Victoria Friends Meeting

Here is the document I wrote as the application to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends:

My journey toward the Religious Society of Friends

My journey started more than fifty years ago in Switzerland. I was born the second child of four to parents who grew up still deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of a conservative Catholic society. I was made a member of the Roman Catholic church at a very early age, and possibly against my will since it is reported that I have cried inconsolably throughout the ceremony.

The first fourteen years of my life I grew up comfortably and quite sheltered in a small town near Lucerne. My family was the perfect family: dad was working as an engineer (he was the first in his family to benefit from higher education, thus escaping the rural poverty of the peasant life or the hardship of the working class experienced by his forefathers). Mom stayed home after marriage, but before has mastered a professional qualification and has earned a living on her own (this was also a first in her family that had also very recent rural roots – her father was born into a migrant farm worker family with no possessions and very limited rights).  They were very proud of their achievements and upward mobility in social class. They also had grand expectations for her children who were to be given all opportunities to make it to the top.

At age fourteen, I woke up from the dream. The construct of the perfect family vanished, and I started to question the personal and social realities around me. I was still an altar boy, serving in the local parish that was also home to Hans Küng, a theologian who at that time rejected the papal infallibility and the exclusion of women from priesthood. In high school, I was involved in discussion circles and activist groups that explored all major alternatives to the church mandated world order that still dominated our upbringing and education. Liberation theology was one of the movements I explored. We saw the historical Jesus as the proto socialist.

When I was eighteen, after finishing high school, I left the Roman Catholic church. The most memorable trigger was my impression that the parish assemblies sounded like board meetings of a real estate company. I criticized strongly the observed discrepancy between personal behaviors and my understanding of Christian principles in people who claim to be deeply religious and good members of the church.

The same year, I became a conscientious objector. After watching part of the TV mini series of “Holocaust” with Meryl Streep, I was no longer able to participate in the preparatory training to become a fighter pilot. I was also no longer able to enjoy the sportsmanship and laurels of a marksman. I wrote a lengthy defense ahead of my conscription into mandatory military service, pointing out the irreconcilable discrepancies between my personal beliefs and my civil duties.

My existential search also led me to abandon my childhood dream of becoming an archeologist. Instead, I became convinced that I needed to care for the planet at the same time as I produced my own food. I opted for a plain life, became an organic farmer and helped establish a small farm coop, but never completely gave up the academic and professional interest in archeology. I was able to complement the livelihood from the mixed farm with cash income from contract work as a research assistant.

The dream of finding a stable land base for farming, and a place to raise a family away from the ongoing harassment and persecution by the Swiss authorities (linked to the yet unsettled claims related to my repudiation of military service) led me to immigrate to Canada in 1993.

We settled in the Yukon, but the farming dream was soon replaced by reality. I eventually found work as a wilderness guide, which was a blessing. I was able to work close with the manifestation of my spiritual centre that is also the place where I find the easiest connection to God– the glory of creation. Eventually, we established our family home near a small, predominantly First Nations community. I became involved as a volunteer in emergency services and community development initiatives. This involvement led me to return to university and pursue a nursing education. Now I shifted my direct focus of care from the land to the people.

Within nursing, my area of interest was never in the medical system. The influences of the social determinants of health, the inequalities and injustices, the degradation of our natural environment spoke much stronger to my heart and eventually formed the foundation for my research interest. I pursued graduate studies in conflict analysis and peace building as well as nursing.

But all these academic credentials and professional qualifications led me deeper into a postmodern world, away from the plain life, the simplicity, and the compassionate service that was the utopian vision I stated my path on. After my separation, I also realized how much I missed the communal life that was part of the utopia. I was seeking a place where I would be able to integrate all these ideas and found the L’Arche community. While living in Burnaby, I found my way to the Quaker meetinghouse. The theological differences with the established churches have not resolved magically over the decades. But I found a shared understanding among Friends, a movement I have only known from my academic work.

Over the last two years, I have developed a sense of belonging among Friends. I have attended the meeting in Victoria and the worship group in Whitehorse on a regular basis. After considerable listening, I know now that this is part of the community I am searching for. Therefore, I would like to apply for membership in the Society of Friends.

Othmar F. Arnold

Subsequently, I also wrote a piece for the monthly publication of the Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting, the Island Friend. In this article, I further reflect on the journey to become a Quaker. I was asked to write something about my experience working with Doctors without Borders/MSF in Chad. However, during the writing process I quickly realized that it would much more interesting to share how these overseas experience have influenced me in my decision to apply for membership in the Religious Society of Friends:

At the end a presentation on my work with MSF/Doctors without Borders in Chad to the Victoria Friends Meeting, a Friend posed the question: How did this service work change me? What impact did the experiences have on my life?

I was not well prepared to answer that question as confidently as I was able to engage with the other questions that came from the gathering. But it definitely made me reflect further on the issue.

My initial response was that my experiences in the desert did not lead to significant changes in my life. However, I had to acknowledge that I have not been working as a nurse since. I had intentionally set aside time and resources to reflect on the humanitarian work and to process the experiences.

Does that mean I am the same person as before the mission? I don’t think so. A major shift in my life has begun several years ago. I was called back to my roots, to become radical again. And there were other factors that were enabling such a reorientation in mid-life.

First my children are now growing up and are becoming more and more independent. Then, the high-paying nursing work in Nunavut enabled me to liberate myself from the financial obligations accumulated over the years (debt trap). After returning from Nunavut, I experimented with living and working in an intentional community for minimum pay. Although this did not work out for the long term, I was clear that it was the right thing to do.

It was the lack of separation between life and work that became important to me. It was the relationship-based focus that was appealing. Professional nursing comes from that background, but is being pushed more and more into a transactional relationship between care giver and receiver within the contemporary health care system.

Applying to volunteer/work with MSF/Doctors without Borders was a continuation of the desire not to separate work and life anymore. It became also a fulfillment of my childhood promise that “one day I will go and do my part to help the starving children.” That promise was made based on the unforgettable media images from the Biafra conflict more than forty years ago. The same conflict led to the foundation of MSF as an independent international humanitarian organization that would respond to medical emergencies and maintain in its mission the speaking out based on witnessing.

Having been on mission with MSF confirmed several things that are integral parts of my understanding of being radical:

I refuse to live in and with fear.

I don’t have to be afraid of strange people and strange circumstances.

Working in a Muslim society and culture within a country with a less than stellar record of political stability and security was no different that working in Canada. I have to have the openness to encounter every human being as a unique being and the willingness to enter into an appropriate relationship. I have to understand the systems and cultures I work in, be it MSF as a powerful humanitarian organization, the Chadian health care system, the local political structures that intersect strongly with religious authorities, a fundamental Islamic society, or be it the professional nursing culture in North America, the corporate culture of a particular health care facility or service, or globalized, neo-liberal policies and capitalist-consumerist ideology that touches and tries to penetrate every aspect of our lives in Canada.

I don’t have to be afraid of the future.

I don’t need the same level of fiscal security that I have enjoyed before setting off on mission with MSF. I have consciously chosen to live with an annual income near the Canadian poverty line. I don’t seek insurance for this and that. I would rather build the confidence that I will be taken care of when the need should arise. I am convinced that if I do good now, the favour will be returned in due course – not as a this-for-that transaction, but from a much larger pool of ‘karma’. The experiences in Chad have confirmed for me the validity of these assumptions and beliefs. Many people there have nothing, don’t know what they will survive on tomorrow, but share everything they have to welcome a stranger today!

I don’t have to be afraid of missing out.

The experiences in Chad have confirmed my trend to simplify life and limit my worldly and material possessions. For semi nomadic people it is essential to carry only the things a person needs. For me, it is a choice to do so. For many people I encountered this is not a choice they need to consider. For me it is a liberating exercise to scrutinize all the taken-for-granted in my life and approximate the pure necessities. For example, I don’t go and exercise for my own health benefit, but I walk to and from the places I need to go. It is a gift to make the best with what one has – an attitude that can be put in action even if one has nothing.

I don’t have to be afraid of missing anything.

My approach to time and importance has shifted. If I do what I need to and what I am called to do, there is plenty of time in my life for many other things and activities. I don’t feel the compulsion to be part of every initiative to save the world. I discern very carefully what my direct action and contribution is and needs to be. Social justice and environmental action is no longer a programmatic activity, it has become a life style. That way, I can experience direct action on a daily basis and can observe or feel the immediate impact.

The experiences in Chad have made me stronger person to live radically. I am also confirmed in my search for community, my intention not to do everything by myself. This in turn has led me to apply for membership with the Victoria Friends Meeting.

A version of this article has been published in the December 2012 edition of The Canadian Friend.

In October I met with a clearness committee that was helping me and the Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends to discern my intention of becoming a member (versus remaining a repeat guest and occasional attender). We had a good conversation about the biographical information in these documents, which explain or tell in a very condensed way parts of my journey in life as it pertains to membership in a religious organization or church. On November 18, 2012, the Meeting for Worship for Business of the Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting has officially accepted and approved my application for membership. Excerpts from the committee report can be found in the blog post Becoming a Quaker in a fragmented world.

Here is another excerpt that describes my ongoing connection with Victoria and its Friends Meeting:

We discussed at some length how membership in our Meeting would benefit Othmar, the Whitehorse Worship Group, Vancouver Island Monthly Meeting and Victoria Friends. He described the community of the Whitehorse Worship Group, his place in it, how it is faring without Sue Starr, and how a long-distance membership in our Meeting could serve him in helping that group hold together and prosper in the spirit. He also suggested several ways in which he could offer service to our Meeting from afar as well as deepen his spiritual formation with our support. He offered all this at long-distance via email buttressed by visits to Victoria. His daughter is studying at the University of Victoria which will bring him back regularly. He has a place to stay whenever he visits thanks to a long-standing friendship with a former landlady.

It was also nice to experience the reactions from some of the well-established members of theVictoria Friends Meeting, a contact that happens mostly using email exchanges.

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