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.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Faith or Fashion among Friends

Seth Arthur Lorcan Florence (Mum) by Eugenie Gilmore-Otway

Dear Friends:

I find a lot of wisdom in the plain faiths which have not given into the fashions of the day. A plain Mennonite was quoted in a recent book, "We aren't told by our church what jobs to take, but, if you can't dress plain in your job, it is likely the wrong job to be doing." That statement is a deep river.

It gets back to me, from many Friends, that many feel those few of us who still dress plain are eccentric. A few, very few Friends actually say this to our faces. On the other hand, in the world at large, we find our plain witness is understood and we can dress plain in our work lives, as we travel, as we visit other churches, other communities, other nations. "If you can't dress plain in... it is likely the wrong..." What has become of our faith, when people wear bits of army uniforms to Meeting without thought, and it is not eccentric in a community that witnesses to peace... where Friends can wear business suits which cost far more than their cloth is worth - valued as a statement of class and fashion, but to dress to one's faith as a Quaker is considered anything from quaint to eccentric.

There is a lot about being a Friend in the Society of Friends today that seems to have gone out of style with plain dress. The depth of thought which rose out of our birth in a faith called the "Seekers" seems to be becoming out of fashion. Our faith, more than our clothing should be free of the slavery of fashion.

But, in my life time I watched as the deep discourse of my childhood was dumbed down in response to the fashionable discourse of the day. Eldership was rejected with the coming of the generation which worshiped youth and rejected the old traditions which they saw as autocratic. Some traditions were, but the baby was tossed with the bath water.

I remember more wisdom from my First Day teachers of the early sixties than from any other point in my experiences with Friends. Take for example, the view on sin expressed by one of my early First Day teachers, I think it might have been Herb White.

Sin, he said, is not about right or wrong, it is about separation. Sin is when even good things I do, set me against others and God.

Such wisdom would serve us well today, as we alienate each other over the business of the Meeting.

The next epoch I have seen is the effect of "Identity Politics" on seeking within the Society of Friends... it seems the youth culture gave way to the "shut up" culture. Who was talking became much more important than what was being said. It was true, there was a White male Establishment, but once again, the baby was thrown out with the bath water and more and more the conversation was focused on "listen to me" rather than the quality of what was being said.

I hope we go back to the simplicity of our faith - seeking God in our daily work, not just a hour a week in worship. All the good, hard work of innovators who wanted more voices heard, from the young to alternatives to the White middle aged male, seems to have turned this process of waiting for God's will expressed in our Meetings, over to a cynical few who would lead... maybe even a cynical majority... it is hard to know the state of the Society with so much happening in back rooms and cliques.

In the dumbing down of our culture, there are many who say I write too much. I think of the letter from the Birmingham Jail... the correspondence over the Hicksite\Orthodox split, the old age of writing... and I hear what Friends are saying, and wonder why they have little response other than you write too much. Well, there we are, living in the "shut up" generation, and seeking light in a sound bite.

For me, I think we should be cautious with every fashion, from fashion of thought, to the statement of our clothes... I think that testimony of our past has wisdom and depth today.

All I know is that I miss the faith of my youth.

She likes Quakers

Thine in the light

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Youngering or Eldering - a Core Problem


Dear Friends:

For years now I have seen the New York Quaker Quarter deal with conflict badly. We are pulled along by people with obvious issues and little personal discipline. I believe, this is in part, an outcome of an age (the Sixties and Seventies) where discipline became stigmatized.

So, to begin, let's look at the concept of discipline - from the root disciple. In our Meetings, we are not disciples of Gurus or Religious leadership, but of God as expressed in the gathered Meeting coming to unity.

If discipline breaks down, our discipleship is without meaning.

In the past, in a Hicksite Meeting, discipline was maintained by reading out of Meeting those who consistently broke discipline by not allowing a Meeting to elder them, by ignoring the process of unity. Again, it was about process, not about behavior, not about opinion. I make the distinction between Hicksite practice and the Orthodox sects, as the Orthodox sects read out of Meeting on the basis of theology, and reading out in a Hicksite Meeting was rare.

Today, a small number of people hold sway in the Meeting by employing public anger, by obstructionism, and by backroom politicking - keeping secrets from the Meeting as a body.

When challenged in the manner employed by friends from the start of our faith, the writing of Friends to each other, the reaction is predictably negative. In the past, even at time of great stress in the Society, Friends have answered writing with a response in writing, or a request for clearness, or a request for threshing.

Today, we are adrift, seeking ways to go forward, without any examination of the past. I heard a Friend respond to a call for our Quarter to look to elders by saying, "We need youngering, not eldering." Frankly, we have been "youngered" to the point that we have lost our way. If we do not look to the past strengths of our faith, we might as well call it a day for the Society of Friends.

Thine in the light


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Joe McCann and the war in Ireland - a letter to Nuala

In the middle or at the root of the problem
Belfast 1977

Nuala, a chara:

Your father was killed when I was a teenager, trying to make up my mind about how, as a Quaker in the US, to handle the Vietnam war draft.

We are an Anglo Irish family in the States, and there have been family members on both sides of the issues in Ireland, as far back as Roger Casement, who is an Otway on his mother's side.

I joined the official Republican clubs, and was involved with them until the killing of Seamus Costello, at which point I remained a non-aligned Republican - in support of civil rights, but unlike some, not judgemental of the armed struggle.

My concern, as a Quaker, was twofold, one of truth and the other of the inescapable chain of responses to violence. I will return to this, as it is a complex issue, taking a little personal history to link it to the statement about judgemenalism...

Even growing up in a pacifist community of faith, many of us had to face the often expressed opinion that we were objectors to war out of cowardice. So, at some point, I decided to go to war with a camera, to witness what war was, and help create an understanding among those who support war without knowing it closely and personally. Your father was one of a few figures which made the struggle in Ireland, for me, the war I would observe.

There were other figures as well, Bernadette McAlisky, Eamonn McCann, Seamus Costello, who inspired me to believe that even in the armed struggle of war, there were some seeking truths. I came to see, however, that even deep thinkers, like your father, might be being used cynically by governments which so obscured the truth of the conflict, what good and moral people were simple pawns, symbols, and sacrifices to events beyond understanding at the time.

I've come to believe, that there was a complex of struggles on going in occupied Ireland at the time. To those on the front lines, struggling against often unchecked or government sponsored violence, the struggle seemed to be the simple economic struggle of colonialism. But for the British government, it was a matter of keeping a community divided by violence through British Millitary sponsored sectarian killings, and the shoot to kill policy.

Over the years, I began to believe that Britain and the US created the war in Ireland as a tool in the control of Ireland as a buffer in NATO's plans to contain the Warsaw Pact. Seeing Ireland as a case of Low Iintensity Conflict, explains the decades of infiltration of the armed politic on both sides of the struggle. As Spain, and France pulled out of NATO, NATO sought a staging platform for a war in Europe, as Ireland became during the Gulf Wars.

I am the first to say, even in hindsight, that it is impossible to say the continuation of a non-violent, resistance struggle would have been successful or even possible. I believe that Britain as the agent of NATO, would have murdered people like your father to insure that Low Intensity Conflict kept Ireland divided and occupied. The complex of issues spinning off of this, from Jack Lynch and Charlie Haughie re-arming Republicans... point to the war as being manipulated, and impossible to have understood for its real politic on the streets where people fought for survival.

But, true internationalist thinkers, like your father, kept a small number of us seeking, hopefully learning... There is much more I could write... but, here in New York, I will leave it to those who risked much more to take stock of what happened in Ireland during your father's life. It seems the years pass by with such speed... a life time since your father was killed. Unfortunately it is no longer seen as shocking to murder a wounded combatant, as was done to your father.

We live in times, today, where wars are used to obscure truths, to control masses of people and where many good people on all sides are sacrificed to plans which are never disclosed to those behind the guns. Understanding the life and times of your father is vital at this point. He was a brave, and a good man, who gave his life for justice, and was likely a tool used by cynical and evil governments. His loss cost Ireland and the world a voice which should have grown with age like so many in the armed Republican movement.
All the very best
Is mise, le meas

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Eldership rather than Leadership

In a Quaker Meeting there is no place for leadership. Leadership owns the outcome. Eldership is not self interested, is not motivated by ego, is not concerned with the outcome, the outcome is in God's hands. An elder is only interested in the process, which is meant to insure God's hand in the outcome. Leadership seeks to limit the conversation, seeks to insure the "right" outcome. Leadership is the church Fox and the seekers left.
Leadership is always nervous about new and uncontrolled media. The ministers and priests did not want the people to read in Fox's day, as it gave them the ability to interpret the Bible for themselves. In the same way, there is a great fear of Quaker discussion on the Internet today. Those who seek to lead are afraid that uncontrolled speech erodes the power which should not exist in a Quaker Meeting in the first place. The Internet is no more dangerous than the old pamphlets like "View from the Back Benches..." The only ones afraid of that pamphlet were those who did not want Quakers to examine their community too deeply.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Which side are we on?

And here am I, a Quaker, for all my grown life, and most of my childhood… musing on Sacco and Vanzetti.And, thinking of so many, Lynne Stewart, Gandhi, King, Jesus, of Joe McCann, of Steven Biko, of Fox, of Hannah Bernard, of my dear friend Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, of oh so many it is beyond listing, for most of you would simply see names. I am thinking of my own road, of Indian nations, of a war in Ireland, of so many who can be best be described, as self described - those with no property… I know in my own life with whom I would stand, where I have stood. I have not stood with the descendants of Jackson and Custer, but have stood with the children of Sitting Bull, I have not stood with the descendants of Fuller, but with those wrongly accused and convicted, the prison mates of Sacco and Vanzetti - who are, in fact, the cell mates of Mary Dyer. I have walked with King and McAliskey, I have faced the guns with Joe McCann, not only in the streets of Belfast, where I literally felt my knees shake with fear, but in American court rooms where I felt my heart seize up and the room spin, as judges in courts of law not courts of justice stifled the voices of justice, those who simply hoped for … a chance to speak.I have know, and been a friend to, Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, shot dead, murdered by the FBI… others, driven underground, jailed or killed because they wanted only one thing, a little light on the darker corners of the American dream, which are now becoming the American main stream, a place of much more dark than light. And I look at what is happening here. Are we seeking to silence voices of power, of privilege? No. I think of all who I have walked with as a Quaker, from Fox to Barrington Dunbar, to Stewart and McAliskey, and I am sure in my conviction that they would see that were this Quarter is turning, in its choice of who to silence and who to empower, that the New York Quaker Quarter has chosen to turn away from Fox, and Dyer, from Dunbar and all those who proudly said, we are those without power and property… but are those with hope and vision. The New York Quaker Quarter now has chosen to stand with Pilot and privilege and call this process.I don’t even know why I am bothering to write this. Those who aspire to power, those who are born to privilege, those who unconsciously are drawn to stand with the status quo, see those who are born to the coal fields, the ship yards, the long picket lines, the street battles for fairness, the homeless, the forgotten, the meek who will never inherit, as a nit to be picked on the road to success. But, we who sing the songs of freedom do so because there is simply nothing else to do. As Phil Ochs said, shortly before his suicide at the news of the death of Victor Hara… “what else can we do in the face of cold cruel men and their cold cruel machines…” So simply consider this one more song of freedom in the face of tyranny, as I ask, which side are you on?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Historically, the Voice of God is More Often Heard in the Voice of the Dissident

Seth Arthur Lorcan Florence (Mum) by Eugenie Gilmore-Otway

Jesus, Gandhi, King, Bonheoffer, Dekanawida, Fox… I have a hard time thinking of a time when God’s voice was heard in the words of the brokers of power and privilege. And yet, for any institution, even our own Meetings, it is the voice of the dissident which is the most feared and suppressed. And yet, again and again, history finds the voice of the dissident was that signpost on the arch of justice, proved right by the passage of time. So, a foundation of Quakerism is to joyfully include a diversity of opinion on committees - knowing that though it makes for more difficult roads to discernment, the outcome is God’s voice expressed in our unity. To exclude dissident voices, because of the paths picked by those few who would be leadership in a Quaker community, is to exclude the voice of God from our processes. I realize that today it is quaint, in the face of corporate interests, to believe God speaks to us, but there is much about me which some find quaint, and I am unapologetic about the quaintness of my faith.

Many know that taking care of a sick parent, a seriously struggling business, makes it impossible for me to be at the next Quarterly Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business. I know, deeply in my heart, that those who support the "truth" as defined by power and wealth, by "the way of the world" by "corporate realities in the modern world" will be very happy that I am called elsewhere. My greatest hope is that one Friend may, in the light of courage, in faith, read the letter from the Birmingham Jail, read of Fox standing in church and stopping business as usual, let God lead you to say the time to live our faith is now, and in the spirit of King, Gandhi and Fox, stop business as usual until such time as we stop the politicking and allow God into our Meetings.

For those who ask how can is it possible to stand up to the powers that be in this quarter and demand a place for dissident voices, let me remind Friends that when two Friends were both marginalized by their past disagreements - on opposite sides of the factions which unfortunatly exist in our Meeting, one was outright blacklisted from service in our Meetings, and the other refused to serve, I labored to get one voice onto nominating, then immediately labored to get the other onto Pastoral Care… it is not about the outcome, not about representing one point of view or another, it is about voices in process.

It takes one courageous voice to stand up in Meetings, with King, Gandhi, Bonheoffer, Dekanawida, Fox, Jesus, and God. Business as usual is worship, it is simply business. You can be one of the crowd who stood by as Citizen’s Committee’s did their terrible work, or worse yet, as the NRA co-opted King’s memory for the Gulf war, you could stand with the crowd who watched Rome do its terrible work in Judea, you can stand with those who watched as Fox was dragged from churches and beaten, or you could be moved to hear the voice of the dissident, sit at the lunch counter, as hard as that was and is… stop business as usual.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Quaker Schools" Trustees and Mary Dyer...

A fragment of Quaker martyr, Mary Dyer's wedding dress
A fragment of Mary Dyer's Wedding Dress

One day, I held a small piece of Mary Dyer’s wedding dress, the dress in which she was hanged for our faith. I was moved to tears. Today, I look at the state, the craven, political, conniving state of our Meetings, and again I am moved to tears.
Once again, a capable member of a Meeting in the New York Quarter was nominated to be a trustee. And, as has happened again and again in the past, the nomination did not even come to the floor of the Meeting. Why?
Members of Trustees campaigned in the back rooms, without a process of clearness with the nominee, in order to stack the deck against a diversity of thought on Trustees.
I had a conversation with a member of Trustees who told me that he was shocked as I was and was trying to make things better… this is the email I sent this Friend:
Dear Friend:
I appreciate your intentions to help the Meeting become more Quakerly... but, the lessons of our history, not only as Quakers, but as Americans, is the time to do it, is not "with all deliberate speed"... but now.
In the time it took to make things right on Indian reservations, not only did the majority of the land and rights be taken away, funny enough, things were never made right.
In the time it took to create racial equality after Brown v. Board, not only was there white flight from the schools, but funny enough, things were never made equal...
In the time it will take to create balance and end politicking in this Meeting, we will lose property, credibility and members of faith, and my prediction is that things will never be balanced and politics will not end, and we will not come to listen to the will of God as expressed in true unity.
We are not a people of compromise. It is specifically stated in Quaker writing for over three hundred years, unity is not compromise. If we compromise on balance and fairness in this meeting, we take the gift of our faith and throw it back in God's face, and God forgive us for the weakness.
Thine in the light

I find myself convinced that our Meetings are no longer Quaker, but are rather business minded at the expense of the faith handed down to us by generations who stood on the frontiers of faith, often at the cost of their fortunes, their freedom and their lives, and once again, I find myself weeping.
Thy Friend