09 July 2020

The most important question

"What would it mean for me to put God at the center of my life?"

It was 1977. In a meeting room at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat and conference center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Jennifer Haines stood before us and suggested we ask ourselves this question. She stood before a board, marker in hand, ready to record our responses.

Jennifer's superb book on prison and prayer.
I knew Jennifer Haines. A year earlier, I had attended the Friends World Committee for Consultation triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, and Jennifer had been there to speak about her own FWCC work, the Right Sharing of World Resources program. Hearing her at that occasion, and then again in 1977 at Pendle Hill, I didn't for one moment suspect that, less than a decade later, I would be doing the same work for Right Sharing that she was doing then.

By the end of that session at Pendle Hill, Jennifer had filled the board with ideas and commitments from the participants. I don't now remember whether I contributed anything specific, but ever since then, her question has repeatedly come back to search me.

In the long term, answering that question has led me to invest my life in the Quaker movement. (This is no guarantee that my day-to-day participation has been flawless!) Our little corner of the Christian world has sometimes seemed to me to be too shy, at other times too full of itself, but for me personally Friends faith and practice have been a way of life based, directly and simply, on trust in God. We trust God to lead us in our personal lives and in our lives as communities, and we are skeptical about falling back on leaders and ceremonies that could mask our lack of trust.

I had to call on that trust many times in 1977. I left Canada with my bachelor's degree in Russian, returning to the USA with absolutely no idea what I was going to do with my future, but with the hope that it would involve Quaker service. The visit to Pendle Hill took place during those months of uncertainty, and it could not have been better timed. I decided that putting God at the center meant meeting uncertainty with trust.

This aspect of putting God at the center of my life -- meeting uncertainty with trust -- has taken on new importance for me at this moment of history. I can't remember another time when national and international stresses have converged so intensely on us. I won't list the interrelated political, economic, spiritual, ecological, racial, and public health crises that have reached a crescendo; you can count them off just as well as I can.

My friends react in a variety of ways, including several who have decided to stop following the news; others have sworn off social media; a number of them are affected by anxiety and depression. The list of those who have lost jobs, even after decades of service to their employers, is growing. In the background, waves of malevolence, fake outrage, cynicism, false witness -- some of it from sources purported to be Christian -- sweep over our public life.

I do not dare prescribe Jennifer's question, or any particular answer to her question, as unsolicited advice for anyone else. But I need that question for myself, as I try to be a faithful friend and Friend in this time of confusion. I need to confirm my commitment to trust in God. When anxieties for myself and others threaten to sweep me off my center, that's exactly when I need to ask myself Jennifer's question again.

Synopsis, trailer, screening information, and donation channels at sweethomemonteverde.com.
Yesterday about fifteen of us at Camas Friends Church met by videoconference to discuss the film Sweet Home Monteverde, which I reviewed recently on this blog. We had two special guests, Robin Truesdale, the film's director and editor, and Bill Adler, the film's producer and reporter. The film originated during Bill's period of living in Monteverde, Costa Rica, as he became concerned to record some of the memories of the few remaining original settlers.

Our discussion yesterday confirmed the power of the film to illustrate the causes and consequences of living by Friends values. It was those original settlers' way of answering Jennifer Haines' most important question.

Speaking of Camas Friends, I highly recommend this parable about becoming free, "one that I'm pretty sure you've never heard...."

When I worked for Right Sharing of World Resources, it was a program of Friends World Committee for Consultation, where I also served as Midwest field staff from 1983 to 1993. Now it is an independent Quaker organization. This year, Camas Friends Church decided to sponsor a project.

The Internet Monk recommends this conversation between Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci concerning the novel coronavirus and the state of efforts to detect, treat, and prevent COVID-19, including special attention to populations who are suffering disproportionately.

Anastasia Edel: Putin's constitutional tsarism and the role of Russian constitutions.

Big Daddy Wilson. I've presented this video before, but it seemed especially pertinent again this week.

02 July 2020

Independence Day shorts

I've been waiting eagerly for news from my friend in Hebron, a medical student whose senior-year finals were scheduled for June. Today I heard that the last two exams are still on hold because of the pandemic-related shutdown of the West Bank. Palestine counts over 2500 active cases of COVID-19, half of them in Hebron. I wish him and his fellow students all the very best as they face the uncertainties of these times. Their country -- and the world -- needs them.

The uncertainties they face include the looming prospect of Israel's annexation of nearly the whole Jordan Valley. Yousef Munayyer suggests that the unpopularity of this move among American voters may be the factor (and not any push-back from within Israel) that is just now slowing down this annexation plan.

I've written recently about the effect of the pandemic on Friends schools in Richmond, Indiana, USA, and Monteverde, Costa Rica. What about Quaker education in Palestine? The Olive Press, the Ramallah Friends School's monthly newsletter, vividly describes some of those recent impacts. However, it doesn't go into financial details.

Even before the pandemic, Palestine's economy was in rough shape, which affects families' ability to pay tuition in "normal" times. I hope to hear more from the school and from Friends United Meeting about today's realities -- and particularly what the consequences might be for the school's ability to provide financial aid for lowest-income students.

Related: My thank-you to Ramallah Friends Meeting, written toward the end of my time with Christian Peacemakers in Hebron.

Yesterday was the final day of voting in Russia's national referendum on a series of amendments to the Russian constitution, and on a controversial provision that sets president Vladimir Putin's term count back to zero. This in effect nullifies the constitution's limit of two terms in the presidency, making Putin eligible to run for election again in 2024 and (if he wins) again in 2030 or later. (The word "consecutive" is being removed from the term limit.) The proposals were approved by a vote of 78% yes, 21% no.

Interestingly, the national campaign on behalf of the constitutional amendments was relatively quiet about the term nullification provision, although Putin himself toward the end of the campaign gave television network Rossiya 1 his rationale for resetting the counter: "I can tell you from my own experience that, in about two years, instead of the regular rhythm of work on many levels of government, you'd have eyes shifting around hunting for possible successors. It’s imperative to keep working, not looking for successors." I'm sure authoritarians around the world will be using this elegant argument for making themselves utterly irreplaceable. "Eyes shifting around" is certainly a novel way to describe normal politics!

In light of the approval of these amendments, is it now fair for us to apply the label "authoritarian" to Russia without being accused of russophobia? Russian political scientist Grigory Golosov gives his view of the situation.

Today Putin struck what might arguably be a conciliatory note in addressing the 21% of the population that didn't support the constitutional changes. Quoting gazeta.ru,
"We still have many unresolved issues. It's true. People often encounter injustice, callousness, indifference. Many people's lives are still very hard and challenging," Putin said.

The head of state noted that the authorities still have many shortcomings.

"It often seems to those of us in national leadership that we are doing everything possible, but, no, life indicates otherwise. Life shows that we often underperform," Putin stated.
The BBC summarizes the main amendments here. And here's a Russian-language summary.

What about the USA and our own era of underperformance, now that we're on the eve of our Independence Day weekend? I can't remember a time that the USA's customary exceptionalism was under such scrutiny, at least among white citizens, as it is right now.

(It's instructive to remember Michelle Obama's controversial comment in 2008 about being proud of the U.S. "for the first time" and Cindy McCain's snarky rejoinder.)

During the current swirl of emotions around patriotism, historical truth, and Confederate monuments, here are two documents that provide a bracing reality check. The first is Frederick Douglass's Independence Day address of 1852 to an audience in Rochester, New York. This passage stands out to me as a striking corrective to passive patriotism and hero-worship:
Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have "Abraham to our father," when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout —"We have Washington to our father."—Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
The following passages cut very differently, but with a lethal precision. They define a core interest of the Confederacy, by which interest Frederick Douglass should still have been in chains, and for which those who once owned him were willing to betray their country:

Articles of the Confederate Constitution, by which "negro slavery" was intended to be preserved in perpetuity and through all future expansions:
Art I sect 9: (4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

Art IV sect 2:(1) The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.

Art IV sect 3: (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates [sic]; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

24-7 Prayer: George Floyd and the tipping point of a nation.

Catherine Rampell helps us prepare for a truth-based Fourth of July: she suggests the U.S. is falling behind its global peers. Are you starting to notice?

As you seek to be faithful in this time, do you find yourself out of step with your family, your friends, and your church? Maybe Ron Sider, editor of The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity, can help. Here's a list of his upcoming online seminars for general audiences and for pastors. (I plan to review this book in a later post.)

What are the geopolitical ramifications of SpaceX's Starlink space-based Internet delivery project?

Helen Ibe's guitar solo of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Sam Cooke).

25 June 2020

Bolivian Friends: A grand and modest epic

Oscar Tintaya's original painting for the cover of A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent

Publisher's description.

Quick quiz: which four countries of the world have the highest numbers of Quakers?

Answer: Kenya is in number one position, followed by the USA and Burundi. In fourth place by total number, and in third place by proportion of total population, is Bolivia. How did Quakers attain such prominence in a relatively small South American country?

This is the story that Nancy Thomas tells in her new book, A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in Its Context of Conflict. The particular stream of the Bolivian Friends movement chronicled in her book is the National Evangelical Friends Church (INELA, Iglesia Nacional Evangélica de Los Amigos). INELA is one of several different Friends denominations in Bolivia, but at the beginning of Nancy's account, between 1915 and 1924, parts of their story merge.

Nancy's book is just one product of a joint INELA-Northwest Yearly Meeting commission on INELA and mission history. In addition to compiling and preserving written records, the commission conducted numerous interviews with descendants of the earliest generations of Quakers in the country. The commission's Facebook page includes videos with a sampling of their work.

A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent includes an early chapter by Nancy's husband Hal Thomas on the history, worldview, social structures, political context, economic life, and language of the Aymara people who are the great majority of Bolivian Quakers. As he notes, "The Aymara-speaking people of the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes have inhabited the mountain pastures, high plains, and the breakaway valleys of what is today Bolivia and southern Peru as a significant social and cultural presence for more than nine hundred years." Their experience over the last four and a half centuries includes cycles of colonialist oppression and Aymara resistance, making 20th-century experiments in Bolivian democracy, and the honoring of indigenous identity that is part of former president Evo Morales's mixed legacy, an important part of the history.

Conflict is a recurring theme in Aymara culture and history, leading Nancy to write, "It may be an irony that this should be the setting for the development of a 'peace church' such as the Quakers; or it may be a sign of grace."

I call this a grand epic and a modest epic. Its grand scale is in part geographic -- starting from just one village church on the shore of legendary Lake Titicaca and one urban church in La Paz. A hundred years later it counts around two hundred congregations in the INELA denomination alone, with hundreds more in the other Quaker yearly meetings in Bolivia. Along the way, a sister denomination took hold and flourished in Peru, and outreach began in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. INELA, as an independent denomination, has formed strong relationships with the rest of the world Quaker family while maintaining its close fellowship with Northwest Yearly Meeting.

William Abel, 1916 (from book)
At the beginning of this epic, it's a story on an intimate scale. One young man, a son of the Kumeyaay tribe in San Pasqual, California, William Abel, became one of the very first students of the Training School for Christian Workers in Whittier, a mostly-Quaker initiative which later became Azusa Pacific University. The narrative of Abel's life, including his education at this school, interrupted halfway by eleven years of missionary service in the Philippines, is truly gripping, thanks in part to new details about his youth that emerged from the Thomases' research.

When he finished the Training School, Abel decided to serve God in Bolivia. This was a fateful decision. In Bolivia, he met and began joint ministry with three Quaker women. One of them, Florence Smith, had taught at the Training School in California. The other two, Mattie Blount and Emma Morrow, were from Westfield, Indiana (the originating point of the other major stream of Bolivian Quaker history, now associated with Central Yearly Meeting). 

During these months in La Paz, Abel met a young Christian, Juan Ayllón, who (as events unfolded) is now considered, along with Abel, the co-founder of the Quaker movement that became INELA. After this important convergence of personalities, and after only eight months in La Paz, William Abel contracted smallpox. Morrow and Ayllón cared for Abel in his final days; when Abel died, Ayllón arranged for his funeral and burial in La Paz. The commitments made by everyone involved during these eventful days and months, including the international and inter-Quaker relationships represented by these diverse personalities and the prayers of their communities, laid the foundation of the Quaker movement in Bolivia. Nancy's book leads us through these stories with sensitivity but also an earthy realism. This is history, not hagiography.

Meanwhile, a seemingly separate story was unfolding on the shore of Lake Titicaca. A Christian convert comes home from the big city and holds small meetings in his village of Amacari, forming a completely independent little Christian movement that reminds me of the Seekers of English Quaker history.

As you've no doubt anticipated, Juan Ayllón eventually makes contact with Amacari village. Those early developments, along with the shift of sponsorship for Ayllón and the young Quaker movement from Central American Friends Church (Guatemala) to Oregon Friends (now Northwest Yearly Meeting), the founding of Bolivian Friends schools, the formulation of the "indigenous principle" to guide relationships between the Oregon missionaries and Bolivian Friends, all the way to the independent yearly meetings in Bolivia and Peru that we have today -- are all part of Nancy's grand epic.

It's also a modest epic, in several senses. There is genuine heroism and amazing self-sacrifice in this movement, including, at times, serious persecution from the unsympathetic sectors of the Roman Catholic church, sometimes in combination with skeptical politicians. However, Nancy also reveals less heroic dimensions of the story: conflicts among church leaders and among missionaries, and several instances of leaders falling into various moral pitfalls, both sexual and financial. (There's also a story of a genuine, touching romance with a heartbreaking conclusion. Here is a missiological study that doesn't lack for human drama!) The theme of conflict arises repeatedly, sometimes among church leaders, often between INELA's Bolivian leadership and the Oregon missionaries, and sometimes between generations in the church. The Thomases' commitment to tell the story from both "inside" and "outside" (from the Bolivians' viewpoint as well as the missionaries') means a commitment to unvarnished truth.

Throughout the decades of INELA's history, Nancy weaves Bolivia's political developments into the narrative, as the country endures right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism, coups and revolutions, and eventually adopts electoral democracy. One very specific and illustrative case study involves the farm that the mission bought in 1947 as a source of income and a location for leadership training. As it turns out, the farm came with a whole community of farm families (colonos) that were bound to the land as part of Bolivia's hacienda system! Oregon Quakers were shocked to find themselves as, to put it bluntly, slaveholders. To make things more complicated, as the new owners sought to free the farmworking families and give them title to their plots, a few of them actually preferred the existing arrangements, but demanded improvements within that structure. As Nancy says, "... [O]ne has to ask if the mission or the OYM [Oregon Yearly Meeting], back in the 1940s and 1950s, had any sense of the gravity of owning an ex-hacienda in such revolutionary times." The story of Quakers divesting themselves of the farm and smuggling out its equipment in the dead of night is told from contemporary correspondence. Unfortunately we don't have access to much of the local non-Quaker point of view at the time.

Nancy also avoids exalting the Quaker element in this narrative. The earliest missionaries were, as she points out, more interested in planting churches in the Protestant holiness mold than conforming to specifically Quaker models. However, the Quaker element is always present as a sort of subterranean stream. The Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-35), for example, found some of the young Quaker men choosing to be conscientious objectors. The egalitarian and participatory nature of Friends governance coincided with similar features of Aymara culture. Women were central figures in the early history of the movement, and have regained influence in more recent years through their own women's organization within INELA. An increased emphasis on social justice outreach in recent decades fueled both innovation and tension within INELA's ministries.

In sum: this history balances well-sourced historical accounting (1,151 footnotes!), with a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit in raising up a people for God's service in Bolivia and beyond.

Order your paper copy directly from the publisher. Amazon has a good price for the e-book version. Nancy's blog Mil Gracias has several background articles, including these posts about William Abel: The story begins. The story continues. (The second post includes remarkable family coincidences not in the book.)

Ferguson Mother of God. Source.
Cassidy Hall's prayer for white people (including herself).

Hear the voices of Americans born in slavery.

Putin's memory war reaches out (officially!) to German historians of World War II.

Voting in Russia's constitutional referendum has begun. So have the controversies.

The spiritual shadow side of Donald Trump's rallies.

Reflections on justice, superficiality, and spirituality: First, Leigh Stein on the eclipse of the girlboss ... and then Anne Kennedy's resulting commentary.

A conversation with Joan Baez.

This video's a repeat, but it's Lazy Lester (Leslie Johnson, rest in peace) with Eve Monsees, so I'm not sorry.

18 June 2020

Monteverde and the power of faith-shaped living

Photos above and below are screenshots from Sweet Home Monteverde.
Nobody ever dreamed this would become a tourist place, that people would be coming from all over the world. 

We were just farmers. We had farms.

-- Lucky Guindon, one of the original settlers of Monteverde, Costa Rica.

On November 4, 1950, a small band of Quakers left Fairhope, Alabama, and made their way by road and narrow-gauge train through Texas, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, arriving three months later at San José, Costa Rica.

This overland vanguard reunited in San José with other Fairhope Quakers arriving by air. They were all looking for a new home in this country that had no army, where these immigrants dreamed of a new life to be lived according to their nonviolent faith. When they found that new home in the heights of the Cordillera de Tilarán range, they named it Monteverde.

The full story of the Fairhope to Monteverde migration -- its origins in Alabama, success in locating a new place to farm, economic and educational developments along the way, the birth and progress of the concern for conserving the cloud forest, and the faces of today's Monteverde -- is told in a beautiful new documentary film, Sweet Home Monteverde.

In one sense, the film could not help being beautiful. Talented filmmakers could point their camera almost anywhere in that part of our planet, and the beauty would certainly flow through the lens. (I don't intend to discount the skill required to record the amazing scenes of plant and animal life you'll see in the film.) But, after only a few minutes into this visual journey, I became aware of something else about the care with which this film was made: the delightful rhythm of contrasting images.

History and chronology, naturally, play an important role in how the film is organized, but this exquisite editing is something to celebrate. Ancient and fascinating footage of early logistical challenges are mixed with fresh, outrageously breathtaking glimpses of nature. Reminiscences by first-generation settlers, now in their nineties, and eloquent retellings from schoolchildren, are woven together. Along the way we also hear from off-site scholars and visitors and the former president of the country, all fitted together with unobtrusive elegance. The filmmakers' command of their art and craft, as well as their respect and affection for their subject, are abundantly clear.

Given all that, it wouldn't be surprising if their film had erred on the side of uncritical sentimentality. It's true that, if there were a shadow side of the early years -- were all the first-generation children really always at peace with their relocation to that isolated place? -- we don't get any such first-hand accounts. However, we hear from several of the elders that conflicts did erupt among the settlers at times. One settler recounts, "We were a headstrong bunch of people -- [that's] one reason we were down there." When one family decided to educate their three children for a couple of years at the local public school instead of the Friends school, others disapproved. "But we worked through it ... and it was OK."

Costa Rica's own peaceful reputation doesn't go unchallenged. One commentator points out that it can be a violent society. We see several glimpses of the country's police force. Former president Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera (2014 to 2018) had this to say to Sweet Home Monteverde's camera:
It is true that Costa Rica, being demilitarized, it's not necessarily a pacifistic country. And it is a source of concern that even when we have this seemingly strong and definitive adherence to demilitarization, we do not have an equivalent in the way we relate to each other. And that is something that we need to deal with. And the only way to do that, I think, is in the context of a nation, and a government, that takes care of the common good and upholds social justice, education, and the access to health and other services as one of its most important national goals.
The film treats another theme with a kind of vagueness that I slightly regretted but found completely unsurprising: the actual faith of those earliest settlers. It's hinted at in several places but never really described except in terms of its discipleship emphases: peace, equality, community, simplicity, social justice. However, there's nothing to stop you, the viewer, from including this fertile theme in your post-viewing discussion that I hope you'll be having in your meeting or church. Can you imagine how your own faith might impel you to give up everything familiar and relocate yourself and your family for conscience' sake?

The worldwide Quaker story includes several such migrations. In a previous post, Ohio Byways, I mentioned the relocations of Quaker families and whole meetings from slave-holding states to free states such as Ohio. The museums and homesteads representing their legacies are stops on the Quaker byways of southwestern Ohio, where the preserved evidence of their domestic discipleship tells any curious traveler about their faith-shaped lifestyles. In the film, former Monteverde Friends School teacher Jonathan Ogle likewise testifies to his experience: "The power of the model of living one's life deserves more credit than I was giving it...." And that Monteverde model now has the potential of touching at least some of the many thousands of tourists passing through every (normal) year.

Sweet Home Monteverde runs just under an hour -- an amazingly compact job of telling a huge story! I hope that Friends meetings and churches everywhere (and anyone else intrigued by this story) will arrange screenings and discussions. The film seems ideal for all ages and especially for intergenerational groups.

Important detail: since the film was released to the world just before theaters and film festivals went into pandemic mode, the filmmakers haven't been able so far to promote their film through the usual methods. To recover the expenses of making this unique documentary, they are asking audiences to make a donation, if possible, for virtual "admission" when they sign up up for password-protected 24-hour screening periods. Instructions here.

I'm happy to see that Intermountain Yearly Meeting of Friends has scheduled a screening this Saturday as part of their 2020 sessions. My own congregation, Camas Friends Church, will have a chance to view and discuss the film on July 8.

Sweet Home Monteverde is streamed through Vimeo's platform at 1920 x 1080 pixels. The filmmakers can send you a discussion guide (my slightly edited version is here) and, on request, can participate in viewers' discussions via videoconferencing.

Monteverde Friends School: The film includes several historical and contemporary glimpses of school life. I first mentioned Sweet Home Monteverde a couple of posts ago, in the context of Monteverde Friends School's pandemic-related need for help from its international supporters. That support is still needed. Once again, here's the School's online donation page.

CNN's John Blake: This moment feels different.

How this moment feels to Buddy Guy. (With thanks to Donna Laine for the link.)

Peace Arch Park: A strange and delightful 42-acre zone where border controls are suspended.

Sean Guillory on Soviet-era depictions of American racism; and Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon on the racial stereotypes revealed in Alexei Balabanov's 2000 film Brother No. 2.

Как квакеры спасали Россию: книга Сергея Никитина о квакерской гуманитарной помощи России.
С 1916 по 1931 год квакеры смогли вполне мирно и плодотворно сотрудничать со всеми властями: с чиновниками царской России, с чехословацкими легионерами и большевиками. Это сотрудничество способствовало спасению сотен тысяч людей, которые выжили благодаря квакерским пайкам, врачам, тракторам и лошадям. В России практически ничего не известно об этой помощи, имена спасителей забыты, добрые дела преданы забвению. Сергей Никитин, многолетний представитель Amnesty International в России и исследователь истории квакеров, своею книгой стремится восстановить историческую справедливость.
(This item concerns Sergei Nikitin's book, just published, about the history of Quaker relief work in Russia. I've heard reports that plans are afoot for an English-language translation -- I'll keep you informed.)

I'm a sucker (so to speak) for a good harmonica. Here's Britain's Steve "West" Weston.

11 June 2020

"The devil doesn't like it but it's down in my heart."

It may be a hard and uncomfortable time to be a white Christian. But it is time for the church of Jesus Christ to sit with that discomfort–maybe even to kneel in it–knowing how much more “uncomfortable” it is to be a person of color in this country; and recognizing that the Church has played a role in the violence of inequality.
-- Rev. Erin Wathen, "Truth and Transformation: Can The Church Survive Confronting Racism?"

I attended the regular monthly meeting of Camas Friends Church's Peace and Social Concerns Committee. We had invited anyone in the church interested in our agenda to attend (via videoconference), so we had excellent participation. The agenda included questions about how to observe Juneteenth (June 19) or participate in community events dedicated to this occasion. The agenda was posted before the most recent global whirlwind caused by the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in full view of the whole world, so the concern for wholehearted attention to racial realities was close to all our hearts.

I don't feel free to go into great public detail about what we said to each other, so I just want to make a general point: it is not easy for a majority-white church congregation to take our hunger for justice, our frustration with the world and sometimes with ourselves, and our sense of urgency, and translate all that into concrete action.

Furthermore, it is also hard to confront embedded racism in majority-white churches and meetings without inadvertently making the people of color among us seem invisible or marginal to the conversation -- or giving them the task of fixing us.

(Referring back to Erin Wathen's article, one thing that does not happen at Camas Friends Church is any complaining that we are "being too political.")

It's been my experience with race-related conversations with other white people, starting with my high school years in the late 1960's, that we're desperate for "resources." We want to know what to read or watch to educate ourselves. This can have the effect, as Lauren Michele Jackson pointed out in her visit to the Slate Culture Gabfest, of choosing great writers such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison for their utility in our self-improvement rather than opening ourselves to a full, direct encounter with their works. Not surprisingly, books and seminars on race for anxious whites are also doing a brisk trade.

As I try to contribute to these conversations, I don't want to be preoccupied with my motives, slaloming between the hazards of self-flagellation and virtue-signalling. I want to learn how to "dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord...," and to see that beauty in all my fellow creatures made in the image and likeness of God, and share that dwelling with them, delighting in the joy of reconciliation.

And I want to know what gets in my way.

"What gets in our way" ... there's the rub! I remember Little Richard's version of "Joy In My Heart" where the second verse goes like this: "The devil doesn't like it but it's down in my heart, down in my heart...." When we look at the past, we can and should trace the destruction caused by racism, not flinching to look at the full picture, not avoiding the lament and repentance involved, not overly concerned with our own fastidiousness but acknowledging the reality of our own limitations, addictions, vested interests, denials. The devil won't like it, but here's the best part: when we turn around and look into the future, there is joy awaiting us in that dwelling place, a joy that is made complete when every system of exclusion is torn down. Yes, that's political, but it's also biblical. Can we go there together?

Illinois State Psychiatric Institute. Source.  
During the Christmas season of 1969, I was home alone. One sister was in the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute in Chicago; the other was in Germany with my parents, tending to my mother's parents, who were in fragile health. On Sunday, December 14, my neighbors invited me to attend the Christmas party at Evanston's enormous Protestant cathedral, the First United Methodist Church, where my neighbors introduced me to their legendary minister Dow Kirkpatrick.

The party began with a dramatic presentation on racial justice. Ten days earlier, Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark had been killed in a hail of gunfire from a combined city/county/FBI force, the official cover-up was in full swing, and emotions were high all around. The whole country was also still reeling from the My Lai Massacre revelations. I had never been to a church event of any kind before (at least not since my Lutheran baptism as an infant in Norway), so my eyes and ears were wide open. However, my hosts were twitching with impatience during the presentation. "Come on, let's get to Christmas," said one of them.

The problem is, we can't really get to Jesus without an encounter with truth.

Reality check: Radley Balko presents his updated evidence of racial bias in the police system. (If you can't access this because of the paywall, contact me for a PDF version.)

Richard Ostling: resources for journalists trying to explain Donald Trump's Bible-brandishing photo op.

Meet the artist who painted the George Floyd murals on the Israeli separation wall.

Igor Yakovenko introduces us to "ordinary racism" in Russia, and how recent events in the USA brought it into the daylight.

Ethan Zuckerman on why video recordings of police violence are not the accountability tools we had hoped they'd be. (Thanks to Oregonlive for the link.)
The institutions that protect police officers from facing legal consequences for their actions—internal affairs divisions, civil service job protections, police unions, "reasonable fear"—work far better than the institutions that hold them responsible for abuses.
Lauren Michele Jackson asks what an anti-racist reading list is for.

Jean-Rene Ella-Menye is back!

04 June 2020

Quaker education in a pandemic

"I could be a Quaker under those terms. Where do I sign up?"
"Elites always feel entitled to take what belongs to others."
"As the article notes, some Friends believe that private schools ought not to exist. But it is also true that many Friends are strong supporters of private schools."
'"Quaker values can be remarkably flexible' is one hell of a backhanded compliment."
"My loathing of organized religion is infinite."

These are among the lively and sometimes profane Twitter reactions to a story in The Atlantic last month, "When Quakers Become Takers: Sidwell Friends, one of the nation’s most elite private schools, cites its religious values in seeking government money." Commenters vented about the spectacle of a Friends school with an annual tuition of over $40,000 and an endowment of $54 million accepting CARES Act assistance.

Until the rise of nearly-universal public education, Friends communities worldwide made providing a Quaker education to its children and young people a high priority. Many newly-established Friends meetings in those earlier generations prioritized building a school first, then a meetinghouse -- or else combining the two functions into one building. The intention, at least in part, was to provide a "guarded education" to ensure that Friends values were instilled along with instruction in "all things civil and useful in creation," to quote George Fox, implying that a Quaker curriculum would not promote vain distractions.

A few years ago, in her article, "Westtown's Integration: 'A Natural and Fruitful Enlargement of Our Lives'," Margaret Morris Haviland gave us a case study in the changing environment that caused many Friends schools to modify their mission. The arguments of nearly a century ago, both for and against removing the denominational "hedge" around Westtown School, continue to be part of the debate about the propriety of Quaker education to this day. (Notice, for example, the pressures Westtown faced as a result of the Great Depression.) At the same time as we continue to debate the merits and demerits of Quaker schools, it's also true that dedicated public school teachers make up a significant part of nearly every Friends meeting and church that I've been involved with in my four and a half decades among Friends.

One serious charge against the large and well-established Friends schools in the USA and elsewhere is hinted at in the Atlantic story and its trail of comments, namely a form of elitism that comes with charging the levels of tuition required to support the low student-teacher ratios and lavish facilities forced on them by the private school market. (According to the article, less than 25 percent of Sidwell Friends families require financial aid.) I'm sure that no Friends school consciously adds "elite status" to the list of Quakerly values in its mission. Probably all of them are trying figure out how to compensate for this danger by enlarging their financial aid programs -- some more than others -- even though a culture already shaped by wealth might not be easy to change.

Back to the Westtown case. An early participant in the debate over possible changes to its mission, Carroll T. Brown summarized the three principal arguments for change, and dismissed two of them. However, the third reason he identified for opening the school struck him as particularly compelling,
"... that our treasure [our Quaker faith (Haviland's note)] serve as many persons as possible." Brown believed that the General Committee needed to discuss this reason fully. But he cautioned that only when the Committee and the Yearly Meeting were sure of what they believed should they act.
It's possible that Brown, in his caution, anticipated a risk that may have come true for Quaker education in general -- the wider world, at least in the American context, has influenced the public description of this "treasure" more than the treasure has influenced the wider world. Take a look at the Friends Council on Education's Web site, particularly its page on "What Is Quakerism?" I don't think I've ever seen a description of Friends faith that seems more intended to conceal, rather than reveal, the substance of that faith.

My own education from Kindergarten through high school was in the Evanston, Illinois, school system, starting around the time it was being deliberately and carefully integrated. Every child should have access to education of this quality. As a child of a violent, alcoholic, and white-supremacist family, it was at my public school that I found safety and inspiration. Such schools bless the pupils but also enhance the whole community, including that part of the community that has no children in the public schools. For that reason, I'm skeptical about school vouchers that divert funding away from public schools.

At the same time, school systems vary in adequacy and quality, and families have their own educational priorities as well. Families should always have the freedom to supplement or replace public schooling for their own children, forming their educational choices around the values they hold precious. Our own family took that route at vulnerable points in our children's development, and the way we did it may be the simplest of the Quaker school models, at least beyond home-schooling: the family co-op school. We joined the local Quaker family co-op in Richmond, Indiana, the Children's School. We parents ran the school (through a committee, of course!), we hired the teachers, we had received space on generous terms at West Richmond Friends Meeting, we cleaned the classrooms, collected the funds, and so on.

I don't want to exaggerate the ease and simplicity of this model -- we had our share of arguments about details big and small. The one I remember most vividly echoed the Westtown debates: how much overt Quakerism is too much for a school that was already attracting non-Quaker families? After listening to some of this debate, Earlham's Paul Lacey said to me, "Instead of being 'in the world, but not of it,' too often we Quakers are of the world, but not in it!"

Nevertheless, the model proved its worth, put down sturdy roots, and ultimately grew into today's Richmond Friends School. It outgrew the simplest versions of the parent co-op, but declined to become a voucher school to avoid playing by rules that felt alien (standardized testing, pledges of allegiance, and so on). And to ensure that the fees would not shape a student body that was unintentionally exclusive, the school began raising funds for financial aid. In normal times, almost every donated dollar goes into the financial aid budget.

And just as the Great Depression tested the sustainability of Westtown and that era's other Friends schools, the COVID-19 pandemic is squeezing Richmond Friends School. I asked Marcie Roberts, the Head of School (until the end of last month -- she is moving to Asheville, North Carolina) about some of the effects of the pandemic on the school. On-site attendance ended on March 13. Families in financial difficulty were offered a 25% tuition discount for the months affected by the pandemic, with the hope that other families who could afford to pay the full amount would do so. At the same time the school's income was falling, the spring fundraising event had to be cancelled. At this point, tuition payments don't even completely cover payroll, so voluntary donations are more important than ever. (You don't have to look hard to find the big blue DONATE ONLINE button on the school's home page.)

At the time of our conversation last month, Roberts was open about the uncertainties faced by the school, even as it remains committed to a sustainable and value-centered operation. I hope they continue to receive the support of West Richmond Friends Meeting, the region's Quaker community generally, and the growing numbers of families who've been blessed by the school. This is the sort of community-scaled Quaker educational witness that is worth maintaining -- even while also defending the vision of universal access to good public education.

More here: Chris Hardie interviews Marcie Roberts.

Monteverde: Midweek meeting for worship; source.
Just about the time I was reading about Sidwell Friends School and recalling the perennial debates around Quaker education, I got a letter from an old friend, Ellen Cooney, who had moved from Colorado, USA, to Monteverde, Costa Rica, about three months ago. She's the new development director of Monteverde Friends School, serving in a volunteer capacity. Over the years I've heard much about this school, and we have family ties to Costa Rica, so I was eager to learn more about how Monteverde Friends School is facing the global health emergency.

Costa Rica has done a good job of acting fast to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Ellen explained,
... making health care available through the national system etc. so only about 700 cases and 7 deaths (Colorado is just a tad larger, and has 19,350 cases and almost 1,000 deaths). But the impact on the tourist-dependent economy is devastating. The economic crunch is especially severe here in Monteverde where tourism pretty much is the economy. A survey a few weeks ago that focused on Monteverde found that over 80% of workers had either lost their jobs entirely, been cut way back, or had been furloughed. We don’t expect much relief soon, as tourist season – where most people get their annual earnings – is ending soon as we move into the rainy season.
The Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Preserve, one of the "Seven Wonders of Costa Rica" (La Nación) is one of the nation's biggest ecotourism magnets. It draws 70,000 or more visitors in a normal year, but this year is far from normal. Local families need fabulous summer seasons to store up income for the low-income rainy seasons that follow, and this year it's not happening. For the school, staff cuts and reductions in work hours are apparently inevitable, as members of the staff have been learning these past days.

There are some similarities between Richmond Friends School and Monteverde Friends School. Monteverde has (at least up to now) about 120 students, about double Richmond's enrollment -- so their scale of operations is relatively similar, especially in comparison to Sidwell's enrollment of 1,100. They are both closely linked with their host Friends meetings; in fact, in Monteverde's case, the school is a direct expression of Monteverde Friends Meeting's own vision of value-centered bilingual education for both local and international students, and was begun practically as soon as the meeting was established. However, there's an important difference -- in comparison to Richmond's three substantial (by Quaker standards!) meetings and a Friends college and seminary nearby, and many more meetings in Wayne and nearby counties, Monteverde and its whole surrounding region have an estimated 50 Quakers. In this time of severe financial constraints, their school needs to call on an international support base of Quakers and others who find its mission inspiring. Once again, donation information is not hard to find.

The story of Monteverde Friends Meeting and its community is told in a new film, Sweet Home Monteverde, whose rollout in the USA was somewhat short-circuited by the pandemic. The trailer and other excerpts on its site promise an inspiring experience; I'm going to see whether our Friends church would like to sponsor a virtual showing of the film. Instructions on scheduling a screening are here.

National Geographic: With its famed Cloud Forest closed, Monteverde fights for its life.

In presenting these glimpses of these two relatively small schools, Richmond Friends School and Monteverde Friends School, and by noting the recent controversy around Sidwell Friends School's acceptance of a pandemic-related government loan, it wasn't my intention to make snide comparisons or imply that one or another school was more authentically Quaker. Draw your own conclusions. Each school has its own vision of hospitality to the larger community, or to put it another way, to the market. Each has adjusted (muted?) its presentation of Quaker faith and practice to accommodate the breadth of their market. From my work with Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. I remember how difficult it is for any organization, no matter how idealistic its founding and mission, to keep and communicate a consistent set of promises to its best-fit market over the years. I wish all these schools the very best as they confront the pandemic, and hope that the terrible stress that they're undergoing now will clarify and strengthen the values that would make their survival worthwhile.

Helena Cobban: Another American first: a self-collapsing empire.

For better or worse, Facebook is starting to label Russian, Iranian, and Chinese media outlets.

"He's doing a Jericho walk!" Another view of Trump's Bible stunt.

From William Barber: A pastoral letter to the USA.

In place of my usual blues dessert, here is today's memorial service for George Floyd. The eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence that Al Sharpton announced at the end of his eulogy (the length of time George Floyd lay on the Minneapolis pavement, pinned down by Derek Chauvin's knee on his neck), begin at 1:47:20. Note his query at the end of that silence: "That's a long time ... that's how long he was laying there. There's no excuse. They had enough time. They had enough time. Now what will we do with the time we have?"