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Reflections from a Jr. Intern

February 20, 2009

Periodically, FCNL hosts Jr. Interns or long term volunteers here at the office. We are always incredibly lucky to benefit from the hard work and enthusiasm of our Jr. Interns and appreciate the added cheer that they bring to the office. Last month, we were lucky enough to host Russell Weiss-Irwin, a high school student from Massachusetts. Here is his reflection on his time with FCNL:

I attend Quaker Meeting every Sunday. I call myself a Quaker. I see my religion as an important part of my life. However, since I am not a spiritual person—I draw no deep fulfillment from sitting in silence; I have had no personal experience of the Spirit; I do not believe in God—I sometimes wonder what the purpose of my religious practice is.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a week off school to do a project pursuing some interest that my high school couldn’t cover with its curriculum, and this project week gave me some answers to my wondering. I worked at the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker-led group which lobbies the U.S. federal government to move towards a better expression of the Quaker values of simplicity, equality, peace, community, and integrity. Specifically, FCNL seeks “a world free of war and the threat of war; a society with equity and justice for all; a community where every person’s potential can be fulfilled; and an earth restored.”

I was working under interns Christine Haider and Stephen Donohoe, who manage FCNL’s relationship with its grassroots membership of Quakers and other social justice-oriented people in all fifty states. Most of the week, I was contacting the most active segment of this membership: those who came to our annual meeting in Washington, D.C. and committed to do grassroots action, whether fundraising, organizing the local constituents of a member of Congress to lobby for an FCNL goal, or trying to bring others in their community into the FCNL base. This might have been a dull exercise at another organization, but I finished nearly every phone call astounded at the activity and dedication of Friends all over the United States. Some were beginning a study of the world economy in Quaker terms, examining its justice and equity, or lack thereof. Others were active in the electoral politics of their area; one woman I spoke to was the Democratic Party chair of her Colorado county, and many had worked on the Obama campaign. One apologized for her lack of attention to FCNL issues for the last few months, because she had been busy pushing the Virginia state government to end the death penalty. These are just a few of more than one hundred stories I heard.

I also saw the other side of what FCNL does—the Hill side. I sat in on a staff meeting at the beginning of the week that examined FCNL’s behind-the-scenes victories of the last two weeks: movement on a Senate bill to ban nuclear testing; one Senator’s verbatim use of an FCNL question on cluster munitions in Secretary of State Clinton’s confirmation hearing; the blocking of the appointment of a belligerent envoy to Iran; the House’s inclusion of a 12-fold increase in funding for weatherization of low-income homes; and the President’s declaration against torture. Some might question the last as an FCNL victory—hadn’t Obama campaigned on ending torture? How could we take credit?

FCNL’s work beginning several years ago to organize religious opposition to torture pushed the issue to the forefront of the nation’s dialogue, in FCNL’s view, and created it as a campaign issue that Obama took hold of. This story opens another important issue around FCNL’s lobbying work: to what extent does the Party or administration in power matter to FCNL’s ability to win on its issues? If John McCain had won the election, it seems unlikely that a similar declaration would have come out of the White House, regardless of FCNL’s actions. On the other hand, without the moral pressure FCNL and other faith groups helped build, would Obama have made ending torture such a priority? It is impossible to say, but it goes to show that no one group or person can claim complete responsibility for what happens in an institution as complex as the United States’ federal government.

I learned more than I had known about just how lobbyists influence government. Many Americans think that it’s the simple tactic we often hear about indicted lobbyists having used: bribery in one form or another. However, the vast majority of lobbyists influence Congress simply by informing them of the facts around an issue and possible solutions to problems. Congress often has a scarcity of useful information about the thousands of different complex issues that they have to decide on, so the best role lobbyists can play is to provide information to Congress about how to govern the nation in the public interest. Applying this tack to the prevention of war, FCNL had me call the Foreign Policy staffers of members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, not to tell them how to vote, or to bribe or threaten them, but to invite them to a panel discussion with some ambassadors on how to properly fund diplomacy and foreign aid so that they can effectively prevent wars in advance. The information that members gained at the well-attended meeting will probably make it into future budgets, and the resultant diplomacy could prevent wars and save lives.

So how did my work at FCNL answer any questions about me and my religious practice? I got to see what I am part of. FCNL and I are both part of a stream of Friends’ activism that stretches back and (hopefully) forward in history, covering several continents and many issues. Some see Quakers’ greatest activism in nineteenth-century abolitionism, or twentieth-century conscientious objection to war, but I increasingly think that it is occurring now. The Quakers in my community and around the world are courageously confronting the most serious issues that face humanity: nuclear weapons, war, torture, climate change, racism, inequality, capital punishment, genocide, and homophobia, to name a few, and we continue to have influence disproportionate to our tiny numbers.

If I do not believe in God, I do believe in our struggle. If I have had no personal experience of the Spirit, I have had a personal experience of that change that Friends can lovingly bring to human society. And although I find no great fulfillment in sitting in silence, I certainly don’t dislike it—and I am sustained by the lives that speak, and have spoken for centuries, out of that silent tradition.

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