You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘World Conference’ category.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It has been a tremendous week. Even looking back at what I’ve written, I’m not sure I can capture it fully. This was the question we were all asking ourselves: how are we going to bring this back? How are we changed? Do we go forth, as young Quaker Samuel Bownas was challenged, as we came, none the better for our coming? Or do we leave with a fire ignited, and ready to spread the light, burn as it may?

Our last day was a day of farewells and reflection, of looking quietly around and letting things soak into one’s being before boarding the bumping, swaying bus back to the airport. Although I was saying farewell, I don’t think I really believed it then, because the world is so much smaller than it was – with international flights doable in a day or two, Skype, Facebook, and so many other connecting social media. It wasn’t post we challenged each other for – it was Facebook stalking. But as I sit in the airport writing this, a sense of loss is beginning to slowly sink in. When will I see these F/friends again?

I have seen hearts and minds change during this conference. I have seen a powerful Spirit at work among Friends, all of us feeling a call, whether it was through a still small voice during meeting for worship, shouted aloud in prayer, or addressed to us by our many speakers. Each of us was challenged by another’s traditions, culture, worship, or even language – and none of us are the same for having been here. How can you, when your world suddenly expands wider than you thought imaginable? How can you, when no matter the color of our skin or the manner of our background, we share tears and laughter and hunger and ugali? How can you, when despite your differences, you reach out to another in such tenderness because you are both shaking in the wind of the Spirit?

There was, and is, a love that unites/ignites us all. The different branches of Friends have much to learn from each other. I have heard stories, and lived them – African Friends who said they would go back to their meetings and argue against their meeting’s condemnation of homosexuality; liberal Friends embracing Christian language and metaphor; programmed Friends sitting quietly drinking in the silence; unprogrammed Friends dancing their hearts out to God. I cannot attribute it to anything other than a Spirit of Love moving amongst us; a testament to our common Quaker faith that there is that of God within everyone, a living Christ that shines in us all. If we paused in silence, or took another’s hand in song, or shared a meal with another, or listened openly to another’s experience, that light shone out.

I have had many beautiful conversations with Friends about the nature of community and the future of Quakerism. Coming from a liberal unprogrammed branch of Friends, the question of the future is a particularly pertinent one to me. But there was such energy, a surge of revivalism that I witnessed among unprogrammed Friends in particular at this conference – an acknowledgement that our branch was shrinking, and that our young people were drifting away. Some of what came up – and in my experience, I agree with – is that we, unprogrammed liberal Quakers, do not know how to talk about ourselves. We do not know how to describe worship, nor even very firmly what we believe. I think that some of this is to try to be as welcoming as possible to those who might be offended by particular religious language, Christian language. And it is true that many people come to us with a great deal of baggage surrounding that language. But it may be that in trying to welcome everyone we have become no one. Can we speak authentically of our experiences – in language of our choosing, honest, plain – and still greet the world with open arms? I think that we can. I think this is a conversation that liberal unprogrammed Friends will have, and are beginning to have now.

The bus ride back to Nairobi from Kabarak was about six hours, winding through the Rift Valley on often pot-hole-pitted roads. The sun shone down upon the beginning of our journey, and as the road opened up and we rode down the valley, the afternoon storms rolled slowly in, huge thunderheads you could see from twenty miles off, bringing sweeping sheets of rain down into the plains. Many of the buildings we passed were either partially destroyed or under construction, a physical reminder of the broken world we were driving through. That brokenness was undeniably present in the conference, and present in all of us. But while we may be salt and light to work towards healing a broken world, we can also live our brokenness, and testify to our brokenness – just as deep calls to deep, broken calls to broken, as the waves and billows of this world wash over us.

I leave a place that showed me fire and possibility, hurt and anger, love and tenderness, and wonder how to carry that forward. What I have written here may barely scratch the surface. Better are the words, the prayers, the people, written on my heart.

Advertisements

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This day I finally had the energy to get up and run again in the morning – an activity that is for me a prayer in itself. I had the pleasure of being joined by a fellow runner and Young Friend, and we greeted the day together.

Our final sectional worship was presented by the African section, and delegates from a wide array of countries took the stage to speak, pray, sing and worship. Some testimonies were of unspeakable tragedies survived; one speaker from South Africa had fled there from her home of Rwanda during the genocide, and another Rwandan was one of four survivors of his entire extended family of 92. A speaker from Burundi testified to the ethnic violence that tore the country apart in 1993. And all of these speakers were involved; in reconciliation work; in peace and justice mediation; in organizing support for survivors, and working to end violence. “God has given us the gift of living,” one said, and each Friend on that stage had fully embraced that gift, and worked to give it to others.

The speaker from Burundi challenged the gathered body, asking: can Friends follow in the footsteps of early Friends? Are Quakers distracted – by internal conflicts, or indifference? The church, he said, should be a lived reality; it was a place for members to gather and strengthen each other, and from that source of strength work also outwardly in the world. He echoed the question that had been asked this entire conference, as god asked Elijah: “What are you doing here?”

I do not know how many Friends had an answer. I do know that the presentation was the culmination of a flame I had seen kindled during this conference, one that we as Quakers have an opportunity to bear and be in the world – if we can endure its burning.

My last home group meeting was this day, and we shared with each other what we want to bring back from the conference, what we are struggling with, how we could support each other. The group has been a blessing and a tremendous source of spiritual support for me during this conference, and I will miss all of them more than I can say. I hope we will continue to lean on each other and fan each other’s fires as we go out again into the world, back into our lives, fitting our changed selves into perhaps not-so-changed spaces, and seeing what will grow.

The afternoon thunderstorm that rolled in came in tall dark majesty, and I gave myself space to watch the sweeping sheets of rain blanket the distant mountains, as I leaned against stone still warm from the midday sun. It was a breath in the midst of running around preparing for the evening celebration, finalizing the letter of concern from the small group of Young Friends, and attending the last FWCC business session, where we heard the epistle read in three languages. I found it spoke truly to my experience of the conference, and I hope it will impart to Friends everywhere some portion of the experience that it may.

The evening celebration was the culmination of the conference – a night where delegates from all sections and countries brought forth their talents, humor and love to rejoice over our time together. From song and dance to humorous short plays to a sharing of messages among the entire body, we seized our last chance to gather and laugh and love. I was roped into improv with the Young Friends skit (the Committee for Silly Worship), and I had the joyful honor of singing the closing song.

“Carry your candle

Run to the darkness

Seek out the hopeless, deceived and torn

Hold out your candle

For all to see it

Take your candle and go light your world”

As we sang, we spread out into the audience in the dark room, holding lit candles high. I do not know how it looked to the audience, but my entire being was singing to be a part of it all.

The night brought rain, and amid the laughter and jesting of the ‘unprogrammed’ celebration afterwards (mostly Young Friends staying up late), I could feel the world I had, in some ways, left behind and separated from (the lack of internet and cell phone will do that to you) begin to drift back towards me, like fog coming in from the sea.

If there is one thing I want, it is not to forget this. Not any part of it – the pain as much as the happiness, the difficulties as well as the gifts. This entire experience has been an exquisite gift in so many ways, particularly from everyone who made it happen, from the organizing committees to the staff at the university to our local hosts, the Kenyans, to every single attendee.

Because if I do not forget this, the fire will not burn out. And perhaps then I can finally begin to realize what it means to be salt and light in a broken world.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My awakening this day was one of utter exhaustion, the events of the previous day and night still weighing heavily on my mind. I was not the only one confronting the brokenness among us at this gathering.

It was appropriate, then, that the speaker during this morning’s worship spoke directly to our broken condition.

She spoke of two things: community, and brokenness. We speak of individual salvation, but what about communal salvation? What does the salvation of a community look like? For even despite our differences, it is important to think of ourselves as a community, and that communal essence. For, as she acknowledged, we are a broken community, a fractured community. And sometimes we try to gloss that over: either ignore the breaks, or sweep them under the rug, because “we are bad at sitting with pain.” Brokenness is something to be cured, healed, done away with.

But who among us has not felt this brokenness? Our speaker asked us: had we experienced pain? loss? failure? been infirm, disabled? She requested that anyone who had answered in the affirmative to these questions to stand.

Every single person in the room stood.

What, then, is the role for the broken community? The broken individual? Perhaps we ought not to be so quick to discount brokenness. Because we know hurt, there is a need for this testimony in the world. Because we know it, we can see it and understand it in others, and perhaps even speak to it. There is a ministry of the wounded, for the wounded – for each of us.

All of this spoke directly to me, and to, I believe, every single person in the room. As we filed out to go to our home groups, I saw intensely fragile, broken people – who in their fragility were shouldering the brokenness of their experience, their lives, and through those fragments of psyche, light shone.

My home group continued to take up the theme of the broken world, as well as how god might be working through us to heal. One of our members shared a story of intense physical training undergone by cadets, deliberately designed to break. That was not with the intent to destroy – rather, “only by being broken do they become open to what they need to know.”

We know things in our brokenness that we cannot otherwise. We become open to so many things. As our beings unfolded together in our brokenness, we shared the compassion that comes from one hurting person reaching out to another. And we all, I think, worked to sit with the pain, instead of running away.

After that, I let myself rest. Kitten-watching was my lunchtime occupation – there were a number of stray cats wandering about campus, usually hanging around the dining hall, and in the bushes out front when I sat on the lawn to eat were two extremely tiny kittens pouncing on each other and every leaf in sight.

The afternoon was also a time of rest – though there were plenary sessions weaving the different themes of the Thread Groups we had all attended earlier, I needed space to breathe.

After dinner, a small group of Young Friends who were hurting or had been hurt by the events of the previous night gathered together for a meeting for healing. We sat with each other, listened to each other, and asked what each one of us needed. Because there would be no epistle from Young Friends, no one would know what we had done during that conference, and there was a strong sense among all of us that the effort, the love and respect in each section, and the extent of our attempts should not go un-noted.

From this rose a letter, which we addressed to the rest of the Conference from this small group only. The text is below:

*****

A concern to – the World Conference of Friends 2012.

 

Dear Friends at the World Conference,

This is not the Young Adult Friends Epistle – we are not the entire Young Adult Friends gathered at this conference and do not attempt to speak for anyone other than ourselves.

We would like to share with you a witness at the 6th World Conference of Friends. During our time together we witnessed a Religious Society of Friends that can be tender and broken, and as Young Friends we experienced two evenings of worshipful business that highlighted our diversity and shone a light onto the conflicts that can arise between us. We are hurting, but we are proud of the experience. We write this witness because we feel that our experiences should not be forgotten.

At these business meetings we seemed to have mirrored the conflicts, tensions, joys and excitements of the whole conference – feeling the emotions and spirit move within us just as with the conference as a whole.

What Young Adult Friends tried – to write an epistle together in two short evenings, to speak with one voice – was very brave. This was no small task and one that is rarely attempted. We, the listed Friends, are proud of Young Adult Friends integrity to the worshipful approach to business sessions, our ability to offer compassion and understanding in the face of difference and our connection with the Spirit throughout.

Young Adult Friends were unable to find the one voice that unites us – but we, the listed Friends, feel that the Spirit was close, the journey just beginning and we hope we can continue our search of connectedness beyond this conference.

We, the listed Friends, witnessed powerful connections between the Young Adult Friends gathered, connections of faith, laughter and friendship. We, the listed Friends, are humans with feelings and we struggle from time to time with accepting our seemingly immense differences and are working hard to overcome our struggles in an attempt to stop our differences being obstacles to connection. This is difficult. This takes time. We recognize the Light in each and every one of us and we recognize the strength of each of our strivings for God.

We do not want the love and the bravery that Young Adult Friends have shown to be lost. We hope Young Adult Friends – and indeed the whole conference of which we have enjoyed participating – continue to speak to each other, meet with each other and pray with each other after this conference. The realities of the broken world are quite clear to us now. Our connections are more important than ever. We can still be salt and light in the broken world.

*****

After this meeting, I ran to a group preparing for the celebration the next day – singing. I have dearly missed singing in a choir, and this was my chance to immerse myself once more. As our voices rang in the echo chambers of the university classroom, I could feel a sense of peace slowly returning. My day ended with midnight reflections on the porch of the auditorium with another small group of Young Friends.

I depart thinking of ee cummings:

“there’s time for laughing and there time for crying-
for hoping for despair for peace for longing
-a time for growing and a time for dying:
a night for silence and a day for singing
but more than all (as all your more than eyes
tell me) there is a time for timelessness”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Today, despite beginning to run up a severe sleep debt, I was able to get up and greet the morning by running around Kabarak campus. The birds are loud enough to wake even my hearing-deprived self up, and the sun wastes no time in leaping up over the horizon. The loudest are the ibises, big hook-beaked birds that cry challenges to the sky when they take off and the grass when they land.

After the past intensely beautiful four days, this was to be a change. There was beauty, but there was also pain, as our initial happy acceptance in greeting each other began to crack apart.

Today was the day that local guests would come, Kenyans from different monthly meetings who were not delegates or representatives but simply visiting for the day. Our worship session was packed, and the focus was the Spanish-speaking Section of the Americas. Among the many presentations and sermons, the Bolivian and Cuban delegations serenaded us with a variety of beautiful songs in Spanish and native languages. A Cuban Friend I had talked to earlier had told me there was a song that Cuban Friends sang at almost every event, and that was the song they sang there – Amigos Para Siempre (Friends Forever). Standing in the midst of nearly a thousand Quakers from all over the world, holding our hands together high to the sky, we sang the song that was playing in our hearts.

After worship, however, there was an announcement made to the entire gathering. The organizers informed us that the epistle lovingly sent to the Conference by the FLGBTQC (Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns), which had been posted on the wall of the auditorium along with all other epistles sent to the Conference, had been torn down (not once but twice, as I learned later). The speaker informed us in a breaking voice that this was an act of hatred and violence, and would not be tolerated.

I left the meeting silenced and shocked. I knew that this would be an issue that divided Friends, but I had not imagined its manifestation as such. And as a member of that community, I was deeply hurt. The initial euphoria was evaporating; perhaps I had made a mistake in forgetting, or ignoring brokenness; the reminders were there in front of me.

Our home group this day was particularly pertinent to me, as we discussed the question of Young Friends – many of them are drifting away from Quakers, and there seems to be a smaller and smaller body of them. What could we do? Being one of the two Young Friends in the group, I was interested to see the differences between programmed, evangelical Friends and liberal, unprogrammed Friends.

To some extent, I can understand difficulties. Growing up in a liberal, unprogrammed Quaker meeting, I don’t really feel I had a grasp of what worship was actually about. The silence bored me to tears, and the practice was difficult to understand. It is difficult to pinpoint when silent worship first began to ‘speak to my condition.’ But part of the problem, I guessed, is that liberal Quakers sometimes find it difficult to explain themselves. That led to a conversation of what exactly is the ‘good news’ of Quakerism. What are we about? I particularly appreciated two points I had read from an epistle addressed to the conference – that God is Love, and that there is that of God within everyone. From that wellspring may burst a wealth of our testimonies, practices, and actions in the world.

I had to dash out of my home group to retrieve my laundry before a soaking from the regular afternoon storms, but had some quiet time for rest after that. In the evening I had the opportunity to attend a group giving information about Casa de los Amigos, a hospitality house and waystation for refugees in Mexico City. I had heard about the Casa before, many years ago when I lived in Mexico, and it has always been with me in the back of my mind. All I learned about it strengthened its call to me.

The day was not yet over – at ten at night the Young Friends group met once more to attempt to finalize its epistle. It was an immensely respectful meeting, full of prayerful ministry, testimony, and passion for the role of Young Friends as the next generation of Quakers, and agents for change in the world. However, it was difficult to reach agreement on the content of the epistle. At midnight we had still not decided, and there was a final attempt. After a fifteen-minute break, we returned to hear the last version the recording clerk had, and approve it, or not.

After it was read, the question was asked: do we approve it, or not? There was barely a moment, and then the response called out: “No!”

And that was the end of it.

I was stunned, to say the least. I had been so certain, so clear that we were nearly there, that we were close to approving a tremendously beautiful epistle that had been reached in a loving and respectful business process. But something gave, and it came unraveled at the end. After two long and intense sessions, not to mention a great deal of work on behalf of the clerk and recording clerk, we had nothing to show for it. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had wasted my time and energy, or if I had been completely wrong in my discernment of the Spirit, or worse, not given a message I should.

There were many other Young Friends just as shocked as I was. When I could do little more than stare out into the rain at the darkened courtyard, hearing its patter on the night-soaked grass, other Friends shared this space and hurt with me. Some played music, some sang, some talked. Another Friend and I had a conversation long into the night about what had, or hadn’t, happened.

And so even though cracks had opened up this day, it was not the end of anything. It was in these cracks, I began to see, that other light might be able to shine through.

I still have no clarity on what happened. We were a tremendously wide and diverse group, and reaching agreement between those different experiences and testimonies is difficult. To do so in two sessions is even more so. The business process, native to unprogrammed worship, might have been more difficult for those Young Friends not from that background. We unprogrammed Friends might have been enforcing our experience in the epistle, so that even while it spoke to me, it did not speak to others. I do not know.

But it was like a widening of the experience of the Conference. My optimism means I tend to neglect the darker sides of experience, the disagreements, the conflicts. From the events that happened and conversations I had and heard, I could not say our gathering was perfect. We exemplified the theme – sadly, the portion of it that spoke of the broken world.

Where would we go from here? It was far too late to have any answers. I can only wait until the morning, and a new light.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday, the middle of the Conference, was our day for excursions. I had looked at all of them – trips to wildlife parks, local cities, tea plantations, and historical sites – and not been really sure what I wanted. But I was given a great gift instead. A Kenyan Friend whom I had met earlier invited me and another American Friend to her home in Nakuru, where we could help her with cooking that she was doing as part of her ongoing project to feed people on the streets.

She had me at ‘cooking.’

So instead of going with the other group outings, the five of us – the American Friend and me, my Kenyan Friend, her mother and other friend – piled into the car and headed down the road to nearby Nakuru, about a twenty-minute drive.

Nakuru is a densely populated city, they told me. The marketplace that we drove to was absolutely packed – with crowds of people on foot, and beleaguered taxis and cars slowly making their way through them. I was exquisitely aware that the American Friend and I were the only white people in the entire area that I could see. The Kenyan Friend told us to stay in the car – as they went to buy food at the marketplace, we would be a liability for prices. The minute the vendors saw us, they would charge more. Even staying in the car, we attracted a great many stares from passerby.

We were driven to the Kenyans’ home a little ways away from the center of town. It was a beautiful home – single story, with neat white cloths draped over the furniture and many family photographs adorning the walls. We met the rest of the family and were greeted with as much warmth as if we were old friends. Breakfast was prepared for us – the typical Kenyan porridge, which is made of brown millet, fruit, bread, and tea. After the meal, we went out back to where the food was being prepared. There was a concrete back veranda overhung by the roof, and a small backyard. I could see piled sacks of corn and beans, which the family had grown on land they owned, and long tables nearby a charcoal stove on which an enormous pot was bubbling. I helped in chopping vegetables for the soup we would distribute – cabbage, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, onion, beef.

Once the soup was done, we distributed food into plastic bags. They told me that they used the bags because they were much cheaper and easier to use than paper plates. First went in cooked hominy and beans, followed by rice, then a chunk of meat and a whole potato from the stew, plus more of the stew itself. We prepared perhaps a hundred or so bags this way. While we prepared the food, Christian rock blasted from a tiny radio, and we delighted in eating small chunks of fresh coconut that one of our hosts peeled and cracked open.

After preparing this food, which had taken all morning, there was some lunch for us – homemade tomato soup and garlic bread, quite possibly some of the best I had ever tasted. I enjoyed stealing a chance to do the dishes, which they happily let me do. Our host explained that they did this every week – they divided cooking with other families, so everyone involved cooked at least once a week for the street children. It was part of a small program they ran to get people off the streets; over the years they had been able to put some people through school, help them to start businesses, and get them in a stable living environment. When she had described all of the work that she did to me, she turned to me with a contemplative air and asked me, “What else should I be doing?”

I found myself very much flummoxed by the question – many people I knew did not do half as much service as her! It was quite clear to me that the Quaker testimonies extended into the daily lives of the Kenyans, and I found myself quieted and humbled by the work they did.

When it was time to go distribute the food, I felt that I had actually done very little. But our hosts were incredibly warm, offering us their home and their love, and one of our hosts, in introducing us to some passing friends, said firmly, “These are my people.”

The distribution point for the food was a little ways away from the center, down a dirt road between two busier streets. There was a crowd already gathering, perhaps eighty or so people. We drove up, and were told to stay in the car once more, as our hosts knew what they were doing, and instructed us in no uncertain terms to have anything on us – valuables – if we did come out.

She got out and organized the crowd – they knew her well, and followed her lecturing in Swahili. She later told me that the crowd had commented, “Look, she’s coming with white people,” and she told them, “You’d better be on your best behavior, because they’re here to see what you do!”

I very deliberately did not take any pictures. I felt enough already like a spectator, and I didn’t want to make a spectacle of people’s lives. This was an experience for me, but every day for them. It was more of a gift to me than much real help to them, I knew. And so I was grateful for the chance, and the opportunity to see and learn.

After distributing the food, our hosts took us to other areas in Nakuru. One of our stops was the Nakuru Quaker Church, which happened to have a wedding when we came. I caught a glimpse of hanging yellow roses, packed pews filled with people clapping and dancing, and a white-dressed bride led to the altar. I realized this was the first Quaker wedding I had ever seen, though unprogrammed traditions do it quite differently!

They also took us up to the hills around Nakuru, overlooking the lake. The gated community lived in the hills, huge houses surrounded by either walls topped by barbed wire or hedges hiding thorns and cacti. The enormous houses were a marked contrast to the crowded market and the homeless youth I had seen earlier.

The trip home was spent with several stops on the side of the road for one of our hosts to buy bananas, which she would distribute to everyone in the car. Having not traveled thousands of miles to get to us, they were the sweetest bananas I’d ever tasted.

I realize at the end of the day that it was the greatest gift our hosts could have given us – the opportunity to see one small slice of life in this corner of Kenya. I am not an informed person by far, but it is a start. I found myself reflecting on the ‘white savoir industrial complex’ that was brought up by several excellent articles commenting on the Kony 2012 film and reactions to it. This complex is an attitude attributed to certain white privileged people who view so-called ‘third world’ countries as full of people waiting to be saved by them, and tend to support or execute sweeping actions that do not take into account the complex realities of situations or what the people in the country they want to save are actually doing on their own. While it may be borne of a genuine desire to do good, the consequences of unthinking intervention can be disastrous.  Because of all this, I was happy to get a glimpse into the wider world of Kenyan activism within their own country.

Kenyans will be facing presidential elections in the fall. One of the reasons this World Conference is in April was because it was moved from later in the year to avoid coinciding with the presidential elections. The last elections brought terrible violence to the country, and Kenyan Friends struggled to deal with this. The shadow of this hangs over the Conference, and I think that no matter how much we might complain in America about politics and our own upcoming presidential election, I very much doubt we will face the kinds of fear, violence and destruction that Kenya has, and may yet.

My trip left me with a great deal of thought and rich experience, but my day was not over yet. The capstone was a three-hour-long meeting of Young Adult Friends to draft an epistle to the body of Quakers worldwide. Though we did not yet come to unity on a message, there was a powerful feeling, for me, of love, respect, and passion for change and for the role of Young Adult Friends in the future, both as members of the Religious Society of Friends and in the wider world. I found myself honing my language skills as the Spanish translator once more, and am extraordinarily grateful for all who put up with my repeated asking of, “What?” as well as a few Friends who acted as my ears and backup translators.

I left the meeting tired but joyous, filled with hope.

Friday, April 20, 2012

I feel daily drawn further into the spirit of this place, this people. So many times I find myself at a loss for words for the power I feel sweeping through me, as I speak with, eat with, live with so many different Friends. We come from so many places and yet we come seeking the same thing – god. And like Theseus following the thread through the labyrinth, we follow the slender ties of our common longing out of the maze, to the daylight beyond.

It is what we touch and hold in common that grips me, a love beyond words that reduces me to tears, to laughter, to silence.

This morning’s session for worship and reflection was the section of Asia and West Pacific, the largest geographic territory but the smallest body of Friends. After opening singing and prayer, three speakers from three different countries – Nepal, Philippines, and New Zealand – came forward to speak on the theme of Salt and Light and share their experiences. The speaker from Nepal spoke of his choice to stay in his home country, despite his ability to get out and live in the US or the UK, and his determination to take care of his community and family, to help others as he was helped so that they in turn would help others. We must be salt, he said, to bring out god-flavors, and light to bring out god-colors.

The speaker from the Philippines spoke of her own meeting, the joys she found there, and the difficulties, mentioning a friend of hers who did prison work. Although the prisoners had been abandoned by everyone else, there was one who had not – god. And as Friends, we might work to reach out to those abandoned by all others, because no one is truly ever alone.

The third speaker from New Zealand opened with a prayer in Maori, the native language of New Zealand inhabitants before the European colonizers. He went on to speak of the struggle between the colonized and the colonizers, and the brokenness we face in the world today. So much brokenness, that we might be tempted to think that is the way things naturally are – that human beings are predisposed to seeing things as us/them, to inciting violence and hurting each other. But, he said—

“Brokenness is in the eye of the beholder.”

It is not for us to focus solely on our brokenness, nor try to sweep it under the rug. We must acknowledge it, live with it, work with it. For in our strivings we can reach a better place – we can be at peace with each other. And what would it take? The same thing as it always has, he acknowledged – love. A love for the precious divinity that we acknowledge in each and every person. A love that goes beyond us and them and brings we. The Quakers, he said, in Maori, are known as Te Haahi Tuuhauwiri – “the faith community that stands shaking in the wind of the Spirit.”

We must not hide from that wind, nor cease to shake. If we let it sweep through us, it may take us to where we are meant to be, make us who we are meant to be.

That is part of the love I have for Friends, a love that meets its grander sibling in the hearts of all at this conference. We are not a perfect religion – the third speaker believed that god did not create religion to reach humans, but that humans created religion to reach god, and as such, there will always be flaws. That I understand. But in all our perfect imperfections we can still reach that divinity – and that is why we cannot be without each other, because alone our striving can only reach, at best, a partial piece. As Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Each person that I meet here gives me that glimpse. Each person sends another breath of that spirit through me, and I stand naked and shaking before it.

Our home group this morning focused on our experiences of programmed and unprogrammed worship, and how they had been for all of us at the conference. We had Friends from both traditions present to share their reflections. Because I had missed the beginning of the first day of the conference, I had not had the experience yet of the programmed worship of African Friends, but I had attended a programmed meeting in Chicago, and could speak from that. I have found and continue to find a joy in both kinds of worship, to find god in song and dance as much as silence. When there is motion, and music, and movement, there god is, and unity with others. And where there is a hushed stillness, and the quiet sounds of breathing around me, and my own heartbeat in anticipation of the small voice within, there god is also.

I was able to rest a little before my thread group later in the afternoon – our final session on Sexual Brokenness. I entered the group hopeful, remaining open, as our discussion this day was more open – we were free to share what we wished. This session was a beautiful dance of speaking and listening – I worked on interpreting all that was said for the Spanish-speaking Friends present, and with my own imperfect hearing, the English-speakers treated me with grace and patience every time I had to ask someone to stop and repeat what they’d just said. The ironies of a partially deaf interpreter are not lost on me! But with this dance, this sharing and listening, a powerful, vulnerable space opened in our group. I was left in reverent awe at the openness of some of our members, and the tenderness with which every person treated one another. We did not all agree on issues of brokenness – that was clear. But we all wanted so much as Friends to act with love, to truly understand another, and to listen without judgment. And all this desire helped the group to reach – not an accord, I think, but a respect, and a deep honor for each other’s experience. And that respect, that honor and tenderness, from Friends who held deep and opposing opinions on difficult issues of sexuality – I could not help but see the movement of the spirit in our group. Something touched us all, and I think we will all leave with the memory of this space and this sharing resting deeply upon us.

And speaking of movement, I finally got a chance to participate in the dancing that is the joyful hallmark of many African Quaker meetings. As I walked by the auditorium on my way to dinner, I could hear loud music, happy voices and thumping from within. Inside I found a long line of people singing, clapping and stamping their way before the stage in the auditorium. Not one to miss out on such a dance party, I let myself be swept into the line. We circled around the front of the auditorium, generally swaying and stamping in time, while being egged on by onlookers or joined with in laughter by the singers. The language of the song I did not know, but the smiles and the joy were all I needed to understand.

We had a strangely beautiful seasonal phenomenon at dinner – thousands of insects were buzzing around the lights when I came in, looking almost like small fairies flocking around the ceiling. They had large wings and flew gracefully above our heads. Someone later told me they were termites (though I also heard flying ants), and they were out seeking a new place to live, but would all die by the morning. Indeed, I found many of the clustered by the sinks and showers later, struggling to lift waterlogged wings. The Kenyans told me they were a sweet delicacy, when their wings were plucked and their bodies fried. Being vegan, I had to decline the opportunity to try this.

So many people, so many new experiences. These connections, this joy, this grace – I do not know a better word than gratitude for what I feel, though it is such a small word for such a sweeping expansive feeling, as vast as the starry sky I could behold tonight. We are a small group, flawed, human, but like even one star in the sky, we are an essential part of the tapestry of this world. In this place I feel spirit rising, among Friends in general and Young Friends in particular. It is like the world is holding its breath—

(Note: although the Conference is over now, and I sit in reflection at home, internet was too iffy to allow for real-time posting. So I will put these up one by one, and feel free to pretend they were up a week ago!)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

 

Each day is so full it seems an entire world into itself. Already there is a routine, of light entering and leaving the world, of meals, of sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon, of the ebb and flow of people and their energy. I begin to recognize more faces, remember more names. I am learning other cultures, other customs, other words – and sharing in the delight that comes from the inquiry, the simple shock of meeting such differences. It is not a negative shock; rather, a kind of wonder, at the wideness and variety of the world. For many it is their first time meeting anyone outside of their home culture or country, and still we handle each other gently, with awe and tenderness at our differences, delight and laughter at our similarities.

In the morning we have a section of worship led in the style of one of the geographic sections of FWCC – today, it happened to be my home section, the English-speaking Section of the Americas. We were led in prayer and song, and sat in open silent worship. The main message of worship was given, much to my delight, by a speaker whose power and utter openness to god I had already experienced during my time at Pendle Hill. As it was before when I heard him, I remember little of the speech – so much of it sank beyond my memory as words and simply into my core. The few parts I do remember were of the story of the prophet Elijah. Elijah was faithful to god, but began to run too far ahead of the spirit, not trusting in god to do the work. He was eventually forced to flee town and wandered alone in the desert. At last he fell on the ground before god, alone, under a single tree, and begged god to take his life. But he was not alone; god came to him and said, “What are you doing here?” Elijah’s response was, “I was zealous for you, Lord!” And there was the error – for god does not require us to be zealous for god, to work hard for god. God only requires that we listen in faith, and act in faith, in surrender. The work is god’s, not ours.

The other part of the message stands out as a single sentence: “If we are to carry living water, our vessels must be made clean.”

Living water. Clean vessels. Zealous for god. These caught me, arrested me. What does it mean to be zealous for god? How are we taking too much into our own hands? What does it mean to live in surrender? What is the living water? And how are our vessels to be cleaned?

I had no answers – I have no answers. Only a thousand reflections, and the day still was not halfway through.

I was able to attend my home group today; yesterday I had arrived too late to participate. Our home group was a small – perhaps ten or twelve – group of people whose purpose was to get to know each other in a smaller setting, share worship and reflections on the theme, and generally support each other through the conference. Our group focused on introductions, and allowing each person to respond to two questions: the first, the most interesting place we had ever been, and the second, finishing the sentence, “The kingdom of god is like…” There were as many answers as people, all heartfelt, all providing glimpses into the richness of our lives, and all drawing us together.

In the afternoon I chose to attend a thread group I had missed the day before, Quaker History and Diversity. It was a lecture of the history of early Friends, starting with the origins of Quakerism in England. After a brief break, I entered my second thread group once more, on the topic of Sexual Brokenness. Our numbers had swelled from yesterday, perhaps half again as many people – and the day before we had around 35. Once again our facilitator set the space by reminding us to listen tenderly and carefully to all, enjoining us to listen in ‘holy indifference.’ I loved the phrase – an indifference that comes not from uncaring but from caring deeply, striving to see the light in all, listening for the loving intentions even if the words shocked us or grated against our beings. We began with a list of things we considered to be sexual brokenness, and then moved on to answering the question, “How can Friends be called by god to act towards sexual brokenness?”

As it did yesterday, the topic brought out a range of difficult emotions in everybody, myself included. Though I will not list specifics, to preserve privacy and respect, the range of experiences took my breath away. And even though there were clear disagreements, it was equally clear that everyone was dedicated to understanding – understanding the other perspective, listening as openly as they could, reserving judgment. For when the words grate against your soul, that is the time when we must listen hardest – and I believe that we all did. I left the meeting with an overwhelming sense of hope.

The last main event of the evening was a gathering of Young Friends, which took place after dinner when we all squeezed into a classroom on campus. Here was affirmed to range and diversity of places, meetings and practices that we represented, as we each reported on activities of Young Friends in our various regions. Each speaker also spoke with respectful intervals for our two translators, making Spanish-speaking and French-speaking Friends a part of our conversation as well.

When I was growing up, it was difficult to find Quakers my age – and now to be in a room full of them from all over the world filled me with a wild joy and hope. Even after the main body left, a smaller group of us swapped songs from our various meetings and cultures, each of us learning something new, each of us sharing something dear.

My answer in my home group earlier, to finish the sentence, “The kingdom of god is like…” was, “The kingdom of god is like a song. Though we do not know the words we recognize the melody, and we remember it even if we have not heard it for years. It speaks to us even if its tongue is not ours, and when we hear it, how can we keep from singing?”

Today, I could not keep from singing.

I was wrestling with a feeling of deep shame earlier for having missed a day and what turned out to be a half a day of the conference. Of all the flights to miss, why did it have to be this one? Was this not shirking my responsibility as a delegate? How could I miss even part of a conference that only happens once in a generation?

However, events unfolded my first day – the second day of the conference – that helped me to overcome this shame, and indeed feel more a part of everything in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Many things also served to show me my own expectations and assumptions about many others that, with grace, I am able to let gently go.

I successfully caught my rebooked flight to Kenya, a plane crowded with diverse faces and many languages. I couldn’t see the mountains my in-flight map told me we were flying over, but when I awoke I could see the first brilliant slivers of red and gold light on the horizon. As we dipped below the clouds I was suddenly level with a nearby sleeping giant of a mountain, dark against the brightening sky, and green-brown fields dotted with trees and houses rolled themselves out beneath the airplane. We bumped onto land just as the sun broke over the horizon, and my first breath of morning air was fresh with the scent of recent rain.

It turned out I was not the only delegate stranded – several others had arrived before and after me, and I was thrown headlong into the international Quaker sphere. I was greeted and escorted by several Kenyan delegates, and met a Japanese delegate who had worked in Africa for many years. Two delegates from Mexico City turned up later, much to my delight, and my role as informal translator began. Switching back between Spanish and English, learning phrases of Swahili, our car was already a flurry of cultures meeting. We caught glimpses of giraffes and vultures from the window on the ride out of Nairobi, and the bus that we eventually caught to Kabarak University, the site of the conference, bounced and lurched past green fields, brown lakes, trees and flowers I could not name, and many, many faces – some apathetic, some curious, a few happily waving to the bus. I could not begin to guess at the lives and history I was passing before the bus swept by.

Kabarak University, three hours out of Nairobi, was a wide campus whose sturdy white buildings and brick paths were already filled by hundreds of people milling about in the sunny afternoon. I could feel the excitement trembling in the air just looking at everybody – languages I didn’t recognize tumbling over each other, colorful clothing fluttering in the wind, faces of every shape and color. For once, I realized, I was quite in the minority in many ways. The latecomers were escorted to lunch (it was three in the afternoon) and shown our registration materials and rooms.

I had arrived too late to make the first session of Thread Groups, themed gatherings you could sign up for varying by topic and concern, but I was determined to make the second, and so as the clouds chased away the sun and brought a thunderous downpour, I ran to the Thread Group entitled Sexual Brokenness.

The topic was of some concern to me – at least, my own idea of sexual brokenness and the issues it raised dividing Quakers today. However, I quickly learned that not only were my concerns of who might attend such a session alleviated (I had feared it might be mostly composed of British and North American Friends), my idea of sexual brokenness was one among many. I participated very little in the session; a few of the attendees spoke only Spanish, and another delegate and I fell to aiding in translation. However, the breadth of views and backgrounds of the members of our group took my breath away. We were encouraged by our group leader to reflect on three questions: was sexuality a gift from God? Was it a blessing? What was its purpose? Instead of focusing initially on our ideas of brokenness, it led us to share our perceptions of the joys of sexuality, and there were many. Many of us cited identity, interaction with the world, procreation, pleasure, love, connection with God. It was such a tender sharing of the experience of each of us, with concerned listening on the part of each member, that even when the conversation turned to the brokenness of sexuality, and Friends spoke of less happy experiences, I felt we held each other in a safe place of understanding and compassion.

Afterwards, we went around and introduced ourselves and our reason for coming to this group. While many Friends spoke of their awareness of issues of sexuality dividing Friends, like the treatment of homosexuals and others of ‘deviant’ sexuality, others raised concerns about premarital sex, child sexual abuse, broken marriages and families, support of couples in intimacy, and aiding youth in understanding safe practices. And we came from all over – delegates from Uganda, South Africa, Australia, Hungary, Germany, Kenya, Ireland, Venezuela, Mexico, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States were all present. I stood in awe of the range of our experiences and testimonies, and continued to strive towards what I wanted most – understanding of all experiences, a vision of a common Light that we shared. I felt at the end that we had begun something.

As I went to dinner I realized that despite my late arrival, I had missed very little – it was going to be impossible to meet all nine hundred or so of the delegates no matter how hard I tried, and all of us could only attend so many of the overlapping meetings and activities. Having the opportunity to translate and gather into a smaller group, to know one another more intimately, provided me with the sense of belonging that I had sought and helped to overcome the vestiges of my shame.

The evening was a powerful keynote speaker from Guatemala, who testified to all of us her experience of the brokenness of the world, a testimony she could not even give in her home country for fear of retribution. Though our languages and words were different, I could understand the truth of experience, of God in her life, and I could once more feel that tugging at unity that all our cultural differences and variety of tongues and backgrounds could not obscure.

I find myself at once overwhelmed and overjoyed to be here. This is my first true glimpse at the wide international Quaker community, and indeed the face of the majority of the world’s Quakers – Kenyans. I delight in the variety of ways the message of the first Quakers has leaped across the oceans and continents, across time and tongues, so that the question of “What canst thou say?” is answered in every other language besides its own.

I have been anticipating for some time now the gathering of the Sixth World Conference of Friends, as I am a delegate from Illinois Yearly Meeting. A year and a half ago, the call went out, and so I have had some time to prepare, reflect, connect with others going to the Conference, and speak with other Friends and Meetings in my area.

Even the best preparations go awry – I managed to miss my flight from Heathrow in London to Nairobi, Kenya for a variety of reasons, and as a result I’ll be arriving a day late at the conference. But it’s given me some much-needed downtime to rest and write a little, and so even a situation which seems like a disaster may turn out all right in the end.

It has given me space to be thankful for the situation I was born into (no question of deserving or earning it)–a situation where a missed flight is simply a matter of lost time and lost money, in a country where I already speak the language, with friends to put me up overnight. Others are not so fortunate – an airline with which many Bolivian delegates were traveling filed for bankruptcy, and left delegates stranded without resources to rearrange their flights, and FWCC, the organizing body, had to send out a call for emergency funds to find $11,000 no one had.

I am particularly grateful for the wonderful friends who have helped me along in this situation, including the people who didn’t even know me – the train conductor who didn’t charge us for the train we’d mistakenly boarded to the wrong terminal, or the person who handed me a working day pass to the Underground before walking off.

It’s reminded me of how interconnected we all are, and the ways small and large we touch each others’ lives – how wonderful a thing that can be, and how terribly that can be abused.

Tomorrow, I will be among a thousand other Quakers from all corners of the world. We will not all speak the same language, we will not practice or worship the same way, and we are all coming from different backgrounds.

But we are of this planet and this universe, and we will unite under the name of Friends, and will meet as strangers and depart, I pray, as f/Friends. We must be mindful of our differences and compassionate with each other, and gentle with ourselves and with others. I believe that all of us will be coming with open hearts and minds, and no matter what tongues we know or don’t, we’ll all at least speak the language of love.

I hope to have further reflections as the conference goes on, though they may not be posted right away. Now I am off for the flight, and will next see the sun rise in another continent.

“Thou art a beloved child of the universe, and thy name is Human!”