Listening in Tongues

Members of Christ Is the Answer Friends Church. Photos courtesy of the author.

Translation to Transformation

The first time they came to meeting for worship, they arrived at 2:30 p.m., after having navigated the limited bus transportation system in our city of Buffalo, New York. We were long gone from our rented space, so they returned home. The next time they arrived, it was a complete surprise to all of us gathered there. A Quaker refugee family, they came to this country from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by way of a refugee camp in Kenya. Catholic Charities brought them to the United States but hadn’t notified us they were coming. The father, Ndanga Ramazani, was a Quaker pastor in the Evangelical Friends tradition. He spoke French, Swahili, and his native dialect, but very little English. His wife, Feza, spoke almost no English at all, nor did their seven children, ranging in age from 4 to 15.

We embraced them and began to help them navigate numerous social systems, helped tutor the children, drove them to appointments, and helped Ndanga enroll in college. (Due to a lack of funds, he had been unable to graduate from a bachelor’s program in Bible and theology in Kenya.) Over the years, both Ndanga and his eldest daughter, Regine, earned college degrees. Regine has now enrolled in a master’s program in social work at Buffalo State College. Ndanga works with social services as a social worker, where his French, Swahili, and now, English language skills make him valuable to the many immigrants coming to the Buffalo area. In addition, he has become a pastor here.

Around 2016, a group of Congolese refugees (Buffalo has many) who were worshiping in various Protestant churches approached Ndanga and asked him to start a Quaker church so that they could worship the way they used to in the Congo. They wanted to hear ministry in their native Swahili, and to worship with the hymns, testimonies, and preaching they were familiar with. Ndanga approached us, and we helped him rent space in the same building where we worship. Their worship was held on Sunday afternoon and ran for several hours. Christ Is the Answer International Fellowship was born. It grew quickly, outstripping the size of our morning unprogrammed worship. Ndanga and several members of his family continued to worship with us, as well as attend their own services. In 2020 before the pandemic, 60 or more people attended on a Sunday afternoon. Regine organized late August gatherings where mothers learned about health issues, kids were given free haircuts, and every child went home with a backpack filled with school supplies. In this year of COVID-19, she is fundraising so that younger children can have access to tablets for the city’s totally remote school start.

A year after starting the church, the refugees approached Ndanga to ask if their church could become an official Quaker church. As refugees, the need to belong to something official seemed important: another way to have roots in their new country. Buffalo Meeting met with Ndanga and his co-leaders and minuted our approval of them as a preparative meeting. Members of Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), the New York Yearly Meeting general secretary, Friends Peace Teams, and members of our meeting attended at various times. We were always seated near someone who could translate for us during the service. When asked to bring a message, I was able to deliver it in English with a translator at my side. I ended my message with two passages from the Psalms. The first was from Psalm 100:1: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.” Their worship service embodied this psalm. The second quote was from Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” I ended by saying that both our forms of worship were affirmed in Scripture. Their worship form and their theology couldn’t have been more different from ours, but we found room for one another.

Baragumu choir. The pastor of Christ Is the Answer Friends Church, Ndanga Ramazani, is on the right.

Two years later, they felt ready to become their own monthly meeting. This required some discernment because so many of them couldn’t read our Faith and Practice due to the language barrier. Knowledge of our business practices and our testimonies was not available to them. In addition, there were strong cultural issues. Throughout much of Africa, homosexuality is a crime. As a matter of integrity, we felt it was critical that they know what we claim as our experience with regards to this and other issues.

The general secretary of New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) suggested I apply for a grant to get NYYM Faith and Practice translated into Swahili and suggested the Thomas H. and Mary Shoemaker Fund as a possible source. This translation seemed like a large part of the solution, and we were fortunate enough to receive the grant. Research led us to a translation service, and when the draft came back, we asked Ndanga to read it and confirm that it was a good translation. He said it was, and now, after printing, every family in Ndanga’s congregation owns a copy of Imani na Matendo, and the church holds monthly discussions about this. But is that enough?

Our meeting wrote a letter of support for designating Christ Is the Answer as a new meeting in the region, and presented it to NYYM in the Fall Gathering in October. This accompanied a letter from Christ Is the Answer International Fellowship requesting status as a monthly meeting. In addition, scholarship help from Powell House (the conference and retreat center for NYYM), we sponsored Regine and Ndanga’s attendance at the “Clerking with Joy and Confidence” workshop, co-led by Arthur Larrabee and Steve Mohlke. But is that enough?

Sometimes the vocal ministry of others does not speak to us, but we listen in tongues, believing that it is a message for someone else; that we have not heard it clearly; or that the speaker, like us, is using the imperfect tool of language to express some deeper truth. We accept the responsibility for listening carefully, without judgment or assumptions, in order to discern the truth of another or to let it go because it does not feel meant for us. 

After careful reflection and thought, I have to say no; it is not enough. I want to explain why this whole process of translation of text and acceptance of differences feels necessary but not sufficient. Translation is not enough; particularly in our faith tradition, it is not enough.

I first heard the phrase “listening in tongues” at a local interfaith group that I was part of for almost two decades. (I heard it again in Robin Mohr’s excellent QuakerSpeak video.) Serving first on the board of governors and then as president, I learned a great deal about listening in tongues. I understood this phrase to mean something like empathic listening: listening with the heart, not the rational mind. It is tempting when learning about another faith to listen and then mentally say something like, “Oh, your word for God is Allah; or oh, your word for God is Adonai; I get it.” This is not only a disservice to true understanding but contains the danger of hubris. The implication of this thinking is that God’s real name is God and these other words are just other names for the real thing.

When learning a new language, there is little harm in thinking, “Oh, your word for ‘cat’ is gato or chat.” Translation is simple and names an observable phenomenon. But when it comes to words like “God,” “salvation,” or “Inner Light,“ we are dealing with language in a different way entirely. So mere translation is not sufficient.

There are at least three other problems unique to our faith that make understanding between traditions even more difficult. These are our testimonies of ongoing revelation, discernment of God’s will for us, and where we locate authority.

Ongoing revelation means that our truth can shift to introduce, reflect, and absorb new information, new cultures, and new practices into our midst. The current work on antiracism is an example. Was it always a problem? Yes. Did we lift it up to its rightful place in our corporate concerns? We did not. Have we learned and changed? Pray God, we have. We also practice ongoing revelation as individuals. We trust that God is able to speak to us directly and show us what is true. Friends may also use Scripture and corporate discernment to confirm or challenge their sense of what has been revealed. The example of James Nayler shows how important such confirmation can be.

Ongoing revelation can lead to problems in translation. Several simple examples will suffice: many of us now find the term “oversight” painful and hear it differently now from what we did decades ago. Same-sex marriage, formerly seen as sin, is now the law of the land. Many Friends have embraced gender fluidity that goes far beyond male/female designations. Again, the words can no longer be translated in the “old” way but have gained new meanings.

Discernment of God’s will requires listening for the “still, small voice” within. Sometimes the vocal ministry of others does not speak to us, but we listen in tongues, believing that it is a message for someone else; that we have not heard it clearly; or that the speaker, like us, is using the imperfect tool of language to express some deeper truth. We accept the responsibility for listening carefully, without judgment or assumptions, in order to discern the truth of another or to let it go because it does not feel meant for us. In this regard, I love the quote by Eden Grace in one of the QuakerSpeak videos. In discussing discernment around the color of a new carpet in the meetinghouse, she says, “God cares about us as a community walking through that process together, the spiritual fruits that can come from seeking deep unity on the choice of a carpet. It’s not about the carpet, it’s about the transformation of the world through the choice of a carpet.” Discernment allows us to treat each other with respect, even when what is said doesn’t “translate” into ideas we recognize.

Finally, our faith locates final authority in God’s inner presence within each person. It is not in the words of Scripture, though we may seek Scripture for guidance or corroboration. It is not located in a papal authority or even a pastoral authority. We have no written creed that all can learn and practice. Ours is an experiential faith; as George Fox said, “This I knew experimentally.” This experience cannot be translated. It is this experience of the Holy that we believe has the final say. It draws close to the mystic heart of Christianity. And the mystics universally use metaphor and analogy to point to their unitive experience. Fox has dozens of metaphors for the point at which the soul and the Divine are in communion. When translated literally into another language, many of them, such as “Christ Seed” or “Inner Light” may have little meaning. Isaac Penington describes the Seed as the “vessel, the only vessel which containeth this life.” How is a seed also a vessel?

NYYM Faith and Practice in Swahili and English.

So, where does this leave us? Translation of our Faith and Practice is necessary but not sufficient. Our faith requires listening in tongues, but it requires one thing more: If we are to be faithful to ongoing revelation, discernment, and Inner Authority based on experience, others must see in our lives these principles at work. A saying often misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I doubt that Fox had much use for St. Francis, though if he were to choose a saint, I think the barefoot, brown-robed friar might appeal to him. But Fox, in his own way, says the same thing when he admonishes us to “answer that of God in everyone.”

In the decade since the Ramazani family’s arrival, I have reflected many times on the activities of translation and listening in tongues. In Corinthians 13:12, there is the lovely phrase “to know even as also I am known.” That is to say, there is complete, immediate understanding. This is what we mean when we try to listen in tongues. We seek to listen as Papunehang, a chief of the Delaware tribe, did when John Woolman, who spoke no Lenape, ministered to his tribe in English. Papunehang was able to say, “I love to feel where the words come from.” This is listening in tongues. And that we can do without translation.

Sue Tannehill

Sue Tannehill became a member of Buffalo (N.Y.) Meeting in 1992 knowing she had finally found her spiritual home. She carries a concern for interfaith work and translating Quaker business practices into other settings. She has served as clerk for both her meeting and her region.

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