Articles & News

On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 11:10pm
By Parker J. Palmer. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018. 192 pages. $19.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Buy from QuakerBooks

I rarely read a book with a highlighter in hand. But soon after starting through this set of essays and poems by Parker Palmer, I went in search of one. This book is filled with nuggets of insight that I wanted to receive and return to again and again.

That’s because Palmer is a fine writer and a reliable witness. He is no “expert witness” like those in courtroom dramas, but rather faithfully relates wisdom gleaned from success and failures along the pilgrim path.

“Every day, I get closer to the brink of everything.” That’s how Palmer opens. Immediately, I thought, “Tell me more,” because that’s a feeling I’ve been having and learning to embrace of late. He proceeds to do so. On that same page he says, “I’m done with big and complex projects, but more aware of the loveliness of simple things: a talk with a friend, a walk in the woods, sunsets and sunrises, a night of good sleep.” While I agree with the loveliness of the latter, I would argue with him that he is not quite done with big and complex projects (after all, putting together a book dealing with the topics he addresses here is a big and complex project!), but rather he has learned the value of doing what is truly important. And part of learning what is truly important depends on where we are in life and our vocation (which he addresses in a later chapter).

The second and fifth chapters work especially well together. Chapter two is subtitled “The Dance of the Generations,” and chapter five is about staying engaged in the world as we age. As Palmer notes in the opening of chapter two, throughout his life he’s been lucky to have worked with people younger than he was. This chapter illustrates the joy of intergenerational relationships and learning. Chapter five reminds us that while the energy and enthusiasm of youth will invariably change as we grow old, we aren’t dead yet and have important work and wisdom to impart—not, as Palmer notes, so that we can warn from making the mistakes we made, but to “share our experience with younger folks in ways that help them step up, not back … let’s walk alongside them as they ‘do it anyway.’ ” In chapter five, Palmer also urges us to dismiss the idea that advancing age is the time for withdrawing from serious engagement in the world—especially in perilous times such as these. I’m thankful for Palmer’s call to avoid that trap of thinking my work now is nothing compared to my work earlier in my life. It’s not; it’s just different. And it’s work I couldn’t have done earlier.

The above is just one reason that the section on “Getting Real: From Illusion to Reality” is so important. Getting real helps us to move to our truest selves rather than living, in Thomas Merton’s words (quoted by Palmer), “lives of self-impersonation.” Palmer then relates the Hasidic tale of Rabbi Zusya who said, “In the world to come they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ” Getting real leads us, he says, to such authenticity and faithfulness rather than the world’s emphasis on results.

I also feel that chapters four (“Work and Vocation”) and six (“Keep Reaching In”) go together. Certainly it’s hard to determine one’s truest vocation without staying engaged with our souls. As Palmer says, “naming the jobs by which I’ve made a living is not the same as naming the vocation by which I’ve made meaning.” As we consider the work by which we make meaning, surely the most important practices for uncovering such meaning include silence, solitude, and soulful reflection.

The final full chapter is “Over the Edge: Where We Go When We Die.” Palmer offers some thoughts on this “ultimate tourist destination,” but largely concurs with singer-songwriter Iris DeMent’s statement: “I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

While this volume addresses issues that may seem related mostly to those of us approaching what Palmer calls the “brink of everything,” it is not just for old adult Friends (or OAFs) like me. Adult readers of all ages will find On the Brink of Everything helpful and illuminating. Though as Palmer says, “there are no shortcuts to wholeness,” this is certainly a worthy guidebook for anyone walking that particular path.

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Categories: Articles & News

How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 11:05pm
By George Lakey. Melville House, 2018. 224 pages. $16.99/paperback; $13.99/eBook (title available December 2018). Buy from QuakerBooks

In June 1934 Quaker biblical scholar Henry Cadbury gave a keynote address to the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In his talk, Cadbury encouraged the assembled rabbis to show nothing but “good will” toward the Nazis and refuse to “fight back” in any way. Cadbury said that Jews and their allies should restrict themselves to engaging the Nazis in respectful dialogue and making verbal appeals to their “German sense of justice and the German national conscience.”

You might expect that the rabbis responded by angrily defending military efforts to put an end to the Nazi regime, but they didn’t. They objected instead to Cadbury’s rejection of all forms of nonviolent resistance, including organizing boycotts to weaken the Nazi regime. They objected to his saying that the power-wielding, nonviolent resistance campaigns used by Gandhi in the struggle to end British imperialism in India were “simply war without bloodshed” and should be avoided by all adherents of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The conference attenders even adopted a resolution rejecting Cadbury’s advice.

As a teenage Quaker in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I came to the same conclusion as these good rabbis. Borrowing books from my little Midwestern meeting’s library, I read the justice-loving prophets of the Bible, the nonviolent resistance writings of Gandhi and King, and several histories of Quaker nonviolent resistance to social evil from the “Lamb’s War” of the mid-1600s to campaigns of the present day. In the process, I stumbled upon George Lakey’s A Manifesto for Nonviolent Revolution. This Quaker activist made so much sense! Since then, I have read every book written by Lakey, including his recent How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning.

How We Win is a practical manual for activists and essential reading for anyone who seeks to contribute meaningfully to social movements. I particularly recommend the book to all Quakers who are open to exploring nonviolent resistance as radical faithfulness in action—which even Cadbury did in his later years.

Lakey does not overplay the capacity of large, legal nonviolent protests to create change. He has learned that, by themselves, such marches and rallies are not how we win. As Lakey notes, “when I look back on the one-off protests I’ve joined over the years, I don’t remember a single one that changed the policy we were protesting.” He argues instead that to make protests like the Women’s March or the March for Our Lives more powerful, they need to be events within longer-term “nonviolent direct action campaigns.”

What Lakey means by “campaigns” is sustained, grassroots, collective efforts by ordinary people over time. Campaigns should adapt what Gandhi called “civil resistance” tactics into a strategic and escalating trajectory. Indeed, Lakey suggests moving well beyond simple protests into campaigns that include disruptive interventions like the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s civil rights activists as well as acts of mass noncooperation like labor strikes, tax refusal, or consumer boycotts.

While Lakey believes that electoral campaigning, lobbying, and litigation can be useful, he argues that nonviolent resistance campaigns are needed to build enough popular power to win needed reforms in the public interest.

The bad news, of course, is that organizing nonviolent direct action campaigns is difficult and sometimes risky work. Campaigns take time; often face repression; and require a steep learning curve to gain the knowledge, wisdom, and skill needed to be successful. The good news is that nonviolent resistance campaigns can be empowering (fun even), and frequently prove to be effective. In How We Win, Lakey weaves in hundreds of examples and stories of the ways campaigns around the world have won significant victories “addressing racism, sexism, and other systematic oppressions, environmental crises, violence, dictatorship and authoritarian abuses, and more.”

Lakey draws on his own extensive experience, his nonviolent action training workshops, and his decades-long study of nonviolent resistance movements—including his work with students at Swarthmore College researching and compiling over 1,000 campaign case studies in their online Global Nonviolent Action Database.

How We Win is written in a clear, conversational, and inviting style. Lakey covers important topics such as selecting issues, analyzing power dynamics and the social pillars of support for power holders, nurturing organizations, developing leadership, training participants, strategy and tactics to strengthen the campaign and weaken the campaign’s target, dealing with attacks and repression, building diverse coalitions, and encouraging bold visions. Lakey also offers a wide variety of strategy tools here, three interviews with comrades from Earth Quaker Action Team, and a solid resource section at the end.

As Lakey says, “This book describes the best practices I know for how people can work together to make a difference.” Reading it will be well worth your time. Applying its insights is even more useful.

Correction: The print version incorrectly stated that Cadbury’s speech happened during wartime. As stated, it took place in 1934 as the Nazis were rising in power but before the commencement of hostilities.

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Categories: Articles & News

Faith and Play: Quaker Stories for Friends Trained in the Godly Play Method (Second Edition)

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 11:00pm
By the Faith and Play Group, edited by Melinda Wenner Bradley. QuakerPress of FGC, 2017. 140 pages. $20/paperback. Buy from QuakerBooks

How do we help children develop their own relationship with the Divine and encourage their spiritual and faith formation? In many Quaker meetings, the question of how to make the children’s First-day program relevant, inspiring, and effective is often a topic of discussion. The task of choosing an approach or curriculum can be daunting, as many fine curricula abound. In my preparation to review the book and program known as Faith and Play/Godly Play, I have discovered that there are many questions that deserve exploration before a thoughtful decision can be made. As a meeting, we need to explore our deepest philosophy of education and how we want it to manifest in the religious education of our children.

As a lifelong Montessorian and a Quaker for most of my adult life, I was immediately drawn to this book and delighted to find an intersection between two areas in my life that are critically important to me. I also found it useful to trace the history of this approach in order to understand the context in a deeper and more informed way.

Faith and Play for Quakers grew out of the experience that Friends had with the Godly Play curriculum approach which is rooted in Montessori principles and evolved in many ways from the original work of Sofia Cavalletti and her Montessori collaborator, Gianna Gobbi. Cavalletti was introduced to Gobbi after having been asked to teach religion at a Montessori school in Rome where she lived and worked as a Hebrew and religious scholar. Together they developed the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in 1954 with the goal of helping children to have “a living encounter with the living God.” Jerome Berryman, a Montessorian himself as well as graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, was a friend of and in many ways influenced by Dr. Cavalletti. He published his first Godly Play curriculum in 2002.

Each of these approaches is grounded in Montessori principles that have successfully guided the education of children around the world for more than 100 years. Based on the belief that children are their own best teachers and that the adult should be a guide rather than the purveyor of knowledge, Maria Montessori advocated that children should be afforded the independence and freedom of movement, within a carefully prepared environment, to follow their interests and discover learning according to their own developmental time table.

In each of these curricula, children are encouraged to experience the presence of God in their own lives by directly experiencing and pondering stories of faith in a tangible and hands-on way, which is a core component of the Montessori method. As written in the introduction to Faith and Play, it is a “story-based curriculum focused on building spiritual community with children and offering them images and language to express their wonder and experience of the Divine.” As a specifically Quaker work, authored by six members of the Faith and Play Group, this second edition text offers children the opportunity to explore explicit Quaker tenets such as “continuing revelation; multiple perspectives on a story; silence, reflection, and corporate sharing as valuable components of the spiritual life; and the diversity of ways the Spirit works within each person.” While other curricula are solidly based on Bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments, this work contains stories on Quaker faith and practice as well as “some Bible content told in ways that reflect Quaker sensibilities.” It is noted that these stories are meant to be used in conjunction with Godly Play, and it is highly recommended by the authors that specific training occur before either curriculum is implemented.

Faith and Play is divided into sections that cover basic Quaker faith and practice, such as images and symbols of the Divine; meeting for worship and meeting for business; our individual and corporate role in meeting; and queries, as well as stories related to the testimonies and stories of witness that highlight such weighty Quakers as George Fox, Margaret Fell, Mary Fisher, John Woolman, and Elizabeth Fry. It also includes “An Easter Story for Friends” as well as appendices which minutely detail how to create the materials for use with the stories and manage the details of the lesson, using the circle and time for the children to do their own work.

As an educator of children for many years, I know that we serve children best when we provide the right environment and gentle support that allows them a truly experiential way to listen, reflect, and seek answers to questions they formulate for themselves. Spiritual development and the evolution of faith is deeply personal and begins in the early years. This book gives the reader a detailed way of offering such a gift to the children in our meetings.

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Categories: Articles & News

The Inner Guide versus the Inner Critic: The Journey from Judgment to Love

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:55pm
By Christine Wolff. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 448), 2017. 34 pages. $7/pamphlet. Buy from QuakerBooks

Christine Wolff, a psychologist using the Diamond Approach, writes of the interaction of what she calls the “Inner Critic” with what Friends call the “Inner Guide.” The Inner Critic or Judge is the inner voice that criticizes and tells us we have failed, are not good enough, or are guilty. It raises fears that—if we were to speak or act boldly—we would not be loved or valued. The Inner Critic was birthed by the need of the young child to obey their parents or caregivers. But this mechanism is not helpful for spiritually maturing adults because it acts as a gatekeeper hindering our full experiencing or even awareness of the range of our emotions. We need to feel all of our emotions, but we do not need to act upon them.

Wolff helpfully differentiates among the Inner Critic (which is harsh in its dichotomous judgments), the Conscience (which is much more nuanced and develops, from personal observation and experience, a sense of fairness and empathy), and the Inner Guide (that offers truth known intuitively, often with an immediate sense of Divine Presence). One way to differentiate them is to pay attention to one’s emotions. The Inner Critic tries to suppress “negative” emotions such as anger, fear, jealousy, sadness, guilt, or whatever is deemed “unquakerly.” But if we do not acknowledge them, they will come out later in unexpected ways. The author wisely reminds us, “We do not get to choose what we feel, although we can choose how to handle the feelings once we have acknowledged them.”

That busy Inner Critic often uses the old technique of projection to try to make ourselves feel better by projecting our own negative feelings on others. Judgment supplants compassion. Wolff points out: “We are not bad people because we are not perfect. Once we learn to accept ourselves as flawed, it becomes easier to accept our mistakes without criticizing ourselves for them.” Owning our own self-judgment and mistakes enables us to more easily accept others for whom they are.

The reasons we so strongly cling to the Inner Critic rather than trusting the Inner Guide include its familiarity and the sense of security and certainty it provides. It is rigid and stern. It enjoys judging others, often disguising our efforts to straighten someone else out as doing it for their own good. But the Inner Critic is very threatened by love: the sure, calm, all-encompassing love that is the matrix in which the Inner Guide lives and works.

This is a useful pamphlet that provides helpful suggestions for getting past the blocks to discerning and following the still, small voice of the Inner Guide. It comes with three exercises and brief suggestions for how to use the pamphlet in adult First-day school. A faith community could be enriched and strengthened by taking on the lessons offered here.

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Categories: Articles & News

Humanity in the Face of Inhumanity

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:50pm
By Sue Williams. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 451), 2018. 34 pages. $7/pamphlet. Buy from QuakerBooks

This refreshing little work introduces us to goodness, to acts by ordinary people of caring and kindness in contexts of violence, war, and breakdown of the systems of civilization: acts of humanity in inhumane contexts.

Sue Williams has observed the exemplary humanity of which she writes. She regrets, she says, that she did not begin to notice these acts and the people who do them earlier in her life. She writes of people who were background to the major events we read about in our newspapers and historical accounts, people who chose to act in a courageous and selfless manner when need arose.

Williams’s career was in political mediation, peacebuilding, transformation of conflict, and reconciliation. Her observations come from that context, but the stories she tells here are not the stories of the main players. They are stories of people who as “innocent bystanders” chose to act with kindness and generosity in stressful, and often dangerous, circumstances. They take place in a wide variety of settings: Uganda, Colombia, Afghanistan, North Carolina, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, and more.

There are stories that honor perseverance. We learn about postal workers in a war zone who continued to sort their community’s mail when the mail trucks stopped coming to take it to its destinations, and about a man who kept meteorological readings for 15 years after his salary stopped and after the scientists were no longer able to come and collect them. When she passed through their war-ravaged town, the postal workers filled her Jeep with the community’s efforts to be in touch with the outside world, and the keeper of weather readings gave her a shoebox full of data that was gratefully received by a meteorologist to whom she delivered it.

Other stories tell of great courage. When no air charter company would do so for any price, a pilot flew Williams (for only the cost of the fuel) into an embattled airport where she was to follow up on contacts with an army commander and a rebel group in the early stages of a peace process. An elderly woman volunteered as a prison visitor, and when her home was broken into, she resisted calling the police and instead talked with the intruder, because why wait until he was in prison to try to help him find ways to straighten out his life?

In a story about the very beginnings of Quaker work with prisoners in Northern Ireland, Williams describes faithful adherence to human values, though doing so risked tainting the political reputation of Quakerdom for neutrality between sides, as helpers served families of prisoners who were all on one side of the conflict.

Let us watch for such acts of humanity and honor them. Perhaps a revolution in our newsrooms would lead to an upsurge in interest in human acts of kindness, courage, and perseverance in the midst of what many of us experience as the crumbling of what we worked to build throughout our lives.

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Categories: Articles & News

SELF-ish: A Transgender Awakening

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:45pm
By Chloe Schwenke. Red Hen Press, 2018. 260 pages. $17.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

At Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s Women’s Retreat two years ago, I had the privilege of leading a writing workshop about exploring our womanhood in all the forms it takes. I was teaching creative writing at University of Maryland that year, and I brought my experiences from those classes to my Women’s Retreat workshop—including asking Friends to share their preferred pronouns when they shared their names.

This practice got varied responses. Most people said, “she/her.” Some said, “I use women’s pronouns.” And one Friend said, “Just smile and point at me.”

I thought this Friend seemed uncomfortable, and asked later if I was correct in my impression that the question didn’t speak to her. The response was one of concern: “The grand scale of this discussion about gender identity strikes me as self-absorbed.… I worry that if we become too obsessed with our personal identities we might miss the chance to care for others.”

I did not know what to say then. Today, I would hand that Friend, and any Friends with the same question, SELF-ish by Chloe Schwenke.

Schwenke has lived and worked on at least four continents that I counted in my reading. She has worked as an architect, a policy expert, an ethics advisor, a professor, and was the senior advisor on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance in Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development under the Obama Administration. Her feminism and fierce social justice advocacy for LGBTQ people around the world are informed by her training, work, her Quaker faith, and her experiences as a transgender woman.

Schwenke’s memoir of transitioning genders gracefully balances an academic exploration of gender—summarizing Judith Butler’s theory of performative acts, discussing the distinctions between sexuality and gender identity, and unpacking popular culture portrayals of trans folks—with personal anecdotes. And it examines exactly the question that arose for the Friend I was with at Women’s Retreat: “Are we morally permitted to be self-ish when our identity itself is on the line?”

SELF-ish tells the story of how the author found and nurtured Chloe—a self who was for childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood buried deep under gender-assigned-at-birth—and tells of a life that is not defined by self-absorption, but spoke to me of a woman whose Light burns so fiercely that it fuels work dedicated to the good of others. Schwenke points to the differences in the ways she worked with international communities before and after her transition: the transition from international architect, planner, and developer to human rights advocate.

“Kenya offered me an adventuresome young gentleman’s dream,” Schwenke recalls in the chapter “Singing Messenger, Dancing Advocate—In Africa!” of her trip there at age 28, when she was known to the world as Stephen. “If I had any feminine inclinations or subconscious awareness of Chloe, they (and she) were pushed down to an inaccessible part of my psyche.… I was living large, living male, but not listening to my life at all.”

Schwenke’s transition from living a misgendered life, one in which she went unacknowledged as a woman, to living openly as herself was one that allowed her to live other parts of her life differently as well. It led to a life of advocacy and thought.

Thinking back to my Friend’s question about whether preoccupation with the self might preclude us from thinking about others, I see a distinction between the words “selfish,” as in self-absorption, and “self-ish” in the way Schwenke uses it. The latter means devoting oneself to living authentically. To be selfish is to be thoughtless; to be self-ish is to be intentional, to be aware, to be fully present with oneself. It is this meaning that Schwenke embraces.

In the chapter “Stereotypes,” Schwenke tells of a gathering of transgender women from around the United States that she attended while midway through her own transition. In this chapter, she makes, apologetically, an incredible confession: a fear that she wouldn’t be able to “pass” as a woman, that she would “be the embodiment of one of the worst transgender stereotypes: the man in a dress.… I simply wanted to be Chloe, a woman, and not Chloe, a transgender woman.”

The fear—and the nonsensical injustice!—of being viewed by others as “inauthentic” in her presentation of herself is a clear theme of the memoir. Later in that same chapter, she goes on to write of herself and of other trans folks: “we simply—but emphatically—claim ourselves as whole persons, and no one is better qualified to know us.” For me, that is the core message of Schwenke’s memoir.

Gender is so fundamental to ourselves that it’s hard to see it as its own subject, out of context of the rest of our lives. It is so pervasive, so present in so many aspects of our lives that it’s hard to understand it as anything but essentially linked to the physical body. SELF-ish asks cisgendered readers like me—readers who identify with the genders assigned to them at birth—to pause and imagine how disconcerting, how painful it is to be told that what you know to be fundamentally true about yourself is wrong, that you do not know the truth about your own body, mind, and way of being in the world.

Asserting one’s selfhood, over and over, in the face of being constantly misgendered, discriminated against, and physically endangered requires strength and faith. It requires a person to be “self-ish.”

My query for Friends who do not see all the facets of gender—who may wonder why we leave space for preferred pronouns on name tags, or feel uncomfortable when they see a person whose gender isn’t immediately made obvious by outward expression through clothing, hairstyle, accessories—is this: how can we be fully present and attuned to our community, families, friends if we are spending energy tamping down that of God within us? Shouldn’t we live in whatever way lets us feel more authentic, more ourselves, more true to the Spirit?

Quaker faith challenges us to “align our light with our faith and values.” After reading SELF-ish, I can say this: not only is self-ishness okay, it is necessary to a life of true integrity.

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Categories: Articles & News

Treading Water at the Shark Café: A Memoir of the Yugoslav Wars

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:40pm
By Lyndon Back. Open Books Press, 2018. 248 pages. $17.95/paperback; $3.99/eBook. Buy from QuakerBooks

In the early 1990s, Lyndon Back was living in the Philadelphia suburbs and working as director of planned giving for American Friends Service Committee. An avid follower of news, she was absorbed in following the fighting and suffering in the civil wars that were tearing Yugoslavia apart. For Back, as for many others, it was hard to understand why centuries-long neighbors abruptly turned violently on each other.

And then, in the fall of 1993, she watched on TV in horror as Stari Most, a bridge over a chasm in Mostar that divided the Christian and Muslim sectors of that town, was shelled, exploded, and vanished as people cheered. This beautiful, graceful, and fragile architectural treasure had survived for half a millennium and was gone in an instant.

Back was devastated. Seeking a place to put her energies, she joined the Community of Bosnia Foundation, which set about educating people about the religion of Islam. By 1995, as Muslims were experiencing genocide, this local group had taken on the task of bringing Bosnian Muslim high school students to Philadelphia for a respite from the conflict.

Support work for these students evolved into full-fledged sponsorship, and in the process, Lyn befriended high school students from across the ethnic divides. In particular, she was drawn to two girls: a Muslim from Bosnia and an Orthodox Christian from Serbia. She was touched to see the two befriend and lend moral support to each other as they encountered the reality of high school in America. Lyn also observed that students of all the major groups—Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Croatian Catholics—were experiencing isolation and prejudice in this country, as at home.

Many years before, as a child, Back had been taught about children in Germany who were suffering at the end of World War II, and at that time she had wondered if she could come to the aid of suffering people and act as bravely as some conscientious objectors she had heard about had done. Now, a half-century later, she was ready. She sought to educate and prepare herself, and eventually to travel to the former Yugoslavia to visit her new contacts there. In the process she abandoned a secure career, which puzzled relatives and friends who thought she had come unhinged.

Luckily for us, Back had acquired the habit of journaling, and as a result we have this careful record and narrative of a self-driven peacemaker bravely traversing territories—Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vojvodina, Republika Srpska, and Kosovo—that appeared in the news in nightmarish headlines. Back was led by providence to wander among the homes of students, their families, and chance acquaintances. Meanwhile, on top of this personal web, she followed the strands of international non-governmental organizations and their mixed crews of staff and volunteers who were doing their best to minister to the needs of harassed populations.

What she experienced was a terrain filled with chilling encounters with the official world, alternating with heartwarming respites in intimate family circles. She received a hands-on education in dealing with the bureaucracy of refugees and immigration. And she was able to observe close-up how participants in movements struggled to maintain or restore civility while contending everywhere with nationalist loyalties. Even for the devotees to nonviolence, it was a constant struggle to keep faith.

The years of the Yugoslav Wars were deep soil for understanding how to coexist peacefully where distinct cultures have intermingled for generations on the same territory. Back was not alone; others in the nonviolence movement gravitated there. For a parallel portrayal by another activist, see passages in David Hartsough’s Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist, published in 2014. Back and Hartsough moved around contemporaneously and were engaged in compatible activist work on the same landscape, but these two apparently did not meet.

Lyndon Back’s Treading Water at the Shark Café is an engaging, exquisitely documented, and touching account of a deeply personal journey.

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Categories: Articles & News

The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:35pm
By Mohammed Al Samawi. William Morrow, 2018. 336 pages. $27.99/hardcover; $14.99/eBook.

Mohammed Al Samawi is the son of two Yemeni doctors who studied abroad. Yet he had limited knowledge of the world and other religions. He read a Christian Bible he was given and was struck with the similarities between Christianity and Islam. He managed to attend several interfaith conferences, where he met people of other faiths. But as an unmarried son still living at home, he had to mislead his parents to accomplish this. He would tell his parents that his objective was to convert attendees to the one true faith or that he was attending to enhance his professional career. It is very dangerous to pursue interfaith understanding in Yemen. Al Samawi wanted young people in Yemen to have an opportunity to communicate with young people from other countries and religions. He naively set up an opportunity for this kind of communication on social media without being forthcoming about where these other young people lived. When it was discovered that they were Israelis, he was suspected of working for the Mossad. He was lucky to survive this mistake.

This background information helps the reader understand Al Samawi’s experiences during the current war in Yemen. For example, to protect his family, he left his family home, his city, and everything familiar to him. He walked right into incredible danger. His only relative in this new location refused to allow him to live in his home. The result was that he was alone in an unfamiliar city where he knew no one. Even worse, he might easily be suspected of being the enemy because of his ethnic background. Even if he could get back home, that option might endanger his family.

Out of desperation, he turned to his Facebook friends from around the world. These were people he had met at interfaith conferences. These friends were Jews and Christians, the very people he had been brought up to distrust. None of them were seasoned diplomats or had high-powered positions. They did not have enormous wealth. Yet by contacting their friends and colleagues, they were able to help Al Samawi. His actual escape is full of suspense and the twists and turns we expect in a thriller. It is well-written with enough detail to help readers with limited background about Yemen better understand the situation there. I highly recommend the book to Friends who want to increase their knowledge of the region.

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Categories: Articles & News

Gut It to the Studs

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:30pm
By Letitia VanSant. Self-released (, 2018. 11 tracks. $15/CD or LP; $10/digital download.

Letitia VanSant, Quaker indie folk and Americana singer-songwriter, recently made a big leap in her professional life, leaving a nonprofit career (at Friends Committee on National Legislation) and moving into full-time musician life. Gut It to the Studs, her fourth album, reflects the courage, faith, and artistic and personal maturity represented by that move. The world has recognized it too.

In 2017, she won the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition, a long-running event that attracts the likes of Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Anais Mitchell, and Caroline Spence. Songs from her new album have also won critical acclaim from the Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest (Gold; Folk Category), Falcon Ridge (Emerging Artist), and Rocky Mountain Folks Fest Songwriting Contest (First Alternate).

VanSant’s songwriting has come into its own as well. Friends will recognize themes of living a life of integrity off the beaten path; seeking to take back one’s life from fear; retaining hope and grounding in the midst of challenging political and personal circumstances; building community that reclaims what is true out of the metaphorical cracks in the sidewalk; and having the courage to be a part of social movements, rather than remaining an onlooker. VanSant wrote all the songs in this album except for two: one co-written with longtime musical collaborator Will McKindley-Ward, and a powerful cover of the Buffalo Springfield protest anthem “For What It’s Worth,” which brings an historic perspective to the police brutality protest movement. VanSant is never short on historical perspective. “Sundown Town” reflects on how our obsession with safety contributes to historic and contemporary segregation and racial injustice.

Musically these songs are less adorned than in her last album, letting the strong songwriting shine through. Expert arranging, side players, and production make this a more polished piece of work, while honoring the essential core of the music. Folk fans will be glad to know that you can hear and understand every word, which is wonderful because you will want to soak up the wisdom, encouragement, and challenge in the lyrics. The one I am left humming is the title track, a great reminder that returning to what is core is often necessary work in order to be able to offer our best to an aching world and to each other.

The post Gut It to the Studs appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Barbara Graves

Friends Journal - Wed, 10/31/2018 - 10:20pm
Graves—Barbara Graves, 104, on December 22, 2017, at home at the Redwoods Retirement Community in Mill Valley, Calif. Barbara was born on May 27, 1913, in Geneva, N.Y., the youngest of seven children. Following college in North Carolina, she worked for the 1939 World’s Fair and then for the British War Relief Society, where she learned about the Red Cross, for which she directed the Rest and Convalescent Homes Division in England beginning in 1942, being awarded a (rare for civilians) Bronze Star for providing recovery furloughs for Allied airmen in 1943–45. She began exploring pacifism and Quakers after
Categories: Articles & News

Tenth Month 2018, in Belize

Friends United Meeting - Mon, 10/29/2018 - 6:35pm

Please enjoy the latest newsletter from Adrian Bishop and Rosalie Dance, Living Letters volunteers in Belize:

Greetings from Belize City.  Thank you for keeping us and our school and the Southside of Belize City in your hearts and minds.  We do feel supported by you!

Sandi gave us 8 Izzy dolls to travel with us to Belize.  If you are not acquainted with these sweet things, you can learn their history and see pictures here.   We have just begun to distribute them, a delicate task because we have more than 8 children!  The first recipient was my young friend Elroy. For him, it was a birthday gift on his 14th birthday.  I showed it to him and asked him if he would like to have it.  His eyes lit up! He said, “Yes, Ma’am!” I told him to talk to it at night.  “If you have any problems, any at all, tell him,” I said. With a big smile, he put the doll in his bag and ran toward home.

Then I gave the other 7 to our pastor, Oscar Mmbali, and asked him to distribute them as he saw fit, but to start with a girl, one of 12 children who suffers from severe verbal abuse in her family and was especially sad and hurt a few days ago.

And then to give one to a young boy whose birthday is coming up soon.  He will be 12, a very small but very bright child who came to the school after almost being sent to prison for working in a bar at the age of 11.  He had been forced to work there. He was successful in making the judge understand that and also that he wanted to be back in Belize City with his mother.  He and his sisters had been sent away to an aunt (who owns the bar in her village) because their mother, an alcoholic, was not caring for them. They are back with their mother now, and so far, he is thriving.  He is a strong classroom leader. I think he is going to appreciate having someone to talk things over with at night, too.

There are so many things that could be better at our school, and some of them are beginning to happen.  We have just completed an 18-hour basic Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) workshop with the children over 5 days between Oct 2 and Oct 11.  Bette Hoover from Sandi Spring Meeting (Baltimore Yearly Meeting) came to facilitate along with Carmen Hamilton from St Thomas, VI.

We are going to want to continue AVP work, and we’ll need funding for it.  This session used up the funds we got from NY Yearly Meeting and Wilmington Meeting.  Bette and Carmen worked not only with Belize City Friends School but also another Belize City school (Gateway) that serves children like ours, a Mayan village on the Belize-Guatemala border, and a prison just outside Belize City.  The funding we had was for Belize Friends Center outreach beyond just our school, enabling support for their whole endeavor. AVP is a powerful tool. We are glad to see it being supported and strengthened here. We’ll need to establish a version of it closer to HIPP (Help Increase the Peace Project) AFSC’s version for elementary and middle schools) at our school as we continue.

We hope to support the children in a tree-planting partnership with Belize City Council and the Forest Department to help conserve the environment and mitigate environment-related concerns of health and well-being.  They can learn much about the environment that way, along with soil science and plant biology. We can’t do what we plan until we get some seeds, soil, and seedling containers as prescribed by the Forestry Department, but we have started anyway with planting avocado pits and squash seeds in the ground beside the school.

The growing problem of human trafficking has not spared Belize.  Oscar Mmbali, pastor of Belize City Friends Meeting, worked for Transparency International on ending human trafficking in Thailand, so we have an experienced and knowledgeable expert here.  I know there is human trafficking going on in Baltimore, too, modern day slavery as people say here. I do not know how widespread the effects of this terrible practice are in North America, but we are told that traffickers here take their victims there.  We hope to help the children understand the dangers and learn to recognize signs of human trafficking, and then to start a campaign to alert other children.

Our Belize Wish List includes both of these initiatives. Please ask us for a copy.  One item is computers for the students to use. Our special reading teacher prefers to use a web-based program, but it is not available to us without computers.  We brought back 2 in September from a Friend at Stony Run Meeting and 6 more will come with Eden Grace on her next visit (November) from another Baltimore Yearly Meeting Friend.  We have recently been contacted by our friend Markéta Otipkova from the Czech Republic, whose business is managing computer networks. She arrives in December! It’s remarkable what comes when one asks!  Thank You Friends!

The children at our school are 12 to 16 years old, although their academic achievement is not what we would all hope for those ages.  We work to help the teachers support their students’ learning, and we are working to improve the physical environment for learning. The need for the latter was emphasized for us by our AVP facilitators who spoke of how much more effective the AVP workshops  seemed to be at the other Belize City school where they worked (not very far from our own) because the room they used there was air-conditioned and did not have the continual truck noise that besets us here at Belize City Friends School. These are big concerns for us, and while much has been done with this site, whether there are ways to make it a truly productive site for children’s learning is not so clear.

For those of you who think we are not having enough fun (we are!), we should tell you that we are on Ambergris Caye this week Monday-Thursday.  Monday is Pan American Day (a holiday) and Thursday is Rosalie’s birthday. You can go to our Blog at and ask for regular posts.  We aim to post every two weeks, but do not always manage it.

Categories: Articles & News

2019 Town Meeting, Town Council, and City Council Organizing Packet

American Friends Service Committee - Wed, 10/24/2018 - 1:43pm
Trump FY 19 budget pie chart Photo: AFSC/National Priorities Project

Worried about the Risk of Nuclear War?   Opposed to the Continued Production of Nuclear Weapons?  Appalled at Excessive Pentagon Spending?  Your Town or City Can Speak Out! 

As Congress slashes funds for healthcare, education, and the environment, Pentagon spending is skyrocketing.  And the continuing existence of thousands of nuclear weapons makes the danger of nuclear war as high as it was during the Cold War.

Categories: Articles & News

7 actions you can organize for Nov. 14

American Friends Service Committee - Tue, 10/23/2018 - 10:01am
    Want to plan a We Are Not at Risk event in your community? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Before planning an action, take some time to ground yourself in what racism and colonialism are and their impact on an institutional, cultural, and individual level. Ask yourself what are ways you have internalized it and how it manifests itself in your personal life.

Categories: Articles & News
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