Places like St Mary’s

I’m writing this from the back of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, a small church built in the 1920s in the small crossroads town of Malaga New Jersey. It was closed this past November, supposedly because of a broken boiler but really because the Diocese of Camden is trying to sell off its smaller churches–or any church with prime real estate along a highway. It was reopened without permission by parishioners in early January, while we were still in the hospital with baby number three, a.k.a. Gregory.

We’ve spent a lot of time here since then. It’s a 24 hour vigil and has been and will continue to be. In Boston there are vigils that have been going seven years. I try to imagine Gregory as a seven year old, having spent his childhood growing up here in this little church. It’s not an impossible scenario.

I also spend a lot of time talking with the faithful Catholics who have come here to protect the church. It’s a cacophony of voices right now–conversations about the church, sure, but that’s only one of the many topics that come up. People are sharing their lives–stories about growing up, about people that are know, about current events… It’s a real community. We’ve been attending this church for years but it’s now that I’m really getting to know everyone.

I sometimes ponder how I, the self-dubbed “Quaker Ranter,” got involved in all of this. Through my wife, of course–she grew up Catholic, became a Friend for eleven years and then “returned to the Church” a few years after our marriage. But there’s more than that, reasons why I spend my own time here. Part is my love of the small and quirky. St Mary’s parishioners are standing up for the kind of churches where people know each other. In an era where menial tasks are hired out, the actual members of St. Marys tend the church’s rosary garden and clean its basement and toilets. They spend time in the church beyond the hour of mass, doing things like praying the rosary or adoration.

The powers-that-be that want St Mary’s closed so badly want a large inpersonal church with lots of professionalized services and a least-common-denominator faith where people come, go and donate their money to a diocese that’s run like a business. But that’s not St. Mary’s. There’s history here. This is a hub of a town, an ancient crossroads, but the bishop wants big churches in the splurge of suburban sprawl. Even we Friends need places like St Mary’s in the world.

Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fascinating early look-back at the relationship between social media and the largely-nonviolent revolution in Egypt written by David D Kirkpatrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumultuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak is finally out. Most of the quotes and inside knowlege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, who became an activist in 2005.

Lesson One: Years in the Making

The Times starts off by pointing out that the “bloggers lead the way” and that the “Egyptian revolt was years in the making.” It’s important to remember that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Bloggers have been active for years: leading, learning, making mistakes and collecting knowledge. Many of the first round of bloggers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effectively neutralized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legally recognized opposition parties.” “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said one blogger. A lesson we might draw for that is that blogging isn’t necessarily a stepping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The culture of blogs and mainstream movements are not always compatible.

Lesson Two: Share Your Experiences

The Egyptian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The context was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent.” Still, it was important to share tips: “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” a blogger recalled. Some of the tips were exceedingly practical (how to avert tear gas–brought lemons, onions and vinegar, apparently) and others more social (sharing torture experiences). Lesson: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.

One of the interesting sidelights was how the teachings of American nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Serbian youth movement had based their rebellion on his tactics and the Egyptians followed their lead, with exiled organizers setting up a website (warning: annoying sound) compiling Sharp’s strategies:

For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.

As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tickles me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egyptian protests. America really can export democracy sometimes!

Lesson Three: Be Relentless in Confronting Lies

The Times reports that Maher “took special aim at the distortions of the official media.” He told them that when people “distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact checking role. People turn to independent sources when they sense a propaganda machine. The creator of a Facebook site was a Google marketing executive working on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and newspaper articles [and] repeatedly hammered home a simple message.”

Lesson Four: Don’t Wait for Those Supposed To Do This Work

Most of this social media was created by students for goodness sake and it all relied on essentially-free services. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Muslim Brotherhood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scrambled not knowing what to do as protests erupted in the major cities. Eventually the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full organization followed suit but it was not the leaders in any of this.

When we’re talking about popular organizating, money and established credentials aren’t always an advantage. What’s interesting to learn with the Egypt protests is that the generation leading it doesn’t seem to have as strict a religious worldview as its parents. This came out most dramatically in the images of Christian Egyptians protecting their Muslim brothers in Tahir Square during times of prayer. This is having ramification in copycat protests in Tehran. Iranian leaders tried to paint the Egyptian students as heirs to their own Islamic revolution but it seems practical considerations are more important than setting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one–protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood might well take over from Egypt protesters now that Mubarak is out).

On a personal note…

It’s interesting to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s campaign has mimicked some of the features of the Egyptian protests. Their blog has been pretty relentless in exposing the lies. It’s attracted far more media attention than the professionally-staffed Diocesan press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talking with churches in other regions to compare tactics and anticipate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of seven churches nationwide with round-the-clock vigils but it’s the only one with a strong social media component. It’s average age is probably a generation or two younger than the other vigils which gives it a certain frank style that’s not found elsewhere. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is exploding now with arrests of recent Diocesan officials and revelations from the District Attoreny that dozens of priests with “credible accusations” of pedophilia are still ministering around kids and while church closings and the pedophilia scandals are not officially connected, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admitting that they arise from a shared Diocesan culture of money and cover-ups. Again, “repeatingly hammering home a simple message” is a good strategy.

Sightings: Elevator Pitches, the Economics of Jesus and the Gospel in Spain

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Sightings: Quaker Families, Friends Leadership and In-Group Dynamics

  • Young families need Quakerism, and Quakerism needs young families. Where does the Religious Society of Friends stand in relation to today’s “beleaguered moms and dads”? To the extent that Quaker culture has not intentionally organized itself around the needs of young families, many people of my life stage have opted out of participation in organized Quakerism. We know this from research as well as experientially, as many Friends’ own adult children–and therefore their grandchildren –are not active in a meeting community.

    tags: quaker quaker.youth quaker.parenting quaker.philadelphia

  • For myself, I have found that I lost interest in or disliked many things over the years. I avoid a lot of entertainments because I find them overstimulating, they are too loud, too frantic and too full of events designed to provoke physiological arousal. More recently I find the amount of rudeness, violence and sexuality disturbing. I am left feeling exhausted but restless

    tags: quaker

  • The kids who remained part of the Meeting’s youth group tended to be ones who struggled to find their place in other areas of their lives. Through a set of shared rituals – jazz hands, cuddle puddles, and wink – and shared cultural assumptions and behaviors, the primary purpose of the Quaker youth community becomes about supporting “people like us”… This in-group dynamic is not limited to the youth.

    tags: quaker quaker.youth quaker.liberal quaker.baltimore

  • While it is true that leadership can be a troubling concept for Friends, I have come to believe that we should move beyond our old hesitations. We would benefit from fussing less about the things that can go wrong, instead investing time reflecting upon the topic and developing an understanding of leadership that can function well in our context.

    tags: quaker quaker.indiana

  • My parents accidentally sent me to a liberal Friends summer camp not expecting me to come back hungry for faith. I missed having meeting every day. I missed the peace I felt in the meeting circle and the connection to God I found there. I used to go during free time to re-center myself and to seek a feeling I got during meeting. The best way to describe it to another person is that I was getting a hug from the Holy Spirit.

    tags: quaker quaker.youth quaker.liberal quaker.plain quaker.newyork

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Opening Doors and Moving on Up

Friends General Conference has announced that Barry Crossno will be their new incoming General Secretary. Old time bloggers will remember him as the blogger behind The Quaker Dharma. FGC’s just published an interview with him and one of the questions is about his blogging past. Here’s part of the answer:

Blogging among Friends is very important.  There are not a lot of Quakers.  We’re spread out across the world.  Blogging opens up dialogues that just wouldn’t happen otherwise.  While I laid down my blog, “The Quaker Dharma,” a few years ago, and my thinking on some issues has evolved since then, I’m clear that blogging is what allowed me to give voice to my call.  It helped open some of the doors that led me to work for Pendle Hill and, now by extension, FGC.  A lot of cutting edge Quaker thought is being shared through blogs.

I thought it might be useful to fill in a little bit of this story. If you go reading through the back comments on Barry’s blog you’ll see it’s a time machine into the early Quaker blogging community. I first posted about his blog in February of 2005 with Quaker Dharma: Let the Light Shine and I highlighted him regularly (March, April, June) until the proto-QuakerQuaker “Blog Watch” started running. There I featured him twice that June and twice more in August, the most active period of his blogging.

It’s nostalgic to look through the commenters: Joe G., Peterson Toscano, Mitchell Santine Gould, Dave Carl, Barbara Q, Robin M, Brandice (Quaker Monkey), Eric Muhr, Nancy A… There were some good discussions. Barry’s most exuberant post was Let’s Begin, and LizOpp and I especially labored with him to ground what was a very clear and obvious leading by hooking up with other Friends locally and nationally who were interested in these efforts. I offered my help in hooking him up with FGC  and he wrote back “If you know people at other Quaker organizations that you wish me to speak to and coordinate with or possibly work for, I will.”

And that’s what I did. My supervisor, FGC Development head Michael Wajda, was planning a trip to Texas and I started talking up Barry Crossno. I had a hunch they’d like each other. I told Michael that Barry had a lot of experience and a very clear leading but needed to spend some time growing as a Quaker–an incubation period, if you will, among grounded Friends. In the first part of the FGC interview he movingly talks about the grounding his time at Pendle Hill has given him.

In October 2006 he announced he was closing a blog that had become largely dormant. It’s worth quoting that first formal goodbye:

I want to thank those of you who chose to actively participate. I learned a lot through our exchanges and I think there were many people who benefited from many of the posts you left. On a purely personal note, I learned that it’s good to temper my need to GO DO NOW. Some of you really helped mentor me concerning effectively listening to guidance and helping me understand that acting locally may be better than trying to take on the whole world at once.

I also want to share that I met some people and made contacts through this process that have opened tremendous doors for me and my ability to put myself in service to others. For this I am deeply grateful. I feel sure that some of these ties will live on past the closing of the Quaker Dharma.

Those of you familiar with pieces like The Lost Quaker Generation and Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style know I’ve long been worried that we’ve not doing a good job identifying, supporting and retaining visionary new Friends. Around 2004 I stopped complaining (mostly) and just started looking for others who also held this concern. The online organizing has spilled over into real world conferences and workshops and is much bigger than one website or small group. Now we see “graduates” of this network starting to take on real-world responsibilities.

Barry’s a bright guy with a strong leading and a healthy ambition. He would have certainly made something of himself without the blogs and the “doors” opened up by myself and others. But it would have certainly taken him longer to crack the Philadelphia scene and I think it very likely that FGC would have announced a different General Secretary this week if it weren’t for the blogs.

QuakerQuaker almost certainly has more future General Secretaries in its membership rolls. But it would be a shame to focus on that or to imply that the pinnacle of a Quaker leading is moving to Philadelphia. Many parts of the Quaker world are already too enthralled by it’s staff lists. What we need is to extend a culture of everyday Friends ready to boldly exclaim the Good News–to love God and their neighbor and to leap with joy by the presence of the Inward Christ. Friends’ culture shouldn’t focus on staffing, flashy programs or fundraising hype.  At the end of the day, spiritual outreach is a one-on-one activity. It’s people spending the time to find one another, share their spiritual journey and share opportunities to grow in their faith.

QuakerQuaker has evolved a lot since 2005. It now has a team of editors, discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter streams, and the site itself reaches over 100,000 readers a year. But it’s still about finding each other and encouraging each other. I think we’ve proven that these overlapping, distributed, largely-unfunded online initiatives can play a critical outreach role for the Society of Friends. What would it look like for the “old style” Quaker organizations to start supporting independent Quaker social media? And how could our networks reinvigorate cash-strapped Quaker organizations with fresh faces and new models of communication? Those are questions for another post.

Gregory Gets Baptized

Depending on your theological tendencies, Gregory was baptized or sprinkled this past weekend. It was a very moving ceremony, though an emergency trip to the potty for the 4yo meant I missed the best part. Apparently the priest raised him over the altar and made the sign of cross with him. This is at St Nicholas’ Ukrainian Catholic Church in Millville NJ. We all went across the street to a Polka dance afterwards and then had some cake and snacks at the liberated St Mary’s in Malaga.

Godparents holding the baby

And for new readers, I long ago explained why the Quaker Ranter’s kid was getting baptized. Sorry for the weird formatting, I haven’t cleaned up all the back articles.