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PATH Actions, the Columbia Festival of the Arts, Christmas and Easter: Do Events Build Community?

I attended two fascinating events this week:  an "action" with 650 people organized by PATH (People Acting Together for Howard) and a conversation with 20 people organized by Leadership Howard County.  The PATH event featured all the candidates for the up-coming election for County Executive and School Board and the Leadership event featured Todd Olson, the new Director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.  

This morning, I started musing about how these two gatherings spoke to a question that is often discussed among pastors:  What is the function of big events?  Do they help build community?  Do they strengthen the organization that puts on the event?  Or do they actually weaken the organization by using up resources (time, energy, money) without acheiving any particular outcome?

Churches have a tendency to become event factories.  We are always looking to attract new people to our communities and one of our go-to methods for doing this is to produce an event that will gather a crowd.  Fall festivals, Christmas concerts, paint ball parties for kids, lectures by authors, you name it, we've done it, all for the purpose of gathering a crowd.  Worship services for Christmas and Easter are often essentially the same thing--an event that is staged for the purpose of attracting a bunch of people.  We constantly measure the success of these events by counting how many people came.  

The Columbia Festival for the Arts seems to use the same metric.  The stated mission of the Festival is to "to present a world class celebration of the arts and entertainment that attracts, engages and inspires the broad and diverse community it serves."  Their purpose, in short, is to put on an event that gathers a crowd who wants to come back next year.  The Festival has been running since 1989 and, according to the conversation at the Leadership event, it has lost some steam in recent years.  What are the signs of that?  The events haven't been as well attended.  So, they created a strategic plan, hired a new director and have lots of new ideas for how to re-energize the festival.

It seems to me that the Festival, along with most churches I know, should take a lesson from PATH, and not just because that organization was able to pack full the sanctuary of one of the largest churches in the county.  PATH, like churches and arts festivals, knows that big gatherings are energizing.  It is exciting to be in a standing-room only crowd that is cheering and applauding.  But for PATH, big events are never an end to themselves.  The events are the result of a series of conversations and they lead to another series of conversations, and these conversations are what build the organization--and the community--long-term.

PATH is "a multi-racial, multi-faith, strictly non-partisan, County-wide citizens’ organization, rooted in local congregations and associations" that has been active in Howard County since 2004.  They are affiliated with the IAF, the Industrial Areas Foundation which is the largest community organizing network in the country.  The Kittamaqundi Community has never joined PATH (unfortunately, in my opinion) but I have participated in a number of PATH events through my affiliation with Columbia United Christian Church which is a member.  My involved with IAF organizations began when I was in graduate school in Boston and their model of community organizing shaped my understanding of ministry from the beginning.

In a nutshell, PATH is built on one-on-one relationships.  Participants are trained from the very beginning to have short, focused conversations with people they may not know about the community issues which are most important to them.  In advance of this week's action, PATH members held over 1,000 of these conversations throughout the county.  The one-on-one conversations guide leaders as they select the issues they will work on.  Those issues, and specific steps that will address those issues, then become the focus of the large event.  Candidates were asked how they might support PATH in achieving these goals.  In other words, the event focused on the organization and its goals, not the candidates and their goals.

The one-on-one conversations are also the key to the large crowds.  Leaders are held accountable for "turn out"--they pledge in advance to bring a certain number of people to the event and they report at the event as to whether or not they achieved their goal.  This motivates leaders to personally contact everyone they know and ask them to come to the event with them.  It is an incredibly effective way to gather a crowd.

PATH is advocating for change to address issues of concern to its members.  It knows that candidates and elected officials will take them much more seriously if they can gather an enormous crowd for an event like the once which took place this week.  But PATH's work doesn't end with the large event.  The big crowd is a means to an end--not an end to itself.

So PATH hands out cards to every person in attendance inviting them to participate in two trainings held within a couple of weeks of the large event.  These trainings will teach people how PATH works and, most importantly, how each person can initiate the one-on-one conversations that are the basis for the organization.  PATH is built on relationships, not on events.  The relationships enable them to hold massive events and the events help to make change, but everything begins and ends in relationship.

Churches could learn a lot from the IAF model and over the years I've thought a lot about how they could and why they often don't.  There's much to say about this, but one of the most basic problems is that churches start to think that well-attended events are the goal.  They don't connect these events to the on-going life of the congregation in large part because there isn't much else going on.  They don't value relationships and so they cannot enable real growth or change in themselves or anyone else.  

What about the Columbia Festival of the Arts?  What if that organization took a lesson from PATH?  This question may sound strange since the stated aim of the Festival is to put on a great Festival, not to make social change.  But the Festival used to have higher aims.  According to its website, back when it was founded in 1987, its mission was to produce an “annual arts event that builds the spirit of community.”  Perhaps that language was too vague to make it through the strategic planning process?  The idea is worth preserving, however.  The events of the Festival should not be seen as ends to themselves.  They should be designed to build our community, which is to say, to build relationships.

At the Leadership conversation this past week, I could see the beginnings of movement in this direction.  Todd Olson has been in his position only since August 1st but the main thing he has been doing since arriving is building relationships with the leadership of other arts organizations in the county.  He is working on building his Board of Directors and adding additional advisory boards to the organization.  He had in mind a young adult advisory board but seemed open to building other groups which might connect the Festival with, for example, the Korean or Hispanic communities in the county.  These relationships could help a wider range of people feel like they had a stake in the Festival--and that leads people to bring their network to events.

But what about follow-up?  Olson and his board members have been thinking about this too.  They want to increase the amount of "engagement" at Festival events--not just watching the show, but staying for a discussion with the filmmaker or the actors after the event.  That's a step in the right direction, but what if everyone who attended an event was invited to participate in planning the following year's Festival?

This may all sound preposterous.  Arts administrators are not community organizers after all and neither are pastors.  But I have a feeling that if we really took seriously the transforming power of art--or of faith--we would stop focusing on holding well-attended events and spend a lot more time building relationships.

Complexity Is Common: Reflections On Being Both, Part 1

I have been wanting to write a bit on this blog about Susan Katz Miller's book, "Being Both:  Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family".  Sue is a friend and I was one of the many, many people interviewed as part of her research on interfaith families and the communities which support them.  The book has just come out in paperback and Sue has a number of events in the Washington D.C./Baltimore area coming up.  

Sue's book is in large part an encouraging and practical guide for families who want to raise their children in more than one religious tradition.  But the book more than a manual--it offers a fascinating and truthful picture of the world as it is.  Anyone who is interested in questions about how we figure out who we are and where we belong will find it fascinating.  Sue bravely declares what many people already know to be true:  identity is not monolithic.  We are not all completely one thing or another thing. 

Last Thursday, NPR ran a short piece called "Interfaith Chaplains Revitalize an Old Role on College Campuses".  The focus was on the changing face of college chaplaincy, but what caught my attention was the changing shape of religious identity in America.  Here's how the reporter described the students at a gathering at UCLA:

PARSONS: This is USC's interfaith council. This evening, there are Muslim students, Catholics, a Sikh, an agnostic and a few that are hard to pin down.

JOSEPH ROSS: I do a Bible study pretty consistently every year with the Navigators, which is an Evangelical Christian group on campus.

PARSONS: Joseph Ross is a junior from El Segundo.

ROSS: I have also done a Torah study my freshman year. I do atheist club and I've done a Muslim halaqa, which is kind of a teaching. It was a...

PARSONS: Ross is a religion major and - while you might not guess it - a lifelong Methodist. USC Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, says this complexity is common.

VARUN SONI: Some just come up with these hybridized identities - I'm a Zen Christian, I'm sushi. I was like, what's sushi? Oh, my mom is Sunni and my father is Shia, so I'm sushi. I'm a Hin-Jew, I'm a Jew-Bu.

These are the facts on the ground.  This is the world as it is.  And in my experience, it is just a clearer (and cuter) description of how the world has been for a long time.

Case in point:  More than 20 years ago, during my last year in Divinity School, I participated in an interfaith dialogue program called "Seminarians Interacting" run by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (now called the National Conference for Community and Justice).  The program brought together rabbinical students from the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries and Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox, Evangelical and "Ecumenical" (their term for people like me) Christian seminarians.  We spent four weekends together, traveling to different seminaries, worshiping in each other's traditions and engaging in dialogue.  

At the outset of the program, we were given very clear instructions.  Each of us was to stand within our own tradition and engage with others recognizing and honoring where they stood.  They demonstrated this physically by drawing separate circles on the floor and having us each stand inside the boundaries of that group's circle.  They wanted to be clear that none of us were there to convert other people to our religious path.  In order to feel like we could safely engage in dialogue with each other, the leaders felt that we each needed to have clear boundaries around our identity.

As the year of dialogue progressed, I began to realize that the facts on the ground didn't quite match up to the instructions we were given.  There were some participants who had grown up in their current religion and had never ventured outside of the boundaries of that identity.  But for at least half of the people I got to know through that program, their identity was a little more complex.  

One Jewish seminarian had converted from Christianity.  One Christian seminarian had almost converted to Judaism but decided she could go through with her decision as she stood at the edge of the mikvah.  Several of the participants were children of interfaith marriages.  Several had been in serious romantic relationships with people of other faiths.  And then there was me, recently married to a Jewish man.  At the beginning of the program, I was worried I would be "found out" and made to feel uncomfortable.  By the end of the program, I felt right at home.

Religious communities--like any human group--create a sense of identity by defining boundaries.  Who is in?  Who is out?  Who is "us" and who is "them"?  I recognize that groups do this not to be mean or because they love to exclude people, but because they want to establish a sense of group identity which can be a very helpful thing.  

But the other fact of life is that people rarely line up the way we want them to.  Some people fit clearly into categories but many others do not.  As the reporter put it, complexity is common.


When I think now of that first session of Seminarians Interaction, I have to laugh.  We each stood inside our own circle and spoke to each other from that position.  But in reality, most of our interaction with each other looks like a game of Twister.  We have a foot on one circle and another foot on another circle.  We reaching across to get at least part of our hand into another circle.  In the process we end up bumping into each other, holding each other up, pushing each other around and occasionally holding hands.

More tomorrow....

Ebola and Rabbi Barry Freundel: Sealing the Borders Won't Keep Us Safe

Has anyone else been struck by the connection between two stories which have dominated the headlines of the Washington Post over the past week?

We've been hearing about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa for months now, but last week news came out of a second nurse who had been infected with the virus while treated the man who eventually died of Ebola in Dallas.  This nurse had traveled on an airplane while she had a fever and the Center for Disease Control was scrambling to contact every other passenger on that plane to warn them of their risk of exposure.  

This story seems to have heightened the calls to close the U.S. borders or at least to block entrance to the U.S. by citizens of the three most affected countries.  Despite strong responses from the CDC, the World Health Organization and the U.N. that a travel ban would be counter-productive in the fight against Ebola, Republican candidates and elected officials continue to demand it.  It isn't surprising since many of these people have been fixated on border security as a solution to most of this country's problems for years.

And then there is the story of Rabbi Barry Freundel, the long-time leader of the modern Orthodox congregation in Georgetown, Kesher Israel.  Freundel is accused of videotaping women in the mikvah, the ritual bath which is used as part of the conversion process (among other reasons).  As more of the story comes out, it is clear that this is not just a story of a man with a taste for voyeurism.  This is also a story about border crossings.  

The Post reported this morning that there have been complaints by women against Freundel in the past, charging that he abused his power during the conversion process.  Part of the reason why he has been able to get away with such behavior is that he wields enormous power over those seeking to convert.  Much of the conversion process proceeds at the discretion of the rabbi.  And Freundel, apparently, was much in demand as a supervisor of conversions because he had advocated with Orthodox rabbis in Israel that these conversions be recognized as legitimate.  Many Jewish conversions in the United States would not be recognized in Israel--something that has repercussions not only for a woman who is converting but also for her children.

In both stories, there is a great deal of focus on borders.  In both stories, this focus means that attention has been diverted from what the real problem is.  In both stories, people believe that a carefully regulated border is the source of safety and in both stories it turns out they were wrong.

The more I've thought about this today, the more connections I've seen.  Consider the objections the CDC and others have made to closing the U.S. borders to those coming from Ebola-affected countries.  These include:

  • Isolation is a practical impossibility.  People will get in anyways--just by means and paths which are harder to track than direct airline flights.
  • Isolation makes it harder for a group to receive help from the outside.  A travel ban will reduce the number of commercial flights to affected countries which will make it harder to bring in supplies and those who want to help.
  • Isolation makes groups less likely to cooperate with measures that would benefit everyone.  To quote the Tom Frieden, the Director of the CDC, "Isolating communities also increases people’s distrust of government, making them less likely to co-operate to help stop the spread of Ebola."

All of these objections, it seems to me, pertain to religious groups who become obsessed with regulating the boundary between who is inside the community and who is outside.  

  • Isolation is a practical impossibility.  Religious leaders can declare that membership in a group requires certain beliefs, practices, rituals or the approval of certain leaders.  In my experience, the actual members of the community represent a much wider range of beliefs and practices than the leaders declare.  It is impossible to keep ideas from spreading and it is impossible to keep your congregation from trying out new things, losing interest in other things and generally evolving as people.  It is no longer practical to enforce a religious border that clearly defines who is in and who is out of a community.
  • Isolation makes it harder for a group to receive help from the outside.  Relgious communities in our country today need all the help they can get.  When churches declare that they are only going to patronize Christian-owned businesses (as some do) they quickly run into situations which require them to make an exception to their rule.  When a community's boundaries are more permeable, they benefit from the cultural contributions, ideas and practices of the world around them.
  • Isolation makes groups less likely to cooperate with measures that would benefit everyone.  The Kittamaqundi Community, like many communities modeled on Church of the Savior, used to have very strict entrance requirements.  Prospective members were required to take a series of classes which took more than a year to complete.  Eventually, the church eased up on these requirements in large part because the majority of people involved with the church were refusing to become members.  There was "distrust of government" just as the CDC predicted.  I'm curious if something similar will happen in the modern Orthodox community now.  Will the community demand a change in the conversion process which lessens the power individual rabbis have over those seeking to convert?  Will the wider community reclaim the conversion process and demand a more open, permeable border?  Doubtful...but who knows?

The moral of both stories is clear.  Every community--religous, national or otherwise--should know by now:  sealing the borders won't keep us safe.

The Plight of D.C.'s Homeless Families Is a Warning to Howard County


Rubbernecking is hard to avoid.  We hate sitting in traffic only to discover that the reason for the slowdown is an accident that occurred on the other side of the highway.  But at the same time, we can't help but look ourselves.  How bad was it?  We speed back up again, energized with relief that we weren't in the accident.  The danger comes, of course, when we are so distracted by someone else's accident that we rear-end the person ahead of us.  Yes, I admit, I've done that.

And now, I'm doing it again.

I've been following with interest the on-going debate about what will happen to Washington D.C.'s family shelter, a 300-bed facility in the former D.C. General Hospital.  This shelter was filled to capacity last winter and the city began housing families in gymnasiums and other spaces around the city until a judge ruled that these conditions were inhumane.  Then, at the beginning of March, eight-year-old Relisha Rudd was abducted by a janitor who worked at the shelter--and presumably killed, although her body has never been found.

Clearly, something must change, right?  Every mayoral candidate admits that things cannot continue as they are.  On Tuesday, current Mayor Vincent Gray announced a plan to close D.C. General and to shift families towards 6 new 50-family facilities located throughout the city.  Advocates agree in general that smaller shelters are more manageable and hospitable, but immediately questioned whether there actually are buildings in the city that landlords would be willing to lease for this purpose.  There is no plan for where to obtain the estimated $18 million dollars more it would cost to lease these buildings.  Clearly, this isn't really a plan.  It's a wish.

As if that's not enough to get you to stop and stare, an estimated 850 families will be homeless in D.C. this winter, a 14% increase over last year.  And 40 rooms in D.C. General have now been condemned.  And no funds have been allocated for emergency hotel rooms for families once the shelter is at capacity.  

Before those of us who live in Howard County drive by the crisis in D.C., feeling grateful we don't have to face such problems, let's pause and remember the source of the problem.  There are more and more homeless people in D.C. because there is less and less affordable housing.  The numbers are startling:  over the past decade, D.C. has lost half of its affordable rental units.  There are some ugly stories about how this happens, but the bottom line is that as the city begins to boom, landlords realize they can make more money so they kick the poor people out.

And when poor people lose affordable housing, many of them become homeless.  Reducing affordable housing increases homelessness.

This is obvious, right?  And the situation in D.C. is clear evidence in case anyone needs proof.  And yet, in Howard County there seem to be two conversations going on simultaneously.  The County has approved a Plan to End Homelessness.  The Plan was developed by a team of people from the government, social service agencies, the faith community and the private sector and received massive public support.  Courtney Watson has made ending homelessness in the County one of the key issues of her campaign for County Executive.

And yet, the Oakland Mills Village Board and their supporters on the Oakland Mills Revitalization Task Force are dreaming and scheming about ways to reduce the amount of affordable housing around our Village Center.  They are hoping Oakland Mills goes the way of D.C.  As the Downtown Columbia grows, the older neighborhoods nearby will become more desirable--and more expensive.  

These two conversations need to connect.  We cannot reduce the amount of affordable housing in every neighborhood and while eliminating homelessness in the County.  If we really are going to eliminate homelessness (and we absolutely can and should) while redeveloping older neighborhoods, then we are going to need a county-wide Plan to Preserve and Create Affordable Housing.  Soon.

Who's Not Here?


I’m a big fan of the NPR show “On Being” (formerly, “Speaking of Faith”) hosted by Krista Tippet.  I listened to the podcast of the most recent show while running yesterday morning and an exchange towards the end of the interview has been on my mind ever since.  The interview was with Michel Martin, the host of the recently cancelled NPR show “Tell Me More”.  As the conversation focused on the vision Michel Martin had for that show, she said this:

MS. MARTIN: You want to know about my real charge to people is? My real charge to people is look around and see who’s missing. And try to invite that person.

MS. TIPPETT: In any given moment...

MS. MARTIN: In any...

MS. TIPPETT: any given situation.

MS. MARTIN: Look around. Who’s not here? Who’s not here? Who’s not here?


I’ve by writing a lot about community these days.  In fact, since I’m on sabbatical, writing about community is my full-time job.  It is great to have the time and the space to step back and reflect on some big picture questions including, “How do we hold both our need for safety and our need to risk in community with each other?” and “How do we come together to create a sense of shared identity without relying on exclusion of the Other?”  

But after some hours immersed in the Big Questions, I find myself coming up for air and asking, “What practices can we embrace right now that will help us develop healthy communities?”  In the end, I’m not really a philosopher—I’m a pastor, which means that the only ideas that matter are the ideas that can be applied to my life.  Starting now.

So what are the practices that create community?  I’m working on a list, and I would welcome suggestions.  But I’m sure that one key practice is the one Michel Martin calls her “real charge to people”:  Ask, who’s not here?  And try to invite that person.

This question has lurked around the edges of a number of groups I’ve been involved with.  When I first got involved with Emergent Village, a group that attempted to foster conversation among “emerging leaders” in the Christian church, I was struck by how few women were involved in the conversation or invited on stage at some of the early conferences.  I connected with some other women who shared my concerns and with the help of a generous anonymous gift we formed the Emerging Women’s Leadership Initiative.  

A group of five of us set off planning a national gathering of emerging women leaders, drawing up lists of names of all the women who we wanted to invite.  It didn’t take us long to realize that everyone on our list was white.  We gulped.  We looked over our list again.  Every single person on the list had something important to offer and we had limited space at our event.  It was really painful to notice who wasn’t on our list but once we did, we knew what we had to do.  We put our event on hold and started to reach out, look for new contacts, call friends of friends and ask for more names.  

That experience taught me that including a wide range of voices in an event (or conversation, or club, or church or whatever) requires more than proclaiming that everyone is welcome.  Including people means developing relationships with people and specifically asking them if they would come to your event (or conversation, etc.) and share their wisdom and experience.

When you are all charged up about the event you’re envisioning, you do not necessarily want to do that work.  I didn’t really want to do it with the Emerging Women’s Leadership Initiative.  It took a lot of time.  It involved awkward phone calls to people I didn’t know.  It made me feel embarrassed that I didn’t already have a wider range of relationships.  

And, I am so glad we did it.

At Tuesday night’s Re-vitilizing Oakland Mills Town Hall Meeting, my husband, the brilliant and dashing Dan Kirk-Davidoff, raised his hand and asked one of the first questions:  Is there anyone at this meeting who lives within the newly adopted boundaries of the Village Center?  In other words, are the people who would be most affected by this plan represented at this meeting?  One Village Board member raised her hand and one audience member raised his hand (and since I happen to know that person, I know that he was actually mistaken).  When Dan pressed, the chair guessed that about 3,000 people live within the new boundaries, about one-third of the population of Oakland Mills.  

Obviously, there were a lot of people who weren’t there.

What to do about that?  The Board chair, Bill McCormack, had a plan to meet with the owners of all the included apartment complexes and he was willing to suggest that these owners notify their residents about the changes (note:  these new boundaries have been approved by the board, so these “meet and greets” with property owners are for the purpose of informing them about action that has already been taken, not soliciting input).  Mr. McCormack did emphasize that this conversation has been going on for a year and there have been multiple meetings open to the public.  This plan has not been developed in secret.  If anyone who lives in the included properties had been motivated to give input, they would have been welcome to do so.  I don’t doubt this is true.

Dan felt more outreach is needed.  He suggested leafletting the affected buildings, knocking on the doors of some apartments and asking residents to respond to a short survey, handing out response postcards with check off boxes.  These are all great ideas and would have been particularly helpful if they were done last year when the conversation started.

But my experience has convinced me that there really is only one way to broaden participation in a conversation.  The people who are already in the conversation, the people who really feel motivated to address the issues involved, need to personally talk to people who have not been represented so far.  The fact that people aren’t showing up and participating does not simply mean that the publicity hasn’t been effective (although publicity is important and necessary).  It means that the relationships aren’t there.  

Imagine this scenario:  After a preliminary conversation on Tuesday night at the Town Hall meeting, everyone in the room is given an index card and asked to write down the names of everyone they know who lives within the new Village Center boundaries.  If they don’t know anyone, they write down the people they know who might be able to introduce them to someone OR they brainstorm ways in which they might be able to initiate a conversation with someone.  Then, a date for a second Town Hall meeting is set and each person commits to coming back with at least one resident from the affected properties.

Perhaps this sounds ridiculously idealistic.  Some may assume that the people leading the “re-vitalization” conversation don’t want anyone from the apartments involved because those people would most likely disagree with their efforts.  But I really am not sure that is the case.  No one wants to live in an unsafe neighborhood.  No one wants to live in an apartment which isn’t well-maintained.  No one wants strangers loitering in their entryway and trash overflowing from dumpsters, etc.  Everyone wants the best possible opportunities for their children.  

In order for any of the re-vitalization dreams for Oakland Mills to come true, there is going to have to be a significant amount of pressure put on the County and on the Columbia Association to invest in our community.  The more people who are behind these plans, the more effectively we will be able to advocate for them.  

As we shift from complaining about problems to advocating for solutions, we need to deepen our connections as a community so that we can broaden the conversation.


Stop Bombing, Start Building: Reflections on Last Night's Town Hall Meeting in Oakland Mills

When my husband’s father, Paul Davidoff, was running for the U.S. Congress in 1968, one of his primary slogans was:  Stop Bombing!  Start Building!  Davidoff Say Now!  I attended a Town Hall meeting hosted by the Oakland Mills Village Board last night that made me think it might be time for us to start wearing those campaign buttons again.

Dan and I have lived in the Oakland Mills Village in Columbia for a little over nine years now.  We love our neighborhood—love our street, love the bike path that we run on most mornings, love the people on our block and the sense of neighborhood that we’ve created together, and love the neighborhood schools our kids have attended for nine years.  

Oakland Mills is in “historic Columbia” as our realtor put it, and there is a bunch of older houses, town homes and apartments here.  As a result, we were able to buy a house here.  And as a result, our kids went to schools with a real mix of kids—a full United Nations of races and ethnicities and a full spectrum of economic levels.  Every single one of those kids was offered all the advantages of one of the top school districts in our country.  I still get choked up when I think about my sons’ graduation from middle school—the range of kids, the range of families, the passion of the principal and the teachers, the sense of joy and pride that we all felt at that moment.  I think it’s safe to say that it was the moment in my life when I felt most proud to be an American.

Still, Oakland Mills does not have the County’s highest ranked schools when it comes to test scores.  Our elementary schools, especially the one our kids attended, has a much higher percentage of students receiving Free and Reduced Meals than the other elementary schools in the county.  Then, last fall, Howard County Housing bought “The Verona”, an apartment complex right near our town center which has 20% of its units at below-market rent.  The County announced this purchase along with their plan to redevelop the complex into a high-quality, mixed income development in ten years when financing comes due.  This led to a community meeting about this time last year which included a fair amount of venting about how our community has more than its share of affordable housing and how we are suffering as a result.

I didn’t go to the meeting.  I thought about it because I am very interested in the health and well-being of my neighborhood.  I also value the principle of mixed income neighborhoods which is a big part of what attracted us to Columbia--and I think this principle should be a part of the development of every Columbia Village, not just the older ones.  But I didn’t believe that anything positive would happen at the meeting so I decided not to participate.  I'm pretty sure I made the right decision.

Some of the people who were opposed to the county’s acquisition of the Verona went on to form a group called the Reinventing Oakland Mills Task Force.  Last night, this group hosted a Town Hall meeting to review and receive comments on the new boundary lines for the Village Center which were approved by the Village Board in September.  The new boundary lines include the Verona and three other apartment complexes.  The leaders of the meeting (members of the Oakland Mills Village Board) were quite clear that their reason for this change is to encourage a developer to purchase and re-develop large parcels within the Village with the explicit goal of reducing the number of rental units by 50%.

In contrast to the meeting a year ago, there were very few people in attendance last night—maybe 25.  The conversation was mostly informational but things got a little heated at the end of the night.  My perception on the situation was that it was hard for many of us to move from talking about the problems (and giving evidence as to why the problems really are problems) to gathering energy to work together for a solution.  

When anyone expressed some hesitation about the plan, the response from leaders was to share information or opinion about how our community was in “serious decline”.  As you might expect, some people strongly agreed and some people got upset and defensive.  This led to a discussion about whether some comments about wanting fewer low income residents in the community were racist, or could be perceived as racist and by that point the possibility of generative conversation was pretty much lost.

Looking back on the evening, two things are clear to me.  First, it is time to stop bombing.  There has been a year (at least) of conversation in Oakland Mills about the problems that a concentration of low-income housing can generate in the community.  Some people think the problem is dire, others think the problems are highly exaggerated.  No one is changing anyone’s mind.  In the meantime, this conversation has an uncomfortable edge to it—it gets close to equating the revitalization of our Village Center with the removal of low-income people from the Village Center.  As Reg Avery said last night, that’s not what our country is about.  Whether or not that’s what anyone really meant, I think it is better to not let the conversation go in that direction.

Second, it is time to start building.  There was some really great energy at last night’s meeting about (1) the redevelopment of the pedestrian bridge across Route 29 and the positive economic impact this will have on the Oakland Mills Village Center and (2) the redevelopment of the current ice rink into an expanded sports complex that would be have a regional draw.  I loved the vision that this kind of discussion showed.  I found myself imagining what such a complex might look like, the jobs it would create, the other businesses that would be spring up as a result.

I’m a pastor, not a city planner or a developer.  I admit that I am more interested, ultimately, in how a community relates and connects and dreams and reacts than I am in the actual plans and boundaries and buildings.  But I saw again last night something I have seen over and over again.  It is easy to come together around anger or fear or frustration.  Negative emotions get people out of their homes and out to a meeting.  But anger, fear and frustration don’t create anything new.  They focus energy on problems but they don’t help us envision solutions.  It is time to shift the energy of this important discussion towards solutions.

Alternatives to Violence, Part 2


As I wrote yesterday, I recently participated in a weekend-long training in the Alternatives to Violence Program, held at the Patuxent Correctional Institution, a men’s prison in Jessup, Maryland about 15 minutes away from my house.  I’ve heard about AVP (as it is called) for years and have long been interested in being trained as a facilitator in the program.  I was excited to take the first step towards that goal, but a bit surprised by the content of the program.

I think what I expected was something along the lines of a cognitive-behavioral approach to anger management.  I thought we’d focus on techniques for calming down inside—deep breathing, counting to ten, etc.  I figured we’d learn communication skills, practice listening to another person’s concerns and acknowledging their feelings.  I thought we’d go over the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.  In short, I thought the program would be very concrete and very specific.  When you are in situation X, take the following three steps. 

We did very little of this.  We did work on communication skills by listening without interruption and saying back what we heard the other person say.  We also spent some time formulating “I statements”.  But before we learned any techniques, we were divided into small groups and asked to describe situations where we had found an alternative to violence.

This ended up being a fascinating conversation.  My small group included two volunteers from outside the prison and three inmates.  The other volunteer and I struggled to come up with a story to share.  We ended up talking about experiences where we had to interact with volatile people who got very loud and agitated when they felt confronted or challenged.  We talked about the things we did to stay calm ourselves in the face of their anger and to de-escalate the energy of the interaction. 

It was clear to me that actual violence really wasn’t an issue in either of our stories.  We weren’t worried about being physically assaulted by the person we were dealing with.  Non-violence, in our experience, meant making an effort to keep our interactions calm and pleasant.

The inmate’s stories were completely different.  They all talked about confrontations with guards where they felt themselves wronged or disrespected.  They described the dispute and said at the moment they seriously considered assaulting the guard, hitting him in the face and more.  In each situation, they had instead given up their fight, walked away or shut up. One inmate said he decided to “give the win” to a guard by backing down from an argument. 

Non-violence, in their experience, meant taking a loss.  At times circumstances required them to do that, but it wasn’t something they could feel good about.

When we came back together as a large group, each small group shared one story that they felt was a good example of an alternative to violence.  Several groups told stories of inmates “taking a loss” instead of fighting.  Finally one of the inside facilitators, spoke up.  Sitting very still and speaking in a quiet voice he told the group, “There is another alternative besides winning or losing.  It’s the alternative to violence that this program is all about.  It’s called Transforming Power, and I can tell you that when you experience it, it is a truly amazing feeling.”

Transforming power was a concept that hovered around the edges of the rest of the weekend’s conversations.  It was never even specifically defined other than to say that it is a third way beyond “fight” or “flight”.  It was not presented as a technique or a strategy or a set of practices.  Rather, it was described as an experience that can emerge from inside of you, as an “inward power” or an “inner sense of what’s needed” that is “courageous and without hostility”. 

I found this remarkable, and upon reflection, decidedly Quaker.  At the heart of Quaker spirituality is the belief that each of us has access to an “inner light”, a deep wisdom that connects us with the divine.  What’s more, our interactions with each other are improved when we recognize “that of God” within each person.  One of the “Guides to Transforming Power” posted in the room read, “Reach for that something in others that seeks to do good for self and others.”

On the basis of this belief, the Quakers crafted a program for violent offenders.  Instead of telling inmate that there are things they need to learn, techniques they need to master to correct their negative behavior patterns, AVP insists that these same inmate already have access to a power that will enable them to find a non-violent alternative.  They have an inner guide who can be trusted. 

The one handout from the weekend listed 11 points under the title, “Help Along the Way” including: “Ask yourself for a non-violent way.  There may be one inside you,” and, “Trust your inner sense of what’s needed.”

Lest we conclude that the practice of non-violence is a private, individual matter, the tenth “help” reads, “Make friends who will support you.  Support the best in them.”

AVP had been evaluated a number of times and the results of these studies are posted on the program website.  There does seem to be real evidence that the program reduces the incidence of violence in the prison.  This is significant since AVP is offered in hundreds of prisons in the United States and in prisons throughout the world.  I think it is a safe guess that AVP is the most popular violence prevention program in the American prison system, largely because it is led by volunteers and does not cost a prison anything.

So what is it about AVP that makes a difference?  Other volunteers in the program assure me that as the workshops continue, more skills are introduced and inmates have more and more opportunities to practice these skills.  Every inmate who expresses interest in becoming a facilitator is encouraged to complete that training and to co-lead future workshops.  All the inside facilitators meet together on a regular basis and continue to improve their skills and understanding of non-violence.

In short, AVP is a kind of subculture within prisons.  The people who have been through training together share a bond with each other.  They identify as members of a group that has something important to offer.  The inmates are simultaneously encouraged to claim their own authority as non-violent leaders and connected to a network of other people who feel like they can make a difference.

I long to do something to address the culture of violence that seems to permeate our culture.  I don’t want to just keep things peaceful around me by avoiding volatile people and staying calm.  I want to engage in conflict with creative energy, confident that there is power available to me that can transform the situation.  I want to feel like I’m part of movement, a sub-culture. 

Then, when I read stories of killings and beatings and beheadings I will cry and rage but I won’t despair.