Phone a Friendwith Wess Daniels
We’re back from hiatus! In this episode, we sit down with Quaker theologian and small business owner Wess Daniels, the author of the book Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance. He talks about the value of silence; reshaping systems of money and power; and building community during a time of struggle.
- Wess Daniels on Twitter | His blog, Gathering In Light - 1:19
- Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance (Barclay Press) - 1:27
- Friends Center at Guilford College - 2:11
- Fireweed Coffee Co - 2:29
- Wess's blog post on holding a family meeting - 4:10
- Poor People's Campaign - 15:48
The Full Transcript:
[00:00:00] Anyone You Meet Normcore Remix by Clip Art plays.
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Wess: [00:00:35] I’m sure, as a listener of Rework, this is the first time that the Book of Revelation has been mentioned on the podcast, so hopefully no one will run away, and—
Wailin: [00:00:45] I should have been bringing it up earlier, frankly.
Wess: [00:00:48] I know, yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
[00:00:50] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:00:52] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.
Shaun: [00:00:58] And I’m Shaun Hildner. We’re back! We’re recording from our tiny home studios and we have plenty of new stuff for you. Today’s episode, for example, is brand new, very topical, and a little off the beaten path.
Wailin: [00:01:10] I was thinking about who I wanted to hear from in these surreal and stressful times and one person that came to mind is Wess Daniels. He’s a Rework listener and a small business owner but more importantly, he’s a Quaker theologian who wrote a book all about the Book of Revelation in the Bible.
[00:01:30] When I messaged him to ask if he’d come on the show, one of the questions I posed to him was, what would you say to someone who feels like we’re in the end times? You know, asking for a friend. What resulted wasn’t doom and gloom, but rather a really uplifting conversation about building community and rethinking structures of power and money.
Shaun: [00:01:50] Oh, so, we’re talking about capitalism again?
Wailin: [00:01:51] Oh, always.
Shaun: [00:01:53] Okay, so, maybe it’s not that much off the beaten path for us after all. Anyway, here’s Wailin’s conversation with Wess Daniels.
[00:02:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wess: [00:02:08] I’m Wess Daniels. I am the director of the Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guildord College which is a Quaker-founded college in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Wailin: [00:02:19] And you also have a side business, right?
Wess: [00:02:21] I do, yeah. It’s a micro business, although who knows, now I may be growing. I roast coffee. It’s called Fireweed Coffee Co. and I started it about two years ago, really as a kind of mental health project. I needed something that was separate from my normal work and I could kind of just focus on something more creative. I’ve been roasting for about 10 years but about two years ago, I went to our little farmer’s market and asked if I could set up a table. And every Saturday since then, I’ve been roasting coffee and taking it to the market. And I have some subscribers and a couple restaurants and those sorts of things, so it’s a lot of fun.
Wailin: [00:03:01] And how did the COVID-19 crisis play out where you live and work?
Wess: [00:03:08] We just found our first case in Guilford County two days ago and then we just had our first instance of community spread yesterday.
Wailin: [00:03:18] Quick note here, I talked to Wess on March 20th, so things have definitely changed a lot since then. In fact, just a few days after I talked to him, the city of Greensboro, North Carolina issued a stay-at-home order through April 16th.
Wess: [00:03:31] I’m in the administration of the college as well. It was Spring Break for us, so that was when we started thinking about, okay, other colleges were starting to go online, extend Spring Breaks, and so we followed suit with that, and really for the last week and a half we’ve been really hustling to move our classes online. Move to remote work, and the same goes with our kids’ schools. Everybody’s home now, including my wife, who’s a public school teacher. So we’re all hanging out a lot. Getting to know each other. Getting to know each other better than ever.
Wailin: [00:04:05] On your blog, I was reading the post you wrote about holding a family meeting just at home since you weren’t able to go out and have your regular worship and your regular meeting. Can you talk a little bit about how you structured that family meeting?
Wess: [00:04:20] As Quakers, we value some time for silence, so we had a little bit of silence together and we’d go around and we’d do something, sort of like sharing things that you’re joyful for, things that you’re concerned about. So the kids went around, shared their things. Emily, my wife Emily and I, shared, did the same thing. And then we sort of wrapped up that part with a collective prayer together.
[00:04:48] Kind of the next piece of it was really sort of information. Because, realizing that the kids, they’re picking up bits and pieces, but they don’t necessarily have the bigger picture so we shared as much information as we could with them about what’s going on with COVID, what’s going on with the schools, what do we not know yet. And then kind of expectations around okay, this is really a time where we’re going to have to work together and pull together in a way that we haven’t before.
[00:05:19] That sort of like, big picture, all the way down to please keep the toilet paper use to two squares, you know, that sort of thing. I mean, so really, everything in between, and then closed out with a blessing. We did a little blessing for the family.
Wailin: [00:05:36] Can you talk about the purpose of the silence and what that does?
Wess: [00:05:40] Quakers are a branch of Christianity like all other denominations, but in England in 1640s-50s, when they got started, one of the things they changed was they did not have clergy. So there was no pastor conducting a worship service. Instead, they met together and they would call it waiting, like you’re waiting for something. We call it silent worship today.
[00:06:07] The idea was, in that moment, you listen for where the spirit moves. And as the spirit moves, the assumption was that there would be individuals in that group who would have a message to share. So they would kind of become the preacher in that moment. It’s really a practice of listening. It’s a practice of kind of letting go of my preconceived notions. And then you add into that this communal part where we gather together to do that.
[00:06:38] I have a hard time sitting still as it is. And to sit still by myself for five minutes is really challenging. I’m a Quaker. I was Quaker pastor, theologian, I have a hard time sitting by myself, quietly, for five minutes. But when there is a group of 30 people, or 100 people sitting together, I can do it all day. I mean, maybe. But definitely an hour.
[00:07:10] And it’s amazing. And it’s beautiful. And when you get up and you leave that space, you’re renewed. You feel grounded and brought back into this moment in a way that I think a lot of our world, a lot of what we’re surrounded by tries to extract us from this moment. Extract us from the needs and the suffering of our neighbors and I think that this form of worship really regrounds us and brings us back into, not only myself and my body and this moment but the needs around me. The suffering around me.
[00:07:49] So, I like that and I think that that’s a really critical practice.
Wailin: [00:07:53] The structure you describe, not just the silence, but the silence leading into a time of both sharing of gratitude and concern seems like a super, super helpful structure for people to process what we’re going through right now.
Wess: [00:08:08] Yeah, absolutely. To create an intentional space where we can talk about the things we’re worried about. The things we don’t know. The things that are out of our control. Within this context of, we are together in this. I think that that helps to create a little bit of a container for those things.
Wailin: [00:08:25] Well, it sounds like your work at the school is continuing, just remotely. And that, if anything, it’s a little bit busier now that you’re trying to provide resources and support to all your students while they’re not able to come back to campus. Is your work on the coffee roasting continuing as well?
Wess: [00:08:42] I just picked up 200 pounds of coffee.
Wailin: [00:08:46] Oh.
Wess: [00:08:46] Most of my customers are people who are in Greensboro and a lot of our customers are in the neighborhood. Over the last three or four days if you would drive by my house, you’d see three or four bags of coffee sitting out on the porch with little sticky notes of different people’s names on them. So, that’s, you know. If all else fails, that will be our little micro alternative coffee market. But I’ve been shipping some coffee to friends all over the country, as well. One thing we can have is good, tasty coffee in the morning as we try to figure out what the Hell’s going on.
Wailin: [00:09:25] And, you know, speaking of Hell, you wrote a book about Revelation.
Wess: [00:09:29] Yeah!
Wailin: [00:09:29] The Book of Revelation and why it doesn’t mean what most people take it to mean.
Wess: [00:09:36] yes.
Wailin: [00:09:36] Can you talk a little bit about what your book is about?
Wess: [00:09:40] Oh my goodness, well, I loved your question. What do we say to people who feel like it’s the end of the world? And there is a real underlying anxiety where this is, it really does feel like the end of the world. But the reality is, and this now goes into Revelation, this is what the people in that community were also feeling. What happens when we get into these sorts of situations is there’s an unveiling of evil. And so look at what is happening right now? In the midst of coronavirus, we have people who are either out of work, almost instantaneously, or are going to be out of work very quickly.
[00:10:32] And we’re going to be quickly dealing with the fallout of not having any kind of social net to protect people in really dire situations. And I think that that’s an unveiling, in my opinion. And I think that’s really what Revelation is about. It’s not about predicting the end of the world. I know that’s how people have used it and abused it.
[00:10:56] They’ve used it that way to make it about, borrowing from another author, Rob Bell, “Evacuation theology.” How do we get out of here. That’s an abdication of our responsibility for now. And I was talking about what happens in that practice of silent worship. In that practice, that brings us back into this moment and reminds us of our responsibility for our community now.
[00:11:27] Evacuation theology is about getting out of here. Having a great party, trashing the place, and then jumping in the car and heading down the street. Revelation is not about that at all. It was a letter written in 90-100 Common Era, by a pastor who had been imprisoned by the Roman state. He is scathing toward the Roman Empire. He is calling it completely corrupt. He says it is like a beast. It is in direct contradiction to the goodness of Creation.
[00:12:07] And he’s writing to these seven churches which are made up of people who are disenfranchised, basically because they did not buy into the religion of empire. And the Pastor John is writing to them about how to survive and resist empire in their time. And further, how to not give into the temptation to be like empire.
[00:12:37] And if that’s true, then I can see why there are so many who would rather just make it about evacuation theology, because then we wouldn’t have to take seriously the idea that we ought to not assimilate to empire. That we need to resist it. Well, empire is so lucrative. It’s so comforting if you’re one of the privileged who have access to that. So why not go that direction.
[00:13:04] So that’s kind of a little bit of it.
Wailin: [00:13:04] I’m wondering, how do you think we should be resisting empire during this time?
Wess: [00:13:10] Oh, lordy. One of the images in the Book of Revelation is of the multitude. The multitude is represented, Revelation says, of people of every nation, every language, every ethnicity, who’ve gathered together. This multitude is an alternative social community to what empire provides, which is a sorting out, a segregation. Empire functions by scapegoating individuals and groups. That’s how it maintains its identity and its borders. We are already seeing scapegoating with coronavirus.
[00:13:57] The multitude, on the other hand says, we have no need for scapegoats. We have no need to create community that sustains itself over and against other individuals. That’s a big picture, and I have talked to more neighbors for longer periods of time in the last three days than I have in the last year. That’s just a small glimpse of what is possible when we slow down, when we take moments to listen, when we make ourselves available to each other in a different way.
[00:14:32] And I think there’s lots of ways that we can resist empire in this moment. Supporting small businesses, supporting each other in ways that don’t involve money and, you know. I hope that our moral imaginations will be reignited in this moment around these sorts of practices of community and care.
[00:14:55] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:14:57] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art.
Wailin: [00:15:02] You can Wess on Twitter at @cwdaniels. His website is GatheringInLight.com and his coffee business is at FireweedCoffeeCo.com. Wess’s book is called Resisting Empire: The Book of Revelation as Resistance, and the publisher is Barclay Press out of Newberg, Oregon.
[00:15:21] Small indie publishers and bookstores need a lot of support right now, so you can resist empire by ordering directly from Barclay Press instead of Amazon. We’ll provide links in the show notes for this episode, which you can find at rework.fm.
[00:15:36] Also, since recording this episode, Wess has been furloughed from his job at the college. He told me he’s putting his newfound time into planning a stay-at-home spring break for his kids, roasting coffee, and working more closely with the Poor People’s Campaign, which is an anti-poverty movement founded by two ministers. You can learn more at poor peoples campaign.org.
Shaun: [00:15:56] If you want to let us know how you’re coping with a new work-from-home set up or how you’re adapting your small business, or you have a question for someone here at Basecamp, leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850. Again, that’s (708) 628-7850.
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[00:16:42] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.