Peace Conference Update-Wednesday: “I Don’t Know”

The conference speaker Wednesday night was a welcome improvement. Alexie Torres Fleming’s story is easy to summarize: born and raised poor in the south Bronx, she escaped from a collapsing neighborhood into middle class respectability, but then was drawn back to live and work in her home turf. She now operates a youth program.

Torres Fleming spoke well, and made two comments that stick in my memory. The first was about her program, which was that through it she is not seeking to “save” the young people in her still very problematic area, as much as to be saved by them.

The second comment came in response to a written question. It said, in sum, You were raised in the South Bronx and returned there to respond to God’s call. Most of us (in the audience) are of middle class origin, and have no such oppressed home area to return to. What are WE supposed to do?”

Torres Fleming gave exactly the right answer to this, which was: “I don’t know.” That is, it’s up to the questioner and others (plus God) to figure out their own call and respond faithfully.

This was the right answer, not only because it was correct, but also because it displayed a welcome modesty. She did not rise to the bait of telling us we must do this and must do that. This is so easy for someone in control of the microphone to fall into, especially in a religious setting, and especially when someone with certified ”oppressed” credentials faces a “privileged” audience. I admire her for having the humility and integrity to refuse this rhetorical pose.

The answer also resonated with a conversation from earlier in the day, with someone on the Epistle Committee, whose first draft is to be read initially on Thursday, then finalized on Friday.

Quaker readers will know that Epistles are generally summary documents, traditionally used as a means of communicating with sister Quaker communities. Their format usually runs something like, “To Friends Everywhere, we met on X dates, worshiped and heard various speakers, did this and that, conducted our business, and hope to meet again next time, as way opens, and God(or Christ)’s Love to You All.” More or less.

However, the person I spoke with was not a Quaker, and his hopes for the document were quite different. He wanted to see something like a manifesto emerge, a ringing declaration which would catch the attention of the media and the outside world.

I’m afraid I did not encourage him in what to me is a very naive notion. For one thing, the idea that the media gives a hoot what 300 or so church people do in a series of wordy meetings in busy downtown Philadelphia is a pipe dream. And ditto in spades for the world beyond that, and especially those holding worldly power.

Yet some older Quakers and others still cling to mouldering memories of the days when the AFSC’s Clarence Pickett was reputed to be a confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt; and when senators and supreme court justices (and Martin Luther King) could be coaxed into appearing at the FGC conferences in Cape May New Jersey.

The good old days, when the mighty of the world seemed to be concerned with What The Quakers Think about Things.

Well, I’m here to tell thee that those days (which I think are rosier in retrospect than in reality), are gone, long gone. The minutes that meetings struggle over so agonizingly, telling Congress to do this and the president to stop doing that, are of interest mainly to historians in generations to come. It may still be considered gauche to say this out loud, but nobody in Washington pays them any mind.

In any case, there is no time on the schedule for much agonizing: 15 minutes is allotted for each reading. This fits: as there has been no open discussion in any plenary thus far, why should that be expected to change now?

But it’s just as well. To bring forward the draft of The Great Arch Street Declaration On Peace of 2009 would pull the stopper out of froth of bottled up desire to comment, not to mention the standard Buy endep online Quaker practice of wordsmithing such texts. If such is attempted, the outcome is likely to be most lamentable.

Besides which, what could this conference possibly say that would have worldly news value – that we believe Jesus preferred peace to war? FRONT-PAGE headlines! Or further, that we agree with him? STOP the presses!

If there is any media response to the conference, I predict it will be tiny and token. So I hope the Epistle Committee will dial back their aspirations and not lose sleep over their task.

For that matter, the Epistle as of Wednesday could be very brief, not much more than “they talked, we listened.” We were told Wednesday night that this will change on Thursday, that those in charge will graciously open some space to hear what attenders are concerned about.

That’s awfully good of them, and perhaps it is about time. Some here may have needed all the hours of pietistic praise services; this Friend did not. It was more of a reminder than I sought as to why my last four-plus decades have been spent in the silence-based Quaker stream; that other stuff is not my cup of tea.

Moreover, this Friend’s wish is that among the planners there had been more of the spirit of Alexie Torres Fleming’s second answer, about what we should do: “I don’t know.” Perhaps then they would have allowed us get down to the business of finding, sharing and refining our own answers sooner, and in more depth.

Fortunately there are other consolations, which we can venture into in another post.

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