The Kingdom of the Committee and the Garbage Dump of God

For the last few years, Northern Yearly Meeting (FGC) and El Salvador Yearly Meeting (evangelical in character) have been building a relationship together. Rich cross-fertilization has occurred through annual intervisitation of various kinds—supplying all involved with moments of joy, shock, transcendence, bewilderment, belly laughs, and opportunities for growth! The author traveled to El Salvador in January of 2003, and serves as an interpreter at NYM annual sessions.

I read somewhere that research measuring self-declared happiness around the world found Salvadorans to be among the happiest people on Earth.

Now, if you know anything at all about El Salvador, this is a head-scratching bit of news. The El Salvador of living memory has suffered an almost unbroken litany of political and economic repression and violence. Public schools and public health are a disaster. Nominally a democracy, El Salvador’s government is ridiculed—when it is not being cried over—by most citizens. Deforestation and erosion have destroyed huge swaths of the countryside. The rivers are garbage-clogged sewers that advertise their presence olifactorily long before they can be seen. There is trash everywhere. Most people seem to eke out a living on the ragged edge of subsistence. Nearly a fifth of the population has emigrated to the United States and Canada in the last 25 years.

And yet . . . Salvadorans are among the happiest people on Earth. Salvadoran Friends are no exception. They worship with genuine joy; they find unlimited reasons to give thanks and praise. In my recent experience among Salvadoran Friends, I don’t believe a day went by without tears of joy. They have a huge repertoire of praise songs, and the music is exuberant, upbeat, and loud. There is no mistaking it: it is happy music, and it reflects and spills over into their lives. Their experience of the Spirit is vivid, life-giving, and cause for daily celebration.

Now try a snapshot of Friends from el Norte.

We are among the wealthiest people on the planet. Our educational opportunities are generally excellent. Most of us live in relatively safe, attractive neighborhoods. Most of us have access to areas of natural beauty. Most of us earn a dignified and fairly reliable living; at the very least, few of us would consider emigrating for economic reasons.

And yet, I see Friends in the United States suffering under the weight of near despair. Yearly epistles are often sad, pessimistic, or only laboriously hopeful. Many feature long lists of depressing realities: war, injustice, poverty. So many of us seem weighed down by the ills of our society, the misdeeds of our government, and the enormity of the tasks before us: preventing war, making peace, saving the environment, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, confronting racism, achieving some measure of economic justice.
. . . There is so much to do.

So here we are, living lives that are by any historical or international standard lives of opportunity, health, and wealth; and yet we seem on the edge of despair with some regularity. Salvadoran Friends (like most Salvadorans) often lead lives of insecurity, foreclosed opportunity, and a broad array of physical risks, from political violence to malnutrition to environmental contamination. And Salvadoran Friends are energetically hopeful and upbeat.

We worship the same God, and we both call ourselves Friends, but we seem to inhabit separate spiritual universes. What’s going on?

I remember my very first experience of a Salvadoran Friend commenting on Northern Yearly Meeting business. "I am very surprised," he said (in what I now know to be a breathtaking understatement) "by the matters you address." He had just witnessed us work on a minute condemning the War on Drugs, another minute on an environmental issue, and an initiative addressing racism. I think he wondered if he had come to the wrong meeting.

"Excuse me, por favor, but is this the Religious Society of Friends?"

Some time later, I was translating a conversation between the clerk of a large monthly meeting and the Salvadorans, one of whom had asked about our monthly meeting committee structure. The clerk started in on the list of committees, concerns and projects, explaining a bit about each one, and the Salvadorans listened . . . and listened . . . and finally looked at each other, slack-jawed. In that one monthly meeting, there were 28 committees!

I have translated into Spanish our yearly meeting discussions on everything from racism to Iraq to forestry. Our discussions are full of passion, pain, commitment, organizational zeal, a love for justice. In a typical hour, we talk about everything except what the Salvadorans discuss in their meetings: how to increase the number of worshipers, and how to strengthen the faith of their members. Period. Everything they do in their yearly meeting has one or both of these ends.

How is it that we can have such different ideas of what it means to be a Friend? I believe that our different conceptions of what our faith calls us to do lie in our different understandings of the Kingdom of God—what it is, and how to get there.

If you are a Salvadoran Friend, the Kingdom of God is the community of believers, in heaven. The greatest gift you can give anyone is a ticket to the Kingdom of God—and so you share your faith with others, evangelize with love and enthusiasm, and count your success in the number of converts and their growing faith. Success can be attained by anyone in any circumstances—poor or rich, educated or ignorant, oppressed, unemployed, or otherwise. Achieving the Kingdom of God does not depend on Congress or the labors of a committee—it depends upon prayer and faith. It is the most important—and most joyful—thing in life, and almost the only concern of the church.

If you are a liberal U.S. Friend, the Kingdom of God is waiting to happen here on Earth. You are God’s hands, and you must help build the Kingdom. It cannot be pleasing to God that some of God’s children are hungry, that some wield tyrannical power over others, that creation is being abused and destroyed. The greatest gift you can give the world is your passionate concern for realizing the Kingdom of God here and now. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness" (Gal. 5:22)—and clean government and clean rivers and social justice.

Make sure the nominating committee has your phone number.

If you are a Salvadoran Friend, to a significant extent your faith allows you to transcend the difficulties and miseries of everyday life. You achieve joy despite your surroundings. For the most part you do not take upon yourself the burden of making the world fair and prosperous and beautiful. You have little faith that the institutions of the world can be redeemed—but you have faith in the power of God to work in the hearts of individuals, and in the power of your faith to bring you salvation and joy.

If you are a U.S. Friend, your faith would seem to burden you with a Sisyphean task—making the world all that you believe God would like it to be. You are surrounded by the evidence of work undone, work that God may be calling you to do. You know your thick Rolodex better than the Bible or your meeting’s Faith and Practice, you attend more committee meetings than worship sessions, and you might know more protest songs than praise songs.

Okay, these are caricatures of both communities. But when your faith doesn’t bring you the peace that passeth all understanding, when it doesn’t bring you joy, when it allows no rest for the weary, there’s something wrong. Have some of us North American Friends put our faith in our committees, not in our God? Do we trust in our own hands more than in the One who guides them? Do we think we can create the Kingdom of God in the world when it does not reside in our own hearts? Do we think that we can attract newcomers and grow our meetings if our "to do" list of good works undone overshadows our "ta dah!" list of blessings shared and celebrated together?

And how about the Salvadoran side? I have two pictures in my mind: one is of a passionate congregation of Salvadoran Friends I am visiting in the little mountain town of San Ignacio. The spirit is palpably among us; truly many of these hearts are lifted up to God. The other picture is the first thing you see when you arrive in San Ignacio: a sprawling, casual garbage dump on the edge of town, turning what could be a lovely creek into a reason to avert your eyes and plug your nose. Hyperactive, take-charge, can-do U.S. Friend that I am, I wonder, can it be pleasing to God that we sing praises and let that canker on the landscape persist and grow? If the Spirit truly resides in our souls, won’t we also find it in ourselves to fix that eminently fixable problem, in part as an act of devotion to God and love for Creation? And might devotion not come more easily to our hearts if our senses were delighted with a lovely view rather than assaulted by the desecration of it?

It seems to me that Friends in the United States have sometimes turned their faith into an exhausting fix-the-whole-world enterprise. And perhaps Salvadoran Friends, with their all too depressing political history, have found it easier to downplay the collective nature of the Kingdom of God and its attainment here on Earth, and focus only on preparing individual souls for the hereafter.

I will venture to say that we U.S. Friends have created the Kingdom of the Committee—busy, productive, often discouraged, and too often rather faithless. Salvadoran Friends have—no, not created, but allowed to persist often unchallenged, the Garbage Dump of God. They’ve got a rich, vibrant, joyful faith; and they sometimes seem surprisingly passive in the face of problems that Friends in the United States would feel called to address with vigor.

As Marcus Borg asserts in The Heart of Christianity, salvation is both personal and collective. The Kingdom of God is meant to be in our hearts and in our society. "The New Testament . . . emphasizes personal issues, personal sins, and the need for personal transformation. . . . It also emphasizes political issues, political sins, and political transformation." It isn’t either/or—it is both/and.

I find that the relationship between NYM and ESYM is the edge where the Kingdom of the Committee and the Dump of God join. And I find that this is a living, growing edge—a place of deeper faith and deeper transformation than many of us on either side have perhaps yet experienced. This edge is where the Salvadorans show us the pure, expressive surrender and joy of their worship. It is where we show them the practical application of Friends testimonies in low-income housing projects, environmental efforts, and prison visitation. It is where they demonstrate lives of spiritual simplicity, focused on family and faith community, and where we share our concern for national and world affairs. It is where they sing, loudly, songs of praise, and where we sit silently, trying to discern a non-obvious call or season a concern. It is where they share weekly testimonials of personal transformation through obedience to the Gospels—ta dah!—and we show them the power of the Gospels to shape our activism in the world—to do!

My nine-year-old daughter, Savannah, gets it. One day after a Northern Yearly Meeting annual session, we had a long conversation about the ironies of the NYM/El Salvador Yearly Meeting relationship. She finally said thoughtfully, "You know, I think about half of the Salvadorans should come to this country and about half of us should go to El Salvador. If we did that, they would have cleaner rivers and better schools and we would know God better."

Amen, sister!