This October, 81 Friends gathered together in Kenya, the place where our Quaker movement has borne the most fruit, in Kanamai, Mombasa, Kenya. 27 Yearly Meetings and two monthly meetings were represented, with people from fifteen countries and five continents and speakers of more than twenty different languages. It was also called the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005.
I went to this Gathering. This Gathering, and the traveling in the ministry that followed it, felt like the final chapter in the last few years of my growth in spiritual leadership. Now I know that, with God's help, I can preach the Word powerfully and bring people closer to God.
But let's begin at the beginning.
Before the Conference: The Visas Denied
I mentioned briefly in my last article the shock and sorrow that pervaded the Lancaster gathering upon discovering that the visas of many African and Indian Friends had been denied. I found out at Woodbrooke that visas had been denied, but still held out hope, because some visas were granted partway through the 1985 gathering. But by the time I had arrived at Lancaster meetinghouse, it was clear that the African and Indian participants would not be coming.
I remember the look on people's faces when they found out. I told many that day. It was as if a dream was dying.
Before the Conference: A Vision
We moved on, and for a few days, we focused entirely on Lancaster, simply because there wasn't time to think of those who were outside. But on the third day, there began to be talk of having a post-WGYF gathering in Africa.
Many things were not clear at first. Who would organize it? Where would it be? Who would go?
The first plan was to have the gathering in Africa immediately after the gathering in England. Logistical problems abounded. The organizers of the WGYF were exhausted, and could not plan another event so soon. After several days of meetings and discernment--much of which was not well-publicized--that idea was abandoned.
It was then decided that the conference should be six weeks after the Lancaster conference, and that it should be held in Kanamai, Mombasa, Kenya.
The regional groups outside of Africa (Asia/West Pacific, Europe/Middle East, Latin America, North America) each nominated two representatives. The plan was to use the money raised for the Africans and Indians to travel to England to allow these Friends and the Indians to travel to Kenya.
I applied to be one of the representatives, but was not chosen. I felt good about this--I had been willing to be sent, but not completely attached to the idea. Going to Africa in only a few weeks sounded downright scary. Holly Baldwin from New England was chosen, however, and I was very glad of that.
Western Province, Kenya, is home to the lion's share of the 130,000-300,000 Kenyan Quakers. Kanamai, Mombasa, Kenya is clear across the country--almost as far away from Western Province as one can get and still be in Kenya.
So I was wondering, why are we having the conference in Kanamai?
Turns out that many of the folks attending the World Gathering were excited by the opportunity to travel. Having the conference near Western would deprive most Kenyan Quakers of that experience. So it was held near Mombasa.
Before the Conference: At Home
Four people ended up doing most of the coordination for the Africa conference: Bainito Wamalwa, Eden Grace, John Fitzgerald, and Joseph Shamala. Bainito is a Kenyan who helped coordinate the Lancaster gathering, was to be on the Pastoral Care Team, but then was denied a visa. Eden is from my monthly meeting (Beacon Hill Friends Meeting) and is a good friend. John had lived on my hall during Lancaster, where we enjoyed each other's company a great deal on the rare occasions that we had time to experience it. Strangely, I knew three of the four of them reasonably well. That meant that I was hearing about the planning process from each of them. Also, I had not quite reentered my life after many months of travel, so I had a lot of free time.
Anyhow, I ended up corresponding with the three of them a great deal.
In mid-September, four weeks before the conference, Bainito wrote me and asked for prayers. He also asked me what took place in Lancaster, what the Pastoral Care Team did, whether I had any ideas what should be on the program, and whether any of the organizers of the two conferences were coming.
I was shocked at how little anyone had told him about Lancaster, so I wrote up a very long reply. Indeed, my article about the Lancaster gathering is based on it.
But then I started to realize that I was still called to go.
I floated it by John Fitzgerald, clerk of the European-Based Committee for the WGYF as well as the Lancaster WGYF Pastoral Care Team. Both were very supportive. So at the end of September--a scant three weeks before the conference--I was confirmed to go to Africa.
This would be the first time I had been outside of North America or Europe. I was excited. I was also scared.
Before the Conference: Visas Again
About a week before the conference, we had an urgent visa issue. The WGYF's British travel agent told us that the only way to book tickets from either El Salvador or Guatemala to Kenya was to go through both the US and England.
Connecting through England is not a problem for our Friends from Central America--for some reason they do not need visas to enter England. But to connect through a US airport, a citizen of a Central American country needs a US visa. Needing a visa to enter an airport is unheard of elsewhere in the world; for instance, one can stay in Heathrow airport indefinitely without a visa of any sort. (Actually, this turns out to be untrue for folks from Kenya and the Middle East and probably other places.) But Central Americans need US visas to enter US airports. And if one is under 30, these are almost impossible to get.
Because I am American, I figured perhaps I could help in some way to get these visas through. In the attempt, I found out a few things about US foreign policy. First, it costs $8 per phone call to talk to the US Embassies in Guatemala or El Salvador. It costs $100 per visa request. Also, scads of paperwork is needed.
So I made appointments for the Luis from Guatemala and Raul from El Salvador. Luis did not go to his appointment--it was too last minute; he had already given up hopes of going to Kenya. But Raul was more tenacious. He paid his $100 and went to his appointment. His visa was denied.
At that point, I began to question the travel agent's assumption. After some searching for flights on the web, I found that with extremely long layovers (one as long as three days), our Central American Friends could indeed fly through Mexico City instead of the US. I sent an itinerary to the travel agent, who bought a ticket for Raul.
Crazy that we were having visa problems on the way to a conference that existed in the first place because of visa problems...
Some general impressions of the African WGYF follow.
How beautiful it was! We were steps away from the Indian Ocean, and inside a coral reef. The ocean moves a mile with each tide, out to the coral reef and back twice a day. Above our heads, we could hear the clicking sound of rain, but it is actually the leaves of palm trees rustling in the wind. Coconuts were along the ground, crabs were on the beach and in the grass near our bungalows. At night, we fell asleep to the sound of the ocean.
There was a fourteen person overlap between the two conferences: four from the US, three from Kenya, two from England, one from Australia, one from Ireland, one from El Salvador, one from the Philippines, and one from South Africa.
There was a staggering joy in reconvening with other folks from the WGYF in Lancaster. In spite of our different traditions, and--more surprising--in spite of not necessarily knowing each other in Lancaster, a deep connection could be felt between us.
It was also so nice to spend time with Eden Grace. It was quite a comfort to be known by someone who lived in Kenya and could understand who I am and where I was coming from.
Most of the Friends at the conference had never experienced unprogrammed worship. But the programmed worship was so lively! It was filled with conviction, passion, and spiritual power. There were readings and impromptu sermons; we shouted out to God, danced, sung, waved our hands, asked our neighbors if they were tasty (because to be the fruit of God, mustn't we be tasty?). As the leader of one of the worships said--"You may be tired, but if you call out to God, the tiredness will fall away."
There was open public dialogue about the differences in Kenyan Quakerism and that of liberal Friends. One Kenyan Friend asked, "How can you tell that people in your meetings are giving themselves up to Jesus Christ?" At first I rejected this question as being meaningless because some of us are universalists, but we can translate the question to, "How can we make sure that people in our meetings are truly following the Spirit and giving themselves to God?" Then it becomes the same question asked of Samuel Bownas. And this is definitely a question we should be wrestling with.
I was completely overworked at the conference, which was quite enjoyable most of the time. I was the coordinator of the Pastoral Care Team and I was the primary Spanish translator. I stayed up late talking to folks almost every night as well. And I got a sunburn right before the conference started. It was all Holly Baldwin could do to get me to take breaks.
Translation is totally exhausting. You become something that words flow through rather than a place where words end up. After translating during three-fourths of my waking hours for eight days, I started to translate involuntarily everything I heard in English. I am so thankful that it was Raul I was translating for--he was so easy-going and such enjoyable company that it made the hard work much easier.
At the Lancaster conference, the Pastoral Care Team was very involved in counseling participants. In Kanamai, we tended to pray for them instead.
A Kenyan Friend who grew up Muslim was disgusted by the judgmental attitude of other Kenyan Friends.
A Friend from Rwanda lost his entire family in the genocide.
Some of the time it was difficult to understand what was going on. Sometimes we were just not told what was going to happen next. Sometimes we were told, but what we were told had little resemblance to what actually happened. The best example of this was the "trips" day, for which we each signed up for one of four trips. Then we piled into buses and all went on all four trips. At no point did anyone announce what we were doing or what the next stop were. Some, like me, who expected to go to the beach, wore our bathing suits all day.
The Indian Friends did not attend the conference. I am not sure why.
The African Friends felt insulted by the denial of visas. They were angry at the British government and also at the organizers of the WGYF, who they felt had not done enough. Some Friends had been accused of embezzling their travel expenses by their monthly and yearly meetings. Some of yearly meetings accused the WGYF organizers of taking money from Africans and spending it on the rest of the world. This was talked about at the conference, and a letter went out to the monthly and yearly meetings, which I think satisfied all of these concerns, but they were very present at the conference.
A few African Friends felt called to bring unprogrammed worship back to their meetings. These Friends now have copies of the New England Faith and Practice to help them on their way.
After much discussion of non-Christian and homosexual Friends, this line was the end of the WGYF Kenya epistle: "We recognised that we have no right to judge each other, but leave judgment unto God. We call for love and unity among Friends worldwide as we are all branches of the one True Vine."
Traveling in the Ministry
Though the WGYF in Kenya was hastily envisioned, there was a clear sense among the organizing committee that the international representatives should travel to the heart of Kenyan Quakerism in Western Province. While two Friends had to fly back immediately after the conference, eleven of us stayed for a little bit longer. There were five of us from the United States and one from each of Australia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Ireland, the Philippines, and Turkana (which is a region of Kenya that is as different from Kenya as Tibet is from China).
So after the WGYF ended in Kanamai, we took an overnight bus to Kisumu. It was a grueling trip--road quality varied from very good to quite bad; temperature went from the dry heat of Mombasa to the bitter cold of the mountains near Kisumu; some of us fell ill right before boarding the bus. But we got to Kisumu in one piece. After a long rest at the Graces' house in Kisumu (which is lovely--and how great it was to see them all again!), we met with the leaders of all of the Yearly Meetings in Kenya. We talked about the WGYF in Kanamai, about youth leaving the Quaker Church (which is a deeply-felt issue here in Kenya), about gender roles, and about a great many other things. All were pleased by this chance to meet, even for such a short period of time.
After a restful night at the Graces', we split into two groups to travel near all of the many yearly meetings in Western Province. One group traveled south and one group--including me--traveled south. Then we all met up in the Kakamega rainforest for some closing time before folks took their planes home.
We traveled by matatu, which are crowded nine-person minivans that seem to be everywhere. For a few dollars, one can travel many miles aboard one of these. Most of the folks we were visiting were not actually prepared for our visit, so while we were expecting to meet local Quaker youth, we mostly did not. We did get to meet with some of the Yearly Meeting leaders as well as visit Lugulu Hospital, which with FUM and local funding is fighting a hard fight against AIDS. Even though we were not expected, we experienced incredible hospitality--everyone whom we encountered dropped all that they were doing to spend time with us. The hospitality of Kenya has been quite a lesson to me, and these days I am trying to be a better host to my guests.
After three days, we met again in the Kakamega rainforest. We talked about the grueling matatu rides, the startling landscapes, the shocking poverty, the incredible hospitality, and the broad friendship. We talked about tolerance, equality, feminism, staying in community with those you disagree with, the ability of God to turn evil into good, the unending work that is laid out for the Quakers in Kenya and the heroic attempts of our brothers and sisters to do it. And we felt the deep connections that had formed amongst ourselves, feeling that we eleven were one large unit. Honestly, we felt a little like the Fellowship of the Ring.
A strange thing happened driving back from the Kakamega rainforest. We began to notice that there was a sense of unrest in the people around us. People on the street were shouting at us, telling us that we should turn our car around, that it was not safe for us to drive into Kisumu. The car right in front of us was car-jacked from its owners. We turned our car around and drove through crowds of people to get to a deserted part of the highway outside of Kisumu.
We waited there for quite some time. Children gathered around our truck, shouting pleasantries at us, climbing on the truck, and eventually poking their hands into the windows. Even the children seemed menacing after what we had seen in front of us on the road. In the covered bed of the truck, we waited for what seemed like an eternity, as the Graces consulted with a private security agency and between the two of them found a way to get home.
As we were waiting in the back of the car, we talked about what was going on. The Friend from El Salvador and the Friend from the Congo reassured us that all would be fine, and told us--in French and Spanish--that they had lived half of their lives in the midst of civil war.
We found out later that four had died in the riots, all the result of police fire into the crowd. The riots themselves were part of a debate surrounding a new constitution--a pro-constitution group had a rally in an anti-constitution area.
Anyhow, we drove all the way around the riots and around Kisumu, about an hour out of our way, and finally made it home in time for a quick repack and then a dash to the airport. Though we were nervous, we made it to the airport in plenty of time. And by that point, we had shaken off the fear of being trapped in the car.
Then Grace, Holly, Raul, Ru, and Therese flew away. Eden and I realized that these were five people from five continents boarding the same plane from Kisumu to Nairobi: Grace from Australia, Holly from North America, Raul from Latin America, Ru from Europe, and Therese from Africa. They were all Friends and they were all friends. God had turned the denied visas into international friendship... the evil had become good.
Differences in Africa
During the month I was in Kenya, I noticed a few little differences between here and there, which follow.
The estimates of numbers of Kenyan Friends vary widely, from 130,000 to 300,000. Many of these Friends live in Western Province, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Most people you meet there are Quaker.
There is only one unprogrammed meeting in all of Kenya. It is in Nairobi, and only 10 or 15 attend it each week.
Corruption, especially financial corruption, is apparently common in Quaker churches in Kenya. I even heard stories of church officials embezzling funds.
The sun rises at 6:30 sharp each day. It sets at 6:30 sharp each day. This is true throughout the year. From twilight to total darkness is very quick--about half an hour.
Internet connections are excruciatingly slow, much slower than a modem connection in the US. Also, it is very likely that any particular packet will fail, which makes some activities impossible rather than slow--for instance, buying things on-line.
AIDS is extremely common. I heard it estimated that roughly 1/3 of the people in Kenya are infected. That would mean that 22 of the attendees of the WGYF in Africa have AIDS.
The police have very few cars and are almost never seen driving around. If you need the police, you must go to them or transport them to you. It seems their function is not to protect people, but rather to file reports of laws being broken.
Except in Nairobi or Turkana, it is frowned upon for men to wear shorts, or for women to wear shorts or pants.
Children trust strangers. Adults seem to as well. It seems like everyone is willing to invite you into their house for tea.
Tea is made with heated milk, not with heated water.
Information is considered a burden, and being a good host means keeping as much information as possible from your guests.
There are very few manufacturing plants in Kenya. Almost all of the objects you see are either hand-made or imported from another country. Signs and billboards are almost universally hand-painted.
Lawns and open, grassy places are extremely rare. It seems almost all land is used for farming. Mostly the land is divided up into small subsistence plots.
Body odor is not of concern in Kenya. People just smell like they smell and sweat when they sweat. I stopped wearing deodorant, too.
Plumbing never freezes. This means that plumbers run pipes up and down and every which way. Which means that it is the water pressure pushes the water through the pipes. Which means that if you drain your pipes of water, it is very hard to get them going again.
Meals were mostly meat and a grains. The most popular grain was a cornmeal mush called ugali. Tortilla-like pancakes called chapati were also common, as was rice. The meat was often tough and very savory.
When giving a presentation to the NEYM Young Adult Friends at Midwinter, I was asked to talk about the part of the WGYFs that was most important to me. I was last to speak, and I had lots of time to think and pray. So many things were on my mind--finding spiritual authority, learning about and visiting other cultures, experiencing different modes of worship, feeling deeply the presence of God and how active He is in our thick night. But through it all, what had touched me most deeply was my friendship with Raul.
As the only two Spanish-speakers (though two other Friends could speak a little Spanish), Raul and I found ourselves thrown together through the ten days of the conference and traveling. We had barely spoken beforehand, and we didn't know each other at all. I think we were both nervous. I was nervous about my rusty, not-terribly-fluent Spanish, and about fulfilling all of my other responsibilities as well as translating. I imagine that he was nervous because he was (metaphorically) going to a conference in China where the main language is Russian and one of the Russians, who doesn't know Chinese, happens to speak a little English.
But it was incredible. It felt like we lived inside the same mind for those ten days, as almost everything he said or was told came through me. I got to know him well, especially his quiet, halting voice that speaks with passion, authority, and deep spiritual power. And I think he got to know me well too. My stereotypes of evangelicals shatter against him--he is constantly searching for God's voice and is willing to believe anything God tells him, even if it contravenes the Bible. And he was as closed to homosexuals as I was to evangelicals, but he too opened up over the course of the week. At the end he talked movingly about how scared he was to go back to his yearly meeting and tell them that he refused to be homophobic any more.
I am thankful for all of the Friends that shared the experience in Africa, but I am especially thankful for Raul.
I stayed in Africa two more weeks after the other representatives left. A week of that time was with the Graces; three days with John Lomuria, the Friend from Turkana mentioned above; and two days with the Jesus Christians in Nairobi. Even so, it feels like the journey of the World Gathering ended when the other Friends got on the planes to their respective homes.
I'll leave you with a few more queries.
New England's numbers at these conferences remind us that we are strong among Friends. How can we use that strength fully and responsibly? How can we minister more effectively? How can we bring the Kingdom of God here now?
In Kenya, we were showed great hospitality. We were asked to preach in churches; we enjoyed long and languid fellowship after church; we were fed and housed wherever we were; people would stop their daily lives to spend time with us. How can we show each other and strangers such hospitality?
We can learn the lesson from Kenyans that evangelism works--and by this I mean talking about one's faith and drawing others in to one's faith community. How can we reach out in ways that do not frighten us or others? Should we continue to reach out even if it frightens us? For each person that we draw in by being silent, how many do we lose by not being clear enough about our faith?
Programmed worshippers who tried unprogrammed worship for the first time were surprised at how formal and even programmed "unprogrammed" worship can be. Are we worshipping the silence? Are we staying longer than an hour when we are moved to? Are we truly meeting God in the silence?
We are living in a yearly meeting with a legacy of reunification and a charism of building bridges. How can we help other yearly meetings form partnerships as we have with Cuba?
We are struggling with how--or whether--to stay united with FUM. By staying in relationship with these Friends, will we be able to hear God's voice in ways we are not able to otherwise? Is God trying to teach us something with this struggling?
What is pulling at our heart other than God?
How do we engage those in our meetings who are not seeking God?
Are we Quakers? Are all of these other people Quakers?
What can love do through us? What fruit shall we bear?