Beyond Words: Reflections on the 2006 Section of the Americas Annual Meeting

While walking down the cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala, I started to reflect on what the 2006 Annual Meeting meant to me. The best phrase I could use to describe it was "beyond expectations, crossing barriers," or, in the words of Henri J. M. Nouwen, "from the house of fear to the house of love."

It was 13 years since the last annual meeting of FWCC’s Section of the Americas had taken place in Latin America. At that time, in 1993, the Section had met in the northeast part of Mexico, in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, and that was quite an unforgettable experience for many. Planned two years before, the 2006 annual Section meeting outside its well-known northern territory also represented big challenges for everyone. Above all, it opened the door for many opportunities to enhance the vision as we strive to be a true Section of the Americas and to give concrete form to its mission.

This time, working as staff from the very beginning and involved in all the preparations, I knew I was facing a big challenge—separate from the heavier workload involved. It was a challenge to learn to do things in a different way. This learning would involve comparing, perhaps, but without putting undue weight on our old and familiar experiences at a time when we needed to be open to new ones in a foreign land. Without question even I, as a Latin American, had to learn things in a different way.

How do we each see the other part of the Section? Through whose eyes do we see the meetings and realities outside our own territories? Is it truly sufficient to have just a handful of Latin American Friends doing a devotional on Friday morning at Annual Meeting to fully capture a sense of the Spirit-led worship services of the Friends churches and meetings in the southern part of the Section? How will Friends feel, participating in full three-hour services? I had these and many more questions in mind.

When the decision was made to accept the invitation, I knew that the Embajadores Friends Church of Chiquimula, a highly capable and committed group of Friends, would be ready and up to it. This group had proven they could provide the support needed, as they had faced different situations such as relief work during Hurricane Mitch and the building of their new sanctuary. As a group, they certainly knew that with determination and faith, their goals and aims could be achieved.

I do not know how many nights I slept in someone else’s bed while the person went to stay at a relative’s place, or was offered a ride, escorted to the store, or invited to dinner or afternoon coffee when I visited to meet with the Local Arrangements Committee. Various staff of the Section—myself included—traveled during the two years prior to the Annual Meeting for the purpose of planning and advising local Friends. To many people’s surprise, the local Friends were way ahead of our questions and preparations, or as we say in Mexico, Cuando uno apenas va, ellos ya vienen de regreso.

From the program to the water supply, to servers (as they called the young Friends who were there all day long to serve our needs), to a 24-hour on-call medical team, to the smallest detail responding to someone’s needs, these Friends showed how committed they are to FWCC by giving their time and talents, and going beyond what was required to embrace us all as true members of the same family of Friends.

What can be said about a group of people who stopped almost every other activity, gave up their holidays, met their clients in their dental practice during weekends before the meeting so they could fully attend the meetings, asked for leaves of absence, asked for permission in their schools, spent long hours cooking meals, met for choir or marimba and string instrument rehearsals after work, sat with staff for hours to discuss solutions for unexpected situations, or simply sat over a cup of coffee and in Spanish or broken English tried to have a conversation? Beyond expectations!

Another even smaller group of Friends from the Guatemala Monthly Meeting based in Antigua organized and took care of nearly every detail, including transportation needs for almost 200 people. This was a big challenge to them, and they did a splendid job. They also went beyond expectations, and our gratitude goes to them.

Learning to do things in a different way is a bit too much stretching for some individuals. The real temptation is to compare this year’s meeting with the way we do our program year after year, regardless of where we meet. This annual meeting was certainly different, from morning to night. Noticeable differences included the heat, the humidity, the lack of hot showers, drinking lots of water, and eating lots of rice, beans, eggs, bananas, plantains, and so on. The format was also different: midafternoon rest, small meetings, and then a queue for bus rides into town where we had the evening sessions and worship. However, the central and most significant difference was certainly the very fact that we brought the annual meeting south of the Rio Grande, where the main language is Spanish, and where the larger groups of Quakers are Evangelical Friends.

It is also true that Latin American Friends, most of whom are part of Evangelical churches and attend FWCC meetings where they are placed in the minority, have to learn to do things in a different way from what they are used to. Apart from special meetings, triennials, and conferences, at most FWCC annual meetings Latin American Friends are only represented by one Friend per country. But this year, in Chiquimula, a larger group of Friends from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras Evangelical Church yearly meetings were able to participate. At least one U.S. Friend donated what he or she would have spent to attend the meeting to make this possible. For many of these Friends it was their first time meeting those other Friends. That same thing was also true for some Friends coming from the unprogrammed tradition, who sat and talked and met Evangelical Friends from Latin America for the first time. Having an opportunity to worship together in local Evangelical churches and share in a silent meeting for worship meant for all, helped us to cross barriers of form, content, and theology, in addition to the challenges of language differences. Hearing each other and listening from our hearts in a worshipful manner certainly made a big difference.

Another wonderful surprise was attendance by a larger group of young Friends than usual, from all over the Section. Watching them talk, discuss, have fun, and plan for the future brings great hope for Friends in this hemisphere. I trust that if FWCC continues to be instrumental in helping the younger generation of Friends to meet worldwide, our barriers may fall apart and our resistance and self-guardedness may give way.

For many, it was an eye-opener to have Duduzile Mtshazo from Southern and Central Africa Yearly Meeting, present clerk of FWCC, share from the heart her experiences related to our theme of spiritual gifts given for the good of all. It was a real and concrete experience of listening to someone and finding that barriers among Friends simply fell away. Duduzile’s talk was also a testimony to local people outside Friends’ circles.

To me, the core experience was unquestionably the fact that we worshiped together as an expectant community that experiences communion and is transformed by God through a common commitment. The tears, the songs, the small sermonette, the act of an individual’s standing and saying Gracias, the joining of hands, raising of hands, and the singing together—all in a single experience in our closing worship, with more than 200 Friends together, speaking English, Spanish, or any other language, was a revitalizing sign of the power of the Spirit. That is what inspired us all to move from the house of fear to the house of love. The Spirit sent us back home with renewed hope, not expecting to change the other, but to share, crossing barriers and going beyond expectations. This whole experience was indeed beyond words!

Loida E. Fernàndez G.

Loida E. Fernàndez G. is executive secretary of the Committee of Latin American Friends (COAL). She is a member of the General Meeting of Mexican Friends, Cd. Victoria Monthly Meeting.