Friday, October 7, 2011

Following the Call

By Diane Reynolds

For 18 years John Muhanji worked as a banker in Kenya, living a high-status life of material prosperity. In 2004, moved by the plight of survivors of the Rwandan genocide, he resigned from the bank to take a much lower-paying job with Friends United Meeting. “It was a moment of total change,” he said at last Thursday’s Peace Forum lunch at Earlham School of Religion.

This is a rare, but not unknown story—among others, John Woolman deliberately curtailed his tailoring business to free himself for ministry, George Fox chose a life involving years in jail, and Elizabeth Fry stepped into prison reform ministry. The call comes and some heed it.

The son of Quaker minister, Muhanji is participating in the rapid growth of Quakerism in both Kenya and Rwanda, a growth he attributes to the faith’s ability to provide a distinctive Christian voice. To continue to expand, Quakerism, he said, must maintain that distinctive edge and not become just another religious choice.

The Quaker distinctives Muhanji locate as important include the integrity and peace testimonies. As Kenyan Quakers stand for integrity, they not only talk about the faith but live in a way that shows the difference a Quaker version of Christianity can make in people’s lives. This, says Muhanji, is a powerful witness to Christianity as a force for good in the world. Most specifically, Quakers exemplify the connection between Christian faith and peace.

Quakers run 250 high schools in Kenya, Muhanji said, and these schools teach peace building and reconciliation skills, making them vitally important for changing the culture of government and police corruption that exists in Kenya. Students are hungry for this peace building knowledge. And creating a cadre of peacemakers, Muhanji said, is vital not only for Kenya, which in 2007 experienced an outbreak of unspeakable violence, but in the entire region of East Africa. Somalia is a special problem, Muhanji said, for terrorist training goes on here unchallenged, threatening the region.

Muhanji invited Quakers and others to come to Kenya to teach in the Quaker schools. Our knowledge and peace skills are needed there, he said. For those with the call, it seems that little could be more gratifying than entering a country where your life has the potential to make an immediate and a lasting difference.

I think often about Kenya because I have a friend who lived there for seven years: she and her family lived in a gated community with a private security guard, a maid, a driver, private schooling and all the privileges of the good life that American ex-patriots can enjoy. They also lived in a society in which they had to be on constant guard against theft, a country filled with desperately poor people, and with an infrastructure so overburdened that people without money were left to die on hospital emergency room floors.

When John talks about the hope of Quakerism, he is saying, I think, the same as Dorothy Day, who often spoke of building a world in which “it is easier to be good.” Nobody, I believe, wants to let a fellow human die on a hospital floor. Nobody wants to steal to stay alive.

The dialogue and partnership between U.S. and Kenyan Quakers is vital to both sides. Our society, as recent cheers for letting the uninsured die show, is threatened with hardness of heart. We need to share the vitality of Kenyan Quakers. What more can we do to promote the lived—not merely sentimental--tenderness that has long been a central tenet of our tradition? How can we rally more around our insight into Jesus Christ as a radical peacemaker rather than fight among ourselves?

Diane Reynolds is a student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. She maintains a personal blog, Emerging Quaker.

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