Archive for the ‘TheoBeyondUS’ Category

I’d like to point you to a blog entry I wrote for Earlham School of Religion concerning a recent trip to Mexico City.



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[As mentioned in my last post, I’ve asked Ann Riggs if she would contribute to this discussion as the voice of someone who works closely with FUM and within FTC. I am grateful for her perspective here. When I raised questions about US  and Kenya Friends I did so in response to conversations and observations in general, not as an insider with FTC. Therefore, I am even more appreciative of the contribution Ann makes to this conversation. –David Johns]

I write as the head of Friends Theological College. FTC was indeed founded in 1942, under a different name, and operated for many years at a much lower level of academic expectation than the current programs. The current courses of study almost all presuppose a completion of secondary school. All are currently carried out according to the same requirements as apply to similar institutions of higher education in Kenya and the same standards used by accredited institutions of theological education across Africa.

At the time of Kenyan national independence 1963-4, the college was made a responsibility of East Africa Yearly Meeting. In the 1990s that yearly meeting and the FTC board asked Friends United Meeting to assist them by taking the college under its care. As noted in other posts, Friends United Meeting does not “oversee” its member yearly meetings. Indeed the yearly meetings oversee Friends United Meeting, an organ created by and for the yearly meetings. But FUM does oversee Friends Theological College, in service to all the African FUM yearly meetings. The principal of the theological school – a role that in the US would be called its president – works as a member of the FUM field staff and reports to the FUM general secretary and the chairperson of the FTC board of governors. The FTC board and its chairperson are appointed by the Africa section of the FUM general board. The college is lead by an appointee from the United States, then, because African Friends have requested such care.

The burden of David’s discussion, however, is not entirely addressed by simply stating this datum of historical and institutional information. The faculty and administration of Earlham School of Religion are scheduled to visit FTC in June 2011. How might such a visit be thought of so that it makes sense as a gift rather than an imposition, an instance of a larger relationship that serves the needs and dignity of all? Are there paradigms that might be applicable to broader questions of relationship in the post-colonial era?

First and very importantly, most African Quakers are grateful that someone brought them the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. While there are exceptions, most are appreciative of the introduction of new technologies and new forms of social life. They value modern medicine, cell phones and the internet, and a greater equality between women and men than their traditional cultural patterns used. My presence in Kenya and the expertise I bring seem to be viewed by many in similar ways – as an importation of desired resources rather than as a resented intrusion.

In a recent conversation I heard a recent graduate of FTC’s bachelors in theology program, who is now an adjunct faculty member at Friends Theological College, and an applicant to the Earlham School of Religion Access program, speak on the relationship he saw among the secular democratic societies and governments of England, the United States, and Kenya. He described England as the mother country of both the US and Kenya and the US as the older sibling of the more recently independent Kenya. There would certainly be other matters on which this man would speak of Kenya in African terms or of his tribe or sub-tribe in ways that made no reference to England or the US. Yet, the vantage point his remark creates is very important for understanding Kenyan Friends. He thought and spoke in terms of relationship not separation. And the root metaphor of his sense of relationship was familial.

How different from both David’s initiating post and the perspective of the conversation partners he references.
The adage made so widely familiar by South African Desmond Tutu makes African sense not just of the inherently relational character of individual human persons but of larger human communities as well: I am because we are. We are because we all are. Kenyan Friends are because the wide community of the Religious Society of Friends is. The teachers and administrators of Friends Theological College are because there is a wider community of theological educators of which the faculty and administration of Earlham School of Religion are also a part.

Kenyan Friends think very much in terms of ordered family relationships. People introduce one another to their “first born” and “last born” children, to their “elder brother” and “eldest brother.” If Friends in the United States are elder, predate the introduction of Quakerism in eastern Africa by two and a half centuries, then there is an expectation that Friends in the US will have some life experience, some accumulated wisdom gained over those centuries that we have a responsibility to share, especially when requested to do so.

Yet, African Friends also expect to be treated with the life-promoting respect and care that the elder sibling is traditionally expected to show to the younger, the parent to the child. Perhaps a reference to the three-fold understanding of community in African Traditional Religion is helpful: the ancestors, the current generation, and those yet unborn. In this understanding, a family, a community is not complete without this last group, without those yet to be born. Those who lie sleeping in the future generativity of our younger siblings’ children are also members of our community now. In this world view the education of students at Friends Theological College is an appropriate concern of all Friends because these students are the future theological parents of the spiritual children of us all.

Are North American Friends able to think less individualistically, more relationally? Are North American Friends able to accept, despite our anxieties about being paternalistic, the family metaphors that Kenyans find so congenial? Might there not be a richer and more abundant life in so wide a family?

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The response to my blog entry concerning Friends, US and Kenyan, has been lively and vigorous.

Yesterday, while attending the American Academy of Religion sessions in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to speak with the current Principal of Friends Theological College, Ann Riggs. We spoke about this issue and about whether a fuller explanation might help us understand better the relation of Friends in Kenya, and specifically, at FTC. Thus, I’ve invited her to contribute a series of two or three short essays, as a guest of Theography, to help place this in a broader perspective. The conversation will be open. I’m not sure she and I are in agreement on some of these points, but I welcome the contribution of someone working very closely with the situation (as I value Johann Mauer’s reply to the initial post).

I’d encourage you to check out Micah Bales new work on Missional Quaker Faith where he is also raising some of these concerns.

So, please stay tuned… this conversation will continue.

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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?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty and the responses I hear from time to time in my work as a professor and in my life as a member of the trying-to-be-faithful community of Jesus’ followers.

Two responses from students over the past few years have made quite an impact on me. Both were very honest statements, but both troubled me deeply. In responses to study abroad trips I led to Latin America, I received responses I hadn’t anticipated (this often happens!)

The first: the student told us (the class) and me (the prof) that for years s/he had desired to work among the poor and to be  an advocate for them, living with them. However, as a result of our trip and after having actually spent time with people who were poor (not the most desperately poor, I might add), s/he concluded there was no way s/he could do it. How could they live the way they do? How could they dress, act, smell, the way they do? And why do they beg and ask me for money?

S/he confessed to feeling shocked and horrified by his/her reactions. Nevertheless, they were real responses, very honest, and I have no doubt that this student returned home having learned something about the world and about his/her own self that was quite unexpected…and troubling.

Secondly, another student, after returning from a study abroad trip I led, came to the conclusion that in the face of poverty and the “underdevelopedness” we saw, s/he was ” glad  to be an American” where we enjoy certain physical comforts and social benefits.

Again, this was some honest reflection, but not what I would have hoped.

Two initial comments: first, neither of these students is a bafoon. Both are intelligent, thoughtful adults, both well into middle-age. Secondly, I’m glad I teach at a seminary where there is not as much peer pressure to appear pious and holy as there is in other settings. It is not institutionally dangerous for a student (or a faculty member, although a little more here) to say, “I don’t believe that just because it is in the Creeds,” or to conclude that they struggle to do what they think they’re supposed to do.

The first student’s response has caused me to think about how even the very good hearted among us often regard persons as categories (I’ve been helped here by Jeorg Reiger’s challenging book, Remember the Poor). No one wants to say out loud, “I don’t care about the poor.” Of course not. Of course we “care about the poor.” However, the social realities of many of our lives is such that most of us don’t know the name of a single person who is, in fact, poor. The poor people are: “the poor.” They are not, my friend, Dania, or even, my enemy, that nameless kid who held a pistol to my head in Cuernavaca. They are abstractions and, as such, they do not really exist.

When faced with the real opportunity to touch humanity as a person with a face and a name, the terms of the experience change dramatically. There are no longer “the gays and lesbians,” for example, but rather, my friend David and his spouse, Jeff. They are not abstractions. All those who are so easily and quickly reduced to non-existence spring to life.

However, from time to time, when we actually meet a real person who concretizes a category for us we are not always prepared. They are not saints–sometimes they are not even nice. They are people. Sometimes we like them and sometimes we don’t. But who can ever be prepared for an ideal to materialize? A romanticized (positively or negatively) vision will rarely disappoint, if we can keep it as a vision.

Many of us, for example, are unprepared for the latent racism that simmers and swells from time to time within us–and I’m not talking about “those bigoted folk.” I’m talking about those of us who, on a good day, believe we are shining examples of evolving humanity!

What do we do with this when it comes?

Of course, the easiest thing to do…and potentially the most visibly pious thing to do, is to support “the poor.” Preach/speak/teach about the value of “the poor,” “the oppressed,” “the widows and orphans,” etc., and even make them the objects and recipients of our charity and financial generosity. But for God’s sake, don’t get close.

A couple years ago a speaker came to our seminaries and spoke eloquently and inspiringly about the work his congregation was doing in the greater Washington, DC area in lobbying congress on behalf of the rights of Latino immigrants. But my level of impressedness sunk to UNimpressedness after I heard this pastor’s response to my question. I asked, is anyone in your congregation learning Spanish (or does anyone already speak Spanish) and how much direct contact does the congregation have with the Latino community? Nada.

The second student’s response has also given me much to think about.

Why was I disappointed with the “I’m glad to be an American” response? Am I hoping my American students will be ashamed of their citzenship and consider renouncing it? Do I hope they’ll be indifferent? I wonder about this about about my motivations, but I don’t believe it is shame or indifference that I’m after. However, some reflection is in order. Is it really so simple as “God has blessed us?” (we’re rightly hesitant to finish what could be a complete thought: “…and has not blessed them.”)

I’m not an economist, but have a friend who is so I’m hesitant to play in the backyard of a discipline about which I know very little. Nevertheless, a simple meditation on what is required to have some of the things which I enjoy as an American ought to give me pause.

As I write, there is still a hemorrhaging oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico which is not only threatening US coasts, but also coasts in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The image of this pipe is, for me, a profane modern Crucifix. “The pipe is bleeding for you and for me. ” It is, in all the terms appropriate to some theologies, an offering for me on behalf of my actions.

I realize full well that staring into the face of poverty is painful, particularly when one meditates on the possibility of being complicit in its existence.

Where is grace and how do we think about grace in such matters?

….more to come

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Más que todo, me gusta platicar con los taxistas. Es un pasatiempo mío acá en Acapulco y, también, en otras ciudades latinoamericanas. Sin olvidar, aquí ellos son parte de la economía turística, manejando turistas desde punta a punta, y esperando fuera los hoteles para ofrecer sus servicios a los visitantes. Sin embargo, aúnque no estuvieran turistas acá, habrían sido cruciales en todo el sistema de transporte.

Me caen super bien por varias razones, claro que sí, pero particularmente porque ellos saben un poco de todo. Es la verdad–ellos actúan como dioses en cuatro llantas! Son guías bien informadas. Son intérpretes de la cultura local. Son fuentes de información sobre todo lo que pasa en su ciudad: politicamente, culturalmente, historicamente hablando. Y, también, maniobrarían por todos atajos.

He platicado con varios lo que habían conducido por más de treinte años. Habían experimentado todo el mundo en el asiento a lado de ellos.

Ayer, le dije eso a uno de ellos que estaba poniendo de pie fuera mi hostel. Sonreió y me declaró:

“Y, lo que no sabemos, nos inventamos!”

Por siempre me he preguntado eso. Ahorita, ya lo sé!

Los taxistas han venido a characterizados como malos en tiempos recientes por culpa de varios que la robaron a gente, especialmente en al Distrito Federal y en zonas turísticas. Lamentablemente, eso se pasa, no solamente acá en México, sino en todo el mundo.

Pero, a pesar de todo, los son ayudantes indespensables.

Normalmente, cuando llegaba a México o Honduras, o otro país, el primer persona que me encontraba es un taxista. Sí, no hay duda, son hombres de negocios. Ellos quieren y necesitan que les pague. Mi necesitidad es suerte suyo. Es un acuerdo lo que acepto y en que lo estamos de acuerdo.

Vale la pena mencionar porque ellos son hombres de negocios se tratan de sacar lo más dinero como posible de sus clientes. Obviamente. Acá en Acapulco, por ejemplo, se regula las tarifas en autobúses (colectivos o urbanos), pero no se dirige los precios en los taxis. Resulta es que nadie es bien cierto de tarifas antes de negociarlas–y, tenemos que hacerlos cada vez! Aveces, este me vuelve loco, pero así se va.

Al mismo tiempo, poder hablar primaramente con alguien tan informado y, frecuentamente, orgullo de su patria, en un buen entrada de la estancia.

Hay otras negocias en que no recibíamos beneficios así, al muy contrario, en éstas, aplastan todo en su paso! Pero, si fueran taxistas o si tuvieran un corazón taxista (ya haya algo así?  Supuesto que hablo demasiado idealística!) habrían cuidar más todo en su paso. Porqué? Por que manaña, pues, tal véz, necesite su servicio de nuevo y, en casí cada instancia, nos dan más de un paseo, pero, también una ventana hacia al mundo.

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Qué pasa después de amanecer en Acapulco?

Acá en Acapulco hay mucha actividad después de oscura y en todas partes de la Avenida Miguel Alemán o en la  fracción más nueva, Diamante. Se pubican las guias para anunicar los barres donde podemos comprar bebidas barratas, encontrarnos una amante, y rentar una habitación en donde podríamos desfruntar ambos. Hay cosas bien conocidas que se nos indican: los bundgees y las Clavadistas en la Quebrada…se dicen que todos de nosotros tengamos que verlos!

Sin embargo, que occure en la manaña en Acapulco? Qué tal la vida normal mientras todavía duermen las turistas?

La mentalidad de la turista, a mi modo de ver, es que las unbicaciones turisticas existen solamente para consumir–no importa el lugar: Orlando, Las Vegas, Venice, o Acapulco. La gente que vive y trabaja en sitios así, no son seres humanos, sino son accesorios de la experiencia turística. Ellos existen para hacer más exótico el tiempo de las vacacciones. Quíen sabe si ellos tienen ideas o sueños o esperanzas o desafíos?

Pienso en eso siempre.

Cuando no hago otras cosas, platico con personas en la calle. Es una de las cosas más me gusta de poder hablar el español–mi experiencia de lugares como Acapulco no es totalmente mediada ni por traductores ni por guias oficiales. Afortunadamente, se me charlan, personas de todas carerras: dependientes, meseros, salvavidas, taxistas, protitutas, las policias, gente en los buses.

Aquí en este blog, me encantaría plasmar algo de éstas experiencias y ésta gente.

Esta ciudad es real, no es fantisía y hay habitantes reales (casi 800.000) que pasan su vida acá.

Hay problemas y retos substanciales aquí, esperanza del corazón. Sonya, una emplea en un hotel de lujo, me dijo que le alegra que tanta viene a Acapulco para disfrutar el ambiente, pero ella no puede recordar tiempos recientes cuando podía sentarse en la playa.

Sin duda, hay mucha que trabaja y se aprovecha de las actividades turísticas. Cuando bajan las turistas baja, también, su dinero. Sin embargo, hay mucha que no cuenta su vida por los buses que vienen de Puebla o el Distrito Federal, tampoco de las de Canadá y los Estados Unidos que compran playeras y trajes de baño en las tiendas.

Hay escuelas acá, pero el nivel del analfabetismo en entre los tres estados más peor en toda la República (lo demás: Oaxaca y Chiapas). También, hay iglesias…y no solamente la más famosa en el Zócalo (que fue construida por una película en los años trenta). Como otras comunidades hay bibliotecas, series de películas, charlas de libros, clínicas, y personas de todas carerras, buenas y malas.

Quién son? Cuál es la forma de su vida?

No estoy dormiendo por causa de una resaca, así que despierto por la manaña. Entonces, quiero saber: Qué pasa en Acapulco después de amanecer?

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