestigious university because his family had a long list of graduates from that school (siblings, parents, grandparents) , even though he might not otherwise have qualified for that university. The conversation turned to the paradox of wanting to work for equality but, at the same time, being a product of and beneficiary of privilege. "Do you think I should not go to that school if I get accepted?", asked the young man. After a moment of reflection, I said that, no, you should not turn down that acceptance but to, instead, commit to trying to balance the equation when in a position of taking action. For example, I mentioned that, when buying a car, perhaps buying a slightly lower costing car, and put that extra money towards a scholarship to support someone else or, if in a position of hiring someone, rather than hiring the candidate with the best education or best suit, consider the one who journeyed the longest to get to the interview.

So as I was recently attending a church service at National Community Church, I listened to Dr. David Anderson giving a powerful sermon about "Gracism" (as the spirit-led counterbalance to "Racism" that he defines as "to think, feel, or act negatively of others because of color, class or culture"). One of his seven points to practicing gracism is "I will consider you." His example was to recognize that a car dealer may offer a better deal to a man than a woman, and we act with grace by doing what we can to correct this by sharing with you my benefits. I think it is essentially what I was trying to articulate on that Workcamp. I also think it would be a great lesson for so many of the private schools we work with - rather than shame privilege, have the conversation about how we can effectively share that privilege with those who do not have it. As Dr. Anderson has listed it, this is identified as "Having Equal Concern".

It is sermons like this that I find amazingly inspirational and challenging. Even though I hear these kinds of sermons at places like NCC, they are what lead me to Quakerism. To practice Gracism is to see that of God in all and truly live that out. Of course, as a gay man, knowing that the founder of this church has been, to put it mildly, less than affirming about gay marriage (sending out the double-message that being gay is a sin, but we are called to be loving, as if my higher purpose is to be straight, as he did on the Kojo Nnamdi Show last year), and "sexual identity and orientation" is glaringly missing in the definition of racism, I cannot go all in here. I think the silence about sexual orientation can perhaps do much harm by continuing exclude truly all people. But having said that, I know that if places like NCC want to truly practice gracism, I'm in for that, knowing that I can still let my life speak and find true joy in the relationships I have formed there, and in that, find more ways to bring that grace to what we strive to bring in our William Penn Quaker Workcamps. Sometimes, being open with the messiness (or 'living in the tension', as if often expressed) really seems to be where life happens.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Mindfulness in the Garden

We recently spent about 90 minutes with ten 9th grade students from Sidwell Friends School at Wangari Gardens, cleaning out garden plots and organizing community spaces in preparation for winter. It's amazing what can get accomplished when you have multiple hands to help out.

Among the tasks was to pick kale that was still growing in abundance from one of our plots. Kale is one of the plants I have learned to appreciate since getting involved in gleaning and gardening here in DC. It's a low-maintenance plant that produces from spring through the hardest of frosts in the winter, and is also good for you.

As we wrapped up our time together, I asked the group, after a moment of silence, to reflect on an image or a memory from our time together that they can take with them, knowing that bringing intentionality to an image carries itself with us for a longer time. One of the kale pickers said that she will remember how relaxing it was to pick the kale. She was one of the students who had never picked kale, but quickly learned that you cannot mindlessly pick it (or, as I've seen noted other places, "mind full" and "mindful" are very different experiences). One has to connect with the plant, noting where the top of each stalk is, and gently taking each leaf and stem below it. It is not something that can be done while multi-tasking. It is being mindfully present with each stalk and each leaf for a brief moment.
Another student said she will take with her the image of the light reflecting around us as the sun was setting. "I don't usually get to see the sun set", she stated. It's not that the sun does not set every day; it's that we are so often busy doing other things to notice what is happening around us.

These are two simple examples and affirmations of how easy it is to experientially teach mindfulness. We had not talked about mindfulness, but these two students got it, and by taking a moment to intentionally connect with it, it starts to infiltrate their being. As good friend Janie Boyd has taught me, spending time in the garden is good for the soul. It's as simple as that.  I will get to work with many of these students once a month over the school year. I look forward to deepening this practice with them as we strive to do good in the world.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Investing and Community Economics

William Penn House has been involved in Quaker Workcamps for more than ten years and during that time we have been involved in community projects and partners with specific goals to helping develop the community we live in. From projects in local soup kitchens, to helping out neighbors install garden beds. Often times however, we find ourselves confronting economic forces. It can be discouraging to walk into a neighborhood and do a project only to find out that the homeowners have been moved out and their property is being renovated. Gentrification is a real problem that is extremely difficult to combat. Often communities are divided based on racial and class lines. If something you own which had no value at one point suddenly becomes valuable, how do you hold onto it if you have few resources yourself? Residents in Takoma Park rallied about a month ago against rent increases in an apartment complex as rents in some cases jumped a staggering 70%.

Its an indictment of our current economic system that incentivizes landowners to drive rates up with destabilizing effect and for prospective residents who are willing to pay whatever to just get a space to live. While  Residents coming in are so desperate to get a space that they don’t question who they replace or even the pricing. So concerned with consuming out of fear or out of desperation or even out of a need for self fulfillment by proving that we can, we often step over and hurt other people in our community. Consumptive economies, ours especially, are wasting resources, creating great inequalities, and is harmful to life on earth. In particular the way we easily use and discard resources has become the hallmark of our consumptive economy. From styrofoam cups, to water bottles, from fossil fuels to electronics, Americans have a problem of using something until it doesn’t meet a particular need before poorly discarding it. It’s completely ingrained our culture.  

While progress has been slow towards sustainable economies, Quakers have begun pushing wall street and the business to be more ethically conscious. After our October potluck discussion at William Penn House, we heard about Friends Fiduciary Corporation’s push to invest in morally sound companies that use ethical business practices that follow Quaker testimonies. Jeff Perkins suggested that using the power of shareholder ethics and a fear of reputational risk, Mutual Funds and shareholders might be able to motivate companies into right action through proxy votes and shareholder resolutions. He told us that there was a time when Wells Fargo engaged in predatory lending practices and after Friends Fiduciary brought the matter to a shareholder meeting through a shareholder resolution, other shareholders felt that the reputational risk was to great to continue those practices and the shareholders voted against providing predatory loans. Having a stake in a company keeps

At that point a local consultant from green eagle consulting sat and talked about a number of great efforts to help the DC community such as micro-lending and smaller investment groups one could support. After the talk, I went and spoke with the individual and asked him, “is there any particular way in which people are combating gentrification at an investor or economic level?” to which the he answered “not that I know of”. So what has been the current recourse for residents facing the loss of their homes to high rents and property taxes? According to Curbed, in Takoma Park, residents have protested and have told authorities about the raising rates, but so far they have seen little success. So what is an organization like ours supposed to do? Follow the words of George Fox by “walking cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone”, which requires us to remain active in our community.

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Faith in the Process is more important than the Outcome"?

Keith Barrett X with his wife, Veronica
and kids Prophetshabazz Muhammad,
Jesus, Goddess, and Chief, saying
"One God" for the camera.
As I sat in Meeting for Worship on a spectacular fall day, I listened to a few messages enamored with Quaker process. These messages included that decisions made without Quaker process were not as significant as those done through process and, from one message, faith in the process is more important than the outcomes. Sitting among a 100% white congregation on the day between the Million Man March and Columbus Day, two events that are stark reminders of enslavement, suppression and discrimination, I wondered about these messages. I sometimes think that Friends can be too enamored with the process, especially as it is so often practiced among "like-minded" people. I think that the gift of Quaker process is when it is practiced out in the world, among people of very different opinions, beliefs, cultures and priorities. This is when true peace happens. And this is also when faith in another Quaker sentiment is vital: going "as Way opens".

Keith with Prophetshabazz
It was with all this rattling around in my brain that I walked into William Penn House the next day with a sense that the weekend had been a bit chaotic. Some of the chaos was because a family from Montana was sent to us on Saturday by a local TV reporter with an understanding that a local church was going to cover their lodging fees. As I started to try and make the connections between the various parts of this story, I met a remarkable family. Keith Barrett X and his wife, Veronica Lynn Illig-Barrett X, had journeyed 60 hours from the Flathead Reservation in Montana to be a part of the Million Man March. Keith told me that he was unable to attend the first one 20 years ago because he was in prison, but pledged to make the next one. Despite the economics, he made it with a bit of faith in the goodness of people - going "As Way Opens". Keith shared with me his story - growing up in Beaver Falls, PA, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the son of a man in the music industry (who worked with the likes of Barry White). At 18, breaking out on his own, he moved to Washington State. He bounced around between WA and AZ until 11 years ago when he met his wife. Keith is part Blackfoot, and his wife is Flathead, so with this lineage, they made their way to Montana.
Barrett X's garden

As Keith and I talked, he spoke of his belief that good people and oppressors come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and his stay at William Penn House was an opportunity to show that to his kids. He shared that he is a member of the Nation of Islam, but believes in one God that loves all of us. He showed me pictures of the 1/2 acre community garden he put in this spring, and had his 5 year-old son tell me about the lettuce, cabbage, onions, corn and tomatoes they are growing. It was an energizing connection.

Will we actually get the fees to cover this family's lodging? We don't know yet. Is this a vital part of continuing our missional presence in the Nation's Capital? Absolutely! Do we have the means to cover this ourselves (although a special thanks does go to Sam Ford from ABC7 News for covering a portion of this)? Not yet. My deepest faith is that way will open for us to continue to do this. It was not Quaker process that brought all this together, but Quaker faith.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Prayers for, prayers with, and just praying

"Is it ok if we ask the people we are serving to pray for them?" asked the man on the other end of the line. I had been contacted to set up some service opportunities for people coming to DC on church missions on behalf of his Christian service organization. I paused. In that pause, he asked "do Quakers not do this?" I answered that my silence was not so much about the "prayer", but the "for". It was something I had not ever articulated, but had been struggling with. To pray for people based on assumptions of need because of a perceived condition, even though we did not know them (yet), did not sit easily with me. What I said was that I think it would be great to ask people to join them in prayer, but with an openness that we are praying together, and be open that the person may not want to do this.

The other day, as Pope Francis made his rounds in DC, two things struck me: As he met with John Boehner, he asked Boehner to pray for him. Boehner was floored by the gesture. Usually, in Boehner's view, a person asked the Pope for prayers. (It was with some interest that Boehner resigned the next day). Moments later, the Pope was out on the Capitol porch, asking all people for their prayers, but "if there are among you those who do not believe or cannot pray to send good wishes my way." What a statement of humility.

Over the past year, I have been an infrequent attender of The Theater Church (National Community Church), a non-denominational "rock-n-roll" church. I struggle with some of their theological message, especially when sentiments of "my God will beat your God" or "therefore, you must proclaim Jesus as your savior" show up, usually in the songs. But many of the folks I have met from this church inspire me with their actions. When I was recovering from surgery in 2014, I got calls from some of them and knew they were praying for me. But when I am with any of them, I revel in the opportunity to pray with them - it gives me hope and energy.  And as I listen to the words, I am mindful that, when I was laid low, they did not pray for me, but they prayed that I be comforted through the journey.

Quakers use the term "hold in the Light" often in a way that means the same thing, at least to me, as "say prayers for...".  When someone is clearly ailing to the point that their life circumstances are altered, such as through illness, I get it, although as someone who has been on the receiving end of these prayers, I have been uncomfortable with it. I sometimes think it would be better to pray for strength to make the world a better place, rather than for my recovery. But, more to the point, when we gather in the name of service and/or fellowship, I love the idea of taking time to pray/hold in the light/be thankful with folks. I think it comes from a place of equality - that we are all in this together, rather than suggesting that one has greater "prayer authority" over another.  Furthermore, when we might pray for the betterment of the conditions in which someone lives that are the results of generations of suppression, exploitation and genocide, might we not want to actually pray for forgiveness for living off the fruits of such actions?

These are not easy things, but I suspect that prayers/holding in the light is not meant to be easy. Increasingly, I think praying "for" is too easy, but to be in prayer - and fellowship - with people is really what it's all about.  These things should not be just about providing comfort to the discomforted, but to discomfort the comfortable. May our prayers, holding in the light, or good wishes then be about having the strength to carry on in the face of the hard work to be done.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When it comes to Service Learning, Don't Forget the Basics

You have to learn to walk before you can run. We all know that, but when it comes to the world of service, especially as it increasingly becomes a fixture in many schools and churches, we don't apply this basic principle very well. As I take time to reflect on the past year's activities and turn attention to what's next, I am mindful of this tenet as well as how often it is overlooked in service work.

People who want to make a difference in the world often want to have a deep, meaningful relationship with people "in need".  The reality is that expecting to do this for a short period of time is not only difficult but also problematic and raises ethical concerns. It can replicate patterns of abandonment that many people already experience. And when people doing service say "I know I am getting more out of this than the people I am serving", this is not a good thing - unless the follow-up statement is "I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to correct this imbalance."

One of the ways to address this, from the outset, is to make sure that before people are sent out to do service work, they have some basic skills. These skills include listening to others as well as to their own anxieties, being patient, learning to connect with people as people, not as a group with presumed needs based on material conditions that only materialism can correct. These relationship skills are further enhanced when we learn to appreciate the inherent wisdom that all people have from their life experiences, and when we can connect at this level  - with our hearts - truly amazing this can happen. The real wonder of this work is when we realize our gift is not to fix a problem, but to simply be in fellowship, let a relationship form, and realize we serve something greater than ourselves - a more just world - when we do this well. But sometimes, when we do this work well, what can arise is the need to fix something. The question is, are service participants equipped with the skills to do this, or has room been made to learn this?

What skills am I referring to:
  • hammering a nail into a piece of wood
  • using a saw to cut wood
  • be able to paint a wall neatly and clean a brush
  • use a lawn mower
  • cook a meal
These are pretty basic, but often lacking. And yet, when we are engaging with people on fixed
incomes, they can be the most essential skills we can have. Without these, often I have found that well-meaning people want to be of service but need to learn these basics. In addition, while being engaged in using these in the service, real conversations can unfold where we really come together. This does not mean that all service has to be this kind of service but, for me, not having these is akin to wanting to hear a person but not willing to listen. Furthermore, when we go out in the name of service without these skills, we can end up doing more harm than good, especially if it is a short-lived service program ("short-lived" can actually be a lengthy period of time - weeks, even months). If we think our gift is merely our presence, but we are not going to be around for long, we perpetuate cycles of abandonment while stroking our own egos. It is absolutely the wrong way to go. And if we are engaging in activities that require these skills and we don't have them, we can do messy jobs, waste materials, or even cause physical hurt.

When we know that our service is to help make a room brighter (painting), or a lawn better (mowing), we have much more realistic expectations of ourselves and our capacities. This past summer, we had two students from a DC private school who learned some of these basics (as well as how to get around on the Metro, opening up a "whole new world", as one student put it). They also affirmed for us at William Penn House that we need to be teaching these more as we require students to do service.  My hope is that, this coming year, we can work closer with groups to develop these both before they come to us or, before we go out to serve, we learn some of these.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Celebrating Diversity, Wondering about Equality

Earlier in the day, the Supreme Court had announced its decision paving the way for same gender marriage throughout the US. The energy of the happy-hour crowd was euphoric. Smile, hugs, "happy marriage day" messages. A definite day of significant progress. Among the crowd were men who clearly had lived through much of the long-struggle for gay rights mixed in with the young generation that will largely benefit from the struggle. I wondered how much the latter appreciated the work of the former or, as we see with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, how much of this will simply be taken for granted, just as my generation did not fully appreciate the struggles of the depression of my grandparents. Also among the crowd were some lonely figures, some of whom will no-doubt join the countless other people in the world - gay and straight - who can legally marry in wondering if and perhaps hoping for the "right one" to come along.  And, this being DC, no doubt many of the celebrants are among the rich and powerful - the already well-to-do.

As I left the noisy, celebratory scene and walked out onto the street, it was back to reality. Among this reality scene were many people who continue to live on the fringes of society - people who sleep on the streets, ask for donations, perhaps suffer from the neglect of a society that often seems to place greater value on acquisition of wants instead of helping meet each others' needs.  I don't say this with smugness. I, too partake in this to some extent. I think I do better every year, but I still have a long way to go.

This is why, to me, the ruling the day before basically keeping the Affordable Healthcare Act in tact, was more significant.  This was one of the few rulings in the past few years that addressed the biggest inequity that we continue to ignore - economic inequality (as did the Fair Housing ruling earlier in the week that was a reminder of how institutional our racist/classist policies still are). This was the program that Obama promised when he was running for President, and the one that he spent enormous political capital on when he knew he had it, and he has paid the price for since then in three House election cycles.  Now, the Supreme Court has solidified this, helping to ensure income inequality is less a factor in accessing healthcare.  Given other Supreme Court decisions removing voting rights and anti-discrimination protections that are routinely used against the poorest among us, this was huge.

So, while I absolutely celebrate and understand the significance of the marriage ruling, I cringe to think that the celebrations of this are deluding us from getting the real work done for justice. I cringe to think how many gays and lesbians will indulge in spending sprees on costly weddings and unneeded gifts, sending a message that "we have arrived", when the reality is we have a long way to go.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Radical Hospitality and Voices for Justice

One of the amazing things about spending time at William Penn House is the incredible range of people that stay with us that we get to meet.  We get people from all continents, coming for everything business and touring to learning, advocacy and memorializing commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Every once in a while, we get folks who have a very special purpose: survival. So it was a quiet Friday, the 1st of May. I got a call from one of our friends in fellowship from the Southeast White House, Ernest Clover, about Reath Tang, a "brother", as Ernest called him, who was here in DC to try and engage any DC-based support in peace and reconciliation in South Sudan while also reuniting his family. The call to us was simpley because he needs lodging for about a week. We have space for a few days, so we welcomed Reath in Friday afternoon. 

Zach Yoder, one of our interns, spent a few minutes with Reath to learn more about the situation.  Reath Tang was a member of Parliament in South Sudan before the civil war started. He made a reputation for opposing the president Salva Kiir Mayardit when the he tried to push the parliament around. Reath strongly believes in the separation of powers, which has been steadily eroded by President Kirr and says that the current parliament is just a “rubber stamp” assembly.

Once the civil war started, the President’s militia targeted Reath. This was because of his reputation of opposition. Furthermore Reath is from the Nuer tribe and Kirr is from the Dinka tribe-the two largest tribes in South Sudan. Militia men came to Reath’s house looking for him but he was not there having been warned to leave the house. Instead they killed his brother and shot his sister in law in the head—a wound which she survived. 

Reath Tang arriving at WPH
Shortly before the fighting broke out, Reath had obtained a visa to visit the US for the National Prayer Breakfast. After the attempt on his life, he used this visa to flee to safety. If he had not gotten the visa in such a fortunate time he said, “I would be hiding in the bush of South Sudan right now.” His wife and 3 and 5 year old children were able to flee to a refugee camp in Uganda where they are now. For 8-9 months after the fighting broke out, he was not able to talk to them and didn’t know if they were alive or dead. Now his ultimate goal is to bring them to stay with him in the US.  Reath is still in the process of applying for asylum but has been able to obtain a work permit. He wants to establish himself in DC and become an advocate for South Sudan. He wants 3 main things to be brought about for his country: 
  1. He wants Ugandan forces currently fighting in the country on the side of the President to leave. The Ugandan government is currently participating in the civil war while also acting as one of the mediators for the peace process. Reath says that none of the countries that neighbor South Sudan can serve impartially in the negotiations. They all have vested interests in Sudan and it’s wealth of natural resources, including oil. 
  2. Reath wants the content of a African Union investigation into Human Rights abuses to be made public. He says that until people are held accountable for what they have done, there can be no reconciliation. 
  3. Reath wants the US to condemn President Kirr's government as illegitimate. The South Sudanese parliament recently extended Kirr’s term for another 3 years to avoid an election. This single act is clearly illegitimate and should concern the US who invested so much in South Sudanese independence. The US has not acted before when Kirr killed 20,000 people in a single week and continued to kill 30,000 more over time, but Reath recognizes that violations of basic democratic procedure is something that the US might be convinced it should pay attention to.
When stories of globalized terror and genocide show up at your front door in person, they take on new meaning. For us at William Penn House, hosting someone like Reath is both an honor and an opportunity to try and share his story, so here it is. If you feel led to help Reath get his story out there, please pass this on. If you feel led to help, we also welcome any contributions to cover his lodging fees ($200). At a minimum, holding Reath in the light as he works for reconciliation and justice is much appreciated.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Words of War

Two consecutive Sundays. Two different Monthly Meetings. Two different states. One remarkably similar message reflecting on the popular Quaker query making the rounds: “How does your life help to remove the causes of war?” followed by a reference to “War is not the Answer.” 

Increasingly, I wonder how useful these ruminations serve Quakerism, especially as they seem to become an increasing part of congregational vernacular. And when these messages are also proudly displayed to the public, I wonder whether they are an admonition to others that they should be like us, and then how much does that help us live our faith.  The “causes of war” are so vast and complex, but war is really, in my mind, simply a part of the spectrum of violence that includes greed, power, fear, hunger, faith, love, education, institutionalization, nationalism, rigidity, and religion, just to name a few. A better query might be something like “What can I do today to break the cycles of violence?” 

The focus on “war” in these messages raises two thoughts for me. First, in Quaker circles, the action that often follows is a call to cut military spending. It is an over-simplification that ignores some of the realities of our society. If you visit many of the neglected parts of our country – rural areas as well as urban – you will hear many people say they want to join the military. This is not because they love war, but because the military is one of the few legal options many people have to get out of otherwise dire circumstances where employment and education are scarce and violence and drugs are rampant. As manufacturing jobs continue to disappear, there is little else currently on the horizon that is a viable option. In addition, we should recognize that the military also engages in many peace-making and emergency rescue operations. Given the small numbers of Quakers, we might want to engage in building an infrastructure to replace some of these rather than spending a lot of time, energy, faith and money on the notion that we can get the politicians running the massive bureaucracy to do the right thing. It’s a bottom-up approach, but when numbers are small, sometimes bridge-building and doing the small things can have the greatest impact.

Then there is the word “war” itself. It is a word that evokes negative imagery and energy, but in doing so allows us to gloss over all the ways that we participate in the cultural, environmental and economic injustices that perpetuate the cycles of violence. “War” is something that is easy to say others do. Focusing on war has a way of externalizing and, subsequently, absolving us from our culpability.  

Often I hear Quakers being described (at times self-described) as “against war” or, more interesting to me, “not believing in war.” As a pacifist, I have come to appreciate that we have to not only think but act deeper. I do believe in violence. I see it every day, and I abhor it. The power of Quakerism is not in our stance against war but in the oft-cited belief that “there is that of God in All”. When we can use this to steel ourselves to compassionately break down the barriers of classification that serve to divide us from our neighbors and fellow global community members, we are getting more to the root causes of violence – the real work of pacifism. Instead of the harsh messages full of words like “not”, “don’t”, and “war” that affirm little but evoke violent images, having positive words that invite positive energy and imagery would be a nice change. Words do matter.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

"It's so simple"...

As spring unfolds, at William Penn House we are in the midst of connecting with the community in a new way for us. Over the past few years, starting with gleaning and then community gardens, we have connected with the urban garden movement. As with any good movement, there needs to be a strong grassroots component that is actively engaged, not simply following the call from outsiders, but transforming things from within and the ground up.  Thanks to the leadership of some of our community partners and friends, and seeing the gaps, installing raised garden beds in yards and homes throughout DC is the focus of much of the work we are engaged in this summer, utilizing Quaker Workcamp groups, volunteers and staff.

After a winter and early spring of prep work (building a space for growing seedlings of primarily collard greens and kale, pre-cutting wood for boxes and beds), last week we started going out into the community. Saturday, April 18, as hundreds of thousands trashed the National Mall  while "honoring" Earth Day, a group of 20 people joined us less than 5 miles east to slowly scale-up this fledgling garden program. It was an invaluable experience as we were able to work out some of the kinks while getting the work and word out. As our community partner RonDell Pooler said, the vision is to create a food hub in what is now a food desert; this includes the expanding community gardens under RonDell's purview and now the garden beds going into people's yards.

"It's so simple" reflected one of the participants who joined us from a church in Altoona, PA. While the work to be done is not that simple in terms of economic justice and environmental stewardship, and this work alone won't get it done, it is this kind of work that is necessary to getting it done. This kind of work is really an expression of the Quaker testimony of Simplicity. It is about simple acts (building gardens) can help build bridges between issues (such as nutrition) while building bridges of relationships. As RonDell said, it is this kind of work that can turn food deserts to food hubs, while helping overcome barriers of separation and at the same time developing opportunities (such as green job training) for sustainability.

Outside a local Friends Meeting, there is a sign asking "How does your life help to remove the causes of War?" I personally think that the focus on "war" can create blindspots to all the causes of violence of which war is merely a part of the spectrum, but I also think that this is the kind of question seasoned pacifists should be able to readily have a list of regularly-engaged actions. For me, this garden project is on that list: it's a simple act that, while addressing hunger and environment, helps to build bridges of healing, compassion and sustainability in a severely fragmented community.  Will it end wars? Probably not. Will it help us on that track? The more we can engage folks, the more likely we can say "yes."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"A Moral Call to Act" includes looking at our actions

When I first walked in the door, there was a one-slice pizza box by the front door with a piece of pizza in it. Walking further into the building, there was the expected huge pile of sheets and towels in the hall from the departing guests. There were also garbage cans filled with empty plastic water bottles, and a few stray conference give-away bags, one with full soda cans and a piece of fruit, the other with garbage, sitting on the floor. Upstairs in the guest rooms, there was more of the same, plus the half-drunk mountain dew under one bed and an apple core under another (despite guidelines of no food in the rooms). Lots of bits of garbage all over the place. Among the garbage was left-over training material for the lobbying that was about to take place. The title struck me: "A Moral Call to Act on Climate Change."

What's wrong with this picture? First of all, the consumption of vast amounts of packaged products that negatively impact climate change both in the production and disposal process. Second, this is an all-too-common phenomenon that I have seen in the lobby/advocacy/service world. Groups get hyper-focused on a target - whether it is a service project or a lobbying issue - but somehow miss the message that integrity also matters. I remember clearly, when I was more involved in HIV/AIDS work, a lobby training where we were specifically given a script and instructed not to mention any concerns about how funding was used. Then, during breaks, a substantial number of the "lobbyists" - many of whom were "consumers" of services (meaning, people living with HIV) would go on smoking breaks, and night times were filled with partying. I am not judging this, but did and still do think that it is perfectly okay to ask people who are dependent on services to perhaps try to live a bit healthier as well. It's not a demand or a requirement, but we can give voice to it. It's called "integrity". Likewise, when groups come to lobby for a better world but leave the place they have stayed in worse shape, is this not really just blame - expecting others to fix a problem that we keep creating? When we lead Quaker Workcamps to New Orleans or West Virginia, to what extent do we do the same every time we use disposable plastic?

When we use terms like "moral call", I think it is important that we do what we can to make sure the action starts with us. When we advocate and lobby for change, that is political. What we do - where we eat, what we buy, how we leave the place - is our consumption. The world is a better place when our consumerism is more closely aligned with our politics. We will never be perfect, but when we remain as disconnected or even more disconnected, and miss opportunities to practice what we preach, aren't we really just a part of the problem?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Taxes, Lodging, Faith and Service: a deeper look at the work of William Penn House

Thanks to the wonderful world of 21st century social networking, many people now know of some of the challenges that face William Penn House, specifically the possible revoking of our property tax exemption. Just to clarify, this does not effect our sales tax exemption or our status with regards to accepting donations for charitable purpose. We greatly appreciate so many messages of support, and hope to harness these to influence the DC government to change this. At the same time, based on some of the comments, it seems that this is a good time to help educate the supporting community more about why we are so passionate about changing this.

For starters, while it is true that we are a 30 bed hostel, offering affordable, comfortable and safe housing is not about lodging but is embedded in Quaker values and is an express part of our mission. It is our "Ministry of Presence" in the nation's capital. It is why we talk about it is a practice of "Radical Hospitality" - all are welcome.  Lodging is just the starting point. It is what happens around the lodging where the ministry gains traction.  Here is some of what happens:
  • Young adult internships – giving young adults, most often recent college graduates, a chance to live in the heart of DC and continue personal/professional/spiritual development. While interns do have responsibilities to the hospitality, we also encourage and allow for their engagement in other pursuits and consider that their “work time”. Examples from the past include development of Quaker Camps, serving on Quaker committees and with Quaker organizations (Yearly Meetings, FGC, Pendle Hill, AFSC), and developing new Meetings and Worship Groups. We also have active representation in working to stop the spread of HIV in DC with service in the HIV Prevention Planning Group. 
  • Gap Year – providing an opportunity for high school grads who are not sure where to go next to develop independent living and work skills, as well as vocational/avocational direction. In an era where college costs are so high, we owe it to the youth to provide viable options for development.
  • William Penn Quaker Workcamps. These serve multiple purposes – education, spiritual formation, outreach, and service. This section can be a whole pamphlet, but for now just know that these are ultimately about building bridges between issues, within community, and within ourselves, paying attention to everything from Quaker testimonies to neurological development that supports more open learning and mental health. At the same time, we are committed that these are deeply embedded in the community rather than created for those who wish to serve. To do this takes time, and means we – the staff and interns – are a constant presence in the community, especially when we don’t have Workcamp groups. Integrity demands this of us, and it takes time. Our involvement in the urban and community garden movement is how this is playing out right now. And as Friends Schools continue to explore service learning and Quakerism, these Workcamps and what we learn from them are (for some) and can (for others) a vital resource. In addition, we bring back veterans to help run Workcamps, furthering their own development while expanding the values.  
  • Other regular activities such as weekly yoga classes and monthly potlucks, as well as providing meeting space for small non-profits who cannot afford larger spaces but also are doing important work. Each of these has maintenance costs.
  • While so many Friends organizations talk about diversity, racism and intergenerational work, as well as outreach and spiritual formation, these are all very much a part of the fabric of our being on a daily basis. It’s truly striving to let our lives speak. 
Income from the lodging subsidizes all of this work. The staff and interns do much of what we do because it is a passion and a calling, but each of us also has to make ends meet, as does William Penn House. We have done a lot to make sure that fees do not exclude participation in Quaker Workcamps, and this, too, is possible because of the lodging. These are our values; they flow from our faith; the outcomes are not always quantifiable, but their presence is undeniable.

So where does this leave us? The immediate challenge is the financial burden that stretches our budget, no matter what our options are. If the final decision is we have to pay taxes for the percentage of guests who are not here for service/education purposes (although that is not as easily discernible as it sounds and would add to the administrative work), we can do this moving forward; sadly, this would mean having to raise rates which, as is always the case, felt more by those with less. Having to come up with the $18k+ is the challenge.  We have talked about increasing staff/intern workloads and reducing salaries to make budget, but how sustainable is that, really? We are already fairly stretched. An influx of new funds is really crucial to keeping our options open and the programs and services vital. (As I write this, we are awaiting the arrival of the plumber to fix the hot water heater - a reminder that a 100 year-old house also has physical needs.)

Again, we thank you all for your words of support. They warm us. Your voice in DC can certainly help. More importantly, if you value a presence like William Penn House not just in DC but as a part of the Society of Friends bringing Quakerism to the world now and for the future, voices alone may not be enough. Donations to cover immediate financial needs are necessary, and, moving to greater sustainability, either organize a Workcamp, make it possible for others to join or join us yourself on either our Pine Ridge or DC Workcamp this summer, or invite us to help you with your own challenges of outreach, spiritual formation and service are other ways to help. These are what flow from our building, and what give it life beyond the lodging.  Please get in touch with Byron (Byron@williampennhouse.org) to explore more ways to get involved.
                                                                                                                               -Brad Ogilvie

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What can be learned "As Way Opens"

"I never knew that the US violated so many treaties with Indians"
"I learned that Thomas Jefferson brought over many of the invasive plants into Washington DC"
"I learned that we can get more done when we collaborate"
"I learned that gardens help to clean watersheds"
"I learned why Philip's Head screwdrivers are called that" (Thanks, google, for the assist on that one)
"I learned that when rainwater flows off my driveway down the street, it can add to pollution"
"I learned that there is a connection between hunger and violence"
"I learned that William Penn honored his agreements with the Indians, and his sons did not"
"I learned that you don't need to exert a lot of muscle to saw wood"

What do all these statements have in common? They were the comments of 4th grade students from Sidwell Friends School at the conclusion of spending 4 hours together as part of a William Penn Quaker Workcamp. 22 students and 2 teachers joined us on a wet, rainy/snowy, cold day to start what we look to be a growing collaboration that helps strengthen the fabric of the DC community while addressing issues of nutrition and environment and developing service leaders for the next generation.

The plan is to nurture service as an expression of Quakerism while giving the students an opportunity to see how all things are interconnected and how small steps are vital for the big things to happen. Specifically, our starting point was to build shelves that will be used for growing seedlings that will go out into community gardens in the spring, and to start cutting wood that will be used for container gardens in yards throughout DC. We started with a group conversation about some connections between gardens, nutrition and the environment, and how these also can be expressions of the Quaker testimonies. And then we got busy with the work for the next two hours, encouraging the students to give input to how to do things while also learning some basic but important skills critical to effective service (being able to measure, saw, connect). It all went as planned.

But it was what was not planned where some of the real learning happened, as evidenced by the comments above. Few of these were on our list of "learning objectives", but each probably has a deeper imprint and, therefore, longer staying power, because of how it came about: organically, through conversation and curiosity, as way opens, experientially. Many of the points came up as we were working together; others came up in conversations about the various posters and artwork hanging around the house.

This is what I find so wonderful about William Penn Quaker Workcamps: it is not the big things, the meeting with power and tackling the big issues. It is simply creating spaces for these "conversations that matter" to take place, always with a vision of coming together to make the world a better place. It is not what we teach, but that we create opportunities to engage, enquire, question and learn, that matter. It is exciting to see the seeds of this take place with 4th graders. It gives hope for the future, and excitement to see what takes root and grows.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Outside the Gates": Why Diversity won't come from within

I am currently reading "Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book", a collection of writings edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani. I know both these women through Wheaton College connections, and find their work inspiring as they reflect the growing convergence of deep faith and social liberalism.

One of the chapters, "Running from 'Healing' to Healing" by Dr. Calenthia Dowdy, is a reflection on Mark 11:17: "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." Dr. Dowdy writes about her experiences with churches and that she often found more affirmations for her talents and calling in transracial/cross-cultural ministry outside the church. She writes about how churches "loved having me in their congregation, but their objective was to change me - to heal me?- instead of recognizing that we could transform each other in community with one another." She includes a quote from Orlando Costas: "Salvation lies outside the gates of cultural, ideological, political, and socio-economical walls that surround our religious compound and shape the structures of Christendom. It is not a ticket to a privileged spot in God's universe, but rather a freedom for service." She concludes with "We are whole when we are outside the church gate, face-to-face and shoulder to shoulder with the grit and grime of a diverse humanity that, like us, is in need of Christ's healing."

As I move in Quaker circles, I often hear about desires in Friends Meetings and organizations to become more diverse. Dr. Dowdy's writing, for me, affirms that this work is not likely to happen when we-self-segregate in our congregations but out in the world. If we gloss over the word "Christ" in Dowdy's writings (at least those for whom the word does not resonate), and replace the word "Christendom" with "Quakerdom", what pearls of wisdom can Friends take from this that may help us understand why we lack diversity on our benches and pews?

Last fall, I wrote about an experience where I also felt like running - and in fact did run - from a Quaker gathering where diversity and racism was much a topic of discussion but not much of a reality among the gathered (see a blogpost about that here). It might behoove many Friends who are serious about becoming more a part of a fabric of diversity to move away from called meetings that talk about this and instead go out in the name of fellowship and service. At William Penn House, we welcome you to join us almost any day of the week with an opportunity to do this, or perhaps take a break from your Meeting for Worship and congregate with others. Sit with the discomfort of how you choose where you go, and how much race, color, politics and theology influence your decision-making. Mix it up a bit. Become a part of the healing. Isn't that a gift of Quakerism that can only take place when we venture out as Dowdy calls, "face-to-face and shoulder to shoulder with the grit and grime of a diverse humanity"? It's not going to come to us, but it is there for all to embrace.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How does Quakerism influence Hearts and Minds?

It is fairly well-known the political stances of Quakers - especially the liberal, unprogrammed branch - on issues such as energy, the environment, military engagement, and equality. Lobbying on these issues takes up a significant part of Quaker resources - financial as well as human. But how well do we influence people's thinking? I don't mean how much do we influence politics, but how much do we influence the minds of the community that, ultimately, could have greater impact?

I have often wondered how do we go about "expanding the choir", and an article I read this morning has had me thinking more. The article in question points out that big business, despite the obscene amounts of money it pours into lobbying, spends multiple times more into marketing, advertising and public relations not on its products but on the issues. It's why we see warm and fuzzy ads for natural gas and it's why we see Walmart as a sponsor of NPR programs. They are strategically influencing minds - literally infiltrating and altering the way people think that will ultimately influence how they act and vote.

But what do Friends do to counteract this, and why should we do it? Unlike big business, we do not have as clear an end game such as increased sales and profits. Big business is so good at this game that they can influence people to act against their own well-being and better judgment, something we are all susceptible to everytime our materials does not match our politics. But we do have some fairly clear goals and objectives - a more just world, a cleaner environment, greater diversity. In almost any Quaker circle you step in, one if not all of these will fairly quickly emerge, and you will also fairly quickly get connected to the work of AFSC and/or FCNL as the outlet for these. The question remains, for me, however: "What influences are we having on our neighbors, especially those who are not of 'like-mind?'"

As we start to gear up for another election-cycle, and coming off the heels of a troubling last cycle (where, like business, politicians were effective in getting people to keep them in power despite the fact that less than 20% of voters are happy with what we have), perhaps Friends should consider at least adding to the repertoire of how we seek to make an imprint on things, if not directly influence them. Rather than gobbling up candidate signs and bumper stickers, or having more called meetings where we self-segregate and consider what to do, or putting more "War is not the Answer" signs on our lawns and care, we should practice in the art of fellowship where we listen to others with open hearts, challenging our own comforts and assumptions. This does not mean we drop all the other stuff we do, but perhaps that we take time to do something different for a week or two and then see if new possibilities and new allies emerge. It's really about using Quaker process in new arenas, which also means that we would not be telling others how we are led by spirit, but how simply listening for spirit can influence all of us. This is how we are approaching the upcoming Quaker Workcamp season. We invite others to join us and perhaps reallocate how and where they spend precious human capital, and see if, as we have found, this experience re-news faith and hope and re-energizes us for the work to be done.