Raices Cuáqueras: Benigno Sánchez-Eppler and Spiritual Hospitality Across Borders
La Virgén de Guadalupe, La Virgén del Cobre, La Virgén del Rosario, are the venerated on three dollar vigil candles sold in the mercaditos of your barrio. San Lázaro, San Antonio, San Juan, are prayed to, but their powers cannot compete with the utterances in Yoruba your abuelito said before he placed cups full of water in the house to absorb devious spirits. Nochebuena, El Día de los Muertos, El Día De Reyes, always symbolized more than the gifts, the colors, or awaiting Santi Clau. These illustrated memoirs of Latin American religious tradition and spiritual practice prevail in the mainstream and are accepted as the norm of the region, barely acknowledging the existence of other dominant faiths such as Judaism, Islam, and much less one that many Pennsylvanians are privy to: Quakerism. In fact, Latin America contains about 18% of the world’s Quakers -despite the narrow stereotype that all of the world’s Quakers are somehow lumped here in Pennsylvania- and their presence in Latin America is being acknowledged by youth leaders and academics who want to bridge gaps between the cultures of North and South America, and the gaps within Quakerism and spirituality itself.
One such activist and missionary is Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, a Cuban who left the island in the 1970s on the escape-route towards Miami, opted for an education in frigid Massachusetts after receiving a diploma from Miami Springs High School, fell in love and found religion in England, became a professor at Amherst, and somewhere along the way, ended up back at the origin, developing an ambitious peace, justice, and human rights curriculum at El Instituto Cuáquero Cubano de Paz in Holguín.
Benigno (in true Quaker fashion), sat casually in the humble common room of a Haverford College student’s apartment complex last Thursday and ate a burger while passionately speaking about his work in a circle comprised of about twenty curious students from a myriad of religious and cultural backgrounds. As a part of Religious and Spiritual Life Week at the lush Main Line liberal arts institution rooted in Quaker values, Benigno spoke in both intimate and broader settings (such as a dinner with The Alliance of Latin American Students and a translation workshop) about his dedication to the Friends World Committee for Consultation, Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, the conversion of Quaker texts from English to Spanish to serve Amigos across Latin America, and his ministry leadership in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Peru, and The United States. The primary focus of his visiting chats, lectures, and residency? “Spiritual Hospitality.”
And, although you (the reader), may not care much for religion or spirituality, Walter Sullivan, the Director of Quaker Affairs at Haverford College, intoned during the aforementioned dinner that now, in the divisive heat of this electoral cycle, we may all take valid points away from Benigno’s beliefs and activism encompassing the heart of “Spiritual Hospitality,” particularly in the aftermath of the impending results on the night of November 8th 2016.
Transcribing all of the powerful words that Benigno shed upon this group of students while munching on french fries would disgrace the depth of his historically rich and multifaceted approach to spiritual hospitality, and coincidentally, it would also take up about approximately twenty web pages, for Benigno (like any Cuban) is a talker! To summarize the history behind the concept in question, Benigno first gave an overview on the general history of Quakerism which, ironically, is not as pacifistic as its followers are known to be. The Hicksite-Orthodox split in the 18th century put most Quakers on two opposing ends of the spectrum: those who believed in the divinity of Christ and those who put their primary faith in the direct experience of God’s love and guidance within, otherwise known as the concept of the “Inner Light.” This exacerbated the differences amongst Quakers within North America, even leading these extremely tolerant and traditionally “hippie-dippie” and otherwise open worshippers to become appalled at the notion of intermarriage within the different branches of their denomination.
Thus, in Latin America, where most of the Amigos are Evangelical and Orthodox, it seemed as if the possibility of Quakers from North America and South America coming together in a sacred setting to learn, to grow, and to emerge culturally harmonious and spiritually strong was not likely, and for most of the past centuries, virtually inconceivable.
The carnage of faith and flesh that grimly trailed behind World War I began a surge of reevaluation of the human condition and hospitality, which led to the birth of the Friends World Committee for Consultation in Swarthmore. The goal was, at surface-level, uniting Friends from across the globe, but the core of the FWCC was to open hearts and minds to a reflective process that would enable deeper understanding and empathy for the perceived “other.” This was, of course, particularly imperative during a period of time in which the world was being torn apart by religious and ethnic intolerance, toxic attitudes of those who are different from us that have resurged in an eerie parallel in the 21st century.
Benigno, along with the FWCC (which, through the Quaker United Nations Office, shares consultative status with The Economic and Social Council of The United Nations), has been manifesting his commitment to The Peace Testimony into an inclusive and spiritually hospitable relationship with The Americas, North, Central, and South, by bringing young North American Quakers from all walks of spiritual practice and all preceding perspectives of the theological divides that have occurred in Quakerism, to become vulnerable amongst themselves and amongst new cultures, tongues, ways of worship, shades, political climates, and territories in Latin America.
A student from Haverford College who went with Benigno on one of these aforementioned Quaker Youth trips recalled that, despite a few meetings that would run for almost eight hours to reach consensus about seemingly trivial aspects of the ministry trip with the North American and the Bolivian Quakers (such as the appropriateness of cuddling… yes, you read that right), it was one of the most rewarding experiences she has had. The practice and nurturing of spiritual hospitality- and the natural challenges that follow- made her a more socially and culturally aware conscientious young adult and Quaker.
How, then, does spiritual hospitality, the act of fully welcoming and empowering those which our personal experiences and beliefs clash with into our literal and figurative homes, work in secular spaces, in academic traditions and disciplines, in respectful explorations of the self and the other, in sexual practices, in government, in policy, in the backyard your Cuban professor roasts an intimidating lechón in? For Benigno, it goes beyond simply being kind and feigning political correctness for the sake of saving face and being polite. “Spiritual Hospitality” calls for love, mutual concern, integrity, selflessness, tenderness, sensitivity, and an eager ear willing to listen. “Instead of making a compromise and trying to meet somewhere in the middle, which is usually impossible and makes everyone unhappy,” Benigno said, “it’s about taking notice of those opposing ends of the spectrum and not fighting their existence. In that way, theologies, ethnicities, cultures can all become stronger together without always explicitly agreeing.”
In the United States, gnawing uncertainty and teeth-gritting hostile attitudes are on the precipice of spewing over and causing mass-spiritual destruction come November. In Central and South America, the certainty of suffering and the uncertainty of when the political corruption and gang violence will end is making the commitment to peace and to being welcoming all the more fear-inducing. In Cuba, where uncertainty is looming after nearly six decades of closed fists and shut-mouths, the tides of ideology and need are spilling into dilapidated towns and thawing the freeze of stagnation. And yet, for Benigno, for the Amigos at El Instituto Cuáquero Cubano de Paz, for willing Haverford College students, and even for members of The United Nations, a solution to these uncertainties lies within the desire and the practice of making a home with the other, unifying in spirit towards justice, mercy, and truth.