My Geneva Quaker Experience.

by | 6 Dec, 2020

Therese Douglas, New South Wales Regional Meeting

I have had the privilege of living in Geneva, Switzerland and becoming an active member of that Quaker community for the short time I was there. I would love to share some of my experiences with you! We arrived in Geneva in January 2018. The weather was bleak and grey, and the days were short. My partner began his employment a few days later and I had already organised to start intensive French classes that same day. I was determined not to become isolated from the local community! I knew there was a Quaker Meeting based in the building where Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) is located. The tradition had been that the first Sunday of the month the Meeting for Worship would be predominantly in French. So, I decided to wait till the following week to attend my first Meeting as I had no prior knowledge of French! I had studied German in high school which would have been handy if we had moved to Zurich or many other spots in Switzerland! Meanwhile I started to get a rhythm to my days. Before we left Australia, I had just completed a 2-year diploma in yoga studies and I was keen to continue my practice and look for opportunities to teach. I walked to my first Sunday Meeting for Worship in time for the starting time of 10:30am. It was a cold, quiet Sunday morning with very few shops open as the nation regards this as a day of rest and relative quiet. That Sunday there was probably about 10 people in attendance. Over the months to come I became very familiar with the Meeting and grew very fond of the community. Despite Geneva being a French speaking city, the majority of members/attenders speak English as their first language. Many are expats with some connection to the vast array of United Nations agencies and non-government organisations based in Geneva. Backgrounds ranged from British, American, Swiss, French, German, Mexican and Australian. People come and go because of work and family commitments. Many employment roles In Geneva involve travelling and many people only live there for a few years before being rotated onto different locations. So, it is quite a challenge for the Meeting to maintain a sense of community. I found that at the Geneva Meeting there is generally a more even mix of gender and age compared to the Australian Meetings I have attended. But each week the mix of faces would change. Many people who were part of the community may not attend Meeting for Worship but were able to attend Business meetings or other activities. Initially I found this quite bemusing and wondered if was due to a sense of wanting to be part of committees rather than being part of a worshipping community… As time went on and my French improved (which wasn’t hard as it was non-existent to begin with!), I became braver and attended the French spoken meetings as well. I was invited to take on a role as a member of the spiritual care group (originally known as the elders) of the community and took up this position in September 2018. The intention was that the commitment would be for three years. Having held a similar position in Wahroonga meeting I was looking forward to playing a deeper role in the life of the Meeting. A long-time member of the Meeting suggested I approach the clerks of the Meeting to see if I could offer yoga classes during the week using the Meeting room. We came to an agreement that I would offer a beginners’ class for an hour and a quarter each Tuesday at lunchtime. This was so that the workers at QUNO could also attend. I didn’t want to do this in a paying capacity, so participants were invited to donate and this money was given to the monthly cause nominated by the Social Concerns Committee. The role of “Elder” in this Meeting at that time was very full: you were expected to open the Meeting House, prepare tea and coffee, greet everyone, and also share the notices and welcome newcomers and bank any donations received! I raised my personal concerns about this load many times as I felt it detracted from what I saw as the main role of the committee in Meeting: to hold the Meeting and create a space for silent worship.

Quaker House, Geneva : Photo Jez Smith

As the months went by, I became confident enough in my very basic French to also be the person rostered on the French speaking Sundays. I was always in awe of those expats who could easily just slip into speaking French on those days! Meanwhile my yoga classes progressed and turned into a kind of “outreach” arm. As I met people in other circles, such as my French lessons or other yoga classes, I would invite people to come and try my traditional style. I ended up having people from many nationalities attend: Swiss, Dutch, Spanish, American, English, Chinese, Japanese, Moldovan and Australian! Afterwards we would often have a cuppa at a local café so a mini-community evolved. There were members of the Quaker community as well. A number of the participants had physical disabilities and loved the gentle style and the meditation and yoga nidra. With the onset of COVID-19 I was the lucky person to facilitate the first Zoom Meeting for Worship for the community. As I am sure Australian Meetings have found, there were advantages and disadvantages to this. One of the advantages was a resurgence in numbers as previous members living elsewhere could reconnect with the Meeting. I actually “zoomed in” during my quarantine period in Perth! But I also noted with sadness the absence of a number of people who live with disabilities. I know that currently the Meeting is trialling a mixture of virtual and physical attendance. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the wider Swiss Quaker community as well. Given there are four official languages in Switzerland (German, French, Italian and Romanish), national gatherings were always a swirl of languages! I participated in two yearly meetings and helped to plan and run an annual retreat. Because of the multiple language usage, planning teams spoke in English as well as German and to a lesser extent French. By being exposed to the members of other Swiss Meetings I also realised how unique the Geneva meeting is in terms of its expat mix and its mobility. I represented the Swiss Yearly Meeting at the British Yearly Meeting in 2019. This was a real privilege and quite a different experience from the tiny Swiss gatherings. It was probably more similar to the Australian Yearly Meeting in terms of its size and multiple activities with people coming from all over the country and reconnecting for perhaps the first time in a year. Keeping in mind that Switzerland is only half the size of Tasmania it is much easier for Swiss Quakers to access activities throughout the year. 2020, of course, has been a very difficult year for everyone. As mentioned, the Geneva Meeting quickly changed across to Zoom sessions. I also taught yoga online and offered an additional late evening class. So, I was able to continue to be in contact with many people. But I did note with sadness those with physical disabilities no longer participated. After the death of my mother in late March I decided I didn’t have the energy to continue as part of the spiritual care committee. I was approached to consider the role of co-clerk but by this time we had made the decision it was time to return to Australia which we did in August. My last activity in Geneva was the annual spring picnic in the beautiful garden. The weather was beautiful and there was plenty of space to be comfortable. There were about 20 people in attendance, and everyone had brought their own picnic. Since then, I was grateful to be able to join their Meeting for Worship whilst in quarantine in Perth, Australia, and intend to zoom in from time to time. Meanwhile I have a new location to explore on the mid-north coast of NSW. I feel so blessed to be back in Australia and to be healthy!! I have some beautiful memories and friendships from my time in Geneva and am grateful for the opportunities to reconnect virtually. I think I am finally cured of my wanderlust.
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