When my neighbor from across the street mentioned to me that members of the youth group from my church were coming to rake and remove her leaves, I thought, what a wonderful service for an older person! When she paid them it would help fund their mission trips. Then she said the youth director from Rivertree Church set the project up.
"Rivertree?" I asked. "But I go to Jackson Friends Church." She apologized; she thought I went to Rivertree, a church on the same street as mine.
That short conversation bothered me because I had told her more than once which church I attended; I had even invited her to visit sometime. She knows who Friends are; her daughter once worked at Malone College (now Malone University), a nearby Friends college. Besides, I had a sign in one of my front windows that had been there for several years, which read, "Friends for peace." I got it from American Friends Service Committee. I had displayed it thinking it was common knowledge who Friends are, and that it would not be unusual to have a sign promoting peace at the home of someone who attends a Friends church, a so-called "peace church." My neighbor has a daily view of that sign.
I began to wonder if others, seeing a sign like that in someone’s window, would also misunderstand. What would they think it meant? Here live friendly people who like peace? Or, I’d like to think that I’m your friend and that I’m against war? I thought I might need a sign that would better demonstrate who I was and what I believed.
Fortunately, the AFSC office in Akron has blank signs; that is, signs with a large blank space over the blue and white "for peace" section. These are great because you can fill in any name or word you want, such as, "Engineer for peace," "Student for peace," "Luddite for peace," "Feminist for peace," or even "Michael for peace." You get the idea. I took a blank sign home, wrote "Quakers for peace" on it, and put it in the window, replacing the one that read "Friends for peace."
But there was more to it than just making sure my neighbor understood who Friends are. I did it also to promote Quakerism as a living peace theology that fits my beliefs and lifestyle. My wife asked me why I didn’t write "Christians for peace" or "Rick and Pam for peace." I told her that I think "Quakers" says more.
In our country, the word "Christian" has been watered down, misused, misunderstood, and made all-inclusive to the point that almost everyone can say, "Christian? Yes, I’m a Christian," with only a vague notion of what that means. Today, the meaning may be so broad that any belief system or lifestyle choice can easily fit under the umbrella term. With all honesty and sincerity, people who claim to be Christian include Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, Republicans, Democrats, pro-life, pro-choice, rich, poor, capitalists, socialists, Amish, soldiers, pacifists, used-car salesmen, etc. I think everyone who says it believes it, but is everyone correct? Is everyone incorrect?
I am a Christian. But what I want people to understand is that I think the Religious Society of Friends fits me best as to my dedication to the message of Jesus Christ and the kind of life he would have me live. Being Quaker means having a heart for seeking meaning in our worship and in our lives. It means obedience to the Inner Light of conscience. It is radical and separate from mainstream religious culture. It embodies an attitude of humility, simplicity, and pacifism.
And there’s more. When I put a sign in my window, it sends a message that I not only value peace, but also value my neighbors, and I hope they realize that I embrace a kind of peace with them. If I want to advance the cause of Christ through a sign, for instance, then I had better refrain from conflict that may disturb the neighborhood harmony or do anything too confrontational, such as playing loud music or painting the house in an outlandish color. I cannot isolate myself from my neighbors’ needs. The sign means I will be reminded to help someone who needs a sidewalk shoveled, a drive to the doctor, or a kind word in the face of tragedy. "Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up." (Rom. 15:2)
The people in my neighborhood know me as the old guy on the bicycle who greets them as he passes, calling out a word of encouragement or a humorous remark. I hope they see me as someone who affirms their lives here in this place, and I often stop to chat and exchange ideas on lawn care or pet poop removal. When Pam rides with me, it becomes more than just a workout; it’s a way to get to know people.
This testimony goes beyond my neighborhood, of course. It is a reminder of my responsibility to my world community. Believing it to be God’s will, I extend my service to help those in need in other neighborhoods—the poor, the hungry, the widows and the orphans. I promote peace by taking a stand against environmental destruction in the name of war or economics. I promote peace by protesting policies that may destroy neighborhoods and families, or that may exploit people because of race or ethnic background.
A sign reading "Quakers for peace" may also encourage questions, and I am glad to respond. I want people to know that I honor God and humans in uplifting and practical ways. Yes, I want people to know who I am and what I believe. It’s not a secret, and I hope all of my neighbors understand this, including the ones close by.