Yesterday was World Quaker Day, celebrating the fact that Friends would be worshiping in each time zone throughout the day, starting with New Zealand, and ending with Hawai’i. The theme for this year was “Inspired by Faith—Witnessing Together in the World.” It was indeed inspiring to see pictures of Friends in many places and to realize the amazing diversity in the worldwide body. However, it raised the question: Given the remarkable diversity among Friends worldwide, not only in the way we look, but in the way we speak and in the ways in which we worship, how do we witness together in the world?
While I recognize that many of the Quakers worldwide were originally brought into the fold by missionary effort, I am aware that many Friends in the U.S. today would rather support programs aiming toward creating peace or building water filters in other places in the world than support those explicitly trying to proselytize. So might “witnessing” include taking action to make the world a better place?
My first encounter with the word “witnessing” was in my Baptist childhood, when I heard missionaries from faraway places speak of saving people for Christ. We were told that we needed to “witness for Christ” everywhere. I came to equate the word with actively trying to “save” people. As an adult I came to reject that concept, and neatly tucked the word away in a box somewhere in my mind. Today I am taking it out and re-examining the word to see what it might mean for me now.
According to my dictionary, the word “witness” derives from Old English “wit,” meaning knowledge. As a verb, the word means “to have personal knowledge of.” To bear witness, then, means to speak from personal experience, which strikes me as an essential quality of vocal ministry in our Quaker meetings today. Our testimonies are a form of witness. In preparing for our meeting’s celebration of World Quaker Day I wanted to find a couple of songs that might be appropriate to the theme. In searching Worship in Song, I found that one of the major categories was “Witnessing to our Testimonies,” including songs about integrity and simplicity, equality, justice, peace, care for the environment, and care for one another.
“Witnessing” can also mean “being present.” At Quaker weddings we typically sign a certificate as witnesses to the marriage. We may be called upon in a court of law to tell what we saw or heard in a particular situation. Again, the word relates to personal knowledge or experience. Were you present? What did you see? Tell your story. How often do we speak together about our experience of worship?
One video I watched in preparation for our celebration yesterday was “Friends World Committee on Consultation: Quaker Voices from Around the World.” I was moved by hearing voices in English and Spanish telling of personal experiences in worship. One of those voices was a young woman from Ecuador talking about how much she enjoyed the singing and praise that was included in worship with Friends in Ecuador, but she also had experienced a more silent form of worship in the U.S. and learned that we can “listen to God” in that way.
In today’s musings, I am also recalling a story George Lakey told at FGC Gathering a few years ago. While I can’t remember the details, it seems he encountered a couple engaged in a dispute that was becoming violent. He let them know that he was watching them, witnessing. He didn’t try to stop them but kept reminding them that he was watching. His presence helped to ramp down the violence. How often do we witness acts of injustice in our communities and remain silent?
To witness, then, can mean many different things, but essentially what it means to me today is to allow the Spirit underlying the Quaker testimonies to be visible to others through my actions as well as my words. And I think we CAN do this together.