Peace I ask of thee of river, Peace, Peace, Peace.
When I learn to live serenely, cares will cease.
From the hills I gather courage, vision for the day to be.
Strength to lead and faith to follow, All are given unto me.
Peace I ask of thee of river, Peace, Peace, Peace.
by Gwyneth Walker
I love the simplicity and comfort of this song, but I sing the third line differently from the way I hear others sing it. Where they sing, “visions of the day to be,” I sing, “vision for the day to be.” To my ear, the phrase “vision of” implies a gift of clairvoyance; “visions for” expresses my hope to receive a true, clear awareness of Spirit as a present guiding energy, whatever comes my way. I don’t need to see into the future to have confidence that I will be given the “strength to lead” when that is necessary and the “faith to follow” when that is wise.
In 1993, an assortment of Friends with various visions of how Quakers could engage with the new Russia gathered at Pendle Hill. I shared my vision of a Quaker Center in Russia that would help grass-roots organizations get off the ground, support the little Moscow Monthly Meeting, and tell the truth about conditions in Russia that were not being reported accurately in Western media. That vision of creating a Quaker House was adopted by the group. No matter how wonderful all the other visions were, we recognized that they would be impossible without a center on the ground in Russia to help with logistics and communications. By the end of that meeting, we had set a date in July of 1994 for the first meeting of an Interim Board in Moscow, and I was asked to clerk it.
I accepted and began to envision how that meeting might proceed. Friends from several countries would be attending: Britain, the U.S., Russia, Germany, Holland and Norway. There was no way to predict how far apart we might be in our visions of a new Quaker Center –its services, structure, staff, funding, location, etc. We really held only the barest sketch of a shared idea.
As the time for the meeting grew closer, my concern turned to anxiety, then fear, panic, and finally, disabling terror. I could not stop imagining that I would be responsible if the whole thing fell apart at the first meeting. This would be a critical step in the formation of something that could help many people in Russia, bring together various strains of the Religious Society of Friends, and go a long way towards changing the attitudes of Americans and others about the nature of the Russian character and the conditions in the country. I felt a queasy sense of impending doom and a staggering foreboding of failure. It became clear to me that if I tried to clerk that meeting in the state I was in, I would almost certainly mess it up. Running away seemed an appropriate alternative.
Fortunately, the dates for the meetings fell shortly after the FGC Summer Gathering. which I decided to attend on my way from California to Moscow. Preoccupied as I was with the sense of overwhelming responsibility for the success of this new venture, I was barely functional the first few days of the Gathering. The workshop I had signed up for was a disaster, and I left it after the first day, more frustrated and tense than before. I switched to a journaling workshop, hoping to use that time and structure to effectively sort my many feelings about the Moscow event, regain some calm, and move forward with a vision of something other than calamity.
The keynote speaker at the Gathering that year was William Kreidler, and his topic was, “Leadings: You Want Me to do What?” He spoke about the sense of being called and the doubts that could rise. Moses was an excellent example; he gave all kinds of excuses why he could not be the one to confront the Pharaoh. Finally, God gave him a helper, someone to speak for him, and a few magic tricks to prove that he was indeed being sent by God. Moses grew into the role he was given. I began to wish for a magic rod.
Then Kreidler lifted the entire weight off my heart when he quoted Mother Theresa: “We are not called to be successful; We are called to be faithful.”
Suddenly, I saw clearly that my responsibility was not for the success of the approaching meeting; my only responsibility was to be faithful to what God led me to. Then in my journaling workshop the next day, I came to realize that my call was to listen. I was to listen to the voices present at that meeting in Moscow, each of whom represented many other voices not in the room: the Friends in the Moscow Meeting who yearned for connection and support; the little grassroots groups, so anxious to make a real difference and not knowing where or how to get started; the Quakers from various countries, each with their own ideas of how Friends could be of service; and the Friends at home who had sent me on this assignment and also yearned for connection with a people long cut off from us and vilified as the Evil Empire.
Now my vision was full of joy; my whole body felt it. I almost danced my way back to the dorm; my breathing and my heart rate slowed as my mind soared; I felt relaxed and excited at the same time. I slept well for the first time in many weeks. The journaling continued to reveal to me how to take my joy and excitement – and my vision of the possible – and translate those for everyone in the meeting to share.
And that is what the meeting became – an amazing sharing of beautiful dreams and visions of service and kindness, of generosity and resource, of hard work and laughter, of many hands working together.
My earlier vision of people bringing different ideas together became a reality – not in the scary and divisive way that I had first feared, but in a joyful collaboration of Friends brainstorming, sifting, assessing, and refining the multitude of possibilities, finally reaching some sense of the program that would be most beneficial and be the most likely to be established, supported, and sustained. By the end of several days of meeting, we had developed a shared vision of the work we would do, the next steps to take, and how we could move toward fulfillment.
During one session, we spent time creating individual pictures – in drawing or writing – of the entity we hoped to create. Some had gardens with vegetables and flowers, others were mostly libraries of resources, all had tables for meetings and discussions. My vision – I remember it vividly even now – was of a three-story building: a daycare center on the ground floor, our offices and meeting rooms on the second, and bedrooms for staff and guests on the top floor. Someone else added a helicopter pad to the top of the building; creativity opens up channels of imagination that defy reason.
When we met the second time, about six months later, the atmosphere was entirely different. New participants joined us, and the energy was altered. I was not prepared for such a change, for the critical way every suggestion was challenged, for the diminishment of the work we had already done, for the entrenched opinions of new members. We still held the same basic vision, but how to get it to fruition was not at all clear, certainly not agreed.
The next few years were difficult for me personally. I felt that I was responsible for carrying a piece of the original vision. Despite feeling so squashed at the second set of meetings that I developed severe laryngitis before the third, I continued to attend. I was now the recording clerk and was able to help guide the meeting through an agenda from that chair. Within another year, Ellie Huffman joined the board and was almost immediately asked to clerk it. With a solid background in non-profit management, she was instrumental in leading us through the process of setting up the structures that would lead to a firm foundation and a sustaining enterprise.
Part of my original vision had been that we would tell the truth about the conditions in Russia. I held this commitment very dear. It seemed that everything I read or heard others in the United States say about Russia were variations of the same themes: now they have blue jeans, Barbie dolls and Bibles; the cold war is over and everything is good. What I saw in Moscow told a different story. My task was to find a way to convey a fuller picture to the people at home.
When I set out to write articles for our Friends House Moscow newsletter, I generally started from the question: What vision of this situation do I want others to see? Usually, I wanted them to see a child – we worked with a lot of programs for children, so that was easy – and it was a smiling child, one being served by one of our programs and obviously benefiting. Sometimes it was a group of people engaged in an activity. Always I tried to help the reader understand how vital these programs were by seeing the positive results.
They really were wonderful programs: helping refugee children who were not allowed in the Russian schools, getting former residents of orphanages an education, aiding conscientious objectors to attain their constitutional rights, delivering aid to war-torn Chechnya. There were times when we were sponsoring twenty projects at once, each one an enterprise of love and energy, carried out by Russians to serve the people there, and guided by our staff through the steps of organizing and funding.
Our purpose was to listen – to listen to Russians speaking of their needs. People came to us because they heard we could help them with their own plans; that we would not impose a plan from outside. And the board listened to the staff as they described the applicants and their visions – which ones were most likely to put their plans into action and accomplish what they set out to do, and what relationship we had with the them. We have learned over the years to listen well. Sergei Grushko and Natasha Zhuravenkova have been our staff in Moscow for 18 and 14 years respectively. They are efficient and conscientious workers but, more importantly, they both are devoted Quakers, spiritually centered, and led by Spirit in their decisions about the direction for the program. And their leading is toward outreach.
The multitude of tiny programs that came to us for support, which we used to have to choose among, are gone. Either they have finished their work or they are now supported by bigger foundations. Many find all they need to learn about organizing and group decision making – unknown concepts in the early days of the new Russia – is on the internet. What we have now are partners, long-standing relationships with people we have known and worked with over many years. Our work with them is still important to us, and our support is often critical to them.
However, our partnerships no longer require time-consuming, detailed attention from our international members. The Russian staff, now formed into a self-owned management agency for security purposes, looks for opportunities to reach out to the vast array of people in their country, many of whom are looking for ways to have spiritual experiences without the dogma and greed of the Russian Orthodox Church. And in Russia, if you call it “a church,” you imply that it will have those same binding characteristics as the Russian Orthodox. But inviting someone to “a meeting” sounds like something different – and it is.
It is like opening a door never seen before, to a space inside your own heart. It is calming and refreshing, deeply moving and mysterious, personal and shared. Each meeting is unique.
Visitors are attracted by articles posted on social media and by word of mouth. One participant told her priest about the meetings; he attended for over a year, provided a donation to translate a Quaker book, and eventually asked for membership in the Monthly Meeting. Sergei and Natasha are genuinely listening – in meetings, on the streets, and on the internet – to what the people around them want for their wellbeing. Worship meetings, meditation sessions, and Experiment with Light gatherings are drawing an increasing, though still small, number of interested people.
Asked at a recent board meeting about her vision for the future of outreach in Moscow, Natasha said, in part, that having people worshipping together from many different walks of life and countries and languages was “a dream come true.” Her vision is simply to have this continue. She and Sergei, and the International Board of Friends House Moscow, are all dedicated to that vision – a worldwide meeting of hearts, joining former strangers and enemies together in spirit and friendship.
Julie Harlow is one of the founders of Friends House Moscow. Her vision of friendship between the US and the USSR led her to seven years of public-school presentations on daily life in the Soviet Union, based on the quote, “If you can see their faces, you can imagine being friends.”
More about Friends House Moscow and what it does can be found at https://friendshousemoscow.org/ and on the Friends House Moscow Facebook page.