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A New Underground Railroad?
July 14, 2014 9:22 AM   Subscribe

A group of American Quakers say they are offering a way out for some desperate Ugandans fleeing the country’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act. If their account is accurate, it is a remarkable feat for a handful of individuals with very little experience in international aid.... Most Ugandan activists and international human rights groups are discouraging LGBT Ugandans from fleeing, since they largely go to Kenya and wind up in enormous refugee camps that are often just as dangerous for LGBT people as Uganda itself.... But the stories of people fleeing arrest or attack tug at the hearts of foreigners who want to offer direct help to people in crisis. The complex reality on the ground makes that hard to do through established channels — and the donors may never know the individuals they’ve helped.

Related: John Oliver discusses the situation in Uganda (Parts One and Two).
posted by Cash4Lead (30 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is really great. I love when there are stories about communities of faith doing something good for people who they have no vested interest in helping, other than to be decent to our fellow human beings.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:24 AM on July 14 [15 favorites]


And, unsurprisingly, it's the Quakers doing that, again.

The whole damned history of that church is astoundingly sparse on tales of violent infighting, vicious murdering of dissenters, eagerness for war, greed, and general selfishness.

Odd lot, that.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:29 AM on July 14 [28 favorites]


I love when there are stories about communities of faith doing something good for people who they have no vested interest in helping,

I do too. Now only if we could do something about communities of faith going out of their way to harm people who didn't do anything to them or anyone else.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:45 AM on July 14 [7 favorites]


eagerness for war

Richard Nixon was a Quaker (of course, that isn't to say that he was a very good one...)
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:46 AM on July 14


Richard Nixon was a Quaker (of course, that isn't to say that he was a very good one...)

He wasn't conducting the presidency as a church action, as well, and I think that's the difference. There's a difference between the First Universal Light Church Outreach Committee coordinating something like this, and Joe Two-Step who goes to FULC on Sunday and doing something by himself.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:56 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Nixon was born and raised a (form of) Quaker, but did not practice its pacifist precepts as an adult. His Quaker upbringing in California was different from that of my Quaker relatives in PA/NJ growing up around the same time. The Chuck Fager article referenced in my link gives some info. about that.
posted by gudrun at 10:01 AM on July 14 [2 favorites]


Very interesting. I love that the article puts this in the broader context - it's not just "Quakers are helping people" but rather "Quakers are trying to help people - others call into question the effectiveness compared to their own helpfulness work."

I'm glad the Quakers aren't handing over the (paltry) $11k to the bigger actors, where that cash might get swept up in bureaucracy. On the other hand, i wonder how much $11k can really do, without the infrastructure that the bureaucracy adds.
posted by rebent at 10:02 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


IAmBroom: The whole damned history of that church is astoundingly sparse on tales of violent infighting, vicious murdering of dissenters, eagerness for war, greed, and general selfishness.

They do not discuss The Oatmeal Wars with outsiders.
posted by dr_dank at 10:11 AM on July 14 [20 favorites]


The whole damned history of that church is astoundingly sparse on tales of violent infighting, vicious murdering of dissenters, eagerness for war, greed, and general selfishness.

To be fair, the Quakers, with their mercantile orientation became involved in the slave trade very early, and their abandonment of the trade and embrace of abolition was pretty rocky during the transitions. That being said, the Quakers came down on the right side of history much quicker than most other denominations, so there is that.

As to the article, it's pretty fascinating. On one hand, I applaud them for their commitment to direct action, but I also see the point of the larger NGOs arguing that smaller groups dilute efforts and make the larger work of rolling back the laws more difficult. On the other other hand, if my life was in mortal danger, I would welcome any hand that might get me to safety; getting killed for someone else's principle is not acceptable.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:40 AM on July 14 [9 favorites]


You know, I've only been exposed to a teeny-tiny bit of what the Quakers stand for, but based on what I have read and seen, they seem pretty damn cool.
posted by the_royal_we at 11:13 AM on July 14


Yeah, the objections of the large NGOs (encouraging lgtb folks to go into exile is dangerous and plays into the hands of bigots, the Friends are partnering with mismanaged groups, short-term handouts are patronizing, e.g.) and the Friends' response (we're helping people who are scared to go to the large NGOs, we're helping people who are being ignored because the NGOs don't have enough money, most of the decisions are being made by Ugandans for Ugandans) are both worth thinking about.
posted by mediareport at 11:16 AM on July 14 [2 favorites]


A similar effort hit the news last year; the folks behind the Westboro Rainbow House started a Uganda Underground program to create safe houses for lgtb Ugandans, but inside Uganda. Hard to tell how much of the donations are actually going to creating safe havens for people, since the whole operation has to be cloaked in secrecy.
posted by mediareport at 11:21 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


The whole damned history of that church is astoundingly sparse on tales of violent infighting, vicious murdering of dissenters, eagerness for war, greed, and general selfishness.

I'm tempted to start a #NotAllQuakers meme, to highlight the ways in which the history of the Society of Friends doesn't always match up with its image. Yes, Quakers were among the first to oppose slavery, but not at first, and then it took a long time before it became a requirement for membership to emancipate and compensate any slaves one owned. Yes, Quakers don't have the equivalent of the Thirty Years War in their past, but they had hella schisms and persecutions during the 19th century, such that today the term "Quaker" could mean a New Age Wiccan in Pennsylvania or a bog-standard evangelical Christian in Oregon who thinks denying housing to trans* people is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. Yes, Quakers are pacifists, but then, Richard Nixon.

While the image of Quakers as the Good Guys of religious history is certainly attractive, I do worry that it can seduce these current-day Friends (and their admirers) into propping up the White Savior Industrial Complex, i.e., getting involved in a situation they don't understand very well and making things worse. This isn't to say that that's what's happening with FNUR, but the lack of transparency (as justified as it may be), along with the negative reaction from Ugandan NGOs, gives me pause. I certainly hope that FNUR's work is having the intended effect.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:30 AM on July 14 [7 favorites]


Yes, Quakers are pacifists, but then, Richard Nixon.

See, I'd take that as one of two things:

1) He was a Quaker in name only, or

2) It is actually a stellar example of a politician separating personal, private, religious belief from their duties in political office.

I realize that Quakers aren't heterogenous, and have a problematic history. But I find it difficult to quibble with a religious group that is a) trying in good faith to stem the tide of hatred in Uganda (sent there by American hate groups, just as a reminder), and b) has this built as a religious meeting place.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:39 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


This is kind of weird -- I'm not sure the article is accurately representing what's going on here. I don't think that in most cases getting someone out of country is super-hard; getting them permission to resettle somewhere safe is infinitely harder, which is why people end up in refugee camps in Kenya, right? So the "underground railroad" part of this seems, if not trivial, then at least dwarfed by the task of getting people visas to Europe -- and the article admits that how they do this is a mystery. But the process of getting a refugee visa to Europe can't be that big a mystery; it doesn't seem like this organization could have cracked some code that put them ahead of established NGOs. So what's this all about?
posted by eugenen at 11:53 AM on July 14 [3 favorites]


Yeah, unless these Quakers have a special line on European visas (and if they did, I'd hardly blame them for keeping that secret) there's reasonable ground for suspicion that they're really doing what they say they're doing. And there's nothing about follow-up, either; do the Quakers have a plan for continued support for these new exiles?

We just don't know, and the Buzzfeed article, while interesting, doesn't investigate the issue in enough depth.
posted by mediareport at 12:07 PM on July 14


Richard Nixon was a Quaker (of course, that isn't to say that he was a very good one...)

This is kind of an unpleasant derail in a thread about Quakers doing something genuinely good, in the vein of the "Hitler was a vegetarian" thing that sometimes comes up in arguments about vegetarianism. Being born to parents who practice a particular religion and take you to that church as a child does not automatically make you a lifelong member of that church. For example, I am certainly not a Methodist, or even a Christian.

It's also worth noting that only outsiders call them Quakers. Everyone I know of that belief calls the religion "Society of Friends" and generally refer to fellow practitioners as "Friends." (I'm an atheist and have no particular horse in the race except that the term "quaker" always sounded like it started as mockery of Friends' spiritual testifying, coming from more conventional or conservative denominations, and the people I have known who were Friends didn't seem to deserve that kind of mockery.)
posted by aught at 12:10 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


The whole damned history of that church is astoundingly sparse on tales of violent infighting, vicious murdering of dissenters, eagerness for war, greed, and general selfishness.

Actual murdering, no. Vicious infighting? Alas, all too much. Quakers in North America have a ridiculous history of schisms. You can get a taste here if you scroll down to the image labelled "Farewell to the Peaceable Kingdom." The Evangelical/Orthodox wing in North America is not what most folks think of when they think of Quakers. It's much more like some fundamentalist Christian churches than like the liberal Friends most people know of. George Fox University, for instance, from that end of the Quaker spectrum, recently made headlines by not allowing a trans student to live in on-campus housing. A conservative yearly meeting (or association of many local meetings) in Indiana is in the process of schism over homosexuality.

Richard Nixon was raised in one of the more conservative branches. He also appears somewhere in the Quaker problems meme collection.

It's in the article, but here is a direct link to the FNUR page, where they talk in more detail about what they're dong and who they're working with, and address some of the concerns that have been raised.

If you're interested in the long and complex history of North American Quakers, slavery, and racism, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship is an amazing read. As a Friend, the book highlights what there is to be proud of in Quaker history, but also gives detailed information about failings and fuckups.
posted by not that girl at 12:24 PM on July 14 [7 favorites]


eugenen: According to FNUR's website, We have connections with some folks in Kenya and other countries who are assisting our ‘passengers’ with visas etc. but we do not take on that role ourselves. So it seems they have at least thought about your concern. But again, we have only their word on this. Quakers are known, however, for being honest and trustworthy, so I hope that's the case here.

aught: As a Quaker "insider," I can tell you "Friend" and "Quaker" are used interchangeably among us.

[on preview, what not that girl said]
posted by Cash4Lead at 12:31 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that only outsiders call them Quakers. Everyone I know of that belief calls the religion "Society of Friends" and generally refer to fellow practitioners as "Friends."

I'm a Quaker, and every Quaker I know calls us Quakers. It did start as mockery from a judge during a trial of founder George Fox 350 years ago, but has lost that connotation. In fact, I was recently interviewed for a series of videos about Quakers, called QuakerSpeak, and one question the interviewer asked me was whether I'd ever quaked when offering ministry.

We do call each other Friends as well. Here is a helpful guide to finding your Quaker name, the way you might find your stripper name.
posted by not that girl at 12:33 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


On preview, what cash4lead said. :-)
posted by not that girl at 12:34 PM on July 14


aught: As a Quaker "insider," I can tell you "Friend" and "Quaker" are used interchangeably among us.

Thanks for letting me know. That really is different from what the friends I know who are Friends say. Since the town where I live is a very left-leaning college town, I imagine the local Friends Meeting is in the most progressive branch of the church, and may be sensitive about the distinction (I think their website has exactly one occurrence of "Quaker" near the beginning to reduce confusion for non-Friends who come upon the site).

I do kind of stand by my more general position on caution about fan web sites and Wikipedia pages that state various famous people are one religion or the other just because they were born into a family that went to a certain denomination church.

Okay, sorry; I didn't mean to rub anyone the wrong way with the earlier comment and apologies if I did.
posted by aught at 12:51 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Cash4Lead, that FAQ page is interesting:

As of 07/12/2014,we have assisted 130 LGBTQ individuals leave Uganda. Of these, nine are confirmed to have reached Sweden, and several dozen are being processed for asylum status in countries around the world.

I can believe that. I guess the question then is "what about the other [130 - 9 - (12 x n)]?"
posted by eugenen at 12:51 PM on July 14


I recently heard from a friend (and I think it's correct?) that you actually have to be physically present in the United States to claim political asylum, and I wonder if other countries have that law as well, and if possibly these people are being helped significantly in their visa process by managing to actually get to the countries where they want to be. If so, it seems a worthwhile endeavor.

(I was raised Quaker and still participate in a certain amount of Quakerly activity, and honestly the thing I love most about Quakers is that pieces like not that girl's recommended book on Quakers and slavery is being offered on a Quaker website and was published by a Quaker press, even though it sounds like it runs counter to the idea of all Quakers as abolitionist non-racists. Quakers can be frustrating and wrong and nit-picky, but my experience has always been that they are also deeply committed to the truth.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:56 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


The Sanctuary Movement of the early 1980s is another example of religious communities assisting refugees with getting out of their dangerous situations. In that case, various religious communities in the US (including Quakers, along with Catholics, Episcopalians, and others) helped Central Americans fleeing the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, and they did so by openly breaking US law and escorting/smuggling Central Americans over the border to provide them the eponymous sanctuary with their church communities in the US. The movement actually had some success in changing the United States' restrictive asylum policies towards Central America. I'm interested to see if this new movement can get similar traction.
posted by yasaman at 2:48 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


The whole damned history of that church is astoundingly sparse on tales of violent infighting, vicious murdering of dissenters, eagerness for war, greed, and general selfishness.

What I like about the Quakers is that while they are far from perfect, they have been throughout their entire history consistently in the vanguard when it comes to their stance on human rights and social issues, and that for a tiny group of people that has never amounted to more than 1% of the world's population, they've accomplished an astonishing lot of good and relatively little harm. Yes, American Quakers did own slaves in the nineteenth century, but they rid themselves of slavery quite some time before the rest of their country and produced a number of prominent abolitionists and ordinary Quakers contributed largely to the underground railway movement. In famished Ireland of the 1840s the Quakers did more good than the British government. In WWII they went into Germany during the war and clothed and fed German children — a story that still raises hackles when I tell it today. This tells me there is something about their approach to living life and doing right that works, especially when I compare the Quakers to the Catholic church, which by contrast took hundreds of years to admit Galileo was right and has a horrific record of abuse, even today.

Full disclosure: I attend a Quaker meeting here in Toronto and consider myself an atheist Quaker.
posted by orange swan at 3:47 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


Does anyone have a link to articles about this topic that's not from Buzzfeed?
posted by koavf at 9:15 PM on July 15


Swan: it's possible to be an atheist Quaker/Friend?

If you're comfortable, MeMail me, because I'd love to attend that kind of meeting.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:35 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]


Someone else MeMailed me wondering the same thing, feckless fecal fear mongering, so I'll post my answer to her for the benefit of anyone else who'd like to know how one can be both an atheist and a Quaker.

The Quakers have no creed and don't believe that the Bible is a final revelation from God, so essentially a Quaker can believe anything he or she likes. They are more about the perpetual process of seeking the truth than subscribing to some absolute idea of it. Most Quakers are Christian, but there are also atheist, Buddhist, and Wiccan Quakers. I've met other non-theistic Quakers and told some Christian Quakers that I am an atheist without getting so much as a raised eyebrow in response.

Quakerism isn't a religion to me, but an approach to living life and to doing good that helps me. I sit in meeting and strip the God stuff out of whatever people pop up to say and then usually find some useful insights in what's left. The day an elderly Friend stood up in meeting and recited a Leonard Cohen poem was the day that cemented my feeling that I was in the right place.
posted by orange swan at 6:08 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


Nontheist Friends have a website folks can explore if they'd like.
posted by not that girl at 7:28 AM on July 16


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