My name is Jean-Hubert Hirwa. I live in Canada with my family, but I was born and grew up in Africa. Worship back home in Rwanda is all about dancing and preaching: what we know as Evangelical Friends or programmed Friends. Every single Sunday, I knew I would be listening to choirs singing, dancing, and sitting while someone was teaching us about a specific topic of the day. For years that’s how I worshiped.
In 2015 for the first time, I participated in an unprogrammed meeting in Brattleboro, Vermont. What a difference! I would say for more than half of the meeting, I was sleeping. It was a cultural shock, as I was used to the Evangelical way of worship. I remember just one person speaking in the whole hour we were in the meetingroom. After we finished the meeting, I started my presentation. During the meeting, one question was in my head: How can you do this year after year? I started doing more research about Quakerism, as what I was given was the only thing I knew about worshiping. With time I discovered that there was more than what I knew.
The next meeting day, I went to meeting, and it was the same story: meditating for 15 minutes and sleeping for the rest of the service. I have asked this question to many people and gotten different answers: What is the idea behind the silence? One of the members told me, “It’s only when I am silent I can listen to God speaking to me.” I kept thinking over and over about this. I kept asking myself if God doesn’t speak to me because I take so much time talking! After I was back in Rwanda with other youth, we started a semi-programmed service. In our minds, we wanted to bridge the gap between Friends; have a place where everyone would feel welcomed; and, of course, experience different ways of worshiping.
In 2013 I started working with the Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) program, a Friends organization. It was an eye-opening experience. One day as I was thinking about all these differences and what to do to bridge the gap, I remembered the Quaker core values of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. Everywhere I have been, whoever I have talked to—either unprogrammed or programmed—we all share these values. I kept seeing how I focused more on what we don’t do rather than what we have in common. Of course, now I enjoy the unprogrammed meetings as I do programmed worship. I am sure it will be as difficult for silent worshipers to experience programmed services, but all in all, we live for the same purpose. For those who believe in the life after, we won’t be judged by how much we sang, danced, or silently worshiped but by how we lived on this earth, which we can all do through the values we hold onto so tightly.
To conclude, there is a saying in my mother tongue: “A new hoe handle causes blisters.” Meaning change isn’t easy, but at the end of the day, you get used to it. Now I see the difference in our worship as a new opportunity for learning. I have been enjoying the silent worship, and it has improved me as a person. There have been so many Quaker programs that have brought together Friends from both programmed and unprogrammed meetings. Personally I worked with so many unprogrammed Friends, and in our work, our values always took center stage. I think the more we’re involved in Quaker programs—especially youth from different sections of Quakerism—there is a good opportunity to learn from one another. Promoting pilgrimage programs that bring together both programmed and unprogrammed Friends will help us embrace those differences as well teach us to focus more on our commonality, and grow through the process.