Ubuntu: Responding with hope to God’s call to cherish creation and one-another

Tim Gee, Friends World Committee for Consultation

I began this year as an online participant at Southern Africa Yearly Meeting. Physically I was just south of Manchester in England. Mentally and spiritually though I was in South Africa, with the Friends gathered there.

I was glad to be taken aback by how connected to the week’s proceedings I felt. Perhaps it was because I was in a different place than usual. Perhaps it was because hybrid technology keeps improving. But there was also a certain power to the conversations there exploring the depths of meaning in the word ubuntu.

I had some prior familiarity with the word, especially thanks to anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu whose writings helped both form and inform the socially-engaged Christianity I try to live by. This event though, gave a more specifically Quaker insight into the profound way ubuntu is practiced by Friends in Southern Africa and beyond.   

In the Zulu language, ubuntu means something like ‘I am because you are ‘or ‘we are because you are’. It’s a word that emphasises interdependence, mutuality and environmental protection. For Friends there is a clear resonance with the belief in that of God in everyone, as well as the ‘Golden Rule’ as expressed by Jesus – to love your neighbour as yourself.  

 It goes much further though. In a panel on the theme, Quaker UN Office director Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge shared the way the idea of ubuntu helps illuminate each of the Quaker testimonies and values. Friend Sophie Nsimbi pointed out ways Friends practice ubuntu through projects for peace and equality and others spoke of work for a universal basic income and climate justice.

Later on Duduzile Mtshazo – former FWCC clerk – spoke about her first experience of Quakers, which also forms part of Living Adventurously – the book of faith and practice in Southern Africa: “The warm embrace of acceptance, just as I was, was moving and magnetic…I found my humanity and humanness through those Friends who saw that of God in me and affirmed that.”  Elsewhere in the book, ubuntu is described as being rooted in “the invisible circuit of connection between us all”. 

All of this gives me hope. The understanding of the concept of ubuntu shared by Friends in Southern Africa aligns closely with what FWCC seeks to foster globally. The theme of both World Quaker Day in 2023 and the next World Plenary Meeting in 2024 will be Living the Spirit of Ubuntu: Responding with Hope to God’s Call to Cherish Creation and One-another.

For our part, the planning team for the World Plenary Meeting are trying to make decisions in a way that reflects ubuntu too. As the first ever World Plenary to take place both on-site and online, it will be more sustainable than previous such events, with whole Quaker communities able to join from their own Meeting Houses & Friends Churches. 

 We’re also aware that if any Yearly Meeting is excluded on grounds of cost, we will not be a fully gathered community. Accordingly we’re preparing to subsidise more than half of the places by 90%, with a further fund to support participation online. This will require a significant amount of money, which we are seeking to raise, and go forward in faith that Friends who can will share to enable the participation of all.

Something I’ve found most inspiring about conversations about ubuntu is the insight that it is not just a word or idea, but something profound that we live by, as we seek to live in God’s spirit. I look forward to keeping learning more and trying to live it as a community together. 


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