Why I am a Quaker, how I am a Quaker
by Jez Smith
It is a balmy summers day and a gentle breeze is blowing outside. The windows to the Meeting house are open and the faint hum of traffic can be heard. An occasional plane passes overhead. A blackbird is singing nearby.
I have my eyes gently closed, not pressed shut and I am deep within myself. I am there, expectant in waiting. I am listening to God. I feel something stirring and I realise that God is listening too.
It was August 2000, in Colchester I had just graduated from university and started my first full-time job.
For the previous four years I had lived a fractious journey of discovery, or remarkable highs and lows. I had become a Christian, born-again. I had found God. Lost God. Found God. Had some wonderful experiences. I even did the alpha course. But gave it up half way through.
Finally, I found a path, my path. God called me to work with people in society who had no voice, the invisible people. As I trod down this path, way opened. I got a job working with asylum seekers. I needed a new church, I found the Religious Society of Friends.
But was this the right church for me? The theology certainly fitted. I prayed and God gave me signs. The most significant one was a barn owl flying right over my head at Witham station, when I returned from an enquirers gathering at Young Friends General Meeting. I carried on listening and so did God.
For some time now I’ve not self-defined as a Christian. The definition isn’t my call. As Quakers we can let God judge. I’m a follower of Jesus though. My paradigm of understanding is the Christian one. I learn what I can from his teaching and his example and do what I will with it.
I love learning about Jesus, participating in Bible study. Just last week I learned that the parable of the sowing of the seed is told in three ways in the Bible. Once from the perspective of the sower, once from the seed and once from the soil.
I’m still working out this language. God is my compass. Quaker faith and practice is my map.
In the day-to-day I try to live my life as a spiritual experience. I don’t want my only contact with God to be when I’m in church.
Speaking of church, it is December 2009. We are late arriving to Kaptama. But our hosts have been patiently waiting for us on a bench outside their church. We clamber out of our clapped-out bus, across the dirt track, down through a ditch and up the other side to Kaptama Friends Church.
After greetings we pose for group photographs. They are Friends from Kaptama, a sprawling rural community on the side of Mount Elgon, Western Province, Kenya. They are a part of East Africa Yearly Meeting North.
After introductions, we have some worship time. The pastor reads from his well-thumbed Bible, then another Friend prays out-loud and blesses our time together. The church is constructed from mud and its windows are wooden shutters that open out to let in some natural light and air. I am at home here. Among Friends.
As well as the church Kaptama Friends run a secondary school with 600 pupils, a primary school with over 1,000 pupils, a health centre and they have acquired more land with long-term plans for a peace centre, as a base for preventing future conflict in the area.
I visited both schools then climbed through the fence to cut through directly to the health centre. It had very little equipment and medicines available compared to what you might expect in Britain. All of the rooms were basic, with very little by way of linen on the beds, for example. Despite all this, as the only medical centre that many local people can access, Titus, the community health worker sees many patients every day.
There they deliver babies, treat minor injuries and give counselling. They give dietary advice and have some medicines that can be dispensed. Writing on her blog Faustine Kipkech, a Kenyan living in the US, says of Kaptama that: ‘This is the hospital that is supposed to cater for thousands of villagers. This is the hospital where our mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers and our children are supposed to feel safe when thay are sick.’
It is important, says Titus, that when you’re preparing people for the eternal life, that you also have projects to meet the needs of the community.
The testimony of these Friends is one that I saw repeated where ever I visited Kenya – in the hospital at Lugulu, among the ordinary peacemakers in Eldoret, who saved lives in 2007-8 during the post-election violence. It is the same testimony as I see in Friends working in this country. Living our faith, letting our lives speak.
But for now I have words. I have my online magazine Nayler, an outlet for various of my projects – current ones include publishing contemporary reviews of Swarthmore lectures – all 102 of them; another is to invite people to write responses to the Advices & Queries, tell of how one has been important in their life or been a challenge, perhaps. And I have a section on how and why we are Quakers, with contributions to come from the Czech Republic, the US and Lesotho. And now Westminster.
And I have a dream of action, that I want to make a reality. To make a firm connection to the witness of Kenyan Quakers at the hospitals of Lugulu and Kaimosi, but most of all to the health centre in Kaptama, to support their witness. Our witness.
This talk was delivered at Westminster Friends Meeting for Worship for Business on 13 February 2011.