Why did I interview Marcelle?
About two years ago, a friend in Minneapolis told me about some Quakers who held weekly prayer vigils in Philadelphia. Each week, they would email out a report about the vigil. I started to receive these reports and found a depth of connection between prayer and activism that I longed for. On a recent trip through Philadelphia, I took the chance to meet Marcelle Martin and Jorge Aurz, two of the main forces behind the vigil. Jorge and Marcelle are also part of a Friends "ministry of presence" in North Philadelphia. Part of my excuse to visit them was this interview. This interview is with Marcelle, but also includes stories about Jorge.
What metaphors or images would describe the spiritual foundation for your work?
The parable of the sowing of the seeds. Another vigil participant wrote about this image related to what we do at the vigils. This is a metaphor for a lot of things I do. John talked about how God just distributes seeds everywhere; on the rocky soil and the good soil. His sense of being at the vigil is just distributing the seeds everywhere--our prayer for peace, our witness for peace. You never know where they are going to grow. That really resonated for me. Particularly at the next vigil, I was feeling that way -- standing there distributing seeds. By that time we had been at the vigil for about a year and we had been standing in the same place, that same earth, week after week after week. I had the image of roots growing there. I knew something was growing, but I didn't know what it was. I could feel roots growing beneath us there in that place.
As people come by, they take us in different ways. They have a lot of curiosity, especially the children. Sometimes they come up and speak to us, sometimes they come up and tell us their message, ask questions, or take a photograph, especially the tourists from other countries--as part of seeing the sites of America. Sometimes in your life there is some image, something that you encounter, homebody's words that just come back to you again and again. You never know when seeing the vigil might be that thing for someone. It might come back to them later. It is coming back because it is an image that reflects something in their own soul.
What do you actually do at the vigil and how is it different than a normal protest?
We started, in a way, as a response to the bombing of Yugoslavia. Many of us felt that the bombing was wrong. We wanted it to be focused on turning to God as the first step in seeking peace and the way to find peace. In that sense, I think it was different than other vigils, which are focused more on trying to make a political message. People would come who had been to many protests or demonstrations and wanted to know what we chant at the passers-by. They thought of this as an opportunity to basically lecture the people who were walking by that what was happening was wrong. There were some people who came to the vigil who weren't sure the bombing was wrong, but were wanting to pray for peace. For me, the primary message was "Turn to God, there is a peaceful way. You don't have to have to resolve horrible conflicts with bombs. In fact, bombs are just going to make more violence."
Most of the signs say things like "pray for peace" or something like that. One of my favorites is "open the way for peace in your heart and in the world." It has the picture of a heart and a picture of the world.
I have become much more aware from my participation in the vigils over a year and a half that everything we do in our lifestyles is very much connected to the fact that we have wars in the world and that we have injustice. Our lifestyle in this country is on the backs of people in other countries. Their resources are being taken from them to support our lifestyle. All of that is part of conflict.
Last week during the vigil a man came up to me and asked
about the vigils and what we are about. Very quickly I said
that there is a connection between our lifestyles and war
and violence. He said, he had just been driving into the
city on the highway. While watching all the other cars
around him, he had the realization that there was a
connection between the wars we had in the Middle East and
our need for oil. I said, "Yes! there is a connection." It
is like he had just made that connection in his mind, and
right there we were for him to find and reinforce that
realization. It seemed wonderful that we were there.
Another image that calls me is that of the rising sun. The image of the rising sun is somehow a symbol for my life. I know that the rising sun has also been considered a symbol for Christ. For me it is a symbol of the light that shines in the darkness. You must be awake.
How has living in this house in North Philadelphia and being involved here effected your spiritual life?
I experienced a lot of struggle living here that I didn't expect. I expected to feel really afraid all the time, but I didn't feel that. My struggle came from unclarity about what I was called to do or what my role was here. I thought I would be coming here to do the things I felt called to do, spiritual ministry and writing. But there was an expectation from the oversight group that if I was called to live in this house, that I was called to be an equal partner with Jorge in his ministry. So for two years, I tried to do that. I was haunted by thinking there was something else I was called to do. Some of my struggle was being called to do something that I didn't want to do or that wasn't comfortable or was hard. The normal ego struggle. There were moments when I felt I understood that what I was doing here and how I was living here were really a part of God's plan and the way God is working. It was an opportunity to live and embody the teachings I had taken into my mind. When you have challenges, that is when you get to practice forgiveness and patience and so forth. After I had lived here for two years and I was reflecting on this experience, what I felt was a sense of this golden light, which I had experienced at different times, was actually becoming a part of my body.
I felt that light, for instance, on a day when I helped organize a planting of flower bulbs in January. It was a day when I had made other plans, but I knew the bulbs were available and I had to plant them before the frost. Jorge was away, so I organized a community event, for neighbors and school children, and Friends to plant the bulbs together. And I had a sense of what a blessing it was, especially to experience community in relationship to the Earth What I had at first planned for myself at that time was to go on a spiritual retreat, quiet time to be by myself. It didn't happen, but at the end of that day of planting, I felt a sense of the nearness of God and Jesus that was extraordinary for me. I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten that at that particular time by saying "no" to the opportunity to plant those bulbs.
I had to plant them before the frost. Jorge was away, so I organized a community event, for neighbors and school children, and Friends to plant the bulbs together.
And I had a sense of what a blessing it was, especially to experience community in relationship to the Earth.
Most of the people who live in this neighborhood are either Latino or African-American. I haven't felt other or strange or unwelcome because I am not Latino or African-American. I felt other in another way. My interest in my spirituality seems pretty foreign to most people, and I haven't felt many openings to be able talk about that. I have gotten close to some people. I was really moved one day, and the women who said it to me was moved when she said it to me, "you changed my thinking about white people."
Anything else you want to say about the connection between prayer and peacemaking?
Peace comes from God. Genuine peacemaking comes from God, whether you are conscious of that or not. A very personal example I had of that was a conflict situation with a person I was working with where one of us was going to win and one of us was going to lose. I'm right and you are wrong and I had a lot of confusion about that. I prayed especially to Jesus and I had all kinds of images of Jesus bringing all kinds of different people together and I began to be filled with an understanding that there was another way. All of this stuff that was going on in my mind is kind of worldly thinking and I got an invitation to enter into another space. And as I accepted that I just began to feel more at peace and this incredible joy and love for the other person, for everyone else. As it turned out in that situation, there was another way neither of us were losers. It wasn't the way I had thought I wanted, so it was hard to let go of what I thought, but the understanding was that there was another way. That experience I had in response to prayer was extraordinary. It was like experiencing heaven. I'm sure that all the experiences in my life, including the prayer vigil, sort of open me up to receive that. And I'm sure that experience will open me up to the next one.
Do you have any stories of people passing by the vigil that you had interactions with that have seemed tranformative?
I can think of ways we've been transformed more than I know of anyone else being transformed.
There was a time a young man came by. He said "what's the way to the highway" or something like that in a way that seemed angry and aggressive. He asked a kind of gruff question and didn't get a very compassionate response. He walked by and waved his arm and took in all of us and said "This is all hypocrisy!" and walked by. Jorge didn't really hear what happened. So I told Jorge what happened, and he went after that young man. He stopped him and asked him what his situation was and what kind of help he needed, and he asked him to come stay in our house. He was homeless and in the city. He said his bus ticket was stolen He wanted money for a bus ticket. I wanted to paint the kitchen. So we hired him, and he and I spent the day painting the kitchen, and he stayed with us two nights. After we gave him the money, he decided to do something else with the money, to go somewhere else than he said he was going. We gave him our phone number, and he called us collect several times. For months, we had a relationship with him That whole experience was a transforming one for us.
During the vigils, what ways do you pray?
That has changed over time and also changes over the course of the hour. Usually it starts out by prayers asking for peace in the world. Sometimes almost as a repetition of a phrase, "give us peace, peace in the world". It is a prayer of asking, but it is also a prayer of helping me to focus on what I am there for. Usually what happens after a certain point is the realization or the memory that God is always sending peace to the world. That is God's desire, for there to be peace in the world and for us to live in harmony. God is always ready to send peace and to teach us peace, but what is necessary is for us to be willing to receive it and to be open to it and to learn how to live in it. So then it seems sort of unnecessary to ask God to send peace. That instead what becomes necessary is to turn to open and receive it, and be ready to be a vehicle for that peace. So that is the next step. And then, often times, it is being filled with the feeling of peace. Sometimes I go to the vigils and I am not feeling peaceful. I might have had a quarrel with someone there. Instead I will first begin by praying first of all for peace within myself, then for peace in the world. It reminds me of what my intention is: to live in peace, which reminds me that the way to do that is to let go of the grudge against that other person.
There are times over the course of an hour when I really begin to feel the presence of God, feel God's peace, feel wholeness in the world, that is always there and it is radiating peace. Sometimes I begin to feel that peace in relation to the people that I see passing by and feel, in a sense, God's love for them. So it becomes my love for them too. But it is more a sense of almost being a window through which God is loving the world. Or maybe my eyes are open so I can see that God is sending love to everyone, through everything. There are moments filled with grace when I can look at them and smile at them and think about God loving them. And that is a prayer too. At that moment, it is still a prayer for peace in the world, and turning to God. It seems like that is the way to bring peace into the world is to be a vehicle or a channel of God's peace.
Sometimes going to the vigil is like plugging into an electric socket. It is this sense of power, power in prayer. I can feel that the prayer is powerful, that it has an impact. I don't know what it is.
I am reminded of another Quaker who feels that one of the things we are doing at the vigils is a kind of penance, on behalf of our country. So much of our country's resources are continually going into preparations for war, This is a way of saying we have to repent for that.
At the end of the bombing of Yugoslavia, we had the realization that the process for preparing for war was continual and that there are conflicts all over the world all the time. The need for prayers continue, not just for one particular crises.
I feel very much that God is preparing me and many people
to be part of something that will happen. It might seem like
it is just happening then, but it is actually being prepared
for now. Who knows how long God is preparing for each moment
humanity takes a turn towards God's way.
I am also interested in how this house, Casa Amistad, relates to spirituality and peacemaking for you.
This house is in North Philadelphia, which is considered to be one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the country. This particular neighborhood, Fairhill, was actually named for a Quaker estate that used to be here. As the neighborhood went downhill, Friends left.
In the early 90s, some people were concerned that the Friends Peace Teams would send people to areas of conflict around the world, and said "What about our inner cities?" There were some Friends in Philadelphia who were interested in what Friends could do about violence and conflict in the city. A group of them were invited to do a listening project here in North Philadelphia, which involved Friends going door to door and talking to people and listening to people. Jorge was a part of that. One day he stood up in worship and said, "Why have Friends left the city?" And he realized, as he often does, the first person that needed to hear his message was himself. He bought a house here and the Peace Team had finished the listening project, and had formed the concept of the Fairhill Friends Ministry, which is a Friends ministry to the neighborhood, based in this house.
It is called a ministry because the most important thing is that people are present and live here and we are neighbors. We have helped advocate for a new playground in the park, held after school programs, organized trash clean ups in the park, and some other projects. There is a lot of pressure to do projects, but the spirit is that it is not the projects that matter so much as being here.
For me, one way I saw that really clearly is something that happened a few years ago. Before the monthly clean ups in the park, we would go around and leave invitations at everyone's door saying there is going to be a clean up this Saturday in the park and saying, in Spanish and English, we invite you to come. Usually it was the same people that came. Once in a while some new people would come. But there were many people who never responded and there were some people down the block who kind of knew us, through these invitations. One Christmas morning at 5:00, there was a knock on our door and this woman who lived several houses down the street said "My house is on fire and my telephone doesn't work." So we called the fire department. It turns out that what was happening was more than a fire. There was a fight between her and the man she was living with and the fire had been set deliberately. For me, the fact that she walked several houses down and came to our house, was just an indication of an awareness that we are here and the door is open. Even though she had never responded to anything before, she knew that we would be here when she came. Other neighbors came out too. The house wasn't totally destroyed, but she still isn't able to live there. One of the wonderful things that I saw was how Jorge was able to minister to both her and the man she was living with. He actually prevented her from going back to into the house on the morning of the fire to get a gun., but he was able also to minister in a longer term way. He helped them to transform their lives and to encourage the spirituality, especially in her, that was trying to emerge. That was very powerful to witness. Neither of them spoke much English, so I was more a witness than anything else. Although, one day she smelled gas in her house and she was afraid to light the stove and she was afraid not to light the stove. Jorge wasn't here, so I went with her to the house and opened the windows and we lit the stove together.
Jorge has been here for 5 years. Neighbors know they can come tell him problems. People like to come complain about their problems with someone else. Jorge will say, I will go with you to talk to that person--not the kind of response they are used to. The attitude of many people is that you complain that life is so bad and so terrible because the city doesn't give you services and so forth. When I came here, I saw a lot of that. For me, there was a very heavy feeling at the neighborhood meetings. People would talk about things and there would be a whole lot of negativity. Over the time I was here I could more and more see the sense that you can look at the problem and say "what can we do to make it better", instead of say "oh, that's just the way it is and it can't be changed." That is the biggest transformation that I have seen here. Its more important than the new playground.
Before I moved here, people said to me things like, "you are crazy" and "you'll be killed." So I was very afraid, but I was also afraid to not listen to that leading. During my prayers, I was reading the gospels. It was arrogant of me. I was thinking God has a spiritual mission for me, and what does God want to do with me in the city? Then to read in the gospels how God calls people to the places of brokenness and that's just the way it is. As I went through that, I realized that if God is calling me here, I can trust that. Whatever happens I don't need to be afraid. So when I moved here I really did feel an amazing trust. That is not to say I feel at ease coming home late at night. But I didn't feel easy about that in my suburb.