Being bilingual in Quaker Outreach (Guest Post Robin Mohr)


This is a guest post from my good friend and General Secretary of FWCC Section of the Americas, Robin Mohr, following up on a talk she gave at the Emerging Practices in Quaker Outreach from NEYM.

How many of you speak another language? Meaning, raise your hand if you speak Spanish, French, Quechua, Mandarin, whatever, even a little bit.

How many other languages do we speak? In various parts of life, you may speak several languages as needed. There’s a specialized jargon for fashion, for sports, for medicine, at school, for young people, for people who were young in the 60s. Do you think that today, in the United States, there are separate languages for women and men? What about people from different economic or social classes ? African American and White people? Urban and rural, for business people, social workers and students? What are some other examples of different languages you speak? How many of you feel like you speak Cat? Or Baby?

As we go through life, we all learn many languages. Have you thought about it that way before? How often in your daily life do you encounter people who speak different languages because they have different beliefs, culture or social or economic differences? For many of us, we cross these “boundaries” between people daily. For others, this experience occurs rarely and it’s a big deal.

This is a major issue for the Friends World Committee. FWCC is the association of Quaker yearly meetings across all the branches of Friends around the world. My job is to serve Friends in the Section of the Americas. from Alaska to Bolivia. Our main work is to help Friends to recognize each other as members of the same body and to enable us to learn from one another so that we can live up to the Light we have been given. In my work, in the events that we organize, we often recognize that we need translation between English and Spanish, but there’s more to it than that.

To get to know people who we think are not like us, we all have to learn to be bilingual. I do not mean we all have to learn Spanish, even though it’s a good thing to do. (Se lo recomiendo. I recommend it highly.) But a few years ago, I heard a short speech by Colin Saxton, the General Secretary of Friends United Meeting. He said we all have to be bilingual. He was talking about how we need to be able to talk to our own people and to others.

He gave the example of Jephthah in the Book of Judges, Chapter 11 – who had to negotiate first with the elders of Gilead, and then with the king of the Ammonites. He had to know how to speak with the ambassadors at the city walls and with the men in the camp of his own army.

We have to be able to talk with peace activists and military families. With evangelical Christians and Buddhists. With gay and straight, black and white, with generations older and younger than ourselves. In North Carolina, Colin’s other example was we have to be able to speak NPR and NASCAR.

This is an increasingly important skill for Quakers, in our meetings, in our workplaces and our families. Do you know the famous parenting book called “How to talk so that kids will listen and listen so that kids will talk”? I think that effective peacemaking requires these skills. Effective education requires these skills. Effective outreach requires these skills.

We need to practice cross-cultural communication, all the things that linguists and sociologists have learned about that, across cultural divides of theology, race, class, gender, language, in our meetings and in our local communities and workplaces. How are we learning to be good listeners and effective communicators? Are we teaching that in our First Day Schools? In our yearly meeting workshops? When they’re offered, do we go?

I hope we can take what we learn here and reflect it in our local meeting and our yearly meeting. We have much to learn, me especially, from linguists and sociologists, from the Friends among us who are already working on this, and from our Quaker history.

You can read more from Robin on her blog “What Canst Thou Say?

Find more resources for conversation around Quaker practices in outreach here.