Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Reflections on the 6th World Conference of Friends
Before anything else, I wish to say thank you- to God, to my family, to my F/friends, to Teri for working with me to get the time off to make this journey, to Beatrice for giving me a wonderful tour of Nairobi, to our driver John for giving us an awesome tour of Lake Nakuru National Park, to the conference organizers who spent so much time and effort organizing such a huge event, and to all who I met in Kenya who showed such love and hospitality. I am blessed.
God was instructing me even before I arrived in Kenya. I had a long layover in Istanbul, and this is where I first encountered Friends who would be accompanying me on this journey. Being in Salt Lake City, I have become used to the conservative culture here, and when I first met this group of Friends, I found myself being judgmental in my mind towards some of them, that they lacked spiritual depth. Maybe this was a sort of reverse culture shock. We arrived in Nairobi 6 hours late, so we decided to forgo getting a room for a couple of hours of sleep, and just had some breakfast in a little café in the airport while we waited for the shuttle. We soon were sharing our spiritual journeys, and how each of us had come to become Quakers. The stories were amazing, and each very different. One Friend talked about a verse in Isaiah that had inspired him. I was inspired as well; I hear the voice of Jesus echoed in this verse.
Isaiah 58 (New Living Translation)
Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud, don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins. Yet they act so pious. They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. ‘We have fasted before you.’ They say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed?’
I will tell you why, I respond. It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?
No, this is the kind of fasting I want: free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burdens of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer, ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger spreading vicious rumors. Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.
After some hours riding in a van, we arrived at Kabarak University. I found my dormitory, dragged my heavy duffel bag down there with the help of a nice young man. And here is where my frustrations with the accommodations began. The man who was there to get us checked into our rooms didn’t have everything set up yet, and I waited for the better part of an hour as I watched him meticulously finish drawing a chart into his notebook, and get some of the other materials ready. Even though I was really tired, and needed a shower really bad, it occurred to me that time in Kenya is perceived in a different way than in the United States. And this wasn’t supposed to be a vacation in any traditional sense anyway.
I would say now that the memories of being there are in some ways better than the experience of being there. The lights in my dorm room worked about half the time. The light from the room next door shone right where my head goes on the bed. The floor was dirty. The mattresses were thin. I couldn’t drink the tap water. The electricity would go out completely. The water would stop working, and then the toilets would start stinking up. The showers were cold, unless you filled up a bucket with hot water from the special hot water tap. I never figured out how to take a bucket shower without getting soap in my eyes, and soon resigned myself to taking cold showers. The squat toilets take some practice getting used to. The buildings were all built out of cement, which made everything echo. Because the dorm rooms had only screens in the window that faced the hallway, you could hear everything going on in that wing of the dormitory. The food was quite repetitive. It was sometimes tiring to have all these things going on, but I became increasingly grateful not only for all the luxuries I have here in the US, but also for when things actually worked in Kenya.
We had a general schedule each day that started with breakfast, then we would have a presentation/sermon, then a tea break, then our home group, then lunch, then 2 thread groups with another tea break in between, then dinner, and then an optional evening activity.
The home group was a group of about a dozen Friends from all over the world that we met with every day for the duration of the conference. Our group facilitators were from Denmark and Kenya, and there were others from Kenya, Carolina, England and New England. There were certainly some good discussions in general, but there was one in particular that was fruitful. Former Kenyan president Moi was scheduled to speak to us during the conference. A Friend named John is from the United States and is married to a Kenyan woman, and spends about half his time in Kenya and half in the US. He was upset that President Moi would be speaking at the conference, and told us how the president was involved in corruption and torture. Someone told me later that for Kenyans, they are so happy to have their own country, without colonial rule, that they have a reverence for all their former and current leaders. It was in this context that the verse Romans 13 was brought up.
Romans 13:1-5 (New Living Translation)
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God. And those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.
This is a challenging verse for me. The idea that all leaders are placed into leadership by God, and must be followed seems a half truth. Did God place Hitler into power? If I lived at that time, would I be required to do whatever he ordered me to do? As the discussion progressed, we were more and more in agreement that while following our leaders can often a good thing (for rebellion for no purpose can be harmful), we would not be required to follow our leaders if we are asked to do wrong by them. I felt like this was a very important conversation for many of us, for the theological differences between Evangelical Friends and Liberal Friends are at times gaping, even for liberal friends like myself who are followers of Jesus.
And so when it came time for President Moi to speak, I was very interested in what the President had to say, and if he would give any account of his actions. There were some surprises even in his introduction. A Kenyan woman was at the podium beginning the session, but when it came time to introduce the president, a Kenyan man came up to do the introduction of the President. Someone indicated to me later that women were not allowed to introduce the President. Then, when he entered the room, about two-thirds of the conference members present stood up. Where was the equality testimony here? The President’s speech, at least what I heard of it, was largely about how this new generation has lost its way, and that the elder generation needed to be there to help the younger generation return to true Christian living. Now that I write this, it does not capture the negative tone that I felt from it. Not only did I hear no repentance for his actions, I also heard a lack of humility. And so I chose to leave half way through his speech.
Although we came together as Friends in this conference, there was discord in some areas, and very different expectations as well. Homosexuality was the biggest discord during the conference. Homosexual behavior is illegal in Kenya, and is seen as very unnatural and a threat to society. Those of us from the US and Europe, in contrast, seek to be accepting to those who are homosexual. One morning, one of the world conference organizers got up to speak, and she was very upset. The LGBTQ Quaker organization had posted an epistle, and someone had removed it. I later found out that Kenyan Friends had called a meeting about this, and among them there was disagreement about this action.
Another big difference was the expectations for worship. For me and other Friends who practice waiting worship, the lack of silence was difficult. When the conference as a whole tried to practice waiting worship, it was unusual for there to be more than two to three minutes of silence between the giving of testimony. I have little doubt that Friends who practice programmed worship found waiting worship a little strange and difficult. One of the speakers, Carmela Lao from the Philippines said something that really illustrated what it was like for them. She said something to the effect of ‘We are like rock stars, we don’t hold it in or bottle it up inside, we dance and sing the word out, and share it openly.’ So here is illustrated how programmed Friends, and outsiders in general might misperceive unprogrammed waiting worship. Speaking for myself, the silence serves as a way to discern what God wants me to know or do right now, and to give it enough room and time to try to determine if it is coming from God/the Light within me, or if it is just coming from somewhere else within me. Once I have the clarity that it is from God, action needs to, and does often follow. I will admit, though, that truly following a leading once I have one is still difficult for me. To have 100 percent commitment and trust is still hard for me. Because there was never an opportunity to become fully spiritually settled in worship, a few of us from unprogrammed meetings felt the need for some serious silent worship, and so one of us set up a scheduled time each day to truly sit in silence together.
Something I have learned from attending my yearly meeting is to not sign up for everything that is available. I need time to rest, and to process things. So when it came time to sign up for thread groups, I decided to do only one, which was titled Opening the Scriptures. This decision has changed my understanding and my life in some small but significant ways. The goal of the group was to help bridge the gap between programmed and unprogrammed Friends. Our convener explained that programmed Friends mainly look to scripture as their source, while unprogrammed Friends look more towards the writings of early Friends. His thinking was that early Friends would often speak and write in a scriptural manner, even though they didn’t quote scripture as often. And so by understanding the scriptural concepts that early Friends used, unprogrammed and programed Friends can come to a better understanding of each other, and be more unified.
On the second day of the thread group we discussed the concept of the Light. For me, this was the most profound concept during the whole conference. We have a tendency to think that experiencing the Light is always pleasant, and that it always brings us into states of spiritual joy and peace. In the long term, this is indeed true, but the early Quakers also saw the Light as something that shone into the dark corners of ourselves and others, exposing aspects of ourselves that are very unpleasant so that we can begin the work of changing it.
John 3:19-21 (Restored New Testament)
And this is the judgment: Light came into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were cunning. For all who do shoddy things hate the light and do not come towards the light so that their works will not be exposed. But those who do the truth come toward the light so their works may shine as accomplished through God.
Luke 11:34-36 (Restored New Testament)
The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is clear, then your whole body is filled with light. But when it is clouded, then your body is in darkness. So if your whole body is filled with light, with no part dark, you will be all light as when the lamp illuminates you with its beams.
While these things can certainly apply to a person as a whole, the more profound teaching is that it can apply to parts of a person as well. In my conference notes, there is section entitled Experiment with Light:
1. Mind the light (in your consciousness), and you will find it where you have transgressed or sinned.
2. Open your heart to the Truth, see yourself and reality as they really are (Truth is the opposite of self-deceit).
3. Stay in the light, and don’t fight it.
4. Submit to the Truth (thinking gets in the way).
On the third day we discussed the concept of the seed. Probably the biggest scriptural illustration comes from the parable of the sower of the seeds found in Luke 8:4-15. Fox used this biological metaphor to speak about how a seed of divine nature is planted within us. We then respond to God’s initiative, instead of pursuing our own accomplishments. He felt that the view of Christ that other churches espoused was much too limited, and he sought to show Christ in much broader terms, one that is available to everyone, a universal cosmic Christ that is wide, deep, and functional, that is the burning oneness that binds everything. James Naylor said “If I do not witness Christ nearer than Jerusalem, how does it benefit me?”
During my thread group, we were split into groups of 3 for some discussions. In my group were a middle aged man from Texas who had grown up Seventh-Day Adventist, and a Kenyan man probably in his 50’s who was a minister of a Friends Church. A question came to me during our discussion- how has your understanding of the Bible changed over time? The answer from the Kenyan Friend surprised me at the time. He simply said that his understanding of the bible had not changed. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on it, I can make some sense of it. I would guess that for him, the bible plainly states the truth, and all we have to do is believe in what it says, and proclaim that truth to others. For the Texan Friend, he had difficulties with the bible because of his prior experiences with it. In the way he described his experience, it seemed like the bible was used as a weapon, in order to exert control. He expressed an amazement of my situation, where I had minimal exposure to the bible as a child, and was able to approach it with a large degree of freshness and openness that he couldn’t have. And so I can see that I do have a fortunate position, where I feel that the bible and Jesus have taught me some important things, and have much more to teach me, and that I am free from years the years of religious programming that some people have, telling them what the bible is supposed to mean, and I am also free from the experience of the bible being used against me as a weapon.
Half way through the conference, we had a scheduled outing day, for everyone to get a break, and be able to go out and see a little bit of Kenya. There were many to choose from, but the trip to Lake Nakuru sounded like it would give me the best opportunity to see African wildlife. There were long delays in getting there, but once we arrived, we were not disappointed. It was simply amazing to see all these animals in their natural habitat, and the beauty of that place. Neither pictures nor words can adequately describe being there. And to share and witness in this experience with others brought with it a sense of togetherness and community. It is a day I won’t forget.
When I bought my plane tickets to Kenya, I decided to stay an extra day there, so I could get a chance to see Nairobi. But once I arrived in Kenya, I was not optimistic about this possibility, as it did not seem safe for a white person to be going around the city on his own. There was a young Kenyan woman in my thread group named Beatrice who I had gotten to know a little bit towards the end of the conference. When I told her of my dilemma, she offered to take me around Nairobi for that day. And so we hopped on a mutatu bus to the Kenyan National Museum and then we traveled to Nairobi National Park. Both of these places were pretty interesting. At the museum, I got a much better sense of Kenya’s history; especially it’s British colonization. At the national park, I had the chance to see some animals that I had not seen at Lake Nakuru, such as cheetahs and hyenas, as well as a closer look at a giraffe and lions. But in retrospect, it is what I saw while traveling around that was the most salient. It was very clear how much of a minority I was. Outside of these two tourists destinations we visited, I only saw one other Caucasian person, a young white man who appeared to be on a date with his Kenyan girlfriend. I was struck by how religious this place was. There were churches everywhere, of many many varieties. Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, Episcopalian, Eastern Orthodox, Hare Krishna. While some were of fairly large size and in decent condition by Kenyan standards, some were nothing more than a large shack with a sign on it. One of these had holes you could see through, and was leaning sideways. And the traffic there is nothing short of insanity. There are pretty much two rules, 1) Don’t hit anything, and 2) Drive on the left side of the road. There were no stop signs, the few stop lights were always ignored, no traffic police, and the mutatu buses were often less than a foot away from something, even when moving. There were 3 occasions were I though we were about to hit a pedestrian. I just had to hope that my drivers knew what they were doing, and simply accept the fact that this was a dangerous place, and that injury to others or myself might happen.
The theme of the 6th world conference was Being Salt and Light in a Broken World. I did struggle with the theme somewhat because I don’t see the world as truly broken. This world can be a very difficult place, it has many flaws, and there are certainly some parts of it that are broken. But my testimony is that this world can also be incredibly wonderful, and that what is broken or dysfunctional in this world can be restored and refreshed, because indeed the kingdom of heaven is among us, if we can just see it. But I saw much brokenness in Kenya, much poverty, although not the level of poverty where you see kids with distended stomachs. What I did see was so much disrepair of things there, and a people who often struggle to make enough money to eat that day, as well as having a place to live. This was particularly true of the youngest generation of adults, who usually don’t have access to land in the countryside like their previous generations did. The political system in Kenya is almost always along tribal lines, and pretty dysfunctional. This poverty plus highly tribal politics was a big part of the election violence during the last Kenyan election. I was told during my home group that some young Kenyans were paid around 300 shillings to burn down the houses of Kenyans from other tribes that were very likely to vote for another candidate, to create intimidation so that supporters of political opponents wouldn’t vote. Three hundred schillings is about $3.50, which I find simply horrifying and sad.
I also came to an understanding of the symbolism of being salt- as something that gives flavor to food and preserves it, as an antiseptic, and as something that is needed for life itself.
When I left for my trip, I was finding myself in a spiritual desert, so to speak. I had not felt any significant spiritual presence in a while, and found myself in a somewhat unhappy and tired state. This did not dissipate much during the conference, but reflecting on some of the experiences and ideas has been instrumental in lifting out of that state. The main things I got from going on this journey is a better understanding of the Light, knowing Friends from around the world and their traditions, and a deeper appreciation of all the things that I have. One more thing, I found that now that I’m back at home, my fear that I sometimes have around African Americans has greatly dissipated. I don’t quite understand this yet, how it happened. It was a fear of not knowing how to interact with African Americans, and that I may be accused of being racist when I had no intention of doing anything hurtful.
Thank you for reading.