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Interview: Hannah Brock Womack, social-justice and peace activist

26 June 2020

‘I don’t like the word “peace” very much. Violence and war can’t be separated from all injustice’

My day often starts working for Quaker Voluntary Action. I plan a programme of working retreats: volunteering holidays with reflection and spirituality sessions built in, and often lead them. They range from olive-picking in Palestine and supporting displaced people in northern France to fixing up Quaker meeting-houses in the UK.


Then I’d go to ASSIST Sheffield,
which supports destitute asylum-seekers. I work with hosts who house clients for a few months, and manage our two shared houses for women. This involves a good amount of emailing, but also some lovely times introducing clients to hosts and watching relationships develop.


I’ve always wanted to work for social justice.
Originally, that was in the anti-poverty sector, and I did an M.Sc. in development; but I turned to anti-militarist and peace work, mostly campaigning.

 
I recognise that being middle-class gives me more protection, and allows me to cope better with periods of unemployment or low pay. It’s important to me that I don’t live a luxurious life, because that would separate me from God.


I’ve also been a care worker,
and these have easily been my most difficult, exhausting, and sometimes most fulfilling roles. I’ve been thinking about my old colleagues a lot now. Care workers are so undervalued. It’s really interesting that, in times of crisis — personal and national — people start to value the skills of people who are normally ignored. I hope this recognition will be long-lasting.


I went to my first Quaker meeting in my first term at university.
I’d known about Quakers for a long time, thanks to my Religious Studies teacher — cheers, Mr Budd! — and felt immediately I’d found my people.


You can hear from everyone in the meeting rather than just one person week after week,
and there’s a real-life, engaged, political response to the Gospels. No one batted an eyelid at my sexuality, and people can discover their own spiritual journeys without coercion. I go to a Quaker meeting of about 12 to 15 people now, where I’m an elder.


I worked for a think tank trying to influence decision-makers’ approaches to security,
and now I do grass-roots and radical work for peace. I’ve been a human-rights observer in the occupied Palestinian territories with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, run in this country by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and worked for the global pacifist network War Resisters’ International, supporting conscientious objectors.


Most recently, I’ve been part of the No Faith in War day,
where faith groups try and prevent the set-up of the London arms fair, which is the largest in the world. I was also part of the struggle against the renewal of Trident.


I don’t like the word “peace” very much.
Violence and war can’t be separated from all injustice. For us to live peaceably together would mean transforming racism, nationalism, poverty, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression which teach us that some lives are disposable. Until we do, we’ll never be free of war and violence.


A key piece of Quaker advice is to seek out the seeds of war in our own lives:
to understand our role — collectively as a nation, and individually — in injustices and oppressions worldwide, and to try to transform them. Become aware.


Most people who describe themselves as environmental activists are doing far more than me;
but I try and make a response to the climate crisis part of everything I do. I became veggie about a decade ago, fly as little as possible, and take part in actions for climate justice.


Creation isn’t separate from ourselves.
Without it, we’re nothing. For centuries, we’ve exploited the natural world so that a few of us rich people can live absurdly comfortable lives. This has to stop. We need a complete overhaul in how we understand ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet: theologically, spiritually, politically; what the philosopher Marilyn Frye called the “loving” rather than the “arrogant eye”.


Early Friends knew that their identity as children of God
trumped any other identity that might divide them from others — like nationality. So using violence to dominate or coerce was impossible. These days, Friends are very mindful of the equality of all. Then, no mental gymnastics can really support war.


We emphasise the personal experience of the Spirit.
We know God can speak to us through trees, mountains, and rivers as much as other people and holy writings, because we’ve felt it; so we value creation in a very immediate way.


I was appointed as one of the six presidents of Churches Together in England this year.
In the end, it was blocked because of my being in a same-sex marriage; but I still convene our meetings in the fourth presidency group, the group of Churches within CTE that appointed me.


I’m sad I can’t contribute.
Coming from a non-hierarchical Church, and as the only woman in the group, I wanted to speak for those not usually represented, and for a radical and inclusive faith.


I lived with my mum, dad, and older sister Claire in the countryside
on the Isle of Wight, and my grandparents lived near by. My home was loving and fun, and we went to church and played a lot of music. I had lovely friends, many of whom I’m still close to. I now live with my wife, Annie, in a great area of Sheffield with lots of green spaces near by.


I look for God in unlikely places,
and I notice God when I’m at my most vulnerable — in great sadness or joy. I find it hard to recognise the Spirit at work a lot of the time, and this is a struggle, but I try and trust. At our Quaker meeting for marriage last year, I was led to sing “Great is thy faithfulness”, and a lot of the words of that ring true for me.


Even things that needed courage,
like coming out as a lesbian to family, have been underpinned by a deeply held knowledge of their, and God’s, love for me.


I want to be more connected in my community.
I’m pregnant, and I want us to build a loving home for this little one. It’s a strange time to be expecting. Annie hasn’t been able to be in recent scans and ante-natal appointments. We were hoping to move house before the birth, but that’s now been postponed.


What makes me angry?
A dangerously enjoyable question! People taking up too much space in shared conversations. People of faith not recognising the links between racism, nationalism, and war, and twisted theology. In general, people not recognising the structures that we live under which disadvantage other people. Patriarchy. Snobbery. And the price of the Isle of Wight ferry.


Annie makes me happy.
Watching Match of the Day — only when Liverpool wins. Cooking, when it goes well; seeing people growing in confidence in their activism; people able to share their vulnerabilities in their spiritual communities.


This Changes Everything
, by Naomi Klein, gave me incredible hope for the future. I know climate change will transform the lives of the vast majority on the planet, but this is an opportunity to return to core, godly principles of valuing every individual, respecting the natural world, and living within it. We have to change now.


I pray for individual people struggling,
that they may feel the presence of God; for hope, courage, and comfort.


I would absolutely love to talk with Ruth First,
the communist South African scholar and anti-apartheid activist. She was murdered by the regime in 1982. She was a sociology lecturer at Durham, where I studied sociology; so we’d have that in common. If Ruth’s busy, then I’d have Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and all-round legend.

 

Hannah Brock Womack was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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