I just returned home from a week spent at Scattergood Friends School, where the annual meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) was held. My blog posts are definitely not official or approved by the yearly meeting.
This post is a way for me to reflect on my experiences there this year, especially those that were traumatic.
The theme for this year’s meetings was “Being Centered in an Uncentered World.” Its ironic that I was knocked off-center many times during the week.
The week began well. The first evening program on Tuesday was “Finding Truth and Beauty–Jeff Kisling will share his photographs as a focus for how we find truth and beauty in the world.” I was glad to have this opportunity. My experience has been that computer projectors do not display photos well, with problems related to resolution, color and brightness. I had been thinking about getting a large screen TV for photo editing and display. Many evenings I have a slideshow of my photos run while I read. So I purchased a 65 inch screen so the photos would be clearly seen during the presentation.
About a week ago I was trying to organize my thoughts about photography in preparation for this program, writing about how a vision of smog obscuring the mountains made me into an environmental activist. I briefly told that story at the beginning of the program. Then we watched the slideshow together in silence, a visual worship sharing. The photos were grouped into some of my favorite photos, mainly of flowers or unusual compositions. A second group were photos of the many activist things I have been involved with, such as the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline resistances, time at the Kheprw Institute, etc. The final group were photos of the Rocky Mountains. Then the audience was invited to share any thoughts they had, and quite a number of people said some very nice and interesting things.
Most of the rest of the time was spent working with the Peace and Social Concerns Committee, of which I am the clerk. We met for an hour in the morning and an hour after lunch. Usually around a dozen people attended, and not always the same people. Anyone is welcome to attend these meetings. Each Quaker meeting has their own Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and those are the people who usually attend these meetings during the annual meeting. Each of these local meetings send a report of their peace and social concerns work to the clerk of the Yearly Meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee (me). The way things are supposed to work is the local meetings may decided there are things they think the whole Yearly Meeting should address, most often in the form of Minutes, which are statements about a specific issue, or letters to our Congressional representatives.
The things that were brought to us to work on this year were a letter about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), a Minute related to the children being torn away from their families at our Southern border, a Minute about racial justice, and a request to send a contribution to Casa Pueblo, a community based solar energy company in Puerto Rico. Approving the money for this solar company was the easiest thing we did.
The AUMF has been the way Congress gives the President the permission to carry out military operations without actually declaring war (which was last done Dec 8, 1941). The current AUMF’s were used by President’s Bush, Obama and now Trump to justify expanding the so-called war on terror wherever they wanted to. The letter that our committee was asked to approve said those AUMF’s should be terminated and also to reject the new AUMF that was being developed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would give even more war power to the President.
Our committee approved that letter with minor changes and it was given to the Yearly Meeting clerk so that it could be read for comments and possible approval during the business sessions of the Yearly Meeting. That discussion did not go well. One Friend forcefully declared he could not believe that we were saying it would be permissible to go to war as long as the process for improving AUMF’s was done correctly, going on with Bible scripture and our Quaker testimonies and how this letter betrayed those.
Perhaps the letter could have been modified to be clearer, but it was asking Congress to take back the responsibility for declaring war, which the U.S. Constitution says is the responsibility of Congress, not the President, so there are checks and balances, making it more difficult to declare war. Then we as citizens would have an opportunity to try to convince our own representatives to vote against a declaration of war.
If that was unclear to this Friend, it would have been better if he had asked for clarification before he suggested we were supporting any type of war. The monthly meeting that sent this to our Yearly Meeting Peace and Social Concerns Committee worked through the process of writing and approving this letter. Then our committee considered it, made some modifications, and also approved it. For this Friend to accuse all of those people of supporting war was deeply hurtful to me, and I would assume everyone else who had worked on it.
This led to a very lengthy discussion about AUMF’s and peace testimony and war, some of which was helpful, such as whose responsibility it is to speak about these things. It was said that it would probably be more effective if we engaged with our local representatives ourselves, rather than have one letter sent from a group of people, not all of whom the Congressperson or Senator represented.
Perhaps the best thing that came from that discussion was questioning why we spent so much time and effort related to these letters in these days when Congressional offices are flooded with thousands of email messages and phone calls. I have also felt these letters were no longer effective, as they were in years past, and spoke during this meeting in support of us stopping this practice.
In 2016 Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) approved a Minute on Racial Justice, which encouraged us to examine how we benefit from white privilege. Feelings ran high at that time. Our committee was asked to revise the minute, but after an intense hour and a half, we could not come up with anything better, and told the Yearly Meeting that when we reconvened. I assumed we would then not approve the Minute. Instead, someone asked to hear the Minute again, and it was approved. I was surprised and uncomfortable with that decision, since there still seemed to be people who were uncomfortable with it.
Quakers in our Yearly Meeting have been struggling with racism and white supremacy for a long time. We are not a very diverse group, historically or now. Closer study of the abolitionist movement has shown fewer Quakers were involved with that work than we might like to think. It is very uncomfortable for white Friends to be told how much they continue to benefit from privilege.
One meeting approved a Minute as a kind of follow up to the 2016 minute that asked us to examine our lives to see where we benefit from privilege now. Early in the discussion of that it became very clear that we continued to cause hurt and harm, unintentionally, because those of us who are white continue to do and say things that display our ignorance of the privileges we have because of our skin color. That led to an excellent suggestion for us to ask for outside help, which we plan to do. We want to do the work on our own knowledge of privilege, so we can then serve the rest of the Yearly Meeting by helping them learn what we are going to learn. We have a vision of our Yearly Meeting eventually understanding white privilege and living in ways that are no longer privileged. We realized we did not understand racism and white privilege well enough to be able to suggest a Minute such as the one proposed, so we did not approve it.
Finally we considered the Minute related to the separation of families at our Southern border. One Friend asked us how we decide when a Minute is needed, and why this Minute? Another Friend berated us, saying “all I hear is should, should, should. Where is the love?” I wondered where is the love for our Peace and Social Concerns Committee?
But getting past the angry tone, the Friend had a good point. We were asked to work some more on the Minute. I wrote something much shorter that we looked at when the Committee reconvened. This is where the Committee was especially helpful. They said the new version was so weak, why bother, and they were absolutely right. They also felt all of the information in the original Minute was important. Someone on the Committee expressed the truth that the Yearly Meeting was considering this at a deeper level than we had, which was hard to hear, but I agreed with.
The following discussion included ideas such as it was Spiritual damage that was being done to the children, their families, and the oppressors. And that the issue is not immigration, but asylum because these people were at grave risk if they stayed where they were.
Although it was rough getting there, thanks to this work a much better Minute resulted. We are not supposed to be sharing these things until we get the approved version from the Yearly Meeting clerk, but these excerpts might give you an idea of the changes.
Original version begins : “In the face of almost universal condemnation at home and abroad, the President has been forced to stop his decision to forcibly remove children from their families at our southern border. Unfortunately, much damage has already been done, to the children and their families, and to our social fabric. The least we can do is work for the immediate reunion of these children with their families. That should include providing transportation back to this country for those who were deported while their children were held in camps here. Mental health services should be provided to those traumatized children…”
The new version begins: “At the root of our faith is the sacredness of relationships among ourselves and between us and God. We have been heartbroken to see those sacred connections broken as children are separated from those who love them. We are so thankful for the efforts of those who are working toward the goal of reuniting every child with their family.
We affirm the right of anyone to seek asylum…”
Committee work can be difficult. But it can also be very meaningful when a group comes together to do this work. I am grateful the Peace and Social Concerns Committee, along with direction from the Yearly Meeting, was able to accomplish what was done this year.