"At this place, in this moment of time, all mankind is us. Let us do something while we have the chance." – Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
I’ve been struggling with despair.
The refugee crisis in Syria and how the world has so inadequately responded to their civil war has woken me up and alarmed me. Though it does not convey the full complexity of the situation (I am not a Syria expert), this comic by Audrey Quinn and Jackie Roche makes clear that one factor in the uprising and backlash was a six-year drought that pushed a million farmers into the cities. This created a crisis of internally displaced people that the Assad regime initially did not respond to, and when it responded, did so with brutal repression. Evidence suggests the human migrations occurring because of climate chaos and repressive violence will only become more common.
In the West Bank (occupied Palestinian territory), my friend Iyad Burnat, who received the 2015 James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Conflict, suffered two broken ribs when he was brutally beaten by the Israeli military in the weekly Friday nonviolent demonstration in Bil’in. A year earlier, his son Majd was shot and disabled by the Israeli military. Majd still can’t walk.
Here at home, nearly 800 people have been killed by police extra-judicially this year. And the United States is breaking records for deportations of migrants, even while the need for sanctuary for those fleeing climate chaos and violence is so great.
Not a day goes by when the depth of the trouble we’re in as a human community doesn’t reveal itself.
Last summer during the bombardment of Gaza, some Philadelphia staff worshipped together. My co-worker, Mike Merryman-Lotze, spoke about the Lebanon war, Operation Cast Lead, the second intifada, and the ongoing violence used to maintain the occupation of Palestinian territory. He said so often he has thought, “It can’t get worse than this. The world must wake up.” But then the next bombardment happens or another crack down in the region. He has learned that the question isn’t, “Does the world wake up?” but “What’s next?”
And yet he stays in the struggle with Palestinians, Israelis, and so many others who believe that change is not only possible, but essential.
What gives me hope and lifts my despair are the small circles of people gathering to resist repression and the dangerous policies and forces that threaten our communities and the earth.
Recently I was honored to participate in the first meeting of the Interfaith Network for Justice in Palestine, a group of faith-based activists committed to reclaim work for justice as a central part of all our faiths. The energy and commitment was powerful among the Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers at the gathering.
For the past year I’ve been serving as co-clerk of the Undoing Racism group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which is supporting a collective commitment of the body to examine and work to end racism within our community. Each time we meet a group of thirty shows up, committed and eager to continue our work together. Yearly meeting sessions this year were hard, a struggle, but we all saw movement and a willingness to engage. The yearly meeting is focused on the query, “What is God calling Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?”
Every other week I meet with the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice (local Black Lives Matter) town hall meetings here at Friends Center. Despite the difficult, all-too-regular news of police shootings, this group keeps coming back, trying things, working to shift the system that dehumanizes and threatens so many.
Because I believe in the transformative power of small groups working for change, I also am really excited about the five Quaker meetings who have signed up to participate in the Quaker social change ministry pilot program. We’re working to reclaim spiritual practice while centering the voices and leadership of people of color and those most impacted in our work. In three of this season's Calls for Spirited Action, we will focus on learning the practices of this model.
Within these small groups, in these moments of difficulty and hardship, I see and experience a glimmer of what we are striving to create, a willingness to be human together, to understand that we really are all connected, and that we need each other, broken and imperfect as we are. We are all standing on holy ground. We are in a desperate situation and what we need to face it is within us, between us, in these circles willing to struggle, to hope, to do what we can while we have the chance. These circles of resistance feel sacramental to me. This is where I experience communion with companions in the struggle and with the divine.
I don’t know if our efforts will be successful. I don’t know whether it’s too late to turn the tide. But I still believe in love and in God and I know that without such circles of commitment and struggle, surely no change or shifting will occur.
The change we envision may not come about, but there is surely joy in the struggle. Even if we don’t witness the change we seek, we will have chosen to bet on life, chosen to try to cultivate the courageous many and a new way to live, and that is worth everything.