By Dan Randazzo
I can remember every single time that I have ever lost hope, mainly because it has happened so infrequently. This is not for lack of a good reason to lose hope, however. In fact, hope is often the last reserve of strength for me, my final defense in the face of impending defeat. Maybe it’s a result of my intense stubbornness, yet I absolutely refuse to concede hope, no matter the circumstances. I consider hope to be mine to claim, or to allow, purely on my own initiative. Try and wrest hope from my grasp, and you will find that I will bring every resource to the fight, including the dirty and under-handed. I consider hope to be my most precious possession.
All of this strong talk is not hyperbole. Every day, before I even rise out of bed, I make a commitment to retain my hope: in the day, in God, in my marriage, in my career and in the potential for love and beauty to win the argument against hate and cruelty. I firmly believe that this decision, this continual commitment to hope, is one of the most important spiritual practices that I have ever encountered. It’s really the only practice that has been able to sustain me through every challenge in my life. My hope is not a greeting-card platitude; it’s a warrior, staring despair in the face and, with a smile, saying, “Try and get a piece of me.”
Please do not mistake me, however; I am not claiming to have superhuman powers of hope. It has been tested and tried in the trenches of child abuse, disownment, mental illness and disempowerment. I’ve clung to hope as if my life depended on it. There have been days when my hope has been the only force dragging me out of bed in the morning. I don’t view hope as a special ability reserved for those with greater spiritual and mental strength. Hope is often the only option left for kids trying to make sense of a world where a parent can treat them as if they are subhuman. Hope is the last reserve for parents who, when looking at their sleeping children, have no clue how they will make it to the next paycheck. Hope is the last line of defense for families dealing with chronic illness. Hope is the reserve of the dispossessed, the poor and the marginalized. Hope isn’t a luxury when you are faced with the struggle to retain your dignity and all that makes you human. This is a robust, stubborn hope that can overcome all of the voices telling you that you will fail; this is the only hope that will ever sustain the church in the face of all of its challenges.
Not to sound too dramatic, but this is also the only hope that I can retain in Quakerism. I’m not seeking to be alarmist, either. I don’t foresee or forecast the imminent doom of Quakerism, neither its constituent parts, nor its place as a force for change in the world. Yes, according to demographic projections, many parts of North American and European Quakerism are facing a numerical crisis. Endowments are stretching past the breaking point, and some meetings are faced with the unenviable choice of which bills to pay. We are not alone in this; nearly every denomination in the Christian community is facing similar challenges. It might seem to be a foolhardy gesture to have hope in the future of Quakerism, or even Western Christianity.
Yet, I retain hope. This is the only choice that I have. Then again, this is the only choice that we ever have. The determination to retain hope is the only method that we have to keep the Christian community (or church) alive and healthy. We only have two options when it comes to the church: either we rest complacent, and thus sign the death warrant of the church; or, we fight, with determination, to retain the hope that the church has a present and a future. This is truly one of those exceedingly rare situations where we are faced with a clear binary. Every moment that we rest in the confidence that the church is fine is a moment that we have lost hope in the church. Every moment that we commit ourselves to building the community of God in the world is a moment that we have hope in the church. If this sounds exhausting, it is, and should be. Simply put, this is the most important task that we will ever be faced with as Christians. Building the church is the main reason why we are here, and hope is the main resource that God has provided for us to fulfill this task.
All this makes sense only if we restructure our understanding of church, and of hope. I used to think that church meant a building or even an institution. I’ve searched for the perfect church home for decades, sojourning from the Roman Catholic church through the Anglican Communion, a lay Franciscan Order, and finally, to Quakerism. Every time that I felt as if I had found “it” — the place, the church — I’ve been disappointed. That’s because the church isn’t a building, attendance numbers or even Friends United Meeting. These are all ephemera.
The church isn’t a place; it’s hope itself. The church is our stubborn determination to root our lives in the God who so loved God’s creation that God stared complete hopelessness in the face and still retained hope; this happened not just once, but still happens, every single moment. God demonstrates hope in us through a gritty determination and commitment to remain in relationship with us. We demonstrate hope in God by committing ourselves every day to remain in relationship with God and with each other.
Our church communities are the relationships that help us to best meet God, and give us the strength to maintain hope amidst the challenges of life. Everything serves that end: theology, liturgy, testimonies and even business method. If a community is not fostering hope and committed relationship, it will eventually pass away. We can’t fret about the growth or decline of denominations, for the act of fretting takes away our energies from having the active hope that is the only true lifeblood of a community. Our responsibility is to remain committed to doing the hard work of active, vital hope. If we hope, our communities will be strong and vital, no matter whether or not they still retain Quaker qualities or not.
Right now, I find hope in a Quaker community called the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. The fellowship is a network of local communities and people gathered around the common experience of the living presence of Jesus in community. Many of us still feel rooted in Quakerism and find meaning in its distinctive qualities. I find hope in our focus on building community around a common commitment to remain rooted in our heritage as Quakers, as well to Jesus’s call to be active agents of peace and reconciliation. This call may demand that we adapt to new circumstances that stretch us in painful ways, yet our commitment to relationship with God is paramount.
It’s often said of convinced Friends that we felt immediately at home in Quakerism. One of the gifts of my long and varied journey is that it has given me this very specific perspective: there was a time when I felt at home in Catholicism, with the Anglicans and amongst Franciscans. I don’t believe that I was kidding myself, that these communities weren’t actually right for me. They were each where I was supposed to be at that specific time. At this time in my life, I have hope that Quakerism is where I am supposed to be. I can’t worry about where I am going to need to be tomorrow or if I’m going to eventually move away from Quakerism. Today, I have hope in Quakerism, and that must be enough.
Dan Randazzo shares the adventure of communal living in a small house in Baltimore, Maryland, with his wife, daughter, best friend and dog. He’s very passionate about reconciliation theology, having examined the topic from the perspective of race in Baltimore and religion in Northern Ireland. He is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the subject of Quaker Reconciliation Theology for the Centre for Postgraduate Quaker Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK).