Michael Corbett, Queensland Regional Meeting

Every once in a while, I like to reflect on past events and remember either the pleasure or pain, achievements or failures.  I try to evaluate what I can do to correct the pain and failures during what little time I have left on the earth whilst enjoying my achievements.  Sometimes out of the depth of memories a whole chain reaction begins.  These past few days, I have been remembering  my journey to Nairobi in April 2012. I had received an invitation to the World Conference of Friends in Kenya.  These World Conferences are rare occurrences due the enormous costs, so it could be my one chance to join a World Gathering. So, I accepted, packed my bags and went to join at least 1000 Quakers from across the world.

But here I must pause, and go back before April 2012, so that you will understand my state of mind during the Gathering. I need to set the scene as it were.

I was re-appointed by Queensland Regional Meeting to be the FWCC Queensland Representative for a 3-year term, starting in September 2011. At the December 2011 QRM, some in the Meeting objected to me taking the role which I had been given.

The year 2012 started out to be my annus horribilis. The damage suffered by me continued through the AYM in January and into the QRM in February. A comment heard by me at this meeting was that it seems as if we have lost our confidence in our Nominations process. I was so deeply hurt and offended by this continuing extraordinary bad behaviour of a few Friends, both from Qld and interstate, that I left the RM asking, “how can I ever return?”. In August 2012 a Minute was written saying We acknowledge the confusion, pain wrought and the mistake in Quaker process we all made. We ask forgiveness. Not one single person from QRM ever contacted me to talk to me.

I knew my mental state was deteriorating, my office was starting to talk about restructuring the area that I was working in, which was stressful, and I was not coping at home, so the pressures came from three angles. The “black dog” was my constant companion.

To arrive in Nairobi and participate in the Gathering offered me some hope. I spent the time talking to people who didn’t know me, but the thought of resigning from Friends was beginning to grow.    I recall that someone had once said that Quakerism – a fantastic religion – too bad about some of its practitioners.   This was my state of mind as I went through the Gathering. So, eventually I thought that the only thing that I can do to ease my mental state of mind was to resign from QRM and I sent an email to the QRM Clerk from Nairobi.

That was the pain aspect of where I was at the time, the pleasure was being with all the other Friends from around the world. They were using a university and the campus was very large with a variety of accommodation. The sights, sounds and colours of clothing, the movement [and noise] of 1000 Friends at times was amazing.  Music was everywhere and our Meetings were a combination of Evangelical and Unprogrammed Friends – silence and singing.  They also had to cater for languages and on the main floor, there were set up small booths that gave instant translations using English, Swahili, Spanish and French and these were transmitted to sections of the seating where one could use headphones, which meant that the ones giving the address had given a copy of their text to the translators and spoke in a measured speed.

Then came an address from Jocelyn Bell Burnell titled “Friends living the Kingdom of God in a broken world”.  As background, Jocelyn describes herself as scientist – an astronomer – studying stars and galaxies and black holes, and one who studies birth, life and death of our universe. I don’t recall much of the first part of her address; I still have the text but it sort of washed over me.  However, when Jocelyn started the second part, she had 110% of my attention. And this is the part of this article that I want to share with you, and I will quote some of the main points.

Jocelyn said:

The second part of my message, about brokenness, is much harder – harder for me and harder for you, and I ask that together we hold a moment of quiet, and in that quiet, each pray to God for the strength to be really honest. …We live on a broken planet; in our communities there are broken people.  We want to heal brokenness, wherever we see it. It is uncomfortable for us, as well as we as being uncomfortable for the person or thing that hurts.

If someone is grieving, for example, we ask kindly how they are, hoping that they will say they are fine, so we can go on our way unperturbed. …We encourage people to get over their problem and get back to normal. …Here’s the part where I need your help and honesty. Please think about your response to the following questions:

Do you carry feelings of grief, or sense of loss? Perhaps someone close to you died or gone away?   Have you failed in some way?   Do you have a long-term illness or disability?  Are you in a body that shows serious signs of age?   Do you carry some hurt, some wound?

If you have answered “yes” to any of these, if you can, please stand up.  And I will stand with you.

As I rose to my feet, I heard the almost silent “whoosh” as a large number of people also stood.   I could not see clearly, there were tears running down my face, I was not the only one with tears.   My tears came as a feeling of relief, that someone had put into words a message and through it I realised that I was living in a broken world.   The worshipful silence was audible, palpable and long lasting.

Jocelyn continued:

I believe that those of us who are wounded have a special ministry, because we are wounded, because we are hurt. I cannot tell you what your ministry is, only you can find that, but I am sure that there amongst us people who can speak to needs in this world because they know about hurt.  Your ministry might be to help people who have been hurt like you but are behind you on the road.   The US author, Thornton Wilder said – “in love’s service only the wounded can serve”.   So do not rush into healing too fast; remember there may be ministry for you in your woundedness.  That I am sure about. Your wound may heal some day and that piece of your ministry will be over for you and will be taken up by others. …. Just as there is ministry for the wounded in our community, is there a role for a wounded community?  Is the Religious Society of Friends a broken community?   Are we a broken community, a broken people, a broken society? Do we, through our brokenness have a role in God’s plan?


I have carried this message with me – that more than my own self is broken, it goes beyond being able to cope in my family circle, I was ready to walk away from my job after 30 years of service as I could not cope with the stress, and I walked away from my faith community and wandered in the “desert” for far too long.

Nairobi was not all doom and gloom. I have still a rich kaleidoscope of memories.  On one trip we stopped for a break.  There was a sign that said, “from this place the first man walked out of the Rift Valley and spread throughout the world”.  We were high on one wall of the valley; the opposite side could not be seen. The Great Rift Valley runs for 6000 kms and is, in some places, 22 kms wide. It starts in the south of Africa, in Mozambique, and runs through Tanzania, Kenya, up past Ethiopia through to Jordan and Lebanon. I went on a trip to a wildlife park and saw giraffes, zebras, antelope and buffalo – all totally ignoring us.  I saw a saltwater lake where there are supposed to be in excess of 1 million flamingos, all peachy/orange in colour, all walking the same way feeding on the brine shrimps.  The baboons were a challenge – one of them stole a lady’s handbag and descended over the parapet. She never got the bag back.   The last sight was just as dusk was falling on the way to the exit a large lioness was asleep on a branch of a tree. She would have been resting before starting the night’s hunting.  I visited a flint factory first discovered by one of the Leakie family that was maybe 20,000+ years old. There is also a photo somewhere of me standing, legs astride, one each side of the line of the equator. Knowing the stress I had been living with, after the Gathering, I took a side trip to Mombasa and sat of a beach for 5 days with my companion “the black dog”. I returned home with Jocelyn’s words running through my mind. And I was able to add the line from Desiderata: in the noisy confusion of life keep peace within your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams it still is a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

I am grateful that I was able to see the wildlife, to explore some of Kenya and experience of being with 1000 Quakers from all over this sometimes-broken world.  My “broken” story continued for a long time but that’s for another day.

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