Lisa Wriley, New South Wales Regional Meeting
I arrived in Bath by train with sons James and Sam after a week in Ireland. In hindsight this was good as it allowed us to adjust to time on the other side of the world and we weren’t feeling jet-lagged. British Yearly Meeting Gathering (BYMG), 2–9 August 2014, was exhausting enough as it was!
A short bus ride from Bath Railway station took us to the University of Bath where we were directed to registration, given our room keys and a map to help us find our accommodation. We made it to the last half of the opening session, after a quick evening meal in the Fountain Café, and I for one found it quite overwhelming – so many Quakers in one place, images on a huge screen and singing. I could hardly sing for the tears! “This little light of mine” and the ditty “Toxic waste & chemicals” to the tune “fish n chips and vinegar”, and a song that became iconic of BYMG for me, “Make new friends and keep the old; one is silver and the other gold”.
The boys started their respective programs on the Sunday and I joined in some of the creative programs – singing and Craftivism. I began a small banner: “Welcome Refugees” and was stitching it during the Swarthmoor Lecture when a woman I was sitting next to expressed her unhappiness at my message. This did shock me, especially as she was sitting with her friend who was a migrant from Ethiopia. I didn’t see either of the women again until the final evening. The gathering was so big you had to be very intentional to find friends again.
There were so many children’s and young peoples groups: 0–3; 3–5; 5–7; 7–9; 9–11 (Sam’s – Spiritual Adventurers) ; 11–14 (James’s – Young People’s Program); 14–18-year-olds (Junior Young Friends) and beyond.
Every group had a space in the Chancellor’s Building – the children all on one level, and the Young People on the level above. It was quite a process for all the parents bringing and signing in and out their various children – particularly if they had three in different rooms as my new friend Nancy did. I really appreciated that James, being 14 years old, was allowed to sign Sam in and out. This meant that they would sometimes head off to sign in while I could finish eating or talking with someone. They were keen not to miss anything.
I had volunteered to help with the children and was rostered on with the 3–5 year olds on the Friday, the last day of YM. I was therefore required to attend a briefing session where we were informed of how the line of responsibility worked, child protection basics, and that what we were doing was a really important part of YM – even though it may seem very mundane, e.g. cutting up the fruit, cleaning up the space etc.
The physical distances we travelled during the week were substantial, but lots of scooters were available for elderly folk. Our accommodation was at one end of the campus, the Fountain Café (where more than a thousand people were fed over two hours each morning and evening, with amazing efficiency) was around the middle, The Chancellor’s building where the children hung out, was a little way away and then the Big Top and adjoining marquees, where all the large gatherings and many parallel workshops took place, was at the other end. The campsite was further away still and I never saw it, but heard that there were issues with getting the keys to the showers!
A highlight for James was a game called “Hunt the Quaker” the 11–14-year-olds and 14–18-year-olds were mixed up in teams of five and they had to search the University of Bath campus trying to find the “Quakers”. The leaders of the young peoples program (an unknown number) dressed up in unbelievable and crazy disguises, e.g. wearing a Panda costume while reading War & Peace; floating in a kayak out on the lake, and placed themselves around the campus. The teams had to ask potential Quakers, “what is your favourite fruit?”, record their answers and report back to base when they had found as many as possible.
Sam enjoyed the social aspects of BYMG the most. He quickly hooked up with about five boys who had skateboards and a soccer ball and spent many hours playing soccer – every lunch and every evening. Sam excelled at jumping over all the many bollards around the university.
Other electives I attended included: a session run by Ruth, an Australian Quaker who is a nurse in an Aboriginal community in Central Australia (she
had a packed room and spoke sensitively about the challenges of being and serving in her community); an elective on asylum seekers, refugees and detention centres (I was disappointed to hear they have some very similar issues with detention centres in the UK – though they aren’t on remote islands in the Pacific!); also an elective about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program – volunteers spoke of their work in Gaza and the West Bank, accompanying Palestinians.
Several times I bumped into Beth from Perth, who was there with her sister and her children. It was great to chat with her.
On the last day of BYMG I had my chance to see inside the program of the 3–5-year-olds and I loved what I saw. The children had been learning about the Friends Ambulance and had made one in the room, complete with bandages and arm bands to pin on. They had been watching seeds sprout throughout the week and on the last day were able to eat them and talk about how they had changed. They had picture journals to add something to each day. They taught me a song about making a difference: “I can make a difference, yes I can! I can be a friend and lend a hand; I can make a choice and make a stand; I can change the world.”
I will always remember walking to the park holding hands and singing “make new friends and keep the old…one is silver and the other gold” over and over.