Thursday, June 15, 2017

What is "the Word of God"? A Quaker and Sufi Perspective

Quakerism and Sufism both draw a clear distinction between the words of God (found in scripture) and the Word of God (which is experienced inwardly).
During a recent controversy involving a bigoted Christian preacher from Gainesville, Florida, who created an international uproar by threatening to burn Qur’ans on 9/11, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader named Maher Hathout attempted to calm the troubled waters by telling the Islamic community in Los Angeles that it is impossible to burn the Qur’an.

“The Holy Qur’an is the Word of God,” he explained in a sermon delivered on Layatal Qadr, the holiest night of the holy month of Ramadan. “The Qur’an exists eternally in Paradise and cannot be destroyed. You can burn paper and ink, but not the Word of God. Anyone who thinks he can burn the Qur’an is deluded and should be pitied. So we should react not with anger or violence, but with something better, as the Qur’an teaches us.”

Hathout’s interpretation of what constitutes God’s Word corresponds very closely to the Sufi and Quaker view, except that mystics would add that God’s Word exists eternally not only in heaven, but also in the hearts of those who love God.
There are many ways to conceive of holy scripture—as a rule book, a guidebook, or as a signpost pointing us to the Source from which Truth flows eternally.
Fundamentalists and legalists tend to see the scriptures as a rulebook, with precise directions on how to live one’s life. Liberals tend to see scriptures as a guidebook, with first-hand testimonies of those who have walked the spiritual path and left behind a record of their experiences to help guide us on our way. Mystics tend to see scripture as a signpost, pointing the way to what brings us unspeakable joy and energy and life. Mystics also tend to see the scripture as having multiple levels of meaning while literalists want to reduce interpretation to one authoritative meaning—their own.
For Sufi commentators, the Quran is not a rulebook, but a vast sea of interpretive possibilities, as deep and rich as God or life itself. As Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali writes in Jawahir al Quran:

I will rouse you from your sleep, you who have given yourself up to recitation, who have taken the study of the Qur’an as a practice, who have seized upon some of its outward meanings and sentences. How long will you wander about the shore of the sea with your eyes closed to its wonders? Was it not for you to sail through its depths in order to see its amazing things, to travel to its islands to pick up its delicacies, to dive to its bottom and become rich from obtaining its jewels? Don’t you despise yourself for losing out on its pearls and jewels as you continue to look only to its shores and exoteric aspects (quoted in Krista Zahra Sand’s Sufi Commentaries on the Qur’an).

The view of scripture as something mysterious and vast, like the ocean, is also found among early Friends. As George Fox grappled with the scripture, he discovered that its stories and images were a part of his interior life. In his Journal, Fox wrote: “The natures of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, etc.; the natures of these I saw within, though people had been looking without.” Fox affirms that we all carry within us these archetypal images and stories, some of which are deeply disturbing. Fox draws comfort from the fact that these images can help us to relate to people who spiritual condition is profoundly different from our own. Fox uses the image of the ocean to describe the vastness of this mysterious inner world:

I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings (Journal, Chapter 1).

This spiritual approach to scripture has seemed threatening to fundamentalists, literalists, legalists and the political powers-that-be since it opens up virtually infinite possibilities for interpretation and for understanding the Divine.  Sufis and Quakers have both faced persecution from those who are wary of venturing into the “Ocean of Light” lest they drown in the “Ocean of Darkness.”   More will be said later about how Sufis and Quakers became the target of those who demand clear-cut dogmas and creeds. 

The “Double Search”; Finding and Being Found By God

"Take one step towards me, I will take ten steps towards you. Walk towards me, I will run towards you." [From the Hadith Qudsi, or The Holy Sayings of Mohammad, which are believed to come directly from God.]

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:21

The spiritual life begins when we recognize that the conventional life is not enough, conventional rewards don’t bring inner satisfaction, and conventional religion doesn’t provide convincing answers to life’s questions. We may seek for the elusive “missing piece” in personal relationships, in our jobs, or in our purchases, but nothing external brings lasting contentment.
This divine discontent is what drives many people to become seekers. As a young man, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, went to numerous sects and teachers, looking for the Truth, but everywhere he went, he was disappointed. Finally, like the Buddha, he sat down in contemplation and heard an inward voice say: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” From that point on, Fox felt he had a direct link with his “Inward Teacher” and was able to help others to find their own way to connect with the Divine through silent worship.
Similar tales are told about Sufis who went in search of Divine Truth, only to discover that what they sought was already within them
This is the point of The Double Search: Prayer and Atonement (1906) by Rufus Jones (1863-1947), Quaker scholar/mystic.  Through study, through prayer, through meditation, and through our myriad spiritual practices, we reach out to the One we hope will bring peace to our souls. Finally, we come to realize that what we are seeking is already within us, seeking us.  That’s why Jesus reminds us that “the kingdom of God is within you”  (Luke 17:21) and why the Holy Qur’an affirms that the One we seek “is as close to you as your jugular vein”  (50:16).
This idea of the “double search” is a recurrent theme in the writings of Thomas Kelly (1893-41), the Quaker devotional writer whose language and passionate love of God come closest to the spirit of Sufism. In a beautiful passage, reminiscent of Rumi, Kelly uses the image of the wild duck and homesickness to describe the yearning for the Divine that calls us away from our mundane preoccupations:

A deep-throated bell, muffled or clear, comes ringing in the ears of our souls from a distant shore in Eternity and awakens in us a vague uneasiness, a homesickness, a longing. We’ve all heard that bell, distant or clear, calling us to a vaster life. Like a wild duck who has paused to pick at the straws of a barnyard, but who finds a dim stirring, a homing instinct which makes him leave the sticks and straws and easy comfortable food for the body, and wing his way into the blue south sky, where lies his home, so do you and I have a voice within us, a homing instinct of the soul which whispers within us uneasiness and urgency, and the call of Eternity for our souls. We are seekers, for we feel that we are sought (Plain Living, p. 104).

The image of the soul’s “divine homesickness” is common motif among Sufis and 
is used by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a contemporary Sufi whose practice
 incorporates a form of silent meditation. Kelly’s image of the wild duck is 
reminiscent of the “sea bird” image used by Rumi to describe our yearning 
to return to the Infinite Source:

Why have you come down here?
Take your baggage back.
What is this place?
Like the birds of the sea,
men come from the ocean—the ocean of the soul.
How could this bird,
born of the sea,
make his dwelling here?
Those who come to their first Quaker meeting and experience silent worship 
often say it is like “coming home.” Coming home to one’s true self—the Inward Light 
or the inner Friend—is what the path of Quakerism and Sufism is all about. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hungering and Thirsting For Justice: True Stories About Ramadan

One of the unexpected benefits of fasting during Ramadan is that it unleashed my creativity. Because I don’t have as much energy for busy-ness and activism while fasting, I spend as much time as possible reading and writing. During my second Ramadan fast I wrote and published this story which is based on my experiences fasting during Ramadan. It reflects my ongoing relationship with homeless people, which is an essential part of my spiritual life. I take to heart Matthew 25, in which Jesus says, “As you do to the least of these, you do for me.” Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad said something almost identical in one of his Hadith (Qudsi 18):

‘O son of Adam, I fell ill and you visited Me not.’ He will say: ‘O Lord, and how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds?’ He will say: ‘Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him?”

As my story shows, God is found in our relationship with the poor, the incarcerated, and the marginalized. And fasting helps us to feel more viscerally the need for social justice, hence the title for this story.


After September 11, 2001, like many Americans, I felt overwhelmed with emotions—fear, anger, despair—and decided to fast during Ramadan as a way to get centered and to reach out in solidarity to my Muslim neighbors. They were amazed that a non-Muslim would have the self-discipline to fast and were pleased that I was taking their religion seriously. I started going to interfaith events and became active in the interfaith peace movement. I have been observing the Ramadan fast for the past six years.
Little did I realize when I started this spiritual practice how much I would learn from the simple act of refraining from food and liquids from sunrise to sunset for a month. Nor did I realize how Ramadan would help me to appreciate, at a gut level, the literal as well as symbolic meaning behind Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”
On the first morning of Ramadan this year, I heard a knock at our front door and went to answer it.
It was Clark, a sixty-three-year old man who lives in a nearby apartment with his widowed mother.
Clark comes almost daily to our home because my wife is a pastor and has been helping him and his mother. Clark wears filthy, castoff clothing because he spends a lot of his time foraging for food and other items in dumpsters. My wife and I call him our “dumpster prophet” for reasons that I will explain later.
“Is Pastor Kathleen at home?” he asks, staring at his beaten up shoes, which look as if they once belonged to Vincent Van Gogh.
“She’s out today,” I reply. “Can I help you?
“No,” he says glumly, “I’ll be back.”
“I have some free time if you need anything.”
“Well, if you insist. I need to go to the doctor.”
“I’d be happy to drive you.”
His face brightens. Then he looks down at his shoes and says, “You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” I reply.
I really do want to, but I haven’t always felt that way about Clark. He can be a maddeningly difficult man.
Even my wife, that paragon of patience, lost her cool with Clark five years ago when she first met him. She had just started as pastor of our church, and Clark asked her for a ride to visit his mother in the hospital. As she drove him across town, Clark started to rant about “so-called Christians,” the Crusades, the Inquisition, and televangelists. His anger was so palpable (and scary) that my wife couldn’t stand it any more.
“Enough,” she said in her stern mother voice.
“Enough what?” asked Clark nervously.
“I am a Christian, and I am driving you to the hospital to visit your mother and I DON”T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE DIATRIBES ABOUT CHRISTIANS.”
She spoke in a voice louder than she intended, and it rattled Clark.
“Stop the car,” he said. “I want to get out.”
“What?” my wife asked in disbelief.
“Let me out,” he insisted. “Right now.”
By now, my wife had really had enough. She pulled over and Clark stormed out of the car.
He didn’t return to the church for over a year.
My wife felt terrible. She felt she had failed as a pastor. But like the proverbial cat, Clark came back. What drew him back was his mother. Clark’s mother Bernice is an 85-year-old invalid who lives in the hope that she will someday win the lottery.  Her theology can be summed up with a simple phrase: God owes me.
Because of this faith, Bernice is easy prey for scam artists of all types. If someone from Nigeria calls with wonderful news about her winning a million dollars, she gladly gives him her bank account number so the money can be wired directly. Every time. Without fail. No matter how often her bank account is cleared out. If a televangelist calls asking for $50 to put her on his personalized prayer list, she sends a check. Immediately. Whether she has money in the bank or not. She is the con artist’s dream. The true believer.
Bernice’s bed is covered with junk mail which she lovingly opens in hopes that a letter from God will arrive, with a check for a million dollars.
Bernice drives her son crazy, but he loves her dearly, hopelessly, compulsively. He screams at her to get some sense, and she berates him for being a loser, and nothing ever changes.
 Clark came back to the church out of desperation because his mother had blown her widow’s pension on scam artists and her rent check had bounced for the second month in a row.  The landlord had finally lost patience and put his foot down, “Pay up or leave.”
So Clark went to the church to ask these “so-called Christians” for help and my wife took up a collection to pay the rent.
When this happened a second time, my wife asked to be given power to manage Bernice’s financial affairs. Clark loved the idea, but his mother was of course resistant, very resistant. My wife can be very persistent as well as sweet and after a year or so, she managed to turn Bernice’s affairs around.
Clark was so grateful that he began bringing us offerings from Trader Joe’s dumpster. I was reluctant at first to accept such gifts, but then I figured, who am I to turn down his expressions of gratitude? And if he lived on dumpster food, why not us? Besides, being able to repay us in this fashion made him so happy.
It didn’t hurt us, either. For over a year, we have not had to buy meat or other luxury food items thanks to Clark.
He brings us not only free food, but also a free sermon. It usually goes something like this: “Look at all this waste! It’s sinful. The dumpster is full of great food like this. It should go to the poor.”
Clark is full of diatribes against the rich and phony. That’s why I call him the “prophet of the dumpster.”
This morning, as I drive Clark to his doctor’s appointment, he looks glummer than usual.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Trader Joe’s has put a lock on the dumpster. They have a new manager who is an elitist s.o.b.”  
This is devastating news, even worse than the time during the Christmas holidays when a police officer threatened to fine Clark $350 for dumpster diving. At the time Clark uttered these unforgettably prophetic words: “Only in America do poor people get fined for foraging for food in garbage cans.”
“I am sorry to hear about the lock,” I say.
“Yeah. How am I going to get food for Helen?”
Poor as he is, Clark gives much of his meager treasure to a mentally deranged woman named Helen who lives in a garage and is worse off than he is. Clark is always terribly concerned about Helen’s welfare but like his mother, Helen looks down on him and treats him like dirt.
After the doctor’s appointment, I ask Clark if he has had anything to eat.
“Not really,” he replies.
“Would you like to go to the Chicken Shack?”
He smiles, clearly pleased, and says: “You don have to.”
“I want to.”
So I take Clark to lunch. Since it’s Ramadan, and I won’t be eating or drinking anything until sunset, I watch him feast on fried chicken and biscuits dipped in gravy. I am surprised at how much pleasure I feel. Even though my stomach is rumbling, my heart is full of gratitude for Clark. I can’t explain why exactly. He has become part of my spiritual family, I guess.
One of the purposes of the Ramadan fast is to help us to feel empathy for those who are poor. But Ramadan is not simply about self-denial. You fast from food and liquids during the daylight hours, but in the evening you feast (and pray) with family and friends. This is called iftar, the breaking of the fast.
My Muslim friends always laugh when I tell them that Ramadan has taught me a valuable lesson about God’s infinite grace: we are asked to give up something small, like lunch, and then given a banquet and good company.
During Ramadan I am invited to numerous iftars where I experience the gracious hospitality of my Muslim friends. These iftars are precious opportunities for interfaith conversation, and for profound encounters.
This year my wife and I are invited to the annual banquet and iftar of the Shura Council of Southern California.
When I arrive, I am amazed and delighted to see my friend Abdul Jabar Hamdan.
Flash back to a year ago: I am waiting outside near the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center on Terminal Island near San Pedro, the harbor of Los Angeles. Terminal Island is where the first Japanese Americans were rounded up and taken off to concentration, excuse me, relocation camps sixty some years ago. Over one thousand Japanese fisherman and their families were taken from their homes and locked up. I know all this because there is a memorial to their memory staring me in the face: a bronze statue of two Japanese fishermen hauling in their nets, their weather-beaten faces staring into the harbor.
Now I am sitting at a table with a Catholic nun named Sister Pat and a Jewish lawyer named Barry, and we are waiting to see Hamdan, who has been detained for two years on charges as vague as those against the Japanese.
Hamdan is a Jordanian with a round face and nose and sparkling eyes. He smiles warmly when he see us all crowded together in a visiting area the size of a small phone booth. He speaks of the terrible, overcrowded conditions in the center, but never utters a harsh word about anyone. He is a deeply spiritual man, one of the founders of his mosque.
The charge against him? Twenty-three years ago when he had a student visa, he got sick one semester and dropped from full time to part time status without notifying La Migra. Now he is being threatened with deportation, even though he has lived in this country and raised a family of five without violating a single US law. The reason for his incarceration doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only charge the government could find. His real “crime” is being a fundraiser for an organization that allegedly funneled money to Hamas, but the government can’t prove that case. So they are holding him on bogus charges and threatening to send him to Jordan, where it is likely he would be jailed, and perhaps tortured.
I come back as often as I can to visit Hamdan. I once met his wife and daughter, a lovely, highly intelligent young woman who recently graduated from Chapman College and wants to be a lawyer.
“Why a lawyer?” I ask.
“I want to fight for justice,” she tells me. “For people’s rights.”
I tell her that I know she will succeed. I tell her a representative from our state assembly spoke at a recent political rally and explained he was born in a Japanese internment camp, in Manzanar, and got his law degree. He now is serves on our State Legislature.
“You will be like him,” I tell Hamdan’s daughter. “Someday.”
That evening as I visit Hamdan at the detention center, I tell him about my encounter with his daughter. He touches his heart and kisses the thick, bullet-proof glass that separates us.
 Then I saw Hamdan darkly, through enigmatic glass. Now, at the Shura Council,  I see him face-to-face. We hug and he kisses me on the cheek, and I kiss him back. It is like a dream. We are joined by Sister Pat and my favorite rabbi, Haim Beliak, who also visited Hamdan in detention—and we have a group hug—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.
Later we all pray together Muslim-style. I feel inexpressible joy, as if a door has opened and some light from heaven has come streaming into our darkened world.
This Ramadan I also was invited to attend Yom Kippur services by my dear Jewish friend Roni. She teaches special ed children and serves on the Board of the South Coast Interfaith Council. She cares deeply about those who suffer, especially the people of Darfur. This year Roni decided to fast during Ramadan, as well as during Yom Kippur, since both holidays take place during the same month. When I told Roni that I wanted to attend the Yom Kippur service at her synagogue, she was delighted and gave me a ticket.
I was honored and pleased. In fact, I was so eager to go to this service that when I got a phone call from Marissa and Shaun, a homeless couple who asked for a place to stay on this rainy night, I replied hastily, “Sorry, I can’t help you right now. I’m in a hurry to go to a special religious service.”
Throughout the beautiful Kol Nidre service on Friday night, I thought about this couple and felt terrible. I remembered Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and realized that I had fallen into the same trap as the religious folks who ignored the injured man on the side of the side as they hurried to Jerusalem.
The next morning I called Marissa and was relieved to hear that she and her fiancé had scrounged up some money for a motel room.
Marissa is in her early 30s and is unable to work full-time. She has a degenerative joint disease that causes her to fall down a lot. Unless she receives proper treatment, she will soon end her up in a wheelchair, like her father (who also lives on the street much of the time). Marissa is also legally blind. She receives around $700 a month in SSI, not enough for an apartment in this area, so she is waiting for Section 8, that will entitle her to low cost housing. She has been waiting nearly two years. Her fiancĂ©  Shaun is highly intelligent but has not been able to find a full-time job since he has to protect and take care of Marissa.
While waiting for government assistance, they suffer all kinds of indignities. They are constantly harassed by police. They have been robbed. Marissa’s friend was raped while sleeping on the sidewalk not far from her.
My wife’s little church provides them with a motel room once a week during the winter months. We bring them food when we can, but what we offer is a mere band aid.
On the morning of Yom Kippur I got them a room for one night at the El Dorado Motel. Then I drove over to the synagogue to attend the Yom Kippur services. The music was exquisite, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I felt sick and faint. Usually I am able to handle the hunger pangs that arise during the Ramadan fast, but this was something worse. My throat was parched, my head ached, and I was dizzy. I was convinced that I had come down with some kind of bug.
Around lunch time I couldn’t take it any more so I drove home. On my way, I had the urge to call Marissa and Shaun and invited them to lunch. They accepted my invitation with gratitude. We went to Pollo Loco and scarfed down chicken and tortillas and beans as Marissa told funny, sad stories about the day she married her ex-husband.
 After lunch I went home and slept like a baby. Much to my surprise, I woke up feeling refreshed and healthy.
I told my Jewish and Muslim friends that I had “broken the fast” on the holiest day of the year, but they assured me that I still get points from God because I fed the homeless. That’s one thing that Jews and Muslims agree about: God is a gracious accountant.
I could not begin to tell all the things that happened during this Ramadan: an interfaith youth event, an anti-war march, an interfaith prayer service, a peace walk with Tich Naht Hanh. My belly was often empty, but my heart was full and my cup was running over. So let me flash forward to the last day of Ramadan.
There’s a commotion outside my door at around 8:00 AM.
I open the door and see Clark on his broken down bicycle. He has a large plastic bag loaded with goodies and he’s smiling ear-to-ear.
“Good news,” he says. “The lock is off the dumpster.”
“Praise be to God,” I reply.

Then he hands me six or seven plastic containers of artichokes. I protest that we can’t possibly use them all, and he replies:  “Take ‘em. I’ve got an infinite supply. And your wife loves ‘em.” 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Campaign to help house homeless vets near Temple City

Urgent: Please join us to support housing for homeless Veterans!!
When: Friday, June 16th
Time: 6:30-7:30pm
Where: 6343/6353 Rosemead Blvd, at the Golden Motel
Why? There are over 44,000 homeless individuals in Los Angeles County, including 2,700 homeless veterans. San Gabriel Valley has nearly 2,800 homeless individuals. The communities of Temple City, Rosemead, San Gabriel, Alhambra, and Arcadia do not currently have the needed resources to respond to persons who are experiencing homelessness and poverty.
We need your support for Mercy Housing’s to convert the Golden Motel into housing for 60 formerly homeless veterans and 107 individuals who have experienced homelessness.

Homes end homelessness!! We have a beautiful opportunity to turn a crime ridden motel into a beautiful symbol of how we care for those who have served our county and how we care for the vulnerable in society. Let us know if you plan to attend. Call or text Jill @ 626) 675-1316 or jill@makinghousinghappen.comThere has been an uproar in Temple City because a highly reputable affordable housing developer wants to tear down a crime-infected motel and build permanent supportive housing for vets and other. As this letter makes clear, Mercy Housing's project will be a much safer alternative to the current situation, yet hundreds of ill-informed residents are fearful and angry that their property values and their children will be threatened by the presence of formerly homeless vets and other homeless people in their neighborhood. The land is owned by the county, not Temple City, so this letter has been written to Kathryn Barger, a County Supervisor. On Friday, there will be an action at the Golden Motel led by Jill and various clergy from Temple City. We hope that vets will also show up. We need all the support we can muster for this important project to fly!

This is a letter that we've written to our County Supervisor with our talking points:
Kathryn Barger
5th District Supervisor
500 W. Temple St. Room 869
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Dear Kathryn Barger,

We urge you to support the Mercy Housing’s Golden Motel proposal to convert the 185 room motel at 6343/6353 Rosemead Blvd into permanent supportive housing for 60 formerly homeless veterans and 107 individuals who have experienced homelessness. Here’s why:

1.        Evidence-based best practices have shown that Permanent Supportive Housing is what ends homelessness. It is much better to have our homeless  residents off the streets in safe housing where they can regain gain hope and become productive citizens with meaningful work.

2.        Mercy is one of most respected and largest affordable housing developers in the US with an impressive track record of transforming lives and communities. They currently manage 22,255 units at 325 properties throughout the country, serving those who earn as low as $ 12,931 a year. Their ability to house the “least of these” within a beautiful and safe environment almost seems too good to be true. See awards:

3.        This project would be a welcome improvement from the current motel which has been identified as a problem by Temple City and the local law enforcement. Golden Motel has historically been used as a last resort for transients. There has been an average of 10 calls per month over the last five years to the County Sheriff’s Department for criminal activities which include narcotics sales, battery, public drunkenness, spousal/child/elder abuse, illegal possession of firearms and suicide attempts. The present owner does not screen those who say at the Golden Motel, but Mercy carefully screens each applicant. Some parents have been concerned about the safety of their children attending a school several blocks away. In reality there should be an outcry concerning of the present crime in this motel and a realization that Mercy’s proposal would create a much safer community.

4.        Presently only one person manages the motel. With Mercy housing, six case managers will live on site, assigned to help each resident with a specific plan to address their individual needs, and connect them with needed services such as mental health, literacy programs, job placement programs, addiction recovery, therapy, or other needed resources and programs.

5.        At this time, there are fewer than 300 units of permanent supportive housing planned in the San Gabriel Valley, less than 10% of the need. There are over 44,000 homeless individuals in Los Angeles County, including 2,700 homeless veterans. San Gabriel Valley has nearly 2,800 homeless individuals. The communities of Temple City, Rosemead, San Gabriel, Alhambra, and Arcadia do not currently have the needed resources to respond to persons who are experiencing homelessness and poverty.

6.        There has been an ill-informed opposition to this project saying that such a development would lower property value in the adjacent neighborhoods. Actually, research shows just the opposite. Please review these studies;

7.        The community is also concerned about the cost to tax payers. Research shows that it cost on the average $20,000 a year to house a homeless person and $40,000 a year if they are left on the street. This seems very counterintuitive, but with the cost of police calls, hospital visits, courts and detox centers, the saving to society is quite impressive.

My Journey as an Interfaith Quaker Peacemaker:

I am currently working on a book about my experiences during Ramadan over the past 16 years as a way of explaining how I became an Interfaith Quaker Peacemaker. As a first step, I put together a chronology of what I have done during this period, beginning 9/11 and ending with the election of the most Islamophobic and ignorant president in US history. I feel more than ever the need to be in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters and to let others know what authentic Islam is really like. As I review the events of the past decade and a half, I marvel at how much my life has changed simply because I fasted and reached out to my Muslim neighbors, and did my best to be faithful to God's leadings. I will be posting selections from my book as it evolves. Here's an overview of this remarkable spiritual journey:

Timeline for my Journey as an Interfaith Quaker Peacemaker:

2001 – Shaken by the tragedy of 9/11, and by the US’s war-feverish response to it, I began fasting for Ramadan on November 16 to purify my mind and reach out to my Muslim neighbors. The mantra that kept going through my mind was: “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).Up to that time, I didn’t know any Muslims personally. So I went to the Masjid in La Mirada (near Whittier) and not only got to know my Muslim neighbors, I also got invited to the home of a prominent Muslim family for an iftar. Thus began my first friendship with a Muslim, a physician named Dr. Hassan Butt and his family. I also attended for the first time the annual convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Long Beach. Thus began my journey as an interfaith Quaker.
2002: I began going on a regular basis to interfaith events, such as a panel discussion on immigration at Japanese Buddhist Temple in LA.
I wrote and published a pamphlet called “Islam from a Quaker Perspective,” which circulated widely among Quakers and was eventually translated into German.
In the summer of 2002 I joined the board of directors of the South Coast Ecumenical Council, thanks to my wife Kathleen Ross, a Methodist pastor. She was invited to join the Board but recommend me to take her place. This led to my involvement with SCIC, the oldest and largest interfaith council in Southern California. In 1953 the council was first established as an ecumenical council – meaning that it was an organization comprised of only churches representing the various denominations of the Christian faith. But in 2004, with a historical vote made by the community, the council changed from ecumenical one to an interfaith council. The SCIC now has an association of more than 140 faith communities and organizations, encompassing over 35 cities and serving approximately 1.8 million people. For two years I worked with its amazing executive director Jenny Wagener, John Ishvardas Abdullah (my first close Muslim friend, a Sufi), et al.

 Kathleen joined me in fasting that year and we wrote an article about it for the Methodist newspaper Circuit West. We also organized a series of luncheons at Walteria UMC Church with people from different faith traditions so we could get to know each other better.  
2003: I wrote “Hungering and Thirsting for Justice,” the story of a homeless people I encountered during Ramadan, which was published in the journal Pilgrimage: Story, Place, Spirit, Witness. I also published a book entitled Compassionate Listening and Other Writings by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Quaker Peacemaker and Mystic.
2004: I gave a workshop on Quakers and the Interfaith Movement at the FGC gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, and took a group of Quakers to visit the mosque there.
I met Palestinian scholar/activist Abu Nimr at Pendle Hill and told him that I intended to observe the Ramadan fast until there was peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. A few months later I went to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening Project. I took part in a peace demonstration in Tel Aviv on the first day of Ramadan and observed the fast.
2005: During the month of Ramadan, I began writing Relics of America, an apocalyptic sci fi novel with a Muslim hero. This novel possessed me over the next three years, and was mostly written during the month of Ramadan, when I felt myself identifying with Muslims.
I began attending meetings of CIRC, the Interfaith Relations Committee of a national Quaker organization called Friends General Conference (FGC). I also started attending meetings of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP), which was founded after 9/11 with the slogan: “Religious communities must stop blessing war and violence.” Surrounded by people of faith and conscience who passionately opposed war, I felt as if I had come home.
2006:  I published an article entitled “Quakers and the Interfaith Movement” in Friends Journal. I joined the Board of SCCPWR, the local chapter of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I also joined the board of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF) and helped to edit some of their pamphlets.
2008: Completed and self-published my novel, which features a black Muslim president, just before Obama was elected!
2008-9: I went on a cancer journey with Kathleen, and received tons of support from our interfaith friends. Among other things, she was given a beautiful silk head scarf to wear by our dear Muslim friend Sherrel Johnson. When my beloved wife died in the summer of 2009, I was invited to celebrate the first day of Ramadan with my friend Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Shura Council of So Cal. In December I went to Parliament of World’s Religion in Melbourne, Australia, and shared my passion for interfaith peacemaking.
2010: A year after my wife passed, as I began to heal from my huge loss, I wrote “Joy of fasting,” based on a poem by Rumi, a Sufi Muslim. I continued to be very involved with interfaith work, especially ICUJP and QUF.
2011: I published Quakers and the Interfaith Movement under the auspices of QUF.
On Palm Sunday, at a peace parade, I met Jill Shook, an Evangelical Christian, and married her four months later. At first, she had concerns about my deep involvement with Islam (am I really a Christian?), but she has come to appreciate my commitment to be in solidarity with Muslims as a Christian committed to the two most imperatives of Jesus: “Love your neighbor” and “Love your enemy.”
2015: During Ramadan I attended Pacific Yearly Meeting and fasted in solidarity with California hunger strikers in solitary confinement
2016:  I wrote a “Letter to God,” about my Ramadan fast.
2017: I began Ramadan by attending a Mulsim/Jewish celebration at Barndall Park, organized by my friend Marium Mohuiddin of New Ground. I also attended the annual Jewish/Muslim Iftar at the Wilshire Jewish Temple, also organized by Newground, After 40 days, Palestinian prisoners ended their hunger strike, calling it “victorious” because they were allowed two family visits per month instead of only one. I continue to hunger and thirst for justice as well as peace in this war-torn region.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to foment Islamophobia by dissing the Mayor of London and doubling down on his calls for a “travel ban” on Muslims. I feel more strongly than ever the need to be in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How I started fasting during Ramadan after 9/11 and what I learned

This is a reflection on Ramadan I wrote in 2002, which was published in the pamphlet "Islam from a Quaker Perspective, which was widely circulated among Friend and was even translated into German. This pamphlet was later reprinted in a more inclusive book called "Quakers and the Interfaith Movement." See
 Fasting during Ramadan seems just as important and relevant now as it did 16 years ago. I am grateful that God led me to this practice.

After the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, I felt led to undertake a spiritual discipline that would help me to deal with feelings of grief, anger, and confusion and also to discern where the Spirit was leading me during this troubled time. I decided to fast one day a week until war, or the threat of war, ended.
I chose the Muslim form of fasting—abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset—because I felt it would help me to feel more solidarity with those who belong to what the Quaker writer James Michener called the “world’s most misunderstood religion.”
On the first day of my fast (Friday, November 16), I read a moving story about Ramadan in a pamphlet by Gene Hoffman, a peace activist who pioneered in “compassionate listening” work in the Middle East. During Ramadan Gene paid a visit on a poor Palestinian family who made her lunch but didn’t eat a bite of food. “Why are you doing this for me?” she asked. Their reply touched her heart and mine:  “Ramadan kareem. ‘Ramadan is generous.’”
This and other stories piqued my interest in Ramadan and those who observe it. What are Muslims really like? What can we learn from Islam that can help us in our spiritual work and in our work for peace and justice?
In 1991, during the Gulf War, I made my first serious effort to understand Islam and what is really happening in the Middle East. I incorporated Islamic texts into a world literature course I was teaching at a university. With my wife, who is a Methodist pastor, I co-taught a class on Islam using material recommended for interfaith work, such as R. Marston Spreight’s excellent introduction to Islam, God is One: the Way of Islam (Friendship Press: NY, 1989). We also studied the work of Father Elias Chacour, the Palestinian priest/peace activist who wrote Blood Brothers and We Belong to the Land. His works opened our eyes to what was happening in Israel from a Palestinian Christian perspective. I became friends with Sis Levin, who came to work for the American Friends Service Committee’s Middle East program in Pasadena, California, during this period. Sis’ husband Jerry (a Cable News bureau chief) was held hostage in Beirut in 1984. Sis wrote Beirut Diary, a compelling account of her efforts to free her husband and to learn the truth about the Middle East situation. As a result of her experiences, Sis  became an ardent peace activist and  worked tirelessly to build bridges of understanding among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. These writers helped to dispel many stereotypes and provided valuable insight.
In this age of religious conflict that threatens to engulf the world in war, I have taken to heart Gandhi’s words, which seems more important now than ever: “It is the sacred duty of every individual to have an appreciative understanding of other religions.”
From past experience studying Buddhism, I realized that it isn’t enough just to read books and study a religion. The best way to understand and appreciate a religion is to practice it, just as the best way to appreciate music is to play it—preferably in the company of other practitioners. Such practice does not require conversion, but immersion. I decided that the best way for me to understand Islam would be to observe Ramadan and to spend time with practicing Muslims.
Ramadan, I learned, is one of Islam’s most important holy days—indeed, one of its “Five Pillars,” or essential practices. During this month of observances, the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed through the angel Gabriel. This event is to Muslims what the birth of Christ is to Christians—a revelation and incarnation of God’s Word (the Eternal Logos) in human history. It is a solemn as well as joyous occasion. By day, Muslims dedicate themselves to God through the discipline of fasting. By night, they celebrate the benevolence and compassion of God through special prayers and meals. Muslims are also supposed to read the entire Qur’an during this holy month and give liberally to charities.
I began my Ramadan fast on November 17, 2001. In addition to fasting,  I also made a commitment to read the entirety of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s monumental work, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, which was highly recommended by Muslims.
During the weeks that followed, I visited both Shi’ite and Sunni mosques and joined in communal prayers. I also incorporated some Muslim prayers into my daily religious practice. I learned to say the opening prayer of the Qur’an in Arabic and English:

 In the name of God, the compassionate, the caring,
bi  smi llahi r-rahmani  r-rahim,
praise be to God , lord sustainer of the worlds
al-hamdu     lillahi rabbi l-’alamin
master of the day of reckoning,
maliki yawmi d-din
to you  we turn to worship
iyaka na’budu
and to you we turn in time of need
wa iyaka nasta’in
lead us on the straight road
ihdina s-sirata l-mustaqim
the road of those you have given to whom
sirata l-ladina an’amta ‘alayhim
not those with anger upon them
ghayri maghdubi ‘alayhim
not those who have gone astray.
wa la d-dalin.

This prayer sums up the essence of Islam and is to Muslims what the Lord’s prayer is to Christians. Each day I rose before dawn, prayed this and other prayers, ate breakfast, and studied the Qur’an. I prayed at least five times each day, facing north (the direction of Mecca for those in California) and bowing with forehead to the ground in the manner of Muslims.
When I told Muslims that I was observing Ramadan, they were extremely pleased and impressed. They were not only eager to discuss Islam with me, they also wanted to know more about my Quaker faith. Observing Ramadan thus became an opening for what the Quaker scholar and ecumenist Douglas Steere called “mutual irradiation”—the sharing of the “Light that enlightens all men and women” (John 1:9).
The most common reason that Muslims gave for fasting during Ramadan was that it helps us to empathize with those who are poor and don’t have enough food and water. Others spoke of self-discipline, or of  religious obligation. A Muslim physician and religious leader from Orange County, California, named Maher Hathout pointed out that the ability to fast—to delay gratification—is what distinguishes human beings from animals. It is also a test of faithfulness and integrity since only God knows if we are truly fasting, or sneaking food when no one is looking!
Many Muslims seemed surprised that a non-Muslim American had the self-discipline to fast. Sad to say, we Americans are seen as an extremely self-indulgent people, given to compulsive overeating and to equally compulsive dieting. When we diet, we generally do it for selfish reasons—to improve our health or our appearance. Fasting, on the other hand, is a discipline that helps us to become un-selfish and spiritually healthy. As the Greek Orthodox Saint John Chrysostom observed:  “Fasting is medicine” (Homilies, III. ca. 388 C.E.) Practiced with humility, fasting helps to free us of our addictive behaviors, and can deepen our connection with God and with our fellow human beings—especially with those who are poor and hungry.
I learned this lesson very keenly one afternoon when the hunger pangs became so intense, and my energy level so low, that I had to quit work at four o’clock. I walked to a nearby park to watch the sun set (which seemed to take forever).  My throat parched, and my belly rumbling, I realized that I could break my fast and end my discomfort at any time, whereas hundreds of millions of people (most of them children and mothers) don’t have this option.  That night, after my meal, I sat down and wrote checks to charitable organizations with more joy than I have ever before experienced. Fasting, I discovered, can do wonders to stimulate compassion and the urge to be charitable.
Fasting can also be a humbling experience. I was surprised to learn that most young Muslims are eager to start fasting since it is a mark of adulthood. (Children don’t have to fast, nor do the sick, pregnant or nursing women, the frail elderly, and travelers.) A charming story called Magid Fasts For Ramadan by Mary Matthews describes how an eight-year-old Muslim boy decides to fast for Ramadan because his big sister has turned twelve and has begun fasting, and he wants to be grown up like her. Because Magid’s parents say that he is too young to fast, he secretly feeds his lunch to the ducks. When his parents find out, they take their son aside and tell him that it is admirable for him to want to fast, but it’s not healthy for one so young. Besides, the father explains, Muslims must always tell the truth! The fact that many Muslim teenagers feel like Magid and take pride in fasting gave me pause. Whenever I was tempted to give up my fast, I recalled their example and said to myself, “If teens can do it, so can I!”
Muslims who were spiritually mature reminded me that fasting means abstaining not only from food and drink, but also from other habits that intrude upon our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. During Ramadan, I was told, one should abstain from backbiting, judgmentalism, and anger. This proved at times far more challenging than simply skipping lunch.
I was also told that during this holy season one’s spiritual life is supposed to be heightened. Prayers uttered during this period “count” more than prayers at any other time, and acts of kindness are supposed to carry more weight with God.

But I liked best what one Muslim mother said: “Ramadan is a time when I try to become a better person.” The practice of fasting and prayer certainly made me want to become a better person. It also made me more acutely aware of my human foibles, and of my deep need to feel connected with God and with other human beings.