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.