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Calls to witness, calls to charity

As I write this, I can’t help but note the many powerful world events unfolding in 2011. We have seen peaceful protest bring about the downfall of oppressive governments in Egypt and Tunisia. We have also seen similar protests in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen turn violent, hardening the grip of the powerful on their rule. The United States has been drawn into a third concurrent war, against a strongman in Libya who has declared civil war on opposition groups in his country. Japan suffered an earthquake, a devastating tsunami, and an unfolding crisis brought on by nuclear energy plants whose safety systems could not survive those natural disasters.

In this issue, we’re very lucky to have an excellent photo essay by Quaker photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart (“Seekers & Shooters,” p. 6), which is especially timely considering what we all are witnessing unfold on the world stage. From environmental catastrophes to the aftereffects of war, Rothbart reminds us of how we as Friends might act as witnesses in our lives.

“One key parallel” between photojournalism and Quakerism, Rothbart writes, “is in the skills required for bearing witness: an ability to observe quietly and contemplate, listen, and have compassion—for ourselves and others. This very act of listening compassionately, observing, and recording someone’s daily life, empowers those whose troubles have been ignored.” As time passes and the media apparatus turns its focus away from the human suffering and the humanity in Japan and Libya, it’s worthwhile to think about whether— and how—we are called to witness.

The subject of Greg Barnes’ “Anne Parrish: Unsung Friend” (p. 16) established, along with a small band of Quaker women, a benevolent association in 1795. This group was notable for the inclusiveness of its relief services to Philadelphia’s poor and its nonjudgmental mission, aspects that went well beyond the laudable but narrow charity of Philadelphia Quaker society and which were challenging for Friends to accept. In but five years of ministry, Anne Parrish left behind a lasting legacy and institutions that continued to support the poor of Philadelphia, eventually even gaining acceptance from the Friends establishment. The story of Anne Parrish and the women of the Female Society for the Relief of the Distressed illuminates the place of radical charity among Friends. This models for us that true calling from the Divine is bound to make us uncomfortable, to push our limits individually and as a society. Being open to that is a challenge, to be sure. But let us try.

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Last month in this space, Janet Ross announced my appointment as Executive director designate. I thank the Trustees of Friends Publishing Corporation for placing their confidence in me, our readers for their appreciation of the value of Quaker journalism, and the extremely talented staff and volunteers whose work culminates in the creation of Friends Journal each month. We stride forward together into a very momentous time for Quakerism on this Earth, I believe. Thank you for holding me, and each other, in the Light.

Gabriel Ehri
Executive Director Designate

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