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Opening to change

by Philip Austin

In January I was one of three Friends from Britain YM to attend a peace gathering in Philadelphia entitled ‘Heeding God’s Call’. Initiated by Philadelhphia YM, it was jointly planned by them with the two other largest peace churches, the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren. It took place at the historic Arch Street Meeting House in the centre of the city and drew in participants from the three main groups as well as from a range of other churches and a small number of Muslim and Jewish observers.

Coming just before the end of the George Bush presidency, there was a sense of change in the air throughout the gathering . It also coincided with what would havebeen the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King. His writings, life and witness were a powerful thread; made even more so by the presence at the gathering some who had worked with him in the 1960s.

For this British Friend from a tradition of unprogrammed worship and fairly liberal theology, the worship at this ecumenical event was both challenging and inspiring. Songs, sermons and rituals were key elements. Silence also featured, but I personally missed the longer periods of silence that I would have experienced at a solely-Quaker event in Britain.

In reflecting on the gathering, a key theme for me was that of letting go. I had to let go of my initial reservations about the unfamiliar forms of worship and try to find the source of inspiration within it that had, after all, brought us all to the gathering. Speakers told us in various ways of letting go of their personal security, and moving out of comfort-zones in order to be do their peace work. We were challenged to let go of our reservations about working alongside marginalised communities, as white peace activists had done when supporting the civil rights movement in 60s.

Another theme was the challenge to take seriously our attempts to work for change. Few seemed in any doubt that the new presidency in the US would need to be reminded and prompted vigorously and regularly about the need to address the needs of the world in a different way. And during the week, participants in the gathering took part in acts of civil disobedience, putting their own liberty on the line in order to challenge the unaccountable sale of the guns that plague the lives of young people in Philadelphia, as in so many other US cities.

But amidst the seriousness there was also great joy and celebration. A faith-based approach to peace is grounded in the conviction that there really is another way. That way is about affirming life and affimring the contributions that we can each make. Vincent Harding, who had worked with Martin Luther King, quoted another old friend of his in declaring that ‘What human beings have messed up, human beings can fix up.’ He and others encouraged us in words and song, helping build a strong sense of going forward together, however long the journey might take.

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