O Love! A Story of Reconciliation and Healing in North Philadelphia
Zachary Dutton interviewed O, a member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, a few weeks ago about her work in Serenity House, which is a center for healing and reconciliation in North Philadelphia. What follows is a narrative of this interview exploring the many ways in which O’s ministry is expressed through Serenity House and extends much beyond it.
God has commissioned her, she explains, as she drives us to a local restaurant called Sabrina’s. Her car is bright green and named The Turtle Mobile.
“I am to be a steward of one message this year.”
Each uttered sentence is an opportunity. She uses her words with upbeat intention like the colorful turtle that hangs from her rearview mirror—a totem of deliberate action and assuredness.
We find a parking lot right in front of Sabrina’s, and by this time she has incited me into praise alongside her.
“Thank you, God! This is the God I worship—a very generous God. I love God!”
As we wait for a table, she gives me, in a sentence, the one message she has been commissioned to steward. It goes like this: Any exchange at all devoid of love is an act of violence.
“Any exchange, any exchange, any exchange, and I mean any exchange at all.”
We’ve come together so I can interview O about her work at Serenity House, which is in North Philadelphia and recently founded by the Arch Street United Methodist Church. As stated on the brochure, Serenity’s mission is to provide, “a sacred space where people from all walks of life come to explore and share stories of healing, transformation and creativity.”
God has orchestrated a connection between Serenity House and Swarthmore College via Swarthmore’s environmental and social justice program. They donated a solar panel as a teaching tool for the community. Serenity House also hosts a men’s support group, a women’s support group, a book club, and, soon, O will initiate an Alternatives to Violence Project. While Serenity House is the anchor of our conversation, it is also the touching-off point for a larger exploration of O’s essential ministry.
As we sit down at our table, she repeats a sentence from earlier: “There is a worldly view that says I am disposable.” Then she adds that, “the real work I am doing in North Philly is to be a model of God’s love in a way that reflects to people their sacredness.”
At this point, I am inspired to mention the end of a George Fox quote. We all know the first part: “…be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations…[and] you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone…” Then Fox continues: “whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you” (Fox 1985:263). We often leave out this final phrase, but it is arguably the most important.
O encourages me to mention the passage in my write up of our interview, and she puts two more Bible verses into the mix—Matthew 22:35-40 and First Corinthians 3:16-17. In Matthew, Jesus explains to a lawyer that loving God and one’s neighbor are the primary commandments. All the other commandments flow from these two. In First Corinthians, Apostle Paul explains to the Corinthians that they are God’s temple. Yet the passage starts out with the Apostle asking, “Do you not know?” O reframes this as, “How did you forget,” that God’s spirit dwells within you?
She stresses that if this is true, and if we are to love our neighbor as we love God, then, “I am to love you with my whole mind, heart, and spirit. I am to love you that fiercely.” Only then, perhaps, are we able to, “be a blessing, and make the witness of God,” in others to bless us.
“My real work,” she continues, “is to figure out how to allow my own vein of God’s love to flow freely and to notice when I am blocked in this flow, as I receive or give God’s love. I have only one ministry and that’s to love. This allows me to be simple minded. I celebrate being simple minded; I love how simple my mind is; it’s very liberating!” It therefore fits perfectly within O’s ministry to be witnessing to the sacredness of others with a support structure such as Serenity House. When I mention that being simple minded is often a derogatory idea, she relates it back to her work at Serenity: “When trusted, serenity is simpler than violence… A serene life is a simple life…” The population she serves often needs this reframing to embrace vulnerability whilst discovering strength.
O is familiar with such a transformative process because it is the very thing that led her to Serenity House. She explains that she was working and living at Pendle Hill, and then, about four years ago, she was told that she couldn’t live there anymore. She would be homeless for a time.
Yet God had a plan for her, indeed! She went searching for a community of activists focused on dismantling racism in which she used to be involved. She was surprised to find that this community still existed. She was bewildered to learn that they still met at the same time and place. She declared her homelessness there, and the pastor of Cookman United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia heard her. The church was in need of someone who could live in a parsonage house and work with a woman named Wilhelmina Young, a powerful elder who provided wisdom and care in the community. Though Wilhelmina was legally blind, God had blessed her with spiritual vision. Together they would co-create a sacred space of healing and reconciliation in the community.
O says, “God embraced two vulnerable and powerful women of color; one homeless and one blind.” Wilhelmina was a spiritual midwife to the vision of Serenity House for more than a decade, and now the two had been brought together to make it real.
“The challenge is I don’t get paid for what I do, and that’s hard. We have billions of dollars, which we resource with grace and ease to prop up destructive forces. We rarely use our abundant resources to support, uplift, encourage, and inspire systems that reinforce peace! For those of us trying to build healthier societies, we are often told that there is little to no money, and that is crazy!”
Near the end of our interview, O explains gleefully that she and I are part of one body—God’s body. We are just two parts of many sharing in the resources, skills and power we each have refined for the benefit of all. She asserts that the interview itself is an expression of this basic reality.
As we leave Sabrina’s, O does a few jazzy dance moves to express her excitement regarding the recent called meeting to address racism. She says, “I no longer feel alone in the struggle to usher in God’s Beloved Community.” (She asked me to capitalize Beloved Community.) As she strives to shake off the insidious myth the world propagates that she is, or could ever be, disposable, O shines like the beacon of love she aims to nurture in others.
Note that the George Fox quote came from the following edition of George’s Fox Journal:
Fox, George. 1985. The Journal of George Fox: A revised edition by John L. Nickalls ; with an epilogue by Henry J. Cadbury and an introduction by Geoffrey F. Nuttall. Religious Society of Friends.