Reflections on a train from Geneva

Tim Gee, General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation

I write from a train, on the way from Geneva, following the Quaker United Nations Committee in support of the teams who speak up in the name of Friends about climate justice, human rights and refugees, peace and disarmament and sustainable and just economic systems.

There’s no doubt the work is inspiring. In parallel with the meeting, Quaker representatives at the UN’s major migration conference shared news of an agreement just reached – and encouraged by Friends – to review migration policies as a step towards eliminating systemic racism as well as commitments to increase participation of migrants in decisions that affect them. 

Others explained how Quaker conversations and interventions are encouraging a just transition to a circular plastics economy, and catalysing progress towards a stronger political declaration on protecting civilians from the humanitarian harm arising from explosive weapons – with Quakers calling for an end to their use altogether.

Reflecting the strength of concern in Quaker communities about global heating, there have been more than 60 Quaker interventions made so far this year during intergovernmental negotiations, helping ensure legally significant texts reflect important findings on the environment and conflict, climate justice, human rights, gender equality, meaningful participation in decision making and the role of sustainable diets in maintaining a liveable planet.    

Looking forward a little, by the time this piece is published, Quaker representatives will have worked with the UN’s Peacebuilding Support Office to get climate change and conflict on the agenda at a major international conference on peacebuilding and development, drawing attention to several country cases in Africa. 

My sense is that the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva and New York is well known among Friends in general terms, as a body that does good at the international level, in which we place a great deal of trust to do what they can when opportunities arise, especially through quiet diplomacy. That was roughly my perception before starting this role. Now I have more of an insight on the detail, as the Friends World Committee agrees statements to be made in multilateral meetings, arranges passes to allow access to the UN buildings, and supports Quakers from Africa, the Americas, Asia-West Pacific and Europe & the Middle East to feed into and shape the work.

It’s tempting to see the people Friends send to speak at the UN as something like ‘Quaker ambassadors’ to the world’s governments, on behalf of the institution of Quakerism. There’s something in that, but somehow I feel there is something more spiritual going on too, in the ways that they, with the support of others, also seek to channel and discern the spoken and silent prayers of the world Quaker family, and try to translate that in to “UN language” to make a difference.

This isn’t the whole picture of how Quakers seek change. QUNO isn’t big, neither in Geneva nor New York. In committee meetings I remind myself of the “serenity prayer” – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. Then I add what that prayer seems to miss – the strength to keep dreaming for large-scale change, even if I don’t know exactly how it will come about, accepting that different people and institutions are best able to do different things.       

In linking Quaker work at the United Nations to the wider witness of Friends, I often think of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, pithily summarised – or perhaps clarified or emphasised – by his brother James; “Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness”.  The seed having been planted 75 years ago, QUNO seems to me like a green-shoot of peace and justice. For tender plants to grow and thrive though they need fertile soil, which the richly diverse world Quaker community represents. I truly believe that our local, monthly, yearly, and international meetings, our shared moments of unity like World Quaker Day, and the many different ways we work and pray for peace are all part of the groundwork for change.

As my train approaches Paris then, I feel my heart full of gratitude, for the people who use their gifts to make change in our name, and to the faithful community of Quakers which makes all of it possible

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