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Praying Outside the Lines

By Katherine Philipson

Since I was young, Jesus’s teachings and a sense of calling have steered me into service and advocacy, yet, until recently, I kept prayer separate from my activism. If and when I prayed, I did so alone and in private. My United Methodist upbringing encouraged prayer, but we seldom did so together for more than a few minutes. Likewise, in most activist settings, I kept my beliefs and prayers to myself to avoid causing discomfort or division. I even went so far as to decide that the only meaningful indicator of faithfulness was love in action. So, I dedicated my time to volunteering and organizing, stopped going to church, and prayed less.

Because I was drawn to FCNL’s priority issues and its reputation for effectiveness, I applied to work with the Friends Committee on National Legislation two years ago. I was particularly excited to help organize constituent advocacy to impact policy for peace and justice. Though I appreciated Quakers’ historic role in social movements and was interested in Quakerism, I had never attended a Friends’ meeting or church. I expected to love the job with FCNL, but I didn’t even begin to anticipate how Quaker spirituality would touch my life.

My first meeting for worship for business was an FCNL Field Committee Meeting. Closing my eyes and settling into silent worship felt something like when I used to go sit by the river near my childhood home to be with God, but instead of being among trees and mountains, I was in the sacred company of other people, waiting. In the stillness, my mind gradually cleared and my heart warmed. Together, we closed the silence.

Later in the meeting, we ran into disagreement and uncertainty in our discussion — one of those familiar points in activist meetings where stress can lead to poor listening, unkindness or disrespect. Perhaps, I thought, the group would take a simple vote to move ahead. Instead, the clerk stopped the conversation and invited us to return to silence. Out of the silence, committee members began to speak again, but this time with the care to listen for the Spirit’s intent. Slowly, we found a way forward. I was amazed; I had never before witnessed mixing prayer with decision-making.

FCNL’s process for setting priorities has given me another example of prayer-led work. Last year, over 200 meetings and worship groups met for worship to discern which priorities FCNL should focus on while advocating with the new Congress. FCNL’s Policy Committee then carefully read, prayed over and synthesized these submissions. Finally, through prayerful consensus-based discussion, the full General Committee finalized the priorities.

When I saw this process in action, I began to understand my job in a different light. It was humbling and life-giving to realize that my work is born out of collective prayer. I am not alone, but part of a community of people across the country seeking spirit-led action in unity. In reaching out to Friends with information and encouragement to contact their elected officials, I am also inviting them to live out that shared leading.

These experiences have started to break down my personal barriers between prayer and action. I’ve begun to ask, “What if I treated my work like worship? What if prayer became a more integrated part of my life? How would I change? What difference would it make?”

Grounding

I travel often and facilitate conversations for FCNL. My favorite presentations occur after meeting for worship. With an hour of prayer, much of my nervousness passes. After listening for the Spirit, I am more ready to listen to the group. I believe that we’re all more steady and present.

Practicing prayer during meeting for worship is like exercising a muscle I had forgotten I had. I notice now in moments when I’m feeling anxious, angry or off that I feel like I want to pray. Sometimes I step away or close my eyes for a few minutes to listen for the Spirit and re-center myself.

Endurance

Around the country I encounter Friends and activists who are feeling distressed and disheartened over seemingly insurmountable injustices: perpetual war, climate change, the influence of money in politics.

I’ve felt burdened to somehow convince others to hope, to keep taking action. While I believe strategic advocacy can move policy, at times I too feel overwhelmed by the organizing challenges we face.

In the last few months, when people have shared their fears and discouragement with me, I’ve started offering to pray with them. Each time, I feel a burden lift. Some hope flows from connecting to a love greater than our own.

New Direction

Practicing regular prayer together is dangerous to the status quo. It may open us up to uncomfortable callings and entirely new directions. In my work this year, I’ve been inspired by many individuals’ radical acts of faithfulness. I’ve met people who, to resist contributing to the military, have refused to pay taxes; some who gave up cars and airline travel to stop contributing
to climate change; a family with five adopted children and others growing networks of local food and challenging racism in their neighborhoods.

As I encounter the pervasiveness of exploitation, oppression and violence in our society, the beginning of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples resonates with me deeply: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I yearn for the sort of “kingdom” I think Jesus had in mind, for beloved community with fundamentally different power relations. I long to channel heaven here on earth.

My prayers often take the form of seeking guidance and assistance for myself and others to do what God would have us do. Still, I struggle to discern where I should focus my limited time and energy, what should be my long-term work.

Recently, a Friend shared how a sense that his life is ending is enabling him to reprioritize his choices according to “gospel order.” I asked him, “But how do you know what God’s particular role for you is? There’s so much work to be done.” He told me he takes faithfulness a day at a time. Instead of asking, what is my big-picture purpose, he concentrates on purpose as it arises moment to moment. Who am I supposed to meet today? What conversations are opening up? What feels right? This idea caused me to reframe my work. I’m trying to be more present to God’s emerging purpose in the day-to-day encounters and conversations, rather than simply focusing on how they contribute to larger goals of policy change.

Reflecting and Perceiving Light

Experiencing Quaker worship and decision-making processes through my work has infused prayer into my life and revived my spirituality. Praying in community is grounding me and connecting me with others in action.

For me, Quaker worship is about practicing openness to God. It’s like visiting an art gallery. When I walk outside after taking in all that art, I notice colors and shapes and beauty everywhere. After Quaker meeting, I notice God moving in my heart and in others. I approach conversations as if they are sacred.

Sometimes in the car driving from one town to another on work trips, I sing this prayer:

God please speak to me
God please speak to me
through the people you send my way
God please speak to me.
God please speak through me
God please speak through me
to the people you send my way,
God please speak through me.
Amen.

Katherine Philipson is a Capitol Hill Friends Meeting attendee and works as an FCNL Campaigns Network Building Associate.

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