Light In Action

Practicing Peace-More on AVP

There’s not much silence in an Alternatives to Violence Workshop. But there’s a lot of soaking in good energy. We do silly games like Mrs. Mumbly Just can’t smile (talk without showing teeth); sly games like taking a slow boat to China; rowdy games like Jailbreak where in pairs you race to sit in the chairs before anyone else gets there. What do all these games have to do with Nonviolence?

When a divided and defensive community like in a prison links arms and runs or laughs together; you transform that community into one of trust and openness. Then guys look at how to change negative reactions. In short, it’s hard to punch someone when you’re laughing with them.

In the AVP workshop we have serious discussions. What incidents happen that make your anger thermometer rise up? At what point do you boil over? In Concord Prison if one gets vexed it means break out in a rage. How can you react differently to insults thrown your way? My vocabulary really expanded in this exercise: I learned the words skinner, to ice someone, and when you take someone down. We looked at messages that still linger from childhood such as, “You’re a moron-you’ll never succeed. You’re too clumsy, who’d ever work with you?...You are estupido… You can’t do math…. You’re a loser.” WE then looked at messages we wanted to receive in our youth. Sitting in a circle on the ground we gave these messages to each other. “You’re wonderful; I’ll love you no matter what happens. I support whatever career you want to pursue…. Your kindness makes you successful… Your inner soul shines.

We talk about apologizing. Is forgetting the altercation necessary for total forgiveness? How do we let go of an insult? Does revenge fuel us and give our lives meaning? Does keeping a grudge stoke our pride? Then we all considered someone in our lives that we need to apologize to. We took 10 minutes and wrote a letter to that person, making sure to take responsibility for our mistakes. It was very powerful and touching. One guy said, I hurt you and I want to stitch up the wound. Another man, call him Jose, was about 22 years old when he found that the victim of his past crime was incarcerated. He tried to apologize but the victim was still furious. In fact Jose feared that his victim was seeking to harm him. So Jose avoided him in the gym, hall and lunchroom. He was quite scared of any contact. He thought they’d both end up in the hole if they ever physically attacked. Then Jose ended up taking an AVP workshop in prison, and his past victim shows up at the same workshop. On the second day, the victim chose to sit down with Jose and he apologized and shook Jose’s hand. Now they are friends and support each other. It was quite a transformation.

Andy Towle & Patty Derr

The Alarming New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander is a slim tall woman with a powerful voice. Her book, The New Jim Crow, 2011, is convincing and well researched. She shared at Boston University a vision and a plan for a new social movement to turn around pernicious racial policies in the US.

“Nothing is more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” MLK said. That’s the tragedy Alexander felt when she understood that in the 1970s and 1980s a revolution that turned back the rights of Afro-Americans was hatched. It happened while we were looking elsewhere, none-the-less, it was under our watch. She outlined how a prison state was formed that targeted men of color and now is starting to attack women of color.

Here are some facts: The US now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, greater than China or Iran. 2.3 million adults are in jail or prison: five times the number 40 years ago. Money spent on prisons has risen 6 times as fast as the money spent on higher education. Many prisons are privatized so that profits depend on having as many housed as cheaply as possible. African Americans males constitute 6% of the US population, but 40 % of those incarcerated. One out of three are under the control of the criminal justice system: more are in prison than were in slavery.

Drug offenses account for 55-60% of those incarcerated. African Americans constitute 15%of drug users in 2000, in a survey of seven states, but constituted 90% of those incarcerated for drugs. Marijuana is a large number of arrests. Those arrested under the rubric of the War on Drugs are not dealers, but the users. The war on Drugs began in 1980 when drug use was declining.

Alexander explains, “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America: we have merely redesigned it. Once you have a felony, you are stripped of civil rights even after parole is served.”

The result for families and communities is also demeaning. Alexander again: “the shame and stigma of the prison label is, in many respects, more damaging to the African American community than the shame and stigma associated with Jim Crow.” The demonization of men of color has festered so that families unravel, mutual support is shattered, and communities are decimated.

What Alexander recommends:

1. Tell the truth of the new caste system. (Read her book if not convinced.)
2. Help build a movement. We need to build something as comprehensive as the underground railroad for those released from prison
3. Create safe places in congregations. Many convicts say church is the last place to go because of the shame there. Admit that we’re all criminals who make mistakes.
4. Work for abolition of mass incarceration. End the War on Drugs. Push for legislation in each state that possession of drugs is never a felony, only a misdemeanor.
5. Move from punishing attitude in criminal justice to restorative approach. Try rehabilitation and public health measures, not incarceration.


Is Violence our Religion?

What religion is most dominant in the world? Is Islam on the rise accompanied by its US shadow Islamaphobia? Is Christianity flying high with curving right wing? Is it atheism? Buddhism ? No. Truthfully, it’s the religion of violence: our belief that war (with Afghanistan… Japan… Iran… or___ _blank) will bring peace. A belief, worldwide as far as I can see, that military strength brings security. Even Quakers succumb to it. “Be tough.” “Get the upper hand.”Read more

Divine Chemistry


In high school I avoided chemistry as much as I refused to eat kale. But most teens don’t understand what’s good for them. I guess I couldn’t get past the chemistry of Scarlett and Rhett. What I never knew was how the falling leaves is all about chemistry. The glamour, God’s beauty pageant displayed by trees, is all about dyeing leaves.

We deal with chemicals all the time: Zoloft; Omega 3 s or is it Omega 9s? A friend of mine died attributing some of it to being exposed to Agent Orange in the US against Vietnamese war. Some chemistries we love. One is the changing of the chlorophyll in our trees each fall. My friends parade around the open market with bright scarves tucked under their hair; my son flips across Harvard Square the street on his skateboard. At the end of October we garnish our bodies with body paint and wear outlandish costumes. At the end of winter we have Mardi Gras and carnivals sprayed with sequence and sparklers.

But none of this awes our soul as much as the beauty of a gum tree or maple in the fall as the leaves change. Did you ever learn how the colors change? Chlorophyll uses summer sunlight to manufacture sugars to eat. Chlorophyll is green, and works with 2 other pigments in nature’s palette. The leaves have carotenoids which produce yellow and orange. Carotenoids are also found in carrots, corn, daffodils and buttercups. Anthocyanins are the reds and live in the watery liquid of leaf cells. Anthocyanins inhabit red grapes, plums, blueberries, strawberries, etc.

Rainfall, temperature and food supply can influence the multi-colored fanfare. But the color change is mainly dictated by the increasing length of night. As night grows longer and cooler, the biochemistry begins. The veins that carry fluids into the leaf gradually close off and a layer of cells form at the base of the leaf. The clogged vein traps sugars in the leaf and anthocyanins produce. With warm days and crisp (not freezing) nights, the most exhilarating colors emerge. During sunny days lots of sugars are produced in the leaf, but the closing of the vien prevent the sugars from moving out. Once the cells form a wall, separation is complete. The anthocyanins can’t escape, tissues that connect to the branch are sealed, and the leaf is ready to fall.

And to think that it’s all due to chemistry. If I were the leaf, would I be so happy with my fate? Would I primp and puff out my anthocyanin each fall? Nay. I’d probably be like my teenage self in complete protest each year. “I don’t want to give all my sugar to the tree every year. Why do I have to fall to the ground and replenish the forest floor.”

Even now, I try to be a follower of nonviolence. That means I’m willing to sacrifice my individuality for the benefit of the whole. It may seem for a time that my leaf is getting all the acclaim. I’ve lots of sugars stored in me that are walled off from the tree. But I won’t last long if I’m cut off. Without connection I fall. I think the lives of glamorous rich, Christy Walton (wal-mart) or Kamprad (Ikea) are like shining anthocyanin. As the nights get cold, even the brightest leaf falls.

How can I live gracefully, willing to contribute, not taking offense if my sugars are walled off earlier than others? Biochemistry doesn’t explain everything. I’m still stretching as I live and live beside others. Nurturing a human life seems more complicated than a flashing bright leaf tumbling down. But then, what do I know about Divine Chemistry?


Witch New Year?

Halloween is first seen in the 1500s as a Scottish version of All-Hallows-Evening. Centuries before that, the Celtics called the festival Samhain, a term meaning ‘summer’s end.’ Christians began observing All Saints’ Day on November 1 in 837. By the 1100s many believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints Day. To avoid being recognized by a wandering soul who might visit you the day before November 1st, Christians could wear masks and costumes for disguise. In Ireland the turnip was carved into a face at Samhain to remember the souls that died that year. Here in New England the Puritans (and Quakers) took no part in these rites; not until the Irish/Scottish immigrations in 1800s did Halloween become assimilated into society.

The burning of witches happened from the 1300’s up until the end of the 1600’s. Anywhere from one million to 9 million people were executed, starting in Germany but spreading in ferocity all over Europe west to the British Islands and south to Italy. 85% of the people murdered, usually burned at the stake, were women: old women, mothers and young girls. 900 were destroyed in a year in Wertzberg, Germany. 400 were put to death in one day in the town of Toulouse. How did this mass execution explode beyond control--even gaining in virulence well into the “Age of Reason?”

The witch-hunts were campaigns organized and legalized by Protestants, Catholics and state governments. The unquestioned authority, Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, was written in 1484 by 2 priests, Rev. Kramer and Sprenger. For three centuries this book on demonology sat on every judge’s desk to guide their ‘legal’ rulings.

Witches, according to the Catholic priests in the Malleus Maleficarum had a pact with the devil. Women accused of witchcraft were examined (usually under torture) for 3 crimes.

1. Sexual impurity: Has she engaged in any unusual sexual acts? Has she ‘enticed’ any men into adultery? Does she control her own reproductive organs? Is she choosing not to have children? Even without any outward action, is she a threat to men?

2. Power to influence health: Does she possess any medical skills in herbal remedies, in being a midwife, or try to influence any villagers’ health when they are ill?

3. Grassroots organizers: Are they seen as leaders of the people although they hold no power?

The Church associated women with sex, and all pleasure in sex was condemned, because it could only come from the devil. Witches were accused of giving contraceptive aid:

Now there are, seven methods by which they infect. . .1., by inclining the minds of men to inordinate passion; 2., by obstructing their generative force; 3., by changing men into beasts by their magic act; 4., by procuring abortion; 5, by offering children to the devils. . .

The Malleus again declares, “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” And finally, “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable. . .And blessed by the Highest Who has so far preserved the male sex from so great a crime…”

The wise women, or witches, had a host of remedies which had been tested by years, even centuries of use. Many herbal remedies developed by witches are used today by pharmacologists: pain-killers, digestive aids, anti-spasmodics. The healer’s methods were as great a threat to the Church as her results, for she relied on her senses not on doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect. She was an empiricist. Even respected healers must die: in 1563 the distinction between a bad witch and a good witch was dropped and they all were publicly executed.

Interesting how today we are still fascinated by warlocks and witches. Wicca is an accepted religion but few people know about it. Some interesting facts are that the Wiccan New Year begins on October 31st; this date is the half-way point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. In the USA about 770,00 witches or pagans exist, 70% of them female and 70% of them under 45 years old.

Currently in US history we have our own witchhunts. Blacks are imprisoned, the death penalty is spreading, the pharmacies and HMO’s control who receives medicine. “Those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it.”

Who are the witches?

Where do they come from?

Maybe your great-great grandmother was one.

Witches are wise, wise women they say.

There’s a little witch in every women today.

California folksong

Poems for a Forecast


Cold, spiny.

Wind that sucks the sap from your skin

The sky itself is frozen blue

Yet i am safe while i can light one soft candle

My mind can burrow further than the cold can freeze

My eye can dance on the ice even when i dare not open the door.

For the strength of God rests in seeing beauty even as the last leaf is blown away from the trembling tree.


Alabama Thunder Storm

What is my work today?

Sew together peanuts and corn that cling to the palate;

Cup my hands bowl-like to dowse in clean water;

See the first oily leaves of bean sprouts in the garden.

Do they portend a bright future?


I mend my heart by giving to others.

No disaster can ramrod my hand which I stitch to yours.

The storm, by nature, is quick in its fury.

Hope, by nature is weak. The mangrove trees dip their leaves in watery soup.

Storm after storm their roots shoot up and around, ebbing and rising above fragility.


The work is easy even as my feet are covered in mud.

What I give is not haphazard, but a rare epiphyte

Even the blind one knows her work is to notice.

Forgiveness after Murder

Nancy & Diana exude compassion

Kim Odom is a friend who lost her 13-year-old son because of a drive by killing. She speaks openly about the pain and need for forgiveness in order to help others.

She, and a group called Mothers for Justice and Equality are looking at how do you offer curricula to our youth to prevent violence, inner and outer.  Odom believes each person, saints and murderers, are worthy. “It’s about the value of life, not just about stopping the killing.” Bullying can lead to arson; targeted abuse can lead to suicide.  Odom wants to take a peacebuilding curriculum with juvenile offenders to help teenagers before incarceration. She is heaven-bent on changing the cradle to prison pipeline talked about in The New Jim Crow (the cradle to college pipeline.)

Our cities are killing fields. US foreign wars and increasing poverty claims many lives. But in the Boston area these neighborhood murders are preventable. In 2010 in Massachusetts 48 people were killed because of family violence. That same year 72 lives were claimed on the streets of Boston. 2011 was less of a bloodbath: 63 street murders and 27 family killings. The pain for survivors like Kim and the Odom family is immense.  So many of our resources are overtasked:  police, court system, hospitals, detective units, safety officers, public health all at cost to our communities.

“After he [son Steven] was killed I was so depressed I couldn’t leave the house.” After 2 days of seclusion some neighbors and friends had a candle-light vigil at the Odom house. With the love surrounding her, she couldn’t hide. After many prayer meetings, Kim Odom gained perspective. “I was determined…I didn’t want anyone retaliating. God is in the midst of us. Steven’s death will not be in vain. God will redeem the pain, the tragedy, and our sacrifice. Ephesians 4 says, ‘In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

How to endure the darkness, when the sky
Is totally eclipsed by evil, when
Foul grinning Chaos spreads its reign again
And all good things in senseless ruin lie.
Must we be hard as stone?  It wears to dust.
As stiff as oaks?  But they untimely break.
As pitiless as steel?  It turns to rust,
And time from Pyramids will ruins make.
In violence, decay, starvation, need,
What can endure?  Only the Living Seed.  (K. Boulding)

After losing your child to a speechless crime, grief comes in many shades, all of them tinted with anger. Outside her house after Steven was killed, lots of objects in memory came to the place where blood was spilled. There was a mound of teddy bears with candles and cards and photos. It resembled a gravesite. Friends covered it with plastic when it rained. Then it appeared ghastly, like Steven’s body was covered up right there. “It was too much for me to bear the site of what that mound represented. I expressed to others the need to take it down. We had a tree planted in that spot to replace the stain of death with a symbol of life.”

Then Kim tells me about what she calls the ‘algebra of prayer.’ On one side, the first side is praying for the victims, the family, the innocent ones. But when you pray for that side you can’t complete the formula without considering the other side. With discipline and struggle Kim wants to pray as much for the offender, his (or her) family and those that enabled the act. Kim works to pray equally on both sides. The answer to her algebra comes out as peace.