A Community Parable

There was once a family that set out to find a home. This was to be a complicated journey, because the adults in this family came from unusual families and knew they wanted unusual things for their home. To make things more complicated, they had children, they came from different cultures, and they got along best in situations similar to where they met: high stakes, life or death kind of situations. While reminiscing wistfully on fixing a flat tire on a dark country road, their jack buried under camping gear and a forest fire raging nearby, they bickered about loading the dishwasher.  One thing that these parents clearly agreed on was that they wanted their home to include more people, a kind of chosen family, to share common memories like the ones they’d built over their years of community experiences. 

With the family on al-Haram al-Sharif, November 2019

The family began their journey at a time of great change, where many other people were also interested in exploring different ways of creating homes and finding chosen families. Almost 10 years into the new millennium, the world had forgotten it’s pre-millennial fears of nuclear apocalypse and technological collapse, choosing infinity wars and uninterrupted technological connectivity instead. Doomsday predictions were now less finite and it seemed like many things that couldn’t get worse kept getting so. Many people were burnt out or cast out and many, literally or figuratively, were on the move for something better.

As the family started out, it took them some time to decide where to go. There were two large and beautiful houses, one belonging to each of the parents’ families, that tempted them.  They tried living in both.They also tried living with other people in communities: one with many different families, more private space and more organization and another where they were the only family with very little private space and organization. They didn’t find an existing home that was just what they had in mind, so in the end they decided to move back to one of the large and beautiful houses and start something different. 

Along the road, the family met a group of people that introduced themselves as the “Doves.”  The Doves were activists,  people who had dedicated some important parts of their lives to building peace in the world. They felt ready now to settle down and make sense of all of what they had experienced.  The Doves were enthusiastic, optimistic, and committed to making the world a better place. They wore T-shirts with clever things written on them and helped the family feel connected to the wider world with all its beauty and suffering.  The first thing the family and the Doves agreed to was to call themselves “the Hoopoes” after a bird they all considered important and symbolic to their journey together. 

In the Conference of the Birds, an epic Persian poem, the Hoopoe leads a group of birds on a search for God.  He encourages and unifies and eventually reveals an important key in the search for the nature of God among his bird companions. The Doves were used to creating new names and platforms together, even if they were skeptical about God, and so they happily took on the name Hoopoe and created a digital shared drive (open-sourced, of course) for sharing their collective work. They were not used to compromising on their ideals and were so used to struggling for what they wanted they seemed to forget exactly what it was they were struggling for. Over the years of journeying together with the family it became clear that, as a group, Hoopoe liked the idea of living together and creating a chosen family perhaps more than the reality of the daily commitments, logistics and responsibilities of creating a home all together. After some time, the family and the group formally known as the Doves parted ways, with the Doves renaming themselves The New Hoopoes and creating a new shared drive. 

In the Quran, a surah tells of how King Solomon called on all his birds and the Hoopoe did not arrive on time.  Upon arriving late, the Hoopoe brought an important message to the King who was skeptical of his excuse for being late and also his message.  It was almost 20 years after the new millennium now, and by this time it seemed as if all hope of finding common cause had disappeared.  Noone seemed to trust any message or messenger anymore, and so while messages of certain doom seemed to buzz everywhere, no one could agree on exactly and certainly how this doom would take place. Solomon eventually sent the Hoopoe back out with a new message to test his integrity. The New Hoopoes set out on their own as well.

Some time later and after growing further, the family met a new group who introduced themselves as Mehter, a name meaning “Mother” in a now-lost Indo-European language.  Similar to relearning a Indo-European language, Mehter wanted to go back to the roots of our current ways of life, getting to the real “nut” of the meaning of life (while speaking in a way they were convinced was original yet timeless). Mehter sometimes got lost in the details of their explorations and the affirmations they received from their devoted followers. They were committed to making their unconscious processes conscious to reawakening a sense of common good because they felt society had lost its way. In John 2:15, Jesus comes to the Temple and finds it full of money changers and others desecrating the sacredness of the space. Knowing that the root meaning of the house of worship has been defiled, he pauses, braids a whip, and drives the money changers from the temple. How long he pauses the passage does not say, but Mehter found this first pause to braid very important.

While the family did not know this Mehter group like they’d known the Doves, they decided that their interest in deeper exploration, getting at the root of life, and pausing before activating was a fair trade to eating only nuts.  Once again, this Mehter group was also quite excited about creating names and platforms and so it also changed its name to “Sea Change.” In Matthew 14, Jesus again takes a moment to himself after John the Baptist is killed and he responds to the needs of a great crowd with just a few fishes and some bread.  He sends his disciples out on a boat before him and tells them that he will join them later as he goes off by himself.  As a storm buffets the disciples out on the water, Jesus leaves his meditation to come to them, calms their fears and shows them that they too can walk on water.  Unlike the disciples, Sea Change seemed to be convinced of creating miracles, but this push and pull between “time of reflection” and “time of action” left them unavailable for community. They spoke a great deal of taking time to discern, but were increasingly drawn by external demands on their time and attention.  At this time a great sickness came across the world, and the Sea Change, who were very focused on health, became very focused on this sickness. They were particularly focused on people who were focused on the illness, believing that everyone was focusing too much on the illness.  In this year of great storms and sickness, while frothing up all kinds of ideas and enthusiasm in a great tide of excitement, Sea Change eventually blew away like foam after a winter storm. Perhaps they paused to braid too long or perhaps they were called out to sea to save their followers?

The family was beginning to tire of this.  Would they ever find a home?  Were people who said they wanted to create a home together actually trustworthy?  They couldn’t tell. They were frustrated and didn’t agree about whether the situation was life or death enough to start working well together between themselves. Now a pandemic demonstrated the interconnected but fragile serious nature of the situation, but there was not a clear, single path forward.  The parents fell back onto things that felt most comfortable for them, which unfortunately, because they were very different, were almost opposite things:  one worked very very hard on the house, doing anything she could to make it work and stay financially afloat.  The other kept looking for other opportunities outside the house because he felt his energies at home were often not enough.  They found themselves with a few people around them who had blown in and stayed as the others blew away.

And so the family began again, working on creating a home again with these new people.  In the meantime, their children grew bigger and went back to school, despite the sickness. The home they were making was also a place for guests, and surprisingly so many people were looking to escape the sickness that people kept asking to come stay even as other guests had to change plans.The group that stayed this time, the group that did not have a name, were willing to accept the name of the family’s house as their starting point.  Unlike the Doves or the Mehter, this new group was raw, less sure of its name or platforms but willing to try.

The family was blessed to have learned some lessons by this point about creating their extended family home: first, the experience with the Doves/Hoopoe taught them that it was important to be honest with themselves and what they really wanted. Second, the experience with Mehter/Sea Change taught them the importance of being vulnerable, taking risks based on our best understanding without expecting accolades or complete certainty.  Finally, everything they’d experienced had taught them to be prepared to be mistaken. This is where they began to build a new home, a new community together.  It was an end in some ways, the end of another round of dreams, another year, another strategy, but at the same time another beginning.  

Returning to Israel and Palestine

After almost 10 years away, Federica and I returned to Israel and Palestine with our kids and students from the school where I work in Bologna.  It was really a huge effort to make it all happen, especially at a time when we are transitioning here at the farm and have been traveling other places. Despite all this, it was truly amazing to be back in this place that’s meant so much to us.  Our kids, though less thrilled to be there, were remarkably patient considering the circumstances.  We feel really blessed.

Here’s a few of the current and previous photos, before and after:

AtTuwani, 2008

AtTuwani, 2019

Playing with Hussein (Sami) in Tuwani, 2008

Evan, Sami (Hussien) and our youngest at Sumud Freedom Camp, 2019

In Jerusalem, March 2010

With the family on al-Haram al-Sharif, November 2019

In a doorway by the sea in Haifa, while at the trial for Rachel Corrie in March 2010

In the doorway of an abandoned mosque, in the evacuated village of Lifta, 2019

Announcing the Borgo Basino Barnraising Tour

From October 28th-November 11th, I’ll be touring the US with my son and Beatrice, Stefano and their son Bernardo to “raise the barn” on our new farm project in Italy. After many years of work, we are finally very excited to share that our community is coming together on the farm and we’re starting new agricultural projects, farm to table hospitality and community research on holistic health. Join us!

If you or folks you know are interested in community building and organizing, food, farming, holistic health, alternative economies, human rights, and sustainability, you are invited to come see us and learn more. We’ll have organic fair trade T-shirts, raffles, interactive community research opportunities and more!

Here’s the tour dates with links to public Facebook events that each include an event flyer:

New York, NY- Oct 28, 6-8pm Locally sourced Fundraising Dinner Location: Faculty Dining Room W, Hunter College, 695 Park Ave, Manhattan (8th floor, entrance at 68th & Lexington with photo ID to pass campus security)

Suquamish, WA (Kitsap County) – Oct 29, 6-8pm Locally sourced Fundraising Dinner Location: Suquamish Community Congregational United Church of Christ, 18732 Division Ave NE, Suquamish, WA 98392

Seattle, WA – Oct 30, 7-9pm Presentation featuring guest speaker Dr. Leylâ Welkin, Cross-Cultural Psychologist Location: University Friends Meeting, 4001 9th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105

Tacoma, WA- Oct 31, 1-3pm- University of Washington-Tacoma class presentation in “Moral Development, Technology, And The Natural World”

Olympia, WA – Nov 1, 6-9pm Locally sourced Fundraising Dinner Tickets and Location at https://www.herculesfarm.com/events/borgo-basino-barnraiser-dinner 

Olympia, WA-Nov 2, 10am-2pm Potluck Open House Location: Olympia Friends Meeting, 3201 Boston Harbor Rd NE, Olympia, WA 98506

San Francisco, CA- Nov 3, 1-2:30pm Presentation featuring guest speaker Heidi Pidcoke, Psychotherapist Location: San Francisco Friends Meeting, 65 9th St. San Francisco, CA 94103

Camas, WA (Portland area) – Nov 3, 6:30-8:30pm Presentation Location: 1004 NE 4th Ave, Camas, WA 98607

Eugene, OR – Nov 4, 7-8:30pm, Eugene Friends Church Presentation Location: 3495 W 18th Ave, Eugene, OR 97402

Deadwood, OR – Nov 5, 6:30-8:30pm, Deadwood Community Center Potluck and Presentation Location: 91700 Deadwood Creek Road, Deadwood, OR 97430

Olympia, WA- Nov 8, 9am-12pm The Evergreen State College class presentation in “Farm to Table” program

Olympia, WA- Nov 9, 4-6pm Evergreen Farmhouse special gnocchi making workshop and tour finale in partnership with Slow Food Greater Olympia. Reserve a space on Brown Paper Tickets
Please help us spread the word about the tour by sharing on social media (using the links below), by flyer or by word of mouth. We’re looking forward to seeing you!

Vulnerability as Witness: To be of Service in a Foreign Land

This is the message I shared with the Friends World Committee for Consultation- Europe and Middle East section gathering in Budapest, Hungary- May 3, 2019:

We were asked last night to stand if we considered ourselves a part of various identities present at this annual gathering: yearly meeting representations, Friends under 35, and first time time attenders to an FWCC annual gathering to name a few.  I began to stand for this last category, and then remembered that in fact I attended the FWCC Americas gathering in Oregon, near my hometown, in the Spring of 2009. I joined and spoke at that meeting on behalf of the Ramallah Friends School, reporting on my recent visit to Palestine a few months before and encouraging Friends in the Americas to support Palestinian education.  It feels very fitting to stand before you all exactly 10 years later and still reflect on how much that trip to Palestine changed my life, spiritually, emotionally, and indeed practically because it was there on that trip that I met my future wife Federica who you’ve now all met with our two young sons at this gathering. I felt particularly touched by our discussion yesterday about how Friends from the Middle East are not present at this gathering, and how they very often do not enjoy the opportunities and access to travel in the way many of us do.  I ask each of us to continue to hold them in our hearts in the coming days.

Visiting Palestine was a particularly pivotal moment in my life, and indeed is also a very fitting place to begin considering our theme of “Living in a Foreign Land.”  The Holy Land is indeed the place where cultures of welcome and hospitality still live today, just as they did in the biblical passages we read which challenge us to welcome the stranger and also understand how our prophetic witness may make us strangers in our own lands.  As we are aware especially in the politics of Israel and Palestine, power and privilege also can make us strangers in our own lands and so I want us to consider this as we sit with this theme.

Our theme for this gathering brought up many personal thoughts, prayers and reflections for me.  As an adopted European originally born in the United States with a gateway to this section through the Middle East, I admit the most obvious definition of “living in a foreign land” relates to my nationality. At the same time, while it is certainly important that I am an adopted Italian with a strong place in my heart for Palestine, I’d like to reflect on the theme in a somewhat less conventional way, challenging each of us to look at ourselves slightly differently.  Indeed, the vulnerability of “living in a foreign land,” which I will return to, provokes an approach to service, leadership and community organization that I would like us to consider in our gathering and beyond. I will take the opportunity, as a foreigner, to offer some reflections coming from sources and perspectives that may be somewhat unconventional in Friends’ circles, and my hope is that this will challenge each of us to look beyond our common norms and approaches.

What inspires me to consider this approach?  This question of leadership and relative privilege came up strongly for me when sitting with the theme of this meeting, “Living in a Foreign Land.”  The Bible frequently considers the question of living in foreign land, as a challenge to unappreciated prophets or ungrateful hosts. As hosts, we are commanded to accept and welcome the other, but as visitors we are pushed to speak our truth and lead the people who have gone astray.  I thought about the many instances in which I was either a visitor or a host in my life, and what that really has meant for my approach to life and to leadership. I think that we as Friends often imagine ourselves as the prophetic visitors, the foreigners in foreign lands speaking out in the darkness, when in reality we most often bring our privilege, power and influence with us when we travel and we would do well to recognize it.  I considered my own story and tried to think of the key moments I’d seen past my own privilege and what that meant to me.

Perhaps because many of you do not know me well, I should start as many of us do as Friends with myself and some description of my own personal journey on these themes.  While I am choosing not to focus on individual leaders or particularly glorious moments in Quaker history, it seems still appropriate to recognize these norms by sharing with you some of my story.

I was born into a Quaker family in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, a third generation Friend in the Beanite tradition of that area.  Since many of the workings of the US branches of Friends may be unfamiliar to you (indeed also for me growing up), I will just briefly describe them here.  Perhaps many of you do know that as Quakers left England for the United States to escape persecution, within a few generations theological and cultural differences grew up among their membership which eventually devolved into major “schisms” or splits within the religious society.  These splits were bitter, painful divisions that often began with what seem today as minor differences in theological interpretation of Quaker faith and practice. However, once divided, new branches of Quakerism grew further and further apart from each other, especially culturally, and in time they established formal bodies or “conferences” that served to codify their new approaches and set themselves distinctly apart.  Well into this new era of schisms, a Friend by the name of Joel Bean found himself at odds with the interpretation of Quakerism professed by the yearly meetings in his area of the US Midwest so he headed out West to California. Despite trying to escape the divisiveness of conferences and theological rigidity, Western Friends in the unprogrammed tradition eventually became a kind of “nonconference” in their own right, known for their dissociative approach.  In time Beanite meetings spread up and down the Western part of the United States. Other Friends from the evangelical branch of Quakerism also established yearly meetings on the West coast as well. Similar to what we see in Hungary, in my part of the United States there are therefore parallel branches of Quakerism with different styles of worship, theological approaches and history worshipping more or less side by side.

In my family, I really didn’t learn much about this variety of Quaker thought growing up at all. My grandfather was convinced to Quakerism after his participation in World War II here in Europe, finding Friends through rebuilding efforts organized by the American Friends Service Committee in Germany.  My mother was raised as a Quaker in a style that would be familiar to most European Friends: silent worship, theologically post-modern with an emphasis on personal discernment and social justice at times set directly at odds with Christian faith and practice. We didn’t know much about other Quakers worshipping around us, since our communities had grown so far apart.

Most Friends in Beanite meetings in the area where I grew up are white, middle class, theologically and culturally left of center.  I am no exception. Growing up, going to meeting meant worshipping with a group of people very much like myself, frequently contrasting our approach to faith with other churches  and cultural groups around us but almost never discussing the other Evangelical Friends just down the road who were ostensibly our brothers and sisters in the Church. They might as well have lived in a different world because of their different historical path to Quakerism.  Ashley, who many of you have met, is visiting us from Northwest Yearly Meeting (“the other yearly meeting”) and while I don’t want to put her on the spot I suggest that she could better represent her community and Quaker experience than I can.  

Because of the unique approach to Quakerism in the Beanite tradition, that downplayed affiliation with wider Quaker bodies and strongly emphasized personal spiritual discernment, I believe I was especially unaware of aspects of privilege and culture in my meeting growing up.  Because we were largely white, our discussions about race were often two-dimensional and considered with a certain distance, even though many of us had come to Quakerism through projects the AFSC organized in communities of color in the United States. Because we were largely middle class, we took things like college education or ownership of property as norms within our meeting, even though there were certainly meeting members who did not have access to these privileges.  Because we were, as a whole, generally progressive and liberal in our approaches to political and social issues, certain rare instances when differences of opinion came up about same-sex marriage or tactics of political dissent created significant conflict in our meeting. As I grew into adolescence, I found it harder to connect with my Quaker community because I saw so few people my age active in Friends.

I studied abroad in my junior year of high school and experienced one of the first very extreme examples of being a foreigner, in the most literal way, and it began to set in motion the path that’s brought me here today. My family has a long connection with Turkey and so when the opportunity to study abroad there came up, I was happy to go. I moved in with a Turkish family in Istanbul in August of 2001, and within my first weeks of arriving the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 took place back in the United States. I was quite overwhelmed by a whole range of emotions and experiences at that time, but I remember very clearly being told by so many Turks that it was obvious why the attacks had taken place: unconditional US support for Israel.  As a young, NPR-nursed white progressive liberal, I had been willing to imagine that US foreign could have been blamed for 9/11, but I was completely unprepared for this direct line drawn between US support for Israel and terror attacks. I felt like I was suddenly seeing the world in a completely different way. My whole time in Turkey was very challenging for many reasons, but upon returning home this particular insight stuck with me.

When choosing where to attend university a few years later, I felt a leading to attend to Quaker college in order to reach beyond my current Quaker experience and perhaps meet other young people in the faith.  I enrolled in the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program at Guilford College in North Carolina, the entirely opposite corner of the United States with a completely different Quaker history. North Carolina is actually home to the largest number of Quakers in the US, and its history goes back to a visit by George Fox before the foundation of the state of Pennsylvania.  Quakers of all branches of US Quakerism live even closer together in North Carolina and especially in Greensboro, and through my studies I was encouraged to learn from and about them on a much deeper level. I studied Quaker history and practice while following an established yearly program with my classmates to learn the forms of Quaker worship, business and discernment.  I also studied anthropology and sociology, taking courses that explored historical roots of oppression while interning at our school’s community service office that worked with service sites in local prisons, homeless shelters and refugee placement agencies. Some of my Quaker classmates came not only from different branches of the Quaker faith in the US, but also Palestine and Kenya and their sense of what Quakerism meant as a community and culture where completely different than anything I’d known before.

Between my second and third years of college, I took a pilgrimage up and down the East Coast of the United States with the rather grandiose mission to find ways that geography and culture had influenced the development of Quakerism in various areas.  This trip was my first great disillusionment with Quakerism. While I met many kind and loving and inspired people between Florida and New York on my trip, in meeting after meeting along the way I was introduced to communities with just a handful of members, individual members who held enormous responsibility for the spiritual and practical aspects of their meetings without formal recognition as elders or pastors (I ironically called them “überQuakers”), and a great deal of what I considered to be unrecognized privilege in the 30 some meetings I visited. It was very discouraging.  It also inspired in me for the first time some of the same questions I bring to you today about leadership, privilege and community organization within Friends which I have still not resolved almost 15 years later. In some ways this may be the difference between the enthusiasm and excitement we feel at gatherings such as this as compared to the relatively normal workings of our daily routines, but I challenge each of us to be honest about the real state of our society in many parts of the global North. I wrote about this experience and received quiet but pointed criticism for my “negative” outlook on the state of the society, even though I’d tried to put an overall positive spin on my disappointment.

Shortly after I returned from this trip in my latter time at Guilford, trouble began to brew between some of the Palestinian students on campus who were graduates of the Friends School in Ramallah and other students. I had gotten to know some of the Palestinian students during my time at Guilford, and felt a particular solidarity with them.  There were occasionally misunderstandings or even minor confrontations between the US students and Palestinian students, and I was reminded just how different the contexts around these two private Quaker schools could be. The Palestinian students who’d come to my school had just gone through the years of the Second Intifada, beginning even before I had my eyes opened about the US role in Israel in 2001. US students at Guilford had come of age as we started two new wars on Muslim countries and consumed non-stop messages of Islamophobia and crusade.  As a member of Guilford’s student Judicial Board, I’d reached out to students and tried to mediate some of these difficulties, especially sensitive to the fact there were huge cultural differences to conflict that I felt needed to be addressed at our Quaker school.

I was completely unprepared for when, in my last semester at Guilford, a large group of students affiliated with the Football program attacked three Palestinian students with chains and brass knuckles in a public space while openly yelling racial epithets.  The school’s handling of the situation was appalling, especially with an insider’s view on the Judicial Board, as basically every effort was made to sweep the situation under the rug or farm it out to legal authorities off campus (who from a first gathering they took credit for never fully investigated the incident as the hate crime it was.)  We tried to organize student forums to address the huge wound on campus, but the administration essentially just waited us out so that folks would graduate and people would move on.  I asked myself what it mean to be at a Quaker school, that literally had banners of the Quaker testimonies running across our central courtyard, if we could not hold our community account in the face of a hate crime.  

So these three progressive events of going abroad, learning about and visiting many different Quakers on my pilgrimage and then eventually watching my Quaker school turn its back on its principles just as I graduated left me feeling terribly hopeless. In short, growing up in relative privilege, isolated from a broad view of Quaker experience, I suddenly was confronted by a society both in and outside of Quakerism that felt incredibly unjust yet self assured, that spoke of confronting evil in the world but that did not actually seem to believe evil existed, that professed to model a new kind of leadership but indeed seemed fractured and rudderless.  It suddenly seemed like I saw and understood the Society and its history better than I ever had before, and yet I could not see a clear place for myself in it. I was tremendously disillusioned.

As I then completed college and struck out on my own, this perspective made navigating my way extremely difficult on a personal level. After getting educated and feeling like I’d learned a lot about my privilege and my inherited place in society and Quakerism, I suddenly felt like the house I thought I’d built (or that had been built for me) on a foundation of rock was actually a house built on sand, buffeted now by rains and floods. The sense of directionlessness I’d projected on Quakerism came right home to me, and my personal faith and identity I’d set out to understand better suddenly seemed hypocritical, flawed, and dysfunctional.

While I had always been a social user of drugs and alcohol, suddenly I began to use them more and more to self-medicate.  Quakerism historically was a teetotalling faith and indeed served a key role in the prohibition movement in the United States, but perhaps unlike British Friends my perception is that few Quakers in the US now associate Quakerism with abstaining.  My college experience was certainly no exception. After college and lacking a social scene around to temper my intake, I began to drink and smoke marijuana as often as I could to dull my sense of emptiness. Perhaps you have heard this kind of story before, perhaps you even know it yourself, but even if you have never heard of a Quaker addict I stand before you as one. 

I felt incredibly alone and isolated, but at the same time I still enjoyed incredible access and so many social opportunities as a white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class college graduate. Because I so rarely had experienced being vulnerable or out of my element, when the house of cards began to fall it fell completely.  I couldn’t stop using drugs and alcohol when I knew I needed to, and I slowly cut off my friends so they would not see what so ashamed me.  I even criticized others for their use, projecting my own failing externally.

The very common experience of 20-somethings trying to find their way in the world was complicated by questions of how my faith felt unable to respond to the most important needs of the day, made that much more painful by the fact it was a faith that frequently spoke about changing the world.  I take much more responsibility now for how my own misconceptions or false narratives were projected onto Quakerism, but at the time I felt like Quakerism had handed me a burden of perpetual subjectivity. Because we as Friends so often spoke of not relying on doctrine or “divisive” approaches to social justice, we were indeed struggling to honestly appraise our own norms and conventions. Even though now at school I’d learn much more about my place in society, suddenly I felt like I was that much more stymied in my path to action. I also certainly did not learn about how to moderate my drinking.   Despite and perhaps in part because of all my privileges, I suddenly had one more reason not to draw a line and say “this is right and this is wrong” because my Truth could not be imposed on anyone else in classic Quaker fashion. I tried to draw the line on my chemical abuse and found I could not.  I wrote an article about this for Friends Journal, a US Quaker magazine, and agreed to record an interview about it with their staff which still comes up as one of the top hits when you Google my name.  I struggle with this to this day, putting this less than flattering, unpolished sense of myself online out there for the world to see.  

So what does this mean for us?  How could I take my personal experience and offer it up as something for this gathering?

The answer came to me in the form of a tweet.  Recently Friends enjoyed two instances of rather strange publicity as characters in two popular British TV comedies visited Quaker meetings for laughs.  While I don’t own a television or keep close tabs on goings on in that area of popular culture, I was impressed to learn about Friends’ appearances in these shows through the social media promotion of Quakers in Britain itself.

Upon actually going to watch the episodes in question, I was surprised to find them somewhat bawdy, definitely irreverent, and entirely unromantic in their portrayal of contemporary English Quakerism.  And yet I appreciate that Friends House saw fit to share them, in my eyes challenging the usual Quaker norm of how to “live in the world but not be of it.” Sometimes we take ourselves entirely too seriously, and in celebration of British Friends’ unconventional choice to promote their relatively unflattering portrayal I’d like to take up their example and run with it.

One of the episodes, from a show called “Catastrophe,” stars an American businessman living in London on a path of self-discovery. Quakerism’s brief moment in the limelight begins when he is encouraged to attend worship while seeking to “improve himself” after being convicted of driving drunk. While at first he is very enthusiastic about Friends’ acceptance and “not even having to believe in God,” he eventually becomes frustrated with what he considers Quakers lack of answers for the “chaos of the world.”  Friends tell him they are “looking to overcome hatred in the long term,” but he becomes impatient with their “vague” answers and says he intends to quit. As he gets up to leave, he says those that stay better have a plan in case they ever “get into power.”

I (strangely) identify with several superficial qualities of this character (impatient, American, alcoholic) but I was particularly impressed that his challenge to Friends struck a chord with me.  Why, when giving up on Quakerism, does he challenge us to think about what would happen if we all “came into power,” or in essence suddenly have the opportunity to put our principles in practice on a grand scale?

Many of us may find ourselves isolated from the norms of popular culture at the moment, despairing that climate change, war, even disease and famine.  We were shocked about Trump or Brexit, and so we downplay or struggle to accept the millions of people we don’t really know who voted for them. We see ourselves as underdogs still crying out for justice in wilderness, since indeed things still seem desperate despite everything we know. But we often also rarely acknowledge our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses in ourselves and our society as we struggle with the issues in front of us.  If we are indeed called to hope for change in the long term (as the TV show suggests) as relative foreigners in foreign lands and if we are challenged to prepare ourselves for “what would happen if we ever got into power”, what can we honestly say about times we indeed have or have had significant spiritual and material power?

This is a key question I’d like to illustrate better by turning to real examples from Quaker history we rarely think about, moments where we as Friends came together which significant power and long-term influence with unforeseen and quite negative results.  My suggestion is that these results came from continuing to consistently think of ourselves as outsiders, victims, and even foreigners when in fact we had the upper hand. I also think that this mentality actually served to obscure rather than help us grow and be of service through our vulnerability in foreign lands. All the the examples I will offer come from North America Quaker history, which I know best, but on areas that even I know only a little about.

The first is Quakers key role in the industrialization of whaling.  When Quakers moved to New England, many became involved in the booming whaling trade.  Indeed places like Nantucket Island in Massachusetts became Quaker-run whaling communities, sending regular excursions out to hunt whales with major whale oil processing facilities onshore. Friends were known for fair dealings in business, and even allowed black sailors on their whaling ships, but in the end this was a business of killing en masse. Quakers became so rich and influential in this trade that some Friends, ancestors of those who’d escaped from England due to persecution, actually returned to Europe to bring whaling technologies improved in the US back to the Old World. Who today could imagine the average Friend, adamant about animal rights and the environment, accepting our role in this mass slaughter? Peterson Toscano, a US friend who writes about climate change, speaks about how in that time as now, money talked and the discussion of whales centered entirely on the markets at that time.  We can now more easily accept the vulnerability of our planet and even our market system, but how did our own role in this bloody chapter of the Industrial Revolution speak to the adage of “coming to do good and doing well?”

Another important example from the early days of United States history is in prison reform in the Quaker state of Pennsylvania.  Because Quakers had spent so much time in jail in England, often under horrible conditions, it was natural that as they set up their own state that they were keen to improve on questions of criminal justice. Under Quaker administration, Pennsylvania rolled out many changes to the prison system designed to make it more humane but also more “reformative”, with cleaner, more humane and more isolated conditions. Though not inspired solely by Quakers, ideas like prison labor and solitary confinement were adopted early by states like Friends-controlled Pennsylvania, eventually finding their way now into all corners of the current US corrections system.  The U.S. now holds more people in solitary confinement for longer periods than other other prison system in the world. How did our past hurt and trauma in prisons perhaps make us blind to the new and terrible damage we were adopting through the new torture of solitary confinement?

Finally, Quakers were also actively involved in the practice of separating Native American children from the families and sending them to religious boarding schools to “reform” them.  Using the phrase “kill the Indian, save the child,” Christian indoctrination schools around the US were legally entitled to removed Native children from their families and force them to speak only English, cut their hair and wear Western clothing.  The policy of separating Native children from their families lasted until 1973. Paula Palmer, a Friend from Colorado, has put significant research into Quakers’ role in running and in fact even imaging the idea of handing over “Indian problems” to religious bodies who would convert and thereby integrate Native peoples into White settler society.  Many are shocked to learn how long this practice lasted, and perhaps are even more shocked that many Friends’ attitudes were so complicit to the colonial mindsets of the time. We struggle to see the privilege we enjoy today, let alone that which we’ve misused to oppress other peoples for generations before.

As a faith that was born under significant persecution and oppression in its early years, we must also acknowledge our leadership failings when the tables turned and we found ourselves in relative privilege and influence. When we really think about it, aren’t we really still living in that place of influence today?  Rather than looking at individual Quaker leaders, whose positions of influence may or may not have been affected by their Quaker values, perhaps we would do well to look at Quakerism’s work as a collective body both positive and negative. Not only that, perhaps rather than focusing on our frequently celebrated roles in movements as challengers of social norms, for example in the anti-slavery or suffrage moments, what have we done when we ourselves held the reins rather than taking the moral high ground as civil dissenters? As individuals and as a society, I challenge us to accept the vulnerability of our missteps and mistakes, sometimes only obvious many years after the fact, in order to more clearly see ourselves and our leadership in a true and clear light. I make this challenge particularly considering our Christian tradition’s approach to being foreign or welcoming the foreigner.  If we are the foreigners, we must accept our vulnerability in our mission to bear witness. If we are welcoming foreigners, we must remember our own vulnerabilities to be of service and solidarity with those we lead and serve.


What would we do if we truly lived in the full power of this world? What would we do if we truly lived in the full power of the Gospel Order?

How can we be of service through bearing witness to our vulnerabilities?

As strangers in foreign lands or those welcoming strangers, what in our own experiences can we draw from to build the Kingdom of God?

Ezra’s house

Guilford College students in Italy
We passed out olive branches for folks to take home with them.

We hosted a group of students from Guilford College at the farm last month. The group is studying a semester abroad in Northern Italy, in the castle Ezra Pound once lived in.  Pound was an American ex-pat poet and critic of US capitalism who supported Italy’s fascist regime during WWII. His Cantos, some written while in US captivity during the occupation of Italy at the end of the war, still inspire a new generation of neofascists today. I don’t think the students knew much about the history of their host family or even the war as it played out in Italy (neither did I before moving here), but their visit put him squarely in my mind.

We connected with the students because an old friend from when I lived in the anarchist community in Greensboro served as the faculty representative this year for the program. It was amazing to see Mark again after all these years, and as we showed the group around we talked a little about the history of our farm. After lunch we were joined by a group of our friends who live in La Casa della Pace (the House of Peace), a project of Italian former “peace corps” volunteers who live together in intentional community to continue the work they did building bridges abroad at home.  Their project is similar in many ways to what we hope the farm becomes, a inspiration toward our future.  One aspect of La Casa della Pace‘s work is hosting asylum seekers, so they brought 2 fellows from Pakistan along who stay with them these days.

An intercultural wood crewEverybody worked at hauling wood and planting starts in the afternoon to break the ice, then after dinner we had a discussion about living in community, the immigration situation in Italy, and how we make the transition from institutional structures (like college or a peace corps experience) to life after.  What does one do when one finishes a powerful experience abroad but that program comes to an end?  How do you keep “that spark” you feel while fully immersed in a program when its expiration date comes around?  What can we do when the Italian immigration system, built to accept a few thousand immigrants, receives over a hundred thousand in one year?

I think about Ezra, who left the US disillusioned by capitalism and Marxism and truly hellbent on finding a new way. It seems to me he was looking for new community of support when he left the US.  One could say he “fell in with the wrong crowd” as his intellectual pioneering was conveniently appropriated by the politics of the Axis powers. But supposedly he began writing some of his most inspired work on sheets of toilet paper  while locked in a US prison cage toward the end of the war, once again alone and isolated. This was a part of the war I didn’t know much about and it challenged my sense that Ezra was just the worst kind of “Americans abroad” stereotype.  He is said to have had a mental breakdown in the cage. For very understandable reasons, and this inhumane treatment by his own countrymen, “liberating” his adopted country, left an indelible mark.  Reinforcing his sense of the US’ moral corruption and his own extremist view that fascism would lead to new world order, he would return to Italy after being released from a mental institution in the States to live out his later life in the castle.

In these days of rising right wing rhetoric and renewed extremism, I think about what leads people to support fascism.  I think about the barber in the village here who casually mentioned while cutting my hair a few months back that “the gas chambers” were the only way to straighten out politics.  (I am currently using a boycott of his shop as an excuse for my disheveled appearance). We’ve seen fascism veiled in anti-immigrant rhetoric come close to tearing apart the European Union and the United States, and perhaps I think this is a good wake up call.  It’s clear that people are fed up with institutional structures as they exist right now, but we no longer know how to commit directly to one another and many want the iron fist of “The State” (not The Union) to step in and save us. We long for our castles.

In the course of our conversation with the students, someone suggested that if Ezra’s relatives were committed to starting a new chapter in the history of their family’s relationship to fascism, they could take in refugees at the castle.  What message might that send, versus hosting students from a country their ancestor forsake?

Sure enough, I’ve just gotten word that as they returned from our visit student’s introduced their hosts to Every Campus a Refuge, a project started at Guilford that encourages academic campuses to open some part of their space to refugees transitioning into permanent housing.  It makes so much sense.  Colleges or even study abroad housing are set up with dorms, cafeterias and built-in opportunities to meet other people.  It’s a new take on an institutional structure we take for granted as static or inflexible, and it’s a beautiful alternative to building walls or turning inward when we reach unfamiliar territory.

Is voting like going to church for you?

Obama first won the presidency at a critical moment in my political development. I didn’t consider myself a Christian anarchist yet, but I was worried all the hope and attention pinned on voting for this one secular leader was bound to disappoint. There was so much optimism then and I just didn’t feel it. I knew folks would vote for him and then sit back on their hands waiting for him to make miracles. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom talking about what it meant to have a black president and her telling me how it was incredibly meaningful, wrapped up in history, political movements, and where we were as a country. “Besides,” she said “you simply cannot argue that McCain would have made life easier for poor people in the way Obama simply cannot ignore doing.”  I was not so sure.

Here we are 8 years later in the midst of an even crazier, longer and strangely familiar election cycle. Where will this one end?  Are you hopeful?

I’ve been watching the US election for the last 9 months from abroad, and it’s sobering to see how important such a complete farce is to the whole rest of the world.  The impact of who we elect as President of the United States has unquestionably far reaching impact globally, and from this far away I’m just reminded of how petty and superficial the whole process really is for many Americans. It frequently feels like we’re trying to pacify our guilty consciences by throwing change into a panhandler’s hat.  I’m not saying it doesn’t make any different to the panhandler, but frequently we’re motivated by fleeting fears that never materialize into tangible actions to actually end poverty.  We’re not voting with our feet.

At the same time I am really missing my religious community back in the states.  As a Quaker, my faith community is the equivalent of the “United States Pirate Party” in the sense we’d never get elected running on our own platform (anymore).  Many of us are pretty involved in the current political system though by voting, advocating and even serving in office.  I would say on average we’re more politically involved than the majority of the US electorate.  As a faith tradition we emphasize living your faith every day, and for some people this means advocating for political leadership that supports values we discern to be important (even if they’re endorsed by Henry Kissinger )

Now that I’m living in Italy I’ve been attending Mass more regularly because that’s the most available spiritual community here.  I really do enjoy it in many ways, though I will never feel completely at home there.  The local priest has roped us into helping out with several projects around the parish, and in some ways helping our community outside of “church time” actually feels like a closer expression of my faith than sitting in Mass.

All this has me thinking about how much we think about voting or “going to Church”, sometimes even lying about it, when really what’s most important is how we actually live our lives.  Do you really feel satisfied once you’ve filled in your ballot or got up from your pew that you’ve really accomplished something?  I don’t. At best, I frequently feel like I’ve thrown some change in a hat.  In some ways, voting or even spiritual services feel so “imperfect” in their expressions of conviction that I feel that much more obligated to go out and actually do something.

I really appreciated this episode of “On the Media” (one of my new favorite podcasts) that explored third party candidates and the idea of “spoilers” in the general election recently.  One of the main takeaways for me among the differing opinions is that voting is really one thing that we do, among many, as an expression of our civic and moral belief. I still plan to vote and keep attending Catholic Church for the time being, but I’m really not pinning any hope there.  On the one hand I know if I don’t vote (if my overseas ballot is counted anyway) or go to Church I could still feel like I was involved and living my faith, but I’d also just miss out on a collect experience that is important far beyond me and my life. Doesn’t that sound like practicing a living faith or being an involved community member?





3 Graces

We just left the Woodard Lane Cohousing Community to come to Italy. As we moved in, others who’d moved out told us their take on who’s attracted to Cohousing communities: First, there are the extroverts, the folks who would love to live communally under all kinds of circumstances. Perhaps these are the folks that thrive in communes, hostels, barracks, etc. They might happily live under a ping pong table so long as someone else was involved. Secondly, there are the introverts, the folks who love community under certain conditions. Perhaps these are the folks who enjoy their private space but also enjoy a structured environment to discuss the merits of turf (at length) with people they’re not related to. Who does that leave? Extroverted golfers?

As an unapologetic member of the first category, I particularly enjoyed the dinners our cook teams prepared each week, not just to eat but also to throw my weight around a bit. Known fact: bantering about religion, politics, or community gossip helps prep vegetables efficiently. Subjective Observation: Heated discussions about the role of colonialism and the rise of Wahhabism (Jim: look it up!) occasionally yields mixed culinary results but certainly keeps things lively!

With everything cooked and ready to eat, we gathered in a circle and shared some kind of blessing, reflection, poem or hokey pokey before digging in. Upon arriving at WLCH, my sociological analysis is that members of the second camp had unduly influenced a version of a popular grace I remember growing up. It went:

Thank you for this food,
This food, this glorious glorious food,
And the animals,
And the vegetables,
And the minerals,(!)
Who made it possible.

MINERALS! It’s PEOPLE! PEOPLE who made it possible. Suddenly grace was reduced to a guessing game! I mean, sure, some folks are pretty into crystals and the like but when did a mineral ever harvest your lettuce?! Or berate you about Wahhabism? In a rather uncouth manner I began to loudly sing my version each time we did that grace and attempt to pull more people into my camp. Most sung it way they’d always done.

This is a comic I made while living collectively in North Carolina. I’d say the same concept applies to lemon bars left in the common house.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from (watching other people in) community, it’s that you rarely influence people over the long term by force and your best bet is being a good example. Folks set an incredibly kind and loving example for us in cohousing, and we’ll always remember it fondly.

By request, I was asked to record some of the other graces I learned growing up in Waldorf schools and here are 3. I’m sure my versions are slightly more bombastic and overbearing than those you’ll find on Rudolf Steiner’s Greatest Hits, but take them and share them in memory of me.

Unrelated events in North Carolina?

Evan at GuilfordIn as many weeks, two events in North Carolina that seem completely unrelated hit me hard.  The first began on Tuesday, February 3rd when this article about Guilford College came through my feed.  What I read both thrilled and disappointed me.  First, I was thrilled to learn that Steven Salaita, a man I know only through his tweets, had been invited to speak at my college.  I particularly appreciate how Steven draws succinct parallels between the history of colonialism in this country and the present reality of colonialism in the Middle East. He does so with poise and poignancy, and it has cost him a job.  Secondly, I was disappointed to hear that his talk had been moved across campus to avoid a building named for a wealthy donor who took offense to his views. The news source is not known for journalistic nuance, but I knew that the story was larger than this one event.

In my last year of college at Guilford, a school known for its peace-loving Quaker heritage, three Palestinians were jumped and viciously attacked on campus by members of the football team.  Tensions had been high everywhere then, with the Iraq War going badly and a color-coded threat system the only thing we had to show for September 11th.  Since August 2006, we’d seen several months of tense altercations and verbal threats by American students directed particularly at two Palestinian students.  Except for some slaps on the wrist, these events received little public administration recognition before the attack in January 2007. I’d worked with one of the Palestinian guys in September to write his version of an earlier altercation where he’d ended up insulted and pushed, and these are his words:

“Before [the attacker] came to us, [we] were discussing what had happened off campus and how a lot of ignorant people call us “Terrorists” and call me “Osama Bin Laden”, just because of my name and where I come from. Calling me a terrorist is an assault on my dignity, my hopes, and everything that I have worked for in order to build peace here in the United States..”

On the night of January 20th, a group of football players attacked the two Palestinian Guilford students and their visiting guest with chains and brass knuckles, hurling anti-Arab, Islamophobic slurs.  We knew at least the visitor was hospitalized with serious injuries but once again, college administration was mum and treated the incident like any other weekend-brawl. My friends were “hardly innocent victims” and the alleged perpetrators, who carried out their attack in the middle of residence hall surrounded by witnesses, deserved “due process.”  I was a member of the Guilford Judicial Board, a body working with the administration to air student grievances in sensitive judicial cases, but the Board was informed we would not hear this case (just as we had not heard any others that year). Students organized forums and vigils. The athletic department, long at odds with the naive Quaker peaceniks on campus, refused to address the issue of violence or Islamophobia on the football team.  While the school issued private judicial decisions in the case (which resulted in both victims and perpetrators leaving campus) the local DA dropped all charges, students graduated and the college moved on.  I mentioned it the college President before his retirement last year and he was as dismissive then as he’d ever been about “the Bryan incident”, as it came to be known.

Guilford appointed a new president this academic year and by all reports she’s a great person.  Since I figured she might be more open to hearing my two cents on the college’s legacy surrounding Islamophobia than her predecessor, I wrote her a letter the day of Steven’s talk telling her about “the incident” and contextualizing her recent decision.  Within just a few days, she sent back a very thoughtful and sensitive response, consistent with the prevailing Quaker attitude, that all campus voices needed to be respected and that she aimed to address the discomforts of both donors and some students by moving the talk.  I responded reiterating my key point was not the feelings of any given student or donor today but rather the legacy of Islamophobia that had never been addressed in the 8 years since a hate crime took place on campus.  On February 6th I wrote:

I witnessed a lack of public administrative response to an unprecedented hate crime exacerbate a (perhaps temporary) climate of fear on campus, but more importantly give a public impression Guilford ignores Islamophobia and the dignity of Palestinian students…I wrote to you after reading once again about the perception my college disrespects Palestinian voices in a nationally-distributed article.

I haven’t heard back.  Just a few days later, three Muslim students were killed at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now, the University of North Carolina is absolutely a different school.  The students in question were Palestinian-Americans, allegedly killed by a neighbor, not another student. (note: in an earlier version of this post I was not aware the students, often referred to as “of Syrian and Jordanian descent” were actually American citizens originally of Palestinian descent via Jordan and Syria.) Rather than never explaining motivations for the violence in 2007, the authorities attempt now to explain the killing of these students by saying the alleged killer is either insane, a lone wolf, or is double parked.  Isn’t that just code for saying there are no lessons to be learned from this tragedy?  I’m not suggesting that we necessarily could stop anyone from killing anyone, but I’ve watched willful ignorance on the part of administrators at a institution of higher learning leave an open wound fester. Tensions are high again now, with the Levant wracked again with violence of our own creation and vitriol as bad as it’s ever been.  Today one can even tweet hate.   Schools could be a place where understanding and restorative justice are modeled, not just marketed.   I watched this lesson missed once, and I fear it will be missed again.

As I sit typing, my wife is studying again beside me for her college classes.  I see her work and I remember just how much a college or university demands of their students.  Being a student of a particular school, even if you have a losing football team, inevitably shapes a student’s identity in addition to giving them an education.  A student doesn’t just spend time in class but also in meetings, talks, eating in the dining hall, with friends, defining one’s identity around an institution every day for years.  Don’t schools then have a mission to care for and protect all their students then?  Perhaps this is just because I went to a religious school, but setting aside the obvious failures of the State in this regard, don’t colleges and universities have an obligation to address not only their student’s comforts and intellectual environment, but also their values? Are these event so very different and how can we stop them from happening again?

My Grandfathers, My Privilege

The woman arrived late for Quaker worship and quickly rose, prefacing her message with: “I can assure you this is spirit led….” She spoke at length about white privilege, systematic injustice, the civil rights movement, the death of Micheal Brown and her recent visit to Ferguson. I didn’t catch the whole message because a Friend needed an urgent ride home and when I came back she was still speaking.

As I returned, I watched her through the half-light doors of the meeting, catching snippets of “reparations” and “brutality” and “mass incarceration” through the cracked doors, waiting to reenter without disturbing worship. Folks shifted in their seats and many were already disturbed.  Eventually a Friend stood and asked that the speaker allow for some silence to consider her message.  She broke into song, spoke a practiced “don’t silence me” line and sat.  I returned to my seat and mulled what I’d only half heard.  I was bugged by the break in norms, but sometimes we can use a shaking up in meeting. I agreed with parts of her message, but the delivery was rambling. At the end of meeting she confirmed “her mission,” spoke briefly with supporters and was gone.

Missing most of the actual message, my churning emotions about policing, racism and my own privilege lead to my grandfathers:

My dad’s dad was in the New Jersey State Patrol.  He’d retired by the time I came around, but his official patrolman’s portrait used to hang in the garage “to scare the rats away.” I’m certain my Pop-Pop felt what MC Killer Mike said about his father: “Being a cop must be hard. My dad was one, and never wanted any of his children to follow in his footsteps.” I knew he was sent Newark in 1967 during the riot there, but that topic was as off limits as discussion of the South Pacific beaches he’d crossed as a Marine.  Near the end of his life, I asked him if he’d ever shot anyone.  He avoided the question. I think of the words Killer Mike adds: “The police have the power of life and death in their decisions — they need to know that Americans hold them to a higher standard than these examples, of American men laying lifeless like deer.” I think of my own standards as his grandson: how can I evaluate his service, knowing so little but also fearing to know more?  Perhaps for some people it’s enough to know he served in uniform, especially as a white man, but I still want to find a lesson there.

My mom’s dad Jack was the Quaker, the one who’d gone to Europe in the war and came back resolved to changeMe and my brother with Grandpa Jack, 1987 things. While I’ve heard a little more about his military experiences, the message in our family was that everything after his return was meant to transform the violence.  He’d moved my mom and her siblings to a majority-black school district in the 70’s to sensitize them to the importance of race relations. The most vivid images of this experience have come from his kids stories though, and they describe getting beaten up by black classmates and fear. At least that’s what’s come across to me.  Somehow listening to their old vinyl of “Inner Visions” or hearing about their biracial foster daughter doesn’t really round out a picture of systematic change to me.  He’d also done American Friends Service Committee work camps around the country rebuilding poor neighborhoods. At Thanksgiving this year I found a picture of him at one of those work camps.  He’s dressed in a shabby work outfit handing a bemused looking older black woman a glass of milk on a plate. I guess.  It looks even more staged than my other grandfather’s State Patrol portrait, and gives little sense of reparations or restorative justice. What is his lesson of transformation?

I ask myself:  Didn’t all three of these people believe they were being of service?  Their methods differed, but it seems to me the self-styled agitator in meeting, the white man and his burden, and the tight-lipped officer all wanted to make things better.  What I wonder is whether their service could have been better put to use in a broader community, a beloved community. It seems like accountability was missing in all their examples, that accountability white folks are regularly reluctant to give up. If you bring a message to worship meant to change things, can you really expect anything if you leave right away?  If you followed orders you regret, can you heal or be accountable without telling anyone what happened?  If you wanted to transform pain and violence, can you succeed without accountability to those you “serve”?

Adoration and Authority

I spent a few days this last week in the Alps with members of my wife Federica’s Catholic community, the Pope John XXIII Association (APGXXIII), on a spiritual retreat.  We stayed in a beautiful hotel built for disabled teens by the community founder, Don Oreste Benzi, who called Catholics to serve the poor and marginalized as a basis of their spiritual discipline.  I’ve had a few other experiences with “the Community” in my various visits here (one described here) and even Italian Quakers, but this was my first real opportunity for corporate intercultural, interreligious dialogue in this place I may one day call home.  (Of course I’ve also only just reached a capacity in Italian to make this possible. Even now, a fail-safe uncomprehending but interested smile helps fill in the inevitable lulls. )

The format of this retreat was the first thing to strike me as different.  I was blessed to attend my first New Year’s Silent Retreat hosted by Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting this January, and I suppose I had expected a similar approach here.  When Quakers talk about silence, we really mean silent.  This spiritual retreat last week, called a “desert”, was decidedly more “reflective.”  While Federica assures me there are more silent “desert” experiences organized by the APGXXIII community, I found the stereotypical boisterous Catholic milieu natural considering the communal, Mediterranean sensitivities of the faithful here. An interesting exception is the rite of  “Adoration”, in which gathered worshippers pray or sit silently in somewhat improvisational fashion before the consecrated host.  The Eucharist is truly the manifest Christ as the focus of Adoration, in much the same way we Friends seek and occasionally transmogrify Him invisibly in worship.   For someone unused to Catholicism’s highly organized worship, good-natured arguments on the liturgical calendar, and tactile sensibilities, Adoration made me feel suddenly at home and also strangely uneasy. Whenever someone sang or vocalized a prayer during Adoration, I’d think “Ok now, HERE’S where we get back into the program,”  or as silent seconds turned to minutes I’d ask myself “Can I really settle in now?”

A nightlong vigil before the host offered me the opportunity to pray in complete silence, before the Christ both within and without, unconcerned with possible interruptions.  Somehow this felt sheltered, contrived.  It made me think of the folks at meeting who rush to turn off the coffee pot if someone accidentally tries to turn it on before worship.  Isn’t Christ always present and available to us, regardless of outward distractions?

Another fascinating exercise at this desert where discussions by the priest on aspects of this year’s community theme of “obedience.”  This is definitely a term we Friends struggle with, as do the fairly radical members of this community.  Obedience is considered not just obedience to outward authorities within the Church, but obedience to the needs of the poor, the Jesus’ call to action, to individual leadings and vocation.   I did find the discussion on obedience to outward authority one of the most interesting, especially as the key thing Friends chose to renounce when we went our separate way.  The priest spoke about how we are called to challenge our authorities within the faith, fervently and clearly, but that once a decision has been made by those above us in the Church we are bound to respect and abide by it.  We could be surprised or even confused by the result.  He used the example of how when St. Francis was inspired to form a new order, he began to put the pieces in place but quickly went to Rome to ask for the Pope’s blessing.  Apparently there is a famous Italian film in which St. Francis is depicted approaching the Pope at the time, known as corrupt and dripping in gold and jewels.  The gathered priests and cardinals turn up their noses at the ragged, dirty monk as he approaches the throne.  Though he had prepared a lengthy appeal to ask for the Pope’s approval to form this new order, upon approaching His Holiness he threw all caution to the wind and ad-libbed a passionate but humble request to re-imagine the Church’s calling.  The rest is history, though the key part of this story for the gathered community members was the Divine inspiration that moved the apparent monolith of Church Authority.  I mused to myself:  What if we Quakers tried to make another visit to the Vatican, to see if our approach to things could be recognized by St. Francis’ namesake?