On Wednesdays and Saturdays leading up to our 2014-2015 orientation, we will be posting an entry related to each of our core values with queries to help us prepare for a year together exploring the Quaker Way, Service, Transformation and Community.
Quaker Voluntary Service defines our value of service thusly:
Through the QVS experience, we seek to create and sustain a culture of service within the broader Quaker community and foster a lifetime of service for volunteers who learn the joy of giving of themselves for the good of the world and in gratitude to God. We strive to serve in contextually appropriate ways that affirm the dignity of all persons and the sovereignty of all communities. We will practice solidarity rooted in mutually empowering relationships.
Today, we engage prophetic service with Noah Merrill: Please watch Quaker Speak’s Interview with QVS board member Noah Merrill on Prophetic Service here and engage the queries below.
(We recommend considering these queries, and as you have time and are lead, journaling about them in preparation for your time with QVS. It could be helpful to discern if there are responses to these queries that it could be helpful to share with your QVS housemates).
- How does Noah’s understanding of prophecy resonate with you? Are there way you hope to bring this view of the world into your QVS year?
- What do you hear in the concept of Friends and sacramental living? Have you experienced this? Do you have hopes for experiencing this in your QVS year? What are your goals related to sacramental living?
- Noah explains prophetic service as not just saying that another way is possible but as living a different way – making it a reality. As you contemplate this concept, how do you respond to it? What does it cause you to imagine or wonder about your year with QVS? What does it cause you to hope? What fears do you have?
- How might you live in a way that invites people into the possibility that something could be different?
- Noah suggests that we could be living into this prophetic service in communities. What are your hopes and fears for living in an intentional community engaging in prophetic service? What questions or hopes do you have for your housemates? What conversations would be helpful to have early on in your time together to prepare for this communal life of prophetic service?
- Noah talks about seeing things as they are and also reaching for what they could be. What are you seeing as it is and longing to lean into what it could be? What are your goals for this life of prophetic service in your QVS year?
By Trevor Johnson (Philadelphia ’13-’14)
On Sunday the 8th of June I spent my morning worshipping with a few other QVS Volunteers and several other young adult Friends at the Young Adult Friends Conference (YAFCON) at Pendle Hill near Philly. For many it was a nice morning of worship that may have seemed unfamiliar due to the programmed moments of it. But, for myself, it was special because it was June 8th, 2014. Because it was Pentecost Sunday.
I came to QVS (and through QVS, further into the Religious Society of Friends) from mainline Protestant Christianity. I’ve spent the last few years exploring traditions that embrace liturgy and the liturgical calendar used by most Christians in the world. The repeated prayers bring peace and connect me to those around me. The large collection of holidays helps me focus my spiritual path in on emotions, seasons, ideas and stories.
And I came from that tradition.
And I still love that tradition.
And I came from it to Quakerism, where, I am fully aware, most Holy Days, much less the liturgical calendar, are not observed. This is part of the tradition that attempts to recognize every day as holy, and not just those few chosen by religious leadership.
And that’s why I’m writing a blog post, because there is that tension in my faith, and it was emphasized and eased on June 8th, Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost is a day to celebrate an event, the Holy Spirit descending on the members of the early Christian church. The story can be found in the first thirteen verses of the second chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, but I’ll post it here.
To preface this story, in all of the Gospels, Judas Iscariot is identified as one of the Apostles of Jesus, who are a specially chosen twelve of his many followers. This Judas betrayed Jesus, and then died according to some of the Gospels. So, he isn’t really accepted into the fold anymore as you can imagine. Peter, one of the other Apostles, suggests to the others, after Jesus has gone, that they choose from among the hard and fast followers to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus. I’ll leave it there…
Acts of the Apostles 1:26-2:13
So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place* in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
These two stories, the choosing of the new Apostle and the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, are told right next to each other. They are told right next to each other and that shouldn’t be ignored. In the first, the disciples actually cast lots to decide between two people, and only one gets to join up with this select group of followers.
They just decided for the first time, and certainly not the last, who was in and who was out of the church, or at least its leadership.
The second story does quite the opposite though. The Spirit inspires something else for those gathered. Instead of drawing more lines and raising more walls, the Spirit gives them the ability to speak to all those faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem, and preach a good news to them. It tears down the dividing walls of religious conviction, and of nationality. This event, the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit, is the birthday of the church, the day the early followers of the way of Jesus began being led by another beautiful force they discovered resting on each of them. The “who’s in” and “who’s out” of this group of Jews is dismantled, if only for an instant.
Now, I won’t get too carried away with biblical commentary. I must return to the story of YAFCON. On that morning of June 8th, I was celebrating the continued and continuous movements of the Holy Spirit, the Inner Teacher, in a faithful people. And I watched as walls were torn down, the walls separating who is in and who is out of our religious society and walls that separate us into theist and nontheist, mystics and activists, young in the faith and those who are weighty Friends. We opened with the call to prayer used in the Muslim world. The rest of the service was filled with song from Friends in Kenya and Rwanda, some spoken ministry from a chosen minister, and waiting worship. Who was in and who was out was not a question that morning. And the Spirit was moving.
In some ways I’m sad that this connection between a story about the spirit moving and this day was lost on some of the Friends gathered there, but I also love the richness of our tradition. It would be richer, maybe, if we looked to Holy Days present in other traditions and listen for what they have to say to us. Maybe Quakers could explore Holy days and liturgical seasons as a way of exploring different moods and modes of worship. But, for now, I could not have asked for a better way to celebrate Pentecost. This Pentecost allowed me to look at two parts of my faith and see their difference and see their similarity, and see that it is good.
And now a few poetic queries to leave with you.
What does the Spirit mean?
Does the Spirit mean love?
Does the Spirit mean speaking?
Does the Spirit mean acting?
Does the Spirit mean revelation?
Does the Spirit mean confusion?
Does the Spirit mean the actual, “person in a bed sheet”-style, ghost of this man that we called Jesus, who now manages to move over 2 billion people every Sunday?
Or does the Spirit mean the movement inside you, when you make a decision in the direction of justice and love?
Does the Spirit clarity in the midst of confusion?
Does the Spirit mean the crazed conversations in languages unknown unless by angels, that may still bring hope that God is near?
Does the Spirit mean the frustration, the anger, the rage that will quell inside your chest and limbs and stop your jaw mawing at the horrid truth of society and this world?
What then, does the Spirit mean?
Does the Spirit mean to create peace within us?
Does the Spirit mean to create justice in this world?
To speak to us?
To connect us with others through love?
To tear down the walls of exclusion that we construct?
by Willa Keegan-Rodewald
For my year in the Quaker Voluntary Service, I’m working at New City Initiative, which aims to engage faith communities in ending the cycle of homelessness. In November, we organized the annual Day of Homelessness Awareness in downtown Portland. This year the event included a call to action, which asked Portland’s faith communities to write letters to their state representatives and senators and urge them to restore funding for emergency housing programs. On November 22nd, the Day of Homelessness Awareness started with a walk through downtown past agencies serving those living on the streets. It continued with a rally in Pioneer Square featuring speeches, songs, and prayers from diverse faith leaders. Finally a delegation of leaders carried the 613 letters to the State Capitol in Salem. Before delivering the letters, the leaders spoke before the Oregon legislature about why this restoration of funding was imperative. The day before the event, my boss asked me to be one of those speakers. How could I say no? These are the words I spoke:
My name is Willa Keegan-Rodewald. I’m 22 years old, and my whole life I’ve seen homelessness. It’s a fixture in my world. It makes me wonder, will there always be homeless people?
This year I’m working with New City Initiative as part of my time in the Quaker Voluntary Service. I was raised in the Quaker tradition, but this year I’m engaging my faith more deeply as I spend a year serving the community and practicing living my principles.
In my work with New City Initiative, I meet people every day who are homeless. We try to support people as they transition out of homelessness by helping them train for jobs, express themselves creatively, find rides to important appointments, and get involved with their communities. While these initiatives make a difference in the lives of the people we work with, the biggest need I’ve been made aware of is one of the most basic. There is a profound need for housing. We all need somewhere to rest our heads, physically and mentally. We all need somewhere to feel safe. We all need a space to go to that can be a foundation to build our lives upon. There aren’t enough of those spaces in Oregon, and restoring these housing programs will make a difference for thousands of people.
In working to end homelessness, I’m proud to be following in the long Quaker tradition of social activism. A common Quaker tenet is to let your life speak what you believe. Lucretia Mott, Jane Adams, and Bayard Rustin, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, are just a few of the many who have made their lives speak for others. They’ve worked through nonviolent means to ensure that every person has equal rights and opportunities. They are living the Quaker belief that there is something of the light or spirit in everyone. Every person needs a stable foundation where they can find and express what that something is to the world. Right now that means every Oregonian needs a place to call home.
One of my favorite bits of Quaker wisdom comes from George Fox. ‘Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.’ These letters and these voices today are the call for change, and it’s time for Oregon’s lawmakers to answer.
On March 7th, we received word that the Oregon Legislature voted to allocate an additional $2 million for emergency services for homeless families! The additional funding will make it possible for over 1,000 new families to receive shelter, deposits, and rent support.
This past weekend, as I prepared to speak at a forum at West Hills Friends, I enjoyed thinking about the different kinds of moments of my year in QVS. Speaking at the State Capitol was one of the big ones, surging with adrenaline and intensity. But my work has also been made rich by more ordinary moments with the homeless families I meet and volunteers I coach. Those moments don’t make the kind of difference that you can necessarily see in five or six months, but I see the light in them. So I like to think that sometimes, instead of focusing on how I can “let my life speak,” I should pay attention to how I can “let my moments speak,” big and small.
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:
The title of the “leave-behind” – the sheet of paper that stayed with the staffer after our lobby visit – was simply titled “A Straightforward Way to End the Endless Wars.” It repeated the call we had just made for our congressperson to co-sponsor and vote for HR 2324, a bill to repeal the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and in short bullet-points summarized what workshops and panels throughout Spring Lobby Weekend had taught us about how the AUMF is being used as a blank check for war.
This year, Quaker Voluntary Service and Friends Committee on National Legislation partnered to send 8 of this year’s volunteers to DC to participate in Spring Lobby Weekend, joining nearly 200 other individuals – primarily young adults – in an extended weekend to learn about and then lobby on one issue.
A student at Bryn Mawr College, a fellow QVS Philly Volunteer, and I are constituents of Pennsylvania’s 2nd district who traveled to DC for the weekend. On Tuesday, we met with Jared Bass, one of our representative Chaka Fattah’s staffers. The day before, we had spent a working lunch preparing for the visit with guidance from FCNL’s Lobby Visit road map. We shared the responsibilities of thanking the representative for work he has done in the past we appreciate – including votes to repeal indefinite military detention and to close Guantanamo Bay – making the ask that he co-sponsor the bill, and sharing relevant personal stories. We practiced with a few run-throughs and tested ideas on each other – and already began wondering what kind of outcome we could expect.
In the workshops and panels on Sunday and Monday, we and other F/friends learned about how important it is to repeal the AUMF – and how effective we can be at making this work happen. Hearing from many folks, including a Lieutenant Colonel, a human rights lawyer, FCNL staff and policy fellows, and current and former congressional staff, we were exposed to the history of the policy and how it is used to excuse a wide variety of unpopular actions currently being taken by the US government in the war on terror.
Congressional staffers spoke to us about how to craft a winning argument – and common blunders to avoid. What may have surprised me most was to hear that our representatives enjoy getting visits from their constituents – they’re tired of constantly hearing from lobbyists who are invested in issues because of money. Diane Randall, General Secretary of FCNL, assured us that our representatives want to hear from us, and especially “us” as faith communities.
“A Straightforward Way to End The Endless Wars” by repealing the AUMF nearly seems too good to be true. It may not be taking away the occasion for wars, but ending this endless war on “terror” is quite a goal. I was amazed to learn just how much power the president still has from 60 words passed in response to the evens of September 11th, 2001 – and how much the vague wording of the bill is being used to expand this power. Most surprising to me was the variety of military actions that I was aware of and considered isolated problems that had been justified in whole or in part by the AUMF – such as indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, indiscriminate and unacknowledged drone strikes, and even NSA spying activity.
I came to DC with no experience of connecting with my national legislators, and only a public-school civics curriculum awareness of how I could be involved in national politics. I’ve been aware enough to be angry at how much big money gets funneled into lobbying efforts against the public interest, and thus to wonder how a small voice like my own could possibly be effective. It was pretty scary to realize how much has been done under the AUMF – but it was also pretty powerful to know that so many concerns I had with our foreign policy could be addressed by the repeal of one bill. This is an issue I would not have fully understood and certainly not felt empowered to act on without the guidance of Spring Lobby Weekend. I’m very grateful for the exposure to this work through QVS and FCNL, because now I feel prepared to continue acting in national politics as a testimony of my Quaker faith.
by Katelin Ryan
I submitted my application to the Quaker Voluntary Service nearly a year ago. Responding to the questions challenged me to consider my experiences, discern what I wanted to share, and articulate it in a way that represented me well. Apparently, I did that successfully because here I am, now, half-way through my year of service as a QVS volunteer.
As I was completing my application, I struggled to answer one of the questions. I have returned to that question and responded to it again in light my experiences as a volunteer.
What is the role of faith, prayer, and spirituality in your life? What experience, if any, do you have with the Quaker faith?
Before coming to the Quaker Voluntary Service I had a very limited understanding of Quakerism. Most of my thoughts about Quakers were based on stereotypes and a hopeful desire to find a faith community that aligned with how I wanted to express my Christian faith. I wanted to find a faith community that would allow me to ask hard questions about God and the world yet boldly live the way Jesus did.
Upon my first interactions with real, live Quakers, what I learned surprised me. I discovered through conversations at QVS orientation that there are Quakers who don’t believe in Jesus; some Quakers are Jewish, some Buddhist, and some are non-theists. I quickly learned a number of adjectives used to describe different kinds of Quakers – conservative and liberal, programmed and unprogrammed, Evangelical – that did not mean what I thought they did. On top of that, I kept hearing all these acronyms Quakers like to use – SPICE(S), FUM, FGC, AFSC, FCNL, FWCC – and I was completely lost in conversation! I was immediately asking myself what I had gotten into, yet I remained assured that QVS was the right “next step” in my life.
I came to QVS as a spiritual seeker. My past church experiences had left me frustrated and filled with ideas about how people are supposed to “do” church. I was fed up with all of the prescribed methods of faith expression and spiritual fulfillment. Daily Bible reading, praying in the Spirit, and evangelizing were practices that held no meaning for me and left me feeling unfulfilled. I was nearly ready to leave organized religion behind and join the many people of my generation who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
I hated the “hypocrites” I observed in church and was worried that I was the biggest hypocrite of all.
In the past few months, I have learned that the difference between saying and doing is not really a faith problem. It is a human problem. People are not easily put into boxes, or labeled, and “Christian” is a label. People are complex and the more we get to know a person, the more we realize this to be true. People are not this or that; usually they are a little bit of both. Failure to meet intention with action does not happen because our belief is not strong enough. It happens because, as Christian human beings, we are constantly trying to conform to Christ which means surrendering to something contrary to human nature. We are constantly failing, falling, relearning, and redefining ourselves as we try, again and again, to be more like Jesus.
What my experiences in the Quaker world of Portland have taught me so far is that no one has it all figured out. We are all spiritual seekers. Practicing silent worship has taught me how to listen for the Divine/Light/God. More often than not in recent months, I have encountered the Divine not by turning outward or trying to fill myself with sermons, scripture, prayer, or worship music, but by turning inward. This quiet act of searching my own heart has revealed that of God within me.
Even though I am still searching for something, I no longer feel aimless. I have learned what those Quaker adjectives mean, and I have even started to use those acronyms. (It would take a while for me to explain it all though.) I am continuing to live deeper into my questions.
The difference, now, is that I am aware of the Light within myself, and that Light constantly illuminates just enough of the path ahead that I am able to take another step.
“What is your experience of waiting worship?”
I do not remember where I first heard the term open worship, or waiting worship, but I distinctly remember not understanding it at all.
Sooo….you just sit quiet in a room?
Where is the worship there??
Where are the instruments???
Why aren’t we exclaiming how big God is and how broken we are??!?!
….ok the last one was a bit of a joke, but when I heard about open worship, it was a couple years after I had left a rigid faith system, so I was kind of a cynical fellow. Now, I’m writing this as a convinced Evangelical Quaker, and a Christian mystic. Hearing about the Friends of the past was a big part of what kindled the fire of my early curiosity. I wondered, what did these Friends find in the stillness? What did they find that gave them the courage to defy the divine right of Kings? What did they find that gave them the strength to endure prison and mistreatment without striking back? What did they find that gave them the eyes to see that slavery was not a norm to be passively accepted? Whatever the answer is, I believe that Friends across all expressions of Quakerism still seek, and find, the same.
Below are the responses of my house and Atlanta QVS staff to the query at the beginning of the blog. We centered down on a QVS day to write our answers, and we decided that we wanted to share them with you.
“My experience has been full of…silence…and I love it. As I sit in Quaker Meeting I’m able to calmly collect my thoughts, meditate, and be aware of the light that is shining upon myself and those around me. Too often, in life, we talk & talk & talk & we don’t take time to listen…listen to others or to ourselves. Waiting worship gives you that much needed spiritual time.”
“Waiting worship…sacred sometimes, deeply moving sometimes, selfish sometimes, secular sometimes, deeply grounding oftentimes. Oftentimes consciously realized, sometimes its hard for me to settle. When my life feels hard, its easier for me to see the “light of god” in human interactions, rather than waiting for the divine in silence. I’m feeling jaded toward divinity but the light is so clear in all of you.”
“When I begin to center down into open worship, I feel like I am leaning my head back into a gently flowing stream. I am always by the stream, and every other person is by it too, I just tend to forget most of the time. Sometimes when I’m worshiping at my Meeting, I feel like there is more happening in that room than would be if we were a choir or an orchestra. It is holy, precious, and magnificent. Usually I rest in the query, ‘God, what do I need to learn today? or ‘God, what are you trying to teach me?’ Sometimes the answer is in words, pictures, or memories. Asking the question is like wandering into the woods; I don’t know where I’ll end up. When I feel led to rise and give vocal ministry, my heart races, I don’t want to speak, but I know that I need to. It is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”
“Usually I enjoy worship once I get into it…but rarely get to the point that I would consider waiting worship. Prayer feels more like a monologue than a conversation, so I would rather read something than wait to receive a message that I am not convinced will come. But like I said, I value/enjoy reflection, just it doesn’t come very naturally.”
“I find that in general waiting worship is not the most spiritual experience. I often use it as a time to reflect on things that are happening in my life. I have only had a couple instances where I have felt moved to give a message, and I feel that in each of these instances it took a lot of convincing myself to put myself out there share it. Both of these times I came in with a feeling or thought, and then became relevant to the sense of where the meeting was. It is a powerful and very physical experience to feel moved to share, and sort of the opposite of my other state of worship where I feel very at peace.”
“Sometimes my mind goes in a millions directions and I found myself just thinking and thinking. When that happens I try to come back to breath or repeating a phrase to center myself again. Occasionally it feels very deep, covered. It feels like a palpable presence in me and in others, a unifying experience. Very, very occasional I feel clearly led to speak. Its has happened that I felt a clear message and before I stand up to speak someone else does, and says the same thing I was going to say. Thats rare, but its happened enough that I helps me trust that something real and important happening.”
“As a child, meeting for worship felt like an opportunity to think about whatever was in my mind or even to daydream. Later, I heard that I should be focusing my energy outwards during meeting, so that others who might feel moved to speak can more easily rise. I tried this for awhile, but am myself most successful in worship when I am able to fall into a calm waiting – as opposed to one in which my thoughts are churning. To me, this state is harder to get to, it is, I think the objective of Buddhist meditation when l’ve done that, but reached in what feels like a more natural way in Quaker meeting. Focusing inward and letting my thoughts settle naturally is thus the current objective of my meeting for worships, though I do not always attain this state.”
“For me, what is special about meeting for worship is the spiritual experience of being in community. My experience is impacted and enriched by the spiritual energy of the whole community. I am not necessarily referring to members who are moved to speak and their messages, (they often do not feel relevant to me, depending on the group) but more the general positive vibrations that are palpable when a group of people chooses to sit together in silent worship.”
As you can see, there was a wide variety of experiences of waiting worship in our Atlanta QVS family. After we were done reading them, we had some fun and tried to guess who each statement belonged to. As I observed the community guess correctly, the testimony of integrity came to my mind. I am glad to belong to a group that can worship together without a shellack of holiness; we come as we are. Transcribing these shared experiences of my housemates also made me realize, while each one is meaningful in its own right, they make a special sound when they are read together.
“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!