News April 2017

Controversy over Palestinian speaker at Friends’ Central School

Sa’ed Atshan. Photo from Facebook.

In early February, administrators at Philadelphia’s Friends’ Central School canceled a talk by invited scholar Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian Quaker and tenure-track professor of peace and conflict studies at the Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa. Atshan had been invited to speak to the school’s Peace and Equality in Palestine club. Atshan’s talk was scheduled to take place on a Friday. On Wednesday the week of the talk, school administrators canceled the event.

Communications to families from the school administrators cited concerns expressed by parents over the nature of Atshan’s work. Craig Sellers, head of school, informed parents that he cancelled Atshan’s speech and that he would be forming a task force to look into parents’ concerns. In addition, Sellers stated that Friends’ Central will not host any outside speakers to discuss the Middle East at this time.

After learning of the cancellation, 65 students walked out of the school’s weekly “meeting for sharing” on Wednesday. Other students remained at the meeting and read a statement responding to the cancellation. The day the talk was scheduled to take place, students held a meeting to discuss their concerns. About a dozen teachers were present at this meeting, along with approximately 40 students. After the discussion, students marched to the high school gym, carrying signs protesting the cancellation.

Two of the teachers at the Friday meeting, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, also sponsor the Peace and Equality in Palestine club at Friends’ Central. On the Monday following the student meeting, Eure and Helwa were suspended from the school indefinitely. The teachers were called to an off-campus meeting, and told that they were being placed on administrative leave because they were present at the student meeting, after being told not to attend.

Friends’ Central School parents have in the past expressed concerns over proceeds from school events being donated to American Friends Service Committee. AFSC supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which aims to create change in Israel through economic incentives. According to a message from the school’s board of trustees in April 2016, Friends’ Central “will not direct funds to the BDS work of any organization on either side of the issue.” Friends’ Central School is an independent Quaker school, not affiliated with AFSC or any yearly meeting.

At press, Friends’ Central had received over 400 letters from alumni and community members expressing concerns over the handling of these events. Sellers and Atshan met to discuss the proposed talk and surrounding controversy in mid-February. After the meeting, Friends’ Central staff stated that Sellers and FCS are “keeping the lines of communication open.” Teachers Eure and Helwa remain on administrative leave at this time.

Atshan wrote an article for the October 2015 Friends Journal titled “Realizing Wholeness: Reflections from a Gay Palestinian Quaker.”

AFSC appoints new general secretary

On February 13, American Friends Service Committee announced the appointment of a new general secretary, Joyce Ajlouny. She will be joining AFSC beginning September 1.

Ajlouny comes to AFSC from her work at Friends United Meeting and as the director of Ramallah Friends School in Palestine. She has worked in international development and education for over 25 years, focusing at times on minority rights, economic development, gender equality, and humanitarian aid. In the online announcement, Phil Lord, clerk of AFSC’s board of the directors, commented, “Rooted in her upbringing as a Palestinian American Quaker, and with a lifelong dedication to putting faith into action, Joyce shares a deep commitment to AFSC’s peace and social justice mission and the values that guide our work.”

The current general secretary, Shan Cretin, will continue to serve with AFSC until her retirement in August. Read our interview with Ajlouny in this issue.

Northwest Yearly Meeting announces plans to split

Northwest Yearly Meeting has been contending with differing approaches to sexuality and gender among its monthly meetings since 2015. In the summer of 2015, the yearly meeting announced that West Hills Friends Church in Portland, Ore., would be removed from NWYM due to noncompliance with the yearly meeting’s governing Faith and Practice. NWYM received over 200 appeals of the decision to remove West Hills Friends, and the action was paused.

Since 2015, three more monthly meetings have been added to the list of noncomplying meetings that NWYM has considered removing. These meetings have adopted practices and/or policies that support sexual and gender minorities, in contrast to the published Faith and Practice of NWYM. In January, NWYM’s Administrative Council announced plans for a restructuring of the yearly meeting. This restructuring amounts to a split between meetings that advocate a “revised” Faith and Practice in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Friends, and meetings that adhere to the current Faith and Practice.

The current Faith and Practice of NWYM condemns expressions of sexuality and gender outside of marriage and cis-heterosexual norms. It refers to “distorted and perverse forms of sexuality,” and includes homosexuality in a list of sexual sins along with sexual violence, incest, and sex acts with animals. NWYM’s Faith and Practice identifies heterosexual relations within marriage as the only form of sexual expression acceptable to God and Friends.

The restructuring proposed by the Administrative Council would split NWYM into two yearly meetings; one to retain the name of Northwest Yearly Meeting, and a second yet unnamed yearly meeting. Those meetings that align with the current Faith and Practice would retain the name and structure of NWYM. Meetings that advocate for a more inclusive approach to sexuality will form the new yearly meeting. In addition, the restructuring process will allow for individual monthly meetings to split from the yearly meeting structure completely and become independent meetings.

As part of the restructuring, meetings that split from NWYM, either to become independent or to join a newly formed yearly meeting, will be allowed to retain their church property. Where issues arise regarding property or other aspects of leaving NWYM, they will be addressed by a transition team. The transition team will report to NWYM’s Administrative Council. The plan includes a goal of completing the restructuring process before the end of June 2018. It is unclear how many meetings may leave the NWYM structure, but several meetings have announced plans to hold threshing sessions over the question of whether to leave or remain within Northwest Yearly Meeting. West Hills Friends, originally denounced by NWYM in 2015, will participate in the restructuring plan along with other local meetings and churches.

Cookeville Meeting continues peace initiatives

Faye Watts (second from left), Cookeville High School art teacher, with three student winners at the January awards ceremony.

Cookeville (Tenn.) Meeting continues encouraging young people in the community to think about peace through two ongoing initiatives: a monthly peace witness at a local public high school and an annual peace essay contest for students.

Since 2005 meeting member Hector Black has set up a table once a month from 11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the common area of Cookeville High School, part of the Putnam County School System. The goal of the peace table is to emphasize that peaceable solutions to world problems are preferable to military responses. Military recruiters are active in the school.

Black is sometimes joined by other Friends and volunteers from peace-oriented groups, including Veterans for Peace, the Peace Corps, and nearby churches. He wrote about this calling and initial difficulties in a February 2006 Friends Journal article, “Counter-Recruitment in Cookeville, Tennessee.”

Ralph Bowden, recording clerk of Cookeville Meeting, explained that the peace table staffers do not preach against military service. “But they do stress that potential recruits must fully understand the implications and consequences of enlistment, and be exposed to other options as part of their education,” Bowden said.

The meeting’s other peace initiative is what has become the Interfaith Peace Project. This originated in 2010 as an essay contest for juniors and seniors in Putnam County’s three high schools. The idea came from Black and fellow meeting member Deanna Nipp-Kientz. The project has since grown and expanded to accept other forms of written expression and the visual arts. Themes for entries change each year, and are related to questions of peace and social witness. Awards are granted, and currently range from $50 to $250.

By 2015 the project had grown enough that leadership needed to be passed on. Cookeville’s First Presbyterian Church was willing to lead the effort, with significant input from Cookeville Meeting. A new committee was formed, presided over by the Presbyterian pastor. “Interfaith” was added to the name to emphasize the ecumenical sponsorship, and for the first time the competition was expanded to all grade levels and home school students.

This year’s theme was “Peace and Racial Harmony,” and the awards ceremony was held on January 15 at the First Presbyterian Church.

To support the project, Cookeville Meeting is establishing a fund in memory of Deanna Nipp-Kientz, who passed away in 2012. Deanna’s husband, Turtle Kientz, is providing seed money with a generous grant. For the time being, the fund will be used to provide and possibly augment awards for entries judged “Best of Show.” If the fund grows, plans include offering grants to deserving students. Find more information on the meeting’s website

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