Quakers in the Field

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.


Quaker Worship despite Cluster Bombs


Once a month Cambridge Friends hold an hour worship close to the entrance of  Textron Inc. in Wilmington MA. Textron is known for its

Quakers Public Witness
Quakers Public Witness

unmanned aircraft systems, armored trucks, battlefield and surveillance systems, precision smart weapons, and advanced cluster bombs.

I choose to worship next to the manufacturing of these weapons made by ordinary citizens

to pray for all of us. I pray for the Spirit to transform this war craft into products of health.  Smart weapons and grenades could be wheelchairs and rototillers.

Friends are clear that the making of such weapons for human destruction in many countries around the world is against God’s will. Quakers stand as “witness against all violence, and against the works of darkness; and to turn people from darkness to light; and to bring them from the causes of war and fighting, to the peaceable gospel.” George Fox,  1654.

I am not here to blame any workers at Textron. We are all complicit in our participation in the US war machine. I pray on this site to remind myself and to ask all Americans to turn away from our dependence on war. The US must stop using weapons

made here at Textron to bludgeon other countries into a US agenda. War and domination over other governments is an abomination. Quakers seek the withdrawal from all activities which lead to manufacturing, sale and use of the weapons made at Textron.

We witness at Textron each month at the same time that other Quakers are worshipping inside in the Cambridge meetinghouse.  We worship together, seeking peace, but in 2 locations. We worship so that God’s peaceable kingdom will reign and so that we, in the USA, can live in harmony and with justice to all peoples and all countries.

Questions on why we witness at Textron welcome

July 2011

A dozen Quakers carpool 10 miles out to Wilmington, MA to be a Quaker presence at Textron Industries every month. We go out during snow or flood or computer crash. John drove a Quaker carload out on July 17, a sweltering day. It was weather fit for salamanders and dragonflies. Most of us wear hats. We choose to worship even in heat and rain because we are shocked to know that Textron builds weapons that kill, often in suffering countries like Afghanistan. Affluent people are making a killing off building weapons that destroy homes and maim children.

We are a motley crew:  men with ponytails, college students with sunglasses, women in long billowy skirts. One of us is recently out of the hospital after surgery to remove cancer. One of us is a vet for peace and has a speech impediment. We pray in a rectangle with 2 signs as bookends. The signs say, Quakers worship for peace. At the end of the hour, we are bathed in sweat. It’s a bit like working out in the gym, afterwards you feel renewed.

We hear several horns honk. Most of the horns directed at us are friendly fire. Some yell, “Stop Al Queada. US is #1” Or they swear at us. But most horns honk for peace. A jogger comes by and taps John on the shoulder, alerting him to the fact that the sign facing the road is actually being held upside down. We all chuckle at the divine humor. We’re not pious nor do we mind if we make mistakes. We laugh at ourselves and return to contemplate in worship.

A few people offer reflections. Someone mentions how important it is to ask Jesus for help in a time of distress; someone talks about how some Quakers offered a scholarship to a teen who was persecuted in high school; someone said thacopy-of-p5100357t it’s important even when being oppressed, not to lose your voice. Friends are aware of living in this world but not being part of the world. Martin Luther King states, “Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I'm going to take a stand against it. …the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated." We sense the structure of the triple prongs of evil: race -economic exploiting -and war. We sink back to the seed growing in the silence.

Afterwards a Friend who got excellent medical care in detecting and intervening cancer. He was amazed at how doctors and staff treated him. He reflected and choked up on how lucky he was compared to the many war veterans who return home to spotty and below-standard medical care in the US. His sadness at this irony affected all us witnessing that day.

Do those that pass-by know why we sit in worship beside a huge marquee that says “Textron Industries.” It is not a vigil. It is not a exactly a peace protest. It’s worship and a witness. Quakers prefer to embody peace more than to protest war. Jaffrey who is very dedicated says, “I think it is important that I show up at Textron once a month as witness to our Quaker faith. I feel clearer about this witness than almost anything else I have done.”

Quakers have  been sitting in front of Textron for a year and a half. They feel a vital tugging toward health, like the tide pulling in the ocean waves. What calling do you have?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? (M. Oliver)


Bolivian Quakers-Escuela Emmanuel de los Amig@s

February (summer) class Emmanuel School
11th graders at Emmanuel School February (summer)

El Alto is perched 1,000 feet above La Paz, the capital or Bolivia. When the sun glitters you stare down into a cascading spiral of lego-like houses. Once your lungs have adjusted to less oxygen, El Alto seems like Kansas City. Except everyone speaks Aymara or Spanish. Except there's no SUVs. Except instead of greasy hamburgers, open markets sell quinoa drinks and fish soup. And another extraordinary fact: teenagers in Bolivia are eager students. Education is fresh to them.

I fell in love with the Aymara students at Emmanuel Friends school. I met Flavia, Marta, Estevan, and Eduardo in 2011 when I volunteered for 6 weeks. Some classes had 7 students but most classes had 18 students. In high school Bolivians study English twice a week. It's usually their 3rd language and they can start it as early as 6th grade. Their class load is immense, and even 8th graders study philosophy and technical arts.

The K-12th grade Quaker school has 4 stories, standing tall between the Santidad Iglesia de los Amigos and the sports field.  Avenues are wide in 40 year old El Alto, known for its robust political activism and Bolivian modern music scene. Have you ever heard hip-hop in Aymara? Can you pronounce tuqitpachwa qillqanipxstani?

The students eagerly shared their stereotypes about the US and asked me lots of questions. Eduardo showed me his science project on "el Medio Ambiente." In 10th grade he was preparing to give a poster presentation on green energy. Before class, Flavia sang me the Bolivian national anthem and was learning to site read. I answered her question about the US national anthem by singing "Oh, say can you see..." wondering how I could turn the "Star-Spangled Banner" into a useful English lesson. Bolivian history, like the US has been a series of battles and domination. Nor did I want to tarnish my country as being the evil empire. I wanted to be a Quaker ambassador speaking even-handedly in English class about the positive and negative aspects in the US.

Did I feel that teaching English was difficult? Sometimes. Did I feel confused? Yes. Sometimes, classrooms would switch and as the bell rang I walked into the wrong group of students (They were polite enough not to laugh). Plus, I had to decide what kind of classroom discipline to use. I wanted students to use the Internet, dictionaries, and libraries. Emmanuel students had none of those, not even an English textbook. Was teaching a positive experience? Definitely!  I learned so much about myself and what Bolivians see as valuable. The students liked learning English lyrics from Mylie Cyrus and 50 cents on their MP 3s. But I was still puzzled as to whether teenage Quakers would understand the peace testimony when Northamericans sing.

"Oh,say does that star-spangled banner still wave,

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"