Some more complaining, and then I’ll stop . . . I hope. I went and bought a towel at the school convenience store, and then took my complimentary bar of soap to the shower room. Not having my bathrobe, I stripped in the stall and turned on the water to find that there is no hot. Unable to go for it, I proceeded to splash cold water on various body parts, lather them up then rinse them off one at a time. There are also no mirrors, so shaving will be an adventure, assuming my razor arrives.
This is not a sure thing any longer since, after being told the suitcase would arrive today, it did not. After a few tries with different conference helpers, I found a Kenyan who called the Nairobi airport to discover that my bag, and two others, were still in London and would arrive tomorrow (Thursday). This is now three days in the same pair of pants, having donned my emergency shirt and underwear this morning. Lucky for me, there was a person selling conference t-shirts right next to the Kenyan man, and now I have a new shirt to wear tomorrow. Everything else will be . . . well-worn. Clothes are hand washed in an outdoor room in cold water basins, then hung out to dry. I shall be buying some detergent tomorrow. Hearing of my plight, the General Secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting lent me some pants and underwear. Alas, he is in better shape than I, and I will return them, slender and unworn, tomorrow. However, the gesture was magnanimous. That’s what I call servant-leadership.
By the way – there are two games we Western Friends are playing on campus now. One is: chase the wifi hotspot. “Getting a good signal by the little hut by the Quadrangle!” a Friend will say. The other is a kind of treasure hunt: where are the porcelain thrones? For you boys with Kabarak University on your to-do list, may I recommend the men’s rooms in the library and the law school.
As I am a Quaker, at a world-wide Quaker gathering, I feel bound to ask: is God telling me something? When I am in a better mood, I can contemplate the gift of being made vulnerable and needing to ask for help, an exercise no one likes, but which puts us into deeper community with those around us. I have been the recipient of numerous offers to help, from people who have asked if I wanted to use their phone, borrow clothing and hats, drive me into town (which I may do tomorrow), or just commiserate. I have been made raw and available in these first few days, and I arrive at events and workshops, open and devoid of expectation and agendas. I have been made to ask, what really matters?
I attended the first meeting of my home group, one of the small units of Friends the gathering has put together to help us get to know each other better. My group contains Africans, Asians (Indonesians), Europeans, North Americans, an Indian woman and a Peruvian man. We introduced ourselves, and as one of our facilitators broke his egg timer at the outset, I volunteered to be the timer using my iPhone. At least it was useful for something. We each got two minutes. I allowed myself to tell the truth, about how I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay, but was feeling a little better having gotten some sleep. Just that lifted my spirits.
Meals here are held in the cacophonous dining hall. Like every other room here, the acoustics are terrible, and every meal is accompanied by the roar of 500 Quakers talking at once. The dining staff is amazingly efficient, given that they have to serve this onslaught three times a day. The meals are tasty and plentiful, and you step up in line and take what they give you. It’s usually heavy on carbs with lots of rice and either potatoes or this mash of something like potato, plus a meat offering. There is also some kind of coleslaw as the veggie portion. There is a separate line for vegans and vegetarians. Boney lamb stew has been a staple so far, and the fried fish for lunch was yummy. But none of it is familiar, and I shudder to think of having my kids along, who would probably rather starve than take the adventure of foreign cuisine. Already, my favorite part of meal time are the spontaneous chats I have with other Friends. You sit down anywhere you can find a seat, and more often than not it’s with people you don’t know. But I had great time talking baseball and hockey with a Canadian Friend over lunch, and then discussing cell phones with a young British Friend at dinner.
I have signed up for Thread Group on Convergent Friends. These are issue-focused groups you follow for three days. They meet for 90 minutes in the afternoon. I was supposed to lead one, but backed out at the end of last week under the weight of the rest of my life. I’m glad I did. I am no condition to take responsibility for any group activity here. And it’s a gift to just be along for the ride. I have not signed up for the late afternoon thread groups, and I give myself that time to unwind, or read, or write.
No one is exactly sure what Convergent Friends means. At it’s most basic, it describes a yearning for all the different kinds of Friends to find common ground. It means getting over some of the theological differences which divide us, and acknowledge that it’s okay to believe things I don’t believe and worship in ways I prefer not to. This was a large group, meeting in an echo-y classroom. The acoustic challenges are compounded by the tendency of some to not want to speak loudly, the variety of accents, and the occasional simultaneous translation happening in the background. You just have to give into it, and, in good Quaker tradition, sense the spirit beneath the words. Our thread group resembled my home group, devoted almost entirely to introductions. There was some added hymn-singing, and, as it was led by an Evangelical Friend, it opened and closed with spoken prayer. I shared with the group that I wanted to find out what I was afraid of, since it is fear that drives us apart, and I hoped that if others had fear it would be reveled to them as well. I shared that I feel we have let George Fox down with all our splintering and bickering, as he dreamed of “a great people to be gathered”.
Tonight we were witness to something extraordinary. A Friend from Peru, a young woman, spoke to the entire gathering in the auditorium. At first, I thought it was going to be tedious, the kind of sweetness and light preaching that can give me a headache. It included a humorous mis-spelling on the simultaneous typed transcription projected on a large screen in front. “I am relieved of all my doings and fears” became “I am relieved of all my dongs and fears”. Me and the young Friends I was sitting with began giggling uncontrollably.
But then, her story took a completely unexpected turn, and she began weeping as she introduced her theme: the Broken World. “I want to tell you of my brokenness” she sputtered, through her thick Spanish accent and sobs. She told of witnessing a horrific murder, an orchestrated hit in a Peruvian restaurant, in which she cowered beneath a table as two men died of their gunshot wounds mere feet away from her. But that was not the miraculous part for me. For me, the miraculous part was, just as I was thinking I wish I could be on that stage with her to comfort her, an African woman got up from the second row and approached the stage. At first I thought she was going to hand the speaker some clean tissues to cry into. But she continued on, up the stairs and on to the stage, around behind the table where the other clerks were sitting, and then came up to the crying speaker from behind. She gave her the tissues, then stayed behind her as she spoke, putting her two hands on the speaker’s back, an angel in Swahili robes giving comfort to a person in her brokenness.
I have a roommate now, a Kenyan named Henry, the vice-clerk of his yearly meeting. We spoke a bit just now about the story we heard tonight. “For sure, the Lord saved her,” said Henry. I’m not so sure. But it’s okay to me that he sees it that way. And who want to argue about something like that?
I look forward to what tomorrow brings. Like maybe . . . my suitcase.