by Jocelyn Dowling
The last weekend in March I had the honor to act as a Friendly Adult Presence (FAP) at the PYM Youth Friends Gathering at Greene Street Meeting in Germantown, Philadelphia. When I was in high school I was active in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends community and it truly changed my life. Now, as I returned to a YF community as an adult, I was reminded of the power and beauty of the Young Friends community.
I was not raised Quaker, but started to attend Quaker sleep away camp when I was 10 years old. Once I was too old to be a camper I started to attend Young Friend Gathering during the year as a way to see my camp friends more often. But YF gathering became an important part of my life: it was a loving community that felt comfortable and welcoming, unlike the everyday social scene of the public school environment. It was the only place I felt like I could be myself and that people truly loved me for who I was.
On Saturday night I accompanied the YF group through the rain to the historic Arch Street meeting to attend the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s annual William Penn Lecture. The speaker was QVS’s very own Christina Repoley and her speech was entitled “Prophetic Service as Formation and Transformation.” Christina spoke of the calling she had to establish Quaker Voluntary Service and of Quakers’ legacy of service work with American Friends Service Committee’s workcamps.
I sat in the audience listening to Christina share stories that resonated with my own experience as a young Quaker. But it was Christina’s mention of prophetic service that struck a chord with me – when she said that “prophetic service is not just about serving others, or operating out of a set of values, but it is about offering yourself fully, it is about building relationships, and it is about recognizing your own brokenness as you meet the brokenness in the world and in others. It comes from a place of worship, integrating the inward and the outward, prayer and action.”
I have struggled with the idea of service for a long time. Service work has been a form of experiential learning and direct action for me but it always seems to get tangled in ideas of privilege, guilt, patriarchy, and temporary relief to systematic oppression. But Christina’s reference to “brokenness” as part of prophetic service brought clarity and affirmation to this service tornado that was whirling around in my brain. I recognize that my role in service can be a Band-Aid of privilege and guilt that is patching up another person’s suffering that is a result of a legacy of inequality. But can that band-aid be my brokenness? This adhesive bandage that is used to cover-up and injuries, with the theory that it will help heal, when in actuality it just keeps people from seeing or reminding us of a discolored and damaged imperfection. I think hiding our imperfection, hiding our brokenness, does not allow for any action to prevent damage or to watch a transformation take place, and even avert us from taking pride in our ability to both heal and change.
Collective brokenness within Quakerism seems to be a historic theme. I experienced this brokenness in my senior year of high school, when the collective soul of BYM Young Friends experienced a great tragedy. Our former Youth Programs Coordinator, Tom Fox, made the decision to resign his position and join the Christian Peacemakers team in Iraq. Tom would write letters to the YF community, filled with powerful stories of his experience in a war zone. On November 26, 2005 Tom and 3 other CPT members were taken hostage by a terrorist group known as Swords of Righteousness Brigade. Four months later on March 10, 2006 Tom’s body was found dead on a garbage heap in Baghdad, shot through the head and chest.
The night I got word of Tom’s Death I was on the phone all night crying with other young Quaker from different parts of Maryland, DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Over the course of 2 months I attended 5 different memorial services for Tom. This time, there were no Band-Aids. Our collective brokenness was exposed and painful. Tom’s death was how I directly experienced the War in Iraq as a liberal middle-class teen. I always complained about the cracks in the US’s social system but this was my personal witness to how our nation’s broken system to solve conflicts could affect me and my community. To quote the poet Rumi, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Out of our collective brokenness came stories, stories that brought so much light and love to the Young Friends community. Stories of Tom’s legacy and stories that proved the strength and resiliency of the Young Friends community.
My most clear and significant memory of Tom was on the Sunday morning of my first YF gathering. I was sweeping up the meeting room of my home meeting, Adelphi MM, and Tom approached me; he said “Jossie, you have been very helpful this weekend and I want you to know that I think you will go very far in life.” The sentiment that Tom shared with me is exactly how I now feel about the members of the current Young Friend community. I see so many wonderful and promising attributes in all of them. Their love for one another as well as their compassion for the world reassures me about the future of Quakerism. I love talking to them about their ideas and what they foresee in their future. The best part of it is that I know that when that inevitable experience of brokenness comes along, it will make them stronger and they will continue to grow as beautiful, wise and resilient FRIENDS.
To watch Christina’s Lecture, follow this link:
“Oh the weather outside is frightful,” S. sung cheerfully as the snow drifting down beyond grated windows began to fall with more urgency. “But the fire is so delightful…” A few guys sprawled out in lightweight plastic chairs began to snap their fingers along with her. “And since we’ve no place to go—” A pause, as the truth of the words sat in the air, then laughter. “Nowhere to go,” agreed one participant, chuckling, as S. belted out the last “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”
The moment’s awkwardness, humor, and poignancy resembled many others moments that weekend, as Fairleigh, Maire, Talia, and I made our way through the Quaker-influenced Alternatives to Violence Program. The workshop leverages participants’ own experiences and ideas to examine and transform the ways in which they respond to injustice, prejudice, frustration, and violence. AVP workshops are held in schools, community groups, and prisons. Our workshop took place in Patuxent prison in Maryland and included ten “inside” (currently incarcerated) guys, three inside facilitators, two outside facilitators, and the four of us QVSers.
I found it fascinating to watch the inside/outside dynamics play out in the workshop. Our group was significantly divided – most obviously by race and gender, but also by education and other markers of privilege – yet somehow, these differences were harnessed to enhance, rather than frustrate or confuse, our discussions of nonviolence. We developed a sort of symbiotic learning relationship over the course of the weekend, in which the differences between us multiplied power of the experience.
On the one hand, our outside presence helped make the workshop possible. In a pragmatic sense, the authority of outside leaders was needed to open the doors of the rec room and obtain permission for the inside guys to gather. But our participation also opened metaphorical doors: a few of the guys told us that when the listeners were outsiders, they could be more open with their feelings and could bring forth and affirm the best parts of themselves. We were neither the typical inside audience who they had to impress with their toughness, nor the typical, prejudiced audience outside the prison to whom they were forced to prove their human worth. We were, as much as possible, listeners and collaborators.
Conversely, doing the workshop in a prison and in the company of prisoners was for me (and I think the other QVSers as well) the kind of world-warping perspective-bending culture shock experience that allows for maximum learning and growth. I was floored by the clarity and thoughtfulness of some of the things the guys said, and by the ways they discussed using humor, empathy, and honesty to transform potentially violent situations. Perhaps because the stakes they had in conflict resolution were so much higher – they were thinking through relations with corrections officers, gangs, and gun violence while I was considering dirty dishes and friendships – there was a sort of intense buy-in to the discussions that made them very powerful.
Each evening after the workshop concluded, the six of us outsiders would leave the rec room, show our badges to a guard to pass through the gate to the elevator, and then move through four more gates and guard stations to exit the facility. As we made the drive from Patuxent to our hosts in Baltimore, I watched the highway stream by though the window and appreciated the comfort of seeing new landscapes and moving about the world freely. I began to understand at a gut level why many of my colleagues working in criminal justice reform are challenging long-held ideas about punishment and calling for the abolition of prisons.
AVP challenges the violence that stems from mismanaged interpersonal conflict, but my site placement at the Institute for Community Justice has given me insight into the many layers of violence that intersect in our criminal justice system. Over the last few months I have begun to trace how bad schools, blighted neighborhoods, mass unemployment, and social immobility tangle with personal choices to lead to involvement in crime. Crime itself is defined through other violences, including harsh sentencing policies, colorblind (but nonetheless racist) political rhetoric, and drug wars fought primarily in poor communities. When they are released from the court room or the prison, victims of these violences face another wave: the stigma of the “criminal” label, the possible loss of voting rights, the legalized discrimination in housing, employment, and public benefits. While it’s important to remember that people have agency and important to hold individuals accountable for their choices, the relatively privileged among us are frequently blind to the herculean strength it often takes to escape such cycles of violence.
The theme of last month’s QVS days was nonviolence, and our house had some interesting discussions around the idea that “violence” is actions and structures that inhibit human flourishing. As I participated in AVP, I saw glimpses of human flourishing in the inside guys, as I learned that among them were poets, entrepreneurs, teachers, cooks, spiritual leaders, and caretakers and as I admired their hard-earned skills in community building, democratic facilitation, de-escalation, and fellowship. When it came time for goodbyes on Sunday, the walls surrounding us seemed more impenetrable than ever. I wanted to share M.’s music with the world, so you could feel the same chills I have. I wanted R. on my team at work, doing outreach and advocacy with formerly incarcerated people. I wanted to take M.M. to a Quaker meeting, because I think he’d like what we’re about and because I know few people with such a gift for vocal ministry. But what flourishing that happened in Patuxent seemed to happen despite the prison system’s best efforts, and seemed to be a constant uphill battle. American prisons are frequently little more than warehouses for lawbreakers, predicated more on ideas of punishment than healing or growth.
Throughout the weekend, I often found myself glancing up at AVP’s list of ground rules and reflecting on one rule in particular: “We look for and affirm one another’s good points.” In a way, this seems like a secular version of the Quaker ideal of recognizing that of God in one another. And at the moment, that felt like the most important thing in the world. Witnessing the transformation that happened in one room in a prison outside of Baltimore as people listened to one another across differences, I had to wonder what would happen if such transformation was extended beyond the walls.
The theme for October’s QVS common programming was “Creation Care.” For the second Friday in the month, we had the opportunity to gather at Germantown Friends School, where some of our time together was devoted to exploring our relationship with Creation as a community.
Prior to Friday, everyone read two articles: Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jensen and The Pleasures of Eating by Wendall Berry. Each presented a perspective on the actions we can – and often are encouraged to – take and the effects these actions have upon ourselves and our world. We had queries to reflect upon for our discussion.
Forget Shorter Showers made us face the overall small impact our personal actions have in contrast to the harm the industrial economy is causing to the environment. Jensen criticized his perception of some environmentalists, who treat personal actions as political work for environmental change – and then don’t go beyond that to act in ways that would change the system which is inherently harmful to our world and ourselves. In our discussion, we explored our motives for engaging in environmentally friendly habits, and what we thought about Jensen’s idea of political action. We felt in agreement that it seems like there is a problem when many people are satisfied to make their own lifestyle “green” and not move beyond that into activism.
The Pleasures of Eating emphasized the spiritual importance of engaging with eating as an agricultural act. Berry’s concerns lie with the separation of the urban consumer from the origins of his food. Because food appears on the grocery store shelves prepackaged and preprocessed, there is a disconnect which keeps food and agriculture separate in an average shopper’s mind. Understanding and asking questions about how our food gets to us – and what we’re paying for beyond the food item itself – can lead to a spiritual well-being around eating, and a natural arc of food production that begins with the earth and ends with thoughtful enjoyment of a meal. The article led to a discussion about how we experience this disconnect in our own lives, and how we see it to have affected urban concepts of agriculture. We recognized the privilege that goes hand in hand with the opportunity to engage in the practices Berry advocates and explored how we handle this conflict in our own lives.
The articles didn’t stand in direct opposition, as it seemed they might when we chose them to discuss at the QVS day two weeks prior. Jensen kept us unsatisfied with merely what we could do within our house, and we recognized that to have an impact we would have to engage in actions which create systemic change, not just personal adaptations. Berry reminded us about the spiritual self-care that is important to maintain, and how awareness of our food’s agricultural history will keep us nourished and connected.
A few weeks ago Ross and I gave a presentation to about 170 middle school students at the Germantown Friends School before they embarked on their Middle School Day of Service, for which they worked at various places, from community gardens to food pantries. To energize them in this mission, Ross and I attempted to infuse them with commitment to community and appreciation for the uniqueness their community members. I tried to convey the importance of these ideas by telling the middle school students a few stories about some experiences I have had and what I’ve learned from them.
The first story I told was about an experience I had volunteering to help people move into a transitional housing facility when I was in middle school. During this I met a girl who was moving into the housing with her mother, who had recently gotten a job and was transitioning out of homelessness. Talking to this girl was really the first time I felt able to put a face to experiences of homelessness and poverty and began to see them as a part of the world I lived in, as opposed to some dark and mysterious separate reality. It made me realize how different one person’s life could be from my own, despite all our human commonalities, and how important it was to me to work together with people who were experiencing such challenges. That was my first story.
The next idea that I wanted to convey to the students was that people can see the same thing in totally different ways. I explained how this realization hit me when I was in high school and I got into an email conversation over email with a Chinese student about Tibet. At the time, I had only heard a little bit about protesting that had been happening in Tibet. The people who I had heard talking about it were saying that the people who were protesting were in the right, but what Alice argued passionately in her email was that the protesters were trying to tear China apart. This encounter made me realize that people can see things in a way totally different from the dominant perspective of which I am aware. Through this I learned that I have to keep digging and asking questions in order to understand various perceptions of a situation.
I also told the middle school students about two experiences I had volunteering at an organization called High Rocks, which provides educational enrichment programs for girls in a rural area of West Virginia. First I learned how much I could learn from people whom I thought I would be teaching. I realized this when we held a workshop to talk about how to improve schools and I realized that the middle school girls we were talking to had a lot of great ideas I wouldn’t ever have thought of for what kinds of help they wanted in their schools. This made me realize how important it is to be open to being taught by whomever I encounter.
I also I told a story about pouring concrete into holes to support the support beams of a building at High Rocks. I explained that while we were doing this I felt frustrated because it seemed like it had nothing to do with supporting the educational aspirations of girls. However when we all had dinner together, I realized that the beams made it possible for the kitchen to have a floor, which made it possible for us to have a kitchen to have dinner in, which was so important because it gave us all a space to be and talk and really get to know each other and learn from each other. So even things that seem a little irrelevant can really connect to a bigger picture.
Ross then talked about the importance of building communities based on love and commonalities, and then we sent the kids off for their day of service!