Finding A Path

Testimony of Community
by Chad Dell

We’re all here tonight because to one extent or another we feel that we live in troubled times. If you listen to the messages from firebrands and media organizations at the edges, who make their daily bread by sowing seeds of division and mistrust, we are a horribly divided nation.

One comfort religious folks have is their faith in God. The Quaker faith is grounded in the principle that every person can have a direct relationship with God. However, if we leave it there, each of us with our personal relationship, we are isolated individuals.
So an equally important part of Quakerism is the power of community. When we gather together in worship, we are collectively seeking the will of God, rather than meditating individually. Our collective worship enhances our access to that of God within. This is why we worship together, and not alone, and we are reminded of the words of Matthew (18:20), “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”

Quakers are known for their social justice work, in areas like civil rights and prison reform. And in troubled times, we all need to live an outward life, to speak our truth in public. But that work can’t happen without first taking care of ourselves as a community. Faith And Practice (2002), which is the guide to Quaker belief and conduct, reminds us that “The Religious Society endures as a community of friends(,) who take thought for outward society by first taking care of one another.”
We do that here, working together in community, whether in worship, through shared meals, through gatherings focused on a specific topic, or in public events like this one.

This then calls us into larger community. We are invited into connection with others by Jesus when he teaches “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This challenges us to move outward.
It seems simple, but as we know in practice, it is not. For who is my neighbor? The people who live near me? Who I work with? What about the people who live in far-off lands? What about those with different political beliefs or those who look different from me?

How do we approach and engage with those neighbors whose hearts, we fear, are different from our own?
As a Quaker, I think I have to tools to connect, and it’s those tools that help us in our goal to establish and nurture community with one another.
            First, Friends believe that there is “that of God, or the Divine, or Truth,” in each and every person. And I have committed to seeing that truth in each and every person. They may not always speak or show the truth to me, or to us, but there is still truth in there.  And it is our challenge to seek it out.
Because there is that of God within each of us, we are all equal, thus the testimony of Equality. We will address this in detail next week. But it’s important when considering community.
Ursula Franklin wrote that “everyone is equal in the sight of God, that everybody has the capacity to be the vessel of God’s word. There is nothing that age, experience, and status can do to prejudge where and how the Light will appear. This awareness – the religious equality of each and every one – is central to Friends.”
Being in community with one another means being loving, accepting, and supportive. It is understanding that while we won’t always agree with others, we cannot treat them as our enemies.
There are plenty of folks with whom we disagree; whose actions we question or whose behavior we find objectionable. Yet our goal has to be establishing community with them – as Americans, or in the global sense, as humans, dependent on one another for the health of the planet we call home. So despite our differences, we have to find ways to work together, to hear one another, to love one another.
This work arises out of a deep response to “That of God” in the other, and a desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. “As the spirit of love and truth grows among us, it will help us in times of trial to meet hostility with compassion and understanding and so hold us together precisely when we disagree.”

            The concept of the “Beloved Community” is useful here. The idea is known to many of us thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke of the Beloved Community as his ultimate goal. It is a goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.   The idea is not about achieving a victory over one’s opponents. Rather, it is about achieving reconciliation with them, being in “right relationship” with them, “transforming opponents into friends.”

Furthermore, community cannot exist without equality. We cannot be in right relationship if poverty or hunger is present. Similarly, discrimination and prejudice have no place in the beloved community. We are called to see everyone as a child of God, as members of the same human family, in relationship with one another.
It is in this light that I think of the idea of Radical Kinship. Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle, writing in his book Barking to the Choir, talks about his work with gang members in Los Angeles, and the transformative power of unconditional love, the establishment of kinship with those we might otherwise see as different, even threatening.

He writes: “No matter how singularly focused we may be on our worthy goals of peace, justice, and equality, they actually can’t happen without an undergirding sense that we belong to each other. Seek first the kinship of God, then watch what happens.”
I’ve experienced this sense of radical kinship with prisoners over the years. When I first walked into Garden State Prison on a Friday night for my first workshop with the Alternatives to Violence Project, a conflict resolution program originated in part by Quakers, I sat among some 25 men in khaki. The majority of them appeared very different from me. If you know anything about how we disproportionately lock up people of color in our prisons in this country, you know why.
But being open to kinship and community is a blessed thing. By the end of the night, I had had deep conversations with five men, and we came to see our similarities and found common ground. By Sunday, I was on a first name basis with everyone, and we all had trusted and shared some love for each other.

As the apostle John reminds us, “If we are walking in the light, then we have fellowship with each other.” 
If we commit to the idea of kinship, with our neighbors, with those who are different from us, then we need to be ready to experience that great inward power to act, to give, to listen, to love.
So we may live in fractured times, divided in our beliefs. But as Quakers we have an amazing opportunity to create the bonds of community, of radical kinship. We have powerful, time-tested testimonies that provide us with the tools that will guide us there.
Working together in community can help us overcome our own anger and frustration, replacing our willingness to respond in hate with an effort to love. To find common ground on which our community can thrive.
Quaker Isaac Pennington wrote that “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.”  

Faith and Practice, New York Yearly Meeting,

Gregory Boyle (2017) Barking to the Choir, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 202.

Isaac Pennington, Letters, 1667.


Finding A Path