Quaker prison ministry, California

I found a wonderful blog today, written by a Quaker from Sacramento, California who pursues a QiGong-based prison ministry inside some of the state’s biggest and most inhumane prisons. It’s called Qigong Prison Ministry. (How hard is that?)
The blog’s author, Judy Tretheway, writes in a very straightforward, intimate , and inspiring way about her work. I particularly enjoyed the following recent posts:

Also, this one from November, which says:

    The Ultimate form of Worship is Silence.
    After meditating Saturday evening, preparing for Sunday Meeting for Worship.
    I can not offer myself in a greater way
    to the service of another,
    to God,
    than to listen silently,
    setting my own ideas and needs aside,
    to wait upon their direction;
    to hold them in highest esteem,
    to be in Worship.
    To be in awe
    is to be wordless.
    Not words, nor music; no scent, nor image
    can reflect God, name God or approach God.
    They are self-serving scratches
    at a keyhole so vast
    only the unbounded silence of expectant waiting
    might have a chance at opening the lock,
    that was never locked,
    And open the door
    that has always been open.
    Come put your silence into the lock,
    Open the door into the heart of God,
    Lay yourself in the doorway.
    Offer all that you might ever be
    And always have been.

Thanks so much for everything you do, and everything you have put on this blog, Judy.

Christmas in our Quaker meeting

Quakers generally hold that every day is as holy as any other, every place is as sacred as any other, and every person equally as much a child of God as any other. So we don’t have a “liturgical year” with Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, etc. But we US Quakers do live here in our surrounding culture, with the kids and all of us subjected strongly to the winds of the surrounding culture. And since it’s good to build our community with special gatherings when we can, our Quaker Meeting (church) here in Charlottesville usually has one just before “the time known as Christmas” when our kids tell us some about the things they’ve been learning and lead us in some singing.
This year’s children’s performance was today.
We have the most amazing kids in our children’s program. Ever since 9/11, new families with young children have been coming to our Quaker meeting– looking, I think, for a congregation dedicated to peace, understanding, and nonviolence in which they can raise their kids. And we also have many families who’ve been Quakers for a long time, who have kids of various ages.
Today, at 10 a.m., the under-12s all came into the middle of the square room in which we hold our twice-weekly worship sessions. They were wearing a variety of costumes and had an excited air. Julian Waters, aged about 5, started out by reading some of the account of the Christmas story from one of the Gospels. He was very serious about it. When he got to a place talking about the birth of the “Prince of Peace”, he looked up and– still following his stage directions– asked loudly, “Why are we celebrating Christmas if we’re at war?”
One of the adult friends (Quakers) then led the kids in singing John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches”, which is a lovely song about the “Christmas truce” in the World War 1 trenches, in 1915. (John, who’s a great folk musician, is also a member of our Quaker Meeting, but he wasn’t there today.)
The kids have been studying ‘comparative religions’ in their Sunday school. So most of the half-hour program that followed consisted of various quotations about peace and brotherly love taken from a wide variety of different religions. These were interspersed with other songs, including “This is my song“, which is sung to the haunting “Finlandia” melody, by Sibelius.
Oh and I forgot to mention: at the beginning, a bunch of the adults welcomed the kids in by singing a Sufi chanted version of “La illahi- illallah”, which is very meditative.
In our Meeting we have some really great parents and Sunday school teachers, and we all work hard to raise caring and self-confident kids who have a strong commitment to nonviolence. Lots of us adults were sniffling as we watched our kids this morning– and thinking, too, of the violence of the culture in which we’re trying to raise them.
Talking of our responsibilities as parents… that reminded me about the great job my daughter Lorna Quandt (then 17) and her friends did back in March 2003, when they organized a walkout from Charlottesville High School to protest the launching of the war. You can still read about it, here. I was so proud of her and her friends that day. Later, the Principal gave all those who had participated a couple of extra detentions. (Or was it an “in-school suspension”? I forget.) Anyway, a non-trivial punishment. But that was okay. They knew they would get some punishment– but thought it was important to make their feelings known, all the same.
250 kids walked out of the high school that day. That was around 25% of the entire student body.
Now, we really need to start planning a good public action for March 18, 2006…

Quaker retreat coming up

Tomorrow afternoon, I get the huge pleasure of leaving town and joining many friends (Friends) from my Quaker meeting here in a weekend-long retreat over near Richmond. I’m really looking forward to it. I know many of my Jewish friends have spent the time since sundown yesterday fasting and praying as they “take account” of all their actions over the past year, which I gather is the main point of the Yom Kippur observances. I sort of feel in need of some of the same moral and existential stock-taking… Though mind you, the main focus of this retreat is on “community building”, so it might end up a little different. Who knows?
Last week, I got to teach two classes at the Quaker school we have here in Charlottesville– Tandem Friends School. I was working with a group of 15-year-olds, leading them in two 70-minute explorations of some of the key teachings of John Woolman. They are great young people. Many of them were deeply engaged in thinking through the tough challenge of how to make the world a better place using only life-affirming and non-violent means.
We talked a lot about how, back in the 1750s, John Woolman traveled up and down the east coast of (what would later become) the US, talking to the many Quakers living and farming here then who did so on the basis of their reliance on slave labor. He and a small bunch of other Philadelphia-area Quakers had become opposed to the practice of slavery, but their dilemma was how to persuade all the other members of their beloved Religious Society of Friends that participating in the institution of slavery was not– as some Quakers still held– the ethical thing to do in those times, but was indeed an abomination.
Gradually, over the years, Woolman, Anthony Benezet, and other anti-slavery activists won more and more (Quaker) converts to their cause. Quaker shipowners in Newport RI gradually turned away from their previous, often very lucrative, engagement in slave-capturing expeditions across the Atlantic. Quaker farmers in Virginia and the Carolinas gradually found ways to manumit (free) their slaves– which often wasn’t an easy thing to do. And then, finding that there was no way to make a living on this poor soil if you had to actually pay your farm labor, most of them ended up selling up and moving either to the “new” lands of the west, or to cities, to take up various trades. (And yes, Woolman had a lot to say about the colonists’ taking of the lands from the Indians, too.)
Anyway, my fascination with Woolman stems from this. He and his allies did the slow, steady work of persuasion which over time transformed the Quakers into a solidly anti-slavery body, and was the foundation on which in the 19th century they started to build a nationwide anti-slavery movement. I would like to think that today, we American Quakers could do the same with our opposition to war and global domination. (And by and large, we don’t even have to start where Woolman did, by persuading our own co-religionists that those things are an abomination.)
Quakers are generally (and imho, quite rightly) very wary of self-aggrandisement. If we weren’t, I would have suggested my local Quaker meeting (church) or one of our bigger bodies should take out huge ads all over the country saying something like: Quakers! We were right about slavery so listen to us on war!
Nah… I guess that’s not how we do things… Just telling other people that you’re right and they’re wrong is not, after all, a very successful strategy of persuasion. In fact, as I well know, it can really put people’s backs up…. A strategy based on listening and building relationships is still– now, as always– the best way to win real attitudinal change.
Okay, I know I practice it only very imperfectly here on the blog. But I try, I try.
In Woolman’s journal (the full text of which is available online) he shows that he has listened very carefully to the arguments made by the Quaker slaveowners and slavetraders of his day, and he recounts those arguments in impressive detail– and with an impressive lack of judgmentalism– in the journal. Nowadays, reading it, you’d be more inclined to be aghast… “They believed they were actually doing the Africans a favor by bringing them here to ‘Christendom’!?!?!” “They actually used Biblical stories to try to justify slavery!?!?!” “They believed what?!?” And maybe at the time, Woolman was inwardly pretty aghast, too, given his very different view of the ethical quality of slavery. But the way he describes those forms of argument– and then, methodically, lists the responses he’d given to them– is all written in very straightforward prose. (With never an exclamation point in the whole text, as far as I can recall. Come to think of it, had they invented them then?)
So why am I writing all this here? I’m not entirely sure. I am in a Yom Kippur-ish kind of a mood. Also, the burden of just closely following the whole horrible disaster of this war every so often starts to get to me, and I need to take some time out. Re-reading Woolman, as I have done recently, helps to give our present set of struggles some good perspective. Going to the retreat should be another way to do the same thing.
There is this pesky fact that I’ll be there, Quaker-retreating away like nobody’s business, at the very same time the Iraqi referendum is being held. Oh well.. It’s not as if the referendum is going to change a huge number of things in the greater scheme of things. There will still be plenty to write about– in Iraq, in the rest of the world, when the retreat finishes, Sunday.
But before I go, I’ll post an ‘Iraq open thread’ here so y’all can have a good conversation about it in my absence. This post here, however, is not yet that thread.

Quakers, simplicity, and Christmas

I belong to the “unprogramed” strand of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), which means that when we come together to worship we do so very simply indeed. We have a square, undecorated worship space that every Sunday is opened up twice for people who want to come to pray or meditate together for an hour while we wait for the leadings of the Spirit of Love. Nothing “programed” or pre-planned happens during that hour at all. Sometimes, we’ll sit there for the full hour and no-one will feel led to speak. Sometimes, several people will speak.
In my early experiences of this way of worshiping I found it rather strange, since I’d grown up in the Anglican church. What, no music? No stained glass? No incense? No liturgy? No priest? No ‘communion’? Just– us?
Then, I really started to love unprogramed Quaker worship– for its simplicity, its inclusiveness, its surprises and riches, and its continual, experienced affirmation of the ability of every person to dig deep and discover the workings of love inside themselves.
One part of the way we worship and are organized is that we don’t have any priests, or– as George Fox, the founder of Quakerism in England in the 17th century, called them– “hireling ministers”. Nor do we have churches (“steeple houses”). This helps us to live out the Quaker testimony of simplicity. We don’t have to raise huge amounts of money to pay for the upkeep of grandiose palaces of worship or the salaries of church officials. We are a network of worship communities (“meetings”), each of which governs itself through a monthly “Meeting for worship with a concern for business.”
Another part of the way we worship is that we don’t stick to–or indeed, have any need for– a liturgical calendar. Not for us the massive Christmas-related extravaganzas that many Christian churches here and elsewhere organize. Our Quaker meeting here in Charlottesville, Virginia does have a tradition of having someone open our meeting house for worship twice on Christmas Eve– once at 7:30 p.m., and once at 11 p.m.– and inviting anyone who wants to join a special , one-hour-long meeting for worship at those times to do so. In what some of us think is a slightly un-Quakerly, possibly even liturgical, gesture, participants traditionally each take a candle to the worship; and the candles are placed together in a group on the floor in the middle of the bare, square meeting space…

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U.S. Quaker activism against war

The Friends Committee on National Legislation is a public interest lobby founded by American members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), that for more than 60 years has sought to “[connect] historic Quaker testimonies on peace, equality, simplicity and truth with peace and social justice issues which the United States government is or should be addressing.”
On November 14, FCNL’s governing committee adopted two important documents. The first sets out the “Legislatve Priorities ” on which FCNL will focus during the term of the upcoming (109th) U.S. Congress. The second is a Minute on Moral Values. You can find both texts here.
The Legislative Priorities build directly on the historical testimonies of Quakers– against war, and for a radical commitment to human equality and human wellbeing. So here, after all the deliberation that the FCNL decisionmakers engaged in, are the five top priorities that they identify:

    * Remove all U.S. military forces and bases from Iraq, and fulfill U.S. moral and legal obligations to reconstruct Iraq through appropriate multinational, national, and Iraqi agencies.
    * Promote a framework for national and international security that includes peaceful prevention and resolution of deadly conflicts, active pursuit of arms control and disarmament, adherence to international law, support for the United Nations, and participation in multilateral efforts to address the root causes of war and of terrorism.
    * Restore and assure full civil liberties for all persons in the United States or under its jurisdiction, and promote human rights around the world through international institutions and treaties.
    * Change federal budget, tax, and fiscal policies to reduce military spending, meet pressing human needs, and address structural economic violence.
    * Promote long-term protection of the environment and eliminate a critical cause of violent conflict by reducing oil consumption and accelerating development and use of renewable energy sources.

I am so happy and energized by the clarity of this listing! Quakers may be small in number, but throughout the 350-year-long life of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), they– we– have often played a crucial catalytic role in bringing about real structural change in the societies in which we live.
And now, we are all citizens of the world…

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The planet as rickety boat

I got back home from my trip to China and California yesterday and managed to get to Quaker meeting this morning.
It was SO good to be back. Quakers frequently call Sundays, “First-day”. It takes a bit of getting used to. So two weeks ago I totally didn’t even have a first-day! It always amazes me, flying west across the Atlantic, how you can fly along through one single unbroken night and lose a whole day in there somewhere.
Last first-day, I was in California with Bill and Lorna. We’d spent the night before in SF, and then drove three hours northward to see Granny in the small town of Willits. I guess I could have gotten to a Quaker meeting if I had tried hard enough. But I’d only flown in from China the day before and I was still fairly badly jet-lagged (or jet-ragged, as my Japanese friends say, which always strikes me as even more graphic).
So today, I was determined to go. I made it to the Charlottesville Meeting’s later (11 p.m.) worship session. The moment I walked in the door of the meeting-room I had the same strong sense of warmth, of spirit-power, and of existential homecoming I had the very first time I walked into this simple, square room some seven years ago.
Our meeting room was built from scratch as an addition onto an older wood-frame house some ten years or so ago. It has a lightly pitched, scissor-joisted ceiling with two (?three) long, thin skylights in one side of it, and windows around three sides of the room that look out mainly onto trees, but also onto some houses, a school, and a packing-warehouse. We have twelve or more long, old-fashioned wood benches arranged in three concentric squares on the heathered blue carpet. The walls are white.

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China, and the ‘meanings’ of Christmas

In many of the places I went to during my recent visit to Beijing–and certainly,
throughout the whole of Incheon airport, in South Korea–I found massive,
very obtrusive manifestations of a certain view of “Christmas”. In
the Wangfujiang shopping district of Beijing there were huge inflatable Santas.
Tinsel hung from every eave.

In the lobby of our hotel, the smell of industrial-strength glue rose endlessly
from a specially constructed little Christmas “hut”, topped off with the requisite
sheets of cotton-wool “snow”. At its door, quite inexplicably, one
or sometimes two young Chinese women stood in a glamorized version of a
“Santa” outfit– red satiny mini-dress, Santa hat, black boots– doing as
far as I could tell just about nothing except stand there self-consciously
amidst the piles of pre-wrapped “Christmas presents” for hours on end. Were
they also on offer as merchandise? Who knows?

From the PA system, meanwhile, endless streams of Fa-la-la-la-la or Hark
the Herald made up just about the entire repertoire of the week’s muzak offerings.

On one of my last days there, the CNN went out from the hotel-room cable
offerings so I started flipping channels. Came on the local channel
CCTV with a 20-minute rendering in English of local and world news. Quite
well done, I thought. Afterwards, a magazine-type piece on the theme
of “the growth of Christmas observance in today’s China.”

“More and more Chinese people are learning about the spirit of Christmas,”
the earnest announcer said, over shots of department store Santas, and of
shoppers picking out red-and-green Christmas doodads from the shelves.
“This enables us to learn more about western culture.”

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Quaker gathering

I am still here at the annual session of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I have been a fan of Quaker process for a long time, have worshiped with Quakers for some years now, and finally joined the RSF in early 2001.
What I love about Quaker process is the embodiment of the idea that every woman and man on the earth has a connection to the spirit and can, through quiet, spirit-led discernment, connect with a portion of it; the embodiment of the idea of human equality (i.e. no ministers!); and then, the fact that this strange body of people has found a way to continue in existence, bearing witness to the traditional Quaker testimonies of truth, peace, and simplicity, for just over 350 years now. And has done it–in my branch of Quakerism, anyway– without having any paid clergy or mammoth, cumbersome bureaucracy to maintain.
The way the RSF has done this is through a strong emphasis on congregational self-governance. For example, in Charlottesville, members of the Meeting community have a total of around eight to twelve opportunities to worship quietly together each month. But in addition we are encouraged, once a month, to take part in a Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business at which the business of our Meeting (congregation) gets decided. So we are called a Monthly Meeting.
Then all the Monthly meetings in (roughly) the Chesapeake watershed area are part of what is called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. So once a year all the Quakers in Monthly Meetings in this area are encouraged to take part in the BYM session, which takes larger-scale decisions.
And so, through many periods of persecution, the Religious Society of Friends has survived, and has supported some pretty inspiring social witness by individual Quakers and groups of Quakers even at times when the costs for such witness were high.
This was the first time I was able to get to Yearly Meeting sessions, and it’s been a great experience…

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New York Demonstration

I was one of the lucky ones yesterday, at the anti-war demonstration in NYC. That is, New York’s finest (the cops) actually graciously allowed my daughter, her fiance, and me to join the stationary “rally” for which a permit had been given… That is, after the courts had denied a permit for an anti-war march.
We wanted to join a small “feeder march” being assembled by the Quakers at 53d St & 2nd Ave. We arrived on the V-line subway from Brooklyn, got out at 51st and 3d Ave, hoped to cross easily to 2nd Avenue to find the Quakers. (“We’ll just listen carefully for where there’s a big silence,” I told the future son-in-law.)
Fat chance. The cops were not letting anyone cross to 2nd Ave, even. (The rally was in 1st Ave.) At every intersection they had closely guarded barriers, and they funneled us ever further north with promises that we could cross eastward one or two blocks further up… Thousands of anti-war demonstrators from many parts of NYC and elsewhere were being herded north– away from the rally–but moving along good-naturedly. We became quite a large group of people moving north along the broad sidewalks. Why, it even looked like a march!
At 59th St, they finally let us cross east. By then, it was too late to join the Quaker group, so we walked right on over to 1st Ave and walked a couple of blocks south to join the main body of the rally between 56th and 57th Sts. We “arrived” there at just about noon, the time the event was scheduled to begin. We could not see the head of the rally at all, but watched the whole event on a large screen half a block ahead of us.
The prayers and invocations at the beginning were very moving: a black Baptist Bishop, a Muslim imam, a woman rabbi, a Hispanic Catholic, and the keening prayer of the Chief of the Lakota Sioux. Then, there was an amazing constellation of speakers, including my old favorite Archbishop Tutu. Pete Seeger came out, despite the intense cold and his advancing years, and led a song. The crowd around us stamped their feet or jogged in place to try to get warm. Some notable signs I saw: “Stop mad cowboy disease”, “Duct and cover!” and even a quote from Ovid pinned to someone’s backpack.
Shortly after 2 p.m., I needed to leave. Getting out of the pens the police had made for us was almost as hard as getting in. When I did make it back to 2nd Ave, and then again at 3d Ave– each time, there were barricades up with the police still preventing people from moving east to 1st Ave. Some of those people had been trying to get through for the past two hours. Mostly, the police just seemed businesslike and very firm, stamping their feet and exchanging grimaces about the dire cold.
At one of the intersections I passed on my way out, however, the police were all in riot gear, unlike all the others I’d seen. They were standing around seemingly just spoiling for a fight. Nearby were parked coaches from the prison department, ready, I surmised, to be loaded with arrestees. I didn’t have time to stop and make a clear assessment, however.
And just about all the way over to where I got on the F train at 63rd and Lexington, the traffic was at a complete standstill
The effect of the court order banning a march, and of the way the police then played their role, was that a lot of people who had come to join the event, including some who’d come hundreds of miles to do so, were prevented from exercising their right to assemble peacefully. Probably, the effects on traffic and on non-demonstrating New Yorkers, were just as bad or worse than what would have been caused by allowing a well-planned march. The police ended up making a hundred or fewer arrests. But they certainly cleaned up on their overtime.
* * *
DRIVING HOME WITH GARRISON KEILLOR: After the rally I drove south. I had dinner with a family friend at Haverford College, in Philly; drove some more; got in late to the home of another friend in DC; left the car outside; went to bed totally knackered
This morning, I found DC magically blanketed in 7 inches of fresh snow, and more coming all the time. I was eager to get back to my hearth and home here in Charlottesville, Va., and figured the going would only get worse for the next couple of days.
It took 40 mins to dig the car out. I knew the drive would be tough but I had warm clothes, food, water, a cellphone, and set off around the beltway to I-66.
The first couple of hours, I had “Prairie Home Companion” on the radio. Garrison Keillor was hilarious. I really haven’t listened much to him recently.
The most hilarious parts were when he was skewering the Bush administration. Lots of jokes about duct tape– of course. And then, a great riff when they were talking about reports that the “Rapture” long awaited by the evangelicals had just taken place. (Asked whether this was true, the ‘President’ said, “Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?”) I shouldn’t spoil the suspense, in case you’re waiting for the re-runs. But I will just reveal that most of the truly righteous souls taken to glory in the Rapture turned out to be Lutherans…
Here’s the thing, though. If even fairly mainstream entertainers like Garrison Keillor are so openly mocking of the Bushies’ present war preparations and scaremongering, shouldn’t the Bushies be paying a lot more attention to that?
Here’s another thing. I wasn’t around in the US during the Vietnam war. And I know the American involvement there grew up differently from the assembling and possibly imminent activation of a massive invasion force that we see around Iraq today.
But it strikes me that the kind of coalition that I saw firsthand in New York– labor unions, black and Latino organizations, churches and other faith groups, public intellectuals, members of the US Congress, etc etc– is a pretty impressive anti-war force to have assembled already… and thus far, the “really big” phase of the war hasn’t even been launched.
Plus, the international dimension of the peace movement is very evident, and very important. We were trying to rally near the U.N., where just the day before French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin received unprecedented applause for his plea to try to avoid war. We were rallying, too, on the same day as millions of other folks from all round the world…
This is not the 1960s. The worldwide anti-war forces are, I firmly believe, in far stronger shape today.
And then, duct tape??? These guys simply can’t be serious.