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?