The spiritual life of the Society of Friends has long been nourished by visitation outside one’s own Meeting. Such visitation may be thought of by the visitor as “casual,” or as “concerned.” A casual visit should have some motive of concern—concern with the deepest values of friendship, of fellowship, and the life of the Spirit. Whether or not motivated by special mission, the visits of those who come in love and fellowship are likely to enrich those involved, and indeed the life of the Society.
There’s a man sitting in the back row of benches at Costa Rica’s Monteverde Meeting this Sunday, and he’s wearing a pouch slung across his midsection with a baby sloth (native to Central America) nestled inside, mute and dependent on his new foster mother. The sloth-keeper (I found out later) is a son of a couple who, along with 11 other Quaker families, founded Monteverde in the early 1950s. The sloth-keeper’s parents, bright-eyed and smiling gently, sit on a bench catty-cornered from mine.
Meeting is over, and the announcements begin with the usual listing of appreciations, potluck details, and committee times. Visitors stand to introduce themselves, and several, like me, are here from meetings across North America. They strike me as traveling families on spring break taking a spiritual detour to this Quaker community in Central America. The sloth-keeper is simultaneously translating announcements from English into Spanish for the members of a visiting dance troupe from San Jose, Costa Rica, who performed the previous night. Indeed, all of the messages this morning were relayed in both Spanish and English to accommodate this unique, bilingual meeting, which is perched on a hillside up a long, unpaved, and often muddy road on the campus of Monteverde Friends School.
What am I doing here? What are any of us doing here? These questions sound existential, and they are, but as a teacher of world history to seventh and eighth graders at Friends School of Atlanta, I find a more practical insistence in them. The history of the Monteverde community, as improbable as it is, is easy to understand. In a stunning move, Costa Rica chose to abolish its army in 1949, and these 11 American Quaker families, some of whose members had already been imprisoned for refusing the draft, sought a new home in a country committed to pacifism. If migrating to a foreign country under any circumstances seems like a daunting and risky prospect, then consider the bravery of these Friends: relocating to a place wholly unknown, guided only by The Divine to this sylvan green mountain.
Why am I here? A grant was generously given to me by the Sue Turner Fund from Baltimore Yearly Meeting to spend time in the Monteverde Friends School community. I’m developing a curriculum for my world history unit on Latin America about the legacy of Quakers living in Costa Rica. I’m also here to build connections between my school and Monteverde Friends School by exploring the immediate goodwill that seems to emerge whenever Quakers meet one another. And finally, at the end of a tour of a small coffee farm belonging to one of the school’s parents, sipping a cup of the final product with newfound respect for this quotidian beverage that I love to teach about, I realized that I am here because there is nothing in the world that makes me happier than learning about how other people live and sharing what I have learned.
There’s a long and beautiful Friends tradition of seeking fellowship and deepening ties through a practice called traveling ministry. Face-to-face communication is the preferred interaction among Friends, and this requires getting off the couch, putting yourself out there, and going down the road. Quakers have followed leadings from the Divine Source to go into the world to seek mutual understanding and spiritual nurture through meaningful human connection to other Friends. Not surprisingly, Quakerism offers a delineated process to people called to travel: arrange a clearness committee, obtain a letter of introduction from one’s home meeting to give to the host meeting, and enter a traveling minute in meeting for business.
My becoming a traveling Friend has not followed such a linear, neat path, nor have my travels to explore contemporary, international Quakerism. For that matter, being among Quakers (first as a student at Westtown School, later teaching at a Quaker school, and even teaching yoga at Atlanta Friends Meeting) does not seem like something I chose. Rather, this way of living and working chose me in order to foster an exploration and discovery of my inner terrain.
Traveling, whether metaphoric or literal, is an act of faith. To be led by the impulses of the wider world, you must put your faith in the ebb and flow of the Divine. There’s faith in the process of arriving and departing, trust in the acts of reception and farewell. Communicating, even failing to communicate, requires a shared confidence in our common humanity. We find an ally in the map’s compass rose or the advice of a local. And consider how miraculous an address is: a few lines of information can take you just about anywhere. Trust and faith are at the core of the travel experience. Perhaps above all, it is the trust and faith in oneself to be okay in unfamiliar circumstances.
Last year while preparing a lesson about Cuba, I felt a profound sensation well up inside me that said unequivocally, “You need to get yourself to Cuba. You need to do this now.” A part of me was thrilled at the prospect: ever since I was a little girl, I listened to my Dad’s Latin jazz albums from the ’50s with my head pressed up against the stereo speakers, making every effort to put the music inside my body. It wasn’t until much later that I learned about the embargo, the Cold War, and the politics of separation that made visiting Cuba seem impossible.
Another part of me was terrified. I knew what I had to do, but how would I do it? And then, as Quakers like to say, way opened. How do you know when you are living in the flow of the Divine? For me, there were virtually no obstacles to fulfilling my leading: a few emails, and it was done. I made contact with and received some useful information from American Friends Service Committee’s Regional Director for Latin America and Caribbean, Jorge LaFitte. He kindly directed me to George School’s Global Service Program that was arranging a trip to Cuba in July of 2011, which was to be led by teacher Fran Bradley. Fran has been taking teachers and students to live and serve among a community of Cuban Quakers residing on the eastern end of the island since the 1980s. Way had opened.
Quakerism arrived in Holguin Province of Cuba in 1905 when United Fruit Company recruited religious groups to start missions in its new business territory. Sylvester Jones arrived from Indiana Yearly Meeting, bringing with him an expression of Quakerism unfamiliar to me: the Evangelical Friends Church. Since my days at Westtown School, I have known only the Friends General Conference form of Quakerism, which emphasizes the Light and a universal, interfaith experience of the Divine. Worship is held in an unadorned space and is based on silence that allows the congregants to wait upon the Divine and possibly share a given message.
In contrast to the low-key environment for worship to which I was accustomed, the Quaker Church in Holguin had in its meeting room the following biblical verse emblazoned in bright red foot-high letters:
Vosotros sois mis amigos si haceis lo que yo os mando. Juan 15:14
You are my friends if you do what I command you. John 15:14
I had not known, nor even questioned, where Friends had gotten our name. And there it was: in this biblical verse. The “I” doing the commanding is, of course, Christ. “Wow,” I marveled. “That’s an intense statement.” I found a Bible and read on. Christ continues, “This is my commandment to you: Love one another” (John 15:17). I realized that my Quaker experience had never led me to the Bible, and I sat with that fact for some time. I reflected on the experience of Quakers in Cuba: explicitly Christ-centered and Evangelical, with a pastor, a chorus, stained glass (however modest), and a Cross. Worship was not silent but contained an impassioned sermon from the church’s pastor Maria Yi, which was interspersed with inspired music and readings from the Bible. In one such musical interlude, those of us from the United States were asked to sing, and we chose “This Little Light of Mine.” Genuine smiles transcend language barriers, and respectful, open-hearted exchange moves past political barriers.
The Quaker family may be small, but it is strong. It is international, and it unites us in a joyous network of goodness that is undeniably real and beautiful. This traveling Friend intends to keep following the leading of the traveling ministry, a ministry of trust and faith, a ministry of learning and sharing. And all the while, I intend to learn and share how to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.