A growing list of stories is suggesting that black churches in the South are being targeted for arson once again (although one of the more publicized cases seems to be lightning-related). This was a big concern in the mid-1990s, a time when a Quaker program stepped up to give Friends the chance to travel to the South to help rebuild. From a 1996 Friends Journal editorial:
Sometimes a news article touches the heart and moves people to reach out to one another in unexpected ways. So it was this winter when the Washington Post published a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black churches in the South in recent months… When Friend Harold B. Confer, executive director of Washington Quaker Workcamps, saw the article, he decided to do something about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two colleagues accepted an invitation to travel to western Alabama and see the fire damage for themselves. They were warmly received by the pastors and congregations of the three Greene County churches. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan.
I’m not sure whether Confer’s plan is the right template to follow this time, but it’s a great story because it shows the importance of having a strong grassroots Quaker ecosystem. I don’t believe the Washington Quaker Workcamps were ever a particularly well-funded project. But by 1996 they had been running for ten years and had built up credibility, a following, and the ability to cross cultural lines in the name of service. The smaller organizational size meant that a newspaper article could prompt a flurry of phone calls and visits and a fully-realized program opportunity in a remarkably short amount of time.
A first-hand account of the workcamps by Kim Roberts was published later than year, Rebuilding Churches in Rural Alabama: One Volunteer’s Experience. The D.C.-based workcamp program continues in modified form to this day as the William Penn Quaker Workcamps.
Update: another picture from 1996 Alabama, this time from one of my wife Julie’s old photo books. She’s second from the left at the bottom, part of the longer-stay contingent that Roberts mentions.
When the McKinney video started trending I wasn’t in a state to watch so I read the commentary. Now that I have, the whole thing is completely messed up but at least three parts especially unnerve me:
- The completely unnecessary commando-style dive-and-roll that introduces Corporal Eric Casebolt. Some reports describe it as a trip but to me it looks like he’s playing a Hollywood action hero stunt double. Has he just been watching too many of the police videos he’s been collecting on YouTube?
- That none of the other officers saw his derring-do and said “yo Eric, stand down.” Is this something cops just don’t do? And if not, why not? We all know what it’s like to be hopped up on too much adrenaline. I know people do weird stuff when their reptilian brain fight-or-flight mechanism cuts in. It seems that officers should be on the lookout for just this sort of overreaction and have some sort of safe word to tell one another to take a chill.
- The videographer was a “invisible” white teenager. He walked nearby – and occasionally through – the action without being questioned. At one point Casebolt seems to purposefully step around him to put down his dark-skinned friends. The videographer told news reporters that he felt his whiteness made him invisible to Casebolt.
I never quite realized all the race politics behind the switch from public pools vs private pool clubs. I grew up in a Philly suburb with two public pools and very much remember the constant worry that Philadelphia kids might sneak in (“Philadelphia” was of course code for “black”). The township did have a historically African American neighborhood so the pools were racially integrated but I’m sure every dark-skinned township resident was asked to show town ID a lot more than I was. And it’s hard to think it was entirely coincidental that both public pools were located on the opposite ends of the township from the black neighborhood.
There are no public pools in the South Jersey town where I live. A satellite view picks out thirteen private pools on my block alone. Thirteen?!? There’s one private pool club across town. There’s a lot of casual racism around here, primarily directed at the mostly-Mexican farmworkers who double the town population every summer. If there was a town pool that reflected the demographics of the local Walmart parking lot on a Friday night in July, we’d have mini-riots I’m sure — which is almost surely why we don’t have a municipal pool and why wealthy families have poured millions of dollars into backyards.
(My family has joined the Elmer Swim Club, a pool located about half an hour away. While the majority of members are super nice and I haven’t heard any dodgy racial code phrases. The pool is diverse but is mostly white, reflecting the nearby population. That said, I’ve read enough Ta-Nehisi Coates to know we can rarely take white towns for granted. So.)
Jon Watts looks at the ironies of fame-seeking and avoidance:
But this striving for perfect humbleness can easily become dogmatic. We can come to reject anything that looks remotely like attention-seeking, and we miss God’s message in it.
Jon weighs in with some good, juicy questions. Where is self-promotion a way to promote something bigger? And when is it ego-driven? t’s not just a internet question, of course. This is also at the heart of our Quaker vocal ministry: someone just stands up in worship with an implicit claim they’re speaking for God.
Samuel Bownas is a good go-to person for these sort of dilemmas. He was a second-generation Friend who shared a lot of the inside dirt about Quakers in ministry. He wrote down the trials and temptations he faced and that he saw in others in their “infant minstry” as a conscious mentorship of future Friends.
One of Bownas’s themes is the danger of apeing others. It’s tempting to get so enamored of someone’s beautiful words that we start consciously trying to mimic them. We stop saying what we’ve been given to say so as to sound like the (seemingly) more-articulate person whose style we envy. Most creative artists walk this tension between copying and creating and as Wess will tell you, the idea of remix has become of more importance in the era of digital arts. But with ministry there’s another element: God. Many Quakers have been pretty insistent that the message has to be given “in the Spirit” and come from direct prompts. Unprogrammed Friends (those of us without pastors or pre-written sermons) are exceptionally allergic to vocal ministry that sounds too practiced. It’s not enough that the teaching is correct or well-crafted: we insist that it be given it at the right time.
When thinking the pitfalls about ministry I find it useful to think about “The Tempter.” I don’t personify this; I don’t insist that it’s central to Quaker theology. But it is a thread of our theology, one that has explained my situation, so I share it. For me, it’s the idea that there’s a force that knows our weaknesses and will use them to confuse us. If we’re not careful, impulses that are seemingly positive will provoke actions that are seemingly good but out of right order – given at the wrong time.
So, if like Jon, I start worrying I’m too self-promotional, the Tempter might tell me “that’s true, it’s all in your head, you should shut up already.” If I work myself through that temptation and start promoting myself, the Tempter can switch gears: “yes you’re brilliant, and while you’re at it while don’t you settle some scores with your next post and take some of those fakers down a notch.” There’s never an objective “correct” course of action, because right action is about stripping yourself of self-delusion and navigating the shoals of contradictory impulses. The right action now may be the wrong action later. We all need to grow and stay vigilant and honest with ourselves.
Careful and deliberate discernment held in a manner of unhurried prayer is fine in most instances, but what’s a group if Quakers to do when a fire alarm goes off? Do we sit down in silence, stay centered there some number if minutes, and then open up a period of ministries to reach toward discernment.
Of course we don’t. Who would? Like any group if people in the modern world, we assemble without question and leave the premises. But why? Because of shared language and testimonies.
A ringing bell does not, by itself, constitute a call to action. Power up your time machine and bring your battery-powered alarm system back a few thousand years and set it off. People would look around in confusion (and might be afraid if the alien sound), but they wouldn’t file out of a building. We do it because we’ve been socialized in a language of group warning.
Ever since our schooldays, we have been taught this language: fire alarms, flashing lights, fire pull boxes. We don’t need to discern the situation because we already know what the alarm means: the likelihood of imminent danger.
Our response also needs little discernment. We might think of this as a testimony: a course of action that we’ve realized is so core to our understanding of our relation to the world that it rarely needs to be debated amongst ourselves.
I must have participated in a hundred fire drills in my lifetime, but so far none of the alarms have been fires. But they have served a very real purpose.
When we do media in an advocacy sense, most of our time is spent developing and reinforcing shared language and obvious courses-of-action. We tell stories of previous situations and debate the contours of the testimonies. We’re readying ourselves for when we will be called to action.
They default to the same boring tropes, says Amy Levin at TheRevealer:
Religious wars, religious dress, religious money – these are the real and yet superbly complex elements of our cultural existence. Scout any crack or cranny of popular culture and you find religion creating a glorious maze of topics for writers to discover and sift and sing to the masses.
But lately, I find that a repulsive plague of repetition and banality has swept over the disenchanted cybersphere. Each day I begin my religion news search with hopeful eagerness, sifting closely through mainstream and fringe outlets, hungry for signs of a new trend, movement, argument, study – anything other than what I consumed the day before. But I search in vain, and my doldrums have led me to take action.
(H/T to David Watt on Facebook)
I began Conrad’s classic tale as a follow-up to last month’s State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Her heroine traveled to the most remote reaches of the Amazon; all stories that make the trip from the blandness of civilization (Minnesota in Patchett’s case) owe a debt to Conrad’s classic tale of a steamboat trip far up the Congo River.
The book certainly has its oddities, starting with the narrative voice: we are listening to a story told aboard a ship on the Thames that is waiting for a change of tide to send it on its way out to sea. The narrator-within-the-story, Marlowe, tells the entire tale in flashback, with Conrad only occasionally coming up for air to the deck of the Thames boat (Heart of Darkness was written as a three-part serial; I assume these narrative breaks are the stitching between installments).
I had heard much about this book over the years so I was curious to see the exact nature of the depravities upon which the infamous Kurtz had indulged himself. But two-thirds of the way through the book I realized we were never to really learn them. We know there’s a remote camp by a lake and an African tribe that regards him as some kind of demi-god, and we hear tell that he’s lawless toward other Europeans and single-minded in his quest for ivory. But these are all barely more than hinted glimpses.
The story turns out to be not so much about Kurtz as it is about Marlows’ imaginings as he gets deeper into the continent and gathers clues about the mystery man at the top of the river. I found this to be a relief, as Conrad seems almost as uninterested in fleshing out the Africans along the way. Kurtz is a brilliant civilized man; in the jungle his savagery is unleashed and he becomes a force unto himself.
I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the n******, to invoke him – himself his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air.
Yes, this is a working definition of a psychopath. If this were a modern Showtime or AMC television show, this would be the start of the action: the producers, writers, and actors would leave little gore or depravity to the imagination. But for Conrad this is the morality tale at the heart of the book. Shortly after being found, Kurtz conveniently dies and our narrator sails back downstream, going (we are helpfully told) twice the speed as before, back out to the ocean and civilization.