Friday, January 15, 2016

Fear of Tears

"I had to turn away. Otherwise, I was going to start crying."

These were the words of a recent WPQW participant who was in DC with her college for an alternative break week. We were taking time for reflection about what insights, experiences, or wisdom they had noticed from their time with us, so far. The activities included participating in Our Daily Bread (a fellowship community breakfast with people from all walks of life, including many who sleep on the streets and in shelters), garden winterization and soil prep for spring planting, and street outreach with people that are homeless.

Among the insights of other folks was the realization, garnered from their 1:1 time with people, that listening to people, simply engaging in conversation, being with people where they are, matters. In this was also the awareness of the fact that mental illness has high co-morbidity with the homeless population, but to really connect we have to have a relationship. Others had reflections that it all can seem overwhelming as we seek answers (I maintain that it is not answers that keep us moving, but the next good question), and that the real work for social justice has to continue in their daily lives, not just as an alternative vacation.

But it was the role of tears where things got real. One student spoke - somewhat apologetically - through her tears about how a homeless woman told her that she and her fellow-students reminded the woman of her own daughters. It brings it home - there are families, loved ones, and whole life stories that remain invisible. Then, there was the statement by the student about needing to turn away from all the stimulus. She said it was overwhelming. I suspect, and we talked about it, that what was overwhelming was not what was going on around her, but what was welling up inside of her, perhaps a mixture of anger, sadness, guilt, disgust, even love, and her all-too-common belief that we should not be emotional. And it is the fear of tears, the sadness, perhaps intellectualized as a sense of weakness, that we seem the most uncomfortable with, and it often leads us to want to flee.

And yet, we need to be with these emotions, fully present not just with our heads but with our hearts, embracing them, not fighting them, if we are truly to engage in the good work of trying to make the world a better place.  We can talk about statistics of poverty, mental illness, health indicators, etc., but as Emma Goldman said, "The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but after all, the most vital right is to love and be loved." To be loving means being able to laugh and cry. When we turn away from our tears when they naturally occur, we turn away from our emotions, and we turn away from being present with others. But when we let it flow, we strengthen ourselves, become more present and more whole to carry on the good work.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Friendly Reference: A Spectrum of Experiences in Campus Ministry

Over the past two years, I have had the good fortune of support from the William Penn House in creating Quaker campus ministry groups. At present, I serve as the chaplain at Georgetown University and as a “chaplain” at George Washington University both in Washington DC. As you read through my own particular experiences here, you’ll see why I put that second title in quotation marks. I’ve spoken with a number of Quakers in different yearly meetings and gatherings in my position as an employee with the William Penn House, and because campus ministry is an interest of mine I often find people saying something along the lines of:

“I really wish that someone would write about their experiences in setting these things up and why they’re important.”

This blog post is here to serve that purpose. Those of us within the Quaker tradition I’m sure have all recognized that many college campuses are places ripe for interested seekers in new religious traditions. It is always hard to approach these institutions of learning, especially if you have few personal connections within those campus communities. Even harder is reconciling the Quaker discomfort surrounding the idea of proselytizing. I won’t talk about concerns that others have raised with me because my answer is always the same. I have no interest in harassing others into joining my own religious movement, but rather I wish to provide a convenient reference for students who have never interacted with Quakers before and to provide a space for students to enjoy worship in the Quaker tradition. I am a reference first and a friend and confidant second.

I have had the lucky happenstance of living in a city that has many colleges to choose from and a large Quaker meeting that sees students exploring it as an option. In setting up both ministry programs, I sent out emails to the Friends Meeting of Washington listserv asking if any students, faculty, or administrators might have an interest in having a campus ministry group at their college. In the case of George Washington, I was lucky to find that indeed a student was interested, but sadly it took a little while for us to get connected. In that space of time, I emailed members of the administration who told me that George Washington University preferred that worship groups be students led, now you see why I put my title in quotations. I have been lucky in that the student that runs the worship there is driven, charismatic, and passionate about Quakerism. While we bounce ideas off of each other and I am there to support her, I would prefer to give her credit as she leads the group on that campus. I design fliers, show up to meeting, and develop personal relationships with people who attend our meeting, but she is really the driving force there. Georgetown is another scenario entirely.

When I sent an email to the listserv at Friends Meeting of Washington for Georgetown, a member of the campus administration replied. She helped me arrange a meeting with the chaplaincy office and after meeting with other members of the campus administration, it was determined that Georgetown was indeed interested in setting up a Quaker Chaplaincy. Because they have an official chaplaincy program, I am lucky enough to be invited to a number of campus events. Chaplains at Georgetown have a once-a-month meeting to discuss developments within the different religious communities and to share effective ways of supporting students. Georgetown has also asked that I run a scheduled weekly worship, as opposed to one with an alternating date and time. This has been helpful because the students who attend our worship know when and where it happens every week. At George Washington I was never allowed to post fliers, whereas Georgetown allows me to, something I always wanted to do so as to spare the student leader the hours of work.

When I first started, I would usually just set up a half hour long service of silent waiting worship. I found that students usually only gave messages after they had seen me give them. It didn’t particularly lend itself to growing interest or engaging students. After starting at Georgetown, I tried doing worship sharing with a query among the group of students. The query that first night was:
"Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention? Do I seek to recognize and respect the Divine in those with whom I have a basic disagreement? Do I look for ways to reaffirm in action and attitude my love for the one with whom I am in conflict? In what ways might I seek to do that?"
It really sparked some engaging discussion and allowed for us to develop a stronger bond. Mixing worship sharing and regular worship into our monthly schedule really helped, and I can only strongly recommend that it be considered for introducing new folks to Quaker process and tradition.  

Among many Yearly Meetings, there has been a growing concern over an aging membership. I feel that campus ministry is one of many opportunities presented to us for growing Quaker communities. While it is up to each individual to decide whether Quakerism is for them, it is up to us as Quakers to get out of our meeting houses and do what we can to make seeking Quakerism easier for those who might wish to explore it. If we are unable to provide easy and convenient means for others to explore what we offer, how can we expect a diverse and growing membership?