Dave Zarembka: “Not To Engage FUM Is Cowardly”

The short essay below is by a Friend who has spent much time in Africa, working with the Africa Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) project.

I believe Dave makes some cogent points. In particular, I agree that “engaging” Friends United Meeting (FUM) over the issues of homophobia, and the other matters listed in my post below, “Wrestling With a Roomful of Elephants,” is the best course.

I also think such “engagement” can be done in a variety of ways. The path that makes the most sense to me is the one currently followed by my own YM, Baltimore, which has stayed a member of FUM, but has declined to send financial support while its homophobic policies remain in place. (I’m not sure what Dave Zarembka, who is also a member of Baltimore YM, thinks of this stance, and don’t wish to imply that he shares it.)

For those not associated with FUM, but who want to follow Dave’s advice, let me suggest they consider support of the Africa Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI, a project of Friends Peace Teams. Friends Peace Teams is a group based in St. Louis, which is supported by 17 US Yearly Meetings. Among these are three pastoral-FUM groups, but none of the Evangelical YMs.

AGLI has organized many workshops and trainings regarding violence reduction and healing in the aftermath of violence. [One very interesting account of an American unprogrammed Quaker’s volunteer stint with AGLI is online here .] AGLI works with FUM-sponsored groups in Kenya, but is not itself under FUM’s umbrella.

Thanks to Dave for a useful and thought-provoking contribution to this conversation.

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FUM, Kenyan Homosexuality, and “Liberal” Yearly Meetings

By David Zarembka, Bethesda Monthly Meeting, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, USA

Sojourning at Lumakanda Friends Church, Lugari Yearly Meeting, Kenya

 Charles Njonjo was the very powerful Kenyan Attorney General during the Kenyatta administration after Independence in 1963. On May 22, 2008 Charles Njonjo may have done the most courageous thing in his life. In the Daily Nation (the largest newspaper in Kenya with a circulation of over 1,000,000) he had an opinion piece titled “Failing to attend the Lambeth Conference is cowardly.” His bi-line says he is “a former Cabinet Minister and a staunch member of the Anglican Church.” I don’t know if you keep up with the Anglican (Episcopal) Church controversy but they ordained a gay bishop in New Hampshire a few years ago and the controversy is destroying the Anglican Church worldwide. The Lambeth Conference is where the Anglican Bishops get together every five years to discuss issues and the Kenyan Bishops have refused to go because of the controversy over the ordination of the gay bishop.

Njonjo, as the title indicates, states that they ought to be there to be part of the debate. Then he ends his piece with the following:

I find it impossible to keep quiet when people are frequently hounded, vilified, molested, and even killed as targets of homophobia for something they did not choose–their sexual orientation. Where is our Christian charity?

How sad it is that the Church should be so obsessed with this particular issue of human sexuality when God’s children are facing massive problems–poverty, disease, corruption, and conflict.

This is the first time I have seen any Kenyan publicly criticize the homophobia of the Christian Churches and society here in Kenya.

 On June 8, a columnist in the Daily Nation, Gitau Warigi, responds to Njonjo’s opinion piece in “Split in Anglican fraternity now almost inevitable.” First he comments, “I don’t want to believe Charles Njonjo is homosexual.” In other words the implication is that anyone who support homosexuals may be one him/herself. He ends the article with this statement:

 I suspect that even if the Archbishop of Canterbury started advocating cannibalism, Njonjo would want the Kenyan bishops to stick with England. Poor guy.

This is the level of public discourse here in Kenya about homosexuality. The easiest thing to do is to run away from this, purify oneself in self-righteousness, and speak in disparaging tones to one another.

 Let me give a more positive example. Before we left for the US in March 2008, Gladys Kamonya (my wife, a Kenya Quaker from FUM background) and I had arranged to have an AVP basic workshop in Lumakanda where we live with some of the youth. This was done on March 3 to 5. When we returned, we asked the organizing committee of the youth who attended the workshop to come to our house so that we could hear their report and plan for the future. In their reporting of the workshop I asked each one of the five youth (3 male, 2 female) to give me an example or two of things that they implemented from what they had learned in the AVP workshop. John, one of the young men, related this story:

 A youth with a great, heavy problem came to him. The problem was that he had strong homosexual tendencies. (Note that in a very homophobic society like here in rural Lumakanda, there is a strong possibility of suicide or other self-destructive behavior by someone with “strong homosexual tendencies.”) John said that he listened to his friend and tried to have him see things positively (a “lesson” in AVP). He concluded that his friend was much relieved and that he and John continued to talk frequently. Now one can complain that John did not realize that the “strong homosexual tendency” is not something that is going to go away, but remember this is not the USA, or even Nairobi, but a totally rural isolated countryside. John’s listening (which he learned in the AVP workshop) to his friend was probably the best possible solution in the environment here.

 I then asked John what he would have done before the AVP workshop. John replied that he would have thought his friend sinful and bad and would have avoided him. This is a rather major change in attitude due to a three-day workshop!

 So when other incidences like this arise, are unprogrammed American Friends going to be around? Do we shun those we do not agree with or do we engage them as the way opens?

I have discussed this issue with a number of Kenyan Quakers who are not homophobic. Do we support them or leave them alone as a suppressed, vilified minority? Ironically I know a number of lesbians who have come to the Great Lake countries and have interacted with African Quakers, who sometimes knew that they were lesbians. (I don’t know of any gays because most of the visitors from the US are female—that in itself is something to ponder!)

 One straight Evangelical Friend (not from a FUM yearly meeting, but an Evangelical Friends yearly meeting!) I met on her way to Kenya told me that one of her good friends, a gay, refused to donate to her work because of the homophobia of the Kenyan Friends. Wait! This is not a “liberal” Friend, but one of those we see as the “opponent!”

 And then there was a Friend from this region of Africa whom American Friends assumed was homophobic and discriminated against on this account when in the US. I talked with him in person and found he was not homophobic and had him stay a week with a lesbian couple to prove it. He was thankful for their hospitality.

 If the unprogrammed yearly meetings withdraw from FUM because of the issue of homosexuality, I hope people realize that this implies that you will never visit any of Africa (except South Africa) because if you do so—on an animal safari, to attend a conference, to visit people you know—you will be supporting that homophobic society. Are we ready to launch a boycott of Africa (as people did about South Carolina because of the confederate flag controversy)?

 Since 1902 FUM Friends from the US have engaged with Kenyan Friends. The unprogrammed Friends have not, staying in their own cocoon of respectable, middle-class professionalism.

 My own meeting in the United States, Bethesda Monthly Meeting, has recently passed a resolution asking Baltimore Yearly Meeting to withdraw from Friends United Meeting—perhaps because I am here in Kenya and could not stand in the way. I well remember Bethesda Meeting in the early 1990’s when I would have classified it as “homophobic.” We spent two or three years going through the process as a group to understand where people were coming from. I saw those with the greatest resistance come around through this period. This is the process that I hope Bethesda Meeting and Baltimore Yearly Meeting will do with the people in Kenya, although I would expect that this will take decades and decades of active work.

 I appeal in particular to those who are gays and lesbians that they not desert those in Kenya, those in FUM who wish to see a less homophobic society both in the United States and Kenya.

 So if I may paraphrase Charles Njonjo, “”Failing to engage with FUM is cowardly.”

One thought on “Dave Zarembka: “Not To Engage FUM Is Cowardly””

  1. Chuck, and David, thank you for posting this. You may be interested in a new article from the upcoming July Friends Journal, which is up on the FJ website now. It’s titled “Conflict in the Life of Our Meeting: Friends Peace Testimony at Work?” by Arlene Kelly. Here’s a brief excerpt, which certainly poses some queries that are useful for Friends interested in engagement. The article is here: http://friendsjournal.org/peace-testimony-work

    “I am sad to say that my experience teaches me that we have a wide gap between what we preach and what we practice when it comes to engaging and transforming the conflicts that arise in our meetings. And why is this? To the extent that we do fail to practice what we preach, is it due to our fear of conflict? […] Or, might it be due to our failure to recognize that some of the things we do to each other in community, indeed some of the things we do to avoid conflict, are essentially violent?”

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