When one tries to avoid death, it’s impossible to affirm life.
(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)
In my grandmother’s rocking chair, I hear a voice: YOU WILL TRAVEL IN THE MINISTRY IN BRITAIN YEARLY MEETING FOR A NUMBER OF MONTHS BEGINNING IN SEPTEMBER OF 2014.
This, for many reasons, is startling. I’m not accustomed to hearing voices. It’s early in the morning, before dawn, and I’m quite sleepy. I’m reading John Woolman’s journals by candlelight. I’m cold. I’ve been a Friend since only 2010 and hardly feel I know what travel in the ministry might mean. Is this a thing that Quakers still do?
I remember advice I’ve read in a book: when you think you’re having a leading, first wait, tell no one, and see if it goes away. It is my inclination to say nothing. Tell no one; this I can do. It is now only August of 2013. I resolve to keep quiet at least until October.
It doesn’t go away. It’s persistent, tugging at my heart. October 1st comes and I excuse myself from speaking up—after all, I never said the beginning of October. The weeks melt away. Who, exactly, do you reveal such things to? It is nearly the end of October when an elder pointedly asks the question: Is there something you’re not telling me?
Well, as a matter of fact…
The meeting arranges a clearness committee. I sit with them. I tell the story. They affirm: This is a leading.
They give me three concrete instructions. Attend worship every week; resign from as many Quaker committees as you can; go and talk with Joshua Knapp.
Joshua Knapp is a Quaker I barely know. An important type. Why him? I send a message and ask for a meeting. He wants to know why. I tell him I don’t know. My clearness committee told me to. That’s enough for us both.
We sit in a room. I tell him the story. He says many wise things, but in the end, one stands out: he looks me in the eye and says, This sounds real and genuine. But don’t fall in love with the idea of having a leading. In the end, it might turn out you’re not supposed to go. And not going might be harder than going.
I know I’m not ready for this. So I prepare. I go and visit Friends in my own yearly meeting—some I know, some I don’t—and sit at their feet and listen. I read everything I can find. I pray.
The meeting lays down the clearness committee and creates for me a support committee. The support committee writes a travel minute, which the meeting endorses. There are letters to write and more endorsements to get and money and visas and procedures that are fuzzy in Faith and Practice, and one morning in March I panic and send an email to every member of the meeting that I know and trust and beg that someone meets with me and that afternoon, four Friends gather in the midst of a snowstorm. They are gleefully excited. And together, we bang out the details.
My yearly meeting endorses the travel minute and rallies around me. Then we send it to Britain Yearly Meeting—I’m coming. They don’t know what to do with me. They meet. They develop a reasonable procedure. Then I’m talking with Friends overseas by Skype and email and building an itinerary and the visa application’s in and I’m quitting my job and giving up my apartment…
The yearly meeting’s annual sessions is spiritually wrenching. For a week in July, I’m thrown in over my head. I find myself giving vocal ministry that’s beyond what should be my level of ability. On the way home, I nearly throw up in Johanna’s car.
The next day, the letter comes.
Appeal only by proving my human rights have been violated. I’m not sure what that means but can’t imagine they have been. So, I can’t go, and I feel—
I don’t have to go. It happened to Comfort Hoag. She got on a boat to cross the Atlantic and after a day told her traveling companion God didn’t really want me to go, He only wanted to know that I would, and now He’ll provide a way to go home again, and sure enough the boat sprang a leak and turned around and Comfort didn’t go.
But nobody else sees it that way. I send out a message—VISA DENIED—and back to me comes promises of support and hope rallying. We’ll find a way around it, maybe Britain Yearly Meeting can do something, maybe the legislature can do something, and that’s how I find myself in a congressman’s office sitting across from his aid, but she can’t call any phone number except the ones I can and they won’t talk to her either and finally she says:
“Why are you going, again?”
It’s a religious call.
A light behind her eyes flicks on, but ultimately, there’s nothing she can do.
Two weeks go by and every day I wake up dreading. I start having migraines. Finally I say STOP. STOP. I’m not led to go.
(I have to be just that specific in saying it.)
Everyone’s disappointed, and I’m confused as all get-out, but I’m not led to go.
And then, of course, I’ve given up my job, and my apartment, so there’s nowhere to go and nowhere to put my stuff and I end up moving into a deserted fifth floor that’s only recently been evacuated by squatting models who left an inflatable swimming pool and twenty pounds of cat litter and seven unabridged French dictionaries and it’s my job to carry all this down the stairs, and also there’s no place for my things in these temporary digs so they all go to an abandoned bar in Brooklyn that’s already overfull with a disco ball and a motorcycle and an abundance of old easy chairs, and after a few months most of my things end up—I don’t even know where, but they’re gone and I don’t have to worry about them, and I saved what’s most important, like my grandmother’s rocking chair, and the rest isn’t all that hard to sacrifice.
In fact, I’m grateful. The loss of my old job (with its inflexible hours), and my old apartment (with its escalating rent), and my old stuff (that made it hard to move) makes space for me to devour whole sections of the library, to soak up local Quaker history, to travel to and connect with Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, Friends World Committee for Consultation, New England Yearly Meeting Friends, and Baltimore Yearly Meeting Friends. I go from a calling to one particular location to a vocation that transcends location.
I also know, now, the feeling of release. This will be important in the coming years: the ability to recognize and even embrace endings, the ability to articulate STOP, STOP, because without the endings, there’s no new life.
This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed.
If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.