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 ( 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.