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 considering 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 midwest US 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 disassociative 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. I didn’t really need to.  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 eventually 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 highschool 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 policy in general 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 athletics 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 quad, 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 associated Quakerism now 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 sand 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 strangle 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, 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 or if are 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 were 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 law and order. 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 on by states like 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 the 1970s. 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.

Queries:

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?

 

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?

 

 

 

 

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?

Watching the World Cup in Castel Volturno

This is an unpublished post edited from a first draft I wrote in 2010 while living in Italy during the World Cup.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on the situation of immigrants here, especially as Europe experiences deep economic crisis and Italian xenophobia is ever-present and particular poignant for me as a privileged outsider.  We are currently hosting an intern from Burkina Faso at the moment at the farm, and his occasional comments about the challenge of living here, as well as the strange position I’ve been thrust into as his kind of supervisor, really reminds me of this experience a few years back:

Though I couldn’t be considered a real soccer (sports) fan in any respect, I’ve always really enjoyed the World Cup.  Teams from all over the world, different playing styles, strange loyalties.  I’m into it, and at least the last three tournaments have punctuated interesting moments in my life, times when I’ve been involved in crazy situations on the brink of entering new ones.  I sense this might be another and when I’m far away from home I feel at least 6 times more patriotic.

We all know about Italians and football, though I’ve been hanging out around a crowd who don’t really care much for it.  They care enough to disparage the US and its poor sporting reputation, but as the former champions eliminated in the first round I got the last laugh on that one this time.

I got to watch us sputter and go out on Saturday night surrounded by 200 Ghanians [Ghana eliminated the US 2-1 in overtime].  Now, to be fair, I don’t know if every man was from Ghana.[my privilege speaking again] I certainly did not identify myself as a US fan hoping to get a feel from the crowd.  Fede and I were visiting a town in the South of Italy, near Naples, called Castel Volturno.  Mention its name (or better yet, your travel plans there) to most Italians and you will get  post-Katrina New Orleans tooth sucking reactions.  It’s considered a lawless, Mafia-controlled toxic waste dump full of illegal immigrants.  Many immigrants come to the semi-apocalyptic resort town because of its reputation for extra-governmental legal systems, empty houses built as tax shelters and the like.  One could consider this either a draw or the result of being turned away at every other turn.

While we were there before the game, I spoke with some of the guys who described their three day trips from Libya across the sea to Sicily, only to be picked up and sent to camps called CPTs.  They’re held at the camps for various lengths of time until they’re just dumped, without any legal status, into the Italian wilds.  That’s how it’s been described to me.  Even for those not living in Castel Volturno, life as black or Arab immigrant seems very tough here.  Right in Federica’s valley near Forli there are a huge number of immigrants working low-wage jobs at the local chicken factory.  Even though this seems like a country paradise to me with white skin and easy legal status, most immigrants are clearly very marginalized and isolated here.  No halal butchers posting their wares.  No visible immigrant support center. (I found it by accident while making a visit to the local provincial offices.  One part time, and very kind, Italian women works there.)

As the World Cup game wound down and the US was clearly not going to win, the crowd started to slowly disperse. Night fell and the parking lot with a projector screen set up in it became more empty every time I looked around.  By the time the game was over, the subdued celebrations were only obvious for a few minutes before folks left entirely.   I was struck by how I might have reacted as a fair weather fan if we’d won.

Italian TV

After several visits to Italy and confirmation that I have not said anything about this before, I must comment briefly on the absurdity of Italian TV.  In order to be a truly informed anthropologist I should have watched more TV in the States before arriving in Italy but in a certain way, without comparison, I am shocked all the more by what I see here.

One of the things that is always interesting is to watch how folks outside the US view tragedies at home.  The recent marathon tragedy is an example.  Just like in 2001, (and for some reason the many horrible events that have taken place in the US while I’ve been abroad), media here assumes that whoever carries out a violent act against the US will inevitably meet a quick and violent end.  It’s a forgone conclusion, and so there is little hysteria about manhunts, fair trials, ethnicities of perpetrators, etc. which is a big story for crimes here. (It’s very interesting when the two worlds collide, like in the case of the girl from Seattle acquitted but by Italian popular opinion guilty of killing her roommate.) It’s not to say these stories don’t get a lot of airtime, but it seems like an unspoken understanding the US has lots of enemies  but there’s always a bloody end for anyone who does us wrong.  It’s an interesting perspective, and one I imagine we lose as folks cry out for blood after terrible tragedies.  I don’t condone the violence of terrorists or the State or State terrorism, but what can we expect to gain from this cycle of violence?

On a completely different other side of things is being slightly horrified by “entertainment TV”.  In Italy there is the universally recognized role of the velina, or sidekick showgirl, who dances between commercial breaks and makes seductive passes at the show hosts but never speaks.  They are particularly famous on one show a news parody program that aims to humiliate various personalities in the news, and apparently women try out across Italy to become the following season’s velina.   I knew I was living in a truly bizzare media driven world when I watched these women pole dance to Macklemore’s single “Thrift Shop” the other day. I can remember the first time I heard “My Oh My” on Live from I-5 hosted by DJ Luvva J as he made a shout out to a young MC who’d graduated from Evergreen.  The crazy juxtapositions are everywhere:  Show hosts here often hawk all type of products during the commercial breaks of their very same show, yet even so it was pretty wild to watch the host of a “Who wants to be a millionaire?”-style show ask a question about porn star celebrity weddings just seconds before cutting to a commercial break where he pitches a new child car seat.

A Californian Vision

It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco

I reconciled myself to having a different attitude about California about 5 years ago, when I drove my newly purchased 1982 Yamaha Vision to San Francisco from Olympia. At the time, my attitude about California was that it seemed shallow and consumer-driven. Contempt prior to investigation.  It was an interesting period for me, right about the era I began this blog in preparation for a trip to Palestine and my heart warmed a little in the sunshine and landscape I saw.  I was struggling on a personal level, trying to figure out my life purpose, and the motorcycle was “witness” to that period in ways I’m still only just understanding.

I sold the Vision as I reached the Bay to an old friend living in the hills of Western Sonoma County. My friend Frank was looking for just that kind of motorcycle, and at the time I didn’t feel so attached or appreciative of it.  Almost 5 years later, he passed away unexpectedly recently and at his memorial his family suggested I come back to pick up the bike. He was such a kind man, and his love of mechanics (especially marginal ones) meant a lot to me as I thought about him and that vehicle.  As Federica and I prepare to travel to Italy for 5 months and my job wound down, we had some time to make a visit.  I didn’t know what condition the motorcycle was now in, but regardless our main interest was taking a kind of honeymoon and visiting our many friends (grieving, recently moved, old and new) down there.  If all went well, we’d motor home on the bike along Highway 1 as our return trip.

3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one's are minutes old.
3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one’s are minutes old.

We have spent the last two weeks wandering San Francisco’s Mission district full of murals and encroaching gentrification, burning a new friend’s artwork on the beach with her for a film project, traveling into the hills to live entirely off the grid, catching rides all over backcountry roads, and connecting with the restorative power of community.  We have not been riding a motorcycle. While Persephone, as I now remember I called her, may one day ride again, at the moment she will bask (languish?) a bit longer in the warm Californian sun.  She now holds a more complete story of origin and a myth for me, as a point of reference in the last 5 formative years of my life.   We did a little ceremony at the ranch to appreciate the tools in our lives for the service they provide us, and I reflected on how a tool can serve a purpose we didn’t plan for it at all.  Persephone now carries a little bit of Frank for me and she’s fired inspiration and driven me places without even starting to leave the driveway.

 

Easter

I’ve decided I really enjoy places that show their seasons. Being from the Northwest, which does have distinct seasons but doesn’t always display them nicely, the dormant/cold to lush/warm cycle I first discovered in North Carolina has become a spiritual ritual for me. I travel so much I miss it by default but this year has been awesome.

I arrived in Italy this time from the cold in Washington, only to find an even colder and barer landscape. Everyone was hunkered down for the winter and by arriving in January I almost feel like I disturbed their hibernation. In the Villagio della Gioia, we shuffled through the mud because we had too. Arriving in Israel I could see they were just breaking free of winter, the tail ends of rain for them brought another meter of snow in Italy I missed completely.

Now I come back and it’s Gorgeous. Spring is gorgeous. Villafranca, the area around the villagio, is full of orchards now in bloom. Cherries and apples and many things I don’t recognize. One of my favorite things is to see the pruned branches blooming in the grass below the riot of blossoms above. It reminds me of the image of Christ, cut from humanity but still with us in spirit, expending all His earthly energy in Love.

I ate rabbit for an easter meal today. It’s part of a balanced Romangolo diet; they think more about doves than rabbits at this time of year. I enjoyed it, symbolism be damned.

Harder to Stay than I thought

It’s not really slowed down at all here. We’ve just gotten back from a 4 day trip to Torino and surrounding areas for a series of talks. It’s a beautiful part of Italy I rarely thought about before the Olympics were here a few years back. I guess it’s been 4 years and I’m not even paying attention to the ones going on right now

There’s plenty to think about.  It’s not as easy as I thought to just wander the earth.  Turns out there is a wave of anti-immigration sentiment in this country and my place here, as blessed as I am, is challenged as a result.   There’s signs of  changing demographics all around.  Just up the road from Fede’s family’s farm, the little town of Galeata has the largest percentage of immigrants as it’s total population in all of Italy. It’s not big and not terribly strange to me as person raised in the nation of immigrants but I can tell people aren’t really advertising their diversity.   There’s folks from West Africa, Eastern Europe, Morocco and Northern Africa.  They’ve come to do much of the same work that immigrants do in the US.  Cleaning houses, manual labor, etc.  The folks up the road mostly work in a huge chicken processing plant. 

Many Italians appear to be freaking out about this.  Especially in this conservative, white Northern part of the country, many figures in politics are capitalizing on the age-old fear of change to gain political points.  The Lega Nord, one of the most extreme right parties (who flesh out the radical fringe of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition) are reportedly famous for open support of fascism and accusations that immigrants are subhuman.  These guys have proposed succeeding from poorer, darker Southern Italy even.   

I come into this picture as a small drop in the ‘extracommunitarian’ unEuropean wave.  New legislation and widespread mistrust have made it harder and harder to get a visa to stay here.   After visiting office after office, talking to person after person who half-knows a part of increasing net of red tape, I’m really feeling a lot of sympathy for the people who really want to come here just to feed their families.  I’m white.  I’ve got options.  But if I want to stay here I have to go through a whole series of hoops that could take years.  I’d like to try but I can’t even apply from inside the country I’m learning.   What about all the other folks just looking for a break?  This country’s riches, like my own, are built on the backs of the poor. 

To add insult to injury, those folks that DO make it here, like those in the US, are increasingly subject to really bald racism.  Take this sign we came across in one of the little villages we spoke in yesterday.

We met with folks from this town and asked what they thought about their mayor posting signs like this at every entrance to their village.  They all seemed to be appalled, but apparently it’s been years they’ve been up and they’re still there. 

I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of my addition to this sign, but it felt like a bit of a hopeless gesture on my part.  Shame on them.

Talking Terra Santa

“But what about the yellers?” It was a question I asked myself as much as Fede before her last speaking engagement.  A regular part of speaking publically about the Middle East, in my experience, is dealing with the various crackpots, quarrelers and raging idealogues poised with attacks for every word you say.

Realizing  peace is about educating people though, OD volunteers commonly spend much of their “time off” in country speaking to as many people as possible about their work.  I’ve attended 2 of these speeches now, not just to provide logistical support but also for the cultural comparison of seeing how Italians react to what they see.

It’s been interesting.  The first speech was in the Northern part of the province, Ferrara, incidentally scheduled for the same day as the major blizzard that swept across here in strange patches.  As we made our way there through a thick blanket of snow, we heard that “the buses” bringing her audience we coming anyway.  Buses?  Whaaa?  Upon arriving we found very little snow but  a whole gymful of kids of all ages playing games.  Apparently this was some kind of Catholic Youth Day with “Peace” as its theme.  Fede had originally been prepped for a talk with a “small group of middle schoolers.”  What it actually ended up being was 15 minutes with the 80 or so kids whose buses actually arrived. Who knows what effect the pictures of dead animals and nonviolent resistance had on them.

Yesterday night was the second outing. We wound our way up into the hills not far away to stop in a charming little village along a medieval wall.  The venue was “The Peacock Tree”, a little old school cafe that hosts leftish gatherings, nonviolence discussions, and poetry readings in the local dialect, Romagnolo. (Selections from Feb lineup:  “Chickenlegs”-Italians do rockabilly/surf “Waltzing Mathilda”- Italians do Irish[?] Man talks about Fungi and climate change, etc)  The mix of down-home cultural revival and political consciousness was cool, surrounded by antique furnishings, posters of Native American chiefs and the various quotes attributed to them translated into Italian, and birdcalls from what must have been quite an aviary upstairs.

Now, the yellers.  They were there yesterday, though not amongst the kids the other day.  It’s amazing to me that even when someone takes pains to explain that their efforts are really not explicitly political, that they only support nonviolence, and that they really are not there to offer any conclusive answers on anything, people still demand answers on politics, violence, and general conclusions for everything.

Overall the event was charming and fun.  I should have asked how to say “yeller” in Romagnolo though.

So cold, so cold

It’s been really really cold all the time. Until today.

Up until today, I had felt a little duped by this whole Mediterranean promise. Where were all the pleasant Italian moments basking in the long rays of sunshine? So it’s wintertime, but at least a coffee on the terrace during a mild january sunset? I had my first one today…. I shouldn’t complain though, all the sweeter for the waiting.
Especially after a blizzard shutdown the freeway on sunday and everybody had a little freakout.  (They stopped the entire 3 lanes of traffic and I waited for an hour for one, count him one, policeman to ask me if I was carrying chains on board.  Give me liberty or give me death!) 

The hard dirt that is everywhere in the village is now muddy and ubiquitous.  I’ve prepared some fruit trees for planting.  Cherries, apricots, mandarins!  so there’s promise of spring!  I’m ready! 

I’ve discovered a little side road that goes out to the river that runs behind my house about  a kilometer off.  Today I took a little gaggle of the village children on an ‘english walk’ to the river, theoretically conversing exclusively in english.   We sang the ‘you smell like a monkey’ version of the birthday song and crushed melting ice with our muddy boots.  good times.