Taking in a Big Breath of Guatemala

Fried plantains; fireflies lighting the night sky; marimbas; tamales; pineapple juice trickling down my chin and a pale green sauce tingling my tongue; messages in Spanish, English, Osage, and a South African tribal language; laughter and silence understood by all. It’s been over a year since I attended the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) Section of the Americas Annual Meeting in Chiquimula, Guatemala, but the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes have not faded. For me, a Quaker for 25 years, the gathering deepened my appreciation of the rich diversity that unites Quakers and strengthened my desire to bridge what divides us.

For four days in March 2006 more than 220 Friends from Canada to Peru worshiped, sang, talked, listened, read, and conducted business together with the help of dozens of official and unofficial interpreters. The theme—claiming and using our spiritual gifts—pervaded every moment. The abundance of gifts in our midst was apparent, particularly in the generosity and hospitality offered by all three Friends groups in Guatemala and especially our host church, Embajadores (Ambassadors) Evangelical Friends Church. They welcomed us to their new meetinghouse with miniature straw baskets of candy as well as a dinner of tortillas, tamales, steamed squash, green beans, and fresh fruit.

"Being different is part of God’s abundance," said Duduzile Mtshazo, FWCC clerk, during her plenary address. "As Friends, we have processes and bodies to minister to the world today—a world in great need of honoring and respecting difference."

I delighted in celebrating some of those differences even though I’ve avoided many of the practices since becoming an unprogrammed Quaker. I joined in on hymns, put my Quetzales (Guatemalan currency) in the offering plate, listened to sermons and Bible-reading (from dog-eared Bibles as well as "Palm Pilots"), heard personal testimonials, sang (often accompanied by marimbas, accordions, and electric guitars), and nodded as others shouted, "Amen!"

As a first-time attender of the annual meeting, I took in lots of new information. Mercifully, the sequential interpreting slowed the pace of the presentations and discussions. According to FWCC, there are close to 150,000 Quakers throughout the Americas, and it is evident we enjoy doing business through committees. We learned just how fruitful that work has been with reports from FWCC— World Office, Executive Committee, Finance Committee, Site Selection Committee, Nominating Committee, and Campaign Committee. And more reports—from FWCC field staff, the Peace Issues Working Group, the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage Committee, and the World Gathering of Young Friends. And then a few more reports from Quaker organizations represented by a variety of letters: QUNO, RSWR, WQF, COAL, FPT (Quaker United Nations Office, Right Sharing of World Resources, Wider Quaker Fellowship, Committee of Latin American Friends, Friends Peace Teams).

Another first for me was witnessing the power of Quaker decision making across cultures. When the Peace Issues Working Group presented a minute requesting a consultation to prepare for alternative service in the event a military draft is reinstated in the U.S., I expected unity would be achieved readily. However, when one Friend reminded us we were addressing the Peace Testimony from the perspective of the U.S., Friends from other parts of the Americas began to share their experiences of conflict between pacifism and national requirements for military service.

"This discussion is a novelty for Bolivian Quakers," one Friend from Bolivia explained. "There, both young men and women volunteer for military service because they believe that will make them appear strong." Another spoke of the dilemma Bolivian youth feel because they must prove they served in the military in order to attend state universities. "They feel in conflict with their Quaker parents who haven’t been able to get an education because they refused to serve in the military. These young people want the opportunity to advance and enter professions." The business meeting heard these concerns and asked the Peace Issues Working Group to continue conversations about alternative service, including Friends from both inside and outside the U.S.

In small worship-sharing groups, we were encouraged to communicate in the language of the heart, and with the help of a translator we responded to queries about our spiritual gifts. At FWCC I found this format just as spiritually nourishing among Friends from different traditions and cultures as in my experiences at my own quarterly and yearly meetings. Instead of rating worship-sharing experiences with stars as is often done for hotels and restaurants, I consider how many tissues I use when the sharing moves me to tears. Mine was a "five-Kleenex" group.

More opportunities for experiencing the diversity and the commonality among Quakers arose when we were divided into groups to worship at one of eight nearby Friends churches. My husband and I were welcomed warmly at the small Friends Church in San Estebàn, a community of 4,000, just a few miles from Chiquimula. Three members of the congregation share the pastoring, and one gave that evening’s sermon on the theme "God is Always with Us." He spoke of members’ lives being too busy to pray for each other—evidently a problem not unique to the U.S.

On the final morning, over 100 members of those eight Friends churches streamed into the hotel conference room to join the rest of us attending the Annual Meeting for the final unprogrammed meeting for worship. Dudu told us that just before she left South Africa to travel to Guatemala, her granddaughter said, "Take in a big breath for me." This is the breath I took in and still carry with me.