“Roomful of Elephants” – A Response by Patrick Nugent

A response by Patrick Nugent, who is soon to complete his work as Principal of Friends Theological College.


Introduction: I’ve long admired Patrick Nugent for the high quality of his theological scholarship and reflection (see this essay for a fine example: http://www.quaker.org/quest/issue7-2-nugent01.htm . I also bow to his commitment to putting that theology into practice, as in his service in Kenya.

Thus I’m honored that he took my post on FUM’s recent travails seriously enough to respond to it. This response is posted in full below, and to make it more of a conversation, several comments by me are interspersed within it. My comments are marked in this bold font and prefaced by “CF:” the resumption of Patrick’s text is noted by “PN:” ]

PN: Some Friends informed me of this post—I’m not a great blog-reader, partly because of very limited internet access. But this post was interesting and, I believe, deserves extensive comment. It is an interesting contribution to the discussion of tensions and fissures in FUM, from a liberal Friend’s point of view. But despite Chuck’s kind words about my work at Friends Theological College, I need to correct three points. (By the way, I am principal, not director: beware journalists who don’t report the details correctly.)

CF: The use of “Director” was indeed my mistake, and I regret the error.

PN: First, Chuck’s experience on FUM’s missions committee twenty years ago is twenty years old. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, particularly in the area of corruption. It is too bad that Chuck does not report the progress FUM has made in this area over the last 20 years.

CF: Patrick raises two useful issues here.

First about “reporting”: Since the mid-1990s I have seen FUM mainly from the vantage point of an interested member of one of its YMs, rather than as a reporter. Indeed, I “retired” from active journalism when I took my present position in North Carolina in late 2001. Thus, the original post on the Kenya FUM sessions and its aftermath was not “reporting,” but rather commentary.

The materials I drew on in drafting it were the several reports about the Kenya sessions that were made available to me, as well as information picked up in other Quaker settings, plus my own reading and recollections. This kind of a second-order discussion is one I believe legitimate and worthwhile, but is not to be equated with first-hand reporting.

This brings us to the second issue Patrick raised: work in FUM against corruption in recent years. I am sure there has been some. I have occasionally picked up informal signals about such efforts. However, I have yet to hear any detailed discussion of such efforts in any “open” Quaker setting. Such information as I have picked up has come almost exclusively from private conversations, off the floor of YMs or conferences. I had to coax to get it.

To be sure, I have not read everything, nor attended all possible meetings; so perhaps some such open discussions were missed. Yet my current information base is not so much narrower than that of a typical interested, non-expert member of my YM.

Despite such qualifications, I stand by my sense that the issue of corruption continues to be discussed mainly sotto voce, behind closed doors, and among a small circle of those most “in the know.” Even as an active member of my YM, if I had not sought out and asked informed Friends about it over several years, I don’t know if I would have heard anything about it.

This habit in FUM needs to change. It is time for the work against corruption to be put out front, and discussed in candid detail in written reports and open sessions, both its successes and setbacks, for as long as it continues to be an issue. I repeat my gratitude to the New York YM reps for writing plainly about it, and I hope their example will be widely followed.

PN: Also, as I remember from reading the Friendly [paper] Letter lo these many years ago, Chuck was shocked about corruption among Kenyan Friends when it first came to his attention.

CF: This is correct; it was shocking then, and shocks me still.

PN: What he does not report is that corruption is not endemic to Kenyan Friends; it is endemic to Africa. The reasons are complex and manifold. But the point is that every aspect of life in Africa is riddled with corruption, both minute and grand.

CF: Agreed. Many African nations are listed among the most corrupt in the rankings of such monitoring groups as Transparency International http://ctlibrary.com/2482 . However, my intention here was not to attempt an essay on general corruption in Africa (on which I am not an expert anyway), but to comment on the Kenya FUM sessions and what I took to be their larger Quaker context. In this wider setting, corruption and the need to name and combat it was one major issue, or “elephant in the room,” of five that I posed, although I would put it at the head of the pack.

PN: Quakerism of both the evangelical and the liberal varieties in the Anglo-Saxon world have habitually unmoored themselves from Quaker roots and accommodated to the culture. African Friends have done the same. (Is their corruption morally worse than our voracious and addictive consumer appetite?) Both the New York Yearly Meeting report and Chuck’s commentary about corruption overlook the fact that there but for the grace of God go they.

CF: Here I would differ somewhat from Patrick’s assertion of moral equivalence between African fiscal corruption vs. American-Anglo-Saxon consumerism. Rather, I am clear that American-Anglo-Saxon cultures can be just as fiscally corrupt as any in Africa, varying only in the opportunities offered by their respective settings. Indeed, I would go further and assert that US culture has set world historical records for fiscal corruption in recent years. And I find such US corruption just as shocking as any in Africa. In sum, there, despite the grace of God, we HAVE gone, and gone in spades.

Such fiscal corruption has likewise infected many US church groups, Friends not excepted – and I have not overlooked this either. In my last years of journalistic work, I reported extensively on US church corruption cases, both on my own and for one of the leading American Evangelical publications.

Here, for the curious, are two examples: the first from “Christianity Today”, about a $100 million scam http://ctlibrary.com/2482 ; and the other a report on $35 million worth of frauds perpetrated against Friends and others http://www.afriendlyletter.com/files/updates.html

I mention these to underline the point that my comments about corruption in FUM-related African projects were not written from a stance of presumed moral superiority. Rather, the frame I would plump for is solidarity in sin. And the result for me is the same on either continent: fiscal corruption deserves to be exposed and combated wherever it appears. And I say that as one with a modest paper trail of speaking about this on both sides of the Atlantic.

PN: And whatever one’s own opinions on homosexuality, African Quakers look on the liberal American acceptance of it with the same horror with which Americans look at corruption in Africa. (What most western commentators have not figured out is that the outcry over homosexuality in the Anglican church and others is not about homosexuality at all, or hardly; it is that Africans finally have a moral stick with which to beat westerners over the head the way westerners have been, for decades, beating Africans about the head over corruption, in precisely the way Chuck is doing. It is about standing up with an independent voice against what Kenyans call “our former colonial masters.”)

CF: While no doubt there is some such stick-wielding involved, this second effort at moral equivalence does not carry much weight with me. It smacks far too much of diversion and distraction, of being a smokescreen; I have seen numerous similar attempts in the US church corruption cases I reported on. And they did not hold water.

One other reason it fails to convince is because homosexuality does not equate to dishonesty. LGBT persons are no more (and no less) prone to thievery than heterosexuals. Thus, affirming gay persons in my YM, for instance, does not thereby make my YM corrupt. Moreover, most of the church thieves I have reported on were openly heterosexual, in groups which officially excluded LGBT persons. This effort at equivalence falls flat.

PN: Corruption is endemic to every church in Kenya, and every church struggles with it in varying degrees. For better or for worse, the presence of expatriates is a crucial moderating force against ecclesial corruption, and regularly brings friction when accountability is insisted on.

CF: This sounds like an affirmative restatement in different words of what the NYYM reps wrote, and I quoted.

PN: Second, neither Chuck nor the authors of the NYYM report have bothered to investigate whether the Usual Suspects who hosted American and Canadian Friends around Kenya were in fact the heart and soul of the church. In fact, the elderly yearly meeting leaders who use church money to show up at FUM events are increasingly marginal.

CF: I don’t have the information to challenge Patrick’s estimate of the marginality of these “Usual Suspects” who get to squire US visitors around. And I certainly hope they are marginal. But if they remain the gatekeepers, the main interface between FUM-related US visitors and Kenyan Quakerism, that sounds to me like a serious problem on that end, and one which it is quite proper to name and call out, as the NYYM reps did.

PN: The heart of Kenyan Quakerism is in the Pentecostally-fired young people, who are more fierce in their opposition [to] corruption than we anemic Americans could ever hope to be, because it is THEIR church that the corrupt elders have ruined. But most liberal FUM visitors would never know this, because so few have bothered to spend any time in sharing and conversation with these young Friends.

CF: But some have bothered, and their reports are unfortunately not as encouraging as Patrick’s description.

For instance, Rachel Stacy, one FUM rep from my YM, had met numerous young Kenyans at the Mombasa session of the World Gathering of Young Friends (WGYF). This rep wrote that the empathetic WGYF discussions about LGBT issues had been described in Kenyan newspapers, and evoked considerable backlash, including from the aged and compromised Kenyan Quaker “establishment.” She then reported, in the FUM sessions, that . . .

“Therefore in retaliation of this scandalous publicity, Kenyan Friends’ leadership took an even more public and rigid stance against individuals who identified as gay or lesbian. Youth leaders, many of whom are close friends of mine, understood that if they spoke positively about their experiences with gay and lesbian Friends at the World Gathering, they would not find themselves in leadership in the years to come. What resulted was that several young leaders, including the General Secretary and Clerk of Uganda Yearly Meeting, spoke out against all who supported and continue to support homosexuals.” [Italics added.]

If indeed these younger Friends saw no practical option in their environment but to join this homophobic chorus, I can try to be forgiving (love the sinner), but it is no less shameful that they did so (hate the sin). And this report does not strengthen the fulsome case that Patrick makes on their behalf below.

PN: A couple of evangelical Friends superintendents, and a larger number of other evangelical Friends, have at least had the courtesy to transcend ecclesiastical tourism and actually spend time “sharing the condition” of Friends on a more sustained and local basis. It is too bad that neither the New York Friends nor Chuck chose to report on, or even mention, the dedication service of the new Meetinghouse at FTC, nor the remarks which FTC’s chairman, Moses Shiribwa Smith, gave on that occasion.

CF: Alas, I am among those who are even more ignorant than the “ecclesiastical tourists” Patrick scorns, in that I have not visited Kenya at all. In light of that lack of first-hand experience, I’d normally prefer to keep silent. But since FUM folks come around regularly, wanting me and the groups I’m part of to give money for projects there, and do not require that we have visited Kenya before taking our donations, I have felt obliged to do such “due diligence” as I could from where I am. My situation is that of most potential donors in the US.

PN: These young people—by young I mean younger than about 60, because the first generation of young rebels began to rise up about 1975—are committed to a Friends church with a deeply-rooted and spiritually powerful Christianity, which they perceive as diametrically opposed to the heartless and cold religion of their elders and the Americans.

CF: I can’t speak about the “heartless and cold” religion of the Kenyan elders; but among US Quakers, I find the temperature and cardiac activity varying widely, which only marginally fits this picture. Certainly US Quakerdom is not above criticism. I have often been critical of aspects of it myself, as Patrick knows, and likely will be again, perhaps even before this exchange is completed.

Yet US Quakerdom has also produced giants, not just in the long ago, but in my time. And not only giants, but saints and martyrs too. So as an advocate of “different strokes,” I’ll leave the Kenyan “Young Turks” to their preferences, but I’ll keep my own, thank thee very much, without apology.

PN: These young people have initiated a variety of social-service and educational projects which neither use nor seek American help. Because corruption is endemic in Africa, it exerts constant pressure on anyone who starts projects like these. They need support and training—which is available in Kenya from Kenyans—in the methods and practices necessary to withstand that pressure—things which go under the rubric of accountability. They will sometimes not succeed, but often they do, without any notice from Americans or help from mzungu [i.e., foreign] money.

CF: My hat is off to these pioneers, and I wish them all success. I also hope they withstand the temptations of corruption better than all too many US Christians have.

PN: Neither the New York Friends nor Chuck care enough about Kenyans themselves to have actually investigated these things.

CF: Tsk, tsk, Patrick. You do not know how and to what extent either I or the NY Friends “care” about Kenyans. The New Yorkers can speak for themselves; for my part, crying out about corruption and virulent homophobia are not signs of indifference, even if you think them so. To the contrary.

PN: Good journalists, and good foreign visitors, know that no single source ever gives the whole story, and sadly Chuck and the New Yorkers have investigatory tunnel-vision.

CF: Single source? My commentary was based on, besides my own studies and experience, no less than six different reports by as many participants in the Kenya FUM sessions, plus additional illuminating comments from a dozen or so more. All were from the US, true, and I don’t suggest this is a comprehensive body of data. But it’s not exactly a “single-source” situation.

PN: The real life in the Friends church is the young, and they are making the kind of progress that, if revealed, would burst the balloon of self-righteousness which is concerned more about bashing FUM than reporting something resembling truth about Kenyans. The young have been largely ignored by the elders (though this is changing), and liberal American Friends have dutifully followed suit.

CF: Rhetorical flourishes aside, Patrick makes an important point here. To the extent that younger Kenyan Friends are indeed making their church better and more honest, US Friends certainly do need to hear more about it. I hope these changes will include naming and banishing the patterns of codependency which the NYYM reps spoke of and which have been in evidence in the dealings between FUM and many Kenyan projects for so long. And I will look for evidence of such change becoming visible, highlighted and documented, in ways that even a parochial American like this one can’t help but see it.

PN: The specter of corruption is an instrument by which liberal American Friends manipulate Kenyan realities to fight American battles.

CF: Perhaps this may be true of some. Yet only the NYYM reps spoke of it in the reports I read, so they are the only ones who would qualify as targets for Patrick’s ire here. I don’t know their minds or hearts, but I’m very doubtful that they wrote about it as part of some manipulative intrigue, and I certainly reject that description as applying to myself.

A bit of background may be in order here. Personally, I learned the most about the meaning and implications of this endemic “specter of corruption,” not from a liberal, but from a very Evangelical Friend and longtime missionary, the late Everett Cattell of Eastern Region (EFI). He wrote a book called “Christian Mission – A Matter of Life,” which is now very hard to find, but which spoke in a final section in some detail about the pervasiveness of corruption in mission groups.

Cattell took a very “hard line” on the matter, insisting that “No support” was the only honest and Christian response thereto. His goal in saying that was not to smite the projects he had labored for so many decades to plant and build, but rather to promote probity, transparency, and accountability in them, and honesty in their relationships to donors.

My own similar calls twenty years ago and this year are but fainter echoes of Cattell, and he would agree with my assertion that “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is as Orthodox a doctrine as anyone could ask.

Moreover, I’m not sure how to make sense of Patrick’s remark here except to infer that the alleged manipulations of some liberal American Friends may indicate that a bargain in this controversy is being bruited, hinting perhaps that if the Kenyans will accept our tolerance for LGBT folks, then we’ll let them have their corruption.

If this is what some are after, then, to quote a famous movie mogul, I say, “Include me OUT.” Corruption should be ruthlessly exposed and rooted out, in Kenya and the US, among liberals as well as evangelicals, regardless of what happens on LGBT issues.

If my post and the NYYM report help in some small ways to make this issue of corruption more visible and salient on FUM’s agenda in dealing with its US constituency, that would make it worthwhile.
PN: Which—to modulate to another key—is precisely what the evangelical American Friends did with the February board meeting, where the Kenyan elders were told by the Americans that they should support the Richmond Declaration because it prohibits homosexuality. In a group conversation after that discussion with about a dozen church leaders, it became clear both that the elders had been given this impression, and that none of them had bothered to read the Richmond Declaration. (That document is contained in the East African Faith and Practice, which many of the elders hate because it argues for practices which limit the terms and the powers of presiding clerks. To expect them to read it there was unrealistic.) I asked whether anyone had read it, and most said they hadn’t. One (younger) man said he had, but couldn’t find the section on homosexuality. I reported that the R.D. says nothing about homosexuality, only about biblical authority (the passage on which the evangelical superintendents were pinning their hopes). The shock and anger was a thing to behold—not dramatic, but simmering. You see, Kenyan Friends of any age despise being made into pawns for American political battles. And this is what we do to Africans, again and again, whether we’re talking about George Bush’s prohibition of funding family planning, or liberal and evangelical American Quakers battling over FUM.

CF: The above paragraph contains Patrick’s original contribution to the reports on the Kenya sessions, and I consider it a blockbuster. The rep from Southeastern YM reported that the discussion of the Richmond Declaration felt scripted and orchestrated to her and other liberal reps; Patrick now provides evidence that this was indeed so. Shame on those who set it up that way.

And yet – I’m not able to join Patrick in absolving the Kenyans of responsibility here. This applies especially to the apparently too-onerous task of actually reading the Richmond Declaration before they eagerly took up its cause, as a way of currying favor with some American donor prospects by bashing liberals and LGBT folks.

Sorry – this seems no less sleazy than the American advocates’ misrepresentation of the Declaration’s text. If the Kenyans could manage to read Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (from whence the “gays-should-die” text/pretext was ripped), why is it “unrealistic” to expect them to read the Declaration? It’s shorter.

Moreover, it’s not clear how Patrick puts the advocacy of tolerance of LGBT folks by liberal FUM Friends in the same category of manipulation as the Richmond Declaration fiasco. Can he cite some corresponding case of a homophile conspiracy?

PN: It’s too bad Chuck didn’t tell you about Moses Shiribwa Smith or Florence Machayo, two Friends who spend enormous amounts of their time training local Kenyan communities, both inside and outside the Friends church, in how to vote without fraud, how to manage government community-development grants with accountability, and how to hold government leaders accountable even when it hurts. Too bad Chuck didn’t tell you about the leadership training seminars that AQUAVIS (more below about them) have been sponsoring for a decade or more, training Quaker leaders in how to bring accountability, honesty, and participation to the management of church affairs. Too bad Chuck didn’t tell you about John Muhanji of FUM’s Africa Ministries Office, who continues to challenge Quaker leaders—successfully—to use their own capacity to initiate new mission and service projects using Kenyan time, talent, and treasure. (And too bad the New York report was silent about this, too.) Too bad Chuck hasn’t reported on the heroic efforts of Lugulu Hospital’s all-Kenyan board over the last two decades to keep that hospital running as a highly-respected medical institution with a desperate shortage of funds, and to keep it accountable and transparent without much American help in doing so. It’s too bad Chuck hasn’t told you about the work teams of (mostly) evangelical American Quakers who come ostensibly to provide some work and material for Kenyan projects, but end up having their understanding of the world broadened and their own consumerism and materialism seriously challenged. It’s too bad Chuck hasn’t reported on FUM’s resumption of managing the forlorn Kaimosi Friends Hospital, not pumping money into it but serving as the catalyst for gathering an expert and committed Kenyan board which, against all odds, is making remarkable headway in bringing financial integrity (and local market funding) to that suffering institution. Most of all, it’s really too bad that Chuck didn’t tell you that since the arrival of Rich and Sandy in 1997, FUM has been a firm and constant voice and hand AGAINST corruption in the church, and more importantly has empowered a generation of Kenyan Friends to demand accountability from their church leaders. None of these efforts are perfect, but all are counter-evidence to Chuck’s unfortunate, and inaccurate, polemic.

CF: I applaud all such efforts at better accountability and transparency, and can only repeat my call for their anti-corruption aspects to become more salient and explicit in reports and discussions, particularly with US Friends.

PN: Third: Chuck repeatedly insinuates that American Quaker money is funding corrupt Kenyan projects, but he provides no evidence. His citing of Friends who were repeatedly shown looted projects funded by Americans neglects to say that those projects had been fully run down by the early 80s, and most had ceased being FUM-funded by that time (if ever they were). He insinuates that FUM-funded projects are still being run down by Kenyan corruption.

CF: Actually, Patrick, what I did was to quote from the NYYM reps’ report on the pervasiveness of corruption today; and backed this up with contextual references to authorities like Transparency International. True, my personal involvement is mainly in the past; but current reports indicate that the problem persists and is ongoing.

And Patrick, didn’t you say much the same thing above? Specifically: “Corruption is endemic to every church in Kenya, and every church struggles with it in varying degrees.” I’m not sure I’m adding much to that.
PN: But the perceptive reader will notice that he has provided no evidence. FUM currently supports (i.e., funds) the following projects: Friends Theological College, Friends United Meeting’s Africa Ministries Office, Lugulu Friends Hospital, Kaimosi Friends Hospital, Turkana Friends Mission, and Samburu Friends Mission. They also provide occasional support to, and get a lot of advice from, Africa Quaker Vision (AQUAVIS). Let me begin with AQUAVIS: it does not appear on the radar screens of either Chuck or the New York Friends. Why? First, because they didn’t investigate before reporting, and second, because it provides counter-evidence to the theme that FUM projects run by Kenyans are corrupt. Perhaps also because it was dreamed up, established, implemented, and carried out by young professional Kenyan Quakers. (Neither the NYYM report nor Chuck’s would give you any sense that there is any such thing as a young professional Kenyan: both pander to stereotypes of Kenyans and poor and rural, a stereotype the church elders would like you to sustain.)

CF: Let’s pause here and parse something out. It appears that Patrick is telling us that in Kenyan Quakerdom there is a deep-seated conflict underway. On one side is a group of “Usual Suspects” who are mainly (exclusively?) Entrenched Church elders, and who have “ruined” the Kenyan church. These have an interest in keeping gullible (but comparatively wealthy) FUM-Americans on board in supporting corrupt practices, and maintaining stereotypes of all Kenyan Friends as poor, rural, and desperate. He also seems to be saying that these elders are doing an excellent job at hoodwinking such folks as the NYYM reps, who were there, and myself, who was not.

And on the other side, he seems to be telling us that there is a rising group of competent and honest younger Friends who are in the process of displacing them with better projects and practices.

If all this is so, then we have an underlying story here that deserves to be described explicitly and in more detail, for the benefit of all involved, but particularly those Americans who are most vulnerable to being manipulated by the “Usual Suspects.”

This is an important point. My commentary about Kenyan Quakerdom could justly be criticized as based on second-hand information. But what about the NYYM reps, who went there and spent several days visiting and being briefed? What’s going on there if such visitors can be sold the bill of goods that Patrick says they were? Especially since the NYYM folks were very empathetic to Kenyan Quakerism, as is made plain elsewhere in their report? If they came away with such an inaccurate view of the level of corruption there, is that entirely their fault? I don’t think so.

As part of opening up this story, my sense is that the non-Usual Suspect Kenyan Friends have a big job to do in overthrowing this establishment, and the sooner the better. And those who represent Kenyan Friends to outside groups would be well-served by making this conflict of generations (if that is what it is), clear to US friends, so we can make better-informed judgments about our own involvements.

PN: Their projects have been designed by Kenyans and, until recently, supported exclusively by Kenyan money. They’ve only had trouble (administrative, not corruption-related) when Americans (Eastern liberal Quakers, BTW) started poking their noses in and telling them what to do, how to do it, and imposing money that the Kenyans never asked for. In fact, one of the largest recent AQUAVIS projects has been not a funded-charity project, but a volunteer effort in which the members work on behalf of Right Sharing of World Resources to evalutate RSWR-funded projects to make sure that they are transparent, accountable, and progressing.

About the other FUM projects: I challenge Chuck EITHER to provide concrete, documentable evidence of corruption and misuse of FUM money at ANY of these institutions since 1997 (when Rich and Sandy Davis first came to Kenya), or to withdraw and apologize publicly to the staff of FUM for his accusations of continued corruption.

And I urge readers to understand – contrary to another unspoken assumption in Chuck’s commentary—that most Quaker projects in Kenya—corrupt or not—are NOT funded by FUM. Even if Chuck were to investigate and find corrupt Quaker projects, offices, or leaders in Kenya, that does not mean that these are funded or condoned by FUM, any more than the Friendly Letter is an FUM projects because Chuck is a member of an FUM-related YM (I think). But it’s really sad that Chuck gives you no inklings of Kenyan successes. It’s too bad, for instance, that Chuck didn’t tell you anything about the hundreds of Quaker schools in Western Kenya, from tiny, miserable local mud-and tin schools supported by Sunday offerings, to the phenomenally-successful Kaimosi Teachers College (1000 students), Friends Girls School Kaimosi (600), or Friends School Kamusinga—all nationally-ranked, highly respected Quaker institutions which receive not a copper penny of American money (and have nothing to do with FUM). It’s too bad Chuck hasn’t reported on the heroic efforts of Kenyan Quaker WOMEN (United Society of Friends Women) over a generation who have consistently resisted both corruption and the fragmentation Yearly Meetings. It’s too bad Chuck hasn’t informed you about projects like the health clinic at Njoro Friends Church, built with funds donated by American Quaker women and built and managed by Kenyan Quaker USFW women, or the orphanage at Amalemba supported by New England Friends and managed with great integrity by Kenyan USFW women. It’s too bad Chuck hasn’t told you about the co-operative efforts of American, Canadian, and a large number of Kenyan Friends to bring AVP to several communities in Kenya—the facilitators are now all Kenyan and the program is burgeoning, with new institutions like the Peace Centre at Lubao, or continuing initiatives such as the peace-building between Christians and Muslims at the Coast, or emergency responses such as the efforts of Friends Churches—almost uniquely, if I am properly informed—to open their doors to refugees from the ethnic conflicts on Mt. Elgon. None of these projects, to my knowledge, has attracted any accusation of corruption, and none have any but a peripheral relationship to FUM.

CF: This listing brings forward two other dimensions of the situation there which may be relevant. First, that many of those from the West who have had a concern to work among African Friends have gone outside and around FUM to do so. My sense is that this is not an accident.

And second, it reinforces other reports I have heard that the conflicts among Kenyan Friends have a gender dimension as well as a generational one: is it just my American myopia, or are most of the honest and competent projects there run mainly by women?

PN: I will leave aside Chuck’s discussion of the viability of FUM, the proceedings of the February General Board Meeting, or similar matters. He makes important contributions to a difficult and painful discussion.

CF: But I will urge readers not to leave aside taking note of this all-too brief, and relatively favorable reference to the bulk of my initial post.

PN. But I am deeply disappointed that he used our resignation as fodder for the least reliable of his arguments, because he does not present his readers with a truthful picture. Our resignation had nothing to do with FUM as an organization. The expenses of education teenage children on the mission field are gargantuan, more so when we decided to send our children to a moderate Christian school which is more expensive than the fundamentalist institution to which we were expected to send them. Boarding school is hard for Americans to understand (myself included—I almost resigned when it became clear we had to send our kids), more so when it is expensive.

CF: For the record, I attended boarding school, one of my children attended boarding school, and I have a grandchild who may well do so. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject; but perhaps I can claim eligibility for some relief from the sweep of Patrick’s comment here.

PN: More importantly, FUM cannot support our children’s college education, nor can we on an FUM salary. A much bigger issue, which we downplayed in our newsletter so as not to “blame” our families, is the need to care for elderly parents in difficult circumstances. Good journalistic practice—even for commentary—would mandate checking facts with the source before quoting material.

I am confident that in fact FUM Friends could support many more families and individuals in the field—in fact they already do, they’re just not FUM staff.

CF: Sorry, Patrick, I am not so confident about that. A great many US FUM groups have much difficulty in supporting their own pastors, never mind workers elsewhere. Here perhaps we can simply agree to disagree. I don’t believe I distorted your resignation letter, and stand by my sense of FUM’s institutional weakness, of which it seemed an example.

PN: The issue, for better or for worse, is that the wide theological range of FUM Friends has made it impossible to express anything more than an anemic theological and spiritual rationale for international service. Liberal Friends don’t support FUM much because they suspect, and disagree with, the evangelicals. Evangelicals are very generous with their support, but not nearly as generous as they could be, because they suspect, and disagree with, the liberals. Whether any of that is right or wrong is beside the point: it’s just fact.

CF: I have no quarrel with Patrick’s outline of the fact of these differences. But I part company with those who believe that “if only” FUM could rid itself of those who can’t swallow the Richmond Declaration, all would be well. I’m not implying here that Patrick believes this; he can speak for himself about it. Rather, as stated in more detail in the original post, I believe this divided state is simply FUM’s actual condition. It’s what it has to work with.

PN: Mary Kay and I are just grateful that we’ve been so warmly welcomed by both segments of FUM and warmly supported by both. Our time working with Kenyan Friends has been deeply satisfying, deeply frustrating, and deeply transformative. Kenyans are human. They are just as subject to the fall or original sin or bad karma or whatever you want to call it. Their flaws and blind spots and hypocrisies are sometimes different from ours—that’s why they’re easier to see, and to criticize, than our own—because their history and geography and economics are different from ours. But many of their flaws, blind spots, and the rest are remarkably similar.

CF: I’m on the side of underlying similarities, myself. Corruption is trans-cultural, I have written about it that way, and I can see no more corrupt society on the planet today than the US.

PN: The Friends Church here is riddled with problems, but also ripe with possibility. It’s too bad that liberal Friends, who preach tolerance of difference, can’t extend that tolerance to those who hold positions they REALLY disagree with, rather than those they only superficially disagree with.

CF: This comment leaves me confused. I don’t think thievery and corruption are things to be all liberal and mushy and tolerant about. Never have, really.

If what Patrick is referring to instead is the division on LGBT issues, then my reaction is somewhat different: what we have there is a conflict. Same goes for the theology of the Richmond Declaration, and the versions of biblical literalism that use it as their support.

So let’s treat these like actual conflicts to be faced up to, rather than shameful secrets to be suppressed or expunged, and do some serious conflict management and resolution work on them. And forgive me, but machinations like those in the Kenya sessions don’t count as such. I gather that Patrick may agree on this last point.

Part of the chronic weakness of FUM in my experience is that the impulse to purge heretics keeps rising, and becomes the main alternative to doing any serious conflict management and resolution. But “the urge to purge” hasn’t worked in FUM’s century of existence; maybe one of these days some of the American FUM “Usual Suspects” will read the record and get a clue. (I’m not holding my breath, though.)

PN: Because I remain convinced that liberal Friends have a great deal to offer by way of sharing life with Kenyan Friends. They might even learn something in the process. Many already have! In any case, please make sure you inform yourself before informing others.

I have worked for institutions all my adult life, and I don’t expect perfection of them. I am suspicious of those who criticize loudly but contribute nothing and expect perfection. (In therapeutic circles, perfectionism is considered emotional abuse.)

CF: for the record I agree that US Friends of whatever stripe could learn much from Kenyans, as some have. But perfection? Who mentioned perfection? The term does not appear in my original post, nor in these comments until now, and not by my initiative. In my circles, perfectionism is considered a sign of delusion. I’ll settle for a clean audit; that’s what I’m expected to produce each year.

And I’ll also settle for an FUM environment where devoted and highly respected members of my YM who happen to be LGBTcan go to FUM events on our behalf and not be treated like trash who deserve to die.

Yeah, Patrick, that kind of thing does stick in the craw, just a bit. More than a bit, actually.

PN: FUM is by no means perfect, and I have spent plenty of time pulling my hair out, criticizing, and getting in trouble for it. But no more so with FUM than with Earlham College, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, or the American Society of Church History, or my own monthly meetings for that matter. Every institution has its strengths, its pathologies, its loyalists, its critics, its blind spots, its historical anomalies and ironies. As a church historian I can tell you that with the church it was ever thus, if sometimes better and sometimes worse.

CF: Amen. But helping FUM get better is what’s called for now, if that’s possible.

I’d see such progress (not “perfection”) coming on two tracks: first, in the international context, put the anti-corruption work and agenda out front and on top, and keep it there. That’s necessary to build (or rebuild) FUM’s credibility, and to put Us Friends clearly on the side of helping the transition away from the regime of “Usual Suspects.”

And second, resolve to do serious conflict resolution work on the tough internal issues, from the Richmond Declaration (with its biblical and other theological tangles) to LGBT presence. And please, no more of these orchestrated putsch attempts. Besides being hurtful and destructive, they are just so tacky.

I don’t know if following this counsel would “save” FUM – there are all those other elephants stamping around, which Patrick passed quickly by. But it could make it worth saving, which would be something.

PN: Both sides of the Society (and of FUM) have important and valuable contributions to make to our common life. The looming split in FUM is tragic for just that reason. But it might also be the case that liberal and evangelical Friends might actually get along BETTER if we didn’t try to pursue our aims within the same, perpetually-contested organization. There could be good and constructive ways in which FUM and FGC as more sharply-defined organizations could co-operate with one another in those areas in which we have common interests, and work independently in those areas in which we have differing interest. The Mennonite family might be a helpful model here.

CF: Maybe. I think highly of the Mennonites and other Anabaptists. But I’ve also come to realize that the notion of “historic peace churches” is a historian’s fiction: in practice, Mennonite and Quaker groups are very different critters. And thus, whether what worked for them could work for us is very much an open question in my mind. Similarly, I get equally nervous when I see FGC and FUM listed as counterpart bodies – they are no such thing. But these are questions for another time.

Thanks to Patrick for all the effort that went into this response. And to any reader intrepid enough to get through it all.

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2 thoughts on ““Roomful of Elephants” – A Response by Patrick Nugent”

  1. Religious freedom is a mark of tolerance in society. Cultural sensitivities should also be acknowledged. Same sex marriage, for example, was unthinkable a generation ago in the USA. We should applaud clerics who speak up on political abuses in Africa. On matters such as gay rights, allow African societies to evolve. What is unthinkable and therefore not tolerated in Africa on gay riggts today may not be necessarily so in the not too distant future. Just a thought.

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