In the time since September 11, I have often come to Philadelphia’s Independence Mall peace vigil feeling very tired and not eager to talk with people. It has seemed to me there were already too many words flying around and usually I just wanted to stand quietly and try to pray.
Some statements heard at the vigil this fall and winter have stayed with me. One middle-aged man rode his bicycle up close to our line one afternoon and declared: "Pacifism equals slavery. Think about it." He didn’t stay to hear our thoughts.
Another man, speaking in a strong accent, asked me if my message would have been the same if I had been living in Nazi Germany.
I said I hoped that even there I would have had the courage to stand against what was happening.
"I’m Jewish," he told me. "I would have hoped you’d fight." He walked away quickly, but Bo, another vigiler, followed to talk with him. Bo shared a Scripture passage that was guiding his own stance against war and tried to explain that if we take up evil in order to fight evil, then darkness wins. The conversation I had with Bo about that afterward helped to steady me in those days.
During another week’s vigil two men stopped to ask questions and one expressed the opinion that prayer is futile when there are so many evil people in the world. Taking a deep breath, I remembered to feel my connection to the ground beneath my feet, ground on which I’d been praying regularly for about two and a half years.
"I think prayer has an effect," I said with conviction.
"Well, it can’t hurt," he conceded.
Like him, others have suggested that the dark situation in the world today is evidence that prayer is ineffective. I’ve come to believe that if people around the world had not been and were not praying, our planetary situation would be much more dire than it is. I’m also convinced that if more people prayed more frequently and with faith, then we could be living in harmony.
At this week’s vigil, on February 10, 2002, I felt unexpectedly joyful. The night before I’d watched some Olympic figure skating. One year when I’d been watching a fierce competition between skillful and dedicated performers who were unhappy to receive silver and bronze medals, I’d heard this phrase in my sleep: "God gives gold for free." I understood it to mean that God bestows divine love and divine gifts not only on "winners" but on everyone, and not as a reward for hard work, but as a free gift.
Enjoying unexpected joy and peace at the vigil that day, those words kept coming back to me: "God gives gold for free."
Usually I don’t step up to interact with people unless someone walks up to our literature table, but this day I was drawn toward several people who stayed at a distance. A four-year-old girl stared at us with great curiosity. I held out a button as I approached her.
"Peace be with you," I told her, reading the words on the button as I put it into her hand. She repeated the words back to me, her brown eyes big and alert.
"God bless you," I said.
"God bless you, too!" she exclaimed, and I felt I was talking to a solemn angel.
I watched as her parents examined the button and her father pinned it to her coat. She turned to show me, and then we waved good-bye to each other.
Our vigil line grew to nine people. The peace and joy I felt continued to shine inside me, in spite of drizzling rain. Late in the hour I noticed a man who was reading our signs from a distance, dressed in black from fingertips to toes. I walked over to offer him a flyer and button, which he accepted.
He wanted to know who we were, if we were Christians, and whether we were fundamentalists. He told me he was a pacifist, too, although not a Christian. He said he lived in the suburbs and that everybody he knows thinks his views against bombing are crazy. We talked a long while. I wondered if I was allowing myself to be distracted from my task of prayer. At the same time, as I looked into his eyes, I felt as if I was sensing the place from which his argument against war was coming. Early Quakers might have called it the seed or the witness, or the divine light within. Perhaps by looking into his eyes I could nourish that seed or help that spark of light grow brighter. I sensed his hunger to be illuminated by that light.
"You’re listening to me!" he exclaimed with astonishment. "Nobody does that. Usually I talk to myself." He dropped a hint about God entering his life recently. When I asked about that, he told me he’d been an atheist most of his life but had begun to believe there might be a God. "But I don’t believe in Jesus!" he insisted hastily, afraid that making space for God might open the door to lots of notions he firmly rejected.
The bells rang five o’clock, signaling the end of the vigil. I told him that my prayer for him was that he would come to have more direct experience of God.
"I’ve never had an angel talk to me," he responded, and I smiled, thinking that maybe he was wrong about that. The light I’d seen in his eyes stayed in my mind a long time, prompting me to continue to pray for him. Later I decided that perhaps my conversation with him had not been a distraction from prayer, but another way to pray for God’s gold to shine in all and for peace to prevail.