Thursday, 17 May 2012

World Conference of Friends, Kenya 2012

Sheffield Friend Chrisse Hinde attended this once-in-a-generation gathering of Quakers from around the world in Kenya last month. These are some of her reflections on the experience:

The Conference was far more spiritually uplifting and Quaker affirming than I thought or hoped it would be. The venue at Kabarak University was very lush and spacious, filled with beautiful trees and flowers, giving the whole conference a very relaxed ambience. We were about 850 Friends in total but it didn’t feel crowded. The Kenyan Quakers (approx 400 at the conference) were very welcoming and had done some fundraising in order for us to have a subsidised excursion day mid way through. A Kenyan Friend remarked: ‘In Kenya we welcome visitors as blessings’.

Each morning a different FWCC section led the Semi-programmed worship session. The programmed ministry from inspirational speakers around the globe was first class and continues to uplift and challenge me as I reflect on it. Our European and Middle Eastern section talk was by Jocelyn Burnell who spoke of our ‘brokenness’ being a place from which can learn a great deal and advised us not to rush to heal our pain. She quoted Thornton Wilder: ‘In love’s service only the wounded can serve’. Thomas Owen (Asia and West Pacific section) spoke of how man created religion in order to know God, not vice versa, so all religion is limited and flawed but for him Quakers offered the best system for relationship with the Spirit and Community. Most of the talks are available on the web site.

Our home group of 15 did feel like a Quaker family. We were mixed with half Kenyan Quakers, 3 British, an Australian and 3 North Americans. When we started one of the Kenyan Friends pointed out that most of the white folks were sat on one side and black folks on the other! From that point on we made a point of mixing up each session. We talked about our Meetings back home and our different styles of worship.

As the week progressed we shared our experiences of other styles of worship. African Friends from programmed Meetings had come to our early morning unprogrammed worship, and spoke of how they encountered a deeper connection with God in the silence. I and others shared how much the regular singing opened us up to the spirit in a way that talking didn’t, and through dance we could embody our praise, and prayers helped us to focus more immediately. We were given a song book and singing formed a regular part of our worship.

We also shared our different views on whether it was OK to be Gay. One Kenyan Quaker said he’d been to Pendle Hill, where he’d met Lesbian and Gay Quakers who were more spiritual than him and they have become his friends. He no longer had a problem with Gay Friends. One of our ground rules in the home group was to use ‘I’ statements, as we’d anticipated some conflict, but people were very respectful, and the group did feel safe, grounded and a place where we could share difference.

It’s fair to say that as a World Gathering we didn’t achieve unity on whether it is OK to be LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender). This remains a yawning divide, but I remain convinced that it’s often the small conversations, spoken from the heart, that make a difference. I did find it painful when people gave anti-gay ministry quoting the Bible, and I felt for my fellow LGBT comrades, but I appreciated people’s honesty and willingness to stay engaged. There was a huge amount of good will and desire for unity that was palpable, and for me made our divisions bearable.

The visit to our Gathering by Ex President and Kabarak Chancellor Daniel Arap Moi, seemed to derail us, and for me felt discordant and disturbing. It caused further division amongst us as we couldn’t find unity on how he should be greeted, or indeed whether we should be meeting on his land and enjoying his hospitality! I think many Kenyan’s felt hurt by the strong objections raised. Many of them felt it necessary and right to observe the custom of addressing him as ‘Your Excellency’ and to stand when he entered and left the auditorium. My impulse was to do the right thing by our Kenyan hosts, but there was a strong sense by many others that we’d really compromised our core values as Quakers, in the way we did greet him. It was a big rupture that left me and many others very heavy hearted.

I attended a thread group on Broken Sexuality, which was very skillfully facilitated (thankfully!) It gave us a chance to bring our differences on LGBT issues to a supported setting. African Friends invited their friends to the 2nd and 3rd session saying ‘we never get a chance to talk about sex’. The African women in particular wanted to talk about rape, domestic violence, polygamy and gender inequality. It was precious to have a place we could talk openly about these painful and difficult issues.

I also attended a thread group on Quakers & American Civil Rights. I chose this partly because it was co facilitated by Vanessa Julye (who wrote ‘Fit for Freedom not for Friendship’.) It was also facilitated by Hal Weaver (who wrote ‘Black Fire’). We covered dubious aspects of Quaker history in which some Friends were slave owners and Klu Klux Clan members. Also how African Americans were not permitted in many Quaker Meetings in 1950s. I learnt about the BlackQuaker Project, which celebrates, researches and documents achievements of Black Quakers of African decent.

I discovered that some North American Meetings have stopped using the term Overseer because of its use to describe those overseeing the Slave Plantations, and thought this a very good move. A Jamaican Friend now living in UK spoke of how she continued to be wounded by insensitive racist remarks from well meaning Friends and had often considered leaving, but chose to stay. This continues to prod me into thinking we need to do more to welcome our wonderfully diverse community in Sheffield into our Meeting.

The party on the last night of the Gathering was a truly amazing occasion. Kenyan musicians blasted out funky dance tunes causing a huge body of Quakers to get to their feet and, strut, sway and gyrate themselves around the auditorium in crocodile formation. Young and old, gay and straight, black and white Friends united in joyful celebration. It’s an image and a memory I will treasure for the rest of my days. A perfect finale to this wonderful event. I feel hugely blessed to be part of a world family of Quakers and to have met Friends from the far reaches of our planet. Asante sana FWCC!

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