Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Learning about Quakers in Bolivia

By Valerie Hurwitz

It is lovely to have visitors speak during Common Meal, worship, Peace Forum, and other venues, but sometimes it’s nice to hear from someone in our own community, as we did this week.  Emma Condori Mamani, MDiv/MMin student from Bolivia, spoke to us on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 about Quakers in Bolivia and her own spiritual journey.

Bolivia in central in the South America continent and the majority of the country is over 10,000 feet in altitude.  Additionally, 65% of the population is indigenous and has been cut off for centuries from the educational and political opportunities had by European colonists.  Emma herself is Aymara and English is her third language, after Aymara and Spanish.

Bolivia is the site of Lake Titicaca, which is a sacred site for Incan creation myths, as well as Tiwanaku, a city that was the religious and political center for an Andean pre-Incan empire.  Historical lesson aside, Emma makes the point that traditional religious beliefs and rituals are still very much present among the people.  Quaker missionaries came to Bolivia in 1919 to start a Quaker meeting, and Bolivia now has the third-largest population of Quakers in the world and five yearly meetings.  (According to FWCC, Kenya and the United States have the first and second largest populations, with Bolivia coming in third at 33,000.)

Quaker missionaries started schools for the local people and modernly this mission has continued through the Bolivian Quaker Education Fund.  Emma spoke about the Internado, a Quaker house near a high school where children whose families lived far away from the local school could stay during the week in order to attend.  Emma told us that some children live 2, 4, or even 8 hours walk from the nearest high school.  The Internado is full and cannot accept all the applications they receive, and BQEF hopes to expand.  The Bolivian Quaker Education Fund also provides scholarships, classes, and facilitates programs such as the Alternatives to Violence Project in prisons and hospitals.  Another Quaker nonprofit, the Quaker Bolivia Link provides money for development projects such as greenhouses to crow vegetables in and livestock.

We asked Emma about current history in Bolivia.  Between 1990 and 2003 there was unrest, culminating the “Dark October” of 2003, where there were civilian casualties in clashes between the police and protestors.  The issue seems to have been (if a little internet research is true) of presidents cracking down on coca leaf production, public sector corruption, and the privatizing of natural resource extraction with most of the profits going to foreign companies.  Then-President Sanchez de Lozada fled to Miami, Florida in 2003 and the US has refused to extradite him back to Bolivia to face charges.  Current president Evo Morales began his first term in 2006 and in Emma’s opinion the way Morales lives out his socialist principles relates to the Quaker values of Equality, Simplicity, Integrity, and Community.

We asked Emma how her particular yearly meeting was different than American Quakerism and she named the Holiness influence as different from most of FUM and FGC.  “It’s not about being saints”, she told us, but rather the belief in sanctification, that God can live within us and make us more holy.  Emma explained that Quakers in Bolivia are known for their honesty and integrity in government and she believes they have an important role to play in the government and public life.

As the presentation went on, I found myself thinking about visiting Kenya this summer.  Kenyan Quakers are trying to exemplify the Quaker values of Integrity and Peace as a counter to the corruption and 2007 election violence in Kenya.  It seemed at certain moments as though they were looking at US Quakers, expecting Americans to guide them on living out these values.  While at St. Paul’s University in Limuru (not a Quaker setting, but Episcopalian), for example, some of their faculty were speaking to us about Christian-Muslim dialogue and made a comment that implied that we in the US have this figured out . . . they were somewhat taken back by our sarcastic fits of laughter.  This, as with everything, is not the whole story; there are certainly many Kenyan Quakers with a particularly Kenyan vision of how these principles should play out.  This also isn’t to imply that US Quakers can’t offer anything to Kenyan and Bolivian Friends, but rather there is a mutual learning possible here that would greatly enrich both sides.

Back to Bolivia though.  Emma encouraged us to visit Bolivia and said there are mission trips that come from the US, typically in June of each year.  She also allowed me to share a few of her pictures of Bolivia.  Emma encouraged us to learn more these Quaker nonprofits working in Bolivia and to keep Bolivian Quakers in our prayers.

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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