“Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do — every one — our share to redeem the world despite all [the] absurdities and all the frustrations and all [the] disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
As I’ve gotten to travel to different programs of AFSC and bear witness to the organization’s wide-ranging work, I’ve seen that one of the strengths that undergird so much of our work is the understanding that grassroots cultural change – both reclamation and transformation – precedes and informs political change.
In order for a new law to become possible, or a shift in the courts, there must first be a shift in the stories people hear and understand. When the story changes, hearts are changed, too, and this makes way for political movement. AFSC doesn’t shy away from the policy work either, but our policy work is deeply connected to the work we do on the ground.
What does such cultural change look like? In Burundi it looks like the creation of trauma healing workshops that are drawn from traditional community healing and conflict resolution practices. Burundians tell their stories and heal, which makes way for peace on the ground.
In Maine it looks like Wabanaki people telling their stories of the trauma of being dislocated from their culture in the foster care system, and having those within the foster care system really hear these stories and change their practice.
In San Francisco it looks like immigrant youth supporting each other in telling stories of the impacts of deportation on their families, creating public art about their experience, and regularly participating in public actions to raise their concerns in the community.
The civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the Occupy movement all have understood the importance of narrative in shifting the way we as a community see Jim Crow, LGBTQ people, and income inequality. Stories that disrupt the dehumanization of marginalized people can operate at a level deeper than facts can reach; they shift how we see.
Quaker faith seems based on this understanding. Meeting for worship with attention to business is all about how the spirit can change us—that when we listen to one another’s tender, heartfelt truths, we can hear what lies underneath, beyond words, and our hearts can change so that we as a collective can sometimes carry prophetic messages and ways of living. AFSC’s work arises from this discipline – doing the heart work that makes way for changing a community’s practice.
I co-led a workshop in San Francisco the first weekend in December to train new volunteers for the AFSC-meeting/church liaison program. I invited their meetings and churches to participate in this work with us – to reach out to a mosque about co-hosting a community dialogue event; to consider divestment from companies that support the conflict in Israel/Palestine and to write a minute of support; to invite youth in the meetings and churches to consider federal budget priorities and make a video of how they might prioritize our tax dollars to meet community needs; and, finally, to work with us in support of immigrants in their community.
All of the activities in which we are inviting Quaker meetings and churches to engage have elements of working on cultural change. For example, when you invite Muslims and other people of faith together to listen and tell stories of what it's like to be in this country as a Muslim, those stories and connections work on those who have participated long after the event is over.
As we talked, the real potential of working across the country and world on common projects of social justice and the impact we might have together lifted us as a group. What would it mean if all Quakers worked together on disrupting the narrative of militarism and violence and on building a culture of peace?
That’s not to say that Quakers aren’t doing amazing work all over the world to address powerful issues of inequity, violence, and environmental chaos. But sometimes we work in isolation—one person with a ministry, one meeting with a concern—and render our efforts smaller than they might be if we worked in collaboration, in Quaker coalition.
We invite you and your Quaker meeting or church to join us in an experiment in working together by appointing an AFSC liaison. In the coming year as we try things out, we are inviting meetings and churches to help us shape the program and figure out the best ways to collaborate.
What might emerge if we worked together on a common project of revolutionary love? Join us.