Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Interim Meeting: Getting a horse to drink

This past week­end I gave a talk at the Arch Street Meet­ing­house after the Inter­im Meet­ing ses­sions of Phi­ladle­phia Year­ly Meet­ing. Inter­im Meet­ing is the group that meets sort-of month­ly between year­ly meet­ing busi­ness sess­sions. In an ear­li­er blog post I called it “the estab­lish­ment” and I looked for­ward to shar­ing the new life of the blog­ging world and Con­ver­gent Friends with this group. I had been asked by the most excel­lent Stephen Dot­son to talk about “Find­ing Fel­low­ship Between Friends Thru The Inter­net.”

I was curi­ous to return to Inter­im Meet­ing, a group I served on about half a decade ago. As I sat in the meet­ing, I kept see­ing glimpses of issues that I planned to address after­wards in my talk: how to talk afresh about faith; how to pub­li­cize our activ­i­ty and com­mu­ni­cate both among our­selves and with the out­side world; how to engage new and younger mem­bers in our work.

Turns out I didn’t get the chance. Only half a dozen or so mem­bers of Inter­im Meet­ing stuck around for my pre­sen­ta­tion. No announce­ment was made at the end of ses­sions. None of the senior staff were there and no one from the long table full of clerks, alter­nate clerks and alter­nate alter­nate clerks came. Eleven peo­ple were at the talk (includ­ing some who hadn’t been at Inter­im Meet­ing). The inti­ma­cy was nice but it was hard­ly the “take it to the estabish­ment” kind of event I had imagined.

The talk itself went well, despite or maybe because of its inti­ma­cy. I had asked Seth H (aka Chron­i­cler) along for spir­i­tu­al sup­port and he wrote a nice review on Quak­erQuak­er. Steve T, an old friend of mine from Cen­tral Philly days, took some pic­tures which I’ve includ­ed here. I videoed the event, though it will need some work to tight­en it down to some­thing any­one would want to watch online. The peo­ple who attend­ed want­ed to attend and asked great ques­tions. It was good work­ing with Stephen Dot­son again in the plan­ning. I would wish that more Philadel­phia Friends had more inter­est in these issues but as indi­vid­u­als, all we can do is lead a horse to water. In the end, the year­ly meet­ing is in God’s hands.


Below are obser­va­tions from Inter­im Meet­ing and how the Con­ver­gent Friends move­ment might address some of the issues raised. Let me stress that I offer these in love and in the hope that some hon­est talk might help. I’ve served on Inter­im Meet­ing and have giv­en a lot of time toward PYM over the last twen­ty years. This list was for­ward­ed by email to senior staff and I present them here for oth­ers who might be con­cerned about these dynamics.

 

GENERATIONAL FAIL:

There were about seventy-five peo­ple in the room for Inter­im Meet­ing ses­sions. I was prob­a­bly the third or fourth youngest. By U.S. cen­sus def­i­n­i­tions I’m in my eighth year of mid­dle age, so that’s real­ly sad. That’s two whole gen­er­a­tions that are large­ly miss­ing from PYM lead­er­ship. I know I shouldn’t be sur­prised; it’s not a new phe­nom­e­non. But if you had told me twen­ty years ago that I’d be able to walk into Inter­im Meet­ing in 2010 and still be among the youngest, well… Well, frankly I would have uttered a choice epi­thet and kicked the Quak­er dust from my shoes (most of my friends did). I know many Friends bod­ies strug­gle with age diver­si­ty but this is par­tic­u­lar­ly extreme.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: About 33% of QuakerQuaker’s audi­ence is GenX and 22% are Mil­lenials. If Inter­im Meet­ing were as diverse as Quak­erQuak­er there would have been 16 YAFs (18 – 35 year olds) and 25 Friends 35 and 49 years of age. I would have been about the 29th youngest in the room – mid­dle aged, just where I should be! Quak­erQuak­er has an age diver­si­ty that most East Coast Friends Meet­ings would die for. If you want to know the inter­ests and pas­sions of younger Friends, Quak­er blogs are an excel­lent place to learn. There are some very dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tion­al and style dif­fer­ences at play (my post sev­en years ago, a post from Mic­ah Bales this past week).


DECISION-MAKING

 

The first part of the ses­sions was run with what’s called a “Con­sent Agen­da,” a leg­isla­tive mea­sure where mul­ti­ple agen­da items are approved en masse. It rests on the ide­al­is­tic notion that all seventy-five atten­dees has come to ses­sions hav­ing read every­thing in the quarter-inch pack­et mailed to them (I’ll wait till you stop laugh­ing). Inter­im Meet­ing lumped thir­teen items togeth­er in this man­ner. I sus­pect most Friends left the meet­ing hav­ing for­got­ten what they had approved. Most edu­ca­tors would say you have to rein­force read­ing with live inter­ac­tion but we bypassed all of that in the name of efficiency.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Quak­er blogs are won­der­ful­ly rich sources of dis­cus­sion. Com­ments are often more inter­est­ing than the orig­i­nal posts. Many of us have writ­ten first drafts of pub­lished arti­cles on our blogs and then pol­ished them with feed­back received in the com­ments. This kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion feed­back is pow­er­ful and doesn’t take away from live meeting-time. There’s a ton of pos­si­bil­i­ties for shar­ing infor­ma­tion in a mean­ing­ful way out­side of meetings.


MINUTES OF WITNESS

 

Two “min­utes” (a kind of Quak­er statement/press release) were brought to ses­sions. Both were vet­ted through a lengthy process where they were approved first by month­ly and then quar­ter­ly meet­ings before com­ing before Inter­im Meet­ing. A minute on Afghanistan was nine months old, a response to a troop lev­el announce­ment made last Decem­ber; one against Mar­cel­lus Shale drilling in Penn­syl­va­nia was undat­ed but it’s a top­ic that peaked in main­stream media five months ago. I would have more appre­ci­a­tion of this cum­ber­some process if the min­utes were more “sea­soned” (well-written, with care tak­en in the dis­cern­ment behind them) but there was lit­tle in either that explained how the issue con­nect­ed with Quak­er faith and why we were lift­ing it up now as con­cern. A senior staffer in a small group I was part of lament­ed how the min­utes didn’t give him much guid­ance as to how he might explain our con­cern with the news media. So here we were, approv­ing two out-of-date, hard-to-communicate state­ments that many IM reps prob­a­bly nev­er read.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Blog­ging gives us prac­tice in talk­ing about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Com­menters chal­lenge us when we take rhetor­i­cal short­cuts or make assump­tions or trade on stereo­types. Most Quak­er blog­gers would tell you they’re bet­ter writ­ers now than when they start­ed their blog. Spir­i­tu­al writ­ing is like a mus­cle which needs to be exer­cised. To be blunt­ly hon­est, two or three blog­gers could have got­ten onto Skype, opened a shared Google Doc and ham­mered out bet­ter state­ments in less than an hour. If we’re going to be approv­ing these kinds of thing we need to prac­tice and increase our spir­i­tu­al literacy.


THE ROLE OF COMMITTEES

 

The sec­ond part was Inter­im Meet­ing look­ing at itself. We broke into small groups and ask­ing three ques­tions: “What is the work of Inter­im Meet­ing,” “Are we sat­is­fied with how we do this now?” and “If we were to make changes, what would they be?.” I thought to myself that the rea­son I ever go to events like this is to see dear Friends and to see what sparks of life are hap­pen­ing in the year­ly meet­ing. As our small group went around, and as small groups shared after­wards, I real­ized that many of the peo­ple in the room seemed to agree: we were hun­gry for the all-to-brief moments where the Spir­it broke into the reg­i­ment­ed Quak­er process.

One star­tling tes­ti­mo­ni­al came from a mem­ber of the out­reach com­mit­tee. She explained that her com­mit­tee, like many in PYM, is an admin­is­tra­tive one that’s not sup­posed to do any out­reach itself – it’s all sup­posed to stay very “meta.” They recent­ly decid­ed to have a pic­nic with no busi­ness sched­uled and there found them­selves “going rogue” and talk­ing about out­reach. Her spir­it rose and voice quick­ened as she told us how they spent hours dream­ing up out­reach projects. Of course the out­reach com­mit­tee wants to do out­reach! And with state PYM is in, can we real­ly have a dozen peo­ple sequestered away talk­ing about talk­ing about out­reach. Shouldn’t we declare “All hands on deck!” and start doing work? It would have been time well spent to let her share their ideas for the next thir­ty min­utes but of course we had to keep mov­ing. She fin­ished quick­ly and the excite­ment leaked back out of the room.


FOLLOW-UP THOUGHTS AND THE FUTURE OF THE YEARLY MEETING

 

Now I need to stress some things. I had some great one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions in the breaks. A lot of peo­ple were very nice to me and gave me hugs and asked about fam­i­ly. These are a com­mit­ted, hope­ful group of peo­ple. There was a lot of faith in that room! Peo­ple work hard and serve faith­ful­ly. But it feels like we’re trapped by the sys­tem we our­selves cre­at­ed. I want­ed to share the excite­ment and direct­ness of the Quak­er blog­ging world. I want­ed to share the robust­ness of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­niques we’re using and the pow­er of dis­trib­uted pub­lish­ing. I want­ed to share the new spir­it of ecu­men­ti­cal­ism and cross-branch work that’s happening.

I’ve been vis­it­ing local Friends Meet­ings that have half the atten­dance they did ten years ago. Some have trou­ble break­ing into the double-digits for Sun­day morn­ing wor­ship and I’m often the youngest in the room, bring­ing the only small kids. I know there are a hand­ful of thriv­ing meet­ings, but I’m wor­ried that most are going to have close their doors in the next ten to twen­ty years.

I had hoped to show how new com­mu­ni­ca­tion struc­tures, the rise of Con­ver­gent Friends and the seek­ers of the Emerg­ing Church move­ment could sig­nal new pos­si­bil­i­ties for Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing. Toward the end of Inter­im Meet­ing, some Friends bemoaned our lack of resources and clerk Thomas Swain remind­ed them that with God there is no lim­i­ta­tion and noth­ing is impos­si­ble. Some of the things I’m see­ing online are the impos­si­ble come to life. Look at Quak­erQuak­er: an unstaffed online mag­a­zine run­ning off of a $50/month bud­get and get­ting 10,000 vis­its a month. It’s not any­thing I’ve done, but this com­mu­ni­ty that God has brought togeth­er and the tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture that has allowed us to coör­di­nate so eas­i­ly. It’s far from the only neat project out there and there are a lot more on the draw­ing boad. Some year­ly meet­ings are engag­ing with these new pos­si­bilites. But mine appar­ent­ly can’t even stay around for a talk.

Pass the hummus, please, and by the way: are you a fed?

It seems that every day brings new revelations from mainstream media about governmental spying on Americans.

MS-NBC started the ball rolling on the 14th when they informed us that the Pentagon had a database of "protesters including the Raging Grannies and a dozen or so Quakers in Florida":http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10454316. This must have prompted the New York Times to publish a story they had been sitting on for a year: the scoop that Bush had ordered the super-secret "National Security Agency to start evesdropping on Americans":http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/15/politics/15cnd-program.html following the 9/11 terror attacks. It's revelation was an FBI agent's email complaining about "radical militant librarians [who] kick us around":http://www.ala.org/al_onlineTemplate.cfm?Section=alonline&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=111469. Two days later we received the almost-humorous news that the Department of Homeland Security was hard at work monitoring the "Massachusett's inter-library loan system ":http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12 [UPDATE: this has been "revealed to be a hoax":http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12-05/12-24-05/a01lo719.htm by the student]. Trying to outdo the DHS in ridiculous, we learned on the 20th that "the FBI has been infiltrating vegan potlucks":http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/politics/20fbi.html. Today it turns out the "New York City Police Department":http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/22/nyregion/22police.html has been doing its own extensive investigations into protesters. They even apparently staged mock arrests in an attempt to incite violence (their contribution to the self-parody has been to send officers undercover on bicycle protests).

Are we surprised by all this? Well, not really. The fears unleashed after 9/11 ignited a firestorm of paranoia in the ranks of spydom. Nonviolence.org got a call from the U.S. Secret Service when Osama bin Laden posted to the board that he wanted to kill President Bush (well, actually we're pretty certain it was a acne-faced fourteen year old procrastinating on his geometry homework). When I shot "shot photos of a scuffle at a Biodemocracy protest a few months ago":http://www.nonviolence.org/articles/2005/06/biodemocracy_pr.php a Philadelphia police detective was in my office an hour later wanting to see it (the "melee" was harmless except for a policeman with heart conditions who took that moment to have a heart attack).

While some monitoring and prudence is indeed necessary, what ties together the string of stories this week is the randomness of the targets. It's as if the agencies had lost all sense of judgement. Anyone critical of the war (or even mainstream culture: witness the vegans) was considered a threat. All leads were investigated, no matter how silly.

While invading American's privacy is upsetting and unwarranted, the greatest danger is the sheer mass of irrelevant information that's been collected. What's an agency to do with reams of data on bicycle riders and Quakers? Who's watching the flight schools and fertilizer depots while Agent Nincompoop is trading hummus recipes with the cute vegan with the nosering?

The Left Wing Conspiracy Revealed by Non​vi​o​lence​.org

Non​vi​o​lence​.org read­ers may not be aware that my per­son­al site has been the talk of the polit­i­cal inter­net for the last few days. Since post­ing an “account of get­ting a phone call from a CBS News pub­li­cist”, I’ve been linked to by a Who’s Who of blog­ging glit­er­at­ti: Won­kette, Instapun­dit, The Volokh Con­spir­a­cy, Lit­tle Green Foot­balls, Rather­Biased, etc. For a short time yes­ter­day, the sto­ry was a part of the second-ranked arti­cle on Technorati’s Pol­i­tics Atten­tion index.

A hack from CBS News called me to say they were doing a pro­gram on an issue that’s cen­tral to Nonviolence.org’s man­date: con­sci­en­tious resis­tance to mil­i­tary ser­vice. After look­ing over the mate­r­i­al, I thought the inter­views of resisters who have fled to Cana­da would be inter­est­ing to my read­ers and so wrote a short entry on it. Think­ing it all a lit­tle fun­ny that a pub­li­cist would care about Non​vi​o​lence​.org, I men­tioned the inci­dent in the “Sto­ries of Non​vi​o​lence​.org” sec­tion of my per­son­al site. One by one the lead­ing polit­i­cal sites of the blo­gos­phere have run the sto­ry as fur­ther proof of the vast left-wing main­stream media con­spir­a­cy. It’s rather fun­ny actually.

I have to won­der is who’s kid­ding who with all this feigned out­rage? For those miss­ing the irony gene: the Non​vi​o​lence​.org Pay­Pal account cur­rent­ly has a bal­ance $6.18, the bulk of which comes from the last dona­tion – $5.00 back on Novem­ber 20th. My cor­ner of the left wing con­spir­a­cy is fund­ed by the vast per­son­al wealth I accu­mu­late as a book­store clerk.

Wonkette’s pages adver­tise “spon­sor­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties,” she’s a recent cov­er girl on New York Times Mag­a­zine, her hus­band is an edi­tor at New York mag­a­zine and in Octo­ber she cashed out her blog­ging fame for a $275,000 advance for her first nov­el (“It’s not Brid­get Jones does Wash­ing­ton, it’s Nick Horn­by does pol­i­tics”: good grief). Eugene Volokh has clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court (for San­dra Day O’Connor), teach­es law at UCLA and just had a big op-ed in the Times. Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds teach­es law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ten­nessee, has served on White House advi­so­ry pan­els, and is a paid cor­re­spon­dent for MSNBC. Yet he, like the oth­ers, calls a two minute phone call “recruit­ing”?

I’m begin­ning to think the real inter­est comes from the fact that this top tier of blog­gers is total­ly in bed (lit­er­al­ly) with the MSM. Their income comes from their con­nec­tions with media and polit­i­cal pow­er. Their carefully-crafted fas­cade of snark­ish inde­pen­dence would crum­ble if their phone logs were made pub­lic. They’re not real­ly blog­ging in their paja­mas, folks.

By men­tion­ing the exis­tance of blog pub­li­cists, I’ve threat­ened to blow their cov­er. Pay no atten­tion to the men behind the cur­tains: my social gaffe was in pub­licly admit­ting that the main­stream media courts polit­i­cal blogs. Kudos to jour­nal­ist Derek Rose on admit­ting the practice:

But why shouldn’t a news organization’s pub­lic­i­ty depart­ment court blog­gers? As a MSM mem­ber, I get emails from TV flacks all the time pro­mot­ing their scoops. From ABC, for exam­ple, I’ve received emails regard­ing a tape they got of the Belt­way sniper’s call to the Rockville police; Bar­bara Wal­ters’ Hillary Clin­ton inter­view; and their ‘Azzam the Amer­i­can’ video … as well as a Rush Lim­baugh drug laun­der­ing sto­ry that nev­er panned out. I even got atten­tion from pub­li­cists when I was work­ing for a news­pa­per that didn’t have a 20th of the cir­cu­la­tion of Instapundit…

Rose aside, there’s incred­i­ble dis­tor­tion in the “report­ing,” a term I have to use very loose­ly. Won­kette says “Kel­ley claims that a CBS min­ion put the screws to him to post some­thing about a ’60 Min­utes’ pack­age on con­sci­en­tious objec­tors” yet all read­ers have to do is fol­low the link to see I nev­er said any­thing like that. Why do the cream of blog­gers feel like a posse of self-absorbed sev­enth graders? When I start­ed Non​vi​o​lence​.org back in 1995, I thought the brave new polit­i­cal world of the inter­net might be All the President’s Men. Boy was I wrong: it turns it’s just Heathers. God help us.

The Berg questions few are asking

I am shocked and hor­ri­fied by the decap­i­ta­tion of Nicholas Berg in Iraq, but not for the chest-puffing rea­sons the folks at Fox News are. U.S. mil­i­tary prox­ies held Berg with­out charges for an extend­ed peri­od of time and there are too many ques­tions about when he was released and who he might have been released to. I’m not one for con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries but there are real ques­tions as to how Berg end­ed up in front of those anony­mous, hood­ed butch­ers. What­ev­er the answers, the U.S. mil­i­tary is involved in his deten­tion, as is the FBI (who made him miss a plane that was sup­posed to take him out of Iraq last month), as is the U.S. gov­ern­ment back home who didn’t coöper­ate with his fam­i­ly to get him out of there.
My major piece on this is over on the main Non​vi​o​lence​.org site: “US mil­i­tary prox­ies held Berg before decap­ti­a­tion; who were his executioners?”:http://www.nonviolence.org/articles/000340.php
I’m sure to get even more hate mail than usu­al for this but I’ll also be watch­ing the main­stream media cov­er­age. I only know of many of these details because Berg was local and Chan­nel 10 News gave back­ground to Berg’s deten­tion. Here’s my pre­dic­tion from past expe­ri­ence: this sto­ry will be too hot for the main­stream media to ques­tion for a few days and then it will only be to report that there are some nut­cas­es ask­ing ques­tions. Only after a few days of this kind of second-hand ques­tion will the nation­al media drop the fas­cade and start ask­ing the ques­tions them­selves. It should be a fun week ahead.

History of Non​vi​o​lence​.org, 1995 – 2008

Non​vi​o​lence​.Org was found­ed by Mar­tin Kel­ley out of a home office way back in 1995. Over the 13 or so years of its exis­tence, it won acco­lades and atten­tion from the main­stream media and mil­lions of vis­i­tors. It’s arti­cles have been reprint­ed in count­less move­ment jour­nals and even in a fea­tured USAToday edi­to­r­i­al.

From 2006:

The past eleven years have seen count­less inter­net projects burst on the scene only to with­er away. Yet Non​vi​o​lence​.org con­tin­ues with­out any fund­ing, attract­ing a larg­er audi­ence every year. As the years have gone by and I’ve found the strength to con­tin­ue it, I’ve real­ized more and more that this is a min­istry. As a mem­ber of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends I’m com­mit­ted to spread­ing the good news that war is unnec­es­sary. In my per­son­al life this is a mat­ter of faith in the “pow­er that takes away occas­sion for all war.” In my work with Non​vi​o​lence​.org I also draw on all the prac­ti­cal and prag­mat­ic rea­sons why war is wrong. For more per­son­al moti­va­tions you can see at Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org, my per­son­al blog.

A Non​vi​o​lence​.org Timeline

Screenshot from 1996 via Archive.org
Screen­shot from 1996 via Archive​.org

In 1995 I was edi­tor at an activist pub­lish­er strug­gling to adapt to a rapid­ly chang­ing book world. Many of the inde­pen­dent book­stores that had always sup­port­ed us were clos­ing just as print­ing costs were ris­ing. The need to re-invent activist orga­niz­ing and pub­lish­ing for the 1990’s became obvi­ous and I saw the inter­net as a place to do that. One of the ear­li­est man­i­festos and intro­duc­tions to the Non­vi­o­lence Web was an essay called The Rev­o­lu­tion Will be Online.

I began by approached lead­ing U.S. peace groups with a crazy pro­pos­al: if they gave me their mate­r­i­al I would put it up on the web for them for free. My goal was to live off of sav­ings until I could raise the oper­at­ing funds from foun­da­tions. “Free type­set­ting for the move­ment by the move­ment” was the ral­ly­ing cry and I quick­ly brought a who’s-who of Amer­i­can peace groups over to Non​vi​o​lence​.org. I knew that there was lots of great peace writ­ing that wasn’t get­ting the dis­tri­b­u­tion it deserved and with the inter­net I could get it out faster and more wide­ly then with any tra­di­tion­al media. For three years I lived off of sav­ings, very part-time jobs and occa­sion­al small grants.

Through 1998, Nonviolence.ommarg devel­oped into a web “por­tal” for non­vi­o­lence. We would fea­ture the most provoca­tive and time­ly pieces from the NVWeb mem­ber groups on the newly-redesigned home­page, dubbed “Non­vi­o­lence Web Upfront.” A online mag­a­zine for­mat loose­ly mod­eled on Slate and the now-defunct Feed Mag­a­zine, it also con­tained orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al and links to inter­est­ing threads on the inte­grat­ed dis­cus­sion board. With these pop­u­lar fea­tures, the Non​vi​o​lence​.Org became a “sticky” site, one which attract­ed reg­u­lar vis­i­tors. The com­bined vis­i­bil­i­ty for mem­ber groups was much greater than any­one could obtain alone and we earned plen­ty of awards and links. There was a New York Times tech pro­file (boy was that a weird pho­to shoot!) and I was invit­ed to write the guest Op/Ed in USA Today.

But this mod­el couldn’t last. A big prob­lem was mon­ey: there’s were too few phil­an­thropists for this sort of work, and estab­lished foun­da­tions didn’t even know the right ques­tions to ask in eval­u­at­ing an inter­net project. Non​vi​o​lence​.Org was kept afloat by my own dwin­dling per­son­al sav­ings, and I nev­er did find the sort of mon­ey that could pay even pover­ty wages. I took more and more part-time jobs till they became the full-time ones I have today. At the same time, inter­net pub­lish­ing was also chang­ing. With the advent of “Blogs” and open-source bul­letin board soft­ware, Non​vi​o​lence​.org has con­tin­ued to evolve and stay relevant.

2005

Non​vi​o​lence​.org con­tin­ued to be one of the most highly-visible and vis­it­ed peace web­sites, being high­ly ranked through the first Gulf War II, the biggest U.S. mil­i­tary action since the web began. This mod­el of inde­pen­dent activist web pub­lish­ing was still crit­i­cal. The Non​vi​o​lence​.org mis­sion of fea­tur­ing the best writ­ing and analy­sis con­tin­ued until 2008 when Mar­tin final­ly moth­balled the Non​vi​o​lence​.org project and sold the domain.