Unintentional Outreach

It was a glorious fall day, and I was excited to be in Philadelphia, intent on weaving my way through crowds of people to reach my destination: a two- story bookstore with more reading choices than all the shops in my hometown combined. As the group I was part of paused for a red light, a young woman came into my peripheral vision, the smile on her face so genuine I tried to recall where we might have met.

"Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?" she asked, moving closer.

Not sure if I should try and blend in with the other pedestrians now surging across the street, I stayed and answered: "Yes, I have."

"And have you accepted him into your life?" Her followup was swift.


"That’s wonderful! May I ask when?"

"Just this morning." Now I wished I had crossed the street with everyone else.

She frowned, looking doubtful. "This morning?"

"Oh yes. This morning and every morning. I believe in starting each day anew." Having just read a book on new beginnings, I was trying to live that philosophy. For some reason, my words silenced her and she turned away. Minutes later I was in the bookstore browsing, trying to forget the whole experience.

A few weeks later there was a discussion at my meeting about a different kind of outreach. An animated debate took place over the appropriateness of contacting people in our directory who hadn’t attended in many months or even years. Would a phone call from a Friend offend? Would we seem to be pushing our beliefs on others if we asked about their preference to stay on the list?

That Sunday as I sat in silence, the contrast between Quakers and the streetcorner evangelist challenged me. Growing up in the Protestant church, I had often questioned Martin Luther’s notion of "good works" because when I saw them in action, the motivation seemed not to be good at all. Rather, like the young woman who approached me, they seemed driven by a desire to recruit others into the Lutheran church. But is that kind of outreach wrong?

How can we know the best way to invite others to visit or join our spiritual community? There have been many times when the quiet integrity of individuals I encounter in my daily life makes me curious to know more about their spirituality. Those who impress me most are not people who make a point of helping or influencing others in a public way, but those who seem to act consistently in a manner that doesn’t seek or need recognition: workers who show steady dedication to a difficult job and colleagues who refuse to engage in office gossip. Others lead a lifestyle of simplicity by choice rather than necessity, and some persevere through tremendous personal difficulties. In these situations, the intent of the person’s behavior is not to influence others to a particular religion but somehow that door is opened. This process is something I’ve come to call unintentional outreach.

My interest in the Religious Society of Friends began in exactly this way ten years ago. By chance, my family and I attended a "children’s day" at the meetinghouse in the town where we lived. The purpose of that day was to raise money for the Friends school, but what struck me was the people. They seemed different in ways I couldn’t clearly explain—sure, they looked different because their clothes were simple rather than stylish, but there was something more. At the time, I would have described it as a genuineness I hadn’t experienced elsewhere.

In the months that followed that event, I became aware of Friends in my workplace and community activities, mostly because of their actions and lifestyle. They didn’t lobby for me to come to meeting, although I was always made to feel most welcome there. Rather, I was drawn to attend after witnessing their passion for living a life that made their beliefs and values apparent. I wasn’t surprised to be given a copy of Faith and Practice (my emphasis) one Sunday. While I have since met non-Quakers whose demeanor and constant commitment to a godly lifestyle are remarkable, I have yet to encounter groups of people that share this philosophy.

I had another experience with unintentional outreach when my daughter was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility distant from our home and distinguished by its stark environment. For safety reasons, almost every personal possession was taken from her upon admission, and the only decorations allowed in her institutional- style room were a few unframed pictures. It was a time of deep despair for my family and our meeting, since my daughter had attended First-day school and meeting for worship regularly. A huge effort was mounted to reach out to her, even though phone calls and visits from anyone other than family were prohibited. Friends of all ages rallied to connect with her by sending cards—lots of them. At one point, my daughter told me she got more mail than any other child at the hospital.

Shortly before her discharge, I was allowed in her room for a few minutes. The first thing I noticed on entering were dozens of colorful cards arranged on her windowsill. Seeing them lined up in rows was like stepping into the middle of a meeting for worship, especially since two little girls had made cards decorated on front with their school pictures. There was a profound sense of connection with my meeting, and an even deeper appreciation for their efforts.

"The nurses and everyone else here ask me who sends all the cards," my daughter said, aware that I was staring at them. Again, the simple act of sending a card to cheer her had the unintended outcome of reaching out to nurses, doctors, and other children who learned about Quakerism after seeing them.

The notion of unintentional outreach has given me an insight into the daily living of life, as well as added some pressure to be more conscious of my behavior. I am always surprised when students who passed relatively unnoticed through courses that I taught come back years later to tell me that I inspired them to a particular career path. It doesn’t happen often, but what strikes me is their memories of my actions and attitudes, which shaped them more definitively than any subject matter I offered. (I worry that somewhere along the line I may have influenced students in the opposite direction on days when I wasn’t in my most Quakerly mood).

In my journey through life, gentle spiritual role models who don’t need to tell me what they believe continue to have the greatest influence on me. Often, their unintentional outreach is continuous and more profound than any deliberate activity or dialogue we might engage in.

In a way, I salute the young street-corner evangelist for actively reaching out to engage others. Her concern for my spiritual well-being led to many prayers that I might understand the best way to reach others. Yet in this struggle to discern my calling, I also think of unintentional outreach, which occurs every day of my life whether I plan it or not.

Perhaps it is more important to focus on the small choices I make and to question whether I convey a Friendly lifestyle to those I work and live with. Does my behavior speak of my beliefs more eloquently than my mouth? What impressions do I make on strangers I may never see again?

When I do stop to think about these things, I sometimes remember that brief moment in my daughter’s hospital room, when I was so moved by the colorful cards framed against a window of sunshine. Perhaps it is the simplest gestures we do out of love that are of the greatest importance; gestures intended for one, a few, or nobody that reach many.

Cheryl Dellasega

Cheryl Dellasega, a member of Harrisburg (Pa.) Meeting, is an associate professor of Medicine at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pa. She is involved in outreach to adolescent girls and mothers through Club Ophelia and Camp Ophelia and has written two books, Surviving Ophelia and Girl Wars.