When Reverend Ray Hammond preaches, he electrifies the room. I saw lightning strike when he started his sermon with Ephesians 6:10-20. So did 10 people sitting with me. Usually, it takes more than an announcement of reference numbers to deliver revelation to a motley crew of Jews, Evangelicals, and Humanists at 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning. I looked down the row at my friend and colleague Chad; his eyes were as big as mine, looking right back at me.
It was the final day of a week-long Community Leadership Intensive with Project CALL, bringing together a cohort of students and counselors from Appalachian Kentucky and Greater Boston. This morning, we were visiting Bethel AME, African Methodist Episcopal, in Jamaica Plain, Boston. We had spent the week engaging in dialogue, volunteering at community agriculture sites, visiting religious institutions, and developing leadership skills together. Our goal was to come together across religion, politics and culture, fostering collaboration. The day before, the Christians in our group had spontaneously gotten together for a bible study during an afternoon break. Of the 8,000 verses in the New Testament, they studied the 11 verses of Ephesians 6:10-20.
The Project CALL staff team is as diverse as the students we serve. Chad, who I have known as a friend and colleague for three years, comes from a long line of Baptist Preachers and coal miners in Eastern Kentucky. I belong to the Jewish community, and focused my college career on Environmental Studies at a particularly liberal school in the Midwest. In my own theology, I see Gd in and amongst all of Creation, although I struggle with the notion of supernaturalism. Another counselor in our group, Ryan, once said to me that he would be ready to commit to interfaith work when Gd came down and showed him a sign – I wanted it to happen, but I didn’t hold my breath.
And here was Gd, speaking through Reverend Hammond as he opened the scripture. He wore a summer outfit, brilliant blue fabric with bright colors assembled in a pattern of rounded shapes. He had sandals on that late July morning, at the bottom of his towering stature. The lightning struck when he announced the pages, and its thunder echoed when he reached Ephesians 6:15, the central verse of the quotation: “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” I jolted back, the volume and clarity of the moment ringing in my ears as I looked down the row of rapt faces. The rest of the church was just beginning to listen, and this row of unusual visitors was already brimming over.
The lightning did not wipe away my own religious beliefs; it cracked open the experience of my Evangelical friends, partners, and students. I experienced a fleeting moment of their own religious journeys, in their shoes. These are moments I live for. Two years ago, I held Chad’s newborn daughter, Hope, when she was only eight days old. She was light in my arms, eyes full of wonder, and then tears, wanting Daddy back. But for a moment, when I was the one looking down into her gaze, Chad’s need to support his family registered deeply in my heart. How else will this friend of mine raise this family in the beautiful mountains of Eastern Kentucky, if not as a miner for the coal inside them? This is the sole industry of the region. Holding Hope did not erase my worries about climate change and carbon dioxide pollution, holding Hope gave me a moment of Chad’s experience. Interfaith work is not about fully resolving these tensions, it is about learning to let them live within me.
As an adherent to the Jewish tradition, this tension is the root of my journey by faith. For me, faith is trusting in a path lit with hope, leaning on Divine inspiration and my tradition for guidance. The destinations are unclear, but I pray that I will see more clearly as I walk. Early in Genesis, Gd commands Avram: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Avram follows the instruction of the moment, and does not ask what the destination will be like. He trusts simply that Gd will show him and his family as they journey towards it.
I do not know what I will believe about Gd and Judaism in the future, five minutes from now or fifty years from now. I do not know what my life will look like. I do not know what the world will be. So I hold these moments where Gd seems to bellow at me in a thunderous voice, and I seek quiet in the everyday, to listen for the still small voice of the Divine. Her instructions come from all directions, but they seem to always be the same: Listen. Love. Get to work.
May lightning strike us all.
The photograph in this post is the property of Project CALL, courtesy of Project CALL staff member Chad McKnight, Outdoor Education Coordinator.