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Seeking Salt and Light Among Friends

Exploring Quakerism Around the World

In April of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend the Sixth World Conference of Friends held at Kabarak University in Nakuru, Kenya. This was hosted by the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). The theme of the gathering was: “Being Salt and Light, Friends Living the Kingdom of God in a Broken World.”

Kenya is a beautiful country with many wonderful sites. The people there live very simply. They were eager to share what they had and were quite proud of their Quaker churches. The conference was like a large family reunion, a chance to meet distant relatives for the first time. Like any other Friends conference, there was a joyful, infectious sense of spiritual hospitality.

I went to this gathering with the intention of meeting and interviewing Quakers whose traditions were very different than mine. I come from a very liberal wing within the Religious Society of Friends. We put much less emphasis on Biblical teachings, and there is little conformity expected in our beliefs.

I expected that many, if not most, of the Friends I would meet in Africa, would have a much different outlook. I was eager to hear about what being a Quaker means for people from around the world.

What does it mean to you to be a Quaker or a member of a Friends church?

Lenod Ilondanga – Lirhanda Central Yearly Meeting – Kenya

“A Quaker in our understanding, from the Kenyan perspective, a Quaker is a member of a Christian community that believes that there is only one God and this is the God that created Heavens and Earth; and all that is within and even us human beings. And, this is the same God who gave his son Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross.”

Moses Bigirimana – Burundi Friends Church

“Being a Quaker or a Friend means to me that you are someone who has chosen the Biblical morals, someone who is there to be more practical than theoretical, someone who is not just there to observe some traditions – religious traditions. But just to be, to live the kind of life which reflects some Christianity; Christian values: humility, love, sharing; but attending to some other people who are in need. Also, also, spread the Gospel because it is freeing. It is freeing people who have spiritual problems.”

Rather than giving a definition some people responded with how it affects them personally or what they valued about being a Friend.

Judith Vargas – Reunion General Amigos – Mexico

“It’s really a blessing because I can count on them and they will accept me just as I am.”

Judy Rangnes – Norway Yearly Meeting

“For me, Quakerism is a way for me to develop my personal relationship with God, in a supportive community. And it’s a way that functions, that works well for me. I became a Quaker at the age of six, or my family did, so it’s very familiar.”

Some Friends I met at the conference had never even heard of the term “Quaker” before, which for most of us in the west is synonymous with the Religious Society of Friends. In other circles some equate the word Quaker with just those Friends who practice unprogrammed or silent worship.

Pradip Lamichhane – Nepal Yearly Meeting

“In Nepal the Friends started through Evangelical Friends; and then they were brought up only the evangelical way. I didn’t know anything about Quakers, Quaker practice, and Quaker belief. So after that, now, the thing which I believed before and now is different. Ok. So now being a Quaker to me is – it’s simplicity, equality, and peace; and doing, and serving peoples from where I am, and how I can.”

A commitment to making the world a better place was an important part of being a Friend to everyone I spoke to.

Aimee McAdams – Twin Cities Friends Meeting – Minnesota

“Being a Quaker means having a direct relationship with God, with Jesus, and being able to go to God for whatever I need. But it also means, to me, being part of an incredible community, an incredibly diverse community that I can’t even quite describe. It also means activities of peace and social justice and thinking about other people and things that are going on in the world; and trying to be aware of our whole community – the worldwide community.”

For many, being a part of the Religious Society of Friends is about personal transformation and a connection to the Divine.

Ruben Hilare – Santidad Amigos – Bolivia

“Being a Quaker is kind of a unique thing, especially our experience of God which is so important for our lives. And so, being a child of God is such a wonderful thing in our lives.”

Anna Baker – North Valley Friends Church – Oregon

“The personal connection with God is important, Jesus the present teacher is important to me.”

Neithard Petry – German Yearly Meeting

“I am finding the way of getting to silence, and to seeing what comes up, is a very good way of putting my little ego aside and hopefully coming up with solutions to my answers and solutions to my problems in a better way than if I only would listen to my little ego talking to me.”

Kenneth Ching Po Co – Hong Kong Monthly Meeting

“You know not just the victims, but also the victimizer has that of God in them. Sometimes it is pretty hard because one example comes to mind in the Norwegian man. (I don’t remember his name.) But, he killed some 77 people; and he’s still adamant that he has done nothing wrong. To see him as part of me; or to see him as the same “that of God” as that of me, sometimes it is pretty difficult. So that to me is what it means to be Quaker.”

Irina Sadykhova – Moscow Monthly Meeting

“To be a Quaker, for me, it means to be faithful, to love my friends and even other people, and to be very respectful for them because now I am aware that God is in every person.”

During the conference we heard about the challenges of various Friends’ communities around the world. We heard from survivors of horrific crimes, genocide, apartheid, and environmental and economic catastrophes. Many meetings are challenged by young people who experiment with drugs or who abandon a life of faith altogether. We heard about the impending split of one yearly meeting over questions of centralized authority and the issue of marriage equality.

In some places Quaker communities are growing. This brings different challenges as Friends traditions evolve to accommodate new ideas. Some young people want to see more rituals in their worship such as dance and even water baptism. In other places there is a movement towards convergence. This is the melding of various Quaker traditions which often combines Christ-centered theology with progressive social action.

Being Salt & Light: Friends Living the Kingdom of God in a Broken World

Using the Biblical references of Salt and Light was not only a good way to explore our faithfulness in difficult times, it also helped me to look for those threads that bind our diverse communities.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if that salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again?” —Matthew 5:13

Lenod Ilondanga – Lirhanda Central Yearly Meeting – Kenya

“The most important thing I can remember very well about salt is that this salt is a preservative among all other important things that it does. And being a preservative it preserves food from going bad. And if I can put it practically in our lives, we as Christians, we should be able to help those things that are getting rotten either in our homes or in our communities or as individuals. There are some behaviors that are rotten or there are some other behaviors that we do that are not good or that our friends do in our community that are not good. We, as Christians, we should stand firm and try to preserve God’s word; or we preserve this human being from getting rotten, so that we can be Salt to the world.”

Judith Vargas – Reunion General Amigos – Mexico

“For me being Salt and Light means transformation. Inner transformation that grows outward.”

Moses Bigirimana – Burundi Friends Church

“So if we are the salt this means there is something that people are looking at and appreciate in us. They see us as different people. We are people who can make a difference in economy, in politics, in social life…”

Irina Sadykhova – Moscow Monthly Meeting

“When I read the Bible I realized the wide wisdom of these words, because Salt and Light are the basic conditions of life in general and both these factors are obviously necessary for all living beings. So for me, to my mind to be Salt and Light in this broken time, it means to be needed, to be required, to be involved in social and political work purposes of our lives and at the same time to be helpful for people in everyday activities.”

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others…” —Matthew 5:14-16

If there is one concept which represents the multifaceted personality of the Religious Society of Friends it is that of the Light.

Neithard Petry – German Yearly Meeting

“… the Light is something where I think—I like to make lots of jokes, I like to engage people in light conversation and just making life easy in confronting them or not… basically to make life easy for them and in that way I think in the personal encounters I try to be a little bit of Light. And sometimes that works and I think everyone’s happy, including me then.”

Agita Zake – Latvia Worship Group

“I understand Light as a primal subtle force. That force comes down to more rote levels creating all that is solid, all that is the material world; and so it creates everything that is. And salt for me is a kind of a crystal, a crystal that can reflect light. Light refracting through the crystal makes all the colors of the rainbow as different as all the world’s people are different and as Quakers we are very different. And we as the crystals can reflect Light in each in our colors, our beliefs, our life.”

Edwinna Assan – Hill House Meeting – Ghana

“I found it as a lot of pressure on us as Christians, because you have to be really special to be seen as Salt and Light among other Christians. So if it is expected of you to be Salt and Light then there is a lot you have to do to preserve the world in different manners. You have to have good values that people look up to as a human being, and then with every group that you belong to, not only with the Religious Society of Friends. Whichever work you do, whichever employment in which you find yourself; you have to show the value that you have, and the testimonies that we have as Quakers. It’s not very easy. But if you are able to go with the simplicity, equality; if you look at it and you apply them in the broken world that we have now, I think it is a good opportunity for us to rethink what we do.”

What unites us as one Religious Society of Friends?

Within the Religious Society of Friends we have distinct variety in our worship and organizational practices. Like most of the world’s religions we have a full spectrum of social and political leanings, from very conservative to very liberal. There is no one theology that we conform to. In fact, some of our members do not believe in God at all.

For some Friends this diversity separates us and erodes our traditions, making us a broken society. Many think of their own brand of Quakerism as the only one and simply choose not to think about the others at all.

Organization of Friends Communities

Organization of Friends Communities

Note: Groups on the left of this chart tend to be socially liberal, and those on the right tend to be socially conservative. Conservative Yearly Meetings are independent and are not affiliated with the other organizations. Convergent Friends do not yet have a formal organization. They are mostly young adult Friends who gather in worship, retreats, and fellowship groups and may or may not be members of a local Friends Meeting or church. Otherwise regional Yearly Meetings have chosen to affiliate with one of the other three groups. Some have dual affiliations. The Friends World Committee for Consultation brings all these different groups together for fellowship and outreach.

Anna Baker – North Valley Friends Church – Oregon

“I live in western United States where we have Evangelical Quakers on one end of the spectrum and Liberal Quakers who are very far away from Christianity on the other end. And for many people they don’t want anything to do with each other. But those of us who have crossed our own lines and gotten together with other Quakers, we have learned much from each other.”

So, is our society broken? Are we just one religion or a loose association of several?

This may always be the confused condition of our Religious Society. A common identity is probably never going to happen because at our core we are called to seek a direct experience of God that cannot be exactly duplicated from group to group. I believe we are one Religious Society of Friends because seeking is at the heart of who we are.

  1. We seek the inner Light – a direct relationship with our God.
  2. We seek continuing revelation of a Truth greater than our own.
  3. We seek ways to make the world a better place.

We may have varying definitions of these things. We may identify vastly different priorities, sources, and methods for living into these leadings. Yet, the very things we commonly seek are what can lead us to the transforming power of Love. And that is the only unity which really matters. Everything else flows from it.

I asked the people I interviewed to share some words of encouragement for anyone who might be watching. The following responses seem like they might be helpful for those considering the condition of our worldwide Religious Society of Friends.

Judith Vargas – Reunion General Amigos – Mexico

“We are experiencing the power of prayer. Right now in our city we are having hard times. And we are experiencing God’s hand. He’s moving through bad situations and we’re getting closer through praying.”

Neithard Petry – German Yearly Meeting

“Well the slogan, or the words of encouragement that I like very much I learned from the Buddhists. They often conclude their letters or their mail or their written communication, with the simple phrase of: “Be mindful and happy.” And I think this is a very direct and good wish to anybody.”

Kenneth Ching Po Co- Hong Kong Monthly Meeting

“It’s not the material possessions that make what we are. So I feel that saying “you always have what you need” is very true. And, if you live by that you will be much more happy – joyful.”

Judy Rangnes – Norway Yearly Meeting

“Friends have spoken a lot about Salt as flavor and protection and such things. I am more focused on the part about the broken world. Light of course coming from within; we’re familiar with that. Being a light for others; but in this broken world. I’ve recently been introduced to new concepts of breakage that inspire me. Not the dismal ideas of everything falling apart, but the good stuff about breaking your heart open to Jesus; and breaking out of bad patterns and breaking into new ways of being. There is a lot of hope. And we can do a lot together.”

Edwinna Assan – Hill House Meeting – Ghana

“We are one with the Spirit. We are one with the Lord.

We are one with the Spirit. We are one with the Lord.

We are one with the Spirit. We shall one day be restored.

We are one with the Spirit. We are one with the Lord.”

 

I’d like to thank all those who graciously participated in the interviews, to conference organizers, to my yearly meeting, and especially to my father, my husband, and my sisters and brothers at Wicomico River Friends Meeting for supporting this journey.

This documentary is a Friends Media Project, produced by Moonshell Productions.

Some Queries for Discussion

  1. What does being a member of the wider Religious Society of Friends mean to you?
  2. What meaning does the theme have for you? Being Salt & Light: Friends Living the Kingdom of God in a Broken World
  3. Are we one religion or a loose association of several? Does it matter?

Interview Clips

You can hear the responses to interview questions in English and in the home language of interview subjects at the links below. Not all of the interviewees answered every question and the questions have been removed to keep the clips short. These are the questions that were asked:

  1. What does being a Quaker or a member of a Friends church mean to you?
  2. What does the conference theme – Being Salt & Light: Friends Living the Kingdom of God in a Broken World – mean to you?
  3. I also asked Friends to tell some good news about their home meeting or church, and if they felt so called, to share any words of encouragement they might have to anyone watching their video.

Agita Zake – Latvia Worship Group

In English

In Latvian

Aimee McAdams – Twin Cities Friends Meeting – Minnesota

In English

Anna Baker – North Valley Friends Church – Oregon

In English

Edwinna Assan – Hill House Meeting – Ghana

In English

In Ghanaian

Irina Sadykhova – Moscow Monthly Meeting

In English

In Russian

Judith Vargas – Reunion General Amigos in Mexico

In English

In Spanish

Judy Rangnes – Norway Yearly Meeting

In English

In Norwegian

Kenneth Ching Po Co – Hong Kong Monthly Meeting

In English

In Putong Hua (Mandarin)

Lenod Ilondanga – Lirhanda Central Yearly Meeting, Kenya

In English

In Kiswahili

In Luhya

Moses Bigirimana – Burundi Friends Church

In English

In Kirundi

Neithard Petry – German Yearly Meeting

In English

In German

Pradip Lamichhane – Nepal Yearly Meeting

In English

In Nepalese

Ruben Hilare – Santidad Amigos – Bolivia

In English

In Aymara

In Spanish

 

Dana Kester-McCabe is a member of Wicomico River (Maryland) Meeting on the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. Documentary © 2013 Dana Kester-McCabe.

Find out more about the Sixth World Conference of Friends including another fine documentary chronicling the event at: http://www.saltandlight2012.org.

 


Posted in: Online Features, Video

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3 Responses to Seeking Salt and Light Among Friends

  1. Judy Reece August 7, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    City & State
    Kernesville NC
    This is a wonderful piece of art, Dana. We did not know you had gone but know you were an excellent representative of PYM.

    • Judy Reece August 7, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

      City & State
      Kernersville NC
      Dana, this is a wonderful work of art. We did not know that you went but are so glad you had this experience and let each of us be there with you.

  2. Dana Kester-McCabe August 12, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    City & State
    BIshopville, Maryland
    Thank you Judy – I feel so blessed to have had this experience and met so many wonderful people.

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