Last Sunday, my children participated in their first peace protest.
And they did it at church.
It feels strange to type that. The word “church” carries a lot of baggage for my husband and me. In the Quaker tradition, gatherings are called “meetings” and our pastor or other members of the meeting “bring the message,” rather than “give a sermon.” Whenever my husband or I accidentally use the “c” word these days, we roll our eyes at each other, as if to say, I thought we weren’t going to use that word anymore. We aren’t. At least, we try not to.
Quaker lexicon, on the other hand, is baggage-free. This is a key reason we’ve been able to plug into a spiritual community — something, after years of bad church experiences, we weren’t so sure we could do anymore. But here we are, two and a half years after first stumbling into a meetinghouse, going to Sunday meeting, still.
As a child, I expected the world of religion to be one of wondrous surprises.
Today, my biggest surprise is that — albeit in new ways and, at times, hanging on by my fingernails — I’m still here.
Each year, our meeting hosts a big Sunday school year kick-off — Sundae Sunday, culminating in a massive ice cream feed. The first time our family attended this event, the teachers handed out rainbow colored peace sign necklaces, which our children, then ages two (the twins) and five, draped around their necks. Watching all the children of the meeting, little and big, walk around as visible testaments to Make me an instrument of Thy peace was one of the most moving experiences I’d had in a house of worship. Months later, when my husband threw out our kids’ broken necklaces in a fit of cleaning, I cried.
The following year, I volunteered to organize Sundae Sunday, despite the fact that organization is not my strong suit. I pulled together an odd astronaut/game show theme, ordered little prism tchotchkes for the kids, played the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey on Sunday morning while I announced the names of the children and Sunday school teachers. Afterward, one person stopped me in the foyer and told me all the things she thought I’d done wrong, and I cried again, for different reasons this time.
I didn’t go back for several weeks. But I couldn’t resist the call of the meeting — a place where I felt and saw evidence of Something More, where evangelicals and New Agers and conservatives and activists and people who resist labels of any kind sit side by side. Where people a lot like me, and I too, sometimes speak before thinking. A perfect microcosm of God’s surprising world.
This year, I didn’t organize Sundae Sunday, but I did pick up tubs of Winco ice cream, bottles of Hershey’s syrup, and bags of colored sprinkles from the bulk food bins. At Party City I found John Lennon glasses for kids to wear at the peace march. Not change-the-world contributions, but contributions nonetheless. One of the biggest spiritual lessons I’ve learned this year is that small gestures count. It’s not all or nothing. There are moments of silence, degrees of serving, slivers of the Sacred revealed in the everyday.
This week, our family picked up a bottle of the Palestinian olive oil our meeting ordered months ago to help Palestinian farmers. Next week, an offering will be taken for Rwandan students who don’t have the money to go to school. Nobody’s trying to convert anybody. None of us is out to make anyone someone other than who they are. We love and we accept. The parallels to parenting are profound.
On Sunday, wearing felt headbands in bright orange and magenta and blue — each inscribed with the word PEACE or adorned with a 60s peace symbol stuck on with glitter glue — and little round sunglasses tinted green and gold, azure and rose, a rag-tag crew of preschoolers to eighth graders marched carrying signs that said, “Who would Jesus Bomb?” and “Quakers for Peace,” while we, their parents and friends, sat in the pews and shouted:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
We want that peace for them, and we want it for ourselves, as parents. We want it, too, for the mothers and fathers of Iraqi children, for orphaned children whose parents have been killed or imprisoned by our soldiers, and — oh, how badly! — we want that peace, too, for the soldiers themselves.
For me, this is what prayer has become. Part desire, yes, and part communication with the Sacred, too. But it is also action, movement. The raising of one’s voice. My voice. The missing part of my spiritual journey before now.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He didn’t say “peace wishers.” It’s about making.
Another detail about Sundae Sunday: before handing out the signs, our pastor’s wife told the children, “Now, don’t use these signs as a weapon. If you bonk someone on the head with your sign, if you do this,” and she held out one sign and pointed it like a sword, a la Robin Hood, “you won’t get even one warning. You’ll lose your sign. That’s not what today is about.”
Sure enough, as the kids gathered and then marched, I didn’t see a single one smack another with a sign.
That one small fact may be the biggest miracle of Sundae Sunday — and it gives me the greatest hope of all.