Rising up: Ministry at the World Gathering of Friends

Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:9)

It was a roommate  who first called me a “Quaker lightning rod” a few years ago. The description is apt: I feel God’s presence strongly in my life, and this can be hazardous to those around me. Those near me sometimes get zapped―hit with a message in meeting for worship, conscripted to be my elder, or inadvertently caught in the middle of a firestorm.

At the same time, I also experience grace when I minister, a feeling that I am in the right place at the right time. That grace often appears in the form of finding people; I will set out to look for a particular person and, without knowing how, walk directly to that person. When that happened on the first day of the World Conference of Friends (finding my roommate immediately in an auditorium filled with hundreds of people), I had the sense it was going to be a powerful week of ministry.

The world conference was sponsored by Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). It began on Tuesday, April 17, 2012, and lasted until Wednesday, April 25. The conference took place at Kabarak University, close to Nakuru, Kenya, the country with the largest Quaker population in the world. Nearly 850 Friends attended, gathering from meetings and churches in 51 countries. I was the only person from Freedom Friends Church of Salem, Oregon, but I knew many Friends at the conference, including several who were also from the Pacific Northwest.

I hadn’t realized how much I had expected depth in worship until I got to the conference and could not find it. There was a lot of worship, but it was not always the deep well of living water that I craved. Each morning after breakfast, one of the sections led an hour and a half of worship and reflection on the theme. Although each of those mornings had some worshipful elements, I mostly experienced them as plenaries.

There was also a half hour of unprogrammed worship each morning before breakfast, and I struggled there as well, for a variety of reasons. Half an hour is only long enough to get settled. By the time I felt that we were ready to worship, the time was up. Additionally, the translation in the early worship was consecutive (unlike in the later, larger worship, where it was usually simultaneous). That meant that we heard each message three times: in English, French, and Spanish. I was glad for the interpretation, and it was meaningful to hear the messages in different languages―I speak Spanish but not French―though it meant that we had much less silence than had the ministry been in only one language. There was also frequent ministry in the early worship: four or more messages in a half hour. I did not go to the early meeting every day; some days, I felt led to pray on my own.

On Thursday morning, I did go to early worship and was given a message. Sometimes I know in advance when I am going to speak; this was not one of those times. I suddenly felt led to speak but hesitated (as I often do), and in that moment, another Friend stood and ministered. After the interpretation into Spanish and French had ended, I questioned whether I should speak. I did not want to contribute to the problem of back-to-back messages in the early worship but still felt clear that I had a message to deliver. So I stood and spoke.

The heart of my message was one that I had been carrying for three years: you have everything you need. I said that I had first received that message at the FWCC Section of the Americas meeting in 2009 but had not given it then because I had been afraid and unsure. I shared how the message had stayed with me and that it was still true: you have everything you need.

After I sat down, the message was first translated into French and then into Spanish; two things stood out. First, the Friend interpreting stated that I had not delivered the message originally because I had been unfaithful. That stung, but I knew it was true. Second, the interpreter relayed the message in this way: I have everything I need. My automatic reaction was, “That’s not what I said!” But as I sat with the message, I knew that was also right. Talking with the interpreter later, I found that he had heard me, but by the time he spoke, he felt that it was important to speak in the first person. I agreed that he had been faithful in delivering the message as he did.

* * *

On Monday morning, the worship was organized by the Europe and Middle East Section. A Friend from Britain gave a powerful, prepared message about brokenness. As part of the message, the Friend asked all those who felt broken or hurting to stand, and it seemed that everyone in the room got up. The prepared message was followed by half an hour of unprogrammed worship―up to that point, the longest time of unprogrammed worship we had had as a full group.

Unfortunately, the prepared message led to worship sharing rather than true worship. People stood up, one after another, to speak―first stating their names and then some way that they felt hurt or broken, or offering some consolation. After four or five of those messages, I felt a leading to stand. Sitting next to my friend Aimee McAdams (member of Northwest Yearly Meeting, attending Northern Yearly Meetings), I told her that I might have to stand up. She sat with me as I wrestled with the leading, and when she put her hand on my back, she could feel my heart pounding through my shirt.

Finally, I stood. I felt a hand from behind on my shoulder that seemed to push me down, but I kept standing. Someone else gave a message. I kept standing. Then Aimee told me that someone was at the end of the row with a microphone, and she asked if I was ready.

I leaned over to her and said, “I don’t have a message.”

Aimee’s jaw dropped, but she handed me the microphone anyway. And then began a few of the longest minutes of my life. I felt clear to stand with the microphone and was just as clear that I was not to speak. The room filled with silence, a deep, rich silence.

It didn’t take long for others to realize what I was doing, and then I began to feel pressure to give up the microphone. Although I had my eyes closed, I knew that someone was waiting for the microphone at the end of the row, but I was not clear to give it up. Aimee whispered that the microphone runner really wanted the microphone back, but I just shook my head. The pressure was incredible, but I was determined to hold my ground. A minute later, the runner climbed over a seat to recover the microphone from me. He said, “Thank you for your ministry, Friend,” as he took the microphone from my hand.

Another Friend began to minister, and I collapsed in tears. I felt overwhelmed by what I had done. I felt that I had been faithful in delivering the message I was given but that it was incomplete. Giving up the microphone felt unfaithful, even though I didn’t know what else I could have done. I sat and cried, and Aimee sat with me in my pain.

Eventually, I stopped crying and became aware of my surroundings again. I looked up at the ceiling and saw a bird perched on one of the lights. I pointed it out to Aimee. She looked at me and whispered back, “Three birds flew in while you were standing; they were flying around and chirping.”

The worship ended with singing and announcements. Afterward, I felt weak and vulnerable, as I often do after giving a message, and I stayed in my seat. Several Friends came over and thanked me for my ministry. The microphone runner also came over to apologize, saying he knew he had caused me distress. I needed to eat something and desperately wanted some tea, yet I could not face all of the people gathered for teatime outside the auditorium. While another Friend sat with me, Aimee went to see if the pastoral care room was open. It was, so she escorted me there and fed me tea and cookies.

* * *

On the last morning of the conference, I went again to early worship. Two older men very calmly gave vocal ministry about fire. I could hear the Spirit in their messages and suddenly knew that I would be giving a message that morning. It was clear that the message was not for this early worship but for the larger meeting after breakfast.

I also knew that I needed people to pray for me. I looked around the room and saw some Friends that I might be able to find after the rise of meeting. I then realized that I needed to ask everyone there to pray for me. In the time for announcements, I stood saying that I might be led to speak in worship and asked for prayers that I would be able to deliver my message faithfully. Some Friends gathered on the spot to pray for me, putting their hands on my head and shoulders. A friend told me that when I was speaking, my face was glowing.

By the time I got back to my dorm, I was a shaking mess. My roommate Alex Zinnes (Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting) took one look at me and asked what was wrong. I told her that I thought I had a message, and I felt terrible. I knew I needed to eat, but I wasn’t hungry. Alex instructed me to go to breakfast and said, “Being grounded is your work this morning.” I went to the dining hall and immediately saw Aimee and Sharon Frame (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting) sitting at a table. I filled them in. Sharon told me to get some breakfast as well as a lunch with two hard-boiled eggs in it, so I did.

As I ate breakfast, Aimee and I discussed whether she’d be willing to elder for me in worship that morning. She was uncertain of her role, so I told her that it was essentially what she had been doing in the worship on Monday. She agreed to sit with me. Lucy Fullerton (North Pacific Yearly Meeting), then joined us. I was blessed to have Lucy as an elder: after serving on my support committee for two years, she knows how I am when I do ministry. Aimee, Lucy and I sat together as I continued to struggle with the message. It was strange being in a different place from most of the people around me who were taking last-minute photos and saying goodbyes.

As Lucy and I walked back to the dorm, I told her the parts of the message that I had so far; it felt like a strong, prophetic message, but I did not have a sense of it as a whole. Returning to the auditorium, we ran into Aimee. I realized that I had forgotten my water bottle and I knew that I would need water, so I asked Aimee to find some.  As Lucy also had an errand to run before worship, I told them where I would be sitting and then went into the auditorium to wait.

Finally, worship began. Lucy and Aimee sat on either side of me and held my hands when I needed it. Like the earlier meetings for open worship, this one had many messages, but this time, most of the messages spoke to me. They seemed to build upon each other. I sat and waited, shaking and crying, as I felt the message forming. Finally, I turned to Aimee and said, “I have the message; I just need the space to give it.”

Aimee responded, “You may have to make the space yourself.”

Then it was time. I stood, and the microphone runner came directly to me. Before giving the message, I asked Friends to help me deliver it. I said:

In the Bible, when angels appear to people, the first thing they say is, “Do not be afraid.” The people are afraid because they are seeing something they have never seen before. But angels bring tidings of comfort and joy. Do not be afraid.

Over the past week, I have seen the ways that you have brought comfort and joy to each other in your words and the ways that you have cared for each other. But I have also heard your fear: fear of the future, fear of what will happen to the Religious Society of Friends, fear of what will happen to our planet. Do not be afraid.

We have heard many times this week that the kingdom of God is here and is coming. The Bible tells us that before we enter the kingdom of God, we will pass through the refiner’s fire. The refiner’s fire is painful, but it burns up what is bad and leaves behind only what is good and pure and true. Do not be afraid.

On the day of Pentecost, the members of the early Church gathered in a room together to wait for God. Then the Spirit of God came down upon them with tongues of fire on their foreheads. They did not stay in the room, but went out into the street. The people who saw them were afraid of them because of the fire and because they were speaking in strange languages, but when they saw that the fire did not consume them, they drew closer and began to listen.

Do not be afraid.

After giving the message, I stood for a minute to make sure that was all I had to give, then I handed the microphone back and sat down. I listened to the next message but then felt clear to leave. It is out of character for me to leave worship early, but I felt empty, tired, and needing to take care of myself. So I told Lucy and Aimee that I wanted to go, and we all left. A couple hours later, I got on a bus to begin the long journey home.

Ashley M. Wilcox

Ashley M. Wilcox is presiding clerk of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon, and a graduate of the School of the Spirit Ministry's program "On Being a Spiritual Nurturer." She carries a concern for supporting ministers in the Religious Society of Friends, and writes regularly about her spiritual journey on her blog, questforadequacy.blogspot.com.

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