My Grandfathers, My Privilege

The woman arrived late for 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.

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 return without disturbing worship. Clearly as folks shifted in their seats 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 recently described 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 deployed to 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, everything after was meant to transform that 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 though, and they describe getting beaten up by black classmates and fear. He’d 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 the 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 prophet, 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 served in a broader community, a beloved community. 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”?

My Meeting’s Listserve

My meeting has listserve.  Aside from the obvious lack of intimacy using this kind of communication (more on that later), I’ve been reflecting recently about how or whether listserves serve Quaker process.  For many years, Olympia Monthly Meeting has had a practice of going around the room after worship to introduce ourselves, to allow for “afterthoughts”, or to share announcements “pertinent to the life of the meeting”.  This last category is very broad, and can really say a lot about us as a community.   I sense when we are more or less on the same page as a community when I hear these announcements and gauge reactions, just like how a rich worship may spill into more afterthoughts as spirit moving among us stirs our collective pot. After worship we rise, drink weak coffee and follow up with those who shared things that touched us.

Enter the listserve.  What gets posted on the listserve for the 166 hours we’re not at meeting may or may not have much to do with things that are even mentioned during announcements.  From the privacy of our homes or phones, we post event invitations (progressive, social-justicey or bird-on-it as a rule), ride requests and offers, budget updates, draft business meeting minutes, poetry, prayer requests, product promotions, final logistics for Quaker events already posted in the newsletter.  Sometimes, like when a member is sick and the community comes to their aid during the week, message threads begin that provide helpful updates or instructions and respond to everyone’s concern for that person. Other times threads begin unintentionally when a general request or even a specific personal appeal is replied to en mass to the whole list. It is maddening to include your email address in a mass request very clearly requesting individual RSVPs only to get a crazy avalanche of dozens of cross-posted replies and running commentary irrelevant to 90% of the viewers in response. Many times folks will defend a unilateral decision about something in meeting by saying “well, I posted it to the listeserve” (though obviously not everyone is on there and for clear reasons many have no interest in joining) Typically if something very serious or unexpected occurs, like a death in the community,  somehow we know that it’s better to set up a phone tree to let folks know.

In anthropology  it is commonly understood that most rules are learned when they are broken.  Unspoken boundaries certainly exist on the listserve, but as far as I know we have never made any attempt to establish real guidelines.  “Great!” you say “isn’t that truly uninhibited continuing revelation at work?” Besides the obvious inconveniences, I’m not so sure. Last year when some nitty gritty exchanges regarding an open conflict in the meeting were mistakenly posted to the whole list, the fallout was intense. The sender was publicly admonished for their mistake in meeting (to the shocked surprise of a whole segment of the community not on the list), they apologized for saying something they never would have said  if they’d known it would be shared publicly ( “I would have of course not doffed my hat to Thee privately”), and our take away was that this Friend had blown it.  This individual shouldered disproportionate responsibility and we missed an opportunity for growth as a community because of the two Golden Rules of Quaker Club: #1 There are no rules in Quaker Club. #2 You do not talk about Quaker Club. We recently hosted a Friend come to talk about Eldering who challenged these rules of (liberal) Quakerism in his own words.  “How we can we hold people accountable as a community if we are not clear about our boundaries or rules?” He pushed us and we DO have rules and boundaries.  We emperil ourselves more seriously if we not only deny we have rules but also tacitly discourage discussions that seem to question “they way we do things.”  This is of course not a new discussion for the online convergent Friends community.

I think the listserve was created with the best of intentions, but as a tool in practice it invariably reflects some of our biggest blind spots. I would also challenge the digital Quaker community to consider this as an extension of a bigger discussion about elective use of technology within Quaker meetings.  We must also ask ourselves:  What might come of more and more of our communication taking place in this sterile, impersonal format, especially considering hangups that exist already in our bricks and mortar community?  Occasionally I suspect folks post things to the list just to provoke a response out of their community that sits silently for much of its time together.  Unencumbered by the expectation to share with Holy inspiration, we cast our thoughts into the Olympia Monthly Meeting corner of the vast digital abyss, hoping  our request for feedback on meeting minutes provokes an invite to a butter churning workshop.