I lifted my head during a lull in the conversation and looked around the room. Our group had been interacting with Hilarión on an article he had written about his experiences as a Quaker in the Bolivian military. I noticed that the exchanges in other groups were just as lively. A circle of four men, conveniently seated in the patch of afternoon sun streaming in through the window, was debating. Another group listened to María reading aloud from her manuscript, the first article she had ever written. I liked what I saw.
This was the first afternoon of a writers workshop, held in Juli, Peru, September 10-13, sponsored by the Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas. The 27 participants represented the various Friends yearly meetings in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru. This was the third workshop in the series that Hal and I had been invited to lead, the first two taking place in 2006 and 2007. The previous workshops, at the request of local Friends, had focused on the preparation of didactic materials for adults and had resulted in booklets (or plans for books) covering such topics as reconciliation in the family, the local congregation in response to its social context, and practical holiness.
But this time I wanted to do something different and proposed that we focus on narrative writing. I’ve long had a concern that we be writing down and collecting the stories of Andean Quakers, both on the personal and communal levels. The sponsors and the workshop participants responded positively, sharing the same concern.
Narrative writing fits the Aymara context; cultural communication styles are traditionally oral and narrative. In rural communities the grandparents pass on values to the children through the animal fables, which, by the way, are hilarious. Education and urbanization are changing the picture, mirroring what is happening to traditional cultures all over the world, but the importance of stories remains.
We gave the workshop twice, in Juli for the highland Friends, and on a series of Saturdays in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for Friends in the tropical lowlands, also in the month of September. Some 17 women and men participated in the Santa Cruz workshops.
We began by talking with the participants about narrative, its nature, its universal appeal, and its specific cultural importance. Why do we need to remember and pass on our stories? How do we express them in a compelling way? In a culturally appropriate way? How do we help each other to do this?
We also included a focus on Quaker values and some of the fascinating history of Quakers and literature. We noted that while most of Quaker writings have come from the global North and West, we can take inspiration from this history and step up now to take our turn. It’s time to hear from Friends in Africa, Asia, and, of course, Latin America.
But the heart of the workshops is always just doing the stuff. People were to come with a preliminary manuscript, a story from their own experience of an encounter with Jesus. About half the participants had the assignment ready, a good result actually. The others had to catch up during the workshop. With some orientation from us on principles of good writing (and re-writing!) and on the writing process, we divided into small working groups to read manuscripts and learn to do peer review. As I sat in on the groups, I was pleased by the observations different people were making, and the way the writers were learning to receive both praise and constructive criticism. That is never easy to learn!
The fact that the workshops are backed up by a specific project provided further motivation. We hope to publish selected stories in a book, or perhaps a series of books, tentatively entitled, Fire from the South: The Faith and Life of Latin American Friends. We want to include narratives from Central America, Mexico, and Hispanics in North America. The primary purposes are internal: a book in Spanish to help unite Latin American Friends, help them identify their particular characteristics and callings as part of the larger Quaker and Christian movement, and, of course, to pass the stories on to the next generations. The secondary purposes are for English-speaking Quakers. Participants in the workshops are encouraging us to look beyond a Quaker readership for the book, further expanding the purposes. (This is interesting to me in light of a recent series of articles on Quaker writings by Johan Maurer--johanpdx.blogspot.com,Aug. 13, Aug. 20, Sept. 3, 2009.)
While final drafts are due the first of November, the preliminary manuscripts I brought home encourage me. Elisabeth and Ana have together written the story of their father, the pioneer of the Friends movement in the lowlands. We especially need the stories of older Friends who were involved in the beginnings of churches and even yearly meetings; many of them have died (such as the Friend in this story) and others don’t have enough formal education to write. But their children and grandchildren do. Two other articles deal with the early Quaker movement in the highlands, and how migration to Santa Cruz fueled the beginnings of the lowland church. Julio writes about how his profession as an entomologist is helping him live out his concern for protecting the environment. Gaby tells her story of encounter with Jesus in a context of animism and hostility to Christianity. Esteban writes of his calling to ministry and later to missionary service in another country. Abraham tells the story of his congregation’s response to situations of family abuse in the surrounding community.
All of these stories give insight into the faith and life of Andean Quakers. It is my prayer that they will enrich and encourage all who read them, both in and beyond the Quaker community. It’s time to let their voice be heard.