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.