Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Quakerism and Design: Creating community


By Julia Thompson 

In April to mid-June, I was working with an organization called Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) to support the design and build process of an outdoor art space referred to as an ArtLot.  YSA is an organization that is committed to empowering homeless and low-income youth through art job training in Berkeley, California.

My personal passion is to explore the intersection of engineering and spirituality. I hold a Ph.D., and have researched extensively using service-learning as a way to teach engineering skills. The Pickett fellowship has allowed me to expand on this work, and to work directly with a community on a design project, one that was rooted in Quaker values. 

Through this experience, I was able to work with youth, staff, community members, and architects to push forward the design and build of the ArtLot.  We threw out rubbish that had been collecting in the area, weeded, stained benches, stabilized benches, and built trellises.  We had a number of meetings to discuss the space, and volunteer days to get things built.

Personally, the experience has given me a lot of insight into my gifts and limitations. I experienced the chaos, mess, and love that are present through life. Below are three lessons: my problem-solving mindset, me as a community organizer, and a valuable lesson of homelessness and God.

The ArtLot when I arrived (April 2016)
Two youth using the space to practice some poetry and music

My Problem-Solving Mindset

There were a number of things that needed to be figured out associated with building the ArtLot, and I loved putting on my brainstorming hat and can-do attitude to accomplish these tasks.  For example, there were beautiful benches, which had been designed by an architect student, and there had been a series of volunteer days to build them before I got there.  One of the first weeks I was there, a number of volunteers worked with youth to stain them. However, there were a number of structural issues with the benches.  The benches were designed to fold up, yet the front legs would collapse if you leaned back, the bench was wobbly, and the front legs were shorter than the back - each one being different heights. One of the professional architects and I examined them closely and figured out a way to make them stable. First, we measured each front leg to determine how far off the ground it was. Based on this measurement, we cut off that height from the associated back leg. We also attached nylon webbing and made it taught to reduce the wobble and make sure the front legs would not collapse. Currently, all the benches are relatively flat and stable.  This process of identifying an issue, figuring out a solution, and following through with it, was completely satisfying, and I recognize this as something that aligns well with my gifts and skill sets. 

The benches

A volunteer day where we constructed the trellises
Me as a community organizer 

This experience was a bit more than I expected. I put myself out there on a number of occasions and felt drained when things did not go as planned. Many times I felt like I was pushing the project too fast, and others were not as interested in being engaged. In the process, I learned a lot about myself; however, I often felt that I had jumped into the deep end. 

I would like my next experience to be more in the terms of wading. I am opening myself to opportunities to assist in facilitation experiences, working under mentors who have gifts and experience of holding space. Also, I want to work with communities who have a desire and intention to be present.

My current goal is to run retreats in the next three to five years where artists, designers, architects, engineers, and others can reflect on what it means to build the world with integrity. 
Raising up the trellises
Trellises! 

God and Homelessness

I would say the most profound lesson I learned about homelessness was talking to one young man.  He arrived in Berkeley from New Jersey, following a meditation guru. He spoke of his love for this guru, and his devotion to meditation and yoga.  Up until that point, there was a naïve and arrogant part of me that believed that it was only through my privilege in this world that I was able to seek God the way I have, and strive to live out my vocation. As I talked to this man, I was touched and I recognized how human is this urge which I have, and how it is not limited by wealth and privilege. We are all children of God.


Community Event - Voices Unfiltered: An art exhibition of Humanity (August 6, 2016)


Overall, I am extremely appreciative for this opportunity and the incredible support from various communities. Many people supported me in various ways throughout this journey, from holding me in the Light to giving me places to stay.  I am deeply blessed and utterly grateful. 





Monday, July 11, 2016

Casa de los Amigos: Quaker Peacework in Mexico City

¡Saludos desde la Ciudad de México!

This year I received a Pickett Endowment Grant to help me write a book about Casa de los Amigos, a 60-year-old Quaker Center for Peace and International Understanding in Mexico City. I am grateful for the support from the Pickett Fund, and happy to share some news and updates about this project here on the Grantee Blog. I have read the other posts from this years grantees with interest.

My name is Nicholas Wright, and I am called Nico here in Mexico. I started working at Casa de los Amigos as a volunteer in 2001. There have been many changes at the Casa in the last 15 years, including an overall reboot upon the organization's 50th anniversary in 2006. Working with many, many others, I've been able to be a witness and participant through all of these changes. Last year I stepped back from the day-to-day running of the Casa, and I've been working full-time on this project since then.

The incredible history of Friends' social action in Mexico continues to inspire and inform the work of Casa de los Amigos today, and part of being there for so long was learning more and more about this history. It began with the American Friends Service Committee workcamps in Mexico in 1938, which eventually gave rise to the Casa in 1956. The Casa has been a versatile tool for peacework in Mexico these past 60 years. Today it is a bustling, active convergence center and an important member of the community of organizations in Mexico City.

AFSC workcampers in San Francisco Tepeyecac, Puebla, in 1960.
This history includes the famous AFSC workcamps, the Casa's pioneering environmental work in the 1970s, the role of the dynamic Youth Committee, a decade of work with Central American refugees, reconstruction work after the 1985 earthquake, and much more. I also learned that this history has never been written or even really compiled anywhere, and while many people knew a lot about different parts of it, nobody knew all or even most of it. It's a great story, and I'm happy to be able to share it. My hope is that a clear record of this history, as well as a general assessment of the meaning and impact of this work, will be a valuable tool for the Casa as it steps into it's next chapter and it's next 60 years.

That's an overview of this project; in terms of an update I wouldn't know where to begin. I'm over a year into it, and it has been another non-stop learning experience. I could easily take five years to do this--every clue turns into another lead, every interview yields five more names, every folder reveals a new project I've never heard of. There's a lot there, and in the end the great task is to condense it into a narrative that's clear, readable, and not 700 pages long. It's fascinating and challenging work.

Good people in the Casa today--daily Spanish classes for those new to Mexico.
In addition to the backing from the Pickett Endowment, I also ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to make this project possible. For that, friends and I made a short (2 1/2 minutes) video about the Casa and this project. I'm not raising funds for this book right now, but take a look at the video here. You can learn more about the Casa today at www.casadelosamigos.org.

Last summer I was able to do some research at the AFSC archives in Philadelphia. I stayed with a friend in Germantown and ran to catch the train into Philly each morning, and the Clarence E. Pickett Middle School was on the way to the station. As a Quaker tourist in Pennsylvania coming from Mexico City, this was quite a thrill for me (even though sadly the school appeared to be shuttered).
I am so grateful to all who have supported the idea for this book, and especially to folks at the Pickett Fund for their trust and support. More to come...



Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Holy Trust in the Age of Suspicion (or, How God gave me a Trip to Cuba)


Lengthy post alert: I was asked to share on this blog a report about my upcoming ministry immersion trip to Cuba. I decided to share about the leading, as I will have limited access to internet while I am there. Because Quaker leadings are widely varied and shrouded in mystery and controversy, I decided to use this opportunity to also share some thoughts about how I personally discern the difference between a leading and a garden-variety harebrained idea, and what pursuing this particular leading has been like for me. 



Learning to listen to and be obedient to God's leading of our life is how I would describe the foundation of Quakerism. This happens together as well as individually, but the skill and discipline of listening individually is necessary to build any practice of group discernment.
As Friend Walter Hjelt Sullivan put it in this video, it is the "core technology of Quakerism".

Within the past year I began to pursue a leading to spend several months living, learning, and serving among Friends in Cuba.

As I've shared this leading with others, it has at times been met with good-natured sarcasm..."oh I think I am led to do that as well!", folks have chuckled.

While I felt these comments were meant as friendly humor, I think they also reveal an underlying truth that is real and serious: People, even many Quakers, are skeptical of and confused about how leadings are discerned.

Non-Friends are often more blunt about their misgivings. I have heard folks complain of how narcissistic--even dangerous-- it is for religious people to have faith that God is speaking to them.

Many contemporary North American Friends communities have simply backed away from using discernment. Liberal communities have built instead around concrete systems for group decision-making, intellectually- and politically- safe social actions, and a standoffish individualism around all other matters. Evangelical Friends have leaned more on the certainty of "traditional" (non-Friends) interpretations of the Bible, creedalism, and the development of hierarchal power structures to replace the Friends model of "gospel order".
Across the spectrum, the discernment and holy trust that is the bedrock of our faith tradition feels to us like an unattainable fantasy, and a liability/threat.

In this day and age, people of conscience cannot be naive to the dangers of "leadings", as maybe early Friends could be. We can see the collateral damage of selfish desires couched in religious justifications throughout human history. We are rightfully distressed by the idea of "manifest destiny" that resulted in atrocious actions of genocide, enslavement of people, and colonization of our world.  We recognize similar beliefs that support ongoing military actions that continue to destroy and traumatize. We are rightfully put off by the unchecked privilege of people who seem to act on every material desire and attribute these comforts to supernatural intervention, calling them "God's blessings". 

As a result of these observations, our culture has become one oriented around scientific methodology. We expect actions to be objective, measurable, and replicable. This has offered transparency and accountability to offset some of the risks inherent when flawed people attempt to find and act on the truth.
But it has not made our spiritual lives vibrant, and it has not transformed sin in our world.

Science of course has a limited sphere of utility, and holy leadings are not objective, measurable, or replicable, so as contemporary Friends we often hold confusing and conflicted beliefs. 
So, why then, do we persist in them? 
While science has made many great contributions to our world, we live in an age of profound spiritual disempowerment.
I can tell you that for me personally, distrust and confusion about God's leadings kept me for many years from becoming the person that God called me to be, and from experiencing God's vibrant presence in a real and consistent way. I don't think I am alone in that experience.
Despite its excellent resumé and stunning objectivity, science did not make me more faithful,  joyful, peaceful, humble, courageous, holy, more available to others, or strong in expressing and applying my own gifts.
Only God could do that.

By what method can I trust a God who is not objective, measurable or replicable?

It has been through Friends guidance and involvement in my discernment that I have been on this journey of reclaiming my inner authority and take the steps of faithfulness in a way that I haven't before. I trust that this trip is an expression of that faithfulness, and I trust that deeply enough that I am not put off by the gentle jibes. I don't think I would even be put off by a direct challenge. Beneath the joking, I can imagine a plain-speaking Friend asking me the righteous question, "How did thee test this leading?"

 I can remember a time in my life when the gentlest joke about a leading would have sent me into a whirlwind of my own distress and doubt.
Whenever I take a new step of faithfulness, the accuser stands in the wings. But I'm learning to remain in the care of the One who has always been with me.

I met with many fears, distractions, and problems during the course of pursuing this trip to Cuba. These are normal of course (even though I think mine are extra special difficult) but what was not normal for most of my life was having a way to persist in pursuing a leading even so. This has been from the very beginning, even from the time of starting to imagine that this is something I would do. What helped was being patient in worship and having spiritual care and accompaniment to ground me there and hold me accountable.

Here are a few snippets about how that process looked for me:

  • The practical need to speak Spanish has been presenting for a long time in my life. Now, my primary work is in a bilingual community. It seems clear again and again that speaking Spanish is one of the most important skills I could develop to deepen this ministry.
    Very often a leading is also a practical service, or something that resolves practical problems. God wants to be in our daily lives and problems.
  • My wider community's discernment during a visioning conversation a year and a half ago confirmed that this is not only my conviction, but where God is leading us together.
    The community expressed the primary developing identity of our church as being  bilingual and bicultural in all that we do. Since my primary commitment in life is to this community, this gives my leading significantly more weight. I can trust that the discernment of others who I respect is supporting my leading, so it is not just about me, nor is it simply what makes sense in a practical sense. Its what God is doing among us.
  • I asked every English-speaker I know who has learned Spanish how they did it, to see what might rise. Almost every single person said that the only way to really learn is to spend significant time living in a Spanish-speaking culture. Here is where I had a lot of discomfort as the increasing weight of this leading came to bear with my fears/distractions/limitations. As a low-income single parent and working pastor, I could not imagine being able to do this in my life. I cant leave my kids. I can't get time off work. I can't afford a big trip.
    This kind of inner conflict often feels like anxiety. What God wants and how I operate are duking it out. And I have real barriers to being able to easily act on this!
    I've learned to be patient with this anxiety. To not give in to the temptation to disengage from it, but instead pay special attention, and be open to not knowing how it will be resolved. Part of a life of obedience and trusting God is being open to leadings without knowing how.
    In the meantime I enrolled in Spanish classes at the community college, even though people told me that is not the best way to learn. I saw this as the way to make Spanish study a big part of my life. Getting started is a really good way to test a leading. I saw myself doing this for a year, and then deciding what would be next.
    Learning a language makes me feel vulnerable, humble, and alive. It reminds me of being a little kid again. It is embarrassing and hard and confusing. Its also fun. I can see some of the spiritual gifts of this and how it relates to my own journey as a minister, to the spiritual condition of my faith community.
  • Also, the anxiety that rises when we take steps of faithfulness is no joke. I enlisted spiritual care.
    Many times during this year my ministry care and oversight committee and others I rely on for spiritual care have helped, when I was unable to help myself or ask for help. They helped me to not lose the plot, and they helped make things happen when that's what was needed. Ministry is bigger than any one person. "Ministry is a team sport." says one of my spiritual elders. So I had trusted people who regularly helped get things unstuck every time they got stuck.
    One of those people was my colleague Ken Comfort who first said to me that he thought I was led to go to Cuba. I trusted his leading for me about this! And had other confirmation that this was right. This is just one of the interesting and exciting things that happens when we let other people into our discernment.
    Through all this process, all uncertainty in me was not abated. I continue to return to prayer, bringing my insecurities and asking God's grace. Until yesterday, I continued to (daily! I'm serious.) call on my spiritual support people to help me stay grounded in faithfulness, which to me means staying wise to Truth, and obedient to the most holy action I can see at this time.
  • Some of the specific fears and barriers I experienced were around self-sufficiency. I didn't have the money to fund this trip alone.
    I was afraid to ask for financial support. 
    I was afraid of not succeeding in fundraising the money I needed. I had to take the risk of trusting because it is not feasible to fundraise for such a trip without making a lot of arrangements and telling everyone you're doing it before you have the money.
    I was also afraid of receiving that support. I was afraid of being self-indulgent. I was afraid of it being about me. I feared that if I found out that God will provide, it might be a slippery slope before I was on television, talking about how God gave me a trip to Cuba and he wants that for you too!
    There is a lot there, but suffice to say, it has been good to follow my leading in the face of barriers and fear. 
  • Testing the leading in the context of Jesus- every time I hit a wall in this process, I asked myself if it was of God or not. I tested my worries, fears, limitations, and stops against what I know of the character and values of God in Christ. Having a deep sense of who God is for me helped me understand which fears were wisdom and which I needed to ignore, which barriers were signs to back off or change direction and which were problems to be solved. 
  • At this time, as I embark on this trip,  I see it as being for me about trusting God to fully provide the guidance and resources needed for whatever I need to do.
    I feel that the call on me during this trip is to be trusting God enough that I am present in the moment. I feel led to let go of the expectations I developed in anticipation over the past year, and let God lead.
    I look forward to sharing after the trip what God as assured me of, and what has been surprising.

    Thanks to folks at Pickett Endowment and others who are supporting me, as I share this mid-process report. Its hard to share unfinished work in the exact same way it is hard to trust a leading when you don't know the outcome. My hope is that it might encourage others in their miraculous-but-imprecise-and-somewhat-risky art of discernment and trusting God. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016



Julia Thompson April 7, 2016



Quaker Design Process: Making Place and Space with Youth in Berkeley, CA



I have had a spiritual leading (i.e. calling) to look at the intersection of spirituality and design for some time. One of my interests is exploring a communal design process that is grounded in Quaker values.This leading integrates my dissertation research and my spiritual convictions. My research was on the motivations, structures, and the nature of engineering community engagement partnerships. Specifically, I analyzed the interactions and activities between engineering service-learning programs and communities. The nature of interactions can be described by the Transactional, Cooperative, and Communal (TCC) Framework. In transactional interactions, there is a heightening of the boundary between the community and the program; an “us” and “them” relationship is present. In Cooperative interactions, the boundary between the community and the program were intentionally blurred, and the community members and program members came together, each offering skills and expertise to the project. In Communal interactions the roles of the individuals are transcended and different participants groups are connected through deeper needs of the individual and community as a whole. In these interactions and activities the individuals saw beyond an “us” and “them” and recognized the process as a “we,”developed friendships, and gained a sense of ownership.
As the title suggests, my spiritual convictions are connected to Quakerism (I also have a mindfulness meditation practice). For those of you that do not know Quakers,  some of the fundamental testimonies are: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship of the Earth (note: there is discussion among Quaker spaces that these testimonies simplify an integrated experience of God, and should not be categorized, yet I believe the categories do help in the understanding of Quakers). There is also a tradition of going inward to listen to that of God within each of us.  So when thinking of design, I am wondering what technology may look like when we take these Quaker values, within a community, and design something. What beautiful things can we create together!
A few months ago, I reached out to some Quaker connections to see if anyone was interested in exploring the intersection of Quakerism and design. I was introduced to the Director of Youth Spirit Artworks– an interfaith organization that supports over 50 low income and homeless youth in green job training. She is a Quaker and well known as a homeless activist in the San Francisco Bay Area. The community has identified a number of projects they want to build, and interested in working with me. From there, I submitted an application for a Pickett Fellowship, an endowment that supports Young Quakers to follow their leadings.
In early April, I will be attending Strawberry Creek meeting as a Pickett Fellow. During this time, I hope to (1) educate youth on professional skills and sustainability concepts, (2) build communal art space in an under-resourced community using repurposed and sustainably sourced materials, and (3) strengthen community through empowerment, networking, and relationship building.
More specifically, I have identified three projects that I will work on during this time:
  1. Supporting and mentoring youth through a project-based learning experience that integrates sustainability concepts into the design of an art lot (a community outdoor art space located in the picture below). The youth have already identified components, including an art fence, gate, stage, barbecue pit, and a tiny home that they would like to build on a lot they lease. Through this project, the youth will be divided into groups to lead and manage the design of one of the components. They will be asked to: reflect on what sustainability means within the scope of their work, use participatory design brainstorm methods, and research environmentally sustainable materials. When appropriate, the youth will practice mindfulness in nature and contemplative practices for design inspiration. Based on their research, youthful leaders will make design decisions for the projects.
    20150312_182132
    Future home of the community outdoor art space
  2. Plan, coordinate, and organize volunteer days to build the designs initiated by the youthful leaders. The YSA is affiliated with a number of other religious groups who have already stated that they would like to support the construction of an outdoor Art Space (i.e. the fence, gate, stage, tiny home, and barbecue pit) through volunteer support. I will work with the youth and contractors to plan and support these build days. This includes clarification of which steps can be done through volunteers, and what needs to be done through licensed contractors to ensure the safety of the builds. Members of Strawberry Creek, Berkeley Friends Church, and Berkeley meeting will be asked to volunteer for these builds.
  3. Connect with Quakers to host a series of gatherings on weekends and/or evenings where we will worshipfully design a project together. Members of BFC, Strawberry Creek, and Berkeley meeting will be invited to attend. This process will include: sitting in worship, listening to what we are guided to build, discerning, seeing if the design holds true to our values, and working together to build the design..                              Julia Thompson 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Music Ministry at Iglesia Amigos



I am glad to be able to report my visit to the Midwest. I have been working in the music area in Iglesia Amigos and giving the children music lessons. I have also been volunteering on Thursdays for a few hours at Casa Cultural Humanitaria Amigos de Indianapolis, which is a ministry to aid children with extracurricular activities in my case I am working with piano lessons. I am attending two groups with a standard assistance of ten students each. I also had the opportunity to visit Iglesia Amigos in Chicago and help them with the music ministry on their Sunday meeting. 

Every Saturday I also travel to Westfield to give piano lessons to some kids who are sons of people from Iglesia Amigos.
We are preparing some pieces with all the children to record some videos and publish them on social networks. 

We are rehearsing three days a week to improve the music ministry in Iglesia Amigos and we are getting ready to record some songs with the singers of the church and we want to use the record to promote the ministry Iglesia Amigos is doing. Also, I have been practicing every time I can to be ready to give Piano performances at some Friends Church near Indianapolis, I will be sharing music from my country, traditional hymns, classical music and I have made new arrangements of hymns that are very identified with Quaker history. 

It is a great experience to be helping as a musician at Iglesia Amigos and also to be helping the Hispanic families that cannot afford a better music education for their children.