Friday, 13 August 2010

Quaker Meeting in Battery Park

I have just come from an outdoor Meeting in Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Seven of us sat in the Labyrinth of Contemplation (a scrubby area between two major roads, near the piers for the Staten Island Ferries) on park benches. No-one knew eachother, but there was a sense of familiarity. A light rain fell steadily through the meeting and there was some business with umbrellas. After a while the flies began to treat us like trees and landed on us freely. The bike hire place down at the waterside started to play tracks by The Rolling Stones, and there was a smell of camomile from the bushes. Somehow the gathered silence in the midst of all this was palpable. We were a few hundred yards from the site of the World Trade Buildings; a war monument to Korean soldiers was in front of us; what a challenge to integrate these things with the presence of God.

Shortly after, I was navigating Broadway after dark with my two kids, looking for somewhere to eat, and a young woman came up to us unbidden and went out of her way to show us a good place; turns out she used to live on Ecclesall Road.

(No moral intended; these two stories are not connected. Except that it felt like grace of some kind.)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

God Knows

I think it’s all about our awareness of the spirit. In 1981 or 1982, I was very concerned about a friend of mine who was quite ill physically and emotionally in a bad way. One night, in that time between lights out and falling asleep, I found myself saying in my mind, “Dear Lord, you know Margaret – you know her better than I do. Please look after her.” Then I realised that I was praying. At that time and for many years, I had thought and believed that, at least for me, God was not real – there was no God. There was no one to pray to. As soon as I realised that I was praying, I stopped.

Too late. I had already said my prayer. What’s more, in an instant, three other things happened that I had never experienced before. My eyes were closed, the room was unlit and the curtains drawn, but I saw a very bright, soft, white light which filled my gaze. At the same time, there was a huge sense of presence: I was in the presence of someone as vast as outer space, but completely kind, not at all unsafe. At the same time, I also received knowledge, a message, though not in words. To tell anyone else about it, I have to translate it into words. Roughly speaking, I was told, “Message received and understood.” Not, “OK, we will do as you ask,” but “Heard you.”

As I said my prayer to “Dear Lord,” I thought (as much as I thought anything) that I was addressing Jesus, but the response I got was so huge that I then thought, and I still think, that for the first time I was aware of the presence of God. Thinking that, I still did nothing about it for the best part of twenty-five years. I told myself, “I have experienced the presence of God,” and yet I did nothing. I don’t know why I dealt with it as I did, but looking back, I assume that I wasn’t ready to handle it any other way at that time. My friends tell me that these things should not be rushed.

I believe that the significance of that first exchange was not that God should be informed that Margaret was in a bad way. As I said at the time, God knew her better than I did. Nor was it necessary for God to be told that I was worried about her – if God knew her, God also knew what was going on in me. Nor was it about asking God to intercede on her behalf – the response was, “Heard you,” not “Roger, Wilco.” I think the significance of that two-way communion was to let me know I believed in God, when I believed I didn’t. Possibly to open my eyes to the reality of God, but definitely to open my eyes to the fact that I was already a believer. If not, why was I praying? “There you go, Paul, you’re praying to the Lord. Now, what does that tell you about yourself?” It seems “Do you believe in God?” and “Do you know whether you believe in God?” are two different questions.

Which is surprising. I was certainly surprised by what I did that night, as well as by the response I got. But I have thought for some time that surprising discoveries and answers to questions you didn’t know you were asking are rather convincing. To find God after years of conscious schooling and diligent ground-work may be scarcely surprising, but to find out that you are already a believer, against your expectation and rather against your will, seems more compelling. Perhaps that is what is meant when the Bible says that there is more rejoicing in Heaven when one lost soul finds his way than when a procession of virtuous people enter the Kingdom, to paraphrase Matthew 15:7. It may be no bad thing if the way to grace is a bit hairy.

Do I believe that God would take the trouble to send me a personal message just to let me know that, against all expectations, I was a believer? Yes, I do. God is like that.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Letter from Zimbabwe

This is part of a recent letter from Steve Brooks (pictured above with sewing trainees), a Friend from Washington DC Meeting, who is volunteering as acting coordinator at Hlekweni until I go out to relieve him in November. It gives a flavour of some of the challenges facing the community there, and also how busy Steve has been since his arrival in June!

Dear Friends:

I've been in Zimbabwe a little over a month but so much has happened. I feel settled in my "second home". I'm now interim coordinator as the outgoing coordinator, David Jobson, departed to South Africa several weeks ago. We're in the throes of a financial crisis as the training numbers this term are not what we hoped for. We're struggling to find creative solutions to this as we've got some great potential here, it's just a challenge to find a way to make it generate an income, especially in the current environment in Zimbabwe where there is too little money chasing too many goods.

I've made several trips to Harare, the capital and largest city in Zimbabwe, one great thing is that we managed to track down a supplier for drip irrigation parts in Harare, something that we've been looking for about two years. Drip irrigation is a technique that is used in dry areas, you fill up a large trash can sized container with water and then a network of plastic tubing delivers the water right to the roots of the rows of crops, it's a very efficient way to irrigate small to medium sized plots. Hlekweni has been very successful in training rural farmers on the use of drip irrigation, often where others have failed. Drip tubing does have a 3-5 year life-span and our drip irrigation project in Gwanda is older than that. So we need to get those farmers new drip tubing as a part of wrapping up our project. After that, we'll supply farmers with replacements but we'll charge them at cost out of the profits they've made from sales of produce.

I've also visited the small meeting in Harare and stayed with a Hlekweni board member, Richard Knottenbelt, who is also caretaker for the meeting. His wife Pushpa is a wonderful cook and has given me a couple lessons on making Indian curries. I'm enjoying experimenting with that.

Aside from Hlekweni, I've been involved in a couple other projects, one of them support of a couple Primary Schools. The appeal last year for textbooks for Samathonga Primary School was quite successful and the second shipment of textbooks arrived about two months ago. Samathonga is now rated second out of 94 schools in its district, in no small part through the assistance of US Friends. In addition to the benefit of having textbooks in the classroom, it's given a big morale booster to the staff. The other school is Lochview Primary School which is on the outskirts of Bulawayo. I got connected with Lochview because one of the teachers at Samathonga quit and went to work at Lochview. I visited him there and saw that they had many needs. It turns out that Sipho, my buddy and the chair of the Hlekweni board, used to live in that neighborhood, we visited the school together on my last trip and she knew many of the people there. So we conceived the idea of helping the school. The school called a community meeting and they determined that the most urgent need was a lunch program as many of the students are receiving little food at home, many are HIV positive and are therefore especially in need of nutrition, and some are in child-headed households. So we've started a lunch program at Lochview, which has been going on for a couple weeks now. The food is being purchased and delivered with the assistance of Sipho, one of the teachers is heading up the coordination, and parents are helping out with the preparation and serving of food.

We have a deaf person on staff at Hlekweni who has never been around deaf people and is illiterate, can't talk and uses crude sign language to communicate with a few of his coworkers. He works in the garden. There's a school for the disabled called King George the 6th school in Bulawayo (you can google it, they have a nice website) and we've arranged for two deaf graduates from KG6 to come to Hlekweni for training in building. We've asked them to help us learn sign language so that we can in turn teach our deaf employee. It's also giving these young men from KG6 the opportunity to learn a trade which they passionately want to master. It's also a way of mainstreaming them as they've been among the deaf at KG6 their whole lives. The transition to the hearing world can be a daunting challenge but these guys are up to it, they're really quite something.

We've also been working on support for Innocent Muleya, a final year medical student at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo, and his classmates. NUST has been undergoing some turmoil because the administration is trying to extract additional funds out of the students. In June, the medical students went to go take their exams and they were informed that if they didn't pay their exam fees beforehand, they couldn't sit the exams. Prior times, they could sit the exams and then when they paid, the university would release the results. People have no money and the students were so fed up with being jerked around that they all quit and arranged a last minute transfer to University of Zambia. So they were looking around for last minute financial support for this decision. There are more layers to this which are too much to go into here, but that's the thumbnail version. So my friend, Dr. Del Meriwether, of the Meriwether Foundation, agreed to pay the tuition and fees for all 10 or 11 medical students and I am assisting him to a small extent in this effort as well as helping Innocent with fees for his application for a study permit and his living expenses.

Finally, I've been liaising with the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a human rights organization dedicated to providing a safe place for Gay Zimbabweans to socialize, get support for HIV/Aids, and advocating for equal rights for GLBT. A couple months ago, the police raided the Harare office of GALZ and arrested two people, the administrative assistant and the finance person. They are up on charges of harboring pornography and insulting the president and the trials are going on now. The charge of insulting the president is based on their having a copy of a resolution supported by Willie Brown, Mayor of San Francisco and passed by the San Francisco city council, supporting Gay rights and deploring victimization based on sexual orientation. The GALZ offices were closed for about 6 weeks and although they're reopened, people are just slowly returning. This is a case of political intimidation connected with the constitutional process. One of GALZ's problems is a slow, and often broken website that is impossible to update. With the help of the Friends Meeting of Washington's web guru, Vonn New, we're working on getting an internationally hosted website that can be updated by normal, non-techy people.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Sea, boats, ship wrecks,... water-based metaphors for Quaker meeting

At our last Sunday meeting for worship we heard ministry from a Friend who had been on a sailing trip, and recently returned. For her, still feeling the motion of the waves, and the unsteadiness of the room (rocking up and down!) set off thoughts of how we each sit there, bringing our own peculiar and immediate experiences. This ministry led to more nautically based ministry, which I could really relate to. Another Friend recalled first coming to Quakers and feeling like a ship-wrecked, nearly drowned soul (possibly escaped from pirates, by walking the plank!) and feeling that finding Quakers was like finding a solid rock to cling to. (She actually believed individual Friends were like rocks.) Later she realised that it's more like finding a life boat and climbing in, with a whole lot of other ship-wrecked souls.
This ministry speaks so well to me. By sheer happy luck yesterday, I heard the end of a BBC radio programme that included a reading of a poem, also very much on the theme of floating or drowning...
Here is the part that I heard, it is the end of 'Buoyancy' by Rumi

Praise, the ocean.
What we say, a little ship.
So the sea-journey goes on, and who knows where?
Just to be held by the ocean is the best luck we could have.
It's a total waking up!
Why should we grieve that we've been sleeping?
It doesn't matter how long we've been unconscious.
We're groggy, but let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness around you, the buoyancy.

The whole poem is an exquisite expression of joy, of immediacy, of feeling God in everything around us. How about these lines for describing a 'gathered' meeting...

Let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness around you, the buoyancy.