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Nyack Sketch Log: 100 Years of Fellowship and Reconciliation

by Bill Batson

The Fellowship of Reconciliation, which operates its national social justice and peace program from this home in Upper Nyack, was founded 100 years ago in Garden City, NY. This Friday, November 6, FOR will celebrate this milestone with the debut of a 25-minute film by award-winning filmmaking couple, Nancy Savoca and Rich Guay.

Were it not for an assassin in Memphis in 1968, our nation’s Nobel Peace Prize winning champion of nonviolence, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have certainly made it to Nyack.

Fellowship of Reconciliation
A brief History

Since its founding in 1914, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) has been a global emissary for peace among people and nations. The organization was founded on a handshake between two men, Henry Hodgkin, an English Quaker, and Friedrich Sigmund-Schultze, a German Lutheran, whose countries had just declared war on each other.

Hogkins and Sigmund-Schultze were attending a conference of religious leaders that had sought to prevent the spread of the conflict that would engulf the planet, the first world war. They vowed to work together for peace even though their countries were in armed conflict. Succeeding generations of FOR members have kept that pledge.

FOR-USA was founded in Garden City, NY in 1915, and then was headquartered in New York City until moving to Nyack in 1957 . Prominent social justice figures who have been associated with FOR include: Jane Addams, Joan BaezDorothy Day, Thich Nhat HanhRev. Martin Luther King Jr.James Lawson, Rep. John Lewis Thomas Merton,  A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin,  Pete Seeger and Norman Thomas.

The debut screening of a 25-minute Centennial Film will be held at 6:30p on Fri., Nov. 6 at FOR’s national headquarters, located at 521 North Broadway in Nyack, New York. The evening includes a wine and cheese reception. The Tower for Peace will be unveiled at 5:30p with a dedication by the artist, Namaya, and his lead creative partner, Zoe. The four-sided tower displays 12-16 people who have made a difference for peace. It will stand approximately 12 feet tall and is being installed as the centerpiece of a new meditation garden.

The purpose of his visit would have been to commune with the staff of an organization that shared his philosophy and stood with him during his defining struggle, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.

Named Shadowcliff by the original owner, the building looks cloistered, partially hidden from the road behind thick brick walls and well groomed high shrubs. From the passenger side of a vehicle traveling on North Broadway, you could assume that this is just another one of the stately homes that line the banks of the Hudson. A banner hanging between the columns of a portico might suggest a consulate. That would be closer to the truth.

In January 2014, Rev. Kristin Stoneking became the Executive Director of FOR. This interview, given during her first weeks in office, include her reflections on her role as a mediator in the aftermath of the pepper-spray incident at the University of California at Davis during the Occupy movement and the moral and political influence of her parents, one of whom marched with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

When did you first learn about the work of FOR?

I learned about FOR while in seminary in Chicago.  I was attracted to their interfaith approach and their work in nonviolence. My partner, Elizabeth Campi, who was involved in activism work in Central America, decided to go to seminary, where we met, to work with an organization like FOR. We laugh that I was the one that got this job.

Both of my parents were activists.  My dad is a United Methodist pastor. Both are from Kansas City. My father marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King.

My mom is constantly engaged on an issue. She is one of the people you need to make things happen. I remember being taken out of school in the fifth grade to get on a  bus to go to the state capital of Missouri to advocate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

What are some of your plans to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the founding of FOR?

NSL_Rev. Stoneking_Portrait

FOR Director, Rev. Kristin Stoneking

We are planning a traveling exhibition, a documentary, a national conference in Atlanta in June 2015, and a celebration gala dinner in Manhattan 2015.

Has the mission of FOR changed over the last 100 years?

The mission statement has gone through many iterations, but at the core, FOR is dedicated to ending structures of violence and war through nonviolent activism and a commitment to pacifism.

What are some of your current programs that you are excited about?

We just finished a nine-week residential training program with four FOR fellows at our headquarters in Upper Nyack.  The program coordinator and all the participants were young people under 25. The fellows came from Mexico/U.S., Azerbaijan, Rwanda, and Romania/Moldova.

Montgomery Bus Boycott Comic becomes global non-violence playbook

NSL_FOR_MLK at Arab Spring

A year after FOR moved from New York City to Upper Nyack, they published a comic book  that chronicled the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott that led to the eventual collapse of Jim Crow laws in the South and helped introduce our country to a relatively unknown, 26-year-old Minister named Martin Luther King Jr.

The illustrated morality play and organizing manual was produced by a bullpen of artists under the supervision of popular cartoonist Al Capp.

Dalia Ziada, formerly the Cairo Based North Africa Director of the American Islamic Congress translated the comic into Arabic and Farsi several years ago and distributed thousands of copies from Yemen to Morocco.

Copies of the comic were circulated in Tahrir Square in Egypt in  February, 2011.  The legacy of King, delivered through the medium of visual art and story telling, helped inform the Arab spring.

Copies are available at FOR’s online bookstore.

The goal of the training was to introduce the FOR method of nonviolence and to connect these young adults to the FOR global network. Each fellow has a project that they worked on and will bring back to their home country. Each week they worked with a different trainer. My workshop was  about the interfaith and interreligious dimension of organizing.

What international issue is of greatest concern to FOR?

What is on our mind today, is the work of our North East coordinator, Leila Zand.  She held a press conference on Friday, Jan. 11 at the United Nations to build support of a rolling fast and hunger strike that started before Christmas to end the starvation sieges in Syria. Certain communities, targeted by the Assad regime, are having their food supplies blocked. Most of our staff are taking a day of the rolling fast. My day was last Thursday.

What national issue is of greatest concern for FOR?

We are organized regionally.  In the southeast, we are focusing on mass incarceration and racial and economic inequality; in the northeast, drones and Islamophobia and in the southwest and west, immigration and hyper-militarization. (Author’s note: FOR was an early participant in protest against Police Misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting death of Michael Brown in August, 2014.)

You played a role as a mediator in the aftermath of the pepper-spray incident at the University of California at Davis during the Occupy movement demonstrations. What were some of the outcomes?

NSL_FOR_Syria

Children in communities targeted by the Assad regime competing for scarce food supplies in Syria

I was the Campus minister at UC Davis but I wasn’t on campus the day of the pepper spraying incident.

We worked really hard to get the university to adopt a process for restorative justice and healing. Even though we had a lot of supporters including the chair of the reviewing task force, California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, the University didn’t adopt what we were advocating for.  Interestingly, the City of Davis and the Yolo County did. The DA and a group of citizens  created a Restorative Justice process that was rolled out last April.NSL_FOR_Pepper-Spray

Restorative justice is a process that recognizes that when harm happens it is understood that the harm is inflicted on the victim, the perpetrator and the community. All of those players have to be a part of bringing restoration and restoring harmony. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by Nelson Mandela in South Africa is an example of Restorative Justice.

There are some similarities between the early methods of the Occupy movement and the vision that Martin Luther King, Jr. had for the Poor People’s Campaign to occupy the Washington Mall in 1968 that was forestalled by his assassination. Do you think Occupy organizers drew any inspiration from the tactics and philosophies of the southern civil rights movement?

UC Davis Chancellor Katehi (l.)walks past silent protesters as she leaves her office at the campus in Davis, California

UC Davis Chancellor Katehi (l.), escorted by Rev. Stoneking, walks past silent protesters as she leaves her office.

King organized his work into specific goals. Montgomery was about busses, Birmingham was about jobs, and Selma was about voting rights. His campaigns were always local and always had specific goals.

King’s approach to nonviolence had four steps:   the collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. (His method is described in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail).  The Occupy Movement resisted negotiation because they resisted setting goals.

NSL_FOR Resurrection city

Poor People’s Campaign encampment, April 1968

I understand why they resisted. Occupy had more of an anarchist heart. I don’t think that anarchy is the way forward. There was never any consensus on the necessity of nonviolence. There was always a big debate in local general assemblies about that issue.

The majority of people were nonviolent. But when the Occupy movement resorted to violence, that prevented a mass sympathy. You can never really have change without converting the middle. The reason that King was successful is that he was able to keep his actions nonviolent

What are some of the enduring lessons that can be drawn from the Occupy movement?

The Occupy movement gave our entire nation a language to talk about incomce inequality: 1%  and the 99%. They raised consciousness and started a discourse about wealth disparity.

Is there a leader/and or a movement today that could be the subject of a new FOR comic and that would be as relevant 5o years from now?

No, not exactly. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi were spirtual and justice leaders. I don’t think we have any one at the same level, who can beautifully combine the spiritual with the call for justice.

What we do have today are flash heroes.  People who raise up in a news cycle and ground their action in a moral authority that inspires people.

Was Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a US solider killed in Iraq who camped outside of George Bush’s ranch in protest of the war, an example of a flash hero?

Right.

I understand that your headquarters, known as Shadowcliff, was nominated last month to the State and National Registers of Historic Places.  

FOR is really really proud to be a part of the Rockland County and Nyack community.  We are grateful for the support we have found in this historic and welcoming community.

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Nyack Sketch Log: 100 Years of Fellowship and Reconciliation” © 2015 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

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