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?

 

Ezra’s house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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