This year, at the annual Friends General Conference Gathering, held last week in Bowling Green, Ohio, I noticed a theme of personal transformation in the three evening plenaries. On Monday night, George Lakey addressed not avoiding conflict. During his talk, George shared several stories about how he and groups he has worked with have been transformed though taking a nonviolent approach to conflict, instead of acting violently. For instance, he once led a workshop where he conscientiously allowed a bitter debate to happen between two groups of young people coming from two different sides of an ongoing bloody conflict. This idea frightened his co-leaders, but they allowed the debate to happen and the debate revealed more than two sides to the conflict they had come from. This realization allowed each group to see that common ground was possible between the two groups. At dinner that night after the debate, the groups were intermixing and laughing, which didn't happen before the debate.
On Tuesday night, Phillip Gulley talked about universalism and Quakerism. During his talk, he spoke about a transformative experience he had where he realized, at age 24, that he believed in universalism. He called this a "peak experience". He defines universalism as everyone is invited to God's "party". Then on Thursday night, Amanda Kemp shared her wonderful play, "Show me the Franklins! Remembering the Ancestors, Slavery and Benjamin Franklin", which focus on having people recognize past history of slavery in the United States in order to help transform race relations in present day.
For me, amid listening to all of these plenaries, I started to reflect on the transformations I have experienced in my life, especially a transformation that led me to become a follower of Jesus in the last couple years.
For most of my life growing up, I believed in a higher power of some sort, but I couldn't put a name on this higher power. As I transformed to become a follower of Jesus in my early 20s, I was heavily influenced by the actions of several Christian friends who lived out their faith in their daily lives. I remember, during World Gathering of Young Friends in 2005, hearing Latin American Friends talk about the love of Christ that they had felt, which was the first time I heard about the love of Jesus. Growing up I heard much more about the wrath of God or, if I didn't believe in God or call myself a Christian, I would go to hell. Then I would see these same people, who had told me this, live lives full of lies and deceit, so I wondered often why I would want to identify with that kind of religion.
As I reflect on this experience, I realized I wasn't alone in my journey, even through it was a personal transformation. When I started exploring living a life following the teachings of Jesus, I had people willing to listen to my questions and reflection, even if they didn't think or feel similarly. These friends would pray with me, or offer books for me to read, or even just offer to sit with me. Looking back, my transformational experience resulted from inward reflection, being open to change, and soaking up several different experiences while practicing mindfulness, rather than any one specific profound experience. This is where my transformational experiences differ from what George and Phil talked about in their plenaries, because they talked more about particular, specific turning points. I can't remember any specific moment that I felt transformed immediately. For me, my transformations have usually been the culminations of a variety of experiences.
With my transformations so far, I have also realized that these transformations have come from inside me, not from outside influences. Nothing about me changed physically after any transformational experience nor did I become a new person overnight. I am the same person, but these experiences have caused me to view the world in different ways than before.
Currently I run Washington Quaker Workcamps, when I try as best as I can to include the ingredients for a transformative experience during each workcamp, like having different activities each day, hosting outside speakers to come talk about the topic we have, and leaving space for ample reflection each day. I do know fully that I cannot create, manufacture, or guarantee a transformative experience for the participants, because I know it will be a inner realization that will cause the experience to happen, rather than anything I can ever try to plan.
In thinking about transformational experiences, I find myself wrestling with these two questions:
How can I further open myself up so I can be transformed again by the Inward Light?
How can I assist others in opening up themselves to transformations in their own lives?