November, 2014. Washington, DC. I joined 400+ citizen advocates from around the country at Quaker Lobby Day, hosted by Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Quaker lobby arm of that faith tradition. The focus of Lobby Day on that occasion? The power of diplomacy on the Iran nuclear deal.
I was there as a sort of delegate as a resident of the state of Tennessee, and had been specifically asked to come because I am clergy. I say "sort of" because we weren't there in any official capacity, just volunteers who cared about diplomacy, but by virtue of our residency in the state we formed a kind of delegation. Team Tennessee had a critical role to play, as one of our senators chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
When I first got the email inviting me to participate in this event I thought, "Lord, except that I value diplomacy, I am the last person qualified to talk to a politician on this subject." (Let me mention that I grew up in the Quaker tradition, and embrace fully the spiritual and theological grounding that distinguishes that group.) I try to keep up with what is happening in the political realm, and am a much better informed citizen in mid-life than I ever was in my early days, but things nuclear--and often things scientific or technological--don't my grasp of them doesn't really register on the Richter Scale. It seemed somehow fraudulent to consider taking part in an effort about which I couldn't even begin to hold my own. I was assured that this would not be an issue. Still...
In the end I said yes because it was an extraordinary opportunity to take part in something that would not likely fall my way again. There was grant money to pay my way there, and I had friends in the area with whom I could stay to minimize burdening the grant pool further. This seemed a rational compromise to accepting the invitation, and doing my part to live up to the confidence being placed in me to attend. It didn't hurt that I knew the Executive Director of FCNL, who upon greeting me when I arrived immediately embraced my presence with encouragement and gratitude.
Day one. I barely had time to grab some coffee and sit in on the first presentation of the day before it was time to hustle over to Capitol Hill for the scheduled appointment with my congresswoman. The FCNL staff had worked hard to arrange a time when I could actually meet with my Rep, rather than one of her staff. They had also secured another citizen advocate who could "speak nuclear" to join me that morning. It turned out I was a quick study on the mechanics of lobbying, and I felt I could manage the process part of the meeting while my colleague addressed the details of policy and what was at stake regarding the specifics of the deal being advocated.
When he bids farewell to people, Canon Andrew White, the Anglican priest known better as The Vicar of Baghdad, makes a point of saying, "Don't take care--take risks!" During this first meeting, which ended up being taken by an aide in the waiting area of my representative's office for a mere ten minutes, I'm afraid I leaned more into taking care than taking risks. Given that this was my inaugural effort at being a citizen advocate I don't feel terrible about this, but I was disappointed that the encounter didn't inspire confidence in this aspect of the political process: you know, a meeting between a representative and constituent to hear what's on her mind so that said legislator might actually represent me. (I was under no illusion that my congresswoman would do any such thing--we are polar opposites, politically, and she has demonstrated repeatedly that she is deaf to anyone who doesn't agree with her.)
The good news is that things went better after this. After taking a moment to duck into the Library of Congress to see the Magna Carta in the flesh ---> (it was on tour), I grabbed some lunch and headed back to Lobby Central to meet the other members of Team Tennessee. We did some role-playing--something I usually loathe, but in this case found very helpful--and discovered that each of us (ten, in all) could play to our strengths and be an effective body of advocates. It was a treat to be among such bright, delightful, and interesting people.
Oh, and another delightful person was there, sitting down the row from me during an afternoon session--actress Judith Light. As we were waiting for the program to begin she scooted past me out of the row to converse briefly with another advocate. When she came back to return to her seat I blurted out, "Can I just tell you that I love you?" She paused and smiled widely, responding with, "Awwwwwwe, thank you!" It was a big moment for me.
picture courtesy of the FCNL facebook page.
After the book-signing it was time to head to the Metro and get back to Virginia. On my way to the station I passed several homeless people, one of whom engaged me in conversation. I wanted to help by giving him some cash, but only had a couple of $20's in my wallet. I decided to indulge and give him one, and he was beyond delighted. He stared at the bill in his hand, looked at me, and breaking into a broad grin began to sing, "I wish you a Merry Christmas..." So worth the $20.
Day two. The best day, the Library of Congress and the view of the Magna Carta the previous day notwithstanding. Team Tennessee gathered over coffee in the cafeteria of the Senate building before heading up for our appointment with Sen. Bob Corker's foreign affairs aide. We expected 30 minutes of his time, but our conversation lasted an hour. I remember several things distinctly from this meeting, one of which I think is really important to share. Mike (the aide) made a point to tell us how grateful he was that we were there to share our views, and he communicated to us the value of such meetings to the senator. He told us that the senators really do want to hear from their constituents. The extreme voices, while their opinions are noted, are more or less tuned out. But it mattered to this senator (and others, I believe) to hear the thoughtfully articulated views of the people he represented. We were also told that our own goals for the Iran nuclear deal, focusing on the value of diplomacy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, were not far from the goals of our senator. So much of what gets released to the press, or reported by them, are statements of posturing, and not by any means a clear indication of the full and nuanced thinking that is taking place behind closed doors.
On a more personal note, another thing that I remember is that I found my voice. Or rather, I discovered that I had something to contribute to this conversation. My role wasn't to talk about the content of the nuclear deal, it was to emphasize Senator Corker's opportunity to work diplomatically to achieve a peaceful solution to the mutual goals of Iran and the United States. It was one of those times when I felt that the words, though they came from my mouth, were inspired by greater wisdom than what I had available to me when I got up that morning. I attribute such occasions to the work of the Holy Spirit, and I'm good with that.
After a brief break we met with an aide for Sen. Lamar Alexander, but the real joy had already been experienced, and the high from that hour would last for days.
The experience of being a citizen advocate isn't one I would ever have thought to put on my bucket list. I consider myself politically active, but I am a person most comfortable working behind the scenes organizing an event or working on graphics to promote the work with which I am involved. As an intuitive introvert I have difficulty laying out an argument and drawing facts and scenarios from the pool of information that resides somewhere within my brain. I'm better suited to "behind the scenes." That said, there are moments when the right opportunity presents itself to discover another side of me, to reach through the logjam of data into the core of who I am and what I believe to express those very things. This was such a time. I am forever grateful that it now stands as a line on my resume.
Oh, and it led to one other opportunity: being part of a conference call with the President of the United States related to the Iran nuclear deal. Yeah, baby. Yeah.