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?

 

 

 

 

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”?

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?

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.

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Reflections for staying open this week: Watching salmon return to spawn
I had the opportunity to hear Ben Pink Dandelion speak last weekend at North Seattle Friends Church. His topic was early Friends in the context of Christian theology. One of the points I particularly came away with was not exactly new, but somehow it hit me differently.

While most Christian theology is based on creating a church to wait for end times, Quakers built their church on the premise end times were upon us. With unmitigated, universal access to God through internal revelation, the only thing standing in our way from salvation was our will. Other Churches built a complex series of rituals, expectations and doctrine required for believers to “hold out” on evil, but Quakers really seemed to think if we overcame our will anyone could be saved. Right away and forever. In the question and answer period, someone asked Ben about his own personal spiritual journey, “had he ‘come up through the flaming sword’?” In his answer, he shared that he had had mystical experiences but (and I paraphrase) he said he had not had the kind of unequivocal experience that kept him completely dedicated to his spiritual path. Compared to early Friend’s absolute certainty, he felt doubts at times.

The Screwtape Letters reinforced for me that obvious blunders or questioning one’s faith may not really be what evil is all about. If we are offered salvation in the here and now, is it making the occasional mistake that condemns us or does slow, grinding indifference consume our hope of ever finding inward salvation? The fear of making any mistake could be amplified if Jesus is waiting right around the corner, for sure. But Lewis mentions in my edition’s introduction that he imagines a tedious, bureaucratic and ultimately hollow hell rather than a spectacularly gruesome inferno. Wouldn’t the path to a place like that look tedious, detached? Throughout the book, his protagonist dwells on the subtle deviations overlooked by his underling on a quest for total corruption. Is it a waiting Christ we should worry about, or a demon on our back? How common is total corruption really? Like Ben described, isn’t it more typical to trip up here and there? How do we really find the unshakable certainty early Friends said they had and, if we cannot, how do we pick ourselves up rather than succumb to the status quo?

It’s my opinion neither early Friends nor any really faithful person can have unshakable faith. When Friends got around to writing their journals late in life, they had the benefit of hindsight to cast their missteps in the context of deeper spiritual wrestling. They kept coming back for more. If we are to take evil seriously, as Lewis suggests, we cannot think of it as an obvious corrupter but instead as a series of subtle justifications that divert us from our common purpose. It is a slowly built cynicism. If we can keep ourselves open, committed, eyes on the prize, I sense we have a good chance of escaping some demonic dinner plate.

Another reflection: Mt. Rainier’s shadow on the morning sky

Book Review: “Goatwalking” by Jim Corbett

I will admit that the title and cover of “Goatwalking” drew me in.  I had only a vague memory of the term “sanctuary” that kept me reading the jacket.  I was truly fascinated when I picked up the book and read in earnest. 

Jim Corbett’s narrative style appeals to me: he waxes philosophical with just the right mixture of fantastic imagery (he loves Quixote) and cowboy anecdotes.  He doesn’t jump right into his work with the Sanctuary movement, for which he is (in)famous, till late in the book.   “Goatwalking” is really a series of essays and excerpts from his journals, woven into a rationale for returning to nomadic lifestyles as a gateway to gospel order. Jim talks about his evolution as a goatherder learning to reconnect with his faith and surroundings, complete with fascinating information about goatherding and how following flocks is communing with our Biblical ancestors.  Many intellectuals could have left it there, but he jumps then into talking about how his herding through the Southwestern deserts eventually helped him build an underground railroad for central American refugees as they sought asylum in the US. As I look back on my reading, it’s almost a intellectual leap to link these ideas but the logic flowed naturally as I read. 

I can tell from his work that Jim was a Friend and a truly dedicated man. He saw way open to build an interfaith movement to exploit loopholes in US immigration law as US sponsored death squads were displacing thousands of people in El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Goats fade in prominence as he describes the huge amount of organizing he did in border communities in the 1980’s, building networks of supportive churches, handing out literature, and eventually standing trial for his work.  “Goatwalking” was published in the early 90’s, as his trial had wrapped up and he clear was reflecting on the fruits of his work.  He died in 2001, I was disappointed to learn.

Shortly after I returned to Olympia about 5 years ago, ICE had been raiding local communities to arrest immigrants and anti-war veterans were being harassed for their military resistance in protests.  In that context, a coalition of local groups joined up to draft a proposal for the Olympia City Council, designating Olympia a “Sanctuary City” for immigrants and war resisters regardless of their legal status with the US government.  A lot of work went into planning the proposal, which we knew would largely be symbolic but that we hoped would pave the way for some cross-movement building.  The day that we hoped to hand in the proposal, organizers held a rally and march downtown that was meant to raise up the issue.  During the march, some folks took it upon themselves to throw bricks through bank windows which is what made the paper.  Before long, the sanctuary proposal was completely discredited and in short order so was the City council (for other reasons)

This experience came back to me as I read Jim’s book, thinking about how much work it takes to organize communities and movements.  And not all work is speaking truth to the authorities, because sometimes they’re caught up in their own red tape.  Sometime the work is within, nourishing oneself on goat’s milk (which apparently is enough to keep you alive in the desert) and spiritual discipline.  I’m sorry that I never got to meet Jim Corbett in person, but I’m curious to learn more about the movement he helped build

 

Book Review: Testament of Devotion

Testament of Devotion, a collection of essays and writings by Thomas Kelly, was one of those books I was supposed to be closely reading in college in my Quaker spirituality course. The class took up readings in chronological order from the beginning of Quakerism. I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric of George Fox, underwhelmed by John Woolman’s play-by-play self flagellation and generally lost in Friend’s writings over the last 300 years by the time we got to Thomas Kelly somewhere near the end. Where was the relevance to Quakerism now? Sure, George Fox ran around organizing Quakerism and building the meeting structure still practiced today, but his writing was strident and vindictive. John Woolman seemed like the ultimate self-righteous wet blanket, worrying about every step he took and dwelling for pages and pages on painfully mundane decisions. Haven’t we seen enough of this? Was this really what Quakerism has always been about?

I was hungry for action and heroes at that point in my life. I wanted cure-all solutions, charismatic leadership. Quakerism was fading into obscurity and we needed answers. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be a leader, but I was sure it involved some amount of fast, sensuous Light trippin’: “critical, acid, sharper than a two edged sword” as Thomas Kelly says (I notice now, almost 10 years later). Now that I read Thomas Kelly again I’m struck that despite his earnestness which lost me the first time around, he’s clearly the kind of guy whose bliss was infectious. He may use the word “lo”, but “the sense of Presence!” is woven into every part of what he’s saying. He’s sharing his mystical amazement and salvation. He LOVED the Light, man. Like my brother.

My brother is also a good Quaker, and he occasionally tries to impress on me the dire state of Quakerism in way that pushes my John Woolman button (hand-dyed, locally sourced). But then I step away and I remember that he also loves the hell out of obscure Brazilian music, lobsters and making Quakerism more cool for young people (among other things). How can I forget that? Because I’m still caught up on some of my old notions of leadership. I’m slowly learning that people who make genuinely horizontal Way in community are first really genuinely themselves. Sometimes that means you appreciate them occasionally from a distance and don’t want to hang out with them, like Fox or Woolman. But my brother and Thomas Kelly, they are certainly not “sobersides Quakers who seem to live on a diet of spiritual persimmons”. They are those rare kind of people who are truly dedicated and unobtrusively, appealingly, fired up.While I may not always hear what they have to say the first time, when I get it I’ll follow their bliss.

Rest in peace

I mentioned the Freedom Flotilla in my last post, before anyone who wasn’t interested in Israel or Palestine or justice was paying much attention to it.  In my last days in Turkey, as I’m sure most people know by now, Israel attacked the Turkish ship in the flotilla and killed nine Turkish activists on board, the youngest of whom was a 19 year old high school student.  Turks, needless to say, were furious, and in a totally different way than my shrill liberal internet community.

On the bus to the beautiful town of Amasra the night before the attack, I read the proud account in a Islamist newspaper of some British guys’ conversion to Islam while aboard the flotilla.  They lingered on the details and his rather inarticulate explanation of his convincement. “Well, I thought a lot about it and it seemed like the thing I wanted to do” (as best I could translate from Turkish) An early victory!

Turks, in my general experience, are terribly fatalistic.   I’ll try to justify that sweepingly general statement in the context of this event.  People were pissed, sure.  People did not see any reason, as a confirmed pacifist such as myself deigned suggest, why the activists on board shouldn’t have tried to kick the shit out of soldiers landing on their boat at 4 in the morning because……why should they? Weren’t they going to get shot at and killed anyway?  Didn’t they realize this was probably, in some ways, the most spectacular outcome they could hope for out of their whole hopeless effort?  Ok, maybe that’s a bit of overkill, but I’m shocked that despite tremendous effort on the part of the activists, and complete tacit approval of their cause in the media, in my conversations with friends, etc. NOBODY seemed to think their efforts nor their horrible deaths would change much.  How depressing.

At some point in the last few months, mom recounted a story of one of the conversations she had had with a Turkish friend. They were talking about death, and the best ways to go.  Mom’s friend suggested that, for a Turk, the best way to go was in a blaze of glory, ideally in violent defeat.  Mom’s look as she recounted the story told me she shared my desire for a quiet, peaceful death after a sense of glorious accomplishment, concluded nonviolently years earlier.   Has this got something to do with Turkey’s cultural connections to Islam, often portrayed as bloodthirsty and harsh?  Maybe our disconnect comes from naive Western optimism that believes results come from a stoic protestant work ethic?  Perhaps it’s about a sense of personal fulfillment and differing cultural myths of sacrifice? Regardless, it is clear in the bloodthirsty, Western-sponsored and USA-protestant-approved actions of Israel on Monday that the real problem is not culture, religion, whatever.  The problem is national pride. Nation is identifying so heavily with a collectively-enforced wrong headed hammer that everything looks like a nail.  Those Turks were killed because Israel didn’t want egg on its face for it’s unjust blockade of Gaza.  Life is so cheap in the borders we build around ourselves.  My only hope is that those folks that died felt they went out in the way they wanted.  May they rest in peace, and may their work not be in vane.

Happy International Women’s Day

I was quizzed first thing this morning about what day it was and what that meant to me. Blank stare. Bad answer. All three of the Italians in the apartment, including the man, gave me shameful glances.

Sitting in traffic later in the day for the big rally in the square downtown, I realized just how out of the loop I am. Again. As I wondered through the throng, backpacked and blond, as covered and uncovered women waved banners and took pictures I felt a lot of gratitude for being along for the ride. Later, in our Friends gathering, a local matriarch spoke passionately about her experience of our faith and apologized profusely for questioning how we have been involved over the years.