Lessons from the 6th World Conference of Friends: Community

Two weeks ago, I returned from the 6th World Conference of Friends in Nakuru, Kenya. Many other people have written beautifully summing up the experience as a whole. I don't feel up for something quite as comprehensive as what John, Ashley, and Adrian have written (linked above), so I thought I might write about the lessons I've taken away from this expedition, and how they have changed me.

NEYM. Kenya.  A banner proving it. And a palm tree.
I traveled to Kenya alone and then spent three days in Nairobi on my own, but I knew that when I arrived at the conference, I would find familiar faces.  Most larger Yearly Meetings sent multiple representatives.  Mine, New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) sent almost 20 people. Before attending the conference I knew most of them by sight and I was more closely acquainted with a smaller group.

The first few days of the conference were a whirlwind.  I was lucky: all of my luggage had come with me, I hadn't forgotten my sunscreen, my water bottle, or my Bible (three necessities!), and my body adapts easily to travel.  In addition, it turned out that Kristna, a friend from NEYM, was my room-mate, so we each had a familiar face to come home to.

Each morning a different region of the world led the conference in worship. North America's turn was on the second full day; we (that's a general we; I wasn't personally involved) had planned a combination of silent worship and a prepared message from Noah (please read his message to find out more; it was wonderful, but I'm not intending to talk about the message per se).  Noah's from my Monthly Meeting, Putney, so along with others from New England and elsewhere, I was invited to sit on the facing bench during his ministry.

At NEYM sessions last August, Steve Chase, also of Putney Meeting, gave the plenary address while everyone else from Putney sat on the facing bench in order to hold Steve, his message, and the entire assembly in gathered worship and prayer. That one hour defined my experience of last summer's Sessions. Offering the same service in Kenya, I expected, would be much the same.

It was and it wasn't, of course. The messages and the place were very different. The people were different.  I was different.  Last summer I was physically with the gathered body of my community.  Praying in Kenya I was thousands of miles away, but with this one act I unexpectedly felt transported into their midst.

Through both experiences, I felt the same open tenderness, the same uplifting love, the same sensation of being used by the Spirit. Praying for other people is like that. Praying for myself is well and good and I'm always trying to do more of it, or rather, to do it constantly: "Please, God, not my will but thine."  Praying for others at any length is transformative; doing so brings us very close to God's will. In both Kenya and New England this hour of prayer for a message, a messenger, and a gathering defined the rest of my time there: everything I saw, felt, or did was filtered through an experience of  transcendent community.

In Kenya, I was regularly used by the Spirit to provide pastoral care.  One conversation was particularly challenging.  I felt very tender towards the person I was with, and was I concerned that she find all the support that she needed.  We had only just met. I asked whether there was anyone at the conference from her Yearly Meeting, any elder or minister she could turn to.  There wasn't.  She was alone.  When I took her concern (with permission) to one of my friends and ministers, he said what I was thinking: "They sent her alone?"

At several points, I badly needed some pastoral care myself. There were a few rough spots in the conference that touched me closely.  It was, in the main (there were exceptions!), members of my Yearly Meeting who lifted me up, eldered me as needed, were the familiar face to come home to, shielded me when I was vulnerable, helped me see where I was being faithful and where I had faltered, and kept me laughing (at perfectly inappropriate moments) through it all.

It's not that the other ministers, pastors, and elders at the gathering couldn't have provided care --- to me, or to the people who had come alone.  It's not as if anyone was truly alone in this conference filled with Friends. But it's the people we work with and worship with year in and year out who can support and uplift us most consistently --- and who we can best support and uplift in turn. It's easy to forget in a conference like this, but the relationships we have with those closest to us truly are --- literally are --- the most central. These things I knew in my head, but in Kenya I learned them with my heart.

At the celebration on the final night of the conference, I was feeling a rush of emotions --- a giddy happiness at the dancing, a lingering tenderness from some tears earlier in the day, and a sense of sadness that I was leaving it all. Throughout the conference I had tried to sit with as many different people as I could, but on this last night I needed something else.  I sat next to Eden and Frederick, and in a perfectly unbiased way, we decided that our meeting was the best Yearly Meeting in the whole world.  It was the end of the conference; we should know, right?

I hope everyone that went to the conference came away knowing the same thing we did. I hope that everyone was able to come home joyfully, not sadly, feeling renewed by the great Spirit that was so gathered in Kenya and also ready for the central work of living and worshiping that is only done at home.