Striving to be a faithful Quaker, I listened to inward promptings and found myself at worship among Mennonites and Episcopalians.
On my way to meeting for worship, I would drive by a half dozen Lutheran churches and a Mennonite congregation. At some point, the Mennonite meetinghouse began tugging at me hard, the invitation on their sign to “pray for peace” beckoning. My small Quaker meeting did not have many attenders in my peer group, and almost no one lived close to me. With everyone’s busy schedules, we rarely had gatherings outside of Sunday worship. I was hungry for neighbors, for peace-seeking neighbors, for fellowshipping and learning with neighbors.
When I would go to meeting for worship and talk with Friends over potluck lunch, I heard stories of active involvement throughout our yearly meeting and beyond into international concerns. Several members worked in a Friends school where their calls to service intertwined with vocation. Another member actively worked with Friends Committee on National Legislation and advocated for peace and justice issues within the state government. Others in the meeting had a special call to help a small community in India. After our conversations, I would drive home and feel a distance, wondering how I should be serving here, now, close to home, and who would serve by my side. Meeting members were active but pursuing their own particular leadings. I could not discern a way toward the togetherness that I craved.
At one point, I began serving meals at a church soup kitchen; it was the most satisfying work I had found in a long time. The servers varied each week, so I did not have a chance to build relationships there, but I enjoyed meeting the people who came to eat and getting to know the steady kitchen help. Still, I felt this desire to work, learn, and pray with the same group of people, and I prayed over how this might happen.
With a restlessness stirring in me, I took a chance and attended a Sunday morning service at the Mennonite church, fully prepared not to enjoy it. I felt led to attend and to keep an open mind, even as I listed to myself all the reasons it would not be a good idea. To my delight, and as proof of the crazy ways the Holy Spirit moves, the text for the morning was from my favorite gospel story, the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). I listened, prayed, and sang a beautiful selection of songs. I entered as a visitor but already wondered if this was a community of seekers where I could be at home.
I had been hungering for a group of companions in learning, wishing I could attend seminary or spend time on retreat, and trying to figure out a way to find others with whom I could journey in this way. It was a pleasant surprise that the Mennonite church offered Sunday school for all ages every week. This was a positive change for me. My meeting held occasional discussions on a variety of topics but nothing steady. There were several options: from talking over coffee to book groups to formal Bible studies. I felt energized by the learning, and was very pleased to see an attitude of openness to continuing revelation during discussions. In general, study times were marked by a sense of deep listening together, like a meeting for worship with attention to learning.
The church has established a community garden open to everyone, and the surplus produce is delivered to a local food pantry. In the garden, as at my monthly meeting, I found that working side by side on a common endeavor led to conversations and a spirit of friendliness. I always have avoided yard work, but in the community garden things feel different. I appreciate the sense of mission that extends beyond my own household, and I experience the lightening benefit of companionship for heavy jobs. Since the garden is located on church grounds, people in the neighborhood might not yet realize that garden plots are available to all. At present, the garden committee is addressing this, making extra efforts to extend invitations and share the blessings of this work with others.
Meanwhile, for some time, I had been searching for a place where I could help serve a meal close to home. Through a local food pantry, I found a listing for lunch, and visited the website of the host church, Christ Episcopal Church in Pottstown, Pa., for details. I noticed on their events list a weekly healing service. The words stood out to me as if printed in neon. For several months, I would think about this healing service. Just as the Mennonite church building had beckoned to me, I could not get it out of my mind. One day I found the courage to lay aside my wariness and to visit.
The service was held in a small chapel, decorated sparingly, with an altar at one end of the room and a group of wooden chairs arranged in a circle. As I chose a seat, I felt suddenly shy, and my heart raced. I felt a panic that bread would be served for communion—an anxiety that is fueled by my complicated feelings about outward sacraments. Then the neighbor to my right passed me a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, laid open to a particular page, and gave me a quiet smile. This simple gesture of hospitality helped me to relax. I read to myself while waiting for the service to begin.
Over the years when people have asked me to describe silent meeting for worship, I often have said, “You have to experience it. It is hard to articulate the feeling of Spirit’s movement and promptings.” I could make a similar statement about my experience of this healing service. I received further hospitality through the palpable feeling I had of being welcomed into the room, seen only as a stranger who felt a need to pray, free of expectations or judgment.
We were gathered to offer vocal prayers (and silent prayers in our hearts) for a wide variety of concerns. We followed a written service that had space built in for speaking out of silence to voice our longings for prayer. Then we rose and made a circle, each person stepping into the center in turn, for laying on of hands. As we felt led, we could express a particular prayer concern, and each person would rest a hand on the one in the center, while the service leader vocalized the request, offered an anointing with oil, and said a blessing. In this setting, being prayed for by strangers was a profoundly moving experience for me. I felt enveloped in tenderness, and tears ran down my cheeks.
At the close of service, I was greeted and introductions were made. I was invited to return any time, and I knew that I would. This healing service became a steady habit, and I thought wistfully of my time working in Philadelphia, when one meeting nearby offered midweek meeting for worship and my own meeting had a midweek Bible study. Not only had I been hungry beyond imagining for this embodied prayer service, but I needed communal prayer and praise beyond Sunday.
Through these ventures outside of Friends meetings, I have found spiritual community as well as neighbors. I have found others hungry for peace and justice who testify with their lives that we all are equally human, with equal access to the light and love of God.
For now, I cannot choose only one place to make my home. To do so would not reflect the truth of my experience. On some level, crossing the borders of faith communities helps me to live out my longings for equality, for a removal of walls between people, for love to overcome fear.