Naming Our Own Radical Faith

In the Gospel of Matthew, in the record of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples, saying, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7). Blessed, meaning ultimate well-being, spiritual joy, for those who share in the kingdom of God. Merciful, for those who seek peace in all their relationships through love, forgiveness, and compassion.

So how do we live into that space of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness? Jesus, by example, showed us that to be truly merciful we must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the imprisoned, visit the sick, and bury the dead.

This call to become merciful, to be brought home into that space of forgiveness and compassion, is what leads us to faithfulness. Obedience to faith is our work in the world. Naming our own radical faith, a faith that is of the root, the core, the essence of who God calls us to be, is our life’s work. My own faith became rooted in forgiveness and compassion in unexpected ways through serving the Religious Society of Friends.

In January 2006, I took on the responsibility of directing Arch Street Meetinghouse, the largest Quaker meetinghouse in the world, located in historic Philadelphia. About a year after I started working there, someone began breaking into the building on a regular basis. This went on for weeks and the security audio system wasn’t picking up anyone in the building, only that the front door opened as this person left the premises. I was awakened continually by phone calls from the security vendor and basically wasn’t sleeping through the night anymore, feeling terrorized by this person breaking into my house—or so it felt. My prayers were for patience and companionship in the darkness.

Finally, in the third week, I received a call from the security vendor telling me they had heard someone in the building and asked me what to do. I agreed to meet the police at the meetinghouse for a search of the building. The police caught the intruder and arrested him. The man was covered with dust and looked like he had been living on the street for some time. The police asked me to identify him and I could not, although later I learned that he sporadically attended worship.

What surprised me most about him—Scott—was that I instinctively knew him to be essentially good. I could see, even in that moment, that he was a child of God. And, even more, I inherently trusted him and knew that he was just as scared as I was.

Over the coming weeks I was in and out of the Philadelphia court system, speaking with prosecuting and defense lawyers, attending hearings as a witness, and awaiting sentencing for Scott. I remember at the second hearing sitting on the witness stand, looking across the room at this small, humble man behind the defense table, in an orange jumpsuit with handcuffs on his wrists, and being reminded of the conversation I had had with his mother just the day before as she pleaded with me to drop the charges placed on her son. I had tried to explain to her that I was not the one who had charged her son, that it was the City of Philadelphia that had made the arrest and moved forward with the prosecution. Still, she saw me as both the enemy and her only hope.

During these weeks I was barely sleeping or working. I began therapy at the request of my boss, and I tried to regain a sense of safety and security while I was in the meetinghouse. But my body was not cooperating; the fear in my heart was not readily turning into love. It was turning into anger, rage, frustration, and hate. I felt put upon; I felt violated; I felt that I wanted Scott to experience everything I was experiencing. I wanted him to really understand the impact his actions had on my life. I did not feel ready to forgive him.

So how do we move into that space of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness? How do we do it when we are tired, anxious, upset, and angry? How do we turn fear into love? We begin where we are.

I had no idea, at that time, how to forgive Scott, but it was clear that punishing him was not the solution. So that’s where I began. I wrote to the judge, and wrote to and spoke with the prosecuting attorney about my desire for Scott to be sentenced to a rehabilitation program, rather than to serve hard time. I was told by the prosecuting attorneys for the City of Philadelphia that I could make any request I wanted, but that the prosecution was ultimately out of my hands and in the hands of the city.

I knew from speaking with his mother that Scott had a history of alcohol abuse. She also shared with me the story of his first arrest. Many years ago, shortly after his uncle (her brother and Scott’s role model) died unexpectedly, Scott lay down in the middle of the street near their home, hoping to be run over by a car, no longer having in him the desire to live. He was arrested for vagrancy and endangering the lives of others. Thus began an almost 25-year period of being arrested for petty crimes, which, his mother said, often happened when Scott was upset.

His mother also shared with me that she had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in the month and that Scott had been quite concerned for her well-being. His history, she said, was to steal and drink when he was upset. He apparently began breaking into the meetinghouse right after his mother told him of her diagnosis.

Scott’s mother and I spoke often while waiting for the sentence, and we learned to pray for each other. My prayer for myself was for the gift of forgiveness, for truly being able to see that of God in Scott, and for him to see me in the same light. My prayer for Scott’s mother was for peace to settle into her heart, and for her to know that her son’s choices were not her fault. I spent the month praying for an opening for both of us, and for Scott.

Finally, six weeks later, Scott was sentenced by a Philadelphia judge to spend a year in a medium security prison, and, a few weeks later, my partner and I were approved to visit him.

I had no idea what to expect from the Pennsylvania prison system. I did not know that we would have to wait for nearly four hours to see Scott or that I would be searched repeatedly before entering the prison. I didn’t expect that I would have to remove my underwire bra and strip down to my tank top because layers of clothing were not allowed. I had no idea that I would encounter cold concrete walls, wailing children waiting with their mothers to see their fathers or brothers, or the onslaught of guards everywhere. Pain is a powerful force. Anger, resentment, punishment, fear: all of these negative energies were enabling one another in the space of these waiting rooms.

I spent most of the four hours weeping in my partner’s arms—weeping for my father and my brother, who had each served time in prison; weeping for the men, women, and children waiting to visit their loved ones; weeping for Scott; weeping for the horrible, corporate-run prison system that exists in the United States; weeping for my Quaker community, so torn apart around the issue of the homeless at the meetinghouse.

I wept because my mind, my heart, and my body were tired, and I was scared that I wouldn’t know what to say to Scott. I was scared that I would hate him. I was scared that I would love him. I was scared that he would despise me for wreaking havoc on his life.

I remember entering the visiting room and being surprised by how small Scott was, possibly only my height, and slight. In my mind, over the past few weeks and especially the past few hours, he had grown tall and strong. Instead, in front of me sat a 41-year-old fragile white man, with dreams, hopes, and desires, as well as much pain and sadness.

Scott expressed remorse about his repeated break-ins at the meetinghouse and asked for my forgiveness. That was one of the first things he said: "Emma, will you please forgive me?" I started crying, he started crying, and then my partner started crying. We sat there and wept for a long time.

As we continued to talk, Scott discussed his interest in philosophy. He shared ideas from books he had read, and he eagerly engaged with us on topics of social issues. He expressed a desire to go to college to study engineering, and he told us that he was on track to complete his GED while in prison. He shared his pain about his mother’s recent diagnosis, and his concern for her care and well-being as he served time.

I thought: What’s keeping me from being able to forgive this man sitting next to me? I realized that I needed to tell him my story. I needed to tell him both about my own father’s experience with homelessness and serving time in jail, and the effects of my father’s actions on my life—the overwhelming sense of abandonment and despair I still carry in my heart from choices my father made almost two decades ago.

I also needed to tell Scott about the pain his actions had caused in my life. So I started talking, and Scott listened, asked good questions, and was present. He didn’t get defensive, he didn’t try to make everything better; he just listened. I got really upset, I yelled, I said I felt hurt, angry, resentful, and violated. He really got it; he heard me. Once I felt truly heard, I felt the way open for forgiveness. Because Scott was able to meet me in my pain—to sit there and be fully present with me—I was able to forgive him in that moment.

Scott then shared his experience of being arrested, his feelings around serving a yearlong sentence—the longest amount of time he has ever served in jail—and the effects of the prison system on his self-esteem and his capacity for growth. What amazed and astounded me in his sharing was that he had already forgiven me, even before I walked into the prison that day. He understood his time in jail as an opening for turning his life around. He wasn’t angry; he wasn’t upset; he wasn’t complacent; and he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He was accepting his reality, trying to turn his life around as much as possible in jail, and trying to heal enough to be able to go back out into the world and live a good life. I was moved and inspired by his presence.

I recognized that this was an opportunity for me to truly learn about forgiveness and compassion in a way that I refused to do for years, especially with my own family. I also believed that God had brought Scott into our lives to invite our Quaker community into action and support for this man—to testify for our commitment to peace and equality.

Before going to visit Scott, I had asked the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia—the meeting that gathers at Arch Street Meetinghouse—to support me in reaching out to Scott. I reminded them that Scott had worshiped with them in the past, and asked that they form a support committee for Scott when he was released. I was amazed and impressed by their response: "Yes, of course, how can we help?"

Their forgiveness was immediate and present. It was without hesitation, without need for structure or container. It was awesome to be with a group of Friends who were all in instant unity about supporting a man who had broken into their house of worship. I felt held and loved by my Quaker community.

In our first face-to-face visit, Scott expressed thanks to me for intervening in his life, for allowing him the opportunity to clean up his act and become a self-respecting person. Scott also shared, and continues to tell me, that knowing me has taught him about forgiveness and compassion.

I look at Scott and think how simple and easy it was ultimately to choose to love him and to stand by him; to let him know that I believe in him, and that I believe he can create whatever he wants for himself and his life. We all deserve to have someone stand beside us and believe in us, to offer us forgiveness and compassion, whether we are rich or poor, white or black, and if we are homeless or behind bars. We all deserve and need love and faith in our lives.

Gandhi challenged us to be the change we want to see in the world. A simple thought, really. You, as an individual, can radically alter the way society and the world function through your daily actions, through your moment- to-moment choices to forgive and to seek love.

I believe that living a radical faith is possible. I believe that if you ask for lessons of forgiveness and compassion and seek to live in obedience to faith, your own radical faith will be born.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matt. 7:7-8).

We must be teachable. We must be willing to persistently and boldly pray to be taught. We must ask for what we are ready to learn, eagerly anticipating these gifts of wisdom. We must be ready, when the door opens, to receive the lessons God brings to us. For me, this lesson of forgiveness and compassion happened in the instant of looking into Scott’s eyes for the first time and choosing to see him as a child of God rather than as an enemy.

Emma M. Churchman

Emma M. Churchman is a sojourning member at Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia (Pa.) and a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.). She was artist in residence at Pendle Hill Quaker center in Wallingford, Pa.