03 May 2012

Signs, part two

(part one, part three, part four)

Souvenirs from Nizhni Novgorod: "I don't pay bribes" buttons.
Context is important!
At our last business meeting, Moscow Friends talked about coming up with a brief page or leaflet for people who come to meeting for the first time.

This introductory handout isn't exactly the same thing as the "signs" I mentioned in that earlier blog post, but as we've been thinking about what to say about ourselves to newcomers, that post, and the helpful comments that followed, came back to me.

Moscow Friends have been around for over twenty years, meeting in a private apartment, the basement of a Russian Orthodox church, a school, the office of Friends House Moscow, and two rented meeting places. In most of those places, there was at least someone who had to let people in--visitors couldn't just enter directly and find a seat. However, the community center where we've been since January has no guard or attendant or doorbell (no doorbell--thank God!--people come anywhere from right on time to 55 minutes late); a visitor could just walk through the door and the first human beings they'd see would be the assembled meeting. Since we're an unprogrammed congregation, chances are they would see us simply sitting quietly, with no obvious leader and no obvious cues beyond welcoming faces, and perhaps hands motioning toward an empty chair.

Imagine you've never ever experience traditional Quaker "waiting worship" or any analogue anywhere, and your understanding of a Christian gathering, whether from experience or just vague impressions, includes at least some form of liturgy and up-front leadership. Let's assume that you're a bit shy about sharing your spiritual uncertainties, or for that matter, your social uncertainties, with a group of total strangers--especially silent strangers.

бахилки (photo source:
But you're probably not completely without information, probably gained from the same source that told you how to find us. So at least you know we don't bite. Once you're inside the door and have found the little blue plastic booties (бахилки) for you to put on over your street shoes, what should we communicate to you briefly that will give you the most hospitable path from the doorway to the seat?

It's not that a typical Russian person would be particularly intimidated by the silence. Most of our visitors understand intuitively that it is a time of quiet, and that some form of prayer or meditation is going on that might best be allowed to continue undisturbed. Within a few minutes, a Bible reading or spoken message will almost certainly confirm their intuition. But is this the most hospitable way to greet people--by relying on their intuition? Of course there are those who can't wait to figure things out; they'll sometimes nudge the nearest person and ask what's going on. (Cool Anglo-Saxon distance and propriety is not standard here.) One visitor asked a Friend, "When can I ask a question?" Shortly afterwards, he began to ask out loud whether we understood that all our questions would be answered if we simply accepted the concept of reincarnation. He erupted several more times, warming to the theme of our ignorance of this doctrine, and two of us took turns trying to explain to him that meeting for worship is not a time for speculation and discussion but for prayer. ("Meeting for worship" in Russian is literally a "prayer meeting.")

So ... when the need arises, one or more of us will emerge from the silence and communicate directly with the questioning or troubled newcomer. We've talked about having a greeter, but our meetings are sometimes so small and attendance varies so dramatically from week to week that we've been reluctant to take that step...especially if a simple printed text might provide that needed bridge of communication.

The reincarnation incident reminded me of a story I heard from a member of Ottawa Meeting in Canada, concerning a time in that meeting's history when they gathered in a YMCA building. Apparently, an Alcoholics Anonymous group was meeting in a nearby room and found itself short of chairs. A couple of AA participants walked into the Friends meeting to borrow some chairs, and observed Friends sitting quietly with their heads down. One of the AA pair broke the silence to reassure the gathered Quakers: "There's nothing so bad that you can't talk about it."

By the time I joined Ottawa Friends, they had their own meetinghouse, with a literature table on the path to the meetingroom. On the table was a little leaflet with the perfect title, "Your first time in a Quaker meeting?" That leaflet, somewhat updated, has in fact been translated into Russian. I think its current English-language incarnation is here (in PDF form). So this leaflet (Russian version) gives us one text to draw on.

An old friend of mine, Virginia Schurman, wrote another text, "Welcome to Friends Meeting for Worship," that I love very much for its brevity and reverence. It's been published by the Tract Association of Friends and is available here.

Personally, I don't think we have to arrive at a perfect and permanent text tomorrow, but we do need to communicate essential basics to those who arrive at our threshold and honestly don't know what's expected of them. Do you have some samples you could share with us? Here's my own personal wish list for the ideal welcoming text for Russian-speaking visitors to our meeting--and this too is subject to challenge and discussion:
  • brief!
  • reverent--I think this is culturally important; also, post-Christian hyper-sensitivity is out of place here; Moscow Friends can be passionately Christian and warmly inclusive in ways that might seem paradoxical to anyone other than Russians
  • direct and non-cerebral (remembering my 2008 comment that the ideal sign for a Friends meeting would be "We gather here every Sunday at 10:30 to meet with God. Please join us.")
  • practical (what do visitors need to know to settle themselves and turn Godwards? --everything else can wait)

I can hardly wait to hear from our meeting's representatives to the Sixth World Conference of Friends. In the meantime, the Conference epistle is here. Just before our representatives left Moscow for Kenya last month, our meeting approved sending two documents to the conference on the importance of addressing global change and environmental concerns, so we will also be eager to consider the "Kabarak Call for Peace and Ecojustice"--

Link to downloadable PDF version.

There have been several blogs covering the Conference; one of the most comprehensive reports I've found is here.

A Christian blogger who receives between 400 and 700 comments weekly writes "Ten Tips for Dealing with Online Criticism." Just in case you're in the same boat ... which I'm not!

Speaking of comments, Mona Eltahawy's Foreign Policy article on misogyny, "Why do they hate us?", has received (at the moment) 2,160 of them. Today I listened to her responding to comments by blogger Mona Kareem on a BBC Global News podcast (here, starting at 17:14; podcast is available for 30 days). The heart of the discussion is a crucial dilemma for evangelists and missiologists (although that's not the context of their exchange): when does prophetic truth trump cultural integrity, if ever, and how do we know?

Back in March, I linked to quaker oats live's "biking experiment." Now, here's her report. Teaser: "Partially, this experiment was just humbling. I don't tend to think that we drive that much, but keeping track for a month really made me aware of how much we just randomly decide, "Hey, let's go do such-and-such," of an evening or weekend, and we just go do it."

What does the Very Worst Missionary say about our dear Portland, Oregon?

One day last week, a friend called us to say "The sky's turned green!" We looked outside--she was right! Our instant reaction, having lived in the midwestern USA for many years, was to say "Get inside and down to the basement!" But it wasn't a tornado.

"Because we are the army." A May Day heartbreak.

This article is getting a lot of attention from Quaker teachers: "... A New Approach to School Discipline." (Thanks to Delonna Halliday for the link.)

Highlights from the European Blues Challenge, including Norwegian blues artist Rita Engedalen:

Bad Music 2.0 #970 from Bad Music 2.0 on Vimeo.


Mindful Searcher said...

Thanks so much for your blog. I look forward to reading it every week. Thanks, too, for including the text of the statement on peace and ecojustice. It's a wonderful document.

Johan Maurer said...

What a kind comment!

I've seen the Kabarak statement reprinted in a number of places. So many people took part in the global change conversations organized by FWCC over the past couple of years, I'm grateful that the conference could come up with a good distillation.