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A reflection by Julie Harlow in the run-up to the FHM Board meeting in November 2020

I look forward to the meetings of the International Board of Friends House Moscow.  They are once-a-year reunions of old friends mixed with the sights, sounds and tastes of Russia, the deep spiritual bond of worshipping elbow to elbow, the business of careful management of contributions given by many people from many countries, and usually an absurd number of  unnecessarily complicated arrangements for travel, housing and food, especially if you are a vegetarian.

This year it is nearly all gone but the business.  We will meet, as so many organizations have done, virtually and see each other only as postage stamp-sized pictures on a screen.  Gone are the hugs that have waited a full year, the red berries of the tree whose name translates as “red berry tree”, the sight of tiny children bundled so fiercely against the cold they can hardly raise an arm to hold mama’s hand, the Metro stations encircled by middle-aged or older women selling everything from hosiery and lipstick to shredded cabbage and carrots to family treasures now sacrificed for the rubles to buy bread or canned fish.

Gone, too, is the laughter that comes spontaneously during a meeting and builds to a raucous crescendo and then slowly drifts down to a lull as it moves among the group, growing with the addition of little remarks that take it to a new level. This does not happen when everyone is muted.

Also gone are the visits to Big Change – a program for teens and young adults who were once housed in orphanages, now aged out of all state care.  We cannot see the progress of the students we saw last year – engaged in learning English while witnessing, experiencing and absorbing not just the new language, but trust, respect, fulfillment and service.  Or the Refugee Center with its rainbow of children and mothers from many countries, all struggling to survive and cope, and discovering kindness, friendship, hope and shared dreams.

Zoom is an amazing technology, adding greatly to our ability to connect across many miles without the carbon footprint, financial cost, or the time it would take to travel those miles, but it has its limits.  We can see the person’s face, but we cannot hold a hand.  We hear the voice, but sometimes it does not match the movement of their lips.  Reception is clear and consistent,…until it isn’t.

We are a committed group – the members of this board.  Over the years we have paid our own costs to travel to these meetings, sometimes aided by our monthly meetings, often not.  Some travel 3 or 4 time zones.  Others travel 11.  We gladly get ourselves there because Friends House Moscow is about more than budgets and reports.  It is about connections and relationships within the board – among its members – and also with the partners in the projects we support. 

Over our 24 years of service, we have seen a lot of changes, but there is one constant:  our work is about the people of the region – listening to them, understanding their vision for a better world, seeing how they envision their service, and what they need in order to make their visions a reality. This means building a relationship of trust based on listening “beyond words” to what the heart is saying.  And the Russian heart speaks with astounding passion – softly, controlled, often cautious, sometimes timid – when it sees the possibility of a dream fulfilled.  True listening with an open heart, offering and demonstrating trust and respect, will build a partnership that lasts.  And they learn that one person can make a significant difference in the lives of others.

Relationships must also be built between the various cultures engaged in this work.  I won’t resort to stereotypes, but American, British, German and Russian Friends are not alike in language, history, behaviors or standards of “good order”.  What is a “Minute” in one country, is a “note” in another.  Americans and British Friends in the second meeting of the Interim Board in 1994 had reached a frustrating impasse until a Russian speaking member pointed out that we were using the same word – “project” (the noun) – and meaning two different things; to Americans, a project could be of any size so Friends House Moscow was a project that we were undertaking.  The British, however, insisted that it was not a project because they used the word only when referring to something very large in scale.

Worshipping together unites us;  we embrace the practice of sitting in expectant waiting, sensing the Presence with us, a Spirit moving us to discern the better path.  There is a spaciousness of love in the crowded room, a harmony of concern, a melody of thoughts and prayers.  And this music of the soul travels well, even over Zoom.

In these board gatherings of postage stamp faces and voices from a box, we do find Spirit present.  We often reach deep and profound silence, and vocal ministry can be ever as rich and meaningful as when meeting in person.  We are led by Spirit to decisions that serve us and our partners well.  At the board meeting to be held virtually in November 2020, we will take time to share personal stories of our experience of Russia, or take advantage of being each in our own home by sharing something of importance to us that would never be brought across continents in a suitcase, or give a virtual tour of our home or garden.  I expect that we will meet pets, spouses, children, partners,… and our bonds will deepen.  It is a Quaker tradition to “visit in each other’s homes”, and now we can do it without leaving our own.

So, I will miss the hushed voices on the metros, the smell of warm bread wafting from the kiosks, the embraces of once-a-year intimacy, the ringing laughter that cushions the hard decisions, the immediacy of Spirit when we hear good news from a project or a partner.

But Spirit does not need a jet, a metro or an Uber to bring us together.  Love does not need us to be in the same room or the same time zone to join us in purpose, vision, and commitment.  We will be a “gathered people”, feeling the warmth of bonds built over the years and the freshness of new members joining for the first time.  And so, as always – but not as usual – I look forward to the meeting of the International Board of Friends House Moscow.

The graphic of a virtual meeting in the featured image is © Ekaterina Kornyukhina / dreamstime