Mother Teresa said again and again that the most profound and debilitating poverty of wealthier countries like the United States is not like the material poverty of India. Rather, it is a spiritual, psychic poverty. “In the developed countries there is a poverty of intimacy, a poverty of spirit, of loneliness, of lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world today than that one.”
I trust and believe every word that has fallen from that saint's lips. So a friend and I recently decided to try to do something about this sort of poverty, the poverty that we see all around us in the urban, college-town world of eastern Providence, RI. We did it this past Friday, and the afternoon was beautiful and clear.
First, we rescued some cardboard from the recycling bin and made two sturdy signs by folding and taping the cardboard until we got two little structures that could stand up on their own. Then we took out some purple and green markers. On one sign, we wrote “Would you like to talk to us about faith? Peace? God?” On the other, next to a drawing of an ear, “We will listen...We are Quakers.” Then we took three large cushions and headed outside.
We set up camp under a young maple tree, which had patchworked the grass with its pale yellow leaves. We put two cushions down to protect our rears from the cold ground, and then put the third cushion in front of us for any person who might like to take a seat. Then we put out our signs, and waited.
We waited for about an hour or so (until it started to get dark), and no one took us up on our offer. I can't say that I was particularly surprised; it was sort of an odd thing to be doing. Plus, we did happen to set up around 5pm, just when people were making beelines for home. But I was surprised by the fact that, although no one stopped to chat, people gave us overwhelmingly positive responses.
Most smiled at us openly, and some expressed regrets that they couldn't stay and talk. One woman said that she wasn't so sure about God, but that she was all for faith and peace. Another gave us a thumbs up and exclaimed “Yay Quakers!” One woman reacted suspiciously at first, but then smiled broadly with relief when she realized that we hadn’t written “Would you like to hear us talk about faith?”
We had thought to undertake this experiment in order to provide a space where people could come and talk about their faith journeys, about their spiritual frustrations and hopes. It would be a space where they would talk, and we would listen. We wouldn't try to provide any pat answers or dogmatic assertions (after the manner of other evangelists), but would just try to be present to them, to be open and giving and generous and hospitable. Quaker evangelism, perhaps? Where else might isolated collegiate postmoderns find a place to be spiritually naked without cynicism or irony or judgment? Can it be that a couple of strangers with cardboard signs and cushions under a maple tree are all they’ve got? If so, we’d be there.
We hope to do this every Friday. Perhaps one day someone will sit down with us. But you know, maybe our quiet presence is enough, enough to start passersby thinking about those things: faith, peace, God. Enough to plant the seeds.