Panel Presentation: Witness in our Lives
The first four talks were presented by participants in a panel, and are printed here in the order they were given. The presenters were asked to speak on their own experiences in relation to the theme of the FWCC Triennial:
“Being faithful witnesses: serving God in a changing world.”
Emma Espinoza de Vichez spoke in Spanish. The text provided here was translated (and interpreted) by Vicki Hain Poorman of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The English equivalents of the biblical passages Emma quoted are from the New International Version.
The two messages were given during times of worship at the Triennial. Tom and Liz Gates spoke on 18 January, and Benson Simiyu on 23 January.
The four panel presentations, and the message from Tom and Liz Gates, are published separately as two pamphlets by Wider Quaker Fellowship, FWCC Section of the Americas (see back page). Vicki Hain Poorman edited the English text of these five items. The text of Benson Simiyu’s message was edited by Annis Bleeke.
Ute Caspers is a seeker, mother, grandmother, friend, neighbour and peaceworker. She is a member of German YM, and serves as FWCC observer at the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, and as “Visiting Friend” for the Europe and Middle East Section of FWCC.
It is an enormous honour – and a challenge and responsibility – to be asked by the World Office if I would give a testimony on the Triennial theme. I did not ask them “why me?” I am challenged by the thought that I shall have to ask myself seriously—and more or less publicly – am I, indeed, a faithful witness, serving God in a changing world?
Where I live, in Europe, people – even Friends – like to define everything, even God. People use their heads a lot, sometimes to the detriment of our hearts and faith. The most intriguing definition of God I ever heard was “God is the Big ‘And Yet’”.
I would like to talk to you about two encounters I had witnessing this big ‘And Yet’. One has to do with faith; the other one with being a witness.
And the changing world? Unfortunately, in the field of conflict and war the world has not changed too much in the past 3,000 years. Weapons technology has changed, which kills more people more easily; and propaganda technology has changed, which makes it harder even for people who care to resist.
The Gulf crisis 13 years ago was, to me, the first time that a war started out on the TV screen. For several months we were bombarded with news about Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in Kuwait – some of which later proved to be outright lies, invented for the purpose of making military action look like the only option to stop this. US troops were sent out, ultimatums were set, and there was talk about war in a cold, business-like manner. That constantly hurt me. As I myself, like millions of others, had lost my family and home in WWII, I could feel the future pain of the Iraqi people, saw the future orphans and broken families. This pain was almost unbearable. In a world like this, I felt, there was no longer room for me and I was seriously feeling suicidal.
And Yet – one day, in the middle of my housework routine, I heard a voice talk to me: “And Yet you can live. People will be needed to mend what has been broken”. What an experience. I was filled with awe. My depression was gone and soon I had the energy to give up my work as a language teacher and equip myself for active conflict and peace work. In my frame of mind, I was not consciously following a calling, but in hindsight I can see there must have been a fair amount of faith that enabled me to take this step.
Since then I have witnessed a wide range of conflict situations, in South Africa, in the African Great Lakes Region, in Sierra Leone, and I was involved in guiding other people on the path of active peace work.
My most recent encounter as the witness of the big “And Yet” happened a year ago when I took part in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel of the World Council of Churches. Jean Zaru mentioned this programme on Sunday night when she gave that moving account of the desperate situation in her country. I was posted in Bethlehem.
You may be able to imagine that Bethlehem had a very special celebration in the year 2000. Politically, the second half of the 1990’s seemed calm in that troubled region. The Oslo Accords had given rise to hope, and from virtually all over the world Christian individuals and communities, whole countries even, adopted buildings, streets, squares to brush up the town for a very special birthday party. Bethlehem must have looked a gem – for a few months. This I could still see last year – if and when I was allowed out. The recourse to violence in the Al Aqsa intifada (the second attempt of the Palestinian People to shed Israeli occupation) had spurred several incursions into the town. Particularly heavy was the siege of the Church of the Nativity around Easter 2002. I could see evidence of death and destruction wherever I looked, and hardly any remnant was left of the beauty and despair. Destitution was palpable.
And Yet! And Yet, I met people in this stricken community who refused to give up hope. My placement at the Lutheran Christmas Church was planned for giving an extra hand in the preparation of the grand opening of their new International Centre. This, however, had to be postponed – for a third time, due to renewed curfews and blockade.
And Yet, there was this new, bright and aesthetically most pleasing building. The congregation had found funding and commissioned an award-winning Finnish architect to design an inspirational structure which would help to foster a renewed sense of self-worth in the local community. I called it my “star of Bethlehem.” Meanwhile, it has been launched and serves the community – Christians and Muslims alike—with arts and crafts classes, concerts and exhibitions, offering a counterweight to the everyday deprivation and oppression which Jean put before us in her talk.
These were examples of getting close to being a faithful witness. And yet, I do not often hear clear directions and I do not often have the chance to witness a miracle as bright as that in Bethlehem.
Not all of us are in a situation to experience or to go out and witness big things, but we all can support smaller “And Yet’s” by keeping our eyes open for the needs of our neighbours.
While my “Star of Bethlehem” was shining brightly I have witnessed many situations that were dominated by despair, where an “And Yet” was not obvious. I believe it is our task to watch out hard for even the smallest “And Yet” – just as we are called to look out for God.
Supporting the bigger or smaller “And Yet” wherever it wants to occur, that means making a difference. Perhaps that is as close as I can get to serving God in our changing world.
The biblical image that came to mind as I pondered this testimony was that of the rainbow following the big flood, and the covenant which God offered Noah and his people as we can read in Genesis:
I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.