Our Feathered Friends

It was a time of war. When is it never? The Americans were fighting the British. The French were fighting the British and then there were the First Americans, fighting everyone and no-one. And in the midst of this troubled land lived a community of Quakers or Friends. They had long cleared an area in the woodland to build their houses. First, the Brits came to tell them to leave, ‘We cannot guarantee your safety, if you stay.’ And the Americans too. ‘There will be trouble, grave trouble. Best leave.’ And some of the families did go but most of them stayed for they were peaceful people, they reckoned…and they’d planted their homes in this woodland. Who would hurt them?

One Sunday morning on a lovely summer’s day, most of the families were gathered together as usual in meeting for worship. The meeting house was made out of timber. With no glass in the windows, just unshuttered and open to the breeze, in flittered a curious bee and two playful butterflies, dancing in the beam of sunlight falling across the centre table. A young girl watched all this with drooping eyelids. On the window ledge, a young robin sang for a few moments before flying through the room and out the opposite window in search of berries and insects.

Holes in the wood let the light in and through them, she could see the greenery outside, the bushes and trees. Three elders sat together on a bench, eyes closed in prayer. Meeting could go on like this for several hours in those days and the little girl, sleepy, leant against her mum, trying to stay awake. It was hard for her. The warm air lifted. Was that a blue flash passing through a bush, left quivering? She listened to the steady, slow breathing of her mother next to her, her warm body rising and falling gently. Through a knothole, she saw a second flash, red this time and rubbed her eyes. And when she peered again, all was quiet and still…

She was just falling asleep when something made her look up. In the open doorway stood a dozen First Americans, arrows drawn in their bows, dircted towards them. She noticed the long knives hanging from their belts and something else too…was that hair..? And now, all the friends in the room watched with eyes wide open and waited.

One of the elders stood and, speaking in French, palms upwards, welcomed the visitors and invited them to join them. One of the First Americans interpreted for the chief, who stared at them. He relaxed and, saying through the interpreter, told them that he and his men also worshipped their spirits in peace and would gladly join with them. They made to come in but the elder raised his hand. ‘Please, your weapons…leave them outside. The men looked at their Chief but when he took off his bow and arrows and knives and placed them by the door, they all followed. The Quakers made space for them on the benches and, together, they fell into a gathered stillness inside the meeting house in the clearing in the wood.

At the end of meeting, the elder shook the hand of the Chief and invited them all to join them for food. And they did. Much later, when they were ready to leave, the Chief took a white feather, he said, as a token of peace, and pinned it above the door to the meeting house. ‘Everyone seeing this  knows you are our friends and will not harm you.’

Or so the story goes…I’ve been in touch with Easton Meeting in New York State. They told me that the old timbered meeting house of that time is long gone, replaced by a new, shiny modern one. But they still hold their summer meetings there. And they told me the First Americans in that area didn’t wear feathers in their head gear. It’s more likely that the Chief cracked an arrow in half and pinned that above the door as a sign of friendship.

Easton South Meeting House

Every September, the friends of Easton South Meeting gather together to retell this story and think about what truth it holds in the world today.



20161030_102108.jpgSo,  some of you may know that fifty of us WEA people have come to Belgium to learn more about the theory and practice of the European Union. We’ll visit Ypres and the Menin Gate too. Travelling through Belgium,  it is hard not to think of war, with so many towns ending in -cerque, like Duncerque.

Which brings me to Fear. Fear of unemployment, of other people, like migrant workers, of low paid, insecure contracts. I also feel afraid that history is repeating itself. We have populist leaders, elected to power, attacking the ‘establishment elites’, laying blame on minority cultural groups (jews, moslims…).

I see young men and women, marching in uniform on Remembrance Sunday, proudly wearing their red poppies.  And I listen to the words of poets telling us how cruel war is, picturing their brutal, needless deaths in words. War is obscene, to paraphrase Harry Patch. Is Russia right now eyeing up Lithuania, testing the NATO alliance. Would the US come to the defence of a fellow NATO member or is it now Europe’s problem?

In one book I read, it asks if the EU works like a capitalist club. Look how it treats the people of Greece, imposing free market economic policies in return for support. Still, Ireland and Portugal are recovering. And the EU does much to protect the rights of working people. In the UK, leaving may jeopardise these rights as successive governments prioritise financial centres over social need.

On the other hand, the Europe is controlling and interfering, isn’t it? Somehow, I feel those who hate the EU have found the simplest words, like the school bully, to connect with people while those who support it fail to express the positive contributions  to peace and prosperity clearly it makes.

And this is where I feel the EU project has failed the most. It has somehow lost its way and become nearly all about money and growth, when, in the beginning, it offered hope after two world wars in quick succession.

Before we get too dispirited, I do see signs of hope.  Our young people are increasingly active politically. More people generally are talking about politics in Europe, even if many still don’t understand the consequences of Brexit. And I recently had a meeting with a young local councillor. He had given up being a banker to retrain as a teacher in a small comprehensive school, because he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life.

So, we go to the Parliament tomorrow and what do I hope for in the world. I hope for a safe space where people of all persuasions, some antagonistic, can hear one another and find the shared spaces in which to keep the world and everybody on it well and prosperous and feeling safe.


Further reading:

The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide by Chris Bickerton, A Pelican Introduction

Where do you go?

wpid-20151107_111932.jpgI rang rather than emailed a new contact this morning. She is a university Muslim chaplain and we were discussing possible esol classes for newly-arrived asylum-seekers. She told me how hard it is right now for many of the families she is trying to help, particularly, if they come from Yemen or Syria. Once, she said, she even heard a bomb explode, while on the phone, and the line went dead.

People are losing close family members and friends in the violence. So, if you see someone dressed all in black, it may be they are grieving for someone close to them they’ve lost.

I asked the chaplain, ‘Who is talking about this? I, we…many of us here…don’t realise, we don’t know that this is going on everyday.’ Who is telling this story? And then, I thought, well, I can. Why not? At least, I can pass on what she told me. You can make up your own mind.

If you hit someone, they may hit you back. So, you might hit them harder…so then they hit you back as hard as they can and on it goes.

So, what can I do? I am making time for ‘5 minutes peace’, sitting quietly and upholding the families and friends of everyone, whose lives have been affected by acts of violence in the world today. Where are the peacemakers? How can we all work together for peace in the world? In our street? Maybe, starting simply by saying ‘Hello, morning’ to the moslim friend you pass in the street..?

I recalled an image of my mum, who’s 84 now. She flinched when a plane flew low overhead. I started laughing and asked her why. She told me the noise of the aeroplane reminded her of the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on the docks, near where she lived as a child. ‘And she never liked planes…and we never went to Australia…because of it and that happened in my mum’s lifetime…’, I said.

‘Mine too’, the chaplain said. ‘She tells me stories of what happened during the war too.’