In 2009, I traveled as a representative of Friends General Conference to the Young Quakers Christian Association (Africa) Triennial, which was held in Mabanga, Western Kenya, and included over 75 young Friends from Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, England, the Netherlands, and the United States. In November, a month before the Triennial, the clerk of YQCA, Bainito Wamalwa, had invited me to lead a workshop with the title "Yes, We Can." At first, I was terrified. I wasn’t sure what I could say on "Yes, We Can"; I didn’t feel confident leading a workshop in a country I’d never been to; and I felt ill-equipped to ground my talk with stories and quotes from the Bible, which, I knew, would be expected. In preparation for the trip, I spent time discerning my intentions for my time there: I was going to be present for the experience, meet people, listen, learn, and—when appropriate— share a bit of my spiritual journey. Now I was being asked to do something I wasn’t prepared for, and it took me a while to realize that in this invitation was an opportunity from God to step outside my comfort zone. I was being asked to walk into the unknown with the faith that God would always be with me, guiding my steps. So finally, I said yes.
On the day before the conference began, I sat on my bed, mosquito net wrapped in a knot above my head, reading Scripture, going over epistles from other Quaker gatherings, and asking God what it was I had to say. I reread the conference theme, from 1 Samuel 16:7: "The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." I thought back to the 2008 FGC Gathering when Bainito spoke about the story of David and Goliath as a powerful lesson for young Friends, and to a few weeks before I left when Deborah Fisch and I reviewed the story in 1 Samuel. Words came. I wrote. It flowed.
I continued talking with people and returning to the piece. I read it to my friend Holly, and she helped me see the parts that didn’t make sense. I spoke to John Lomuria, a Kenyan Friend I met while he was in the States for the Quakers Uniting in Publications youth book editorial board meeting, about the vision of YQCA and the issues younger Friends are struggling with in Kenya. He told me that younger Friends are trying to heal the divides caused by tribal divisions and unite all 17 yearly meetings in Kenya. He asked me to encourage younger Friends to take on leadership in the church and to share with them the ways young Quakers are coming together now in the United States.
I worked late into the night, reworking sentences, taking paragraphs out, and praying to God to take away my fear. During the next two days, I was on a rollercoaster of trust and doubt—both in myself and in God. After hearing so many powerful messages from Friends, what could I possibly say—what could I possibly give? But even in those difficult moments, God was always there, right next to me on the rollercoaster as I laughed and as I cried.
When I walked into the large room assigned for the workshop, there were already people waiting for me. We arranged chairs in a circle that continued to get bigger as more Friends entered. Even up until that moment, I wrestled with what I was going to say and what activities I would lead. I knew when I saw the 60 people gathered, including the entire Chwele Yearly Meeting youth choir (30 young people from 8 to 20 years old), that I needed an activity that would engage a lot of people. I had learned that women, especially young women, did not often speak up in groups, and that the older Friends tended to speak up more in general.
So I asked for help. As we arranged chairs, I asked a young girl to come sit beside me. Her friends giggled nervously, but she accepted the invitation. We went around introducing ourselves and giving names of our yearly meetings. During the go-around, I asked the little girl in a whisper if she would open our time with a prayer, and after a few giggles, she agreed. She spoke softly, saying a quick prayer with the most beautiful Swahili words I’d ever heard.
I was momentarily surprised that she spoke in Swahili. Since most of the conference was in English, I’d forgotten that many of the young people were not as comfortable with English (I was humbled to learn that by the time most Kenyans learn English they are trilingual, having first learned their tribal language, then the national language of Swahili, and then English). I was reminded that I needed to speak slowly and to the point so that Friends wouldn’t have to struggle to understand the words.
At the same time, the little girl showed me the power beyond words. She gave me such a gift by accepting my invitation and having the courage to pray for our time together in front of so many people. I didn’t understand her words, but she spoke to my heart.
I am not sure exactly what I said next. What follows is a combination of what I remember happening and what was in my prepared notes for the talk. I began with a story and song I learned at the 2008 young adult Friends conference on Living as Friends, Listening Within. At that time, I said, 100 young Quakers had come together from 20 different yearly meetings to talk about our faith and how we are living God’s call in our lives. On the last night, we sat in unprogrammed worship for two hours. Friends spoke powerful messages, and we all listened, feeling God’s presence all around and inside us. Then one Friend began to sing. Rising up together, we held hands and sang as one body: "We are rising up, like a phoenix from the fire, brothers and sisters spread your wings and fly higher. We are rising up. We are rising up."
I invited Friends to join me in singing, and we sang it together a few times.
I picked up my notebook and a Bible, and I walked to the middle of the circle.
I read 1 Samuel 16:7: "But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’" (NRSV)
God knows us deeply, I continued. God knows who we were, who we are, who we will be. God looks on the heart. And later in this story, God chose David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons. And David, as a young man, conquered the giant Goliath with a sling and a stone.
Yes, we can. With God’s help, we can do many things.
As Quakers, we know that God can speak and work through us, no matter our age. Whereas humans can get distracted by someone’s age, gender, or appearance and not listen to that person, God sees to our hearts. God knows our potential.
With God’s help, yes, we can.
In the United States, I continued, there is a movement of younger Friends who are gathering together to discern God’s will for their lives. Young Friends from all five "flavors" of Quakers are coming together to learn from one another and to see how God is leading us as individuals and a whole body. In 2007, 100 young adult Friends came to a conference to discern what we are called to as young Quakers. We were from different yearly meetings and different parts of the country. Although we were all Quakers, we did not have one common theology or form of worship. We couldn’t agree on what made someone a Quaker and what did not. On the last night, an incredible thing happened. Even though our disagreements divided us, God broke through and bathed us in love. It was clear in that moment of worship that we were called to love one another. By embracing and loving each other with all of our differences and similarities, we experienced the love of God.
With God’s help, yes, we can.
I was walking around, trying to make eye contact with each Friend in the room. Some Friends chanted "Yes, we can." I read excerpts from two Friends’ experiences of the conference. Then I returned to the Bible:
1 Corinthians 13:1-3: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (NRSV)
We must act in Love, I continued. We must let go of our judgments and stereotypes. We must try to see to the hearts of people, living God’s love every day. We must learn to trust one another. It doesn’t matter if we grew up in one area, if our worship style is unprogrammed or programmed, if we are a man or a woman, or if we are young or old. We must come together in God’s love.
God gives each of us different spiritual gifts to do this work. If people of all ages come together, with what each is given, we can bring God’s kingdom here on Earth. We need each other, young and old. No one person is less than any other. Young people have powerful gifts to bring to the Quaker church and the world. We must work together, as one body.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. . . . If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. —1 Corinthians 12:12-26 (NRSV)
Let’s come together, I continued. Let us look to the hearts of our brothers and sisters and see God’s love. Whenever you get discouraged, just remember: "Yes, we can."
We must believe it. We must really believe it. Obama’s victory gave us hope. We can make change. When Obama won, many people of all ages and races were dancing in the streets of Philadelphia and all over the world, chanting, "Yes, we can," and, "Yes, we did."
You can do this. We can do this, together.
I went back to my seat to put down my notes. With such a large group of people, I realized that the best way to engage everyone might be to play a game where we could all participate. A few days before I had toyed with the idea of playing "A Big Wind Blows," but I wasn’t sure if it would translate across cultures. At that moment, it was the game that came to me.
I’ve explained "A Big Wind Blows" many times, but this time I tied it into the theme of the conference. I asked everyone to try to see to the heart of another person. I encouraged the person in the middle of the circle to share something that helped us see to his or her heart, something not visible to our eyes. The example I used was, "My name is Emily and a Big Wind blows for anyone who loves to play soccer." Though it was not an extremely deep sharing, I thought it might surprise some people who probably couldn’t tell that I loved sports from just looking at me. I explained that if what was said applied to you, you had to get up and find another seat. The person left without a seat would be the next to share.
It took a little while to get going, but what finally got everyone on their feet was "a Big Wind blows for anyone who loves Jesus." I smile as I write this, thinking about the contagious laughter of the choir members as they ran to new seats or wrestled with someone else for a chair. Adults were also laughing and pushing to get to a seat. Friends in other workshops heard the laughter and came in to watch. We played for over 30 minutes, until we were told that workshops were over.
During the rest of the conference, there were a few times everyone was asked to move the chairs back in a circle. In one of those transitions, I heard someone whisper, "Yes, we can," possibly in hopeful anticipation of playing another game of "A Big Wind Blows." I couldn’t help but smile.
I don’t know what each person took away from the workshop or what did or didn’t translate. I realize that I might not have communicated well with words, but I hope they saw to my heart. I felt God’s love in their willingness to listen and play with me, and in their contagious laughter that carried throughout the conference center. I felt so blessed to be in that room and so happy that I had said yes to the invitation. I know now it was never just me on the roller-coaster. When I think back to that December morning, I can see God smiling beside me, and feel God’s love radiating from the laughter of Friends playing together.