Thursday, April 19, 2012

Esther Mombo starts us off

Kabarak University campus
Every morning it is the responsibility of a different area of the Quaker world to offer a one and a half hour period of morning worship and the week began, appropriately, with East Africa.
Theologian Esther Mombo of Bware Yearly Meeting brought the message which set out the context and issues that face us during our time together. She grew up in a Quaker family in western Kenya, and credits her mother and grandmother in particular for nurturing her faith. She attended what is now Friends’ Theological College in Kaimosi and went on to postgraduate study in Europe, where she was able to attend the 1997 FWCC Triennial gathering in Birmingham.
She greeted us as people who speak many tongues, but who, this week, are speaking in one tongue.
Some of the highlights of her message for me were:
Salt and Light were, and still are, important metaphors.
The context of Jesus’ time was discrimination and marginalization, and that is still the context in which we live. We have divided ourselves by race and ethnicity, which can be used to exclude. In this situation, we Friends have to be Salt and Light.
A major challenge for Christians is how to live in peace with neighbors of other faiths, especially, at the current time, with Muslims. Christians are called to live at peace with their neighbors.
Another is denominational rivalries, and, among Friends, rivalry and tensions.
The social context in which we live includes:
  • disintegration of families and communities; 
  • the impact of some diseases to marginalize; 
  • human trafficking, which is modern slavery;
  • sex tourism
  • gender injustice which still exists even when there are laws prohibiting it;
  • medicine is unreachable for some people.
  • sexual minorities continue to live in fear of marginalization, in the name of religious community;
  • environmental degradation which is creating dustbowls.
There is extreme poverty in both rural and urban areas, and the gap is increasing. ‘Some can make ends overlap, while some cannot make ends meet
Conflict, violence and war are endemic in most of our communities, in homes and in the wider world. There are ethnic clashes, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide.
In all this, we are called to be Salt and Light.
Quakers were a group who challenged the ills of their day.
Quakers were among the first who said that women were humans.
Early Friends were Salt and Light in their own context. In the 21st century, much of that zeal has died. Yet we read in scripture that if salt has lost its effectiveness, it is only good to be trampled underfoot.
Some Christians take pride in statistics. The issue is not numbers, but influence. There is a disconnect with what is preached. There is more pride in numbers than what we do.
It was said of the Christians in Antioch ‘See how they love each other.’ Not ‘See how they talk about loving each other.’ 
Some traditions give life; other traditions need to be done away with. 
The context of Salt and Light is brokenness, rottenness. 
You don’t see salt; you see its results. Society will be influenced by us. We influence by being.
But the salt has to be contaminated, to be mixed in, to be effective. We have to get involved.
Light is different. It is visible. We shine better when there is darkness, not light.
By avoiding issues, we are hiding our light under a bushel.
Don’t complain about the darkness: light a candle!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Preparing for a World Conference

Gibara, Cuba

Twenty-one years ago I was preparing for a world conference of Friends. I had been a Quaker for less than a decade and, despite being assistant clerk of my monthly meeting in Britain, I still felt newly hatched. I thought it was only “weighty” Friends who went to world conferences, but I benefited from FWCC’s request to yearly meetings to balance age, gender and participants’ experience among Friends. 
I had felt a strong tug to attend the conference, ever since I had seen a poster about it a couple of years earlier, and the logo, with its three intertwined globes, had glowed at me. The poster’s glow stayed with me, and I mentioned it, with some diffidence, to a member of my meeting. That set in motion a chain of events that changed my life’s direction.
The 1991 conference - the last before this week's - was on three sites: the Netherlands, Kenya and Honduras, with just over 300 people at each. I assumed I would go to the Netherlands as it was nearby. If not, Kenya was the logical next choice, with its ties to Britain. No. The same glowing, insistent feeling that had accompanied the poster kept telling me I should suggest I might be sent to Honduras.
Honduras was such a preposterous idea - never in my wildest dreams could I imagine going to Latin America. The only news I was aware of coming out of Central America was scary. You guessed. So I took Spanish evening classes and around Easter time in 1991 I took myself to Madrid for the weekend. I booked into a bed and breakfast knowing that I would have to use the language or go hungry.
I signed up for a study tour of Nicaragua on my way to Honduras and boldly booked flights to Managua and San Pedro Sula. The study tour was an important preparation for the world conference. The situation in Managua, eighteen years after the earthquake that had destroyed it, was shocking, with almost nothing rebuilt, yet people were getting on with their lives and community connections were impressive. We visited a number of faith groups that were working there. 
I was taken out of my own culture and comfort zone which made it possible to be broken open to experience things anew. I was vulnerable and open to new experiences, ideas and people. I experienced “Quaker culture shock” seeing, for the first time, the differences among Friends, within the container of geographical culture shock.  My world was turned upside down daily. I was broken apart, but I survived.
After the world conference I needed to meet with others who had been there, as if we were survivors of an event that others who had not been there would never fully understand. Like a survivor, I needed to tell my story, repeatedly. It was not a catastrophe, and yet for me it was a kind of death and rebirth. I, who had always regarded writing as a necessary chore, also found myself birthing articles in joy. My curiosity about the differences among Friends grew. 
The following year found me in the US, traveling to four yearly meeting sessions in three weeks, trying to discover the roots of the differences that had been exported around the Quaker globe. The year after, I was in seminary in Indiana, at Earlham School of Religion. I joined a pastoral meeting and I shortly after, I resigned my tenured position in Britain - work I had felt fortunate to have - to serve Friends in the US.
Since that conference I have traveled among Friends in Latin America, including Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru. If I had know what a whirlwind I would be caught up in, would I have taken the first step? I think so, but sometimes it helps not to know what is round the corner. 

My greatest excitement about the upcoming world conference is to accompany some people who will be finding their own worlds turning upside down, and waiting to see what God has in store for them.