(RNS) — Terrible things have happened in the news these last few days, but know that these things happened too: A loving single father was reunited with his children after months of court-mandated separation; a family whose finances were ravaged by COVID-19-related bills was given more than enough money to get by; three refugee parents, separated from their children and languishing in detention centers, were suddenly set free.
While I can’t say for certain why these good things happened, or why it took so long for some of them to come to pass, what I do know is this: A dozen or so Mennonites in San Antonio, meeting for prayer at 6:30 a.m. on Zoom, prayed for each of these things, and they happened.
I know because I attend this prayer group most mornings. Often I’m half awake and struggling to focus. But fortunately, my fellow Mennonites are not — they’re here to do business, with each other and with God. I’m not saying all their prayers are answered in the affirmative. I’m not even saying I know for sure that prayer works. I’m just giving you facts.
As one of the Mennonites recently put it in our group text message thread: “What miracle should we pray for next?”
I keep making a point of saying “Mennonite” here because the word is strange and novel to me, especially when applied to me. Mennonite Christians are a varied group, ranging from ethnic Mennonites to “plain people” to small church communities distinguishable mostly by their commitment to justice work. I don’t know if I am a Mennonite yet or ever will be. But for the first time in many years, I am an intentional member of a church community, and it goes by the name of San Antonio Mennonite Church.
I’d been lingering on the perimeter of this community since the end of 2018, when I visited one Sunday morning out of a curiosity piqued by the local newspaper’s occasional accounts of the church’s work.
A community of just a few dozen, SAMC makes the news occasionally for its work with asylum-seeking refugees who filter through San Antonio. The church runs a hospitality house called La Casa de Maria y Marta, offering rest, help with medical care and legal aid, and whatever else families need after a horrendous journey through Central America and Mexico.
When I approached the church that first Sunday, I wasn’t sure they’d let me stay for the service. Mennonites might welcome literal refugees, but what about pathetic spiritual refugees like me?
Long fascinated by churches, I’m an inveterate visitor; I’ve haunted the back row of most every type of congregation in this town, from John Hagee’s televangelized churchopolis to hipster evangelical startups to Spanish-only barrio Bible churches to every mainline hanger-on in between.
I like to take it all in, a church nerd on a lifelong project of observing the crazy mixed-up modern family that is American Christianity.
Of course, being super-super interested in churches, plural, is also a neat way of not letting any particular one church make claims on me. Obv.
On that first Sunday at the Mennonite church, as I listened to the pastor and members talk about what had transpired that week, and as I sang along awkwardly to their justice-forward hymnody (♫Who do we see among the poor? / The children of God♫), I felt, in a still, small way, the imposition of a claim.
I came back the next week and the week after. I made a coffee date with the pastor and told him I wasn’t a churchgoer so much as a church visitor, and I lived 20 miles away in the suburbs and couldn’t ever really commit to anything. He shrugged and asked about my family.
Over the next year-plus, I sidled along San Antonio Mennonite Church — contributing time and money where I could and talking up the congregation’s asylum work to friends and colleagues. If you were a disaffected, confused or unchurched Christian in San Antonio, and I got into a conversation with you, I’d encourage you to consider SAMC as a destination — if not for you, then at least for your money or volunteer time.
No matter how bitter a taste your last church had left in your mouth, I knew you were probably aligned, at least in spirit and in principle, with who and what SAMC was trying to be. I enjoy helping my fellow wayfarers find alignment.
For some of the congregants, the Mennonite tradition was a lifelong identification, one stretching back through ancestors. For others, the Mennonite tradition, at least expressed in this church, was a clarification and reframing of the faith — genuinely and literally welcoming of all, attendant to the way of Jesus, and comfortably messy, always trying to catch up with its own eager pursuit of peace and justice.
Starting last spring, the coronavirus pandemic made the church more available to a geographic outsider like me. Church services went to Facebook Live and small groups went to Zoom. All of this virtual church gathering may be less than ideal and I’ll welcome its conclusion, but it has made the borders of churches like this one more permeable.
Still, until recently, I was mostly reluctant to call myself a part of the Mennonite community. If asked, “Where do you go to church?” I’d continue to answer as I long had: “Mostly nowhere but kind of everywhere.”
In fact, the more I participated in SAMC, the more I volunteered and worshipped and learned, the more I esteemed the ministry — and the less I wanted to taint it by my membership. I still don’t, really, but at some point last year, I decided to take a leap of faith: I signed the church’s membership covenant.
“What does that mean?” a friend asked.
“I think it means I have to say ‘yes’ when they ask me to do things,” I said.
It also means whenever I can, I join the morning prayer group. Often, my 17-year-old daughter, Bel, joins with me. When we click on the Zoom link, we see the shared screen of Pastor John Garland. He’s showing us the Psalm we’ll pray that morning, and describing for a minute or two the key themes and features of the day’s Psalm.
I have known about the Book of Psalms all my life, and I’ve heard a million Christians say a million times they turn to Psalms most among all books of the Bible. But I’ve turned to them last and least. As literature, they lack beauty, as I understand beauty. As prayers, they ask me to feel things about God I don’t tend to feel, and to proclaim things against enemies I don’t have. Even when I do have enemies, I’m not prone to smite them (Psalm 3), much less crush their infants’ heads (Psalm 137).
But in the company of these Mennonites, I’m no longer struggling to understand the Psalms through the prism of my own life. I hear and pray them through the stories of the prayer requests we’re making each morning. The parents and children journeying in hope of justice as they cross our southern border. Teachers and students struggling against a faulty administrative state. People in neighborhoods designed to perpetuate racial disparity. Those beset with broken brain chemistry, or broken bodies, or broken families. Those of us who just need reliable cars, help with medical bills, hope for the pressures of the day.
We pray these requests in Psalms, and then in our own words. Together, we’re here to take the chance God is listening. That God is. Sometimes we pray for the same things for weeks on end, and it feels like our prayers are a never-ending circle. Other times, it turns out the chance was one worth taking, the circle was an upward spiral, and our prayers are answered with a Yes.
(Patton Dodd is the executive director of storytelling and communications at the H.E. Butt Foundation. The views expressed in the commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)