Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Torture IS a moral issue, but so is homelessness

15th Street Quaker Meeting NYC

15th Street Meetinghouse Photo Lorcan Otway

As I contemplate the banner in front of our Meetinghouse which reads, "Torture is a Moral Issue" I worry that we might find it easier to deal with the wrongs of others, distant wrongs, then to deal with the wrongs we do, the wrongs done directly in our name.

The post before this one, I wrote about an incident which happened last First Day, concerning a man without a home, who was crying in fear because our Meeting's employee had thrown away all his possessions. I also posted the writing to our Meetings google group. Interestingly enough, there was no discussion about it on the google group. Two Friends did write to me, their comments were both thankful for the piece, and commented on a glaring misspelling (now corrected).

However, as a Meeting, when George W Bush commits an outrage, we can assume there will be a minute at business meeting, a banner proclaiming our sentiments in front of the Meetinghouse... finger pointing.

There have been times I have travelled rough - always knowing that months away was a warm bed and a home. I cannot say I know fully the experience of hopelessness that must accompany the knowledge that the cold, the wet clothes, the distrust of settled people will be my whole life, but, I can say that my own indelible fear of being homeless comes from the physical memory of holes in my shoes on rain pouring on my head and many miles stretching out before me.

It might be just that, a physical memory of hardship, or perhaps Friend John Maynard's influence when I was young, his witness which led me to get to know my neighbors who do not have a place to sleep, which leads me to get to know these folks by name - their real names, as well as their nick names, all their names other than "bum."

I am ashamed to say, I feel a bit selfish to say that these friendships have often proved valuable to me. I have learned so much, American Indian treaty law from Dan Charging Hawk, a Lakota brother of mine who died on the street several years ago. I learned recipes from Patrick, an Indonesian sailor and cook, who was set on fire and killed as he slept ten feet from my doorway. I learned some part of the Dene, or Navajo language from Mat Benally, who died on the street where he lived, a wall next to my home. I still tell the stories and jokes I heard from former child actor, Broadway Bob, who I watched live out his old age, and die, without a home in my neighborhood. I learned a lot from Vinnie Harquail. He was a Micmac native from Brunswick. He played a great Scottish folk harmonica. He had a style I never heard before or since, playing counterpoint rhythms out of the other side of his mouth. I learned a lot about forgiveness from him. One day, from my window, I saw a policeman fling him off the doorstep across the street, and hit him on his arm with his nightstick so hard, I heard the crack four flights up. Vinnie got to his feat, and looked at the fellow, shock his head sadly and walked away. From Vinnie I learned first hand about Anna Mae Aquash, the Micmac woman who founded the survival schools and led Vinnie and twenty some Micmacs to Wounded Knee in 1973. And, I watched Vinnie slowly eaten away by cancer on the street next to my home. I learned of the Yippee supporters of the Black Panthers from Russell, who died an agonizing death from gangrene there, next to my home. I received applause at concerts for a song I wrote, from the story of Bobby, a gunnery sergeant who was awarded the Silver Star, and who died alone on the street outside my door. I could go on for chapters... Nancy who kept me laughing through the night in a hospital waiting room, perhaps the same one she died alone within, Maggie, Billy, Merrith Stops-at-pretty-places ... each one of these friends now only a treasured memory.

For some people, their fear, their disgust, their heartless pity for these people is answerable only by pushing them away. The same people who would grant sanctuary to the victim of the wrongs of governments fear granting sanctuary to the victims of our own success and comfort. For me, it is a moral issue, as much as torture is a moral issue, as it is the torture not caused in our name, but the torture to which we contribute in our fears and failings.

I find the response that some choose to be homeless, as hollow as the response to our objection to torture, that in a dangerous world where people seek to hurt us, we must hurt others to gain information to keep us safe. The lesson of the Hebraic roots of our faith is that we do not do wrong because another has done wrong, nor do we do right only to those who do right, if we are to walk with righteousness before our God. We do right for the sake of right.

Certainly the answer to homelessness is not to have our gates open to those sleeping rough. But, perhaps what we learn from not closing that gate, might teach us a way to end the moral failing of a nation with so many with no roof over their heads.
Bobby - Photo Lorcan Otway
Matt, Vinnie and Billy
Matt Benali - Vinny Harquail - Bobby Hill - photo Lorcan Otway
VINNIE and a pal, about ten years back...
A pal and Vinnie - Photo Lorcan Otway
Dan Charginghawk when he had a home with his wife Tina and son Fourwinds - Genie and Lorcan Otway - Photo Jon Hutson

Monday, December 08, 2008

Unwelcome Angels at Meeting

When God sends angels to us, it is not always for our comfort. This message came to me, after an incident as we settled down for Meeting this last First Day. I heard screaming in front of the Meeting house, and went out to find a neighbor who had no place to live in a state of fear and crying. There was another Friend there, a member of Ministry and Worship. The homeless neighbor was screaming that his bag was missing, with everything he owns, and that without it, in this cold weather, he could die. He had left it in the corner of our Meeting house's front courtyard.

I supposed our caretaker would know about it, so I brought him inside, trough a side entrance as not to further disturb worshipers. In the common room there were still some Friends from the earlier Meeting having tea and snacks. The fellow was still crying and begging Friends to give him back his bag, promising to be good and never leave it with us again. I found our caretaker, who began to tell me that he had thrown it away in the garbage and he had done so because the fellow was a problem. I told him to give the fellow back his things, and it was done, with a great deal of crying and begging from the owner, and angry justifications and banging of dumpster lids by our caretaker. He told me that (as best as I could follow, our friend's English is not great when he is angry) the fellow had sued to be allowed to live on the street, and that we were aiding a criminal act.

I started back to the Meeting house, but could not go in. I felt deeply ashamed that we had driven one of God's angels from our doorstep. I went out again, to give the fellow my phone number, so that I might address this to the Meeting, and let him know the outcome in light of this breech of hospitality. The Friend from Ministry and Worship asked that we speak first and told me that if we extended a blanket invitation to homeless people to sleep in our front courtyard we would loose members, and people would not enroll in Friend's Seminary - our Meeting's school.

I offered that we need to quickly address this issue in, at least a joint meeting of Pastoral Care and Ministry and Worship. During Meeting the message about angles came to me. I thought of how unlike our testimonies it was to turn away someone in need, when we had an abundance of resources. We had just spent a huge sum on placing blue stone over the entire courtyard at the behest of the school. In the message I related that several other churches in midtown, whose worshipers were the most wealthy and powerful New Yorkers, had gone to court to stop the police from driving away homeless people who would sleep on the steps of the church, seeking some small sanctuary. I related how, a Jewish friend who worships with us, describes a town in Israel where they seek to live the Torah in full. There, people will cross the street to not disturb a cat eating from the garbage, in recognition of all living things basic right to comfort.

I was reminded and spoke of a time, some forty years ago, when, to remind us of our neglect of homeless neighbors, a Friend lay across the sidewalk, and Friends stepped over him to enter Meeting. All did, except Friend Marjory Cornwall, who stopped, bent down, so she might see his face and said, "Oh, John!" I spoke of our Meeting as a place set aside for God and asked if we are not still stepping over John

Another message followed, from a visiting Friend, from another meeting. She was a young adult who had never given a message before, but felt forced to her feet the moment I sat down, to say she had just returned from the devastated parts of New Orleans, and that having a place that is a home is everything.

Two more messages followed hers. One Friend said that the examples of others should not be our motivation, but we should look to God's intention for us, and another said that our Meeting houses were not more sacred than a bathroom.

I agree with both observations. I do feel, however, that the examples of others help us, as witness to remember to seek God's guidance, not the guidance of expediency. If we followed the interest of worry over loss of membership or property there would never have been an Underground Railroad. And set aside for God, is quite different from sacred. Most places held sacred by people -- worshiped as idolic representations of God, are jealously protected. Our place, we nurture for God's use, should be a place open to God's intentions for us, not our worries over our many temptations to exclusivity.

Carl asleep

Carl asleep 1

Carl asleep 2
Photos - Carl being awakened in the Park, - Lorcan Otway

In New York, the city has been removing benches for decades now, to keep homeless people from sleeping in sight of those of us with roofs over our heads. Our Jewish friend, told me after Meeting that in the most religiously observant places in Israel, when homeless people stretch out on public benches -- neighbors go out and cover them with blankets. This simple act, seems to be, so much more God's intention. I am mindful of the Christian belief that Christ comes to us in the least of our neighbors, in the most unexpected among us, and I hope that we find a way forward other than driving Christ from our doorstep.

Eva and Henry Thomas Otway

Eva Mitten Otway and Henry Thomas Otway
My own family, in the past, was divided on driving God's angles from the door. My Grandfather, Salvation Army Divisional Commander Henry Otway loved the poor and the homeless ... just not on his doorstep. So, he placed a series of small openings in the stairs attached to a water line, to send a cascade of water down the front steps. My grandmother, Eva Mitten Otway, would never let him turn it on. My father was drawn to his father's side of the equation, I am drawn to Grandmother's.