Friday, December 5, 2014

Lighting Candles in the Dark: Reflections on FCNL and Healing the Heart of Democracy

One of the spiritual high points of my year is going to DC to take part in Friends Committee on National Legislation ( For my ICUJP ( reflection this morning, I’d like to share about FCNL, our keynote speaker Parker Palmer, and finally a couple of stories that give me hope.
California delegation at Senator Feinstein's office
First, it was a pure joy to be among over 400 activists, half of them non-Quaker, who care enough about the state of our society that they are willing to fly to DC to take part in influencing legislators. We made over 100 visits to Congressional offices in 41 states. For four days I got to hang out with amazing people, some of whom are old friends, and some I met for the first time and became old friends with fast. It was also a joy to see that FCNL has a staff of nearly 40 people, most of them under 30, who are committed and knowledgeable. What a delight it was to be among these young activists!
Katherine Philipson, FCNL staff
The heart of Quaker lobbying is the belief that “there is that of God in everyone,” including those we disagree with. During our training sessions we not only learn about issues and the complexities of the political scene in DC, we also learn about how to relate to elected officials who don’t share our views. How do we reach out to them, find common ground, and help create opportunities for meaningful change? We learn is that in order to change others, we must also be willing to listen and be changed. Parker Palmer, the keynote speaker at this year’s FCNL gathering, told us we need to have the hutzpah to believe we have something worth saying, and the humility to realize that our opponent also has insights worth listening to. To bring about real change, we need to listen as well as speak from the heart.
Image result for parker palmerParker Palmer used to be the dean at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study for study and contemplation near Philadelphia where I was a student in 1989. It was at Pendle Hill that I first got to know Parker as a remarkable Quaker educator. He has gone on to publish influential books on education, spiritual discernment, and most recently, politics. Trained in sociology, Parker began his career as a community organizer so politics is not something new. His latest book, entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, looks at the current political malaise in our country from both a deeply human and a deeply spiritual perspective.
Parker is convinced that we must move beyond ideology and recognize our need to connect at a human level, if we hope to heal our deeply ailing democracy. We must be willing to disagree, to express our views with conviction, and yet not demonize the other. This is the guiding principle of Quaker lobbying. We take into consideration the pragmatic concerns of politics—what bill is likely to pass if there is enough pressure from constituents—but we are also concerned with building relationships that will last and grow over the long haul. FCNL has been doing faith-based lobbying since 1942; its long term goal is to transform a culture of violence into a culture of peace, one person at a time.
I need to keep being reminded of this perspective since I am apt to lapse into the “us” vs. “them” mentality that ultimately gets us nowhere.
I took part in a lobby visit to Feinstein’s office. There were over 30 people in our delegation, and we prepared carefully for our visit. We knew that Feinstein supported diplomacy with Iran, but we were surprised by how knowledgeable and committed her aide was to this position. I was supposed to ask him if he had any questions of us, but when my turn came, I said: “You know so much about the situation in Iran, maybe could you help give us some ideas of what we can do to support the Senator around this issue.” He gave us some excellent advice and talking points.

This kind of friendliness works even with those who disagree with us. A Texas Senator we met believes that war with Iran is probably inevitable, but after talking with us, he finally admitted, “When we are talking, at least we’re not fighting.” A Quaker tweeted this comment, which I think could become the next slogan for FCNL!
In this Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014 photo provided by Johnny Nguyen, Portland police Sgt. Bret Barnum, left, and Devonte Hart, 12, hug at a rally in Portland, Ore., where people had gathered in support of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Johnny Huu Nguyen)
I’d like to close this reflection with some stories that give me hope. First, the story of Devonte Hart, a twelve-year-old African American kid from Portland, OR. Adopted by a white family, he became upset when he heard what happened to Darren Wilson and feared for his future as a black male. He wanted to do something positive so he decided to carry a sign that said “Free Hugs.” When he went with his parents to downtown Portland with this sign, he was spotted by a police officer named Barnum. Barnum noticed the boy was crying and wondered what was wrong. So he motioned for him to come up to his motorcycle.

The officer asked for his name and shook his hand. He also asked Devonte where he went to school (he is homeschooled), what he did this summer (he traveled around the U.S. with his family), and what he likes to do (art). The tears stopped.

Barnum has two teenage sons and has worked for Portland's police force for 21 years. While continuing to talk to Devonte, he looked at the "Free Hugs" sign on the ground and asked if he might get a hug as well.

Devonte put his arms around the officer. A photographer happened to be present and caught this moment digitally. The picture went viral on the social media. Barnum told reporters how much Devonte meant to him.

"Knowing how he struggled with police, his bravery and courage to catch my eye and approach me were impressive," Barnum said. "And it's a blessing for me that I didn't miss an opportunity to impact this child."

Barnum said the moment was about "listening to each other, facing fears with an open heart."

I was reminded of a similar story that occurred at the Quaker school in Ramallah, which was bombed by Israelis during the second Intifada. IDF soldiers ransacked the school and then began searching the homes of teachers. When one Israeli soldier knocked on the door of a teacher’s home, she let him in and asked if he would do her a favor.

“What kind of favor?” asked the young soldier.

“I have a four-year-old son who is terrified of Israeli soldiers,” she said. “He has never seen a Jewish person out of uniform and I think he is coming to feel that Jews aren’t human, they are some kind of robot. Would you mind going over to my child and talking to him and maybe shake his hand so he will know you are human.”

The young Israeli soldier was very moved and greeted the child warmly and soon was sharing about his family and his children.

Such stories speak to our deep human need to connect, heart to heart, to affirm our common humanity. These are the kinds of stories that my friend Janet Riley, who lives near Washington, DC, collected into a children’s book called “Lighting Candles in the Dark.” This book was translated into Russian and Chechen and is used to teach peace to kids. She hopes this book can be translated and used in many other languages. (See

In the 1980s Janet and I worked together on a joint Soviet-American book project called "The Human Experience." The purpose of this collection of poetry and fiction, which was edited and published in both countries, was to dispel stereotypes. Our work, and that of other citizen diplomats, helped to hasten the end of the Cold War. 

I hope that as we do our prophetic work, speaking truth to power, we remember the power of stories, and of love….the power that draws people together and reminds that each person is precious, made in the Divine image, and at the same time, all too human and in need of forgiveness and grace. Let us go forth and light candles in the dark!

No comments:

Post a Comment