Privilege and Presence

Two of the feature articles in this month’s issue spoke to me strongly. I’ve had it easy. I was born of educated and loving parents into a middle-class North American home, grew up in safe (if somewhat shabby) neighborhoods, and found—from my very earliest days—community among friends and Friends. I recognize that my being a white male has accorded me a significant amount of unearned privilege. So has living in a land that has not been mined, bombed, booby-trapped, and brambled with "thorns [that] grew drinking human blood."

That frightening description comes from Noorjahan Akbar’s account ("My Trip to Kunduz," p. 18) of visiting the countryside of her native Afghanistan and listening to the songs of Afghan women. Reading this piece, a gulf of privilege gapes wide. The people of Afghanistan have known little but war in their land for generations. Akbar, as you will see in the profile accompanying her article, has followed an extraordinary path. Her family fled Taliban rule when she was very young. After the fall of the Taliban, her family returned to Kabul and she worked her way through an international school in Kabul as a translator, winning a scholarship to George School, a Quaker high school in Pennsylvania. Now a student at Dickinson College, she plans to devote her life to bettering the lot of Afghan women, very few of whom are able to access even basic education.

Akbar cites a refrain in the songs she learned from the women of Shoraab, khuda ber worosh qilmasa—"May there be no more wars." Such sentiment rings clear to my ears. Reading Akbar’s story is inspiring. Her piece for FRIENDS JOURNAL ends with a hope that the sung, oral history she recorded would be heard by more people, that "the testimony of the harsh lives of women and the painful memories of war" would not be lost. We are pleased to share it with you and hope that it challenges your thinking about what we do with our privilege.

In "Empathy" (p. 8), Lee Neff begins by describing her spiritual practice of visualization during Quaker meeting for worship. She talks about the object of her prayers, the loss of her youngest sister, and the ways in which that loss has weighed on and gnawed at her family for 35 years.

When I was in high school, my parents, brothers, and I gathered with a small group of Friends in Lee’s living room once a month for the fledgling South Seattle Worship Group (which is now South Seattle Meeting). Reading about what she imagines during worship, I feel transported back to that time and can recollect, bodily, the sense of our worshiping together. I am reminded of how our presence in worship with one another is a gift, and something that we cannot help but pack away and take with us. This gift of presence endures in the hearts and minds of those we love and labor with, for a very long time, indeed.