Strangers in a Strange Land

The story of my meeting is unusual, although I find it to be so in a typically Quaker manner. Rather than a recognized meeting, it is an informal, annual (on a good year, a biannual) gathering in the Serbian city of Novi Sad. We have about a dozen Friends who come mostly from Serbia and neighboring Hungary, countries which have only a symbolic Quaker presence. Some of us are expats from different Western countries, supported by a meeting back home; some of us are local, isolated Friends in the care of the International Membership Committee; others are fellow travelers, friends of Friends who come along and contribute to both our stories and our silence. Most of us have become convinced during our adult lives, each with a personal story that is a testament to overcoming obstacles and cutting no corners; to searching, exploring, and questioning. You will probably not find much, if any, information on us in online Quaker directories, but once or twice a year our modest gathering is the closest thing Serbia has to a regular meeting.

First-time comers always comment on the spirit of tolerance and acceptance, regardless of any personal differences. In this volatile part of the world, which is marred with nationalism, constantly heightened rhetoric, and frequent political unrest, the meeting is a place where one can safely be who one is, where all are equally valued and affirmed for their experiences and perspectives. For example, in the fall of 2010 a prominent Quaker LGBTQ (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer) activist from England visited us. She was witnessing, sharing, and charging batteries in anticipation of a difficult day that was to follow, a groundbreaking, gay pride event in the Serbian capital Belgrade (it sadly ended in outbursts of homophobic hatred, some of it promoted by traditional faith groups, and massive street violence). Before arriving, this activist had not known there were Quakers in Serbia, nor that our meeting was to be held the same week of her visit. She decided, however, to skip meetings and workshops in order to be with us in Novi Sad. Her presence enriched us, and I believe we, too, gave her encouragement and strength for her traveling ministry.

Our meeting is woven from coincidences like that one. Although residing in different locales across the region and sometimes not hearing from each other for weeks or months at a time, we find a common theme we can all readily identify with whenever we gather. One time we all arrived with thoughts and feelings of vulnerability. The gathered group was small, but the silent part of the meeting was powerful. It ended on an idyllic, picture-perfect note, with golden rays of autumn sunshine beaming onto our small circle through one of the windows. (Sometimes the experience of Light gets very in-your-face, perhaps at times when we need it the most.) Hands were held, after which our silent meeting turned into the customary afterthoughts session, a period of spoken reflection and discussion. A young woman spoke of a recent betrayal she had experienced in her life. Another, the pillar of our community, reflected on a persistent feeling of brokenness. Most people present that day would not have necessarily described themselves as religious, but the words of heartache, loss, thanksgiving, and perseverance all carried profound spiritual meaning. An atheist friend with no previous Quaker experience commented afterward that the meeting was great and not at all what she had expected based on reading the introductory leaflets. “Soothing” was another word she used. She went on to say that the next time we gathered I had to make sure she was invited.

I love that usual labels do not carry much weight in our meeting. An insight from a lifelong, Christ-centered Friend is on a par with that of a non-Quaker first-timer. For such a small group of people, we have a surprising wealth of religious backgrounds that precede our Quaker experience or develop alongside it. Among others, there are former or current Lutherans, Zen Buddhists, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans, some more and some less religious in the traditional meaning of the word and some not at all. Quakerism helps this mishmash of backgrounds and personal beliefs make sense. A person mentions tikkun olam in a sentence, and heads nod with approval and understanding. Or someone quotes a passage from George Fox, and in it are echoes from the Qur’an or Béla Hamvas or contemporary feminist theory or whatever else has been on our nightstands recently. There are often hilarious personal insights and experiences of the sort that probably did not seem so funny at a time they happened but now give us something to laugh about. What we bring to the table may seem disparate and mutually exclusive on the surface, irreverent even, but it all adds to a wonderful feast of thoughts and emotions that leaves me nourished and strengthened for weeks to follow. The term “isolated Friend” becomes purely technical. Physical distance notwithstanding, there can be no isolation in such richness of ideas, nor in the warmth of genuine, personal support.

My experience with this particular group of Friends has defined for me what it means to be a Quaker. It is not subscribing to a set of ideas, nor nominally belonging to a denomination, nor mainly about social activism and ministering to a hurting world, although Quakerism does entail all these, making it the unique religious culture that it is. What I have gleaned from others in my meeting is that, all denominational peculiarities aside, what makes us Friends is not unlike what makes us friends. It is about shared reverence toward our human condition and being mindful of both our strengths and our frailties. Everything else seems to stem from that: empathy, activism, and approach to the traditional Quaker testimonies. Meeting serves as an appointed time and place during which, enveloped by the Spirit, all the dichotomies of daily life (including the faith/practice dichotomy) can be safely put on hold and each person recognized, greeted, and affirmed as an integral whole, “wonderfully and fearfully made.”

I am reminded here of an observation made by the British author Patrick Gale that I could not agree with more: “Quakerism’s extremely plain, but it’s the least sanctimonious religion I’ve come across. You just have to believe in the potential for God or goodness in people. It is in many ways the ideal religion for the twenty-first century.” I am happy to say this describes my meeting very well, and I am sure others will recognize their communities in it as well, from fledgling Quaker groups of Eastern Europe to the established ones in the United Kingdom, United States, and elsewhere. It also describes the essence of our faith and what we are all about as a people who identify with a common religious background. The simplicity of our testimonies has served us well; making them a lived and shared experience is what will keep us going in the times to come.

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