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.  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Macro-Change Starts at the Micro-Level

Over the weekend, I was talking with a good friend about politics, justice and equality issues.  We come at things from very different angles politically and policy-wise, but we know that we want the same things in the world - less conflict, less injustice, more opportunity, more equality.  As we were talking, Mike (not his real name) kept citing data showing that many of the social programs (mostly in education - Head Start, college funding programs) are simply not producing positive outcomes.  We shared sentiments that there is too much bureaucracy and there is too much self-interest from professional organizations, lobbyists and politicians, and once programs are established, the cultural dependency often overlooks outcomes while keeping the funding going.  Mike kept referring to the fact that government-funded programs need to support programs that are proven to bring about change on the macro-level, and the simple fact is that many of our entrenched programs - many of which seemed like great ideas - are not producing the outcomes to justify their continued funding and policy control.

So much of this certainly resonates with my experiences.  I've seen first-hand a deeply-entrenched bureaucracy dictating policy and operating a rigid paradigm in AIDS services.  What I realized, as we were talking and finding that we were not in sync, is that we were talking at different elevations.  Mike stated that new ideas can get funded to ramp up if they are proven to work on a small scale.  While I know this is true, to be able to even get these preliminary outcomes requires a level of funding and administration that small organizations don't have.  Effectively, to implement totally new ideas requires a funding that few innovators have.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” - Rumi


More importantly, though, was recognizing that, while we absolutely need macro-level change - in education, in energy, in environment, in jobs and income - this change does not start at the macro-level.  It starts at the micro-level - with individuals, small groups.  You. Me.  It is at the macro-level that we can measure the success of the effort, but it is the individual action that the change really takes root.  Taking two issues of the day as examples:
  • Energy: As the Keystone Pipeline seems to be nearing approval the voices start to rise up against it, out of concern for the environment as well as the land rights of the Lakota.  But just as I saw after the BP blowout in the Gulf a few years ago, the focus is on the high-level of national and international policy.  To date, I have yet to see a call for less consumption to go along with this, and our consumption is just as complicit in the problem as is greed of the stockholders.  I remember the days when we were encouraged to lower our thermostats, and to "drive 55" not for safety but for fuel efficiency.  These days, the call for sacrifice in combination with better policy seems lacking. 
  • HIV/AIDS: Bank of America and U2 join forces during the Super Bowl evening to give $1 for every free download of U2's latest song (although, if you look at the fine-print, there was a $2 million - a drop in the bucket for BofA and certainly provides great publicity and revenue for both BofA and U2).  The people downloading a free song were feeling good that they were making a difference - by getting something for free.  All in the name of ending AIDS.  Except for one thing.  Not one message to encourage people to know their status, to act or think different. What a lost opportunity.  It is rare that you would have such a wide audience and could really change the message or at least challenge the status quo - raise the conversation, make people think.  Kudos to Coca Cola for doing just that with their ad.  
In both these cases, it may be true that we need more funding and/or better policy that considers the potential environmental impact.  But no matter what the policy - the macro-level work - it is ultimately going to take each one of us to DO differently as individuals on a mass scale - that will bring the change to that macro-level.
-Brad Ogilvie

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Reflections on "Emotional Correctness"

In October of 2006, I was preparing to do a workshop on HIV at a Christian high school in Illinois.  My co-presenters were from theologically conservative/evangelical churches.  As tends to happen during election years as this was, social issues are hot topics, and this year, gay rights/marriage was a big one.  As we were nearing the date of our workshop, one of my co-presenters called me and asked if we could have coffee together.  What Tom wanted to tell me was this: during the workshop, he would not bring up the issue of gay marriage, but if he were to be asked his opinion, he wanted to be honest - that he believed that marriage should be for a man and woman, not same-gender couples.  More importantly, Tom wanted me to know that he deeply valued our friendship, and he did not want that to burn our friendship.  It was a very moving moment for me.

I was reminded of this experience this morning as I was watching a Ted Talk given by Sally Kohn. Sally is a columnist who currently appears on Fox News. She's also a liberal.  She's also a lesbian.  The gist of her talk is that we as a society have been focused on political correctness, but what is more important is Emotional Correctness.  She describes emotional correctness as "the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect it conveys."  She says that political persuasion starts not with ideas and political correctness, but with emotional correctness that builds relationships.  She goes on to give an example of trying to understand and appreciate the feelings of someone who is against immigration reform because he/she longs for life the way it
"used to be" as being emotionally correct.

All of this really resonated with me.  For almost a decade, I worked and lived closely with social and religious conservatives doing HIV/AIDS work.  I saw so much of what Kohn was talking about.  I saw goodness in people and places where I expected Bible thumping and had been taught to expect hatred and ignorance.  Instead, I found respect, friendship and love.  I remember sitting with people who would talk about their beliefs about gay people, for example, that were far from where I am, but we were having conversations, exploring and appreciating the underlying beliefs and our struggles.  I sat with one church group to talk about HIV/AIDS work in Africa.  They expressed concerns about a gay person (me) being at the table.  I said that as long as they did not physically hurt me, we could still work together.  The levity and respect made conversation and action possible.

I also learned to appreciate the role that love plays in peoples' actions.  Once, at a Pentecostal Church, I watched a colleague talk about the challenges of opening doors to gays and lesbians.  Two women in the audience were vocal that it was gays and lesbians who needed to change, not the church. I marveled as my colleague held these women through their anger until it became clear that it was love of their daughter/sister (respectively) and love of their church that were tearing them apart.  It was love, not hate.  This is what I think Kohn is talking about - that we are all human; we all have love.  As she states, we liberals can be very smug and righteous in our political correctness, but this does not necessarily allow for persuasion.

It was during these days that my own faith deepened as I was challenged to articulate what I truly believe.  I was working with people fueled by their faith, and they were curious about mine.  It was then that I started to say that, for me, the core of Quakerism is that there is that of God in all, and ours is to joyfully seek it.  That meant having faith in others' goodness ("respect"), and enthusiastically appreciating that, despite our political and social differences.  It is what continues to be what I strive for in my work and life.
-Brad Ogilvie

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Open and Affirming" is not the same as "Reconciliation and Forgiveness"

A week before Thanksgiving, at William Penn House, we hosted Danish Quaker K. Renato Lings who talked about his book "Love Lost in Translation" and his personal faith journey to reconciliation as a gay Christian.  It was a very enlightening presentation.  What I found most interesting was to hear Renato talk about the importance of finding comfort in his faith in order for him to really deal with his depression.  From a clinical standpoint, what I was hearing was that he had been traumatized growing up in a faith tradition that condemned him for being gay.  He subsequently spent many years avoiding his Christian faith, but was out to the world as a gay man.  Despite all the acceptance he felt (including among Quakers with whom he worked and worshiped), he still exhibited the lingering effects of the trauma (avoidance and other signs of depression).  It was not until he started to confront the "abuser" (The Bible as it had been used against him), and did extensive research into interpretations, meanings and historical factors, that he realized he could find a way to be both gay and Christian.  He no longer had to go through life being afraid to face the very thing that had caused him so much hurt.  (Side note: Andrew Marin has done some great work on the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, including showing up at Pride parades with "I'm Sorry" signs.  See more here.)  
As the conversation unfolded, we discussed the importance of reconciliation and acceptance, but also the importance of recognizing that overcoming the traumatic experience that many gays and lesbians takes more than being "open and affirming."  To fully overcome the impact and control that traumatic experiences can have on people, it is important to work through the fear that leads to avoidance as this can habituate into a paralyzing way of life.
Many Quaker congregations consider themselves welcoming places for the glbt community, which is fantastic.  What we discussed at this evening event, however, was that to be welcoming without fully appreciating the depths of hurt that religious rejection can leave with people has the potential to cause inadvertent harm, and we do this by not better understanding the Bible.  Our own avoidance or lack of comfort with the Bible - the agent used for perpetrating the abuse - can leave us ill-equipped for being the reconciling place we would hope to be for those who have experienced the trauma.  This is where we might actually do more harm - by promising acceptance but missing the mark by not appreciating the depth of the harm.  Renato Lings' book might be a good place to start the journey to greater healing for so many.