Not long ago I had a conversation with three Quakers, each from a different part of the US. We talked about Friends in Kenya, the east African country where the largest concentration of Quakers live. I expressed my concerns about an upcoming seminary faculty trip there and how I did not want us to continue the long history of cultural imperialism that dishonors the Other by assuming we have what they need.
We then discussed briefly the denominational body, Friends United Meeting, that provides oversight for many of the yearly meetings (i.e., regional associations) in the country [CORRECTION: 'provide oversight,' was my original phrase but is probably not the best description...perhaps, instead: 'that works in a partnership with']. I commented, as I often do, that given the demographics and population density of global Quakerism, that the denominational office should relocate to Nairobi or, that we should have more Kenyans working in the central offices here in Richmond, Indiana, or at minimal, we ought relinquish US oversight of Kenyans Quakers.
Since we were talking about education, I mentioned the irony that STILL, we (i.e., white, US Quakers) were in leadership of the major Friends theological training institute in the country, Friends Theological College (FTC).
I’m a professor so I am accustomed to having a room full of people disagree with me. It’s part of the job. However, this conversation was startling. Each person, two women, one man, in his or her own way, stated that Friends can’t be trusted…at least Kenyan Friends. I wasn’t prepared for that.
“They’re not ready yet to have leadership.” (Really? FTC was founded in 1942…that’s 68 years ago.)
“There has been so much corruption in the past, I’m not sure it’s time.” (Friends are no stranger to scandals: financial, sexual, political. To suggest, however, that having a white North American in leadership is a guarantee this will not happen in Kenya is nothing short of insulting.)
“They need someone in leadership who has academic credentials the Kenyan government will acknowledge.” (Ok. I understand this argument. For accreditation and for public recognition, academic qualifications are crucial. However, what I do not understand is how in over half a century of involvement we have not been able to do what is necessary to minimize this dependency.)
Then came the final blow. One of my conversation partners said: “They don’t trust each other. They want us to be there.”
I do not know whether this is true, but I suspect it is just another one of the self-assuring justifications that have been used for centuries by those who colonize and who subjugate others in the name of a great ideal. In this case, the “ideal” is a version of Quakerism I simply do not recognize.
I want to state in no uncertain terms that I have a great deal of respect for the persons who have been and who are presently providing leadership in FTC. Some of them are personal friends of mine. My concern is not about the personalities but with the principle. This is, it seems to me, the inverse of the last comment made in my conversation with these three Friends. For some, at least, the principle is: “We do not trust them. We want to be there.”
What do you think?