The bag did not arrive Thursday. I will skip a description of the diva fit I threw with Cornelius, the Kenyan in charge of things like missing bags. My Friend Kennedy lept to my aid – which is the important part – and offered to drive me to Nairobi to get my bag and others. After I put the screws on Cornelius for two hours I gave in. “Friday morning, huh?” I said to Kennedy. He smiled his big contagious smile. “Friday morning your bag will come, Benjamin!” And he was right.
Thursday night, we heard the ministry of Noah Baker Merrill. Besides having the ideal name for a Quaker minister, he is also a Young Adult Friend. That means he is somewhere between 18 and 40 years, a demographic in Quakerdom which is being deeply faithful to continuing revelation, and Noah is exhibit A. He is a “recorded” minister in New England Yearly Meeting, where they still notice gifts of ministry and lift them up. I heard him preach to us at PYM summer sessions either last year or the year before, I forget. He is the John Mayer of Quaker ministry: immensely gifted, popular and handsome.
On Thursday he drew from the story of the prophet Elijah from 1 Kings 19. He lifted before us the holy man in exile, pleading with God “I have been zealous in your name!” and the angel of God asking him, “What are you doing here?” When Noah asked the angel’s question I got goosebumps.
Noah is in my home group, and the day before we had shared a brief story of how we had come to Quakerism. I recalled going to Christmas services in church as a boy and feeling embarrassed, as if God was asking me “What are you doing here?” Those were my exact words. He had already written his sermon. I went on to talk about how grumpy I was about the whole suitcase and bathroom situation, and I said, “I feel really open and vulnerable” and I made ripping-open gesture across my chest.
Later in his sermon, Noah quoted the mother of our movement, Margaret Fell, who said of the spiritual transformation of Friends: “It will rip you open and lay you out.” He returned to Elijah, and wonder aloud if we Friends have not lost our way in our zealousness. We are a shadow of what Fox envisioned, Noah preached. And our zealousness has led us to break with each other into schisms and subvert God’s will for Friends. “What are you doing here?” the angel asks us. Over dinner previously, my Friend Emily and I confessed to each other that we didn’t know, that we had no agenda for this international conference of Friends, and that we were trying to let that be okay.
It is okay and I have felt the tender openness of the child these last few days. I have been reading the Bible, especially bits that come up in the conference. I read the passage Noah referred to. I have been reading Isiah and the Psalms and The Song of Solomon. I have the New Living Translation and I like it a lot. I’m starting on the new testament tonight.
Today, Friday, I went into Nakuru to get the bags. Some things became clear to me. I have been aware, since coming here, of being in the racial minority. Kenyans stare at me, and other white people. We’re just unusual here. The kids almost ride their bikes in to walls when we pass by. I understand the Kenyan people as African, dark brown and confident. I’m going to save a whole blog post about Kenyans. They are blowing my mind. I love them. I thought of the pain I sense among some African-Americans and contrast it to the cheerfulness of the Kenyans, even in their (relative to me) poverty. A whole racial window into American life involving dispossession, exile and slavery has opened to me. These are the people the African Americans came from. And they are magnificent.
Here’s the other thing: I am used to the life of white American privilege. Now hold on, hold on. I’m not going to bum you out or point fingers or start whipping myself. I do not feel guilty about it. But it is a fact, put in my face by all the whining and complaining I’ve been doing about the toilets here and the beds and the this and the that. Many Kenyans would give one of their teeth to be at Kabarak University, have the room I have to sleep in and the bathroom facilities I have to use. That doesn’t make me a bad person for being used to something different. I am a creature of my culture. But I am seeing and feeling the economic disparity between the life I call “normal” and the life the average Kenya calls “normal”. And this is made all the more poignant since I am falling in love with them. Perhaps I am being called to a new level of action.
After putting away my clothes, taking a real shower, and shaving today, I had lunch with a German Friend, and then she and I went to the crafts fair in the student center, where I did all my gift shopping. These were tables laden with crafts made by local artisans, most of them benefiting one good cause or the other. Very satisfying.
Then I went to the final iteration of my thread group on Convergent Friends. Ashley, our facilitator, had borrowed an exercise she learned from a Quaker pastor from the Pacific Northwest, in which the Lord’s Prayer is broken down in to five parts. We were divided into five groups, and went from station to station, three in the room and two outside, to do little exercises and worship sharing on these little its of the Lord’s Prayer. At the end of it, I felt like I had gone on a journey with five other people I didn’t know. But at the end of it they were my close friends.
- We recited the Lord’s Prayer in “fifths” at each of the five station, so that by the end, we had “said it together” in it’s entirely. She used different translations at each station, which I loved, in that it acknowledged the Bible as a work of translation. It actually made me pay attention to the words and their meaning more.
- At the “spirit” station, we lit candles and recited a Celtic prayer, and my Celtic heart leaped.
- At the “forgive” station, we were instructed to write privately on a little piece of paper one “debt” we felt we owed God, and one “debt” we feel someone owes us. Then we were instructed to rip up the little piece of paper, throw it away and stand in silent worship together. I don’t owe God anything, as long as I am forgiving to those I feel have wronged me? Very mysterious and profound.
- At the “cleanse” station, we were asked to wash someone else’s hands, as we recited a prayer of our own invention in which we asked for them to be relieved of whatever is blocking their way to holiness (what some Christians call sin). As my Friend from from North Carolina washed my hands for me, the dam burst, and I wept. Lots of pent up feeling poured out, as well as a deep sensation of being loved and supported, even as my transgressions and mistakes are acknowledged. I held her as I cried for a moment afterwards, and she held me back, strong and unafraid of my feelings.
By the way, there has been some good-natured ribbing directed at me for deducting 50 points from FWCC. And my attitude about Virgin Atlantic has, um, changed, since it has occurred to me that it is really they who bear the full responsibility of getting me my bags in a timely fashion, and they have failed miserably.
SO, for simply organizing this amazing event, which is in fact a feat of undeniable complexity, with people here from all over the world: FWCC + 10,000 points.
AND, for completely abandoning my poor silver suitcase and leaving me smelling like a Bowery bum for three days: Virgin Atlantic – 10,000 points.
Tomorrow – Lake Nakuru.