Wrestling With A Roomful Of Elephants:

FUM After Kenya (First posted on June 1, 2007)

[See the response linked below from Patrick Nugent, former head of the Friends Bible College, Kenya.]

Current Quote: “While somewhat less colonial, the [Friends United Meeting] work in East Africa is still structured around economic disparities that promote patterns of dependency. FUM has made a lot of progress in this area, but old patterns die very hard. Impoverished Kenyans and Ugandans expect all help to come from outside, in the form of U.S. dollars.

There is very little sense of empowerment or recognition of the need or ability to build upon the assets already existing in East Africa. Patterns of dependency are still deeply intertwined in the good intentions of North Americans, who instinctively use money to fix desperate needs, and in the desires of Africans to have outsiders provide the solutions.

These patterns of dependency are compounded by endemic corruption, with Kenya deemed the second most corrupt country in Africa, and Uganda only somewhat better, which makes getting intended resources to desired recipients very difficult. Every single effort of North Americans who are attempting to do useful work in East Africa has to take this systemic corruption into account, or risk being very wasteful of resources.”

– From the Report by the New York Yearly Meeting Representatives to the FUM Board Sessions in Kenya, second Month, 2007

When FUM comes up for discussion, in almost any context, I have found that the old saw about the “elephant in the room” is very apt. Except not in the singular. Over time, I have felt such rooms crowded with not one elephant, but several — by my latest count, at least five.The recent turbulent FUM Board sessions in Kenya, and the reports and related documents I have read about them this spring, mention most of these creatures, while being largely fixated on only one. So I think it might be useful to specify my list, as the basis for my own stance on the recent events, and suggestions for future steps.Let me add here that my sense of this herd of pachyderms was only marginally brought into view by the Kenya events. Rather, it grows out of more than twenty years exposure to FUM, including several years of close involvement with its issues and internal structures, and is rather confirmed by this latest episode.

Here is my list:

Elephant #1. Homophobia. This is the most salient among my liberal Quaker brethren, and does not need much exposition here. Advocates of the FUM status quo profess great weariness that some among the liberal YM reps keep “harping” on this issue, when, they say, there are so many more pressing matters to consider, including people starving.

That’s as may be. For my part, I share the strong feelings of revulsion voiced by some others, and must decline to be silent about it. Yet I have a regret about the heavy liberal emphasis on this issue, namely that it diverts the from the second elephant, which in my view is of more institutional significance, namely:

Elephant #2. Rampant Corruption. I am grateful to the New York YM representatives, whose report on the Kenya sessions was the only one I have seen which names this scourge and speaks of it plainly. The situation is fairly straightforward: Kenyan public culture is deeply, deeply corrupt. The highly respected anti-corruption monitoring group Transparency International lists Kenya as among the most corrupt societies in the world.

The impact of this cultural reality on FUM dealings with Kenyan Friends has been pervasive and dreadful, both there and among FUM groups in the USA. The Southeastern YM report noted in horror how almost all the Quaker facilities their rep was taken to had been stripped bare by theft and looting. But she does not know the half of it. Nor is this larceny new; in my time on the FUM missions board, twenty years ago, the hushed up reports of wholesale thievery and embezzlement were legion.

The exception to this pattern, Friends Theological College, proves the rule: its Director, Patrick Nugent, an expatriate American, stated frankly in his most recent letter to US supporters that one of the principal duties of the expatriate director of this institution is to “safeguard its assets.” This is a delicate phrase for protecting them from being looted. It appears he has done a good job of this; but can that continue? More on this presently.

It’s hard to overstate how shocked I was when I began to plumb the depth of this corruption, and how deeply the FUM corporate culture was complicit in and codependent with it.

Here it is worth repeating a key sentence from the New York YM Reps’; report: Every single effort of North Americans who are attempting to do useful work in East Africa has to take this systemic corruption into account, or risk being very wasteful of resources.”

My reaction to this sad reality soon crystallized into a conviction that is still unshaken: US Friends should not send another penny to corrupt operations. To do so is neither “christian” nor prudent, or even generous. It is a failure at the most basic level: sending American money to Third World crooks does not keep the poor in those nations from starving.

More on this as well in a few moments. Thence to the third elephant:

Elephant #3. The Richmond Declaration of Faith. There are several aspects of this document to mention: its checkered and unhappy history; the misrepresentations about it which are so often repeated; and above all for me, the theology it articulates.

Its history is one of being repeatedly used as a creedal club; the misrepresentations focus on disingenuous assertions that this record is not what it so plainly is; and its theology was controversial, and rejected by many utterly Orthodox Friends and YMs from the day it was presented. Moreover, these early rejections were due as much to the fact that many Orthodox Quakers simply did not believe much of it, as they were to the quite justified fears of its use as a creedal weapon.

An essay I published in 1987 detailing the case against the Richmond Declaration (with a link to the Declaration’s text) is online here. I stand by its main points today.

But these doctrinal issues are not limited to the YMs which are now described as “reunited”; indeed, they have raged within many of the “undivided” FUM YMs as well. Which bumps us right up against the tusks of the next elephant:

Elephant #4. Chronic divisions within heartland FUM yearly meetings. When I was working as a Quaker journalist, it took only a modest amount of digging to uncover the fact that, behind the screen of efforts to purge us “liberals,” several of these groups were beset by chronic internal factional strife.

Among the contested items were such matters as THEIR dual affiliations with evangelical associations, efforts to adopt outward sacraments (in clear defiance of the Richmond Declaration and their own histories); outbreaks of glossolalia; and not least, widespread and vocal abandonment of anything resembling Quaker pacifism. (It is ironic indeed that several of the most hotly contested matters would violate the plain letter of the Richmond Declaration as much as any liberal YM ever did.) Off the record, YM superintendents ruefully admitted having to fend off repeated attempts to split their bodies from one of these directions or another.

Against this turbulent background, jabs at the “liberal” YMs in the body were a convenient foil and distraction. But in truth, we had very little to do with all those troubles, and our disappearance would not cure them. The results of these and related trends add up to what, seen from the more orthodox end of FUM, may well be the largest of this unhappy herd of quadrupeds, namely:

Elephant #5. The drastic decline of the main FUM bodies. Here in North Carolina, as an example, the FUM YM, the largest in the US, has lost thirty per cent of its membership in the past two decades, and the attrition continues. To the west, Indiana and Western YMs, once quite large themselves, have each shrunk as dramatically. They are now reported to be looking at consolidating, in hopes there might be enough membership between them to support a single YM superstructure.

Among the effects of this galloping deflation are an increase in internal tension, which manifests, among other ways, in a search for scapegoats (e.g., the gays, “universalists,” and “liberals”); increasingly frantic and futile efforts to find a magic evangelistic bullet to reverse the trend; and a steady decline in the caliber of their community leadership, because the body can’;t afford quality help.

(Here I return, for evidence, to the situation of Patrick Nugent, Director of the Friends Theological College, the best and least corrupt of FUM’;s African ventures: his most recent letter, dated 22 April 2007, announced his abrupt resignation, cutting short what he had hoped would be a career-long assignment there, because FUM could not afford to support his family. This is a very revealing indicator: supporting one family was too much for FUM’;s sinking resources. I rest my case.)

I have no remedy to offer for this decline in the FUM heartland YMs, only a stubborn, even truculent observation, reinforced by much study and observation: despite the jibes and jabs aimed in our direction at the Kenya sessions and earlier confrontations, this collapse is NOT THE FAULT of the liberal FUM bodies, and forcing them (us) out would not mend it.

So. In the face of this herd of elephants crowding the room at any FUM-related session, what course can be suggested for other concerned Friends, particularly among its “liberal” YMs?

First, of course, I affirm that each body will find its own way. Being more “liberal” than some other FUM groups does not make them/us all alike, candidates for some one-size fits all response. Already, it appears that Southeastern YM has taken steps likely to end in its departure from FUM; so that could be one pole of response.

On the other end, the New York YM representatives’; report urges the opposite course, one of “staying at the table,” based on their perception of a high degree of underlying commonality between them and other FUM groups.

My own reaction is more assertive, but comes down to what, for a Baltimore YM Friend, is something of a status quo stance, at least for us. Baltimore YM since 2004 has made clear that it will not leave FUM, but at the same time it will not support programs including homophobia. As a result it has continued to appoint representatives, but has declined to send FUM a financial contribution; one compromise offer to send funds designated for use outside its homophobic policy was rebuffed.

In short, Baltimore is “in struggle” with FUM — not simply grinning and bearing it, but not storming out in a huff either. From my perspective, this is the best available response. That’;s because I believe it expresses the truth of BYM’;s relation to FUM, and gives it concrete form. It continues conversations and maintains opportunities for constructive service. It also keeps the institutional form of our relationship (money) in line with our convictions. And I hope it stays that way until some of these key issues are satisfactorily resolved.

For BYM this stance was sparked mainly in reaction to Elephant #1, FUM’;s homophobic culture and policy, which was on flagrant and repulsive display in Kenya, and which has impacted BYM in particular before. Yet it also serves very well for dealing with the second, which in my view is just as bad: it means we are not helping keep afloat the culture of corruption that is so ingrained in FUM’;s relations with its international missions.

For me this is absolutely the proper stance; no funds should go to any such projects without ironclad guarantees that they will be honestly and properly used. Not a dime. I would welcome the addition of an anti-corruption concern to BYM’;s brief in support of its stance.

In this connection, I have heard references to a legacy of colonialism and racism in the relationships between American Friends and Kenyans. No doubt that history is there; and the present reality of vast differences in wealth persists. Nevertheless, I am unmoved by any replaying of such rhetorical cards to argue for our continuing to support theft, embezzlement or diversion. Tolerating corruption does not promote justice, equality, development, or for that matter, the gospel. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is as orthodox as anyone could ask.

But perhaps liberal Friends could be helpful to FUM in this area. Because we are mostly not invested in the corrupt aspects of this system, if we send them representatives who are knowledgeable, sophisticated and vocally intolerant of such malfeasance, they could be a valuable resource if and when the corporate culture becomes truly ready for positive change.

The BYM stance could likewise serve as a useful starting point for tackling Elephant #3, the Richmond Declaration. Informed challenges to the outdated and divisive notions which produced it are entirely in order, and in fact have been raised repeatedly since its drafting in 1887. Informed theological debate would be an asset to FUM, no matter how annoying some might find it.

However, in this regard, liberal Friends as a group are hobbled by their gross ignorance of theology generally, never mind the specific theology underlying that document, and the very dubious interpretation of the Bible the Declaration purports to uphold. If the liberal YMs were to insist that their representatives to FUM were knowledgeable in these areas, and ready to advocate for them, the level of discourse could be much elevated, though differences would not be banished. I am not overly hopeful about much progress there, in the short run at least. But the hope remains, as does the need.

As for Elephants #4 and #5, the internal divisions and membership collapse decimating so many of the “orthodox” FUM bodies, I don’;t think the liberal YMs really have much to offer, except perhaps an example of a Quaker way that is proving to be much more viable. Not that I expect many of the “orthodox” bodies to follow this other path — although here and there, I hear of local Friends churches moving in that direction, and they could bear encouragement and fellowship.

Indeed, overall the plight of FUM appears to be growing increasingly grave. The sudden resignation of Patrick Nugent, as devoted and able a servant as the body has had in recent decades, is for me a telling and somber indicator. Less dramatic reports of downsizings and cutbacks in its operations have become a regular occurrence.

NO Bailouts: As these comments suggest, my perception is that these misfortunes are largely self-inflicted. In this case, it would be a big mistake, I believe, for liberal Friends to heed any call to rescue FUM from the consequences of these internal weaknesses, financial, theological, or otherwise, until at least elephants One, Two and Three have been dealt with.

Similarly, I am unable to go along with pleas to keep quiet about these things in the interest of some notion of civility or fear of giving offense. Sermons describing LGBT persons as worthy of death need to be vigorously repudiated, whenever they appear. Ignoring corruption only feeds the cancer. And challenging the flawed theology of the Richmond Declaration is a mandate.

At the same time, liberal FUM Friends can be ready to help pick up the pieces. And by continuing to stand up for their core values, they can bear a useful, if not always comfortable, witness, and build community with those who are prepared to do so.

As far as it can be glimpsed from here, the future for FUM looks clouded and troubled indeed. The role of the liberal YMs within it is likely to continue to be beset by controversy and occasional acrimony. Such it seems is our fate. Will liberal Friends in FUM be up to this call?

Send comments to: chuckfager(at)aol(dot)com

A response from Patrick Nugent, former head of Friends Theological College, Kenya

– – – – – – – – – –

Reports On The Kenya FUM Sessions Available on the Web

(If I have missed links, please let me know.)

SEYM Rep’;s report (Lisa Stewart): http://www.seym.org/FUMltrs.pdf/FUM%20GEN%20BOARD%20IN%20AFRICA%5B1%5D.pdf

New York YM Reps’; report on Kenya FUM Session:

http://www.nyym.org/pubs/FUMRepsReport0704.pdf

Will Taber of New England YM’;s blog report on his trip to Kenya — with numerous comments: http://gtitl.blogspot.com/2007/02/back-from-africa-with-broken-heart.html

Will Taber’;s comments on “the discussion so far”: http://gtitl.blogspot.com/2007/03/reflections-on-conversation-thus-far.html

Transparency International International Corruption report:

http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2006

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