2018 - A delegate to the Irish Quaker Yearly Meeting in Limerick
Written July 2018 in German
Disclaimer:a apologize for any errors in this text. I have written in German what I understood in Ireland and then asked an English friend, who has never before attended a quaker-meeting, to translate it to English. Please excuse my misunderstandings and errors and please feel invited to help me to correct it!
Prologue: An InvitationActually Maurice de Coulon was chosen as a delegate to the Irish Yearly Meeting, but he could unfortunately not attend and so I offered to take his place. I considered for a long time, which was the best way to travel to Limerick, and in the end I decided to fly to Cork with Aerlingus and from there to hire a car for the rest of the journey. It would also have been possible to travel by bus or train from Cork to Limerick, but as I could not book anything from Cologne I did not want to risk leaving it until the evening when I landed at the airport.
My daughter Hanna (13 years old), who had recently taken part in the Quaker event "Osterfreizeit' in Benkendorf, was fully quakered-up by the experience and really wanted to come to Ireland too. Apart from that, the daughter of some English Quakers had been living with us for several months, and so we were really in Quaker-Fever at the time. And with that we were off to the Irish Yearly Meeting in the city with the most Irish name Limerick
I was very uncertain how to prepare. It would be my first time as a delegate. What should I do? What was expected of me? My contact for the Yearly Meeting was Loretta O'Brian and I wrote to her often saying that I wanted to do everything correctly. She answered that I couldn't do anything wrong, as there wasn't really a correct way to do it. That helped me a lot.
Outward journey, Wednesday 18. July 2018.We traveled with the S-Bahn from Cologne to Dusseldorf (the carpark at the air costs a fortune!) and found out how to continue our journey. I hadn't flown in years, and it was the first time for Hanna. Where was the Aerlingus check-in desk? Where could we get some food? How did we get through security? Stressful. The gate was changed. Quick! Announcement, boarding, and we're off!
We managed to make it to our plane and found our seats. Hanna, even though it was her first flight, was totally relaxed. I was more nervous: I hate take-off and landing (and turbulence, and flying). But we take off and are flying! Wow. Every time I find it amazing, how such a huge thing can actually fly.
The coffee is awful, but apart from that the flight is good and soon we are descending. Cork is on the coast and as the plane came in from across the sea, and we were so low that we could see individual waves before we could even see the land. Then suddenly there were a few treetops beneath us and then again we were on the runway. Brakes. For me a moment of tension, and then we were there.
Cork Airport is much smaller than Dusseldorf, and so the car rental companies were easy to find. I signed the papers, got the keys and headed to the car. I knew that you have to drive on the left here, and thought I'd give it a go. I found it difficult, but not impossible. Sloooowly. Veeery carefully.
Hanna and I ate on the way, and finally arrived just before 11PM at the Conference Center at the Limerick Institute for Technology (LIT). There were no Quakers to be seen. All gone. Our accommodation was supposed to be in an apartment village not very far away (Cratloe Wood Village) and so we traveled on the village. In an emergency we could have slept in the car and then found out what to do in the morning, although that was really our plan C.
At the gate to the village the barrier is down, and the guard comes out. He has never heard the name "Bechtel". "Quakers" doesn't mean anything to him either. But "Loretta O'Brian" is clearly a name that opens a lot of doors, and quickly! The guard takes out his mobile phone and gives her a call, and then takes us personally to a free house. We lie down in made-beds and look forward to the morning.
Thursday 19th July 2018The Thursday begins with STRESS! I woke up due to the difference in time around 5am and want to explore the area. Since the guard let us in the night before, but hadn't given us the keys, I wonder how I'll get into the house again. The door is thankfully very simple, so that I can open it with my health insurance card without any problems. I look around, I'm hungry. The shop by the gate is still shut: the sign reads that it will open around 9am, at which time we already to be at LIT. I go back and see Hanna, who is already awake. We are both hungry, and resolve to go out in search of a shop. Now the shop by the gate is actually open, and so we load up with things for breakfast and head back to the house.
Unfortunately the door turns out to be totally intruder-proof! And although I was able to get in after a few seconds on the earlier attempt, I now can't get in even after 30 minutes of trying. Bummer!
So we have breakfast in the car. Before me I can see: the well-groomed attendees of the Yearly Meeting, and me in a T-Shirt, unshaven, creased and crumpled. I feel embarrassed. I really don't want to get out of the car. I am a delegate, I have to look respectable, shouldn't arrive too late, should make a good impression. How could a mess like me show up for such a job? Had Maurice gone instead, he would have certainly done it much better! Then someone from the village management came and we got the keys. The name Loretta O'Brian is the key to the keys. Now quickly to get ready and on to the LIT to meet the Quakers.
I leave Hanna with Caroline, the Young Friends coordinator, and head to the first item on the programm. Hanna is a bit shy, everything is unknown and she isn't really sure what she wants. But she decides (a head or heart decision - I don't know) to stay with Caroline. I go with a bad conscience. My duty calls. I arrive punctually for session 2 (the first one would have been yesterday afternoon).
There are around 150 people in the conference hall (in the course of the Yearly Meeting there will be even more). The age range is similar to in Germany, and the humor is too. There are equal numbers of men and women, and the outfits are very familiar. The process is structured and swift, there are only around 20 seconds of silence between the talks. I am introduced and the Traveling Minute is read. Suddenly a microphone is pressed into my hands and I stammer a few words of thanks for the invitation.
In session 2 there is a report from the treasurer. Abbreviations fly around my ears and I can hardly follow. A lot of legal, and insurance related stuff. I hear terms like "Charity-Nr." "Tax", "Funds (restricted/unrestricted)", "compliance", "audit" and "vat". Apart from that there is some trouble with a "Clearance registration authority" from which a "Charity Certificate" for tax purposes is required. It seems to be something like the struggle to be recognized as a non-profit organization, but perhaps I misunderstood.
The next point is "GDPR - General Data Protection Regulations". For us in Germany this is called "DSGVO - DatenSchutzGrundVerordnung". Should I write about it? No, the Irish simply have the same problems as everyone, apart from the big corporations.
After the tea break (coffee) we hear a report in session 3 from David Morten about the work of the Quaker Service. He mainly talks about a youth project in Belfast. I find it a little difficult to understand his Irish accent. "A Se-Aff Ple-As" is "a Safe Place". Aha. In Ireland they distinguish between "English" and "Irish", whereby "Irish" is Celtic, more specifically Gaelic. All of the signs are in both languages: road signs, street names, - everything. And another thing: the Irish use meters and degrees Celsius. I didn't know that before.
Although in Ireland most Quakers are understood to be faithful to scripture, rarely during the whole of the YM was the Bible quoted from and never was a point argued with reference to the Bible. Instead I heard much more frequently quotes from George Fox, who's words everyone seemed to have studied more thoroughly than I have.
I missed the "Special Interest Groups" in the afternoon as I finally got to know Loretta, and she and the other organizers took me hostage. In session 4, after half an hour of silent prayer, Natasha Harty presented on the Quaker Testimony of Integrity. It is also the case in English that there are many words to this testimony (sincerity, truthfulness, loyalty, etc. etc.) Nice.
Afterwards there is a talk about gambling, and the position of the Quakers. I did not know before that Quakers have a position on it, but it became clear to me, through the words of Jonathan Wigham, that every win in a game for on player is a loss for an other player. Can we really be happy, when our fellow players are losing? Jonathan is convinced that it is counter to our values, and only honest work truly complies with our testimony of integrity.
The final presentation in this session was a report from Andrew Lane, who I had personally met in Pyrmont, about the work of OCEA in Brussels.
After the evening meal there was a talk with the question: "What can I say as a Quaker in the 21st Century?" The presentation was very long, it should have finished at 9:15pm and was finally ended by a fairly ruthless committee at 9:45pm - a slide 44 from a total of over 60. The Youth and Young Friends had prepared a candlelit worship as the final of prayer of the day, that we unfortunately missed due to the overly-long previous presentation. That was a bit of a shame, as the youngsters had put a lot of effort into it. I discovered that many Quakers had left the lengthy discussion and had managed to punctually attend the candlelit worship. Anyway: Punctuality! In Ireland they almost NEVER begin on time, but they always get straight to the point. In Germany, it is the other way around.
After the Candlelit Worship I am hoping at last to see my daughter Hanna again. I left her alone for the whole day in the company of strangers without her attentive father. I see her again, beaming and in a crowd of people her own age, I catch her eye, she nods and returns her attention to the group. She had a great day!
Friday, 20th July 2018Every morning from 9-10am there is the choice between a Bible study or a Worship Sharing. As I don't know what "Worship Sharing" is, I decide to try it out. It is a prayer, which, in order to feel the light of the divine, it is not essential to say something or to remain silent. Instead we are all invited to share something with the group. Nothing that has been said is allowed to leave the room, there is absolute confidentiality, nothing will be commented upon, assessed or answered. If someone has something laying heavy on their heart, they are invited to share it. Between the contributions there are always a few moments of quakerly silence. I enjoyed the Worship Sharing.
Sometimes in prayers one is moved with heavy thoughts or insights, but are they really godly expressions? Should I say it? Am I being moved to say it? Is it good enough? Better to remain in silence. Can you relate to that? If you can then Worship Sharing is great!
Afterwards starts session 5, which, as the session yesterday, begins with 30 minutes of silent prayer. Although I was expecting something different from the program, we spoke about same-sex marriage. I learn that the topic has been discussed over and over again throughout the whole year, and that it is THE topic currently among the Irish Friends.
It is important to know that legally binding marriages in Ireland can also be conducted by certain religious societies. Future brides and grooms in Ireland have the opportunity to go to their local registry office, in a similar process to ours, and to marry without religious reference. Or instead they can choose to go to their religious organization in order to marry. The juridical rights and duties of the registrars will then be exercised by clerics or even by the Quakers. Every religious community wishing to perform such tasks is expected to have a codified and published procedure for these marriages.
The Irish Yearly Meeting had appointed a committee during the course of the year to suggest a draft for this statement. There had been many meetings upon the subject. The draft was then presented here in Limerick. I summaries: "Clerks, who want to conduct a marriage between same-sex partners in their district can do so, and those who do not wish to do not have to do it." Sounds pretty fair to me, but it is actually a huge problem in Ireland. Many people stand up and want to say something. Some explain, through desperate tears, that they cannot remain part of a society which partakes in such sins! Others say with the same agitation that they could not remain Quakers when they forbid love. Strong stuff. The decision as to whether the statement will be implemented was postponed.
Before the tea break there is still time for a report about the protest at Shannon Airport in Limerick against military transport. Ireland is not a part of Nato, but is increasingly engaged in military action, which was viewed very critically.
On Friday afternoon there were several organized outings on buses, but we did not take part. Instead Hanna and I drove over to the cliffs in the west. Pure Ireland! Wow. We conducted a mini two-person prayer on the cliff tops and laid down stones as a sign amongst the loneliness. After that Hanna wants to go back to her new friends, and I take the chance to go to a real Irish pub for the first time. Live music, Irish dancing, everything was there. To my unsurpassable personal amusement the coolest pub in Town is called : "The Locke". ("Locke" is the German word for hair-curl.)
Saturday 21st July 2018As I took part in the very interesting Worship Sharing yesterday, I go today to the Bible Study. The topic is "What is worship?" and different excerpts from the Bible were read aloud. Some of the Quakers had their own Bibles with them: some classically bound-books, others a more modern E-Book Reader.
At 10am Session 6 begins with 30 minutes of silent prayer, as with every other day. Afterwards the travel minutes are read out from the delegates of New Zealand, Oregon and Belgium. This is followed by a report of the Irish Young Friends: their meetings, excursions and groups. I see for the first the time all of the Youngsters gathered together in the conference hall and am pleased to see Hanna in amongst them, as though she had always been a part of the group. It is becomes clear to me, that I am also clearly and happily a part of the community. Quakerism is wonderful!
Sessions 7 begins at 12pm, after the tea-break, and gets right to the point. To THE point: same-sex marriage. Tears flow, extreme emotions shake the room. A young friend very personally explains how he sees our testimony of equality from the point of view of his own homosexuality.
After a long hesitation, I rise and am very aware in the moment of how I am perceived as a stranger in this setting, who interferes in a family affair. But I feel that my responsibilities and duties as a delegate are not only to learn and to report. It is also my task to share how things are in Germany. I receive the microphone and excuse myself for the interruption and for the interference. I say openly how surprised I am by the debate about same-sex marriage. I say that I have never heard that the question is a topic of discussion for German Quakers. The slogan of the Irish Yearly Meeting is: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all thing charity". For the German Quakers the question of same-sex marriage falls into "non-essentials". I sit down again, with a bright red face. To say to an entire Yearly Meeting, at which I am a guest, that I consider the subject of their most heated debate to be unimportant, was difficult for me. I sink with my glowing cheeks further down into my seat. I know that it was the right thing to say. I know that it was my job to say it, as I was the only German Quaker there. I feel that I was perhaps guided here solely to make this contribution. But it was not easy.
The next input on this topic: We Irish are obsessed with sex! But since matrimony has nothing to do with sexuality, it is recommended to accept the provisional statement. That breaks the spell, the hall bursts out laughing. As the clerk has reread the formulation proposal, which has become very lengthy in the meantime, there remains an affirmative silence. Everyone looks around amazed in the hall: is no-one going to stand up? No, really NO more objections? The Yearly Meeting, who had just been sunk in sadness about the burden of misery, rise up! Consensus: a real, true consensus. Suddenly a song is sung and the joy of the successful agreement is overwhelming. Quakerism is wonderful!
Friends, you cannot imagine what a wonderful feeling it was, as the whole Yearly Meeting came together in unity. This happiness, this love. Overwhelming.
Lunch time. I meet the daughter of Aubrey Harding, who was in the Quaker House in Bad Pyrmont in 1939, together with Nora and John Douglas, and had reported about it. During the course of the Yearly Meeting I refer to our Quaker House many times. Our problems are also well known here. Different groups have found or at least tried different approaches. Often it was asked whether we rent the space out to other groups in order to generate revenue. The idea of building a conference center attracts attention, but no conclusions are drawn. Also in Ireland people are leaving the countryside and moving to the cities.
Afterwards I take part in a thematic group. The title, "Giving voice to humanity" appeals to me. A perfect world order was spoken about. The topic is certainly very important, a perfect world order would be wonderful, but for me the topic is too far removed. I listen silently.
After the tea-break Session 8 begins as Adele Trepnell describes her "Working Retreat" on a Palestinian olive farm. I am interested as it is something that I would also like to do. Then Marisa Johnson talks about the 80-year history of the FWCC. I find the report from Simon Lamb about the work of the FWCC in Africa even more exciting. He is a fantastic narrator, he really gets his story across! He tells us that there are hundred-thousands of Quakers in Africa, and many of them in Kenya. And he has pictures of prayers with many thousands of Quakers coming together every Sunday, from choirs and hospitals. But he also gives insight into the reconciliation work that Quakers are carrying out between the rival ethnic groups in Rwanda and Burundi, who have committed the most felonious crimes and homicides. I am impressed.
After the evening dinner there is Irish Folk music for everyone in the sport hall. That was fun! I embarrassed my daughter as I very enthusiastically joined in.
Finally, a Candelit Worship is prepared by the young friends again. Hanna is very sad that the Yearly Meeting is now over for us. Tomorrow we fly back to Germany and I have to drive from Limerick to Cork to drop off the car. Almost as soon as we are back in our accommodation there is a knock at the door. The Young Friends have an apartment in the village, too and are all staying together. They invite Hanna to stay with them. She is young (13), tomorrow will be a long and hard day, and we have to get up early. We are here amongst strangers. And I cannot allow my daughter to out go at night alone!
But these are the Quaker Young Friends and Hanna is NOT alone but in good, trustworthy company. I know that I cannot keep an eye on her the whole time, and I say yes. There is happiness is her eyes and she is gone. And at some point she is back again and happy. She has many new names, addresses and invitations. She says she will come back.
Sunday 22 July 2018The return journey is pleasingly uneventful. A smooth car ride, because I have got used to driving on the left. Easy Check-In. A peaceful flight (Hanna sleeps). We are once again at home.
Epilog:I would like to occasionally conduct a "Worship Sharing" here. And I'd like to do a Quaker "Work Retreat", perhaps in Africa. And as I've said already, Quakerism is wonderful!