Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
—Ephesians 6:19-20, NRSV
A brief account and invitation, on paying attention.
It’s January of 2009 in a Philadelphia lockup, cell number 13. I’m worshiping in captivity, in the quiet, cold hours before dawn. The last time I was in prison, I was visiting Iraqi refugees detained in Jordan. Both that place and this one seem very far from where I live in Vermont. But God’s love is here, and that makes it home.
I’m exhausted, aching from the cold steel bench I’ve been sharing with three other ministers for hours in the long night. Four men, space for two to sit and one to lie down, one toilet, and dry cheese sandwiches. The stories, the laughter, the asking and the answering, the songs of surrender and praise we’d earlier shared are silent now.
In a few hours, I am to learn I will be charged with several crimes for prayerfully obstructing access to the door of a business that supplies weapons used to kill people in the streets of Philadelphia. These charges will include "criminal conspiracy."
I’m reflecting on how I’ve ended up in prison, a place where so many of our spiritual ancestors were held as they sought to respond faithfully to the leadings of the Spirit in their lives.
I took one step toward this cell in July of 2008. I had just returned from a day visiting an Iraqi family in Jordan that receives support from Direct Aid Iraq, an aid, advocacy, and peace-building project that is an expression of love I’ve been caught up in since 2007. The effort is an outgrowth of a leading to affirm and deepen my relationship with the people of Iraq and to invite more Friends to do the same.
We’d been visiting Umm Luay, the mother of three daughters, who worked in a chemical weapons factory in Iraq until a U.S. airstrike came. Because of the chemicals to which she was exposed in the aftermath, all three of her beautiful young daughters are wheelchair-bound. With support from Friends and others in the United States, and through the faithfulness of the Iraqi coordinators of Direct Aid Iraq, the family had for months been receiving pastoral care, physical therapy, medicine, and support advocating with other aid providers in Amman. They blessed us with stories and humor. They gifted us with guidance in our work, suggestions of other community members in need, and information about changing conditions for refugees in their area.
I think the phone call I made then must have come as a surprise to the faithful Friend who answered the phone in the offices of New England Yearly Meeting in Worcester, Massachusetts. It went something like this:
"Yes, hello, I’m calling from Jordan. Yes, Jordan. I know this is not Friends’ usual process, but I’d like to request that Nominating Committee consider me as a delegate from New England Yearly Meeting to the upcoming Gathering on Peace in Philadelphia. I understood that they were particularly encouraging participation by young adult Friends, and I am one."
Just three weeks before, I’d heard news at the Friends General Conference Gathering about the conference on peacemaking being planned in Philadelphia for January of 2009. I’d learned that it had arisen as a leading in one Friend, and then from the discernment of a monthly meeting. It had then been carried forward to their yearly meeting, which affirmed the effort and was working with Mennonites, Brethren, and Friends from other yearly meetings to carry it forward under the guidance of the Spirit. At the time, I’d had a soft sense of motion, of a current in seemingly still water. But with preparations for travel to be made, I’d put the Peace Gathering aside. That evening in Amman, it arose with new freshness, and with urgency. I called.
A few minutes later, though, I hung up the phone feeling—in the words of Elias Hicks—that I’d "discharged myself." The Nominating Committee would discern whether my participating was rightly ordered, and I would go if my name were approved. At New England Yearly Meeting Sessions, it was. So I went.
Of four delegates from the yearly meeting, way opened for only two of us to attend "Heeding God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace." I was gratified to be able to take part in the worship, workshops, consultations, and fellowship of this conference.
On the second day of the conference, at the close of a worshipful session, it was announced that, according to plans developed in prayerful attentiveness, five people of faith had been arrested a few blocks away at James Colosimo’s gun shop. They had prayed for an opening of his heart to the need to stem the flow of guns into Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and the role he could play in that effort if he yielded to the call. They asked him again to sign a code of conduct, and he refused. They remained, praying. The Philadelphia police took them to jail.
That night, as I tried to sleep, I remembered my friend Rasul, whose father was taken by the nightmares of violence that stalk Iraq, and who was himself shot through both eyes on the street where he lived in Baghdad. He was caught in the crossfire between armed gangs in a place where guns are more available than good jobs, education, healthcare, or hope. One eye was destroyed completely, another had a dim chance of being healed—but he would need care and resources not available in Iraq, or in Jordan, where I met him in the early days of 2007. In my sleeplessness, I remembered Rasul and so many others whose hands had held mine, whose hopes I had shared, who had been my teachers in the school of love.
The next day, back at the conference, I heard from a minister who would later become my cellmate a story of two boys whose lives had ended that week in the streets of Philadelphia, another place where—like Rasul’s Baghdad—guns are often more available than good jobs, education, healthcare, and hope. "Billy," a boy the minister knew well, was one of them. Only a couple of years older than Rasul, he was slain seemingly without cause by another boy who never should have had access to a handgun. An off-duty police officer shot another boy trying to escape his attackers. What could have been a scuffle became a tragedy, and went as unnoticed among many as the daily death toll in the neighborhoods of Iraq.
Giving in to the nudges of the Spirit, I had requested a seat at the table of the organizers who were planning the ongoing actions in the week’s campaigning. I told them I felt led to be with them, to hold them in prayer. The discussion and the work were heated and intense, reflecting the long hours those gathered had already spent, the limited resources in people’s time and skills, and the enormity of the task of making concrete progress in preventing gun violence through this effort.
As I sat holding them in the Light, asking that they be guided, held, and sustained, a Mennonite minister who was deeply involved in the planning of the gathering put her hand on my shoulder. She handed me a piece of paper bearing some handwritten words. Whispering in my ear, she asked that I share the paper with the planning group at an opportune time.
As I read it, tears welled up in my eyes, something I’ve come to identify with a sense of the Presence settling on us in worship and throughout my daily life—a Friend I know calls this "baptism." I felt love rising in my chest. I felt literally dragged deeper into involvement in the effort. The words were a prophetic proclamation, scribbled by a pastor who, like me, had not been able to sleep the night before, with these words forcing themselves through him, out into service and witness in the world.
These were the words on the paper:
Hear what the Sovereign Lord says:
Say to the gun dealers of Philadelphia and across America, Repent and do what is right. Say to them that they do not resist a human movement, but my will and my Spirit.
For I am the God who hears the tears and weeping of the mothers and fathers whose children are slain.
Therefore tell the gun dealers of Philadelphia, and across America, Resist my will no more, but turn and do what is right.
If you refuse, I will visit upon you the tears of the mothers and fathers. You will hear their cries and know no peace. You will not rest, nor sleep in peace until you repent. For I am the Lord who hears the weeping of my children.
I spoke, and shared the words, and then there was stillness. And then we went forward, leaving the conference and engaging in another act of witness, demonstrating in front of the gun shop and inviting the owner to repent his deadly business practices.
The day that my cellmates and I were released, I attended worship at a church called the Holy Ghost Headquarters. There, Vincent Harding, a companion in struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. and the man who penned King’s prophetic sermon, "Beyond Vietnam," closed our time together with a benediction.
These were the words of his message, in summary: "Keep paying attention."
Keep paying attention to the places where God’s children are forgotten by Empire and by those of us who live closer to Empire than to God. Keep paying attention to those among us who have forgotten God as the Center of our lives—especially when "those among us" are us. Keep paying attention to the walls we put up, blocking our willingness to be in relationship, so that through our attention love can break these walls down. Keep paying attention to the way that God speaks relationship, and to the ways those we are in relationship with can be instruments for God to teach us and transform us. Keep paying attention to opportunities to become captives of the Spirit.
I’m still learning to pay attention. What might it mean that this summer’s FGC Gathering was held at Virginia Tech, a place that has experienced such horror and tragedy because of gun violence? How might the Spirit continue to guide us? In mid-August, I returned to Pennsylvania during the week of the 92nd birthday of Francis G. Brown, the Friend whose faithful attention to a leading inspired the Peace Gathering. There in the worship we felt the Spirit move among us, calling us more deeply into faithfulness. At the time of my arrest, my Iraqi friends expressed their sorrow and hope for the future of children in Philadelphia. Can this paying attention help us feel the same sorrow and nurture the same hope for their children, and so many others? What, now, is our corporate testimony to be? How might we be led, together?
I didn’t go to Philadelphia to get arrested for blocking the entrance to a notorious gun shop with 11 other ministers as part of a nascent faith-based campaign to prevent gun violence. I certainly didn’t mean for it to happen on the cold concrete at Ninth and Spring Garden on one of the coldest days of the year. I didn’t intend, when I offered to be a delegate from my yearly meeting, to be on trial the next May, surrounded by hundreds of supporters from dozens of churches, by kids from the neighborhoods most affected, by the mothers of children struck down by this plague of gun violence, and facing the gun shop owner in court.
I didn’t expect, when I made that call from Jordan to New England, to stand in a Philadelphia courtroom and offer testimony as a witness to the movement of the Spirit of Love and Justice among us. I didn’t imagine that the Philadelphia Inquirer would run an editorial the day of the trial praising the campaign and calling for our acquittal. And I didn’t expect to be found, as one of 12 witnesses to God’s love, "not guilty" on all charges. I couldn’t have imagined that this same gun dealer would have reportedly offered to sell his gun shop to have a park put up in its place, while the vigils, prayers, and organizing continue and grow to other neighborhoods and cities.
But that, Friends, is what happened. To the extent that I was faithful and yielded to it, I have a clear sense of having been an instrument of love. And if this testimony speaks in some small way—in any way—to those who might read it, my prayer is that it will serve as an invitation into deeper faithfulness in the relationships in which love calls us all to affirm, nurture, deepen, challenge, and struggle—in our families, in our meetings, in our communities, or on the other side of the world. I’m coming to see more and more clearly how all work done in and through and by love is part of the same love relationship. But I’m also coming to see that sometimes love calls us into faithfulness in what seem to be very strange places, and in unexpected ways. And this work is no less important than the work we’ve been trained for, or the work we’re expecting to do.
If we’re not careful, our focus on staying within the boundaries of those causes to which we’ve grown comfortable being called can blind us to the greater work being done, the story being told in us all and through us all. This blindness can mean that we miss the moments when God’s bright candles break the gathering darkness with a message of encouragement, liberation, and enduring love. The prophetic alternative to this blindness is to keep paying attention. As we walk forward in faith, this prayerfully staying awake to this divine inbreaking, this holy opportunity—however strange the form may seem—is essential. Because what binds our Quaker service together as wounded healers in a wounded world is not one cause or hot-button issue or ideology, but the heart of the Gospel that is written on our hearts: release to the captives; liberation to the oppressors and the oppressed; accompaniment for the lonely; consolation for those who mourn; sight for those who cannot see; Truth, hope, and healing for those in darkness—especially ourselves. When we glimpse these bright moments, when the ocean of Light and life breaks momentarily into the ocean of darkness and death, we’re called to testify, wherever we come.
See you in the fields, Friends, even as the darkness comes. Love is plotting, and plans are moving forward. Whether in the cold and bitter watches of the night, or in celebration of the new dawn of jubilee breaking among us, we’re invited to implicate ourselves in love’s conspiracy.
In the Life and Power,
Noah Baker Merrill
Note: On September 22, shortly before the time of printing this issue, we learned that Colosimo’s gun shop was charged in federal court with making false statements and failing to keep records required by law. Colosimo has announced that he intends to close the shop. —Eds.