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Have a good story?

July, 2001

E·van·gel·ize (v. intr.) To preach the gospel. Pros·e·ly·tize (v. intr.) To induce someone to join one's own political party or to induce someone to espouse one's doctrine.

Since September I've been the care taker and housekeeper (the warden for the Anglophiles among us) for the Lucretia Mott House at 1523 Cherry Street. Remembering Lucretia's roots on Nantucket Island, it seemed an appropriate place to alight --a good place for any transplanted New Englander. And I know there are no coincidences, only unrecognized miracles. Friends' Center found themselves burdened with the care of the Mott House at about the same time I needed an inexpensive place to stay, so for a reduced rent in return for the cleaning and the laundry an agreement was struck, giving me a roof over my head and a new set of bathrooms to scrub. And much more. It's been a continual opportunity to talk of faith and community, to listen to other's journeys, to both challenge and be challenged.

The Mott House is a sort of bed and breakfast, but bring your own breakfast--an affordable place to stay in Center City Philadelphia where you make your own bed and share living space with fellow travelers. Built in 1834, sixteen feet wide, three stories high, brick, it's a row house in need of something major--either renovation or restoration. No, Lucretia and James Mott never actually lived there, although the Hicksite yearly meetinghouse where they worshiped is next door. In dowdy simplicity it's a nice spot. It feels old, and sedate and if the walls have seen better days and the furniture has a used look, there is an ambiance of soft light and mellow conversation. Hey, you can't go wrong. For twenty-five dollars a night you get a clean bathroom, clean sheets, a place to make a meal and some lively conversation....with me.

A multitude have stayed at the Mott House since I arrived. A continual steam of non-Friends have rested their heads under its roof. There are three young women that drive up from North Carolina to take courses at the medical college one weekend a month; a couple of homeless folks stopping on their treks and getting a room for a night or two by hook or by crook; a post-doc from China, an expert on Pearl Buck who gave me a beautiful rice paper painting; a French doctor who had a grant to study something or other about American medicine and complained unceasingly; German tourists; a Malaysian woman renewing old friendships; a Bolivian feminist; and a Colombian coming to work for AFSC. If one guy made me uncomfortable enough to set me off in search of a skeleton key to lock my room he was the exception that defined the rule of visitors being open and friendly.

Visiting Friends have felt a little less diverse. A few Friends United Meeting folk, mostly connected with Friends World Committee have stayed, but the preponderance of Friends staying at the Mott house have been from liberal, unprogrammed traditions--not surprising given the number of liberal Friends' organizations centered in Philadelphia. Friends impressed with laundry hanging outside mixed with Friends expecting more than the Mott House had to offer. Sometimes there would be only one guest. Scratching the surface in a long evening conversation with a Friend very successful in consulting with Quakers and others on fund raising, I found a man who had spent much of the 80's working underground with orphans in Central America. Other times when there was a committee meeting or events like the mid-winter gathering of Friends for Gay and Lesbian Concerns the house would be overflowing. I'd often be less of a participant and more of an observer. Either way, when all was said and done, I was wealthier.

From Friends and non-Friends alike I heard anecdotes and experiences and reactions and thoughts--stories of journeys of faith and experience. Excepting and expecting direct access to the Divine underlines the importance of each of our journeys, creates an awareness of the ever-expanding sense of the Divine's presence in my life and in the lives of those I come to know.

While participating and listening over time I became cognizant of how much trouble we have talking about our journey in terms of faith. Sometimes we slip into clichés, sometimes we leave sentences unfinished hoping the listener can fill in the spaces, and sometimes we work hard to avoid the whole thing altogether.

Talking about our faith is hard for sure, all the harder for not practicing it. It feels more of a problem in the liberal tradition of Friends than in others. There are, I think, number of factors that influence this reluctance. We are so concerned with not hurting anyone's sensibilities we deny our own experiences. And in our culture of consumerism and self gratification we learn to avoid such talk. We are aware that many Friends are emotional and spiritual refugees from other faith traditions, wounded, and we avoid using language that might create a visceral response from them. We all want to use language that is kind, and sometimes lean hard into "politically correct" language at the expense of communication.

To compound matters, the religious right in America has, I believe, taken religious language away from the rest of us making what is meant to be open and loving and inclusive hard and exclusive and politicized. Meanings have changed in a weird kind of ‘newspeak'. In this world of hard language I had come to assume evangelize and proselytize were essentially synonyms until last fall, when I spent a weekend in meetings with a group of liberal Mennonites in Akron, Pennsylvania. During a Sunday School discussion I learned they were unabashedly evangelical. And they quite firmly did not proselytize. I had to go back to Philadelphia and get out the dictionary to understand what they were telling me. Friends take considerable pride in not proselytizing, but I'd think we can all use some practice in jubilantly engaging in a little evangelism.

Take religious language back. Talk of God, and how the Divine in your life makes you full. Talk of being obedient to the portion of Truth you are given--now, don't wait. And be joyful about it because it is a joyful thing. Remember there is a difference between the sharing of the good news as you experience it--in whatever way you experience it--and shoving it down someone else's throat. Share the experience of God in your life. Listen--listen deeply--to other's experience. If Christian language has baggage for you, if Tao is repetitive and dull and confusing listen all the more intently. Listen deeply. Find that place beyond language and listen deeply.

In that place of deep listening and deep sharing we can all come together as one family of faith. It is in that place with all our bumps and warts and our idiosyncratic incomplete understanding of Truth that we come to know God more deeply and to find the path that leads us forward.

Gospel comes from Old English originally meaning a good story or good news. Share your good story. Evangelize. Give it a try.

"All Friends everywhere, meet together, and in the measure of God's spirit wait, that with it all your minds may be guided up to God and to receive wisdom from God....And Friends, meet together;...and know one another in that which is eternal, in the Light which was, before the world was....And if ye turn from this Light, ye grow strange, and so neglecting your meetings, ye grow cold, and your minds run into the earth and grow weary and slothful and careless... and dull and dead." Good advise from George Fox in 1657. Good advise now.


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