Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Every one 'neath their vine and fig tree": a vision of the earth and city restored

Although my wife Jill and I come from very different theological perspectives—I am a liberal Quaker, and she is an Evangelical Christian—we share many core values in common, including a deep concern for God’s creation. We both believe that the “earth is the Lord’s” and we have a responsibility to treat the earth, and all life, as sacred. We also take seriously the prophets who called for “Jubilee”—cancelling debts and redistributing land to their original owners so wealth (land) will not become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (as has happened, with dire effects, here in the United States). Human greed and systemic injustice are among the leading causes of environmental degradation.
When we were married two years and a half ago, we chose as our “theme song” a hymn based on the prophet Micah: “Every one ‘neath their vine and fig tree/ Shall live in peace and unafraid. And into plowshares turn their swords/Nations shall learn war no more” (Micah 4:4) When guests come to visit, we love to sing them this song!
This vision of the Peaceable Kingdom is at the heart of the biblical vision of shalom—a healthy society based on justice and peace.
“God’s green earth” begins in our own background and local community. Jill and I do what we can to make our lifestyle sustainable. We grow our own organic fruits and vegetables, using innovative watering techniques like Netaphim (an underground watering system developed by the Israelis). And we lovingly share with our neighbors the fruits of our bountiful garden. Even though we live in the poorest and most crime-ridden area of Pasadena, we feel at peace and unafraid.
We have a passive solar system to heat water for our showers. We are installing a solar power system and are using gray water. We hope to reduce our water consumption by 20-25% and electricity bill by 100% within the next year.
Another way to reduce our carbon footprint is to live in smaller homes, or share our homes with others. American homes are twice the size they were a generation ago, which is one reason we use so much more of the earth’s resources. We have opened our home to a homeless man who helps us to maintain our property; and it’s a win-win for us, our guest, and the environment.
We also advocate for policies that will benefit the poor and the environment.
As a member of the Christian Community Development Association—a multi-ethnic, interracial group of Evangelical Christians committed to economic justice—Jill advocates for policies to create walkable, less car-reliant communities that are racially and economically mixed.
When people have to commute long distances to find work, they have less time for families, friends, and community involvement. If every community allowed sufficient density and affordability, we would have less traffic, less air pollution, and safer neighborhoods. Smart growth creates healthier and more environmentally friendly community.
Jill’s views on housing and the environment are grounded in the biblical idea of Jubilee, which means the God is the ultimate owner of all land.  She argues for the creation of more community land trusts (CLT) because in a CLT, people own their homes but lease the land. CLTs ensure that housing will remain permanently affordable. Over 200 cities have CTLs that provide affordable housing to low income workers.
We believe that suburban sprawl and low density policies contribute to pollution.  Cities like Portland, OR, have shown there is a better way. Portland has an urban growth barrier around the city to preserve farm lands and open space; it also encourages higher density development along with excellent public transportation. Policies were instituted requiring that a significant portion of inner city housing be set aside as affordable. As a result, the residents of Portland use 35% less energy per capita than those in comparable cities. Portland has also become a more livable and friendly city.
When we look at pollution from a global perspective, we see that war, poverty and the desecration of the earth go together. Numerous studies show that war is the greatest polluter on the planet. Each year millions of people are displaced from their homes and impoverished because of war.
If we want to end war and restore “God’s green earth,” we must speak truth to those in power, like the prophets of Israel. Friends Committee on Legislation, a Quaker lobbying organization in Washington, DC, decided both to model and advocate for an “earth restored.” When the FCNL office building had to be remodeled in 2003, it was made as green as possible, with geothermal heating and air conditioning, a vegetative roof, bamboo floors, light scoops and other ways to reduce energy consumption.  (Jill’s book on affordable housing includes a section on alternative, sustainable construction methods, such as super adobe and straw bale.)
Concern for the earth is shared by people of all faiths: Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and those who see themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” In 2007, I edited a book called EarthLight: Spiritual Wisdom for an Ecological Age, which explores the spirituality of environmentalism from a variety of faith perspectives.
As this book shows, and as my wife and I have discovered, we don’t have to agree on theology to work together to save our planet. We see around us the growing effects of climate change—increasingly erratic weather patterns, storms, melting glaciers, droughts, desertification, resource wars—and we cannot help feeling concerned for the future of our children and grandchildren. We know we must not bury our heads in the sand and deny what the world’s leading scientists are telling us. Nor can we ignore the words of the prophets. We have to do what we can to preserve this beautiful and fragile planet. After summing up God’s laws on land use and the just treatment of the poor, Moses concludes: "Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” (Deut 30:19).

Anthony Manousos, a retired Quaker magazine editor and college professor with an Ph.D. in English literature, has edited and authored many books relating to peace, environmentalism, and compassionate listening. He serves on the board of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and Friends Committee on National Legislation. He is married to Jill Shook, a housing justice advocate, teacher, and “catalyst” who gives workshops around the country. Together they have revised Making Housing Happen: Faith Based Affordable Housing and work together to promote housing justice, peace and environmentalism.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Campaign to End Endless War Begins Here in Pasadena!

I am thrilled to report we successfully launched our LA campaign to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) with a visit to the office of Rep. Judy Chu, where we met with her aide Matthew Hovsepian. The following people took part in our dynamic intefaith delegation:
  • Grace Dyrness, president of ICUJP and a professor at USC, who travels around the world giving workshops and consulting with nonprofits.
  • Bert Newton, Mennonite activist, organizer of the Palm Sunday Peace Parade and author of "The Subversive Gospel of John."
  • Rabbi Joshua Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple
  • Randy Christopher, director of the Peace and Justice Academy
  • Madeleine and Audrey Cameron, students at PAJA, and winners of the city-wide MLK essay contest
  • Cody Lowry, Quaker opera singer
  • Tarek Shawky, Muslim lawyer, member of the Northwest Commission

Hovsepian was very cordial and took notes as we shared our views. He made it clear that Rep Chu has focused mainly on domestic issues, where she had taken liberal positions. He also mentioned that when the US threatened to bomb Syria because of Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, he received 450 letters from constituents urging Rep Chu not to authorize bombing Syria, and only 8 responses in support of bombing. I told Matt this demonstrates that Pasadenans mostly favor nonviolent solutions to conflict, and they would support repealing the AUMF.

Furthermore, nonviolent solutions often work better than violent responses. Trillions have been spent, and countless lives lost and ruined, on war since 9/11, with little good to show for it. Thanks to diplomacy, we have set up a process that will lead to the destruction of Assad's chemical weapon stockpile without firing a shot or killing anyone, and negotiations are under way to ensure that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.

I shared with Matt the AFSC/FCNL study "Shared Security" that shows how nonviolent methods have been used successfully to resolve conflicts in various parts of the world.

We asked that Rep Chu make a public statement in support of Adam Schiff's bill to repeal the AUMF. Matt said he would bring up this matter with Rep Chu.

We felt it was a good meeting. We planted a seed of peace that will hopefully grow as we continue to meet with Matt and eventually with Judy Chu as well. It takes time to help people see that peace making really is preferable to war.

Here is what we shared with Rep Chu's aide, including my introductory remarks:


I want to thank Rep. Chu for her liberal stand on many social and domestic issues. I regard her as liberal in the best sense of that much maligned word— “progressive, broad-minded, unprejudiced, and charitable.”  I think we are generally in agreement with her positions on health care, foreclosure prevention, job creation, education, immigration, renewable energy, LGTBQ issues, worker rights, etc.

However, we’d like her to take a stronger stand on peace making. As long as we have a bloated military, fighting futile wars all around the world, there won’t be enough funds to meet the urgent domestic needs of Americans. Here in Pasadena, the Housing Department’s budget has been cut 85%, yet 23,000 Pasadenans are in need of affordable housing. We have over 700 homeless people on our streets and the government is cutting funds to shelters and Section 8. According to a recent study, nearly 23% of Californians live in poverty.

 We are here to tell Rep Chu we need to end endless wars so that we can end poverty and show the world that we are a truly a nation of peace and justice for all. This is the message of Martin Luther King and the religious leaders who have come here today—and many more who wanted to be here, but couldn’t because of scheduling issues. We want Rep Chu to stand with Rep Adam Schiff and publicly call for the repeal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. We want Rep Chu to let her constituents know that she rejects targeted assassinations and military interventions, and supports a nonviolent and diplomatic approach to resolving international conflict.

1)     We agree with Adam Schiff that Congress never intended to give the President authority to engage in a perpetual war to combat terrorism without the oversight of Congress. It is time to sunset the AUMF.

2)     We support Rep Barbara Lee, who was the lone Congress member to oppose the AUMF initially and has called  for a complete listing of all instances in which the AUMF has been used. According to Rep Lee, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report lists 30 instances where the AUMF has invoked by Presidents Bush and Obama, including to deploy troops in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Georgia, and Yemen, justify detentions at Guantanamo Bay, and conduct military commissions.

3)     We oppose the way that the AUM has been used to justify drone warfare, targeted assassination, NSA spying, “black sites,” torture, Guantanamo detention, and interventions in various counties, from Ethiopia to Yemen.

4)     We disagree with the assumption that the best way to combat terrorism is through violence, like targeted assassination, drone warfare, etc. We are convinced that the use of drones is immoral, illegal and counterproductive.

5)     We feel that the best defense against terrorism is “shared security,” using diplomacy, legal action (such as international courts) and other nonviolent means.

6)     We agree with the President that Guantanamo must be closed. We believe that all prisoners under US custody should be given a fair trial with due process, as we did with Nazi war criminals. Most Guantanamo prisoners are not criminals, however, and have been cleared of all charges. They should be released without delay to the country of their choice.

7)     Funds should be diverted from our bloated military budget to social needs, like schools, health care, and affordable housing. Our best defense is a strong economy with benefits shared by all, not just by the 1%.

8)     We have spent trillions on war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have nothing to show for it. There was no Al Qaida forces in Iraq; now they are fighting a civil war against Iraq’s Shi’a government, and also fighting in Syria. Life has gotten worse, not improved, for Iraqs, millions of whom fled to Syria. Because we support rebel forces in Syria, violence has increased and refugees are flying to Lebanon and Jordan, creating more instability. Our military interventions are worsening conditions for people around the world and sowing the seeds of hatred, which will eventually lead to more terrorist attacks against Americans. By objective measures, our military exploits since 9/11 have been a complete failure. It is time to try nonviolent alternatives. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over gain and expect different results.


Rep. Adam Schiff To Introduce Legislation to Sunset Authorization for Use of Military Force
Monday June 10, 2013
Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a senior Member of the Intelligence Committee, announced that he was introducing legislation tomorrow – before the debate on the National Defense Authorization Act begins this week – that would sunset the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) beginning in 2015. Following the September 11 attacks, the Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force to provide the President with requisite authorization to use “force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Schiff's legislation finds that the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) now poorly defines those who pose a threat to the country, and that it should expire concurrent with the end of our combat role in Afghanistan. The bill sunsets the AUMF effective December 31, 2014.

“When Congress passed the AUMF shortly after 9/11, we did not intend to authorize a war without end,” said Rep. Adam Schiff. “The cessation of our combat mission in Afghanistan next year is a logical end point for an authorization that now provides a poor description of the groups which threaten us, and an increasingly precarious legal rationale for going after them. As the President observed recently, if we don't define the nature of the threat we face, it will define us.”

Since the AUMF passed, the U.S. has invaded Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban and routing the core of Al Qaeda. The authorization has also been used to support targeted strikes against Al Qaeda's operatives in other countries, and used as a basis to detain terrorists at the facility at Guantanamo Bay.

The country now face threats from individuals, entities and organizations that may affiliate with al Qaeda, or share its ideology and its determination to attack Americans, but which may not have even been in existence on September 11, 2001. With the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan and the transition to Afghan national security forces at the end of 2014, it is time for the President and Congress to work together to determine a proper legal basis for protecting the country going forward. The bill will effectively give Congress the next 18 months to do so.

In his recent speech at the National Defense University, President Obama specifically called on Congress to work with him. “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate,” Obama said. “And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.”

July 17, 2013
Contact: Carrie Adams (202) 225-2661
Washington, D.C.— Today, Congresswoman Barbara Lee released a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) surrounding the presidential utilization to undertake military and other actions under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was enacted in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
“As the only Member of Congress to vote against the AUMF on September 14th, 2001, I have been deeply concerned about this overly-broad blank check for war,” said Congresswoman Lee. “I knew then, as I know now, that it gives any president the nearly unlimited authority to wage limitless war at anytime, anywhere, for any reason, in perpetuity. Until this report, we did not have a public accounting of the number of times that it had been cited. I’m certain this will prove a useful tool for my colleagues and the American people and help shine a spotlight on the uses of the AUMF.”
The report lists 30 instances where the AUMF has invoked by Presidents Bush and Obama, including to deploy troops in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Georgia, and Yemen, justify detentions at Guantanamo Bay, and conduct military commissions. The data from this report includes information gleaned solely from two publicly available GPO publications: Federal Register and Compilation of Presidential Documents.
“What continues to concern me, however, is that this information is based on what is only publically reported. We don’t know the further, full extent, including the ongoing use of lethal drones, surveillance, unlimited detention, and other actions where the AUMF has been used as justification,” said Congresswoman Lee.
Congresswoman Lee has consistently called for repeal of the AUMF; to that end, in the 113th Congress, Congresswoman Lee introduced HR 198. In addition to her ongoing efforts, this week, Congresswoman Lee will introduce an amendment to the 2014 Defense Appropriations Bill which would require the Department of Defense to produce a comprehensive report on the uses of AUMF, in both classified and unclassified forms, to bring further accountability and Congressional oversight on this issue.

Rep. Adam Schiff To Introduce Legislation to Sunset Authorization for Use of Military Force

Monday June 10, 2013

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a senior Member of the Intelligence Committee, announced that he was introducing legislation tomorrow – before the debate on the National Defense Authorization Act begins this week – that would sunset the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) beginning in 2015. Following the September 11 attacks, the Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force to provide the President with requisite authorization to use “force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Schiff's legislation finds that the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) now poorly defines those who pose a threat to the country, and that it should expire concurrent with the end of our combat role in Afghanistan. The bill sunsets the AUMF effective December 31, 2014.

“When Congress passed the AUMF shortly after 9/11, we did not intend to authorize a war without end,” said Rep. Adam Schiff. “The cessation of our combat mission in Afghanistan next year is a logical end point for an authorization that now provides a poor description of the groups which threaten us, and an increasingly precarious legal rationale for going after them. As the President observed recently, if we don't define the nature of the threat we face, it will define us.”




Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Teaching Students to be like Martin Luther King

L. to r.: Madeleine and Audrey Cameron,
Angelo Cassiano and Madison Gibson
Who knew there was a school in Pasadena whose purpose is to train students to be like Martin Luther King? Asked to describe Pasadena’s Peace and Justice Academy (also known as PAJA), its director, Randy Christopher, replied:

“I want our school to be the kind of place where Dr King would have liked to send his kids.”

Welcome to PAJA, a unique school for activists founded five years ago by the Mennonites, a branch of Christians known for their commitment to peacemaking. (Less well known, even among Mennonites, is that King’s perspectives on Vietnam were shaped in part by years of conversation with Vincent Harding, who had served as pastor of Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago.)

During the last three years, four students of PAJA have been finalists—two of them winners—in the city-wide Martin Luther King Day Essay Contest, even though the school has only 23 students, grades 6-12. This contest is sponsored by the Martin Luther King Community Coalition, Altadena and Pasadena NAACP, Pasadena Unified School District, Ecumenical Council of Pasadena Area Congregations, and other groups, including the City of Pasadena. Finalists read their essays at Robinson Park during its annual MLK Day event.

Last year’s winner was Madeline Cameron, a 16-year-old with long brown hair, and a passion for justice. Home-schooled by her Mennonite parents, she and her sister started attending the school four years ago when they moved to Pasadena.

In her prize-winning essay, Madeleine spoke about the “futility of war,” and the need to focus resources on ending poverty—themes that King raised in his controversial sermon at New York’s Riverside Church in 1968, titled “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” Madeline quotes Dr. King, who asserted:

“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America.”

The students of the Peace and Justice Academy do not rely only on textbooks to learn about issues of justice and peace, they also engage in field trips that provide experiential learning. In her essay Madeline spoke about the plight of Mexicans crossing the border because she took part in a field trip to San Diego.

“Recently, five students from my school visited the wall between the U.S. border and Mexico,” said Madeleine. “Mexico was just a few hundred feet away, but because of the conflict between the U.S. and Mexico, the border was almost inaccessible, and highly dangerous. Many Americans resent immigrants, thinking that they take jobs desperately needed in this economy. In reality, Americans refuse the menial jobs that immigrants take; and furthermore, we are the main reason that immigrants are forced to come seeking work….The U.S. is creating a problem, but unwilling to admit that they are responsible for the economic destruction in another country. Is this not violence too?”

Asked whether training in peace and justice is practical, Madeleine, a senior, responded confidently: “I feel more prepared to go to college because I know better how the world actually works. I also know how to deal with conflicts in a nonviolent way. We have to look at both sides and understand their point of view.”

This year Madeleine’s 14-year-old sister Audrey is one of the finalists in the Pasadena MLK Essay Contest.

“I cannot claim to be as influential as Dr. King, but I do stand up for peace, serve my community, and strive to be my best self. I pursue peace, for example, by writing our government representatives. Recently, I wrote Representative Judy Chu, urging her to vote against a bomb strike in Syria. If Dr. King were alive today, he would have fought that proposal with the same determination he showed in opposing the Viet Nam War… Last year, I served my community by helping organize a blanket and canned food drive for the homeless and hungry. I also volunteer at a local homeless shelter, Union Station, making and serving meals to those in that transitional setting. For three years I have been part of the Thirty Hour Famine, a World Vision program in which participants endure hunger for thirty hours while raising money so others may have enough to eat. Lastly, I strive to be my best self. That may seem trivial, but I truly believe that achieving peace in the world is only possible once you have achieved it for yourself.”
She believes that PAJA influenced her decision to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King.
“Everything we do is through the lens of peace and justice,” explained Audrey. “We begin each day with a quote by an activist or a ‘call-to-action’ video. We also learn about media literacy, how to use media to spread ideas.”

Angelo Cassiano, a 13-year Latino student, explained how thrilled he was when PAJA invited him to take part in an immigration rally at All Saints Church and he was interviewed by a Spanish-speaking TV station.

“My family and friends got to see me on TV!” he said excitedly.

Madison Gibson, a 12-year-old African American student, came to PAJA two years ago because she wasn’t thriving in her previous school:

“People were mean to me. And I didn’t learn anything. Here everyone is nice. We’re not a bunch of little groups, like in bigger schools. We’re like a big, happy family. Well, we sometimes have conflicts but we learn to work them out.”

Angelo agreed with Madison: “There is more communication and we feel closer to the teachers and principal.”

Angelo also appreciates the “labs”and field trips that enable him to understand history in depth:

“We went on a field trip to Manzanar, where the Japanese were interned during World War II, and we learned how the people there really lived. I feel we are being prepared for the real world.”

Besides field trips, PAJA students take part in peace events, like the Gun Buyback that took place in Pasadena last May, the “Seeds of Peace” conference sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religions at All Saints Church, and the annual Palm Sunday Peace Parade in which hundreds of Christians gather walk to the Paseo with palm branches in one hand and peace signs in the other, proclaiming that the “Prince of Peace” was actually a peace activist. (Last year’s parade even included a donkey like the one that Jesus rode.)

Peace and justice themes are integrated in all aspects of the curriculum. Christopher explained: “Our teens study the intricacies of algebra and geometry, and fund microloans for people all over the globe with money they DO NOT get from their parents. They not only perform community service, but learn the causes and cures of societal ills - and learn to empathize with those they serve. They study the lives of well-known and little-known peacemakers, and learn restorative justice techniques to use themselves.”

PAJA is fully accredited by WASC and all of its graduates (two, so far) have recieved early admission to their first-choice colleges.

Peacemaking sounded like a lot of hard work, so I asked the kids: What is the most fun you have had at the school?

“Making pies for peace” was the response from Madeline and the other students, whose faces lit up as they explained what they meant.

Last year PAJA collaborated with a comedy team called Ted A Company to bring the Peace, Pies and Prophets (a nation-wide tour) to Pasadena. The evening included a satiric show called “I’d like to buy an enemy” and was interspersed with a pie auction. This show not only generated a lot of laughter, it also raised funds to help the school and a group called Christian Peace Teams that goes to hot spots in the Middle East and around the world to foster nonviolent conflict resolution. Bidding on the pies went as high as several hundred dollars. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I bought three pies and now serve on the board of the school.)

PAJA is still a work in progress. Not content with its unique status as a peace and justice academy, it is in the process of becoming the first interfaith high school in the United States.

“We have always tried to represent diversity,” explained Christopher. “We’ve had economic, ethnic and racial diversity, but not religious diversity. We saw how religious differences were causing conflicts and wars. This seems odd because all the world’s religions teach tolerance, compassion, justice, and hospitality. We felt that an interfaith high school would reflect those values and promote peace.”

When Christopher and co-director Kimberly Medendorp learned that the Claremont Lincoln University (which began as Claremont School of Theology, a Methodist seminary) recently became an interfaith seminary, with students and professors from various faith traditions, they were inspired by this pioneering experiment in interfaith education.

“We saw a need for such a school here in Pasadena,” explained Christopher. “Our biggest fans have been the heads of Pasadena’s New Horizon (a Muslim school, K-8) and Weizmann Day School (a Jewish school, also K-8). They’ve spent a lot of years working to teach religious values to their kids, and then the kids have to go to a secular high school. The idea that these Muslim and Jewish students can continue their faith studies, and learn about other faith traditions, is very attractive.”

The new interfaith PAJA will have people of diverse faiths on the board as well as teaching classes. Students will learn about Judaism from a Jewish instructor, Islam from a Muslim instructor, and Christianity from a Christian instructor.

“Parents and students were ecstatic about this idea,” explained Medendorp. “By having an interfaith board, faculty, and student body, we can expand our students’ faith development by enabling them to learn about other faiths from believers in various traditions.”

How would King feel about this experiment in pluralism? In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King recognized the need to foster understanding among people of diverse religions as well as races: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."

This is a part of King’s dream that the Peace and Justice Academy is turning into a reality.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Eldering and Vocal Ministry: Guidelines for the Vexed and Perplexed

Nurturing the quality and depth of vocal ministry is one of the recurrent challenges of unprogrammed Quakerism. In an article entitled “The Divine Source of Vocal Ministry” (Friends Journal, December 2004) Benjamin Lloyd describes the anguish that he and other Friends feel when messages seem too frequent (the so-called “popcorn meeting” effect) or too intellectual. He calls for more emotionally authentic messages and decries the fact that Friends no longer “elder” those whose vocal ministry seems uninspiring or inappropriate.

“Inappropriate” is of course a subjective term. Every meeting has its own sense of what constitutes an apt message. Individual members also have their idiosyncratic tastes and needs. Most Friends would agree that messages should not be “too long,” “too personal,”  “too preachy,” or “too intellectual,” etc.  The question arises: who decides when these epithets apply to someone’s vocal ministry? And how does the Meeting communicate its concern to a person whose message did not speak to its condition?

A few years ago an incident occurred that caused me to take these questions seriously. A newcomer to our Meeting—a woman who moved into our area from the East Coast and has been a Friend for 30 years—gave a message that seemed too long and too intellectual for the tastes of some Friends present. Angered by the length of the message, a Friend stood up in protest, and so did two other Friends.

After meeting, I talked with the newcomer, who was quite upset. Understandably, she felt that she had been publicly humiliated. The Friend who stood up to elder the newcomer came to her at the rise of meeting and said that her message seemed like a mere “performance” since it talked about Quaker history and referred to a personal event that occurred 15 years ago rather than to an immediate felt experience. 

I then spoke to the Friend who eldered the newcomer. She is a person whom I know, respect and love dearly. A person of strong convictions, she told me that she felt that she had clearly done the right thing because Friends had been complaining about "inappropriate" and insufficiently spiritual messages during meeting for worship for some time. Some had even left our meeting because of the unsatisfactory quality of vocal ministry.

 These concerns are quite valid. There has been a marked increase in the quantity of spoken contributions in our Meeting, and unsuitable things have occasionally been said (particularly relating to political issues).  I listened sympathetically and patiently to my Friend’s concerns.

When she asked for my thoughts, I told her that while I feel it is important to let Friends know when their vocal ministry seems inappropriate, standing up to protest a message has, in my experience, been an extreme measure, usually undertaken only when a person has spoken for an inordinate length of time (say, 10 minutes or more) or has said something totally un-Quakerly in tone or content.  When a message is "slightly off," it is the usual practice to wait until rise of meeting, take the person aside very tenderly, ask questions about where the message is coming from, and gently explain that the message seemed a little too long or a little too intellectual or whatever for the tastes or the culture of our meeting.

 I explained that this in fact had happened to me this very morning. A Friend in our meeting was not comfortable with a message that I gave several weeks before. He called and left a message on my answering machine, and I asked him about his call. He told me that he felt that my telling two stories during vocal ministry was too much, and that I went on a bit too long and it was not helpful to him spiritually. I thanked him for being frank and genuinely appreciated his feedback. I told him that in future I would try to be briefer. 

Not every Friend would agree with him that I went on too long, however. Several had thanked me for my message—one even wanted me to write it up!—but clearly others (or at least one other) felt differently and I needed to hear and respect this concern.

 If someone had stood up in meeting to protest my message, I would have felt humiliated. I appreciated his sensitivity in bringing up his feelings with me privately. What he did corresponded with what I have been taught about the Quaker eldering process.

 Upon hearing my response, my Friend thanked me and even gave me a hug. She then went to speak to the newcomer and had a heart-to-heart talk. It helped, but the newcomer will carry the pain of this incident with her for a long time.

 While such extreme “eldering” is uncommon among liberal Friends,  annoyance and anger with inappropriate messages are not infrequent. Some Friends feel very strongly that messages which do not arise from the depths of the Spirit desecrate the silence and should be discouraged by whatever means necessary. One Friend  even said it was “courageous” for  these three Friends to stand up in protest of our newcomer’s  message.

 The vitality of Meeting for Worship depends on having a healthy balance between deep, silent worship and vital Spirit-led vocal ministry.  When Meetings insist too much on enforcing silence, they may stifle authentic and needed ministry. When messages become too frequent, too personal, or too intellectual, the depth and quality of worship may suffer.  What’s to be done?

Judging vocal ministry

We need to remember that even the best of Friends may give vocal ministry that is not to everyone’s taste. Rufus Jones, a Haverford professor and one of the spiritual giants of twentieth century Quakerism, was sometimes chided for giving messages that seemed too long or too high-flown. At rise of meeting, one woman is reported to have said, “Friend Rufus, our Lord told us to feed his sheep, not his giraffes.” In a documentary about Rufus Jones, Steve Carey said that Rufus gave messages so frequently and predictably that young Friends would take bets on the precise minute when he would rise and speak. When Rufus arose, these young Friends would look at their watch to see who won the bet!

When I first became a Friend in Princeton, NJ, I loved the deep, worshipful silence, but was not terribly impressed with the quality of vocal ministry in our meeting. Those who live in this highly charged academic community tend to have high standards.  Some of us who were new to Quakerism, but felt we understood it quite well, would gather after meeting and critique the messages, just as we would critique papers at an academic forum.

A wise old Friend named Rose helped us to understand the way that seasoned Friends evaluate messages.

“Some messages may not be meant for you,” she said. “They are for someone else in the Meeting who really needs to hear this message. If you hear a message that doesn’t speak to your condition, don’t worry about it. Let it go. Trust that it will reach the person that it was intended for.”

Rose also helped us to appreciate messages that seemed “too personal.” 

“Sometimes when a Friend is sharing something painful or personal, I hold that person in the Light and pray for healing. At the rise of Meeting, I am sometimes led to minister to that person, or I see someone else doing it, and I am very grateful.”

Similar views are expressed by George Gorman in his pamphlet The Amazing Fact of Quaker Worship. Gorman writes with great sensitivity about vocal ministry that jars the sensibilities of some listeners:

...A spoken contribution may disrupt the silence and jar upon the ears of the listeners. One's immediate and natural reaction will be a strong sense of irritation, if not outright annoy­ance, that the tranquility of the stillness has been broken. This may be a quite justified reaction, but equally it may be a misleading one. The Society of Friends has long advised those who worship after the manner of Friends to listen sympatheti­cally to anything said in meeting, and to try to wrest from the words their inner meaning and real significance.

...If you are unable to find anything of value, and the speaker's unabated flow of words smothers the silence for you, then you may find it helpful to ask yourself why is message is not reaching you, or is causing such a negative reac­tion. Questioning yourself in this way may well spark off something that is creative in you. In fact, you will possibly come to see that the words you have been hearing with irritation do, after all, have something for you. Meetings are not always tranquil through. What is said may rightly chal­lenge and disturb.

I have myself had negative reactions to certain “spoken contributions.” Many years ago, during meeting for worship in a certain Eastern city that will go nameless, I heard a couple of  messages that seemed so rambling and incoherent that I couldn’t help feeling judgmental. As I sat seething with annoyance, I heard a voice—I never actually saw the speaker—who said simply and with great feeling:

“Please forgive me, O God. I have been sitting here judging Friends and their messages.”

There was a long silence after that message, which I have never forgotten. The words seemed to come directly from God and seared my heart, like Jesus words, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Over the years,  I have tried to put into practice these lessons.  Whenever I find judgmentalism rising up in me during meeting for worship, I try to remember that not every message is intended for me. Some messages are cries for help (sometimes carefully disguised)  from God and from Friends.  Other messages are meant to disturb and to arouse me from my complacency. During meeting for worship, my job is not to judge, but to hold Friends and their messages in the Light of God’s love.

How to improve the depth and quality of vocal ministry

We cannot simply sit passively by, however, if messages during Meeting distract us or other Friends from the experience of the Divine Presence. In fact, we have an obligation to do our best to nurture the vocal ministry and ensure that it is Spirit-inspired, as our [Pacific Yearly Meeting] Faith and Practice advises:

[Members of the Worship and Ministry Committee] should encourage those who show promising gifts and lovingly guide those who speak unacceptably, too often or for too long. They should endeavor to open the way for those who are timid and inexperienced in vocal ministry and should encourage all Friends to listen with tenderness. In trying to be helpful, they should not assume superior wisdom, trusting instead that all are sharing in the search for guidance.

While this advice is useful, it does not spell out specifically what can be done to improve the quality and depth of Meeting for Worship.  Nor does our Faith and Explain how we can  “loving guide those who speak unacceptably.”

I have found that one of the best ways to “elder” a Friend is to create a space for the Spirit to do the eldering. Let me cite another example.

About a week after the incident described earlier, I called one of the Friends who stood up in protest. Before calling her, I reminded myself that this Friend is a highly intelligent, compassionate and spiritual person. My job wasn’t to judge, but to listen to her. After we had talked briefly of other matters, I asked her about what happened on the previous Sunday.

“I think I overreacted a bit,” she replied. “I was very angry at the time. We have had so many messages that I felt I had to do something, so I stood up. Others joined me. But I think what I did was hurtful. And it’s probably not good practice to stand unless a message is really off base, which this one wasn’t. “

She went on in this vein for some time as I listened sympathetically. I didn’t have to say anything critical. Her Inner Elder had figured out what went wrong, and together we came up with ideas about how we could deal better with such situations in the future (this article is partly a result of our conversation). After my Friend had “eldered herself,” she thanked me. And I thanked her. It is of course the Spirit who deserves the thanks. When we are guided by Love which is greater than we can imagine, we feel humble and grateful, not angry and superior.

One of the most famous cases of “self-eldering” can be found in John Woolman’s Journal.  Woolman writes of a time when his vocal ministry went on too long:

One day being under a strong exercise of spirit,  I stood up and said some words in a meeting; but not keeping close to the Divine opening, I said more than was required of me. Being soon sensible of my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could not take satisfaction in anything. I remembered God, and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence; my mind because calm and quiet, and I was truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies.

Everyone is not as spiritually sensitive as John Woolman, but the same Inner Guide that pricked Woolman’s conscience resides in all of us. What most of us need from time to time is gentle reminder to pay more attention to our Guide.  Asking questions in kind, non-judgmental tone of voice is often the best way to help us get back in touch with this Inner Elder.

Over the past thirty or so years that I have been a Friend, I have observed other ways that Meetings have improved the depth and quality of vocal ministry:

1) When messages become too frequent (the so-called “popcorn meeting”), it is helpful for Ministry and Council to educate the Meeting about how to prepare both to give and receive a message.  Ministry and Council can work with Adult Education to set up opportunities for discussion and reflection about vocal ministry. The library committee can recommend books and pamphlets.  This educational process needs to be ongoing since a healthy and vital meeting will always have newcomers who need to be educated about the ways of Friends. Even the most seasoned Friends need reminders and refresher courses!  In the face of the great responsibility that comes with vocal ministry, we must all be humble and “teachable.”

2) After meeting for worship, some Meetings set aside time for reflections that “did not rise to the level of vocal ministry.” This post-worship sharing time helps Friends to appreciate that the silence of worship is sacred and should not be “broken” lightly. It also allows Friends a needed opportunity to share significant thoughts and to make prayer requests.  This time of sharing can be done with the Meeting as a whole (if time permits) or in small groups.

3) If too many messages have been given, or if the messages seem too long, a Friend may feel led to rise and remind the group that we need more silence in which to reflect upon and appreciate what has been shared.  Such reminders, if given lovingly, can help to center the Meeting.

4) If a Friend gives a message that another Friend feels is inappropriate, it is usually best to bring the matter up with a member of the worship and ministry committee rather than confront directly the person who gave the message.  The more strongly we feel about the inappropriateness of the message, the more important it is to seek the guidance and wisdom of others rather than to rely on one’s own feelings.  When we are caught up in the grip of our emotions, it is easy for the ego to ride roughshod over the Spirit and to hurt others who, like us, are seeking the Light.

5)  It can be helpful for Ministry and Council to hold special meetings for those who give vocal ministry more than once or twice a year, as well as for those who have concerns about the quality of vocal ministry. In the early days, elders and those called to be “recorded ministers” held regular meetings in which to foster more effective vocal ministry. Marty Grundy has called for a revival of that old Quaker tradition. Although I am not aware of any Meetings that are doing so, the concept seems sound and worth experimenting with.

6) Workshop and training sessions for those called to give vocal ministry are also highly desirable. I was happy to read that Benjamin Lloyd feels called to lead such workshops. I hope that others follow this example!

A final word needs to be said about extreme cases. I have been present at Meetings in which a person who has psychological problems, or who doesn’t understand what silent worship is all about, has done serious damage with inappropriate messages and behavior. Dealing with such a disturbed and disturbing individual can become a long term spiritual “project” that challenges the spiritual and emotional resources of Meeting. For those having such a problem, I recommend “The Wounded Meeting: Dealing with Difficult Behavior in Meeting for Worship” (Friends General Conference, 1993).

Unprogrammed meeting for worship has been aptly been described as  “open worship.”  When we leave ourselves and our meeting open to the Spirit, we are taking a risk. Being open means that dead leaves, old newspapers, and strange critters will occasionally find their way into the Meetinghouse along with the healing winds of the Spirit. Such is the nature of our Quaker worship. Friends feel it is a small price to pay for experiencing the miraculous and unpredictable Spirit of the Living God  in our midst.

Thoughts and Reflections on Vocal Ministry and Silent Worship

“A Friends’  meeting for worship finds no room for debate or for answering (still less for contradicting) one another; if this is desirable, it will be left for another occasion. And if anything should seem to be spoken amiss, the spiritually minded worshipper will have the wit to get at the heart of the message, overlooking crudity and lack of skill in presentation, and so far from giving way to irritation at what seems unprofitable, he will be deeply concerned for his own share in creating the right atmosphere in which the harm fades out and the good grows. Many a meeting has known this power, transforming what might have been hurtful into a means of grace….”—A.  Neave Brayshaws, 1921 (quoted in Renfer’s Daily Readings, p. 105).

“There are some persons who attend a Friends’ meeting for worship with the hope that there will be no vocal ministry at all. They prefer the silence, and resent messages of vocal ministry as intrusions. I suppose that in a certain sense all of have these moments when we would rather not be disturbed. But the actual truth of the matter is that meetings that have turned completely silent almost invariably wither away. Something is missing in the corporate relationship.”—Douglas Steere, On Speaking Out of the Silence, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 182

In writing about using silence as a “medium through which we become aware of the divine presence,” Christopher Holdsworth notes that such silence must be inward and quotes this passage from the Desert Fathers: “Aba Poemen, for example, once said,

‘There is one sort of person who seems to be silent, but inwardly criticizes other people. Such a person is really talking all the time. Another may talk from morning to night, but says only what is meaningful, and so keeps silence.’

“What is their aim in seeking silence? They wanted to find it so that they could hear, to attend to the voice of God which normally they were too busy, too disturbed, too bathed in noise to hear. In this sense becoming quiet was a crucial part of that form of exploration of inner space which is called prayer.”—from Renfer, p. 258. 

“I know that, in Friends’ meetings as elsewhere, one must be prepared to meet with much human weakness and imperfection; many things may be heard in them which are trying to the flesh—yes, and perhaps to the spirit also. Certainly many things may be heard which are open to criticism from an intellectual and literary point of view. Let no one go to Friends’ meetings with the expectation of finding everything to his taste. But criticism fades away abashed in the presence of what is felt to be a real, however faltering, endeavour to open actual communication with the Father of spirits, and with each other as in His presence and His name.”—Caroline Stephen, 1890, quoted in Refer, p. 217.

Postscript thoughts

The question arises: are there messages that are “wrong” or should never be given? I am reminded of a cartoon in which a teacher tells a high school student:

“I told you that this is an essay exam and there are no ‘wrong’ answers, but if there were a wrong answer, yours would be it.”

 Some messages clearly fall into that category. Messages are un-Quakerly if they take a stand on partisan politics or criticizes others either by name or by implication. Caustic wit and sarcasm are also inappropriate.

Authentic vocal ministry may address the deep, burning political questions of the day, as long as the message is grounded in the Eternal Spirit, not in the daily editorial.  “Weighty” Friends have been known to use gentle humor during their vocal ministry. Simplicity, brevity and sincerity are what characterize the most useful, meaningful, and moving messages.















Some questions

Eldering, in the sense of questioning a person’s vocal ministry, has fallen out of fashion among liberal Friends. Some bemoan the “anything goes” quality of vocal ministry that has arisen as a result. I quote one weighty Friend whom I contacted:

Contemporary liberal Quakerism is, as you know, quite vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse, because we have relatively little hierarchy and few recognized authority figures.  There is often a strong presumption in favor of a simplistic egalitarianism, which I like to see as a throw-back to 17th-century Ranters:  "If I decide that I'm moved to speak, no one has the right to tell me I'm out of line."  When this presumption gains currency in a Meeting, an extra burden rests upon M&C/O to correct it.  Without formally-recognized elders and ministers to communicate and maintain good order, the spiritual liberty of Friends' worship can easily degenerate into a "lowest common denominator" of impulsive speech, masquerading as ministry. The "Ranter" interpretation can be partially corrected by reminding ourselves that Friends place spiritual authority not in individuals, but in the Meeting as a whole, and in the larger body of the Religious Society of Friends itself. 

These points are well taken, but what exactly should members of M & O do to “correct” this situation?  What concrete steps should be taken to “remind” Friends where the spiritual authority lies? The devil, as they say, lies in the specifics. Eldering, if done insensitively, can be as harmful to the life of the Meeting as inept vocal ministry.

At our upcoming adult ed session on “Eldering,” I would appreciate it if someone from M & O would give specific answers to the following questions:

  1. How does one determine what is an inappropriate topic, style, or length for a message at Santa Monica Meeting? If Friends need to be eldered because of the content, style, or length of their messages, will M & O develop some clear, specific guidelines so Friends will know what is okay and what may require eldering at our Meeting?
  2. Who is authorized to elder a Friend who has given vocal ministry? Should any Friend feel it is okay to go to someone who has given a message and tell them that his or her message is inappropriate, or should eldering be done only by members of M & O? How does M & O decide how and when to elder someone?
  3. When is it appropriate to stand in protest of a message? How does one determine that a message is so inappropriate that it is okay to stand in protest and perhaps cause someone to feel hurt and humiliated?
  4.  Does M and O feel it is important to encourage open-hearted, compassionate listening, as recommended in our Faith and Practice (see below)? If so, how will this be done?

“Those who are led to speak have different backgrounds, verbal skills and interpretive power. Friends try to listen more than they speak, keep an open heart, seek the Spirit behind the words and hold the speaker in love. Listeners may find it helpful to pray that the messenger is faithful to the call, and that God’s word will emerge through the medium of human speech. A message that does not speak to one person’s needs may be helpful to another. After a message has been given, it is important to allow time to ponder its meaning, letting the Spirit move through the assembly of Friends before another ministers.” –Pacific Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice