Lyndon Back’s life was happily settled. But everything changed in 1993, when a beautiful old bridge collapsed. Until then, the war in Bosnia had been a distant event seen on the nightly news. After she watched the Stari Most Bridge shatter, she suddenly needed to understand why local people destroyed something that had connected Christian and Muslim neighbors for more than four hundred years. Experiencing what Quakers call a concern, she began to care deeply about a particular situation. Lyn learned about the civil war in Yugoslavia and joined a local group of people disturbed about reports of genocide.
Her children were grown and she lived alone, but Lyn’s life was full and busy. As a fundraiser for the American Friends Service Committee, she traveled frequently. When the Community of Bosnia Foundation brought over Bosnian Muslim high school students whose lives were in danger, Lyn financially sponsored one to attend a nearby Quaker boarding school. When it turned out that the girl was not happy with her host family, Lyn followed an impulse that melted her heart and agreed to take her in for the weekends. Not only that, she also welcomed another student, a Bosnian Serb (an Orthodox Christian). The two girls had become close friends.
Lyn worried about opening her heart to young people whose families were living through a terrible war, but her life was happily enlivened by the presence of these engaging teenagers. They taught her about their beautiful, divided country and made her see the USA in new ways. The war ended and the former Yugoslavia divided into smaller countries. As graduation neared, the families of both girls invited Lyn to visit.
Though she hadn’t imagined visiting a place where she didn’t know the language, Lyn began to sense a leading of the Spirit. She asked her Quaker Meeting for a clearness committee, and four people volunteered to serve. This group met with her several times. By asking questions and listening to the answers that came from deep inside her, they helped her discern first that she was truly being led by the Spirit, and next how to follow the leading. They called her trip a “ministry of witness.” Her intention was to listen and learn. Eligible for a three-month sabbatical from her job, she left home with a list of contacts and very few specific plans, open to how the Spirit would direct her day by day as she traveled.
Lyn’s Quaker Meeting approved a Travel Letter for her to take with her; it described the spiritual basis of her journey and the support of her Quaker community. Because the members of the clearness committee wanted to continue accompanying her in spiritual ways, they prayed with her (long distance) at the same time every morning. During periods of stress and confusion during her travels, the morning times of meditation and prayer helped Lyn connect again and again with the spiritual source of her leading.
While visiting the family of the student from Belgrade (Serbia), she learned about the complicated political and social situation of the Serbs, which they felt was misunderstood in the USA. She met the U.S. acting Ambassador in Serbia and his wife, both of them Quakers and spent an afternoon with them. They told her how families of mixed identity were not welcome anywhere now that the former Yugoslavia was strictly divided along ethnic and religious lines. They also described tensions in the city of Kosovo. Eventually Lyn arrived in Tuzla, a city in the new country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she visited the Muslim girl’s family in their small apartment. The parents explained how they had managed to survive after losing their jobs during the war.
Traveling mostly by bus, Lyn accepted one invitation and then another, crossing borders and meeting strangers who welcomed her. She learned more about the horrors of war and the complexities of the post-war situation. Finally she found herself visiting a family who had been kicked out of their own house and excluded from their country because of their mixed marriage (Muslim and Christian). They were living as refugees, on the edge of extreme poverty, with uncertain prospects, supported only by a teenage son who was working as a waiter in the Shark Cafe. At any time, he could be denied permission to work. Lyn soon realized that meeting this family had been orchestrated by grace. Because of what had seemed a chance meeting earlier, she was able to connect them with a person who could help. Lyn went home grateful to have been used by God in some way.
Home no longer seemed the same after her travels, however. Something felt different inside. A voice in a dream instructed her to tell her boss that she needed to return to Tuzla. When she called together her clearness committee again, they sensed that more would emerge in time. They felt led to accompany her as her leading unfolded.
Eventually Lyn applied to volunteer with the Balkan Peace Teams, an international group working to promote local peace efforts in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. She was chosen for a three-person team operating out of Belgrade. She quit her long-time job. Her adult children were not happy about the risks she was taking, but, as she writes in her memoir, “I knew that I had to trust in my heart’s deep calling and take a leap of faith, even if it meant landing in a war zone.” Her Quaker meeting helped her with transportation expenses.
In her recently published memoir, Treading Water at the Shark Cafe, Lyn describes supporting young peace activists from both sides of the conflict who were working to avert war in Kosovo. The Balkans Peace Teams assisted brave efforts by young people to bridge the growing divides. Then those peace efforts were smashed by the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Lyn witnessed how that bombing, though motivated by a desire to stop genocide, led to terrible destruction, social chaos, deaths, and the unleashing of increased levels of ethnic violence, previously restrained by fear of international reprisal. Many Albanians from Kosovo were temporarily forced into exile as refugees.
She and her fellow Peace Team members went on a speaking tour to give an inside view of what was happening. After the bombing, they worked to reconstruct the web of displaced young activists and peace workers who had been scattered, imprisoned, or sent into exile. Lyn saw brave humanitarian efforts to help the refugees and was able to assist a few people in difficult situations. She saw how small efforts can make a big difference, but she also how people can be drawn in by destructive forces.
Her story is a witness to the terrible effects of violence, even that done in hopes of preventing further evils. It is also a witness to the way that God can work in people’s lives. It leaves the reader with awe at how the Spirit comes alive again and again in those who have hope for a better future and are willing to take the risk to follow the heart’s leading to help others.
Lyn’s unfolding leading has continued with the writing of her memoir, in which she shares what she witnessed and how she was changed. Recently she came to speak at my Quaker Meeting. I also heard her give a talk at Pendle Hill Conference Center. She’s an engaging and thought-provoking speaker.
A Leading of the Spirit: Witness to Peacemaking and War: Has God placed a concern in your heart? Have you followed a leading? How did it develop over time?
© 2018 Marcelle Martin
Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder
Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.
Marcelle Martin will serve as a core teacher in the upcoming 9-month Nurturing Faithfulness program, to be held online and at Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Massachusetts. Nurturing Faithfulness is a faith and leadership program designed to help Friends meet God more deeply, hone methods of discernment, reach for fuller faithfulness, and ultimately bring these gifts and strengthened abilities back to home meetings, and beyond. Program participants will become a community of practice to support each other in offering spiritual nurture and encouraging leadings, service, and faithful witness. August 2019 – May 2020
Below is a video in which past participants talk about the program:
An information webinar is scheduled for the evening of January 22nd. For more information: http://woolmanhill.org/upcomingprograms/nurturingfaithfulness/#Informational-Video