Eileen began her blog, Imperfect Serenity, while she was taking care of two young children and her dying mother, so the title referred to her struggles to stay spiritually grounded during a difficult time. The title still fits as the blog now includes her adventures in eco-justice activism and book publicity.

Saturday
May032014

Not Standing Alone

Direct action is never quite how you practiced it. At the run-through the night before the PNC annual shareholder meeting in Tampa, Florida I was one of several people who role played how we planned to stand up during the meeting, take off our business jackets to reveal t-shirts that said, “Praying for PNC to act responsibly” on one side and “No $ for Mountaintop Removal” on the other. Then we planned to close our eyes and pray for the duration of the meeting or until they kicked us out. As we debriefed the role play at the St. Petersburg Friends Meeting, I said how comforted I felt by the grounded woman standing next to me—so it was ironic that when the real moment came, I had to stand in the meeting alone, which turned out to be a deep spiritual experience.

The previous year, members of Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT pronounced “equate”) interrupted PNC Bank’s annual shareholder meeting so powerfully that the CEO shut it down in seventeen minutes. We didn’t want to try to top that, so we knew from the start that we wouldn’t be doing exactly the same thing. But when PNC Bank moved their 2014 meeting to Tampa, Fl—which happened to be a city where we had allies eager to work with us—it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The global group SumOfUs raised the funds so a few of us from Philadelphia could head to Florida to train and organize a wonderful, intergenerational group of Quakers who acted quickly to take advantage of this moment of what Quakers call "way opening." 

PNC was clearly concerned about a repeat of last year. Maybe the PNC execs just wanted to golf in Florida, but it seems more than a coincidence that they picked a state where it’s a second-degree misdemeanor to interrupt a meeting. Even carrying a sign during a meeting is illegal in Florida, and the PNC shareholder materials spent a lot of ink listing the many things you could be kicked out or arrested for. One thing they didn’t mention was praying, so given our recent powerful experience of silent worship during our civil disobedience against the Keystone XL pipeline, we agreed that a silent witness would serve our purpose, which was really just to tell PNC that we had not gone away and that we’d be back July 3, when we will be organizing a major action at their corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh with Quakers from across North America. 

Most of the group of 26 held a rally on the sidewalk outside the hotel where PNC was meeting, which Sam Shain turned into an opportunity to teach the Florida Quakers street-speaking. Nine of us planned to enter the meeting with proxies from PNC shareholders. Hannah Jeffrey planned to read a statement during the final question and answer period. When we arrived in our business attire (looking quite spiffy I must say), we found that PNC staff were recording our addresses and excluding most of our proxies on a technicality that they had not enforced during the previous three shareholder meetings that we had attended. Because the shares my proxy represented were not bought through a broker, I was exempt from the additional paperwork requirement and cleared to enter the meeting.

EQAT Coordinator Matthew Armstead, who planned to negotiate with security on behalf of everyone else, had the same kind of proxy I did and thought he would also get into the meeting, so he urged me to wait for him before standing up. However, as soon as I entered the meeting and walked to an empty seat by the center aisle, it was clear that it was moving at high speed. Since cell phones had been banned I didn’t have a time piece, but it felt like I was only a little bit late, and they were half-way through their short agenda. Glancing toward the door for Matthew, I knew in my gut that I was on my own, so I tried to take a deep breath and center.

A week earlier, I had been pretty nervous about my role as the person who would stand up first and had asked a few F/friends to hold me in prayer. When the moment arrived, however, I didn’t feel at all afraid of standing before the PNC CEO and other executives, who were on an elevated stage at the front. I wasn’t even afraid of getting arrested since it would be such a public relations disaster for PNC if they arrested someone for praying, especially in the south. All my nervousness had to do with the question of when I should stand up. I had emphasized during our training that this was not some kind of skit. It would really only feel powerful if we were actually praying, and I wasn’t sure if I could do that well while dealing with security, which I would have to do if Matthew wasn’t there as a buffer. 

As I tried to think this through, PNC started playing an inane video, so most of the room was dark. If I stood then I might not be seen at all. It came to me that with such a short time to make my witness, I should at least pick a symbolic moment, so I decided to wait until after they announced the expected rejection of the Boston Common shareholder resolution, which asked them to count the carbon cost of their investments—not the same as our demand that they stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining but related. Waiting for that moment would also give Matthew one more minute to get in, if he was going to. 

They called for proxy votes and announced the resolution was rejected almost in one breath it was so quick. I had unbuttoned my pin-stripe jacket, so as PNC Secretary Christi Davis finished her report, I stood, pulled off the jacket and scarf that had been hiding the green words on my white t-shirt, and closed my eyes. It seemed to be moments later that CEO Bill Demchak called the meeting over with no questions or comments from the floor, which had been the final item on the agenda. 

With my eyes closed, I felt a man (the chief of PNC security, I believe) step behind me. “I need to say hello to a friend,” he said to someone ahead of us who was seeking his attention, but he said nothing to me as I continued standing in silence, hoping that as everyone else filtered out of the room they would at least notice I was there and read my t-shirt. At first I listened to hear if I was getting any reaction, but then I remembered my insistence the night before and that morning in the parking lot that we should really try to pray, so I tried to focus. 

Despite having written a book on the Serenity Prayer, I’m actually not that confident about praying. I get distracted easily and don't believe in telling God what to do, so I usually pray for something vague like “the best possible outcome,” when I pray over a specific situation. Hannah Jeffrey had lead us in an exercise the night before to help us stay grounded in this exact moment, but what came to me vividly in that hotel conference room was not the people praying for me back in Philadelphia—who I had planned to use as an anchor—but Dustin White and his West Virginia mountains.

It had been just about a year earlier that Dustin had driven me out to see mountaintop removal for myself. I was aware that he spent a lot of time driving people like me around, outsiders who could put the poisoned water out of mind once they went home if they wanted to. I had wondered what I could do to make my visit worth Dustin’s while. The blog post I wrote afterward didn’t really seem to do it justice. But standing in that posh Florida conference room with my eyes closed, I knew I was inextricably linked to Dustin and his mountains, to Maria Gunnoe and Junior Walk—other Appalachian allies of EQAT—as well as to my friends in southern Africa, where climate change is already diminishing the crops and making the weather weird. We are all One. Feeling that connection is actually my understanding of gathered Quaker worship. It is also our fundamental message to PNC in a way—that they can’t separate themselves from the consequences of their business decisions. So the tactic and the witness felt united in that moment.

When it sounded like most people had exited the room, I walked out and found that those who had been denied entrance were also standing with their t-shirts visible in a silent line that shareholders had to walk past because PNC had made everyone come through one door. After another minute of standing in worship together, we all walked out to join our more raucous friends picketing outside the hotel. At the debrief afterward it was clear that forging wonderful connections had been a theme of the day. These Florida Quakers from seven monthly meetings (congregations) had never worked together like this before and vowed to do so again. Sitting under the umbrellas at Panera, we discussed how we could build on the Florida-Pennsylvania connections, too, especially as we head toward the national Gathering and our action on July 3. That work of strengthening connections is already moving forward.

Although I initially wondered if I should have stood up sooner, I realized as soon as I spoke to a reporter that it sounds pretty kick ass on my part that they shut down the meeting as soon as I stood up. In fact that framing started circulating immediately, and we quickly revised the first version of the press release to take out that implication. It’s important to me that we be accurate since it seems quite likely to me that the meeting was on the verge on ending anyway, not because of my presence in the room but because of EQAT’s ongoing witness around the issue of mountaintop removal. PNC’s annual shareholder meeting wasn’t ended by me. They rushed themselves through in fifteen minutes (even shorter than last year and much shorter than previous years) because of us.

In the end, I didn’t feel alone at all.

Wednesday
Jul312013

Southern Africa Trip: One Year Later

Exactly a year ago I jumped out of my rental car on a bridge in Francistown, Botswana and took this picture of the dry Shashe River bed, knowing that I’d use it in talks about climate change in Africa. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I landed in Botswana, and the anniversary is making me nostalgic for that trip and aware of all the stories and pictures I never shared on this blog.

I have a good friend, a white American, whose husband is West African. When she saw this picture of a Botswana supermarket, she exclaimed, “Oh, thank you for taking this picture!” Like me, she is aware that Americans get most of their images of Africa from The Lion King and The Nature Channel, though Africa has changed much more quickly than our stereotypes of it. In fact, it was amazing to see how much Botswana had changed technologically. Friends who didn’t have running water or electricity twenty-five years earlier, all have it now, though writing about climate change also made me aware of the costs of development. In my old village, everyone now has flush toilets, though the village runs out of water for days at a time.
 

One thing that felt the same was the African expression of ubuntu, the concept that our humanity is formed in relation to other people. I experienced wonderful hospitality in both South Africa and Botswana, from both old friends and new acquaintances. One effect of the trip was that I came home wanting to be a more generous person. That’s going so-so, though the picture to the lower right captures a moment when I pulled it off. My old friend Mmadithapelo (on right in the picture on the left) had mentioned on the phone that her son Mopati was a great musician but that his guitar had broken when it fell off a truck. That night, my husband Tom mentioned that he knew someone who was giving away a really good guitar and wanted it to go to someone who would appreciate it. The schlep through three airports was totally worth it for this moment of seeing Mopati with his new guitar, especially when some of his friends came up and starting singing along as he played.

I was struck by how ubuntu seemed to shape many policies of the Botswana government, which has used much of its diamond revenue on behalf of the people, whereas South Africa’s vast wealth has always stayed in a relatively few hands, a legacy of apartheid and the colonialism that led to it. The difference in housing seemed to capture the difference. The picture to the left is a typical but modest home in Botswana. The one to the right is a type of home I saw in every South African town I visited, and one of the images that has stayed with me most strongly.

Part of the reason I haven’t blogged more this year is that I came home inspired to work harder at both my activism and my writing. More about my trip and how it has affected me has been published in other places: Friends Journal, Science of Mind, Waging Nonviolence, and a soon to be published piece in Christian Century. Some of the stories are also part of a forthcoming book. Looking back a year later I feel tremendous gratitude for the experience and all it’s birthed.

Tuesday
May072013

Sacrilege

Dustin WhiteA little over a week ago, I attended a gathering in Kentucky organized by Read the Spirit, a wonderful interfaith publishing group that has been very supportive of my work. (You can read more about that gathering though the above link.) As soon as I started planning the trip, I knew that I should also use the opportunity to visit a mountaintop removal site in Appalachia. Despite all I’ve been learning about this devastating practice through my work with Earth Quaker Action Team, I had never actually seen it myself. My friend Dustin White of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition agreed to take me to a site in West Virginia, so I stopped to see him on my way home from Kentucky.

Dustin has been though this many times, escorting wide-eyed outsiders as they snap photos of his decimated community. Only a few days earlier he had brought people from the UN to see what it looks like when a coal company blows up a mountain for profit. Like me, they had probably seen the pictures before. In fact, the aerial photos on the Internet are visually more dramatic than the pictures I was able to take, peaking through the trees from one mountain to the next. Still, being there in person was a moving experience, partly because it feels so eerie when life has been removed from a place.

As we drove closer to Hobet 21, the houses disappeared, though isolated driveways and telephone polls showed where families had once lived. We parked near a local cemetery, our cover for being there, and walked up the hill above it to where we could see the twenty-story crane known as “Big John” and the mountain they’ve covered with grass in a feeble attempt to make it green again.

Hobet 21, West VirginiaThe most striking thing to me was the quiet. Behind us we could hear birds and the rustle of wind through leaves. The mountains ahead of us were devoid of life—no birds, no composting leaves, and certainly no people. The people who remain in the wider area are being poisoned by polluted water, one of the reasons Dustin is willing to go through this over and over again with people like me. He’s hoping that if those of us outside of Appalachia know what is happening to his community, maybe we will care—and act.

Those who have been following this blog through the past year know that my commitment to activism around this issue has been growing. What I’ve been feeling lately (and this was increased by people I met at the Read the Spirit gathering) is the need to articulate how my activism and my spirituality relate. Visiting West Virginia reminded me of how many of my early spiritual experiences happened in nature, where I felt my deep interconnectedness with all of life and a force greater than myself, even if I didn’t know what to call it at the time.

Looking over the mountaintop removal pictures again today, I remember an interview I did a few years ago with the Catholic priest and activist Michael Doyle, who served in Camden for decades. He talked about the ideas of Teihard de Chardin, a priest and scientist, who was condemned by the church for his perspective. Michael Doyle said: “The very essence of our sacramental system is matter. Whether it is bread, or water, or oil. If you didn’t have the water, you couldn’t have a baptism. You could lead from there to the idea that matter is so sacred, if you really got that into your bones, how sacred matter is, then I couldn’t take a piece of matter and make it into a weapon that would kill you. I couldn’t do that.”

How would we treat the planet and its people differently if we really treated water (which makes up most of the human body) as sacred? It’s a question worth pondering. In the meantime, it’s clear to me that mountaintop removal is sacrilege. 

Thursday
Mar212013

Why I'm Fasting

Let me just say up front that I am not one of those people who feel all joyful and clearheaded when they’re fasting. The first time I fasted, a few months ago, I was looking at the gummy bear vitamins by 7am, wondering if eating a handful would be cheating. I had decided to fast one day a week before my civil disobedience in February because it felt like I was stepping into a deeper commitment to activism, one that would require sacrifice, and I needed some spiritual preparation. Still, I was nervous about giving up food entirely, so I allowed myself juice and fruit shakes. In fact I spent $5 a pop on the raw vegetable combos available at my local juice bar. I felt noble and healthy, but not very frugal and only moderately deprived. 

This time I’m doing two days with only water as part of Earth Quaker Action Team’s 40-day fast. Again spiritual preparation is part of the purpose. EQAT is planning to escalate our campaign to get PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining, and we want to be grounded. Some of us have also articulated a desire to model sacrifice because transitioning to a society not dependant on fossil fuels is going to require sacrifice, something our culture doesn’t exactly promote. I understand this reasoning and am trying to live into it. For me, the way to do that is to remember that climate change is already causing hunger. 

Although it is always tricky to blame a particular weather event on climate change, the patterns are clear, and many scientists believe that climate change has already contributed to drought and resulting famine. There are many reports. Here’s just one quote summarizing a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute: “Most severely affected will be the wheat-growing regions of South Asia, Europe and Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where production is projected to decline by 46, 47, and 35 percent, respectively. Also under threat are Middle Eastern rice paddies, where production is expected to fall by 36 percent.” Another article I read a few months ago talked about the number of families in a few different African countries who can't afford food every day because of rising maize prices, so they were skipping food one day a week.

When I thought of such people yesterday as I was craving a snack, I told myself for a moment that it might be easier to go without food if you really didn’t have a choice, if there wasn’t food all around you all day long, like the delicious-looking guacamole my son made when he got home from school. I felt sorry for myself for a quick minute then remembered all the reasons skipping a day or two of food is much easier for me. For one thing, I don’t have to watch my children go hungry, which I’m sure is the most painful part of dire poverty. I also have plenty of stored fat from which to draw energy and a work life that I can adapt when I have less energy. I don’t need to go plow the fields on an empty stomach, hoping things will be better next year.

When I come back to EQAT’s reason for fasting as a group and wonder how our sacrifice relates to our allies in Appalachia, I think of the high cancer rates caused by mountaintop removal. I think of people who lose not just their appetites, but their lives and find this experience of deprivation a good reminder of all I take for granted. 

The previous times I’ve fasted, I had a hard time remembering that it was meant to be done prayerfully, but this time I’m trying to remember. My prayer is for transformation, for myself, my organization, and the people suffering most directly from environmental destruction. Knowing that there are people praying for me, as well as others fasting on the same day, is the main thing keeping me from sneaking a snack right now. Experiencing hunger, if only for two days, reminds me of my deep interconnectedness with other people and the earth, which sustains us all.

Thursday
Feb142013

Police Report

Well, it’s Valentines Day, and boy am I feeling the love! Thanks to everyone who prayed for me/held me in the Light during my recent civil disobedience action. I felt so well supported by everyone—especially my family, Chestnut Hill Meeting, and Earth Quaker Action Team. You can see the greeting I got on my release from Amy Ward Brimmer and Ingrid Lakey.

I’ll be writing an article about this leading for Friends Journal and another for Waging Nonviolence, so I won’t say too much here, except to answer the questions that friends have been asking about the experience. Basically it was very exciting to be making this stand with such an impressive group of people. I was particularly pleased to see civil rights leader Julian Bond there, though I didn’t get to talk to him. I did get to talk to a lot of interesting folks, though, and had a great time with a UCC leader from Massachusetts named Jim Antal, who was distributing ashes for Ash Wednesday and had a great sense of humor.

It was very meaningful to me to be standing in the footsteps of Alice Paul, Quaker activist for women’s suffrage who was arrested at the White House several times in actions that helped lead to the vote for women. People from home kept telling me that I was brave, but I was very aware that getting arrested by the DC Park Police in 2013 is much less risky than in other times and places. Alice Paul had it much tougher than I did. One of the guys with us yesterday who is from Texas—the Keystone XL pipeline goes through his family’s front yard—said he couldn’t get over how polite the Park Police were. Guess that’s not the way it works in Texas. Same with Maria Gunnoe, one of our allies from Appalachia, where the police are much, much rougher with activists. And then of course, there are my friends from South Africa who got arrested during apartheid. Although my thumb is still numb from the tight handcuffs, participating in this action felt like a privilege more than a risk. 

The most intimidating part was the media spotlight. There were tons of camera people jostling to get in position, though they were more interested in Darryl Hannah and Bob Kennedy than in me. Turns out I’m eating a cookie in all the pictures of Darryl’s arrest, which is my only real disappointment, and that's just vanity. On the bright side, I’ve done a few interviews in the past few days, which have gone well. Here is a piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer blog.

Thanks to everyone for your support! Hope to see many of you at the march on Sunday.