On February 20, 2011, there was two feet of snow on the ground in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Five people, dressed like lumberjacks, hopped out of a van to attend worship on a sidewalk. What compelled Quakers to sit for an hour in worship in a Massachusetts snow bank? For the past two years in freezing cold or blazing hot weather, Friends have been worshipping in front of Textron Systems, protesting the company’s manufacture of smart bombs and military aircraft.
Friends are known to hold vigils at army bases and companies with questionable business practices. This is so common that it could be considered a part of membership. In addition, Friends march or speak out against war, and recently many Friends have joined Occupy Wall Street camps. However, when Quaker witness is mainly one of protest, problems can arise: we can become dismayed, confused, depleted, or embittered.
Early Friends also were protesters, defying priests, kings, and jailers. But they were protesters with a difference. Although they spoke against duplicity and false salvation, went to jail for their beliefs, and endured public floggings, these public ministers returned on Monday mornings to the gathering of ministers in London to pray for further instruction. How can our witness and worship today flow seamlessly together?
One way is to find a place of pain in the community and, worshipping with Friends from your meeting, listen to the Great Healer. In Boston, Friends pray on the spot of a recent murder: pray for the survivors, the perpetrators involved in killing, and for the neighborhood to heal in the aftermath of spilled blood, ambulance sirens, drugs, and police ticker tape. There’s no lack of places to pray: 72 murders in Boston in 2010 and 63 in 2011. Friends have visited a total of 50 sites, 12 times arriving in Dorchester/Roxbury. At each site, we read the name of the person who passed: Toneika, age 22…Shawn, age 29…Victoria, age 39…Besher, age 23. We mourn the deaths, but in a strange way, the strength and resilience of the community buoy up the prayers. The ocean of light surrounds the ocean of darkness. May Friends swim in that ocean and not remain seated on wooden benches.
At the munitions manufacturer Textron, Friends worship; we don’t exhort or point fingers. Although we know that blood is being spilt because of arms manufacturing and that we are a society that allows Textron to churn out weapons, our aim is to witness and to draw God to the site. We line up six to 20 chairs in two lines and sit facing one another. At both ends of the line are posters that read “Quaker Worship at Textron.” In winter, Friends bundle up in long, wool coats and thick scarves, and in summer, Friends dress plainly, some bringing sunglasses and windbreakers. We may pass a water bottle around or share a blanket across three laps. Joggers, security personnel from the plant, and many vehicles pass by us. Some honk; some yell; a few give us a fist pump. Often people stop to read the signs. Some vocal ministry is offered despite wind, weather, and loud traffic. Songs are sung, and the wind carries the tune across the fields.
While we worship at Textron, other Friends are praying at the Cambridge meetinghouse. Those inside the meetinghouse are praying for those outside at the munitions plant. The Textron worshippers and the Cambridge worshippers are one meeting simultaneously gathering in two places.
Where we worship is important. Each time I read that the United States has sold arms to Kenya or Pakistan or Israel, I feel pain. Every time a 22-year-old is killed in Boston, I think that it could have been my son. An unusual antidote to my anger/pain/guilt is my immediate memory of the previous Sunday worship at Textron or of the feeling of sunlight while we prayed on the sidewalk where a Boston youth had died. And I feel some peace, as illogical as that seems.