The Challenges of ‘Face-to-Face’ and ‘Heart-to- Heart’

At its core, FWCC is about providing opportunities for Friends in all our theological, cultural, and linguistic traditions to connect with each other. But with a constituency in the Americas that spreads from Alaska to Bolivia, speaking no fewer than six languages —and including Friends who might speak the same language but don’t really speak the same language—communication takes on added significance. What are some of the challenges that we face at FWCC?

In the Americas the two predominant languages spoken among Friends are English and Spanish. For many indigenous Friends, Spanish is their second language. FWCC’s Bilingual Communications staff and volunteers offer a labor of love when they translate FWCC reports, web pages, and e-mails. They live the Testimony of Equality when they interpret at face-to-face meetings, giving equal voice to all. To Friends unfamiliar with a bilingually conducted business meeting, interpretation at first seems burdensome. There can be long pauses while each speaker’s words are interpreted. You try really hard to limit what you want to say and to be concise, because interpretation essentially doubles the time it takes to convey your message. But the effort becomes a celebration of personal discipline exercised in the waiting silence. Translating every web page, every e-mail, every minute, and every voice requires many capable hands and minds willing to do this service. We’re always in need of volunteers with the gifts and skills of translation and interpretation.

The challenge when communicating among Friends in English-speaking North America is one of semantics. Is there not one way to refer to "that which is the source of all"? How do you react to the words God, Christ, the Light Within, Spirit, the Divine, Savior, He, or She? While trying to be inclusive of all, sometimes it is too easy to exclude and offend. That is never what we intend, yet it can happen.

Geographical distances between Friends present other challenges. At the World Office level, FWCC’s International Finance Committee meets regularly by conference call, but spans 18 time zones to make that happen.

Much of the face-to-face and heart-to-heart dialogue that characterizes an FWCC experience takes place at events such as annual meetings, regional gatherings, or, at the world level, a triennial or world conference. Friends are justifiably concerned about the financial expense of flying around the Americas or the world for meetings; many are also troubled by the environmental impact of air travel. FWCC and its representatives took a proactive step towards offsetting the environmental cost that would be incurred by travel to the 2004 FWCC Triennial in New Zealand (see sidebar). But travel is needed so that Friends can have the kind of important conversations that happen over a cup of coffee in a dining hall, where ideas and beliefs are tested and solidified.

There is yet another challenge of geographical separation: as visa restrictions to citizens of certain regions of the world grow, meeting in person with a balanced group of Friends becomes more difficult. Some Friends are simply unable to get to a gathering. The Section of the Americas Annual Meeting has not seen a representative from Cuba Yearly Meeting since 2004. A young Salvadoran Friend was denied entry to the U.S. to participate in a recent FWCC training workshop for interpreters. A large contingent of African and Indian Friends never made it to—or arrived halfway through—the 2004 Triennial. When part of the body is missing, the rest sense the loss. Meeting and event planning trade publications similarly report an increase in the number of international meeting participants unable to make it into the U.S. But this is not just a U.S. problem.

How do we bring the experience of being gathered together in all our diversity to those who can’t be present physically?

Fifty-five years ago, at the conclusion of the 1952 World Conference of Friends in Oxford, England, messages and greetings were sent to Friends around the world via Telex, a type of written message exchange now largely replaced by e-mail and fax. I’m sure that at the time it was probably the quickest way to share an epistle. We are still concerned today with "getting the word out quickly." E-mail is the most frequently used communication in our daily work. If you want to know about upcoming events or notices from any part of the Americas in the timeliest way, our electronic newsletter is the vehicle. As soon as we revamp our website, some new way to use it becomes apparent, so it is ever-changing.

To me the most exciting challenge for FWCC today is learning to embrace new ways of communicating among ourselves, without forgetting the importance of face-to-face meetings. There is so much to explore. E-mailing is almost passé for some of our youth, who prefer text messaging or social communities such as or to be in touch with friends. Safety concerns aside, social networking is a reality for a younger generation today. More and more Friends of all ages are asking questions or looking for answers about their faith through blogs. If you haven’t already heard the term "Web 2.0," you probably will. According to Wikipedia, Web 2.0 "refers to a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services—such as social-networking sites, wikis and folksonomies—which facilitate collaboration and sharing between users." Notice the use of the word communities.

I don’t think these are temporary gimmicks. I believe that people have used their God-given intelligence to develop tools and technology that can be used for good purposes. Imagine this scenario: you’re at an international FWCC gathering. The keynote speaker didn’t get his travel visa in time. (This situation really happened not long ago.) No problem! He can be the virtual speaker. The technology is out there, already, for our speaker’s image to be digitally teleported to the conference site. Even more, we can interact with our speaker, and our speaker can see us in the audience. "Won’t happen in my lifetime," you say. I’m looking forward to the day when some of our challenges can be solved innovatively. Beam me up, clerk, please.