Thursday, September 18, 2014

"To Love and Hate Life at the Same Time"

I attended a Meeting for Worship recently at a Quaker school. The first message was given by a youth facing a serious, life-threatening medical condition. His message was powerful, but laced with humor as well. The more serious part of the message was what to do with the question of what it is like to live with a life-threatening condition. In his wisdom, he stated that it is not easy to understand this experience unless one has faced death him/herself - "to love and hate life at the same time."

For the rest of the Meeting and the rest of the day, that term "to love and hate life at the same time" flowed through me almost like fresh air. Since being told more than 20 years ago that I had perhaps 5 years to live and have greatly exceeded that expectation, my own journey has included explorations of mortality, life, soul, death and perhaps most importantly, fear of death. I have read and written much about these from academic, spiritual and experiential vantage points. I have seen lengthy theories and essays on the topic. But never have I heard it put so succinctly: "to love and hate life at the same time."

I think many of us walk around with lots of love and lots of fear which can come across as being in the vicinity of hate. People who preach against gay rights, for example, are often labeled as "haters" even though they could very well be fueled by love for their Bible, their faith and their fear that if they don't do what they can to bring rightness to the world, they too will suffer the consequences. Then we, in turn, perhaps channel some of our own hatred to them for other reasons. The point is that we spend a lot of time compartmentalizing the ways we objectify "love" and "hate" to somehow create a buffer zone of safety from dealing with the complexity of both of these emotions. Facing death, as this young man so clearly articulated, does not allow for us to compartmentalize; we are forced to confront how much we love life and how much we hate knowing that it will all come to an end someday, no matter what our circumstances are.

One of the Quaker testimonies is "Simplicity." For issues as complex as life and death, I don't know that there could be a more simple message to sum it up than to understand that our human condition is one where we have to learn to love and hate life at the same time. Trying to keep them separate only creates internal and external conditions. When we see that we can actually do both, perhaps we will all be better no matter what comes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Quaker Workcamps: After 4 days, change really does happen.

I started participating in Quaker Workcamps about four years ago. I noticed a pattern after having experienced multi-day Workcamps: sometime around the 4th day, something shifted. It has been hard to clearly articulate it, other than to say that the group came together, shifting from being individuals to becoming a community. This was true regardless of location. It wasn't just that we became a community, but the relationships that developed during Workcamps have lasted. Strong bonds have been formed. Previous posts on this site have reflected on this (such as here and here).

Last week, I was taking a class titled "The Whole Brain Child." The instructor, Dr. Tina Bryson, commented on the first day that she is a big fan of week-long summer camps because they give youth an opportunity to open up new neural pathways in the brain, bringing balance and integration to the various parts of the brain, and to form new attachments. She commented that the research shows that all of these things happen within a relatively short period of time - a few days. For the class purposes, we were looking at the implications of this when working in clinical settings with youth and adults for whom neural integration and attachment are not healthy and balanced. For me, there was the added "ah hah!" that this is what I have seen happen on Workcamps.

All of this helps me better understand what it is that happens around that fourth day. As we become more comfortable and familiar with each other and our new surroundings, our brain moves up from the heightened "on alert" state (the amygdala) that is engaged when we are in new situations. Then the real magic happens. Through a series of activities, down time, play time, mindfulness and reflection, various parts of the left and right brain are stimulated as we have week-long conversations about service, social justice, and community. Brain integration takes place. Neural pathways are opened, and new attachments are formed.  The exciting thing is that Dr. Bryson's work and the work of others cited in the class show that these can have lasting positive impact on the mental and physical health of people.

The implications for this are fantastic. To start, there is the issue of how, when we segregate ourselves to be among "like-minded" people, we are likely to be hardening neural pathways that don't allow us to easily see the truths of others or fully engage in life in healthy ways.  For Friends, I see this as a challenge we need to address. If we are to truly believe that there is that of God in All, but we tend to be fairly partisan in our social actions while spending time among like-minded people, our brain does not stay open and integrated, and the emotional amygdala gets activated when we hear discord, leading to a shut-down of higher level thinking. So what we need to do is to more actively engage in experiences that allow us to work through this.

This is where Quaker Workcamps come in - especially the multi-day Workcamps as we run them at William Penn House. We consciously take time to be with people that are on the surface different from us, but do so from a place of equality rather than service (where roles are defined between server and the served). We overcome anxieties by going places we are told are unsafe, and experientially see that things are not as we have been told. This is where the integration starts, and continues as we play, work, reflect, converse, eat and sleep. And then there is the time factor. We take time for these processes to take root and new, lasting relationships to be formed. We do all of this as we look at issues of social, economic and environmental justice.  The next step, as we have started more this year, is to have participants of these programs take on leadership roles - furthering the process of healthy integration and attachment.

None of this is the full explanation of what happens. It does not exclude the possibility that higher powers are at play. It simply brings empirical evidence to validate what we have seen anecdotally and intuitively. But that is huge in our world of skepticism and proven outcomes.  It validates the role that Quaker Workcamps can play in our spiritual formation, outreach, community building and peace/justice work. Most importantly, as we support creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and community, new ideas and actions for a more just peaceful world can emerge. They might not be exactly what we envisioned, but just like when the brain has all aspects engaged utilizing what they do best, the more we can be engaged with others despite our differences, the better off we all will be.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Mindfulness, Simplicity, Fear and Quaker Workcamps

I just finished reading the book "Mindfulness" by Harvard professor Ellen Langer.  The premise is that mindfulness is much more than a meditative state of consciousness; it is an awareness of choices, and that things have different meanings in different contexts.  One of her main themes is that we often live mindlessly, having assumptions about people, places and things because of the way we have been raised.  We can see this in the divisive nature of our culture and the assumptions we make about people with differing opinions.  We see it in the way we are led by polls and community conversations that give limited options, leading us to think these are the only options.  Her research supports that when people are actively engaged and have many options, they are more likely to stay engaged, to be optimistic, to be healthier and to even live longer.
Much of her writing is in sync with what we strive to accomplish with Washington Quaker Workcamps.  We talk often about options and opportunities, instead of problems.  We talk often about the importance of the journey, not the destination.  A guideline is that there are not mistakes, only opportunities to learn.  By walking to places, we encourage practicing mindfulness about our surroundings.  Through reflection and action, we change the context within which we see ourselves in the world.  All of this is intended to create safe spaces for participants - mostly youth - to see the world as one of opportunities to be embraced and for them to see their own gifts in embracing them.

Two common challenges we run into when planning and running Workcamps that are also reflected in Langer's work are fear and control. They usually go hand-in-hand, and the result is that they often lead to more mindlessness rather than mindfulness.  The desire to create and follow a set schedule blocks our ability to engage in what is going on in the moment.  The fear of upsetting parents can lead to limited options of service - revolving around perceived needs or around false senses of security such as only doing service that guarantees nothing bad can happen.  Not only do these limit the experiences and learning opportunities of the participants, I think they are also doing a disservice by not allowing the youth to actively look at options and make (or at least influence) decisions by engaging in the process of weighing factors such as personal hunger and personal risk.  It does not adequately prepare them to deal with these things as they head off to post-high school lives where the supervision is far less.

In 1 Peter 3: 13-22, the message is about not letting fear stop us from doing what is right, but to also have good reasoning for doing what is right.  At Washington Quaker Workcamps, we do not shy away from conversations about the role that fear and control play in guiding daily action, and how these can lead us to be negligent in our responsibilities.  A fear that a teen may hurt him/herself by climbing a ladder or using a power tool does not adequately prepare that youth for when he/she is no longer at home.  Likewise, concerns that a parent might be upset because his/her youth has to wait 2 hours for dinner while preparing food for homeless people is not a reason to avoid the important experiences and lessons about justice and privilege that are at the root of so many service programs, and a fear of being in close proximity to homeless people who may have mental illness should lead to conversations about how we make assumptions about people and things we have not experienced rather than not going to a fellowship breakfast of mostly homeless folks.

The Quaker Testimony of "Simplicity" is one of the ways to break down some of this fear and control.  "Simplicity", in this context, is in the Benedictine tradition of striving to let go of assumptions of what we have been told about other people or places so we can be open to seeing what is with our own eyes.  When we tell people that certain neighborhoods in our own town are unsafe (even though we may send them to places just as unsafe in other cities or countries), we perpetuate closed assumptions rather than open wonder. When we engage with something or place that is new to us, our eyes are open. The right thing to do is to engage, create, collaborate, and inspire curiosity, not to perpetuate fear through assumptions. It is not only right for the benefit of Quaker Workcamp participants, but it is right for bringing greater justice and peace to the world.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"They don't care about us."

These were the words spoken to me by Mr. Harold Brown, a life-long resident of New Orleans.  We were standing on the lawn of his newly-built but not finished and already falling apart house, thanks in no small part to corrupt government practices from local to national levels, to corrupt contractors, and to sleezy family members.  Mr. Brown is 68 years old, losing his vision, and has no where else to go.  Katrina wiped out his livelihood - a fish market business and 10-unit apartment building and after a few years living in Houston in a flop-house (at $75/night) and paying $10 for meals (subsidized by FEMA money that finally ran out), he returned to his house only to find everything inadequate.

The whole story is a tragic nightmare. What is haunting me, however, are the words "they don't care about us."  It is far too easy to align myself with his statement, and to point the finger at politicians and sleeze-bag, greedy contractors and family members. I am sure that, simply because I was standing with Mr. Brown on this sunny, brisk Tuesday, he would not include me in this "they."  But is this really accurate. How much do I really care? Yes, my heart aches, and my blood boils. But is that all?

I don't have easy answers to any of this. I do know that I have to be careful about simply nodding my head and saying "yes they don't care" without taking a deep look at how much I really care as demonstrated by my actions.  I can demand that "they" put more funding into programs, but money was a major part of the corruption as it wound its way through the system with little reaching the ground. I can demand that the corporate exploiters of the region (oil, mostly) clean up their act, but I too like my lights and heat. I know that I can do more to raise awareness, to call on all of us to look around us to see where we might be fooling ourselves as we align with people in these kinds of circumstances.  Even as I attended a Quaker Meeting the Sunday after returning from NOLA, I could not help but notice that, out of 100 people in attendance, the lack of economic and racial diversity is jarring. Is this a true reflection of what it means to care?

In the Book of John, Chapter 9 in the Bible, there is the story of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man.  There is a back-and-forth with the Pharisees about whether it was the blind man or his parents who were the sinners that caused the blindness, or whether Jesus had devilish powers because of his ability to restore sight. Ultimately, what Jesus reminds us is this: it is not a sin to be blind.  The sin is to claim to see.  So, while I can see Mr. Brown's point that "they don't care", I have to be careful not to overlook my own part in this.  It is a blindspot that I might take comfort in, but it is one that will blind me to seeing the hard work, personal commitments and sacrifices we must make to bring justice to these kinds of situations.  It is humbling that it takes the words of a man losing his sight for me to try and open mine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Fasting or Monetary Incentives: The Extremes of Charity and Justice


This year, as a lenten practice, I am reading a daily reflection about a different saint each day.  This morning, it was about Sharbel Makhluf, a 19th century Lebanese monk who spent the last half of his life as a hermit. He is known for both his fasting and his care for others. He would leave his hermitage routinely to go care for villagers. The prayer suggested for today is "God of our fasting, show us how our hunger unites with those in need of bread, how letting go of life's comforts can aid those lacking necessities for life."  

Then I turned to Dan Pallotta's daily hit from his book "Uncharitable."  Dan is the founder of Pallotta Teamworks, was a pioneer in fundraising via AIDSRides/Cancer Walks, and was an inspiring visionary. I still remember clearly the first time I heard him, in July 1996 on the first day of the Twin Cities-Chicago AIDSRide, challenging everyone that we could end the AIDS pandemic within a decade. I think he was right in the vision, but unfortunately and ironically, there was too much money invested in and to be made from AIDS to allow for the creative innovations to make it happen. 

Today's "hit": "An ambitious reporter puts a sentimental photo of a child with leukemia in the newspaper and asks, 'How can you be so cruel as to want to earn a profit from his situation?' I put up the photos of a million others like him and ask, How can you be so shortsighted as to deny me and a thousand others the monetary incentive it would take to devote our life’s work to helping these children? You have just robbed them of our talents. What if your moral compass is wrong?"  

These two represent the polar ends of the spectrum of the cultural and institutional realities of the social justice/charity/advocacy world. At William Penn House (where we work for beans), we get groups that want us to set up service programs for them but sometimes they have trouble seeing why they should pay us a fee as they are doing charity. I would love to double the Workcamp fee so that WPH could have a cushion, a bit of security and I would be able to perhaps save a bit for the future. And I see many colleagues in the field in much the same boat.  It sometimes feels like because we work in this field, we are expected to live like St. Makhluf.  

On the other hand, I see why people are concerned about the money made in charity work. I see and know people making well over 6 figures (some more around half a million).  They are happy; the donors - often the deep pockets of the Clinton/Gates/Bono realm - are happy. The workers fly in high circles. They are very good at raising money, creating good images, marketing, etc, but are the donors really getting the best bang for the buck? Do people enter these jobs fueled by their passions for the cause, or by the lure of the paycheck? How many dollars are spent in meetings to no end? Even being a part of the DC HIV Prevention Planning Group, a non-paid position, I suspect that we meet to meet, but actually do very little. I'm working on that one. 

It really boils down to the tension between ego and grace. For me, personally, I don't think I could ever live the life of Makhluf, Francis, or countless others. Even in my daily life, I stand in awe at the life of grace of some of the people I know. In one case, this life of having and needing little (and this is with someone who gave up much to do his ministry) is essential.  And yet, I firmly believe that the more one has attachments to things that can be bought with wealth, the more the ego gets fed, and this inevitably is a problem.  Just look at how Dan's quote ends.  He basically is saying that if I don't get paid what I want, it's your fault for robbing people of my gifts. The immorality is yours.  

It's fair enough to do what we can so that people can make a living, and I think it's fair enough to negotiate what an equitable wage is, and what is too much, and through this tension we can get the biggest bang for the buck. To me it boils down to this: fair and decent wages are good - perhaps essential, but getting rich off the backs of the poor and the sick is not. 

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.