It's been ten years. An entire decade has gone by since I was madly rushing around as part of the organizing team for the World Gathering of Young Friends. It's been ten years since a knock on my door by a dear Canadian F/friend at the pre-gathering at Woodbrooke Study Center; the same F/friend whose roommate at that gathering is now my husband. It's been ten years since Ben and I became friends after working together and traveling together first in England and then a few months later in Kenya.
A few folks have been commemorating the anniversary of these gatherings (August 2005 in Lancaster, England, and October 2005 in Mombasa, Kenya) by setting up a Facebook page and adding pictures to different albums, with pictures taken by Anna Dunford, Betsy Blake, and many other contributors. Simon Grey resurrected a webpage about the gathering and Ben had his reflections up on his webpage on the Lancaster gathering and the Mombasa gathering this whole time! I'm sure there are other reflections out there. If you are reading this post and have one of your own, please post in the comments below.
First, if you don't already know, two gatherings happened in 2005 made up the World Gathering of Young Friends:
1) "226 Friends gathered together at the place where our Quaker movement first bore fruit, Lancaster University (UK), in the heart of 1652 country. 58 Yearly Meetings and nine monthly meetings were represented, with speakers of more than twenty different languages." —Ben Guaraldi
Two months later, due to denied visas of our African and Indian Friends, a second gathering was held in October. 2) "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." —Ben Guaraldi
Ben and I were blessed to be at both gatherings and they were experiences that profoundly changed our lives (in addition to of course meeting and now being married!). Ben and I have been musing about all that has happened over the past ten years. We have kept in touch with many people we met at those gatherings, and we've lost touch with many too. I thought one thing I could do to honor the anniversary of the experience is to share 10 reflections on the World Gathering with all of you through this blog; the quotes I use are from Ben's 2005 reflections making this post a joint piece between a 30 year old me and a 27 year old Ben.
1) The Life of the Spirit: Our Individual Paths
Over three hundred paths diverged after these gatherings, many of which have crossed and recrossed. Some followed each other a while; and others that have never met again. The ripples of these gatherings, the friends of friends of friends reach from our time together in 2005 and continue to make an effect on others. How did the 2005 gatherings affect my life?
My journey has been quite the labyrinth—a journey of traveling and coming close to God and wandering away from God. The experience of the WGYF kept me anchored in a global community of faith. This community has been large enough for my theological development, my questions about life and about God, and even my dark nights of the soul. After the WGYF, I returned to school and finished my undergraduate degree. I "accidentally" had enough credits to double major in religion since I had taken almost all my electives in religious subjects. After teaching science for a few years in public schools, I had a crisis of faith and an experience of being drawn back into the fold of Quakerism. After a period of healing, I found myself back in Indiana, this time at the Earlham School of Religion where I studied theology, Quakerism, and interfaith dialogue. After I graduated I traveled quite a bit, tried jobs here and there, and eventually life unfolded into marriage and settling down in Boston, Massachusetts. I am training to be an interfaith chaplain and in the process of seriously discerning a call into Quaker Gospel Ministry. Throughout all of this, my friends and the stories from the WGYF have been part of the what I have carried with me—experiences of friendship and hospitality; challenges of simplicity and radical faithfulness; and continuing revelation that we are the future of Friends.
2) Stories That I Have Carried
As I start to reflect on all that has happened over the past ten years, more and more stories tumble out of my head: stories of people, stories of places, stories of things that happened, and stories of feelings that were evoked. Here are two that come up in my reflections time and time again—they are only two of many.
Before I traveled to Lancaster in 2005, I volunteered for about a year and a half on the North American Based Planning Committee. I was a student at Earlham College at the time and I would regularly walk over to Paul Lacey's house to have tea and cookies. Paul at the time was the clerk of the American Friends Service Committee and was well-known in the Quaker world for his legacy of Quaker involvement. Paul would joke with me during those chats that I would meet the person I would marry at the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005. Paul met his wife at a similar World Gathering many many years before! I laughed with Paul at these comments. I didn't take them seriously—I was 19 years old! Little did I know that he would be exactly right.
The second story I've carried with me comes from the second part of the WGYF in Kenya. I'll refrain from using the Friends' names since it is not my privilege or right to out them publicly. Their story is a powerful one though that has touched me deeply and reminds me to stay at the table for as long as I can because even in the hardest of moments, transformation can happen. However brief it may be, God is still working in the cracks.
Two of the Friends who traveled to Kenya were fully aware that their sexuality was illegal among the cultures of the African participants: they both identified as gay. Homophobia is common in Kenya and within the evangelical population it is even more prevalent. These two Friends traveled with other Friends from around the world and found support with them even though perspectives concerning LGTBQ morality was varied.
Throughout the gathering, one of these Friends became close friends with a young evangelical Friend. This Friend was raised to consider homosexuality evil and the two had been assigned as roommates. With a shared curiosity in each other and with open hearts the two talked for many hours throughout the gatherings about all sorts of things, including theology, LGTBQ concerns, and the wider Quaker community.
Towards the end of the gathering in a full group session, one of the African participants took the floor and asked how can we, Liberal Friends, allow the sin of homosexuality into our church. In response, some people rose and preached on the evils of homosexuality while others challenged the view that homosexuality was a sin. Soon, both the gay Friends were in tears; they felt personally attacked. When one Friend felt that he could no longer bear the intolerance and the verbal violence of the session, he stood and quietly left the room. His roommate saw his tears and followed. Outside, his roommate embraced the Friend and said, “Look, I don’t know what God thinks about homosexuals but what happened in there was wrong. I’m 100% positive God wants us to love everyone.”
At some point, the hurtful discussion ended that day and much work was done to continue the conversation in healthy ways. In the end, this experience did make it into the gathering's epistle. As Ben wrote in 2005: "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."(2005 Epistle of the WGYF, Kenya)."
3) Friendships Across Oceans, Continents, and Time
I am thankful for platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which—with all their faults—serve as instantaneous epistles between Friends across oceans and continents and over time. When Ben and I were married under the care of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting last year, many Friends from the WGYF either attended or sent their blessings. When Ben and I traveled later that summer for our honeymoon, we were blessed with the opportunity to visit a few of these WGYF friends in Europe.
Looking at friendship today though, and the expectations for closeness through the limited communication venues such as social media, I find that I am not as good a friend as I would like to be with many people in my life, especially WGYF friends.
One of my friends wrote to me, “Friendships do not fade over time, they only mature,” and I think there is truth in that statement—if we can embrace each other after a long time and forgive ourselves for not being in touch more in between. Seeing Shelia Hoyer from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) last month in Boston was a dear reminder of this possibility and the brunch we shared was sheer joy—time spent catching up, swapping information about our shared F/friends, and diving deep in those conversations about Quaker faith and practice as if we were together at the WGYF yesterday.
When Ben went to Kenya in 2012 as part of the Sixth World Conference of FWCC the WGYF alums came together for a picture and a video was captured of them singing the WGYF theme song, "I am the vine, you are the branches." When Ben and I travel together to Peru for FWCC's International Representative Gathering in January 2016, I am looking forward to seeing others from WGYF who will also be in attendance.
Singing the WGYF theme song at the Sixth World Conference
We sang the theme song from the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends at the Sixth World Conference. We still remembered it--I guess Joel taught us well!Posted by Ben Guaraldi on Friday, June 1, 2012
4) Leadership: Where are We Now?
I wish it was an easy feat to survey all the participants of the WGYF and see what we are up to now. I know through Facebook and by the Quaker grapevine what many folks are up to. John Lomuria was just appointed the youngest ever director of the Turkana Friends Mission. Holly Baldwin has been the director of the Beacon Hill Friends House since 2006 and was clerk of Permanent Board of New England Yearly Meeting for many years too. Christina Repoley is the Executive Director of Quaker Voluntary Service, a U.S. volunteer program that has emerged in the last ten years. And I know there are so many more people doing amazing work out there—leave a comment below this post and let us know what you are up to/have been up to for the past 10 years.
These are public ministries but they should not overshadow the less "glamorous" work. So many participants of the WGYF are committee clerks, pastors, non-profit organization leaders, PhD students, teachers, parents, and the list goes on. If there is one thing that the WGYF has done, it has empowered us to live into our sense of call and to do so faithfully. I believe the next ten years will show even more fruits—more yearly meeting clerks, executive directors of Quaker organizations, community leaders, compassionate teachers, and radical parents.
However, with all the success that participants of the WGYF are experiencing, there is also great challenge. Knowing experientially about the diversity of Friends and holding conflicting values and theology in relationship makes having a clear understanding of right and wrong harder to grasp. It is harder to swallow the “Holier than Thou” tendencies that most Quaker communities cultivate (i.e., opinions of what Quakers should be or should believe in contrast to what Quaker are not). I suspect it is harder to lead in the Religious Society of Friends with intimate knowledge of its wide diversity—more about this in the section below on theological differences.
For me, my own struggles with a call to and a path opening towards professional ministry have been amplified by my relationships with Friends from other parts of the country and world. I see my Friends in North Carolina, Oregon, and Indiana, even in quite liberal meetings, being recorded while their gifts in various kinds of ministry are supported, recognized, and held accountable by their communities. I observe Quakers succeeding in public and professional ministry positions, be it pastors, chaplains, or administrators. That success makes the feeling of injustice more acute as I see more and more roadblocks placed before me for such support, recognition, and accountability. A topic for my next blog entry for sure.
5) The Future of the Religious Society of Friends
Again, I wish polling all 300 of us was an easy task. To know what we are all up to, what we have all been part of over the years, and yes... how many babies have been born. I have a black and white photograph that I took of a baby that was at the WGYF and I see pictures of her through her mother's Facebook account as she enters the 5th grade (see below). So many more small children have come into the world from WGYP participants over the last ten years—the next generation of Friends.
Yet as many children that have been born to Friends of the WGYF in the last ten years, I wonder how many participants of the WGYF have left Quakerism. I hear rumors of Friends claiming that they do not “do ministry” anymore and I wonder at how that contrasts with Friends I know who view all of life as ministry. There are people who have fallen off the Quaker map and I wonder how many of them have found homes in other religious traditions. Did these people leave because their sexuality was inconsistent with the teachings of their Quaker community? Did they leave because they were denied leadership opportunities because of their age, gender, gender identity, race, or sexuality? Did they leave because they simply felt invisible in a faith that preached authentic community? Did they leave because the rituals of Quakerism were not satisfying their need to be close to God? Did they leave because their experiences of God were inconsistent with the community’s corporate theology?
I think these questions are not all that different from the questions that people seeking Quakerism ask of their prior faith traditions. These questions are not all that different from the questions present members of the Religious Society of Friends are asking right now. Ben asked some of these questions in his reflections on the WGYF ten years ago:
- Am I a Quaker?
- Are all of these other people Quakers?
- Why is my home life difficult?
- Why is my home life so different from that of others?
- Is the program meeting people's needs?
- Is homosexuality acceptable to God?
- Is homophobia acceptable to God?
- Is universalism acceptable to God?
- Is Christianity acceptable to God?
- How do I get to know people who do not speak my language?
- How do I deal with the loneliness of following Christ?
- How do we engage those in our meetings who are not seeking God?
- How will I be friends with the people I have met here?
- What can love do through us? What fruit shall we bear?
- What is pulling at our heart other than God?
6) The Results of Theological Differences
A dear F/friend of mine was wrestling with his Quaker faith and practice for a long time before attending the WGYF. He was a Liberal Quaker and as of 2005 he rarely went to meeting, didn’t know much about Quaker Faith and Practice and had only open the Bible once or twice. Still, he had been active in his youth group growing up as well as in summer Quaker conferences and for that reason was chosen to represent his yearly meeting at the WGYF.
Folks might think that people with theological differences coming together in worship and fellowship causes the exposure of these differences thus separation. However, in practice, the very opposite happens: a mutual empowering occurs, one which encourages all parties to be more faithful in their individual experiences as well as more tolerant of difference.
My F/friend came away from the gathering feeling a new sense of importance for him to attend weekly worship. He read more about historic Quakers, opened the Bible more often, and engaged more with others about his experience of God. He did not become a different kind of Quaker, rather he became a strong and authentic Liberal Friend. From his friendships with other kinds of Quakers, he learned about the depth and complexity of the Quaker experience and how his own experiences of the Divine fit into the mosaic that is the Religious Society of Friends.
What Friends believe is not at all simple. While we have the various branches of Friends, when Liberal Friends condemn all Evangelical Friends for their homophobia or Evangelical Friends condemn all Liberal Friends for their Christophobia, I find myself disappointed that those making the condemnations lack experience of the diversity among Friends. In Ben’s reflections on the theological differences of the WGYF, he illustrated this: “I was often surprised at who was an EFI Friend, who was an FUM Friend, who was an FGC Friend, and who was Conservative or unaffiliated. People’s actual beliefs often did not match the stereotypes. As an example, you could find folks who believe that God loves all love—even gay love—among all branches of Friends.” Our branches are not as clearly defined as the great chart suggests that they are, and neither are we all so similar within our branches. By coming together not as our assumed theological and political identities, but as authentic people of faith, we can empower each other to be more faithful, more authentic, and more tolerant parts of the whole.
7) Deconstructing the Language Barrier
One of the clearer lines that often divides the Religious Society is that of language rather than theology. However, these lines are often close together; because of a language barrier, assumptions about theology are harder to overcome. In his 2005 reflections, Ben wrote: “Because the African Friends were absent [at the Lancaster Gathering], the theological line was largely where the language line was. That is, the more evangelical and conservative Friends mostly spoke Spanish, and the more liberal Friends spoke English.”
Often within the Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas, the language barrier is accompanied by this assumed theological divide, though as North American Evangelical participation increases in Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas, such assumptions are increasingly problematic.
New England Yearly Meeting has been cultivating a relationship with Cuba Yearly Meeting for a long time, encouraging North Americans to learn Spanish, and building a bridge of love between the two yearly meetings. While one might think that there is a wide gulf between the theologies of these two yearly meetings, and that their theologies are relatively uniform, actually there is great theological complexity in both yearly meetings and sizable overlap between them. Only through deconstructing the language barrier have Friends been able to see their similarities and the ways in which their assumptions we incorrect, both about themselves and about their counterparts.
In 2005, Ben’s experience translating for Raul, a young friend from El Salvador—and now a dear friend of ours—illustrates the beauty and power that is possible by building bridges across the language barrier. Here’s a bit of his story:
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.
When giving a presentation to the New England Yearly Meeting 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 [at the Kenyan gathering of the WGYF] (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.
8) The Importance of Pilgrimage
For Ben and Raul, the power and beauty of their time together was made in part by their mutual accompaniment. Living side by side, traveling together, and experiencing something so completely new to both of them, allowed them to be pilgrims walking together on the same path. The experience was different for each of them, but they shared so much.
There is something miraculous about pilgrimage. Traveling with others, living with others, experiencing the small wonders of life together... these allow for stereotypes to be broken, barriers to be brought down, and bridges to be built. While for us the WGYF was in its entirety a pilgrimage of faith, even within its programming were individual moments of journey and of coming together.
Ben wrote: “The best trip was the last. We—all 200 odd of us—climbed Pendle Hill. It was indeed steep. And high for a hill in England. And so green! When we were climbing the white of our clothing stood out against the hill—white raiment indeed. At the top of the hill, you could see miles and miles of tame countryside, broken only by fences and the occasional building. The wind whipped by us as we ate our food, took pictures, sang, and prayed. We definitely were a community that afternoon on that hill. I would have liked to linger there a little longer."
I grew up with Friends who had been part of the AFSC work camps after WWII and throughout the ’60s and ’70s. One of my meeting’s elders used to tell me, “Rachel, you want to really get to know someone? Camp with them for a month while digging ditches. There’s no better community than having to share the same latrine and eat from the same pot.” I hope that Friends can continue to journey together, from all the different branches and parts of the world—like we did for the WGYF—and really feel part of this Religious Society we call Friends.
9) What Was Our Work? What Is Our Work Now?
Which takes me to this next question—after journeying together, after building community and empowering each other to be faithful Friends in our own experiences of the Divine, what is our work? Ben asked this question in 2005 and couldn’t find a good answer. In fact, it was an easy argument to get into across the theological spectrum—an argument that so many other theologically diverse groups of people are having, including the World Council of Churches.
This questions perhaps is itself misguided, though we’ve been asking it for hundreds of years. In retrospect we can say that our work was advocating for the end of slavery; our work was protesting war and promoting conscientious objection status; our work has been activism in the fields of mass incarceration, climate change, racism, homophobia, marriage equality, relief work, peace, even evangelism. Yet rarely has the entirety of the Religious Society of Friends agreed upon the nature of our work. So instead I wonder, not what is our work—that I will leave to each community of Friends to figure out—but who are we called to be? As John 13:34-36 says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” What if the world knew us not for what we did, but who we are, faithful disciples of that love?
10) Being Part of a Worldwide Community of Friends
I end this rather long reflection with a set of advices that Ben wrote with other NEYM Friends in 2005, which ten years later are still relevant. Do you have some of your own? There are lessons we learn from each other and there are infinite questions that we pose to each other that help us grow and strengthen as Friends. Ben and I look forward to seeing Friends in Peru in January, at the FWCC International Representatives Gathering—we look forward to worship and fellowship and we look forward to seeking together how to be the Religious Society; the world wide community of Friends.
Advices for past, present and future thought:
- Humbly seek out that of God in the way others live, and find what’s deeply right in it.
- Talk about your spiritual journey explicitly.
- Find words for that which is hard or strange.
- Evangelize. Spread the good news.
- Never be absolutely sure that you are right.
- Abandon your forms when they do not fulfill God’s will.
- Find in your faith things to live humbly by and to die for.
- Do your work. Call others to do theirs.
- With your sins and the sins of your parents: admit them, repent them, heal the wounds.
- Read the Bible.
- Have joyful worship. Do not always be somber.
- Face your fears and your powerlessness. Have faith.
- Know who you are spiritually, and trust God to know where you are going.
- Deny the distractions. Follow only God.
- Love boldly. Share deeply.
- Forgive and forgive and forgive.
—photos from Rachel & Ben Guaraldi, Jeff Hipp, Holly Baldwin
Kanamai, Kenya WGYF Photos
—photos from Rachel & Ben Guaraldi, Eden & Jim Grace, Raul Perez, Holly Baldwin, Jadon Tres Reyes