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Encountering the Face of Christ in Africa – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #32

Dear Children of Light,

Air travel is an amazing thing, and it took me only about forty-eight hours to get from Gisenyi, Rwanda back to my home in Washington, DC. The ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, and the flightsKisumu Airport from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Washington were very tiring, however. By the time I arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to sleep for a week. Nevertheless, in the couple of days since I have been home, I have been trying to maintain a regular schedule so as to re-adjust to the US Eastern time zone.

As I sit down to write this letter, I am still loopy from jetlag. I am also feeling rather intimidated at the prospect of encapsulating this month’s experiences into a brief missive. So much has happened in the last three weeks. I hope you will forgive me for being a little longer than usual.

It started in England. On 10 June, I arrived in London and spent the night with Friends in Greenwich. I stayed with Simon Watson and his family. I was grateful for the generosity of their hospitality, as they were kind enough to host me for several nights during my trip. I sense that my visit was encouraging for Simon, and I was gratefulRipley Friends for the time that we were able to share together.

The next day, I took the train up to Derbyshire (the English pronounce it “darby-sheer”) and visited Friends connected with the Ripley Quaker Meeting, which meets weekly at a local community center. It was a blessing to be with these faithful Friends. I had connected with many of them already through Facebook and Skype, but it was a real gift to spend time in the home of the Lomax family, and to see them face-to-face for the first time. On Sunday morning, we had a favored meeting for worship, with the power of the Lord Jesus being felt clearly in our midst.

This is the way I would describe the whole of my time in England: covered with a profound sense of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. I had many doubts about taking this trip, primarily due to concerns about the ecological damage caused by air travel. Nevertheless, I could not deny the way the Lord’s hand was
QYPers and John Punshon at Friends Library in London present in my visits among Friends in the UK. Where the Lord sends his servants, he makes the rocky paths smooth and the way straight!

While in England, I was able to link up with the two British leaders from last Year’s Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, as well as several of the pilgrims who live in the London area. It was great to catch up with these Friends and see them in their “natural habitat.” I was also able to visit Ben Gosling – another affiliate of Rockingham Meeting – and his wife Libertad at their home in Lavenham (in Suffolk). It was lovely to spend time with these Friends, and to get a tour of the historic village they live in, which preserves many buildings from the medieval period.

Overall, I believe that my travels in the United Kingdom were a blessing, both to me and to those whom I was able to visit. For my own part, I feel better informed about the situation that our affiliates in England are facing at this time. The last years have been very hard for the community of Conservative Friends in the UK, and I feel great sympathy for them as they struggle to be faithful in trying circumstances. More than sympathy, I feel conviction that I must examine how God might be calling me to lend support and encouragement to British Conservative Quakers. I sense that this may be a question that Friends in my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting may wish to continue to consider together.

Feeling very blessed by the opportunities the Lord had opened for me in England, I took my leave of British Friends to continue on to Africa. Earlham School of Religion, where I work as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement, was holding a faculty retreat in Kenya and Rwanda. As member of the administrative faculty, I was invited to participate. In addition to the opportunity to spend more time with my colleagues at ESR, I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with Friends in East Africa. Kenya is home to the largest population of Friends in the world, and I was excited to learn more Lionabout the breadth and diversity of cultural expressions that exist in the modern-day Friends Church.

The first few days of the trip were not business-like at all. We flew into Nairobi and, after a night at the Mennonite Guest House, rode down to the Masai Mara game reserve to spend a couple of days on safari. The safari was a good way to begin the trip, and it was impressive to observe in their native habitat so many animals that I had only ever seen in zoos. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and many other species were present in abundance. I took lots of pictures.

As fun as all this was, my own personal priority was to connect with the people of East Africa – especially Quakers. I was elated when we flew out to Kisumu (Western Kenya) and began to visit Friends there. They were not hard to find. In Western Kenya, Quakers are the largest single denomination and ESR Visits Kaimosi Hospitalhave a larger membership than all the Yearly Meetings in North America put together. It was quite an experience to be in a place where the Quaker Church is normative.

While in the area, we visited several important locations. We were able to see the famous Kaimosi Hospital, which I had been hearing about for years as a member of the Friends United Meeting General Board. We also spent several days at Friends Theological College, which is the single most important center of theological education for Friends in East Africa. I greatly enjoyed my time at the school and would like to return some day, as the Lord permits. I was particularly impacted by a visit the house where the first Friends missionaries to Kenya came and began preaching the gospel in 1902. It was amazing and inspiring to stand in the historical epicenter of African Quakerism.

When we had completed our visits in Western Kenya, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda. Rwanda surprised me with how different it felt from Kenya. In Kenya, there were unavoidable signs of intense poverty everywhere; in Rwanda, however, it was a little bit less obvious. The city of Kigali, in particular, felt very developed. Clean, orderly, and apparently relatively prosperous, Rwanda’s capital felt similar in Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwandamany ways to what I had experienced in the urban areas of Mexico (which is quite a developed country by world standards).

During the week we spent in Rwanda, however, I began to learn about the dark side of Rwanda’s apparent prosperity. When I started asking prying questions about the government, I learned that all is not as idyllic as is immediately apparent. One citizen informed me that she felt afraid to make any statement about the government that might be considered negative. However, because we were not in the company of other Rwandans, she helped explain why things look so nice in the cities and along the major roads in the countryside.

Apparently, the Rwandan government requires that buildings be made in a certain style using certain materials. Tile roofs, brick and cement walls – solid, high-quality construction. Expensive construction. I learned that apparently the government not only requires this for new construction, but also has an active program that requires homeowners to upgrade their houses to the new code, especially if their homes are along major thoroughfares that might be seen by tourists. I was told that those who are unable to upgrade their houses to meet government criteria are evicted and have their land confiscated (frequently without any compensation). Jay and EmanuelThe properties are re-sold to those who can afford to improve the land.

The strong hand of the Rwandan government is felt in the life of the Church, as well. Rwanda Yearly Meeting is perhaps the only Friends body in the world that requires water baptism for membership. They do this because the central government will not recognize (or, it seems, tolerate) any church that does not meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is performing water baptism. As an outsider, and a very uninformed one at that, it would have felt wrong to criticize the Friends Church in Rwanda for ceding Friends testimony on this point. However, it is clear that religious freedom is limited in Rwanda in ways that I find difficult to accept.

Our time with the brothers and sisters in Rwanda Yearly Meeting was lovely. They are an amazing group of Friends, who in only a couple of decades have developed a network of sixty churches across Rwanda, as well as an impressive system of schools and programs to give relief to widows and orphans. We were blessed and humbled by Friends’ warm hospitality to us. Despite Rwanda’s apparent national wealth in comparison to Kenya, it is clear that the common people of Rwanda still live in extreme poverty by most standards. In spite of this, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to lavish hospitality. It was a humbling Friends Meeting House in Rural Rwanda (near Gisenyi)experience to see Friends in Rwanda minister to us out of their material poverty.

By the end of this trip, I was coming to see that it was I who was impoverished. I have had the luxury of so many material and educational advantages by virtue of my family of birth and country of origin. I live at a standard that would be almost unbelievable to most people in East Africa. And yet, I see that I and the society that I live in are poor in the things that matter most. I see more clearly than ever that my own spiritual condition has been that of the church at Laodicea, of which Jesus said, “…you say ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked.”(1)

Guilty as charged. I pray for God’s mercy, knowing that I have lived so long in material comfort and luxury that I have become blinded to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Living in urban North America, it is hard to conceive of what material wealth truly is. Material wealth is having running water and electricity. It is having an educational system that is available to all. It is eating protein every day and having access to a variety of foods. Being rich is owning a cookbook and being able to purchase the ingredients forRural Village Meeting Near Gisenyi, Rwanda any recipe. I have often failed to realize what amazing blessings these truly are. These are things that should not be taken for granted.

I have also seen more clearly what spiritual wealth is. Spiritual wealth is cooking up the best food that you have – even if it is just feed corn, casava bread, rice and beans – and serving it to guests who have traveled from far away to see you. It is only the spiritually wealthy who can show true love by giving generously, wrecklessly – not out of their own abundance, but out of poverty. True, spiritual wealth is welcoming guests, caring for orphans and widows, and seeing that the next generation gets a decent education.

On this trip, I saw the face of Jesus Christ in his Church. I saw the way that our brothers and sisters in East Africa love the Lord, not just through words and easy gestures, but through self-sacrifice Etienneand hospitality that costs something. I saw the radiant joy that comes from holding nothing back, from acknowledging that life is a gift from God that we can never own, only hold in trust.

I have seen so much in the past weeks that has convicted me of my own spiritual shallowness and of the failure of the North American Church to take seriously Christ’s call to take up the cross. I am still processing these experiences. I am unsure of where this all leads. One thing is for certain: I am a lot less far along in my walk with the Lord than I would prefer to imagine.

Yet, I also feel a great sense of hope. Among Friends in East Africa, I have seen that the yoke of our Lord Jesus is truly easy, his burden light. If only we here in the North American Church would surrender our own privilege and sense of control, we could share in the easy burden of Jesus. I see more clearly now that I must lay down the burden of control, of self-protection, and of “having David Johns with Childrenenough.” I want to follow Jesus, and now more than ever I see that I cannot serve two masters.

Clearly, though this letter has been much longer than usual, there is a lot left to process. I do suspect that I will do a lot of this processing in the coming weeks on my blog, The Lamb’s War. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog if you have not already, or just check in from time to time. These experiences will definitely take some time to sort through, and I would welcome your accompaniment on this journey.

Thank you so much for all your prayers as I have been traveling. I have felt safe in my journeys, knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ watches over me and has a plan for my life. I am unutterably grateful for the way God has provided for me thus far, and for the way God continues to teach and guide me. I pray that each of you may experience this same blessing.

Blessings and peace to you in the Lord Jesus,

Micah Bales

1. Revelation 3:17

The Spirit is Moving!–Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #31

Dear Friends of Truth,

This month has been one of optimism for me and Friends on Capitol Hill, as we prepare for a busy summer. For some years now, summer has been a time of intense travel, visitation among different Friends bodies, changes in routine, and transitions in lifestyle. Above all, summer for me has been about cross-pollination, coming into contact with a wide variety of people, places and cultures. Summer is a special time to learn about how Christ is at work across the country and even the world.

This summer looks to be no different. Travels have already begun with a visit to the annual sessions of Great Plains Yearly Meeting. About a week and a half ago, Faith and I took Amtrak out to Wichita, Kansas. It was a blessing to spend a few days with my family in Wichita. I was also pleased to spend some time with area Friends. We visited Heartland Friends Meeting, where I was a member until I transferred to Rockingham last October. Faith and I were pleased to spend some time catching up with Charity Sandstrom, who gives pastoral leadership to Emporia Friends Church, as well as her husband Richard. We also got the chance to Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2011participate in a small gathering of Friends from both Heartland and University Friends Meeting. I was encouraged by the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work among Friends in Kansas. I am left with a concern to be in prayer for their continued faithfulness and growth in the Lord.

After these days in Wichita, we caught a ride down to Osage County, Oklahoma, where Hominy Friends Meeting was hosting the 104th annual sessions of Great Plains Yearly Meeting. This gathering of Friends from across Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma was a rich time of learning, business, worship and prayer. I perceived two main threads that ran through the weekend. The first was based in our theme from John 4:14, “streams of living water.” Throughout the sessions, we were reminded that Jesus offers us spiritual sustenance, refreshment and healing for our souls. If we are willing to open ourselves to his life-giving power and love, he will fill us with his Spirit and show us how to be his people together.

The other theme that ran through out time together was that of the relationship between European-descended Friends and Native Americans. This felt especially relevant to us, as two of the five Yearly Meetings in Great Plains are predominantly Native American. For Great Plains to understand its own identity, Friends there must grapple with the relationship between Indian language, culture and identity, and what it means to be a Christian in the Friends tradition. We were repeatedly reminded that Christianity and Native American cultures are no more incompatible than Christianity and European cultures. Friends on the Great Plains continue to explore what it means to be empowered to Arbiter of the Osage Hand Gamelive fully into our historical, cultural and ethnic identities, while at the same time being united with others through our shared trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. (I explore this topic further on a recent blog post for Earlham School of Religion’s Learning and Leading.)

It was truly a blessing for me to see the way that the Holy Spirit is raising up fresh leadership in Great Plains Yearly Meeting. GPYM is clearly stronger than it was only a few years ago. Laura Dungan, who began her second year as presiding clerk of the Yearly Meeting, is one instrument that the Lord is using in the spiritual renewal of Friends in Great Plains. Through her prayerful, daring and disciplined guidance, GPYM is growing in its ability to listen deeply to the Spirit and ground its decision-making process in prayer. The business sessions this year were of a particularly worshipful character. We took time in worship before, during and after our business sessions. It should come as no surprise that business got done faster than anticipated. As Friends laid their concerns at Jesus’ feet in the silence, it was easier to determine what was truly important and what was human chatter.

Great Plains Yearly Meeting is growing. The spiritual stature of the Yearly Meeting has enlarged dramatically in just a few short cycles. GPYM is demonstrating vision, planning to host a clerking and leadership conference in Wichita, November 4-5, 2011. GPYM is demonstrating renewed leadership, with energetic engagement emerging in Dean and Laura, DiscerningHominy, Wichita and central Nebraska. Only time can tell how Friends will respond to this fresh blowing of the Holy Spirit, but this could be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in the history of Friends on the Great Plains.

I feel it important to bear witness to the fact that God is the one who is effecting this change in Great Plains Yearly Meeting. The Holy Spirit is raising up new leaders and granting new strength and vision to seasoned leadership. Jesus Christ is clearly present in the midst of his people, teaching and guiding them. I give thanks to our Lord and Father for the ways I see God moving in GPYM.

Faith and I got back to DC yesterday, but I am due to leave again shortly. On Thursday, I will be traveling to the United Kingdom to visit Friends there. I will be visiting some of the scattered Conservative Friends in the UK, as well as catching up with some of those who were with me on the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. Even now, I still do not have all of the details of this trip ironed out. I am flying by the seat of my pants, but I pray that the Fellowship at Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2011Lord will guide my steps and place me where I am most needed.
After about a week in England, I will be continuing on to Kenya and Rwanda. The faculty of Earlham School of Religion is taking a trip to sites in Western Kenya and Kigali, and as a member of the administrative faculty of the school, I have been invited to participate.

Having never been to Africa, I am at once intrigued and intimidated. I do not know what to expect from this trip, but I am sure that I will be in good hands among Friends. I pray that the Lord will use this trip to tender my heart to the life of the Church in East Africa, and to deepen my understanding of the Religious Society of Friends in this part of the world.

It is hard to believe that I will be out of the country for almost a month. I have not even flown in an airplane in a year and a half. This has been intentional. I have felt and do feel a concern of the Lord to take veryHominy Friends Meeting Room at Great Plains Yearly Meeting 2011 seriously the ecological costs of my lifestyle. Air travel is particularly damaging to God’s creation, and I am painfully aware of my personal role in the environmental destruction caused by the irresponsible use of fossil fuels. I pray that God will bless these travels in such a way that they will be worth the damage inflicted on the Creation.

Please hold me in prayer, dear Friends, as I travel among Friends abroad. Let me be a blessing to those whom I encounter, and let me receive with a grateful heart the blessings that our brothers and sisters across the seas have in store for me. Above all, grant it dear Lord that I be made humble and teachable!

In the love of Jesus Christ,

Micah Bales

Brief Video From Great Plains Yearly Meeting: