Friday, 18 May 2012

Being Salt and Light in a Broken World, a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven

Some personal reflections on being at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya

Being at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya was a blessing and a gift. Nine days among friends, grounded in worship with plenty of time for talking. 
What’s not to like?
On the first evening I wasn’t sure if I was being called on to be a reserve home group facilitator so I went over their training session to find out. A group of us who had arrived on the last bus walked together along the unlit road to the building where it was being held. Once there I discovered that they had cover enough, so I was free to go. 
I stepped out of the door, into the dark African night, alone.
If I’m honest, I’m a bit scared of the dark. Although I knew that the road was straight and paved, and that I knew the way back from where we’d just come, I was afraid to walk it on my own. It was very dark without street lighting. I thought briefly of turning back into the hall and waiting until the session was over to return with others but pride prevented me. Also I knew that the Friend who had shown us the way over just a few a minutes before had set off back directly, on her own.
‘If she can do it, so can I’ I thought; a comfort and a discipline. And so I took the hand of God and set off into the dark night, one foot before the other, all the way home.
That campus did come to feel like home and being at home amongst so many Friends from around the world felt like a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven. I went to the unprogrammed early morning worship each day and from there to breakfast and from breakfast to the plenary worship session in the main auditorium. That’s the way to start a day. Two hours allocated worship time before half past ten.
The mixture of the plenary worship sessions, planned and delivered by a different ‘section’ each day, gave us the opportunity to experience each other’s worship traditions and to hear from speakers from different parts of the world who explored the conference theme. We heard truth and we experienced community. Many of the speakers were younger Friends and it was striking to hear their depth of wisdom and their confidence and ability to preach to us.
I learned that I would like to have more preaching in my life. I valued being given the insights of someone’s passion and thinking and preparation and devotion. I was thankful for their willingness to make themselves vulnerable by delivering a message to us all and I felt inspired both by what they said and their effectiveness in saying it. I want to speak up more about faith and learn to communicate more effectively too.
Not all the words resonated of course, and sometimes I would have been grateful for more silence. I realised after day one that I was going to have to take notes to have any chance of keeping hold of any of it and this felt a bit peculiar. I generally feel very strongly that note taking during meeting for worship is not on. There was a tendency for us to be enjoined to take part in participation activities – to stand up or join hands or say aloud ‘we are salt and light’ – and in the main this felt awkward and self conscious for me.
However when Jocelyn Burnell (the speaker from the Europe and Middle Section) posed us a series of questions on being broken – ‘Are you carrying grief or some other woundedness?’ ‘Do you feel you have failed in some way?’ ‘Do you have a long term illness or disability?’ – and requested that if we answered yes to any of these questions and felt able to do so we should stand up, it changed the whole dynamic of the conference.
Everyone stood up. We are all broken. It is one of the things that joins us together.
Through being given this opportunity to share together as a body, I felt we, the world community of Friends, were given the space to see that we are all the same.  It was one of the most powerful moments of the conference and once again I was required to revise my opinion, this time on the place of ‘group participation activities’ in worship.
Of course, singing is a commonly used group participation activity in worship and I was prepared for that. There was much singing all through the week and although I can feel rather left out and lonely during singing that wasn’t my experience this time at all. I’m not a singer. I come from an unmusical family and I never learned. So mostly I just don’t sing. I also concur with the idea that you shouldn’t join in with singing words that you don’t agree with just because they’re a song.
There were some instances of this during the week but also many songs which I’d happily join in with if only I knew how. At the beginning of one session I was sitting right up at the far back left corner of the auditorium (two layers of raked seating up) and everyone was singing. We were about to have Nancy Irving’s keynote address so the hall was completely full (a quick note here to reference the work Nancy has done in bringing the Quaker worlds together) and I realised that it would be a good idea if I took the chance to nip to the loo.
I got up from my seat in the back row and sped down the stairs, along the balcony, down the other stairs and across the hall, all the while surrounded by Friends of every colour standing, singing ‘Allelu, Allelu, Alleluiah!’ That felt like a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. It did my heart good.
That song, and the one following it, gave me plenty of time to get back to my seat to hear Nancy’s address! She gave us thoughts on her experience of grace, that it can come prosaically through the need to pay taxes and that it can show God’s hand at work in our lives, if we are listening and willing to respond.
I believe as a community we had the opportunity to experience grace during the conference, not least through the challenges we faced in acknowledging our differences. Such as dealing with our differing opinions about homosexuality. I’m left troubled though by what we did with the opportunity. As recorded elsewhere this came to light most publicly through the matter of the epistle from North American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Friends that had been put up with the other epistles to the conference, and was then taken down.
The public response to the epistle being taken down came from one of the clerks of the conference organising committee. From the platform she told the whole conference that taking this epistle down was ‘an act of hatred and violence.’ Had she said ‘it felt like an act of hatred and violence’ I would have had to accept that this was her experience. But to make an unfounded emotive accusation in this way felt to me to be at best misguided and at worst actively damaging. To one-sidedly escalate a conflict in this way seemed to me like an abuse of power.
In my home group we had a good discussion about the matter and we were able to hold each other’s opinions and feelings without damaging our relationships. We heard from a Friend who said ‘Just tell me where it says in the bible that this gay marriage is ok and then I’ll accept it’ and we heard of the tension between the Inward Guide and the external authority and the ongoing life of Friends’ experience of trying to balance this tension. We heard a clear challenge to taking any authority from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah when it advocates giving up your virgin daughter and her hand maids as an alternative to the intentions of the Sodomites to rape a guest. None of us agreed with rape as an acceptable practice, or of sacrificing virgins.
We heard that in Ezekiel we’re told that if you know your friend is sinning and don’t tell him to stop that God will hold you responsible for his sin as well as your own. And we heard that there was grave concern from our Kenyan Friends that the epistle was up in public, on an open campus where there were reporters present and that if word got out in Kenya that ‘Quakers are ok with people being gay’ that it could seriously compromise the safety of Friends and the Quaker church as a whole. It’s still illegal to be gay in Kenya.
It struck me that we heard that taking down the epistle was probably an act of fear and protection.
And with this understanding of the likely motives of those who had taken it down I began to wonder about the intentions of those who had put it up. I went to look at the epistles and the others were mainly from either recognised constitutional groups of the Society of Friends – YMs or MMs. There was one from American Friends Service Committee (an international organisation) and one from a pre-conference study group (specifically formed in relation to the conference). I query the process by which it was decided to put up an epistle from an informal group from one country which was known in advance to bring a contentious issue into play in a public and unfacilitated way.
When I was choosing a Thread Group to attend I was drawn to the one on ‘Broken Sexuality’ because I knew it was an edgy topic. It was to be facilitated by a Friend from Rocky Mountain YM (USA) and so I did some research to find out what that meant. An American Friend told me ‘That’s a very evangelical, politically conservative, Yearly Meeting. You’ll find they’re more likely to want to tell you what’s right than to listen to other opinions.’ So I signed up to enter the fray.
But then while I walked there (along that road again, this time in the bright daytime sun) I mused on what had been said to me. ‘They’re more likely to want to tell you what’s right than to listen to other opinions.’ It was one of those moments when a voice speaks in my ear: ‘Well, why are you going Rosie? To give your opinion? Or are you willing to listen?’
In the event the group was facilitated with tenderness and sensitivity. We shared from across our range of beliefs and experiences, and the Friend from Rocky Mountain showed clearly that her only agenda was for open and honest communication to take place. I heard some exciting messages from African Friends – about moves towards gender equality and challenges to damaging practices. I could see that they are doing their own work in their own culture, in their own time and that currently homosexuality is not top of their priority list. Which if we look back at our own history we can see it wasn’t for us until after we’d got women sorted with the right to own their own land either.
I was enriched by the experience of this group - I learned from listening and offered what I could to develop the conversation through sharing my experience. As a community we worked together to develop the conversation and through this process we came away richer. And I made sure to go back to the Friend I’d asked about Rocky Mountain YM to tell them that in this case their stereotype was mistaken.
So I know it can be done -we can look beyond our stereotypes and listen to each other. This is how we will gain strength as a community. This is what being a community means. ‘Consider it possible you may be mistaken.’ Friends, the key moment to consider this is exactly at the point that you are most certain that you’re right. It’s considering this that enables us to listen to another experience.
So one of the things that I learned at the World Conference is that I care most passionately about how we deal with conflict, regardless of what the issue is. I care that I’m not inadvertently part of a process that carelessly tramples over sensitive cultural issues without thinking through either how may feel to others or to the potential implications for individuals within our community.  That it’s of key importance to listen and to seek to understand.
In my other Thread Group I was one of the facilitators and it was on the theme of Quakers in Prison. We learned of different work Friends are doing with people affected by prison. Just one example is an amazing story of a woman who has developed work in Rwanda to promote communication and healing between the wives of those who were killed in the genocide and the wives of men imprisoned following it. It was a privilege and an inspiration to share these stories.
In the dinner queue (many of the conversations of the conference happened whilst waiting for food) I was talking with a Norwegian Friend about which Thread Groups we were doing. On hearing of my prison theme she told me that it was because of captured Norwegian sailors meeting Quakers in British prisons that Quakerism came into Norway. Being amongst Friends is rich with such moments of easy sharing of topics of interest.
The dining room was VERY NOISY. All those hundreds of conversations in many different languages echoing round the hall. You could really only easily hear the person sitting right next to you. In some ways it was challenging but in others it gave a vision of determined communication. You looked around the hall and every one was leaning forward straining to hear, shouting to be heard. And that was my primary experience of what the conference was like – we were all leaning towards each other to hear and be heard.


Linda Hoy said...

Rosie, this was such a wonderful, detailed description. I almost felt there with you. Thank you so much.

Linda Hoy said...

Thank you so much for this, Rosie.

Unknown said...

Super super account. Thanks so much.

pablo paz said...

I appreciate thy thoroughness and clear expression, trying to state just what is/was without bias, Friend. In fact, it was a challenge to maintain the energy of the Conference, but Friends were given the Power to be present to one another - everyone had an opportunity to be heard, even when --as in the dining hall-- only one person could hear them. I think thy experience was typical and unique - like life and like the Conference. And the report helpful for 'bringing it home'.

Laura Kerr said...

I had the chance to read this account through other media but actually this turned out to be the most comfortable clear and satisfactory! Thanks so much for posting it here where it may get a really wide readership. Throughout, there were little gems of sentences, I feel like pulling them and putting them together as a sort of thread of good stuff.. I may just do so!

poodledok said...

Regarding the destruction of the FLGBTQIf it "felt" like an act of violence, it "was" an act of violence. Many of us were deeply hurt by this action. As an "ally", I experienced a deep hurt and did my best to support others that were hurting much more. Many of us then experienced amazing healing in our home groups. Amazing things happened there. Rather than missing an opportunity, I think much has come of the incidents (the epistle was torn down twice and then defaced once). That was my experience. It's not a case of your experience being more authentic than mine. Or vice versa. That was my experience.

Craig Barnett said...

Thanks so much for this rich and thoughtful account Rosie. I think you are right to be concerned at the way in which some Friends from western countries have approached the issue of our witness to the equality of LGBT people.
This seems to be an issue that Friends from the USA, Europe etc can sometimes use to feel morally superior to Africans. Finger-wagging in print or from public platforms is unlikely to do much to promote gay rights in Kenya or anywhere else.
In the UK and America, it is gay people who have organised themselves and courageously advocated for their rights who have (almost) succeeded in establishing legal equality and cultural change.
By contrast in Africa, LGBT rights issues tend to be seen as yet another attempt by western countries to impose their own political and cultural agenda.
I would suggest that Friends who feel led to support the rights of LGBT people in Africa make contact with some of the local advocacy groups that are working in many countries to organise indigenous gay movements. I have met some incredibly brave gay activists in Zimbabwe, who are facing tremendous obstacles and would love to have the support of Friends from overseas.
In Friendship,