Friday, March 30, 2012

The Bible and Domestic Violence

By Valerie Hurwitz

I have been reading the minor prophets of the Old Testament for a class, and part of the reading for this week prophetically fit in with the Peace Forum speaker. From Hosea 2:2-3, 14-15 (New Revised Standard Version):

Plead with your mother, plead — for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband— 
that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts, 

or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst.

Therefore, I will now persuade her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak
tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of

There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,   as at the time when she came out
of the land of Egypt.

This metaphor of God as husband punishing faithless Israel as wife has troubled generations of seminary students and confounded readers of all types. Does this teach us something about the way a husband should treat a wife? Yuck!

Vivian Finnell, founder and CEO of the organization Not 2 Believers Like Us came to Peace Forum on March 8th, 2012 to speak about domestic violence in the faith community. There is the tendency, she says, to think that domestic violence doesn’t happen in faith communities, or isn’t an issue that should be addressed in those communities. Unfortunately, one in three women and one in eight men will report domestic violence during their lifetime. We pay for this violence through both financial loss and lost human potential; through hospital visits, bullying in the schools, and a number of other societal issues.

This violence is taught over the pulpit and through scripture. If clergy are not familiar with domestic violence issues, they can mis-advise their parishioners. At best they might not know where to direct someone to for help, at worst they might tell a wife to “go and submit” or tell a man to “stand up and be a man.”

Vivian advised seminary students going into ministry of any type to educate themselves about the signs of domestic violence and local resources (see, for example, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence). She also suggested that pastors address this issue in sermons, bible studies, and other settings.

We might translate this into unprogrammed Quaker terms by saying that unprogrammed Friends should educate themselves and their meetings about domestic violence.

At the very least, we need to discuss and come to terms with biblical passages such as the one above. Thoughts?

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Peace Doesn’t Have a Culmination

By Valerie Hurwitz

James Taylor came to Peace forum on March 1st, 2012 to speak with us about the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis. The PLC started doing conflict resolution/transformation activities with grades 4-6 in the Indianapolis public schools and has expanded from there. The Help Increase the Peace Program (HIPP) is an AFSC program that began in Syracuse, NY in 1991, and now extends to 19 states. HIPP is described as “An Interactive conflict transformation that empowers participants to reduce violence, strengthen cross-cultural understanding and become agents of social change.” The Peace Learning Center began offering HIPP as a program and used Americorps fellows to give the workshops. As Americorps and Title I funding has been cut in the past few years, HIPP and the Peace Learning Center have fewer funds. James, after finishing his Americorps term, continued volunteering for the PLC despite the lack of funds because he believes this is important and essential work.

The most interesting part of James’ time with us was what he told us about his work in the Girl’s School and Boy’s School, the juvenile detention centers. James explained that Indiana is under federal investigation for how it runs its juvenile detention centers. James describes them by saying, “Prisons aren’t set up to do anything positive.” For those who will argue that juvenile detention centers are different than regular prisons, James would point out that the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility (for boys) is in a maximum security facility.

James says that what the children in these facilities want most is continuity. HIPP encourages them to practice critical thinking in every part of their lives. James firmly believes that conflict transformation programs in juvenile corrections facilities and prisons need to encompass both staff and residents. He illustrated the problem for us by saying, “If a kid goes through our program and then says calmly to a guard ‘I feel bad when you call me a b____ because it hurts my feelings.’ there is a good chance that child will be written up for insubordination.”
James is a longtime Quaker and sees this as part of the ongoing Quaker work towards Peace. Perhaps his visit is a reminder that Friends cannot rest on their history but rather must move forward and consider all of the forms their commitment to peace, simplicity, equality, and other testimonies apply to today.

Two other blog posts come to mind that connect here. The first is Noah Baker Merrill’s question about where God is working in the RSOF and where new life is breaking through. The second is Jordan Blevin’s comment at Peace Forum a fewweeks ago about what our budgets tell us about our values. On the other hand, why should we depend on the federal government to fund these kinds of opportunities? (Maybe there’s a little bit of a libertarian in me, which I’m sure Matt Hisrich would be glad to know.) Projects like Quaker Voluntary Service can help fill that gap.

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Translating between American and African Contexts

By Valerie Hurwitz

Pentecostal Church in Ghana
What does it mean to do ministry in Africa? Are western educational and religious materials appropriate for an African context? How can people of faith in the US empower their denominational brothers and sisters in Africa to be leaders and to re-interpret the Christian stories and the work God is doing in this world in that setting? We have looked at these questions from a Quaker standpoint (see, for example, past blog posts). This is, however, not a question unique among Friends. ESR student Brent Walsh returned in late January from a month spent in South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana, and spoke to us on Tuesday, March 6th about his experience there.

Before I tell you about Brent’s thoughts on Christianity in Africa, I want to mention two organizations he visited. In South Africa he and his wife Julie went to Rehoboth Children’s Village, which cares for children who have HIV/AIDS. The children live in houses, with a house mother, and attend school within the village. Brent sent me a wonderful picture of the cartoon images that the teachers use to educate the children about what HIV medication does in their bodies. In Kenya, Brent and Julie visited a child they have been sponsoring through ChildFund International, Mary Mwende. They visited the school ChildFund runs in the Mukuru slums and saw some of the projects to provide clean water and other necessities to the children there. Brent would want me to mention that both are doing wonderful work and (as with every non-profit) are always looking for donations.

In Kenya and South Africa Brent visited churches that are part of the Metropolitan Community Churches. He defined their greatest needs as leadership training and non-westernized resources. Brent comically described the first issue by saying, “In the US you have to get a Master of Divinity degree and go through this whole process to become a pastor. There they just say, ‘oh, there’s a church that needs a pastor. Anyone want to be the pastor? Anyone? Would you like to be the pastor? Oh, OK! Problem solved!’” Additionally, although there is a push to translate GLBT resources like The Children Are Free (which discusses biblical passage related to same-sex relationships) into Swahili, this plays into the concept of homosexuality as a western problem. Brent explained further in an email to me later:
“Homosexuality is seen in Kenya as a western problem that has bled over into their country. So when a western book defending homosexuality is offered to people there, it means nothing to them. It doesn't change anything in their minds about God's view on homosexuality. ‘Of course people in the west are going to defend their abominable behavior and then try to spread those lies in Kenya.’ But if the book was changed to introduce African characters in African cities/towns, and if the book was reviewed by reputable African allies, it would mean that homosexuality is not just a western concept.”

Brent and Julie bring Mary Mwende a gift
Brent spoke to an organization called Other Sheep, which does transgender education and advocacy in Kenya. They also visited a church that ministers to sex workers in Nairobi, People of Substance MCC, which does not intend to get sex workers out of their industry, but to bring God into it and to encourage these women to find alternate means of making a living. (“Do they talk about Rahab?” was Nancy Bowen’s first question.)

Finally, Brent and Julie spent two weeks in Ghana at a cultural arts program run by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. There, Brent told us, he discovered that he is “not a dancer.” Instead, he spent his time weaving baskets and speaking with Ghanaians about their religious beliefs. Brent visited a shrine and learned about the five gods in Ewe Brekete, a local religion. Brent also visited a Pentecostal church and learned about how Christians in Ghana view their non-Christian neighbors. Brent told me about this visit:

“ . . . during an interview with an elder in the church, I discovered that their African context makes Christianity look much different than mine. I live in a society where the commandment against worshipping  other gods means things like money, power, work, or sex. To them, other gods take the form of actual fetish idols – gods that are carried around in positions of honor for all to see and bow down to. The Christians in Kopeyia read the Bible much differently than I do.

"I asked the church elder how much interaction they have with people of the Brekete shrine. Does religion come between Christians and non-Christians? His initial response was that people respect each others’ religions, but digging a little deeper in the conversation, it was clear that fear was the foundation upon which their relationships were built. I was warned not to have a meal with anyone who practices the Brekete religion. After all, you don’t know whether the meat they serve you had been first offered to Kunde or Bangle or any other of the fetish gods.

“'What would happen,’ I asked, ‘if I knew that the meat had been offered to the idols, but I was hungry and it smelled good? What if I decided to take the meat anyway? Would there be any repercussions with God or the church?’ The elder looked at me solemnly, hesitating for a moment. I wondered if my question had offended him. Was it too disrespectful to insinuate that I might willingly eat food offered to idols?

“‘You will be on your own then,’ the elder finally said. ‘God will not protect you.’ I was curious at this statement. He explained that when a person is right with God, if they get into a car accident or if a scorpion stings them, God will protect them from harm. But if a person willingly eats meat offered to other gods, God will turn His back on them until that person repents and asks for deliverance from the evil spirits that entered their body with the meat.”

Julie and Mary Mwende in a slum outside Nairobi
Brent is a wonderful writer, and you can read more of his work at his blog and at Be Still and Know, the daily devotional published on the Life Journey MCC website.

I believe that Brent’s experience with MCC congregations can teach Friends something about working with African Quaker meetings. As Nancy Bowen would say, “Context is Everything.”

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Evolving in My Faith

By Anna Woofenden

The highlight of experience of the 2012 Spirituality Gathering started when Professor Carole Spencer asked if a few of us who had taken Carrie Newcomer’s songwriting class might read Phil Gulley’s talk prior to the event and respond with a creative piece to be used in the closing. I received the talk just before getting on an airplane, where I gobbled up the whole piece, scrawling over the PDF with the iPad highlighter, staring and circling phrases and jotting down ideas. As I read I observed reading on two levels, I was reading looking for a song, highlighting phrases and themes as they emerged, and I was reading as a theologian and a human, fascinated by his approach to the topic of The Evolution of Faith.

Over the next week I read through the talk a number of times, jotting down themes and images, choice phrases and turns of speech. I kept reading words that connected to places inside me that are questioning, wondering, searching and looking for articulation. Gulley’s talk is excerpted from his new book “The Evolution of Faith: How God is Creating a Better Christian Community.” He gives an overview of his theology and theory on how faith can move forward or diminish and posits the idea that in order thrive in our current spiritual environments, a continual evolution is necessary. Gulley points to the recurring theme in theological education to “teach us what others thought about God in the past… but often fails to teach us what we must know now—how we can evolve in order to thrive in our current spiritual environment” (Philip Gulley, “Evolution of Faith”, ESR Spirituality Gathering 2012).

As a current seminary student, soaking up layers of church history, history of theological thought, and the wisdom of ancient mystics, my ears caught this with a question mark. As an entrepreneurial spirit, an emergent/progressive oriented Christian and someone with a calling to church planting and new models of spiritual community, I knew I needed to engage in the questions posed. It supported themes that I have been noticing as I sift through church and spiritual histories: theology needs to be questioned, examined, prayerfully sought and applied to our current contexts. In my experience this is not necessarily a call to abandon the study of what has come before, rather a call to learn what the questions are that need to be asked. It is a call to learn from the processes our ancestors have worked through over the centuries, to look back over history not with the intention to find the authoritative answers, rather to spur on our current questions. It is a call to have the courage to open up space for theological discourse of how God is speaking in this time and context.

The call to listen and seek God’s call for each of us in this time and for the church in our current contexts is the message that kept ringing out in me each time I read through the talk. I began to hear the clues about the questions that are bubbling up and urging to be asked and signposts pointing to the practices of attentiveness and presence that are being called out to do this work. These messages rang through words like:

“What if every person received a full measure of our attention?”

“One of the most compelling traits of Jesus was his attentiveness.”

“For what is prayer, but our attentiveness to the Divine Presence…”

“Holy observance.”

“…root of prayer is attentiveness to the Creator and Created.”

“Faith and theology—our understanding of God—is always in process, is always changing, is always being affected and influenced by our culture.”

“…truth is never solely in the past. Truth is also ahead of us, in front of us.”

“We reach truth by evolving toward it.”

It is these threads that came together in me and through me as the words and ideas continued to flow. And it was these threads that the Spirit moved in and through to create a prayer for this day, a creative expression of the evolutionary process of faith.

“This is Our Prayer”

Music and lyrics by Anna Woofenden and H. Wayne Williams © 2012

What if every person received
all we have to offer,
our maximum attention,
and freedom unceasingly?

What if we could listen deeply
without expectations,
seeing Light in one another,
with gracious humility?

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
to hear each other.

What if Truth would grow and proceed,
questioning and doubting,
moving remnants forward,
and set the Gospel free?

What if we could just let God be
open and evolving,
above us and before us,
and in us creatively?

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart to hold each other.

What if prayer was living in peace,
in love with our Creator,
observing not dividing,
that grace would be increased?

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
to heal each other.

This is our prayer
for one another:
A holy heart
of gold!

Inspired by Philip Gulley’s message: “The Evolution of Faith” Earlham School of Religion 3.3.2012

Anna Woofenden is a MDiv student at Earlham School of Religion and the Swedenborgian House of studies. She blogs at 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Voluntary Service Among Friends

By Valerie Hurwitz

Noah Baker Merrill, a Friend from Putney Monthly Meeting (New England YM), came to ESR last week and spoke with us at Common Meal. Ostensibly here to speak about the Quaker Voluntary Service program starting in Atlanta this fall, Noah shared that he had been invited to give a prepared message at the FWCC gathering in Kenya next month. He asked what he might say to Friends there and shared the outline of his message as it was taking form within him right now.

Noah spoke of “triangulating on God” as he traveled. Whether visiting Cuba YM, a small unprogrammed worship group in Oregon, or in his home meeting in New England, Noah looks for where God is at work. These are the areas where this is growth, new opportunity, and good news. Noah quoted Bill Taber as saying “we have lost a shared vocabulary for the inner landscape.” For unprogrammed Friends, this means talking about what is going on in the silence of unprogrammed worship. There are three “motions” Noah sees in healthy meetings. He terms them “the motion of prophets”, “the motion of midwives”, and “the motion of thieves.”

The first (prophets) is the ability of people in the meeting to point to the newness of God in that moment, to rediscover the law, and to re-interpret stories for today. The second is that of midwives, those who ask themselves “what does the body need to come fully into life?” Rather than getting stuck in the postmodern idea of distinct and individual journeys, the midwives in our midst understand that a religious/spiritual community is mutual responsible for each other’s liberation. Finally, the motion of thieves points to the need for humility and the understanding that we inherit a tradition from those who went before us. While Noah did not phrase it quite like this, I would point to these three motions as needed for a vital and healthy monthly meeting, yearly meeting, or other organization with a spiritual element to its mission. Meetings that lack one of these elements struggle as a result.

A hushed feeling of worship crept over the group as Noah spoke and when he finally asked us where we saw new life in the Religious Society of Friends, I did not hear a direct answer to his question. There was a feeling of blessing and a scattered vocal response. I have been wondering to myself why exactly that is for the past week. It’s been a busy week (we had 10 prospective students here on Friday and spent half an hour in the basement during the tornado warning, and there were 90+ people here for the Spirituality Gathering on Saturday). ESR was created as a place to give Friends training for ministry and to allow space for Friends from different traditions to meet and “triangulate on God” (among other things). Many of our students come here hoping and planning, or already being, a source of new life in the Religious Society of Friends and wider world.

Although I don’t know that folks here would describe it in the same way, the motions of prophets, midwives, and thieves, the actions that Noah described (re-interpreting stories for today, eldering the meeting, and humbly acknowledging our debts to those who came before us) are familiar to Friends here, and to non-Friends. So, here’s Noah’s question passed on to all of you: Where do you see God at work in the Religious Society of Friends and where is there new life breaking through?

P.S. We shouldn’t neglect Quaker Voluntary Service, which is launching its first service house in Atlanta this summer! Noah spoke of this project as a sign of “new life” within Quakerism and part of a process of reclaiming and making current the Quaker tradition of service. The Board also decided to emphasize the importance of the example of Jesus, which was controversial among some Friends.

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.