Quakers in the Field

Stories at an Irish Prison

Today about 100 of us AVPers from around the world were invited into Wheatfield Prison meet with 12 inmate facilitators. It was my first bright sun-flecked day in Ireland and the inmate testimonies were even more amazing. We heard from the jail administration who were called governors, and we appreciated many of these men who have a life sentence. Their gardens, metalwork, art and woodworking were all impressive. The garden inside Wheatfield had foxgloves, bleeding hearts, and huge coneflowers. Here's what I learned from some of them:Read more


Ireland, War & New Blood

What land that recently fought the Brits for 3 decades calls the violence and degradation: the troubles? Ireland has fought off many invaders before the British such as the Celts and the Romans. Isn't this a remarkable place for the International Alternatives to Violence Conference? Irish hospitality and warmth is notorious. What kind of people can be so cheerful, curious, musical and child-loving and still be fighting for their dignity and freedom? What does that do to a people? Is there any reason that the Land has its share of Ire and thus Ireland?
imageTheir native peoples did not fight off the bigboned Celts when they moved in in the 5th century. But they staked out fields and stone circles in discreet places like the rocky pennisulas and western islands. Some say the petite smaller race became reclusive enough that they lived underground, or went on disappearing islands like Glastonbury in Wales. Thus the belief in fey people or the fairies.

I came to Ireland full of curiousity and some wonder. Would I meet Samuel Beckett's absurdity, or James Joyce's verbal paintbrushes, or Mairead Maguire's peace efforts? Ireland: so famous for pubs and story-telling and luck. The Irish have put their stamp in Boston. Ireland hangs onto western Europe by a fingernail, the pinky finger. It resists incursion from the UK--fighting its brawny neighbor for Irish autonomy and self-rule. It is awash with mists and rains, stacked with rocky crags and engulfed by the northern sea. The moon seems to rule as much as the sun in Ireland. The music afloat in the air softens the stiff Catholic collar.

My Nonviolent workshop on Discernment had 20 people, from 14 different countries including Korea, South Africa, Columbia, Australia, Germany, Sudan, and Nepal. All these people work actively in the AVP community getting prisoners, youth, drug lords and other perpetrators to change their violent ways. We examined discernment as an individual process as much as a group process.

How can each of us continue growing in discerning our path? How can I change my use of words, of time, of actions? A Ugandan Friend said that we need to listen behind the words, or What do we perceive that is unspoken. What is my daily commitment to transforming?
I learned the difference between changes I make based on convincement verses personal change that I make due to conviction. I learned that positive changes that I make work if I use alternating techniques of experimenting and then reflecting on what occured: action and analysis. We are AVP scientists in the lab at work.
I have heard of mythological figures such as Queen Maeve, Cuchulainn, and Grainne, the Irish she-king of the sea. I felt we were taking the next step in advancing humanity out of the cycle of endless wars. Write this day down in the Irish cronicles when a small group of discerning, fun-loving, commited people came together in Dublin to offer a non-violent path.


AVP cradled by the Ipala Volcano

The workshop of AVP glided into the lives of Magdalena, Marco and Eunice like a stream of clear water in the dessert. I want to share here with you the thrill of an AVP (Alternatives to Violence) workshop, held at a Quaker school, with 16 Guatemalans and one Bostonian

Hiking up Ipala Volcano

participating (that's me). Friends Peace Team was introducing AVP to the municipality of Ipala Guatemala, nestled beside a volcano and a deep lagoon. Guatemalans entered with their bright, shy eyes; long ebony hair, some with cowboy belts. One youth with a long braid had a beaded barrette as if a quetzal had  flitted into the room. They studiously carried in their thin notebooks and pens. (These Guatemalans came more prepared than an AVP I taught in Philadelphia, where the participants brought with them yoga mats.)

We asked "How has violence affected your personal life?" the stories Eunice and others told tenderly were numbing. "My father was collecting honey in the countryside when he disappeared and we didn't know what happened to him." "My cousin was attacked by a gang, shot twice, and when he was taken to the hospital they didn't accept him." "My daughter was raped at 15, she came home bruised in shock; and it still feels like it happened to me. this man was stalking me for years at my first job in a small village. Even though it happened to me 15 years ago, I still have nightmares, and that creepy feeling of someone watching me." By the end of the go around, three quarters of us were crying.

In Guatemala these stories are common and people suffer from many somatic problems. Along with Honduras Guatemala has many social burdens, high malnutrition, increasing narco-traficking, low adult literacy, and family abuse. We ended giving many hugs, whispering in each others' ears, "You are not alone." "We are here to help each other." "We are learning how to stop this violence that you suffered."

We had our last day of the workshop at the park outside Ipala called Posada de la Pila. We took chairs outside and sat at the side of the river (called Pila for the lava rocks that made it perfect for scrubbing clothes) . The river tumbled between boulders, a muscular stream with moss covering shallow rocks. Tall trees curled over the ravine, thanks to efforts to protect the environment. Birds, butterflies and unknown flying bugs also participated in our AVP. Our exercises included Crossing the Border, Empathy, and the Gusano (means the worm, but caterpillar sounds better). For the Caterpillar 8 people lined up in a train, everyone with a blindfold except for the first, who was the leader. The facilitators gave the general directions for the caterpillar to move, over a bump, under a branch, or up some stairs. After five minutes the Leader was given a blindfold and moved to the bottom of the line. The next person was the eyes and guide for the 8 people. After 5 minutes another moved to the front until all had the experience of guiding and being part of the train. We asked, "Which position do you prefer? How did trust develop over time even though you often didn't know who was leading?" The workshop offered me  insights into my own control issues, and doing AVP in another culture awakens me to new ways to communicate. I was touched by a woman who said in the end, that she has been a person that didn't share the pain of the past, but in AVP she opened up, and wants to share more of herself. AVP heals lives even when living next to volcanos. Luis, Clelia, and Almy, Guatemalan AVP facilitators


A Quaker Wedding

A Quaker wedding is beautiful. Usually I cry; mostly I smile. Have you been to one? I sense God crouches a bit closer to us miscreants during a wedding. Thankfully, Quakers allow space and time to hear the Lifegiver’s whispers and sometimes we glean wisdom of how to live our lives.

I went to a stunning wedding on Saturday. Priscilla, a thoroughbred Quaker, got married to James, who was raised Jewish. “Welcome to our wedding!” they wrote in the program. “we’ve blended several Jewish and Quaker traditions.” There was no pastor or rabbi to join them, God had spoken to their hearts and that is enough to bind them.

Friends recognize the joining of a couple during an appointed meeting for worship where all voices approved (some loosely call this consensus). At every point of the journey Friends check with all those gathered to ask, “Is there where Spirit wants us to be? Did you contribute your truth so that we have a full picture of the Divine Will?”

At this wedding, about 150 Friends gathered on wooden benches with horsehair cushions.  The seating was in a wide rectangle. At front were 4 friends who were selected to support the wedding. On one side was the wedding certificate or ketubah, a declaration of their vows.

The Meeting began in silence. It was a vibrant silence, the air buzzed with hopes and ponderings. Aptly, Friends call this expectant waiting. After we settled ourselves, the couple walked in together. (No one gives the bride away.)  They walked down the middle of the group and sat under a chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. More excitement filled the room as we thought of the past and the couple’s future. Soon they stood up, facing each other, Priscilla repositioning her trail and flowers. James jostling a box holding a ring into his pocket. They held hands. Then they spoke their vows in Hebrew. Basically the vows said: “Behold, by this ring you are consecrated to me as my spouse according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” The other replies: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” I was lost at sea not at all familiar with what is being said in Hebrew. Then James’ father stands up and reads the wedding certificate which says, “On this day July 28 at the Friends Meeting in Cambridge James and Priscilla took each other by the hand, promising to be loving and faithful companions.”

Priscilla had sewn parts of her dress, a checkered yarmulke and matching tie for James, and an embroidered stunning chuppah.

Then the group sinks down deep. ‘Deep answers deep’ angling into the heart of life. George Keith in the 17th century describes worship this way, “the life and light of God…spring up in them (or us)…uniting in one even as many small streams become as a large river of life, which in the wholeness of it, hath its course, motion and operation, in and through every member.” First a mother spoke lovingly of how blessed she felt by the courtship and having James in her family. Others spoke. Family members echoed how they came to know the fiancée and how well they fit together. The radiance of the couple diffused all about. Different friends spoke of marriage, how to keep the channels of love open, how interdependent we all are, and how we are ready to help the new couple. Someone said a prayer in Hebrew. “What a blessing, this union blesses us all.”

A child clamored against his Dad, I heard faintly the toddler’s rabbit-like chatter. Priscilla has taught school and worked with youth. I had a vision of children being a central part of this marriage. The presence of their future children floated amongst us like milkweed feathers. I said a prayer. At this time we are all witnesses. The witnesses are more than those physically here, we can sense the presence of Priscilla’s dad who died recently, or grandparents who have passed on. in a real way we sense them and what blessing they would add. Elise Boulding speaks of the 150 year now. Those oldest people hear may remember clearly back to 1940. They know of the lessons of WWII and computers and cable TV, birth control, AIDS and the UN. The young ones among us, maybe born near 2000 may live until 2080. They carry into the future the understanding that the eldest give of the past. The past is real to children as much as it is embodied by their elders.

The joining of 2 separate people is ephemeral. The spirits are united, a bond stronger than epoxy.  On many levels the wedding itself is a moment out of space and time. The worship is timeless. We are also linked to those who have passed on and to the yet-to-be-born children. We breathe the same air they breathe. And what we do here to affirm that love reigns is to know that we are living to the best of our ability to honor them.

The promise of love appears to be these 2 people, James and Priscilla. But it is a chance for each of us. It’s a leveling field when for the moment each of us can turn our hearts back to a fresh promise to again love and cherish each other until death do us part. Thank you Heavenly zephyrs.

Quaker Isaac Penington says worship is like “a heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another, insomuch as a great strength, freshness, and vigor of life flows into all.”


Jambo Kenya Trip

I spent 30 days in Kenya, mostly working with Friends groups, scrutinizing and worshiping, and singing. Part of the trip was investigating whether to do future peace work in East Africa. 20 of us Friends from New England also joined in the World Conference of Friends April 16-27 which was remarkable. Here are some stellar points.

*I had my socks knocked off at the Sheldrick elephant orphanage Nairobi where baby, teeny-tiny elephants shorter than me are nursed to health, after abandonment (due to illness, traps or the poaching of mothers). We petted, laughed and played soccer. Also healing is a hurt black rhino, one of the most endangered species. If we don’t change our consumption, these large beasts will die out much to our dismay.

Jess Klassen from Canada, Mary Lord and I roomed in Kaimosi. Jess was a dancing partner who helped revolutionize the Kenya slow undulating at the women’s conference. Actually I didn’t see any conversions to Jess’ Charlestown dance but the Quaker women totally loved how we danced with them. We also slipped off the main stage of the women’s conference a lot to help prepare food and ride into town.

*In Lugari Nancy Shippen and I were roomates at the Lake Basin Peace Centre. We had an AVP refresher course with mostly young adults. Before practicing our skills, we would sing Kiswahili songs for 30 min. Monkeys and jacaranda trees abounded there. Beauty and poverty are transposed.

* In Chwele, Iattended my first HROC workshop that is Healing and Reconciliation. The 35 Kenyan folks attended were still suffering from the aftermath of the 2007 violent eruptions. These folks were burnt out, raped and displaced (IDP is a household term there). This was the most powerful workshop led by a Rwandan Quaker , Theoneste Bizimana. The stories were horrific, and he was quite skillful in building safety without much details of the Rwandan genocide.

v The world conference had 51 countries represented. I knew there were Friends in Moscow and Philippines, but did you know there were Tibetan Friends? The toilets leaked and the millet ugali gets dry. But the speakers and plenary worship were so respectful. Cody and Wendy Sanford’s name were up on the wall with the FLGBTQ epistle-along with many epistles. The YAF presence was strong and eased my fatigue on many occasions. We took more fotos than hairs on your head.

I learned that God speaks in many tongues and that many of the peace, simplicity, justice and environmental issues are ripe for all Friends. I sometimes was lost even when I knew where I was, or where I had been standing. We didn’t argue very much. I learned to wait more, to bridle my tongue more. I think I came away a better person.

v Lastly I slipped away from the stampeding herds of Quakers and went for 3 days to Lake Baringo with my sweetheart. I can handle hippos and even Nile crocodiles better than the petty issues that Friends tangle themselves in. It was refreshing and we were able to pray for guidance as to how to use our gifts. Hurray. Right on the last day I got a terrible attack of jumbley intestines but I’ve recovered enough to eat lots of icecream on arrival. Asante sana.


Salt and Light- Quaker World Gathering

When I first read about the 6th World conference of Friends in Nakuru Kenya in April 2012, I was mostly excited. My heart palpitated. Then as I heard the theme a cloud descended: Being Salt and Light. Being Salt? What does that mean? Salt wrinkles the skin and all those potato chips causing stomach rolls. As a dyed in the wool Quaker I understand God, the metaphor of Light works for me.

I love Quaker expressions such as Inner Light, Children of the Light, Seed, magnifying, illuminating. But salt ? Sailors are ‘old salts’, and Massachusetts is known for Quaker shipmasters in the past. Paul Cuffe was a venerable Quaker Salt. Salt comes in the form of potato chips; nacho cheese; cholesterol. I wasn’t thrilled about it, so I returned to prayer.

I waited and studied before going to Kenya. At the foundation of our faith, salt was a symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant. “The Lord gave the kingdom of Israel to David (and his sons) forever, by a covenant of salt.” 2Chronicles 13:). Salt preserves a relationship just as it preserves food. With salt food tastes better, and salted meat won’t putrefy. For 1,000s of years, salt was wealth. salt was used as money: Soldiers and servants were paid in salt. I know salt, like light, has multiple uses and has been invaluable to humans. The tough part was Being Salt: if you lose your saltiness, what use are you? Matt. 5:13. After months I felt clear, expecting more Light out of the conference than Salt.

As it turned out jettisoning myself, and 70 pounds of luggage to Kenya, was hard work.

I dragged the weight around sweating through airports and buses. Sore muscles and sweat salted my arrival.  Nairobi is a western city with skyscrapers, Barclay’s bank, Cadbury chocolate, therefore despite my Kenyan hosts, I had to keep alert.  I was thirsty to know what Creator had in store for me. I hungered. Here I am Lord, use me. I didn’t just come to eat ugale (type of millet polenta) and goat meat. Some inner saltiness spurred me to Kenya, now what?

Before the world conference, I traveled around Kaimosi, Chwele and Lugari yearly meetings with beautiful days of brilliant sun and sudden downpours. I had a mission to encourage peacebuilding skills. I’ve been teaching peace through Friends Meetings for 20 years; I’ve worked stopping domestic violence. Kenyans have an amazing amount of groups working for peace. I witnessed their power despite family members dying from AIDS and parents walking miles for clean water.

In 1992, in 1997, and recently in 2007 there was much violence as factions vied for the presidential election. In 2008 about 1,500 people were killed, many raped, houses burned and 600,000 internally displaced persons.  How can Friends respond faithfully with another presidential election this year? Many Kenyans Quakers lost their farms (livelihoods) and some lost family members.

In 2009 a program Healing and Reconciliation in our Communities (HROC) was introduced in Kenya by Friends. I participated in a 3 day HROC workshop, altogether there were 20 of us, some Westerners, many Kenyans. Our guest facilitator was Theo Bizimana from Rwanda. The workshop is based on trauma healing so that the first day is building safety and trust. The second day we spoke the painful stories, and mourned.  In 2007 one woman watched her family including her husband killed by a group called the Land Defense Force near Mt. Elgon. They were about to kill her, but a phone call interrupted the killing and the murderers changed their course. Other stories ensued of hiding children in sheets, burning houses and stealing cows and land. I heard someone say, “I called to God day and night and only saw machetes in my dreams.”  It was heart-breaking.

The third day we looked at reconnecting and rebuilding our communities. We were asked to name a person that we trusted and why. We drew a tree of trust. What elements do we need to nourish the roots? People spoke of what steps they could take in the community of trust. One neighbor paid for a child’s school uniform. Someone had extra seeds, and shared them. Children from different tribes played football together.

As a witness to the healing, I stayed curious and encouraged as much as I could. It seemed that as the shameful stories were exposed, the light burned brighter. HROC is a quiet way for those who suffered to take their light out from under the bushel basket.

The world gathering was a wonderful blend of young and old; programmed and unprogrammed Friends. I learned a lot by the sharing from my home group where we had Brits, Kenyans, Americans, one Ugandan, and one Zimbabwean. We shared respectfully our hopes, our loneliness, concerns of gay marriage and Biblical prophecy. We were kind to each other, and sometimes peppery. I heard more stories of violence from each country: broken relationships, drinking excessively while children go without. We looked at the violence of human greed. Everyday Kenyans carry firewood from the forest, while we collectively confessed our dependence on fossil fuels. I vowed to honor Wangari Maathi’s vision of re-forestation.

I came home exhausted and exhilarated. The best part of any world conference is returning back to your own Meeting, where you are loved and known. Now I need to learn how to transplant Healing and Reconciliation in my own community. And I will plant that pear tree I’ve been dreaming of in my yard. The world gathering starts when you get off the airplane, not when you embark.

Thomas Owen Aotearoa Yearly Meeting spoke in a keynote at the world gather of Quakers attempts to “overcome our divisions and attain unity. The work of the United Nations, Friends’ international peace work, the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change, to name just  a few, are recent international examples of this (peace-building). The African Great Lakes Initiative’s AVP, HROC, and mediation work happening right now here in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi is another – which, to my mind, is some of the most important work Friends are doing right now. It is a privilege to be here to witness it.

Thank God for small salty acts.


This Bloody, Holy Ground

Hello sisters and brothers in the Journey,

I’m writing as I dream. I run within a dream. My work is misty. To stop hate, my eyes turned inward. I’m as somnolent as a street walker. Hurricane Irene urges us to think about what needs doing. I reach out every day and still I sleep-walk. My feet are in this physical world, yet I dream in another reality. Can I work adeptly here while listening to this zone?

After Quaker worship in May, Kathleen and I felt a yearning to lament all the senseless killing. We both have teenage sons. My son, recently out of high school, has seen lots of drugs and weapons. Kathleen’s son is now in middle school and she is painfully aware of bullying among pre-teens. We are social workers and community organizers but we come forward as humans searching for God’s voice in the midst of community pain.

What does it mean for you, to be living in the last empire days of the US? What does it mean to my children, like Lucy and Evan? What about mothers like Kathleen raising a nonviolent 13 year old boy? Because the truth to living is in the spiritual world. The truth is not in the ways of the Roman or the Chinese dynasty or the US Empire. As a Quaker, I’m looking for winds of change and signs of the Spirit. We need to build a new system based on the ecosystem, not human desire for power.

I told Kathleen how I am haunted by a recent funeral in Mattapan. There was a triple murder on Sept 28, 2010. I want to pray on the spot where the murders happen. Kathleen said these street corners, marked by precious blood, is holy ground. So we planned a walk to the murder sites and called it Walking On Holy Ground. Kathleen said it’s not just praying for the victim, it’s praying for the neighbors. I wondered if I could pray as much for the gang members who allow shootings as for the grandmothers who discourage it. Kathleen and I agreed that to ‘love your enemies’, we need to pray for the perpetrators.

Much attention has focused on Boston for performing the miracle of stopping street killings. Over decades, we Bostonians have been a  bloody city -- and we’ve been able to turn that completely around. The drop in murders is touted as the "Boston Miracle". Murders in the city dropped from 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. The number of youth murders (those under 24 years old) plummeted.  Between 1997-1998, for more than 2 years, there were no teenage homicides. But the city’s death rate is up again this decade. Wake up Boston. Attention all Catholics. Hey, if Boston accomplishes 3 miracles, the Pope can sanctify us.

The 72 murders in Boston in 2010 are not necessary. I don’t care what is the cause of the murders: we can blame easy guns, drugs for sale, the slum lords, or lack of jobs. What matters is paying attention. Dream the dream and acknowledge the pain. Some Quakers snapped out of denial, and went to honor the living while remembering the dead.

Four of us walked on Holy Ground today between Fields Corner and Blue Hill Ave. We visited 6 sites where bodies fell in 2010. For 3 hours we walked, prayed and asked questions. Afterwards we visited staff at the LDB Institute. At our first site, Stop 1, we were a stone’s throw from the train station, a busy charcoaled street.  Many people passed us 4 standing in a line, praying. Mostly we pray in silence, sometimes thankful for the life lived, sometimes intoning the name. After 10 minutes we walk to the next site where a life was snuffed out.

Stop 2 Two Cape Verdeans brothers came out of the house on Tonawanda St. They didn’t know about anyone dying at that site but they respectfully let us pray there on the sidewalk. Then they went to trim the yard.

Stop 3 Terrance Bonds was killed across from a hillside park ironically called, Mother’s Rest Park.

Stop 4 had a surprise for us. Adjacent to where Charles Contave was killed last year, there was a spanking new community garden, with wide cement walks, raised beds, a pavilion and a port-a potty. (Yes, I mention the restroom,  which is so practical for the public and yet rare in Boston). We spent time there with long rows of vegetables.

Stop 5 and 6 on Harvard St. were next to the Bethel Pentecostal church https://betheltab.org. Rev Gwendolyn Weeks was outside ready for a photo shoot. She took almost 30 minutes to show us their new chapel, prayer room, and a academic summer program with 30 kids enrolled. Gwendolyn spoke of moving here 5 years ago and how many drug deals and lots of illegal actions in the building, which once was a Catholic church. We prayed with her and the church’s work.

Stop 6 our last street corner we prayed for Toneika who was killed last year at age 22. There are 10 candles around a street pole with a purple ribbon around it.

We pray for those who die, those who survive and those who pull the trigger. We pray for our community.

Stop 7 We returned to LD Brown Institute and spoke with Tina, Rachel and Milton. We want to be connected to those who work in the community.

I thank you for all your prayers. It was a beautiful walk.

Our next walk on Holy Ground was August 30.Why is this walk more fruitful than sitting at home and praying for the fallen? How does this walk bring peace? See the next blog for this. We can abolish aggressive weapons. We know how to stop family violence. See the next blog for more steps. Ask hard questions. Lean your heart towards Eden, and cross your feet over pavement. Even if the sidewalk is bloody.