Thursday, 18 February 2016

Volunteering with Kos Solidarity

This months blog post comes from Rachael Swancott Boon who shares this moving account of being led to and volunteering with Kos Solidarity. 

When you are within the Quaker community you are not alone, there is, for want of a better word, an army at your back ready with political activism, shared enthusiasm, big ideas and the strength and will to implement them. My name is Rachael Swancott Boon, I am a Quaker from Chorley meeting in Pendle Area Meeting where I have worshipped my whole life.

I have just spent a stint volunteering on the Greek island of Kos with a local refugee aid organisation there – Kos Solidarity. I was in Kos town in November as well and have found both my trips to be greatly enriching both spiritually and in many other ways, my Greek and my Arabic for example are coming on a treat!

I, like most people became aware of the sheer size of the refugee crisis with the news story about the bodies of Aylan and Galip Kurdi washing up on a Turkish beach. I read an article about how a group of artists had painted images of Aylan, some had depicted him with angel wings, others surrounded by people but the one that stayed with me was a depiction of him in a bed, seemingly asleep, the picture was titled ‘how the story should have ended.’  Aylan and Galip were travelling to Kos. I googled variations on ‘ways to help refugees’ and I typed various key words into the Facebook search bar, which led me to many organisations all of whom advised eager volunteers to sign up with an organisation and not to turn up anywhere unannounced. I then waited for, essentially, some sort of sign. About a week later ‘Kos Solidarity’ posted a request for volunteers on their facebook page, I emailed them and 2 weeks later I was on a plane.

Opening myself up to all these channels of information, regularly checking the  news and social media meant that I had a better understanding of what was needed ‘on the ground’ and could make an educated decision about where my skill sets would be most useful. I knew that I wanted to help because I am able physically and had the time. On the surface of it this felt like a ‘no brainer’ When you look a little deeper, I wanted to help because I have been raised a Quaker and have a strong sense of what I feel is the right thing to do but also I have a strong sense of when I am being pulled or led to do something. I wouldn’t have been moved to do so much research and act so quickly if it wasn’t a leading, and all the pieces wouldn’t have fallen in to place so simply for my travels if others hadn’t recognised that leading within me. Both my trips have been funded predominantly by Quakers, the first time by supporting meetings and individuals and the second time by Ffriends donating to my crowd funding page.

The arrivals in Kos while I was there were sometimes none and sometimes 300 + and they will only increase as the weather gets warmer. The crossing with the right weather and equipment is not a perilous one, one of the reasons it is the chosen route is the relative kindness of the sea. However the death toll continues to rise on a weekly basis. There are few things as stressful as driving up and down a stretch of beach trying to find a wrecked boat that may have survivors. However something that I have seen surprise and confuse new volunteers regularly is the fact that new arrivals are often not obviously traumatised and do not respond well to saccharine sympathy!  It turns out that these refugees are people and respond to a stressful situation in their own individual ways.

Our tragedies and traumas do not define us, the mark us yes, but define us? No.

Tragedy does not strip us of our autonomy, individuality or normality. Shelter, food, sex and sleep are not our basic needs. Familiarity and comfort are basic; anger, music, make up and games are basic.

To help someone mid high stress is an acquired skill, it requires a practiced art.

Try not an approach of saviour
 ‘you poor wretched thing, reach for my hand and be healed for I have that of god in me’.

Try instead
“Would you like a biscuit?”

“Have you heard this song?”

“Here, you can use my hairbrush.”

“Have a cigarette, here...”

 “Would you like to help me sort these clothes?”

And sometimes
“That’s really shit, I’m sorry that happened to you.”

It’s easy to think of refugees as one body and in quite simple terms, 'those poor refugees' or 'those bloody refugees' but actually and of course unsurprisingly, they are just people, some of them are lovely, some are cynical, some beat their wives, some are gay, some are wheeler dealers, some are doctors, some are Muslim, some are Christian and they aren't all grateful but when they are it is lovely. You let them take a selfie with you, you try to make them laugh and you remember their names. People are people, it is what it is.

There is no doubt I will be back here in Kos to continue helping with the good work this wonderful organisation does however I can’t help but feel that there is always more and bigger things to be done. Whether it’s in the news or not this problem isn't going away and with added pressure on Greece to close their borders and the mounting negative attitude to refugees of any sort in Europe I think it’s only going to get bigger. It’s easy to feel small and useless these days but my experience is testament to the fact that even the smallest group of organised people can make a difference! I would encourage anyone who is feeling led to make a small difference, to put their faith in to action, to tell others about what you want to do and to go and do it.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Faith, Power and Peace

Friends - a short holiday from the more traditional theme of this blog as I wanted to share my experiences from some courses related to peace, non violence and militarism.

Last May Diana Francis gave the Swarthmore Lecture, an annual lecture given at the national yearly meeting of Quakers in Britain. She gave it on the theme, Faith, Power and Peace. You can listen to her lecture here.

I sat and listened, and for me it was an experience that I am struggling to find ways to describe – it felt like I was alone in a room and Diana was talking directly to me, I remember it finishing and suddenly becoming aware of this room filled to the edges with Friends.

I feel very blessed to have been able to support Diana Francis and Steve Whiting from Turning the Tide as they put together 3 courses for Woodbrooke building on the themes for the lecture.

  • ·         Violence, Non Violence and the Power to Transform
  • ·         From Militarisation to Peace
  • ·         Speaking up Speaking Out.

There are quite a few upsides to my job, but these three courses and the experience of watching Diana and Steve work together was one I feel very lucky to have had.

Three courses gave us the opportunity to look at the themes in some depth, and to build close relationships among participants; we had some attend all three courses and some attend one or two.
I learnt a lot over these weekends, not just about what we mean by peace and the dynamics of peace and power but I learnt about myself and I learnt about groups and how they work.

One participant commented the preparation for these courses was the lifetime witness of these Friends. This was so evident to me, they shared some of their life and their ministry in peace making with us over these courses. We do have an excellent opportunity at Woodbrooke for Friends to share a little of their passion and love with us and I am full of gratitude.

What will I take away from these courses? What did I learn?

I learnt about the importance of process; of setting ground rules and following them, of managing expectations but allowing for flexibility and to be surprised by something.

I learnt that to look at peace ‘out there’ I must look at peace inside of me; to acknowledge the way I am, the culture I have grown up in, the power dynamics I am used to.

It was a reminder of how little I know about current situations aside from what I hear from mainstream media, and acknowledging this is only one part of the picture.

I kept on coming back to the need to unpick the dominant narrative and to tackling the persistent untruths.

But perhaps the most important message I could take was that these issues I care about, militarism, climate change, economic justice – it’s not enough for me to say I care about them, I need to do something about it. My response won’t be the same as yours, we will all find our own way to speak and act in response to these issues but these experiences of coming together to share, to learn, to listen and to find ways of acting are precious. 

These courses have reawakened my mind to the rising tide of militarism in our society, perhaps for a world that is preparing for a world in which resources are scarce and we feel we need to defend or fight for access. If as Friends, our experience leads us to an understanding that each ‘is unique, precious, a child of God’ then we need to do something.

The next event Woodbrooke is holding on Militarisation is in February 2016 – looking at Militarisation in our schools, in the media and in our community. If you would like to join us, details are here

Monday, 16 November 2015

My part in the pilgrimage to Paris.


'Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.' 
George Fox 1656

This passage from George Fox is one of my favorites in Quaker Faith and Practice.

To walk cheerfully answering that of God in everyone. Well last week I set off with 44 other pilgrims from St Martin in the Field towards Paris. I had planned and prepared to walk for a few days. The first day was through London and into Surrey. We set off after a service and it felt like a celebration.

We passed the Houses of Parliament, crossed the river, and a mile or so down the road were cheered by staff from the Christian Aid offices. Another mile on and perhaps the most touching part of the day was hearing singing as we walked down the road, as we approached, students from a primary school were on the road singing us on our way and playing instruments. They walked down the road with us to their local church where we gathered on the street for a second service.

Walking through London was incredible, one minute you are passing Big Ben, then through estates, parks, past students and commuters on their way home. Some commented, this is modern pilgrimage. It's not about a nice walk in the countryside, this is life - its business parks as well as fields. There is no hiding, you walk through it all.

On the way we stopped at churches for lunch, afternoon break and then for sleep and this was a pattern to be repeated. So many offered so much time and hospitality and it all added to the community and sense of pilgrimage.

As we walked through London, I thought about something I had written in my first blog, that this was an organised pilgrimage because any walk could be a pilgrimage. I now feel that any walk can be but not every walk is, there is something about walking with others for a shared purpose. It is something else.

We woke up the following morning to the news of the attacks in Paris, suddenly Paris wasn't just the final destination or the the location of the climate change talks. Everything changed. It was a rainy day, and one of the longest walks. We set off after short prayers and after expressing sadness and shock, there wasn't much else anyone could say. We were informed that a decision would be made in the next few days about what would happen and how far we would go in terms of the pilgrimage. It was a head down and walk kind of a day.

I am home now, earlier than anticipated because on day 1 I managed to not notice a blister and it had popped before I knew it, I struggled to put my shoe on day 2 and so with tears welling behind my eyes said I had to withdraw. I could sense all those feelings that bubble up inside me, and inside I called myself a failure and then felt guilty for thinking that on such a day.

One of my personal challenges is to think less negatively about myself and not compare my efforts with others. I must do what love requires of me, and in this case love required me to walk and walk I did. Sometimes what love requires of us isn't what we can do or what we want to do, its what we have to do.

The experience will stay with me, although I feel inadequate to find words. A few lasting memories will be the sense of community, the feelings of embodying my witness, a talk on the Pope's Encyclical Laudato Si on the second evening and the sense of comfort and discomfort of following one of those nudges from God.

My plan now is to give my foot some time to heal and then to continue and to do a walk every day of the pilgrimage to be with the group in heart and spirit.

Climate Change connects us all, affects us all. Those meeting at the UN talks need strength and encouragement to make the decisions the world needs and so whatever you do, I urge you to do something. I shall continue to walk, to attend local events and talks and to pray.

My last morning I awoke early, I have never seen a cross appear as if out of nowhere,  but this morning I saw a cross as light came through the drawn curtains. A cross with an extra line as if forming an arrow pointing in.

An arrow pointing inward towards Jesus, maybe it was just early in the morning but this felt like a clear sign. Keep listening, keep doing. The world needs both the comtemplatives and the prophetics amongst us.

To follow the pilgrims, search #pilgrimage2paris on twitter, and here for you tube videos from Operation Noah. 

Thanks to everyone for your love support and encouragement. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Packing and Preparing

I have started to pack as we depart on Friday.

We have been sent a kit list which I have gone through, it doesn't all relate to me, as I won't be going through to Paris so I don't need to pack my passport. I have taken note of the need for waterproofs!

I am not sure if I feel ready, but perhaps that is just the way it goes. Are we ever fully prepared for anything? I have continued with my walking and swimming and I have looked for other kinds of resources to keep me going.

On the Peoples Pilgrimage website I have found some prayers and spiritual statements which I plan on taking with me.

One is from Thich Nhat Hanh

Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth.
Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.
We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth.
Now it is time for us to take good care of her.
We bring peace and calm to the surface of the Earth and share the lesson of love. 
We walk in the spirit.

And so as the butterflys in my stomach heighten I shall depend on these kind of resources, and knowing that there will be people thinking of us all.

I am looking forward to meeting others, to trying something new and to being one small part in the massive preparations ahead of the talks in Paris.

If you would like to hear updates as we walk, I shall endeavour to tweet from @maudward on twitter . I shall also be on instagram under the same name. Otherwise I will write something here on my return.

Please not that...

If you are at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre ahead of and during the Climate Talks in Paris you can write a message of support and encouragement to those meeting and we will send those messages on.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Under 3 weeks to go – Pilgrimage 2 Paris

Last week was what you might call a bad week, I have a condition which can result in fatigue and pain, and last week it reminded me of what it is capable of. I was out for the count, my legs wouldn’t work, my brain was fuzzy, and the slightest movement was riddled with pain, like I said it was a bad week.

Suffice to say I did not do much walking, other than from my bed to the sofa and back to the bed again. Days like that are tough, they are tough physically and they are tough mentally.  I began to doubt if participating in the organised pilgrimage to Paris was the right decision, those doubts stay with me, although I have since got back out there and done a few shorter walks to get myself back in the game.

Yesterday I was speaking to a dear friend, one of those people who just turn up on the exact day you need them and say the words you need to hear. She spoke of going on a pilgrimage recently, one of the many as a part of The People's Pilgrimage. She spoke about the nature of a walk with purpose and the joy she experienced as some joined their pilgrimage for the 2 days they walked and others who joined for a few minutes or a few hours and how that natural ebb and flow to her was as natural as the ebb and flow of our world.  She helped me realise that all I need to do is walk, for however long I am able and so I will. 

I will walk, and I will walk as long as I can.

One of the things I could do last week was peruse the internet looking for bits and pieces to get me in the mood. I read about Friends of the Earth organising trains and accommodation for those going to Paris, I saw articles on the BBC about the negotiations, I caught up on plans for a march in London during the talks and I was drawn to for the love of website where they are asking people to upload an image of what matters to you.

'If you love it, share it' 'Climate Change threatens the things you love about the world. But if you give your heart to speak up for them, you will help to make a difference'

And so during the talks in Paris, we shall have hearts here at Woodbrooke for you to fill in and write a message, we can then uploads images of these to their website. You can also upload your images directly. Let us send a message of strength to be courageous to make the decisions and commitments we need for the future of people and planet.

And so, back to practice practice practice.