Books October 2013
The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time
By Bob Harris. Walker & Company, 2013. 353 pages. $26/hardcover.
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
Bob Harris is a journalist who got a job reviewing the most luxurious hotels in the world. Increasingly overwhelmed by the stupefying excess, he found himself in Dubai sharing a fancy complimentary hotel food basket with some hungry migrant workers from India. He began to wonder: was there a way he could use the $20,000 he was being paid for the project to help even out some of that obscene inequality?
With Appalachian miners and Ohio factory workers in his background, he knew that a lifetime of hard work counted little against the impact of the birth lottery. It wasn’t hard to see that, in international terms, he was a massive winner of that lottery. His mind kept working on this puzzle through the rest of his trip, and he gradually honed some principles for a sharing program.
It would address poverty in the developing world. It would build economics, not just fix emergencies. The ideas wouldn’t come out of ideology, but out of practical needs. Varied and specific, embedded in community standards, the program would be designed by local people. With a direct connection, a lender could know what the cash did and where, but wouldn’t need to fully understand the local customs and economy.
Bob soon discovered that there was an organization already helping people do exactly that. Kiva is a nonprofit web-based program that facilitates the making of no-interest people-to-people loans all over the world. Lending was not an immediate fit with the ideas of charity that Bob had been raised on. “If you’re lending to an ongoing small business, what’s the disaster you’re responding to? Where’s the tragedy? Who’s the victim?” he thought. But the concept fit with his new principles.
Using his journalism contacts to get a book deal, Bob set out on another worldwide adventure, minus all the luxury hotels. This time he would be meeting the people who distribute and benefit from Kiva loans. So we travel a second time with Bob to Peru, Serbia, East Africa, and many points in Asia, as he helps us reach across borders to meet our neighbors, and invites us to be changed.
He suggests that, at the heart of it, the process is simple. “In the end, to see anything clearly here is simply to see where you are, look the people around you in the eye, and realize that you risk being changed by the result. Exactly like anywhere else.”
Readers might find this book valuable for a number of reasons. It is an engaging travelogue, written with humor and an attractively humble tone. We’re introduced to good people whom we would likely never have had access to—people who are working to make things better for themselves and their neighbors—and absorb on-the-ground insight into what encourages economic development in their communities. With brief, incisive commentary, we learn some of the socio-political and economic contexts in which these people are living. We also get a comprehensive look at the inner workings of Kiva, a remarkable nonprofit effort that has unleashed a torrent of sharing all over the world. (While I wouldn’t suggest Kiva as a substitute for our Quaker Right Sharing of World Resources, it might fill a different niche for some—or be the perfect match for friends, neighbors, or coworkers.) Finally, despite his best efforts to keep himself out of the center, we share a voyage of discovery with Bob, whose life has been transformed by this journey.
In Beirut, a man whose life had been shattered by factional, national, religious, and tribal conflict put into words the value that motivates many of the people he met: You love more, you win. “Maybe,” says Bob, “life takes on meaning to the degree that our efforts and love are connected. Maybe the birth lottery can’t really change that for anyone. Maybe the world has at least this much fairness: as long as a person can love, their life matters.”
Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.
Turn the World Around: A Photojournalist Discovers Paths to Peace Traveling a War-torn Planet
By Blair Seitz. RB Books, 2013. 382 pages. $19.95/paperback.
Reviewed by Brent Bill
While the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” is true, in the case of Blair Seitz’s photographs in Turn the World Around, the words that accompany them bring more illumination than the photos could alone. That’s because this is not so much a book about photography or photographs as it is about a soul who was and is changed by the act of picture taking.
Seitz, raised a Mennonite, tells the tale of his soul enlarging through stories of his more notable photographic assignments for Oxfam, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Mennonite Central Committee, and other relief agencies. His photographs have been syndicated worldwide by Camera Press London to various magazines and newspapers, including Time, Newsweek, National Geographic Traveler, and The Guardian. He has traveled the world, too, on assignment for major companies, composing photographs that have appeared in commercial pieces and advertisements. To say he is an accomplished photographer is an understatement.
While photographers such as myself will be engrossed in details of cameras, lenses, film types, lighting, developing, and air-expressing negatives and photographs to meet deadlines from remote places of the earth, all readers will benefit from the stories and insights that Seitz commits to (non-photographic) paper.
With Seitz, the reader travels the world, sees horrific living conditions, encounters amazingly resilient human beings, experiences both despair and joy, and is changed for the better. We visit Africa, Israel, Palestine, China, the Philippines, and more as Seitz photographs the famous—Pope John Paul II, United Nations’ general secretaries, presidents, World Bank officials—and the not-so—Mattel factory workers in the Philippines, Rwandan refugee children, Malawian fisherman, Chinese school children. It is clear from his narrative that his heart and photographic eye are most taken by the not-so-famous. And we are richer for that. Emotionally and socially sensitive, Seitz shares the stories that matter most to him—those which he believes should matter to the reader, too. His photographs live the sentiment once shared by famous photographer Dorothea Lange: “The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects.”
Seitz’s photographs have consequences. That’s what makes this book important. Not the photographs, per se, or even the stories behind them, but their consequences. There are consequences for the reader—as she or he is left to grapple with the situations portrayed in these pictures. What do these photographs and their stories call us to do for the people whose lives we could touch?
Another thing that makes this book important is the story of how Seitz is changed. He is honest about his ambitions, his dreams, his shortcomings, his struggles. His photographic journeys change him. They become a pilgrimage of the soul. As he confronts his ambitions,—to be famous, to be published in National Geographic, to be a successful publisher—he senses a call to a deeper life. That call sometimes leads him though what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” The Light breaks through, slowly, but confidently, at Pendle Hill with wise teachers, Quaker process, and opportunities to go deeper into his life’s calling and meaning.
Light, obviously, is important to photographers—it’s our medium. It’s the tool we work with. But the Light can be equally important to photographers by helping us see in new ways and helping us share that vision in a world-changing way. And that’s the story that Seitz relates.
This is not to say that the book doesn’t have its shortcomings. For a book about photographs, the pictures are not reproduced as well as they could have been. I found this disappointing as they could be more powerful had they been presented in a better format. This is, I think, one of the trade-offs of trying to make a book affordable; high quality photographic reproduction is not inexpensive. Readers wanting to see just how good a photographer Seitz is should visit his website at www.blairseitz.com. Also, I was a bit put off by the author referring to himself in the text in the first person and in the photo captions as “the author.”
Still, this is a fine book of personal and spiritual development, as well as moving stories and photographs. It reminds us that we are each called to be witnesses and activists—some by serving meals, some by protesting, some by lobbying, some by donating funds, and some by photographing so that more people can be rallied to the cause of “doing unto the least of these.” Seitz’s book calls us to our own duty of turning the world around.
Brent Bill is a Friends minister, author, and photographer who lives in rural Indiana. He is a member of West Newton (Ind.) Meeting.
A Principled Stand: The Story of Hirabayashi v. United States
By Gordon K. Hirabayashi with James A. Hirabayashi and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi. University of Washington Press, 2013. 212 pages. $29.95/hardcover.
Reviewed by Mitchell Santine Gould
Several years ago, the family of Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi (1918-2012) graciously allowed me to conduct a phone interview with the elderly Quaker activist, despite knowing it would be difficult for me to obtain useful insights since “Gordie” was by then afflicted with dementia. I already knew that in 1942, as a University of Washington student, he had flouted wartime curfews directed solely at Japanese Americans and, more significantly, defied the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in the many concentration camps which dotted the most remote stretches of the American landscape, including my own hometown of Rohwer, Ark.
In association with the Young Women’s Christian Association; then Washington State Senator Mary Farquharson; University Friends Meeting; the Fellowship of Reconciliation; the American Friends Service Committee; and the American Civil Liberties Union, Gordon fought this patently discriminatory and unconstitutional action all the way to the Supreme Court, losing in 1943, as did Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui. The Issei (Japanese term for those born in Japan) and Nisei (for those born in the United States) generations of immigrants posed practically no security threat, as policy makers themselves well understood at the time—this much was discovered by researchers in 1983. Some historians today believe that the ultimate motivation for the exclusion was a ruthless land grab by white farmers.
Because Gordon’s mind wandered, I found it too difficult to get coherent answers over the phone. In A Principled Stand, however, James and Lane Hirabayashi reveal that a native tendency for his thoughts to wander actually predated his illness by many decades; they believe it may have proved so challenging that Gordon was unable to produce his own autobiography for the University of Washington Press. These editors have done us a great service in wrestling Gordon’s disorganized diaries and letters into the autobiography he had hoped to leave us. Of course, while general readers win access to Gordon’s legacy thanks to the book’s clarity, scholars may desire to reference the original sources in order to feel confident that the nuances and details of Gordon’s story are accurately cited.
This book attempts to explain the evolution of Gordon’s patriotic defiance, which can ultimately be traced all the way back into the nineteenth century when Japan was just opening to the West. A young Christian convert named Kanzo Uchimura visited America, where he was profoundly inspired by Philadelphia Quakers. So much, in fact, that when he returned to Japan, Uchimura founded a new religion that fused the bushido samurai tradition with the Quaker way, calling it Mukyokai (non-church religion). A Principled Stand unfortunately neglects to mention that Gordon’s acts of civil disobedience were repeatedly anticipated in Uchimura’s own life, and I view this as one of the book’s shortcomings. Gordon’s father was a Mukyokai resident of the Japanese Alps before bringing his faith to an idyllic Washington State commune called White River Garden. This unique spiritual upbringing predisposed Gordon not only to become a conscientious objector in 1941, but also to choose Quakerism over the other supportive peace churches such as Mennonite.
The Friend who emerges from this book is in many ways a fine exemplar of the virtues which some Quakers call SPICE: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. Certainly the central virtue of integrity was demonstrated time and time again by his determination to live in harmony with his values, no matter how high the personal cost. Never a particularly original or profound thinker himself, Gordon was not gifted with any unusual eloquence. The book hints instead at the simple force of his moral integrity when bolstered by an inspired ecumenical community. He absorbed the ideals of liberal Christianity as expounded by a contemporary theologian named Harry Emerson Fosdick, as well as the stirring examples furnished by Quaker history, and learned directly from greats of the nonviolence movement, such as Bayard Rustin. Indeed, it would be very illuminating to compare these two minority activists, both of whom went to jail as conscientious objectors and were imprisoned again for essentially “breathing while a minority.” Gordon was subject to internment merely because of his race, and Bayard was jailed for engaging in same-sex acts a decade later.
Whereas Bayard was shrewd, charismatic, and eloquent, and became so vital to national progressive organizations that it would not have been feasible for him to take on any role as a Quaker leader, one wonders whether the far more retiring Gordon could ever have become a more widely recognized Quaker figure. His potential influence was undercut by the shame and silence which lingered for decades among the Japanese American community over the internment and the three failed Supreme Court challenges. In the 1980s, when America was finally ready to repudiate the actual disgrace—a massive violation of the Fifth Amendment—Quakers largely failed to acknowledge the historic rulings of the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Wash., and the Federal Appeals Court as a significant moment in Quaker history. Nor has the personal example of Gordon Hirabayashi so far earned its rightful place of honor among most Quakers.
I hope that Friends will set aside their treasured volumes on Fox and Nayler long enough to make room for A Principled Stand and the lives of modern-day Quaker heroes such as Rustin and Hirabayashi. Surely, given the concerted persecution of minorities in contemporary America, the courage to defy Japanese American internment ought to speak quite eloquently to our condition. “Can it happen again?” Gordon asked the judge who reconsidered the illegality of internment. He then suggested an answer, “Yes. It is vitally important to ensure that bizarre solutions have less opportunity to occur again.”
Mitchell Santine Gould enables financial advisors to collect data for use in emergencies. Curator of Leavesofgrass.org, he is the leading authority on Walt Whitman’s rise among “sailors, lovers, and Quakers.” Together with the LGBT Religious Archives Network, he documents the historical intersection between Quakers and gay people.
Muslim, Christian, Jew: The Oneness of God and the Unity of Our Faith . . . A Personal Journey in Three Abrahamic Religions
By Arthur G. Gish. Cascade Books, 2012. 238 pages. $26/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Amal Khoury
Interfaith dialogue is not only possible, but necessary in this interconnected globalized world. This is the main point that Arthur Gish makes in Muslim, Christian, Jew: The Oneness of God and the Unity of Our Faith . . . A Personal Journey in Three Abrahamic Religions. Published posthumously, the book provides an encouraging counter narrative to religiously motivated violence through the author’s personal reflection on and experience with interfaith dialogue. In a timely and accessible book full of inspiring stories of human witness and rich with practical experience, Gish reflects on his work with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Israel/Palestine, as well as his personal daily journey of faith in the three Abrahamic religions in his hometown of Athens, Ohio.
In order to defy the notion that religion itself calls for violence (or is violent), Gish grounds his ideas and stories in history, theory, and modern scholarship by introducing the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and highlighting the similarities and differences between them. His main assumption is that the three faith traditions are different branches of the same tree. This makes it possible for him, as a Christian, to also practice Judaism and Islam and worship in the three religions without losing his faith. He calls on everyone to understand the core and true calling of the Abrahamic faiths and to look closely at the different scriptures. Religion, according to him, brings us together. It is the interpretation of religion that is divisive.
Gish does not deny the fact that violence has been committed in the name of religion. He even has a chapter on the three Abrahamic religions and violence. However, he states that there are “no religious wars anywhere in the world and that wars are fought for social and economic reasons: for power, control, and greed.” Religion is used as a tool to mobilize people in conflicts. For that reason, he calls on everyone to see the humanity of others, to move beyond interpretations, and to separate the spiritual from the political, in order to engage with others in nonviolent ways. “Dialogue will be difficult if our faith is mixed with nationalism, patriotism, racism, materialism, or any other form of idolatry, because these ‘isms’ muddle the heart of our faith.”
In this increasingly interconnected world, Gish wants to build bridges between religions, and he calls for interfaith dialogue. Through his inspiring stories, he shows that this is possible if we understand faith to be a way of life. Dialogue is not about agreeing on everything; it is about respecting and learning from others and bettering ourselves. Everyone can engage in interfaith dialogue; it is not merely an academic endeavor. “The value of interfaith dialogue is severely limited if it mainly involves academics discussing abstract issues unconnected with struggles for social justice.” It is something that one can practice in daily life while interacting with others from different religions. Dialogue is not necessarily talking about faith; it should also included engaging in secular activities in which healthy relationships between individuals are built. “There is little value of having dialogue about dialogue. Neither is interfaith dialogue reserved for academics and religious professionals. It can happen on many levels, be planned or spontaneous, formal or informal.”
Arthur Gish’s book talks to all of us, the spiritual and the secular. It highlights how one’s actions are important and how they influence the cycles of violence and peace. It comes at a crucial time in history when religion and religious intolerance are considered reasons for violence, and when wars are attributed to irreconcilable differences in religious values. Gish, a peace activist, provides hope and a vision for creating a peaceful world.
Amal Khoury is assistant professor and chairperson of the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at Guilford College. She is a co-author of Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East.
Friends in Deed: The Story of Quaker Social Reform in America
By Susan Sachs Goldman. Highmark Press, 2012. 241 pages. $23/paperback.
Reviewed by Antonia Smith
When I tell people that I am Quaker, the first response I receive is usually the question, “That’s like the Amish, right?” It is this broad lack of familiarity and understanding of Quakerism and Quaker history that Susan Sachs Goldman wishes to address in her book Friends in Deed. Sometimes Quakers are better at describing what they are not, rather than what they are, but Goldman recognizes that knowing and understanding the actions of Friends is the best way to learn about Quaker faith. In Friends in Deed, Goldman highlights many of the Religious Society of Friends best historic moments within her highly readable narrative of the long and complex history of Quaker influence in all of the major social movements and institutions of American history.
Goldman’s search begins in the present with her experience with Quaker schooling. From this starting point, she moves backward, tracing the history of Quakers in America and revealing how deeply embedded the movement has been in social justice movements such as civil rights for Native Americans and African Americans, women’s rights, treatment of mentally ill patients and prisoners, and anti-war and nonviolence efforts. Her goal is to uncover or reveal Quaker influence in the creation and reform of institutions that we interact with daily, but the history of such institutions is often lost or hidden from us.
This book is not intended to be a critical inquiry, but rather an overview of Quaker history that draws the reader in by referencing familiar institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals. Goldman draws her information from a select number of sources, many of which are Pendle Hill or other Quaker publications. Much of this information will not be new to Friends who already have an understanding of our history. However, the book is very informative and engaging for those looking for an introduction to the social impact Quakers have had and to Quaker legacy. As Bruce Stewart notes in his foreword, the “sway of the Religious Society of Friends on the evolution of American values and culture” has been pervasive. While it has been noted that Quakers in America happened to be in the right place at the right time to make an impact that far exceeded their numbers, that impact has never lessened.
Goldman also attempts to link Quaker belief with daily Quaker practice, something that is challenging to show and rare to find in general historical narrative. Quaker religious beliefs deny the necessity of force and violence and recognize that the institutions of slavery, the forced internment of Native Americans, the brutal treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill were all misguided ventures and fundamentally wrong. Through examining Quaker practice, she shows that the perceived division between God’s way and man’s way is false; there is no reason or excuse in allowing man’s proclivity for greed and violence to overshadow the way of truth and light.
Many of the struggles within the Quaker community are discussed as well. Friends in Deed provides a solid reminder of Friends’ place as the first religious group to publicly denounce slavery—beginning with George Fox himself—but Goldman also describes the long process of convincing fellow Quaker slaveholders to release their slaves so that the Society as a whole could be an example to others. Goldman illustrates her history with some controversial, yet memorable vignettes such as the story of Benjamin Lay, an abolitionist who kidnapped a white child in order to demonstrate the pain experienced by enslaved black families. Goldman also describes in her narrative the occasional struggle Quakers had with practicing nonviolence, particularly during wartime. While Quakers who fought in the Revolutionary War were often read out of their meetings, Quakers who fought against slavery in the Civil War—in unprecedented numbers—often were not punished as harshly.
This is an excellent book for new Friends and the curious who seek grounding in action and social justice as a way towards better understanding our roots of faith. In fact, this book might be the best way for the uninitiated to learn what Quakers are all about. For all readers, Friends in Deed is not only a call to remember, but also a call to action.
Antonia Smith is a member of Fifteenth Street (N.Y.) Meeting where she is a student and teacher of history and education.
White Women Getting Real About Race: Their Stories About What They Learned Teaching in Diverse Classrooms
Edited by Judith M. James and Nancy Peterson. Stylus Publishing, 2013. 208 pages. $24.95/paperback; $19.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Patience Schenck
In this powerful book, 11 white women, several of them Quakers, write about what they learned teaching in racially diverse classrooms. Their experiences were gained in classrooms from preschool to college, teaching students who are primarily African American and Latino. As a former teacher and current racial justice activist, I felt their stories hit home.
Most of the teachers started their careers with professional academic preparation and student teaching, and several of them had obtained a good intellectual understanding of diversity. They understood white privilege and the importance of looking beyond racial and ethnic diversity without denying its significance in the lives of their students. But they all had much to learn as each woman struggled to become an effective teacher for children from cultures different from her own.
Before describing their classroom experiences, the writers delve into the factors that inform their various perspectives on and approaches to teaching. They describe their families of origin, their own educational background, earlier experiences with people of diverse backgrounds, and how all these elements influence their desire to be a teacher. For example, some wanted to “save” the children from what they saw as an inferior culture, or from a deprived home life. Others who had grown up in struggling working class homes held the opinion that if they could make it in this world, so could these children, regardless of the realities of racism. Some wanted too much to be liked by their students. Becoming aware of these motivations and finding better balance in their approach to teaching was often the key to success.
My experience as a teacher is that we all kept our classroom problems to ourselves. I never felt any encouragement to talk about or seek help for discipline problems, and it was up to me to reach every child. I remember many teachers’ room conversations over lunch in which teachers described how they had gained the upper hand in difficult situations and “shown them who is boss.” I would never have shared problems or sought advice in that environment. How I would have loved a book like this in which the teachers are fully honest about their failures as well as their successes, their struggles to overcome blind spots as well as their joys at sharing insights. These teachers go deep and tell their stories with disarming honesty.
The reader is asked to journal after each teacher’s story, using questions at the end of the chapter. As a result, this book encourages readers to deepen their understanding of their own teaching experience, the personal resources they have to offer, and where they need to make adjustments to how they approach the children in their classrooms. I was tempted to skip this important step, but I did not, and I found this reflection to be the heart of the experience of reading this book. As a racial justice activist, I recognize the need to do exactly the same inner search. Am I condescending in my relationships with people of color? Do I expect too little of the people of color I work with? Do I put them on a pedestal regardless of what they offer? Interracial relationships can be difficult, and in unraveling any difficulties, the first place to look is at one’s own attitudes.
I think these stories would be equally helpful to social workers and others who work with people of different backgrounds. If you are a white person with relationships with people whose race or ethnicity is different from yours, I urge you to read this book.
Patience Schenck is a member of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting and the author of the 2011 Pendle Hill pamphlet, Living Our Testimony on Equality: A White Friend’s Experience.