The prompting came during a time of worship I had set aside for seeking clarity for a ministry to which I am called. The ministry originated as a concern that Friends might explore with me ways that members of the deaf community might find an inviting spiritual home among us. I have deaf family members, so this was a deeply personal concern to me. The concern had evolved into a leading, and from the leading, a ministry. After initiating some outreach for the ministry, it entered a period of "waiting." I wondered if I should be doing something about the apparent lack of progress. I felt a need to enter into worship to seek divine guidance on moving the ministry forward. After some time in silent waiting, a single message emerged: "Go to the Gathering."
There are promptings that emerge with particular strength and clarity. They resonate with a certainty and power that distinguish them from mere notions. This was indeed one of those promptings; it stood firm and persistent. It would lead to a lesson in how being open and submitting to the Spirit might bear fruit. I had never been to a Gathering of Friends General Conference. I knew nothing about the inner workings, so questions remained as to how it would specifically serve the intent of the ministry. I returned to worship several more times, seeking clarification and direction. Gradually, it became clear that, not only was it the right time for the ministry, it was the right time for me.
When the advance program arrived I conducted, as it suggested, an inventory of our needs and gifts. Our needs were complex. I would be going with my three daughters, ages 13, 11, and 6, as a single parent. I would be bringing along with me a demanding autoimmune disorder that causes profound multiple chemical sensitivity, systemic pain, and fatigue. With limited finances, I realized there was no way we would be able to go without significant help from our monthly meeting and Gathering grants. I knew first-time attenders were discouraged from taking on significant commitments, yet I felt most comfortable submitting a request for the type of assistance we needed by offering up the full use of my abilities. I could offer my background and experience locating, scheduling, and coordinating professional sign language interpreters for events, evaluating and matching skills to needs, as well as my own interpreting services.
My registration process took up a great deal of two Gathering Friends’ time. Looking back, my awareness of the movement of the Spirit began to take hold during this time. We played e-mail tag, sending suggestions and negotiations back and forth. I found myself lifted by their patience, kindness, generosity, and gentleness. These Friends thoughtfully and prayerfully weighed the fact that I was a first-time attender coming with children, the demands of my health, my financial needs, and how important it was to me to have an opportunity to serve. They kindly explained their concerns that I maintain some gentleness with myself, and generously offered a grant package that would do much to make it possible for us to go, and allow me to share a portion of my gifts. As I pursued clarification and reassurance as needed, I was never responded to with anything less than loving patience. I am certain that without their faithfulness, we would not have been able to go.
As I prepared to attend the Gathering, I shared two concerns with the committee formed to support me in my work. First, I was worried that others’ concerns for my well-being might inhibit my opportunity to inject life into the ministry. My offer to serve had been accepted, but only in part. Friends were cautioning me, as a first-time attender, to go easy on myself. I had heard of the infamous "overload" that some first-timers encounter, and I realized I needed to consider this. Second, I was not sure I had all the advance information that might support delivering interpretation at the level of excellence I hoped to achieve. I was scheduled to interpret three evening sessions, including a concert by a duo whose music I had not heard before. My uneasiness was especially true of the concert, since I knew that poorly timed interpreting could affect the enjoyment of the songs. Meeting with my committee helped me to center myself so that I could refocus on the original intent, remain open to the Spirit, and serve faithfully. While some concerns about the unknowns remained, I had a sense of purpose, and had to trust that way would open.
My first interpreting assignment was Sunday night’s plenary, an address by Duduzile (Dudu) Mtshazo, a Friend from South Africa. When I met with her, the Friends who would sit in support of her on the stage as she spoke, and the sound crew, an intricate ministry of tender hospitality and care surrounded her. I was drawn into this spirit and was supported by it as well. Concerns continued to whisper at my nerves, but as I spent more time in the presence of the ministry I was witnessing, they subsided. As Dudu was introduced and I began to interpret, I sensed holiness and the presence of the Spirit among us. An unusually high level of confidence and peace came over me. As Dudu spoke, the spirit in her words entered my body and directed my hands. Divine light was almost visible to me, supporting her as she spoke of deep pain and the healing movement of the Spirit in her life. Her body appeared to become smaller under the weight and power of her words. The volume of her voice diminished, and her accent thickened. It seemed that Dudu, in a sense, was no longer there. It became difficult, at times, to understand her. I began to struggle to interpret. The small, still voice whispered, "Just let me do it."
The Spirit in Dudu’s message continued to use my arms and hands, moving them where they needed to be in order to bring the spoken word into the language of sign. Typically, two interpreters would cover an event such as this, in order to prevent loss of attentiveness or "interpreter fatigue." Yet I felt absolutely no difficulty, just a pure energy not my own. Friends concluded the event as they settled into worship. As I shook Dudu’s hand and those of the Friends who had sat behind her, our eyes met. It was evident that they, too, had undergone a powerful and transforming experience. The Spirit had used and supported us all.
Friends from the audience approached me, thanking me for my service. Though some were unfamiliar with sign language, they were deeply moved by seeing the message as well as hearing it. Initially, I was taken aback by the attention. Still trying to process this awesome experience, I knew only to say, "It was the Spirit, not me." The secular had become sacred. I could only hope they understood that I treasured their expressing their experience to me.
As I prepared to interpret Monday night’s plenary I noticed the presenters, Vanessa Julye and Christopher Hammond, also planned to have Friends sit in prayerful support of them. I began to realize that asking Friends to hold me in the Light might help me remain a faithful servant to such powerful messages. I took a few moments alone to center, pray, and submit my hands to the Spirit. Vanessa and Christopher spoke movingly of their personal and transforming experience, and again a sense of holiness and peace covered us. The interpreting moved effortlessly, and I felt more like an observer than one performing a service. After the plenary I experienced a process of "returning," not unlike something I need to do after a meeting for worship that has gone particularly deep. More Friends approached me to express their gratitude, and I continued to search for a way adequately to acknowledge their experience, turning attention to the Spirit that was responsible for how they were touched.
On Thursday night I interpreted the concert performed by Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow. I did not feel sufficiently familiar with their music. There had been a series of e-mail mishaps on my end, and children who thought they were helping when they unpacked tapes and lyrics that I needed to bring with me. I felt painfully unprepared for the concert. While I’m trained to ad-lib, music is much more enjoyable to a deaf audience when the interpreting is precisely synchronized with the music. If done correctly, interpreted music can be deeply moving for the entire audience. I did not know these songs well enough, and my stomach was in a knot. As I prepared to interpret my thoughts turned to the experience of the previous nights, and I was able to calm myself with the prayer that tonight would be no different.
As Pat and Sandy were introduced, I began interpreting, and a skillfulness I cannot claim overcame me. The songs captured the hearts and minds of the audience, and the atmosphere was vibrant. I felt the interpreting again move with grace and rise to the level of the music. Occasionally I would find myself in the way and felt the interpretation suffer, but then the still, small voice would say, "Get out of the way, just let it go," and the interpreting would become graceful and fluid again.
Halfway through the performance, a flutter in the audience caught my eye. It took me a few moments to figure out what I was seeing. Lots of people were signing along! Joy filled my heart, and I had to stop interpreting long enough to tell my deaf Friend what I was seeing. The Spirit was moving in the hands of Friends who, despite not knowing sign language with any great familiarity, were signing beautifully. What a wonderful gift! Afterwards, as Friends approached me, some beaming and some with tears in their eyes, I felt blessed and honored, but even more inadequate in responding. The praise belonged to the Spirit.
I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with wonder and deeply humbled, and felt a need for space and silence. A nearby Friend wisely found a quiet place for me. This gave me the opportunity to begin my "return" and to process all that I had witnessed and experienced. I remembered my unanswered question while still at home: "How would my going to the Gathering advance awareness of, and interest in, the ministry?" I saw that the Spirit had moved through the very thing the deaf community holds most dear—the amazing and beautiful language with which they express what they hold within their hearts and minds.
Through submission to the Spirit, new life was given to the ministry. Perhaps most importantly for me, I learned a wonderful lesson in how great things might be accomplished by simply being open and teachable.
After I arrived home, I felt challenged to sort out the wonder that I felt. A Friend on my committee summed it up perfectly. As he put it, I had returned home "nourished by the fruit of the Spirit." I had asked to be made open, and despite my worries, it had happened. As I continue to savor the fruits of the Gathering, I pray that I remember well the feast to be had from living my faith and submitting to the Spirit.
©2003 Hamsa O’Doherty