Ebonee Hicks powerful reflection from Pride Sunday. Thank you Ebonee.
Bio of Liz
Liz Ohle is the convener of the local Quaker group. She came to Newfoundland from the USA in 1995 and is delighted to have found her forever home!! Liz had a career as an educator, but in nontraditional places. Teaching carpentry and wilderness skills at summer camp with children, and adults lasted for 25 years, and then she helped develop a unique instructional program at the MUN Medical School for 15 years. The vast majority of her paid work was with not for profit organizations which is reflective of the values she learned in childhood. Liz is now retired from paid work and continues her service by organizing women’s hockey and the Out In Faith group.
My Quaker Journey
Hi everyone, Thank you so much for this opportunity to be with you and share my life journey through a spiritual lens. The last time I stood in front of a church congregation like this I was in High School.
My parents were devoted church-goers, and participated fully in the life of their church. They were very moral and ethical people, and believed that being of service was a high calling. Numerous aspects of their social lives were born out of the church. Women’s service society, potluck dinners, their bridge club all originated in the church. But their specific religious beliefs weren’t part of our family life, except as demonstrated in a few rituals including saying grace before dinner and saying bedtime prayers with my dad when I was young.
For us kids, the church also became a focal point for activity. It wasn’t bible study or prayer services, but a place to hang out with our ‘church’ friends. In fact, as a young person, what mattered to me most were my interactions with my peers. I don’t remember a single sermon, or many Sunday School lessons. But I loved going to church for different activities. I sang in the choir with friends, went to youth group with friends, and we had our own peer conversations about racism, the Vietnam war, the hypocrisy of some church goers, dating, taking on ethical leadership. This is what I valued about church on Sunday morning, Youth Group on Sunday evening, and Choir rehearsal on Wednesday evenings. It was all about spending time with people that were experiencing life at the same stage that I was. We were all grappling with the same issues.
I do recall a few key Sunday School lessons. In High School, we had two guest speakers representing different religions. One was from the Church of Christian Science. We were fascinated by the concept of believing one’s faith strongly enough to pray rather than have medical treatment for illnesses. (My apologies for my limited teenage understanding of the Christian Science religion.)
The other speaker I recall was from another religion I’d never heard of. He talked about having Conscientious Objector status and doing alternative service rather than fighting in the army in Vietnam. I remember that the boys had discussions after that speaker about whether they should join that church. Exactly what did it take to prove that you believed in peace and not war? Was it too late for them to adopt that ‘conviction’ and avoid the draft? This speaker was Quaker.
What impressed me about both of these speakers was that their religion permeated their lives, not just when they were in their church building. They lived with conviction, trying to be true to their religious beliefs. When I think back to that pulpit I spoke from in high school, and the message our youth group often had for the adults, we spoke frankly about the ways it seemed that grown-ups stopped thinking about living a faithful life when they drove out of the parking lot. How could church members call themselves Christian if there was unaddressed poverty or racism or inequality in our city and neighbourhoods?
What was missing for me in my church was a belief system that allowed for questioning, for searching for personal answers to difficult questions, for looking critically at my life and how to bring it in line with my ethical beliefs 24 hours a day. The way the Christian Scientist and the Conscientious Objector spoke about their lives and their faith stuck with me.
Sometimes a journey makes more sense when you look back at its path, rather than following along a specific road to get to a destination. It is in looking back at my early church years that I can see these threads, the seeds that were planted, unbeknownst to me.
Given that conversing with long time church friends was what I loved about church, it is no wonder that when I left home at age 17 to attend university, the new church I went to one Sunday morning was sorely lacking. I didn’t see people there that I could envision as friends. After that one Sunday, I never went back and didn’t feel a spiritual emptiness without church.
The next years at university were filled with all kinds of upheaval, in society and within me. The Vietnam war carried on with all of the associated campus protests, the sexual revolution was in full swing, feminism was unfolding in public demonstrations of bra burning, and I discovered a new definition of relationships and of family within the lesbian community. I fully embraced these ideas and concepts that were so very new to me. My main connection with spirituality at this time was being touched by acts of human compassion and by the miracles I could see when out in nature. I never thought I would be connected with an organized religion again in my life, but it is not surprising that when I did find a church, it was one that had space for all of these new ways of thinking and being.
At the age of 24, I began working at a New England Summer Camp called Farm and Wilderness. My sister was working there and invited me to join her. Somewhere in the application process, I learned it was a Quaker camp, but had no idea what that meant. My sister was pretty cool so I figured that a Quaker camp must be cool. And it was! This began my official Quaker journey. I spent 15 summers at Farm and Wilderness, some of them as director of the girl’s camp. It was about 6 or 8 years before I searched out a Quaker Meeting at home during the nine months between summer camp sessions.
There are a couple different forms of Quaker Worship, but the form most common in North America and Europe is unprogrammed worship. It involves sitting together in silence. We gather together and actually listen to the silence, each person open to the possibility of ‘hearing’ a message with their heart. It could be a message so powerful and insistent that it begs to be shared verbally with the group. In the course of an hour, one or two people might speak such a message. Or it is possible to sit the full hour with no verbal message at all.
In a summer camp with 120 youngsters, there isn’t a lot of sitting perfectly still. And our Meeting circle of benches was outdoors in the spectacular Vermont mountains. Though surrounded by fidgeting and squirming of 9 to 14 year olds, the gathering in the circle was peaceful and powerful. It held a quiet sense of purpose that grew on me. I loved having the daily experience at camp acquaint me with a spiritual practice I have carried with me ever since.
Quakers have no ministers or clergy. All people are equal in the church and everyone is just as likely to ‘receive’ a spiritual message from God and be moved to share the message during Meeting for Worship. Quakers have just one core belief: there is God in every person. It seems so simple, but the implications are enormous. If there is God in everyone, every human life is important and precious. The Peace Testimony of Quakers is born out of the one single belief that there is That of God in Every Person. This is what the Conscientious Objector in my Sunday School class had been talking about, a belief so strong that he could not lift a gun towards another person, even to fight for his country.
There are other implications of this core Quaker belief. Equality of all people. Simplicity in living, Integrity in how we conduct ourselves, Community sharing and caring, and Stewardship of the earth and all material things in our lives.
These 6 characteristics, or as Quakers call them, Testimonies, are not dogmatic beliefs. Each of us finds our way, finds our answers, finds our truth. We determine how we will live our values and other Quakers can ask questions to help us contemplate our choices and decisions. It is very personal and we all choose our own ways of living lives faithful to these Testimonies. Not all Quakers make the same choices, though we do tend to lean in similar directions!
I have mentioned God a few times. Quakerism developed as a Christian faith in the 1600s. I am not a theologian or a historian, but I know that Quakerism has broadened considerably over the centuries. There are now many Quakers who are also Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and Buddhist. Most find that because Meeting for Worship does not include shared prayers, or scriptures, or sermons, it is welcoming of those with other religious beliefs. Many understandings of God are welcome, often referred to as the Spirit or the Light.
I had been part of Quaker communities in 4 cities before I came to Newfoundland in 1995. Without the wonders of the internet and search tools, it took me two years to find the Quaker Meeting here in St. John’s. They had been here for quite a while, meeting in people’s homes, and I was very glad to finally make that connection. As many in that group moved to other provinces, I have had a role in continuing to convene the local group.
Over the past four years, we have been moved to take public action by establishing the Out in Faith group, a multi-faith committee that organizes several annual events for LGBTQ2S+ people of faith, or formerly of faith. These are opportunities to celebrate the meaning of personal faith and also the hardships that have been experienced by many LGBTQ2S+ people in religious settings. We also reach out to local churches to grow the presence of faith groups in the Pride Parade. It is great that Cochrane Street United Church has been in the parade in recent years.
Your work and activities here at Cochrane Street United Church are so important. We all do our part to provide safe and meaningful places for people to come together. And as individuals, finding a place that fills our heart spiritually, and inspires us to be our best selves helps us to live lives of purpose. Finding Quakerism provides that for me
Thank you for this opportunity to share my journey.
Before discovering the United Church a little over 3 years ago, I grew up in the Anglican Church and attended with my family every sunday. My father was anglican, and my mother was roman catholic. I dutifully went to Sunday School, and when the time came, I was confirmed. I believed in God but I had very little interest in Church. I found the hymns boring, half the time I was daydreaming, and as I got older I noticed there really weren’t many people my age attending. In order to truly share my faith story with you, I have to tell you a fact about myself. I am a transgender person, which means that I identify as a gender other than what I was assigned at birth.
I never questioned my beliefs until I started questioning my sexuality in grade 9. While I thought God was an all loving being, the internet and people in my community made it clear that Gods love didn’t include the LGBTQ community. All these hateful comments I was hearing, were all made in the name of God. So I lost my faith. I wasn’t going to spend my time trying to please people who preached about love for God and others on Sunday, but were full of hate and judgement for anyone who was different every other day of the week. So my dad kept asking me to go to Church with him, and I always gave the same answer. No.
Fast forward a few years and I’m attending college. By this time I’m proudly out of the closet, identifying as a lesbian and overall happy. One day I’m in class, and I overhear a comment. “Why would someone live in sin and go against God?” Although this wasn’t said to me, it was very obvious that it was directed at me. I held my tongue, sat back, and carried on with my day.
It was at this point however, that I wasn’t just a non-believer anymore. I was the one who became hateful and intolerant of any mention of Christianity and organized religion.
But most things in life eventually come full circle, and now my eyes have been opened to how God truly works in mysterious ways. A little over 3 years ago I met my partner Katie. You know her as the Sunday School teacher here at Cochrane, and she is also attending university with the goal of becoming an Ordained Minister. When we first met I was shocked and couldn’t understand how a member of the LGBTQ community could be so passionate about Jesus and the Church.
A couple of months into our relationship Katie asked me to go to Church with her. Hesitantly I agreed, and that first Sunday I walked into St. James United Church, was the start of the happiest years if my life. There were pride flags on the doors, and I was greeted warmly by everyone I was introduced to. They even tried to get me to participate in a play that was happening during the service.
I attended church more and more, and slowly I began to regain my faith. I started to believe that God could love me. I opened myself up to the United Church community because if I wanted to support my partner in her life goals as a leader within the United Church I had to stop letting hate poison my life.
I gradually began to to help out and take on a more active role myself. I helped out with fundraisers, and with the Youth Group, and Sunday School as well. I began to enjoy the community around me.
About 2 years ago I became an official member of the United Church. I attended my first national event in Montreal called Rendezvous, where people from all over the country come together to attend workshops and celebrate their faith. I met other members of the LGBTQ community, some of which are ministers, and heard their stories of how they accepted and define their relationship with God. I also had the opportunity to walk in the Montreal Pride Parade with the Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell, who is the previous Moderator of the United Church, and her partner. Which was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I have also begun to take on more leadership roles within the Church. Last winter I was a homegroup leader for a handful of youth during the Winter Gathering Youth Forum that took place in Paris, Ontario, which helped to prepare them for General Council 43 in Oshawa this previous summer. It was a challenging experience. To put your needs aside and provide youth with a safe space to share about their day, to talk through their feelings and their struggles. But it was so rewarding to provide them with that mental and emotional support, to know that while they are miles away from their families, they are looking to you to provide them with comfort and stability.
It was through these events that I met some of the most inspirational people. People from all over the country that I can now call my friends. It was with their help that when I came out as transgender, I received unconditional support and love from them, than I have from even some members of my family. And for a while, it was the Church community that provided me with comfort and stability, while I endured hardship with some of my closest relatives. These people are the ones who truly opened my eyes,
with their help I was able to stop listening to hateful comments, made by so-called Christians, and my heart was opened to the Holy Spirit. I truly believe that by placing Katie in my path, which led me to the United Church, that God was trying to tell me that I was loved unconditionally, and I too had a spot at his table.
While you know how I came to be part of a Christian community, it doesn’t explain what having faith means to me. Although the United Church is open and accepting on a national level, not everyone is going to be as welcoming, there are still going to be homophobic and transphobic people. People are still going to think I’m an abomination because I’m trans, and they’re still going to think that I’m not living my life the way God wanted me to.
So how did I learn to block out those voices while exploring my faith? The easiest way to explain is from something I read online. Jesus said follow me, he didn’t say follow Christians. People have a way of inserting their own feelings and prejudices into things, and if they want to hate you, they’ll find a quote from the Bible that can be loosely translated to fit their needs. Just remember that the Bible has been translated into hundreds of different languages, and interpreted time and time again. Meanings were bound to be lost. At the end of the day when we all leave this earth, we are going to face the same judgement, and I refuse to believe that living authentically means that I’m any less devoted to God.
People also say that because we are all made in Gods image, I’m doing him an injustice by changing my voice and my body. Yes we are all made in Gods image, but we are all different. There are billions of people on this earth and each one of us is
unique. I think that as long as we try to do good and spread positivity to others and our communities then our souls are pure, and we truly live in God’s image and likeness.
Faith can be found in many different ways, it doesn’t have to mean going to church every Sunday. It doesn’t even mean having to believe in God, you can have faith in the goodness of people. My journey of faith has been rocky at best, I went from being a non-believer to finding acceptance in a community that I am proud to be a part of.
When Rev. Miriam asked me to share my faith story with you today, she also told me to pick a hymn that I would like for us to sing. I chose Spirit, Open my heart from more voices. I first heard this hymn while attending Rendez-Vous in Montreal in 2017, I feel as though this hymn is a good reflection of my faith journey and how my heart has been opened to the United Church and its amazing community.
Justin is a business student at Memorial University and a member of the Jewish Community Havura. Thank you to Justin for sharing his faith story! You can listen by clicking below….
First I would like thank Rev Bowlby in allowing me to share my story of what faith means to me. I will take you back four years ago on my trip to Universal Studios on my honeymoon. It was the first day in Florida and we decided to start with Universal Studios and of all rides first we rode Dudley Doo Right a water ride. Now I did not know anything about the right but Charles insisted that it was a fun and easy ride and I went with it. We were on the ride and going around the track and every now and then we would go down a slope and that was fun but as we kept going the drops were getting bigger and bigger. I looked at Charles not that’s not so but until we started climbing more and as a looked around because we were outside I saw that we were pretty high up and the words were not out of my mouth “My were are high..” swoosh I never saw it coming but it was like we were shot out of a cannon and down what seemed like a 90 degree angle. Wow what a rush, I have never felt so alive and pumped to ride another one and we rode many more that day. This is how I feel about faith both the highs and lows and that big swoosh at the end, now let me take you through my experiences of what faith means to me.
It first began when I was about 5 or 6 when I was asked to take part in the service, Rev Hiller was the minister here at the time. I was asked to lead in the Prayer of Approach, I was so excited to do this. I can remember being so little (not much has changed) that I needed to stand on a stool to read from the pulpit. This was the first time I read in church but would not be my last because as years went by I became much more involved in the church. Still in my younger years I became part of what was called “Explorers”, here we would meet after church was finished and have a little bible study, make crafts and I will always remember singing “This is my Father’s World, Mrs. Bradbury would always sing this hymn at our meetings. I still have some of the decorations we made and I hang them on our tree because it reminds me of the times we had making them. Later on I would graduate from Explores and would join CGIT know as Canadian Girls in Training in my teen years. The CGIT purpose is: As a Canadian Girl in Training, under the leadership of Jesus, it is my purpose to Cherish Health, Seek Truth, Know God, Serve Others and thus, with His help, become the girl God would have me be.
Here I would meet two lovely women whom became such an influence in my life, Elizabeth Purchase and Joan Soulier. As our leaders and mentors they showed us how to lead a service, help out in the church for example we would help with the turkey teas, I looked forward every year in working on the assembly line bright and early of course because we would have so many to do. It felt great to help with fundraisers whether big or small because I knew it helped the church. Our group also went on many road trips together, one in particular I remember a time when we travelled to Musgravetown and met up with their youth group, we had a lot of fun that weekend shared stories, singing familiar hymns, and we made poster with all of our hands on it sympolizing our friendship bewttween the two groups. There are many more stories but these women gave me the guidance and support to continue my journey in faith.
Now, these were some of the better times that I can remember there were times when I thought my time was wasted or I did not feel like doing events. There was a time in my life that I did not want to do anything at all. I just wanted to be alone. At 17, last year in high school doing it all, school council, student council, editor of the year book, volunteer with church functions and road block. I had reached my limit of helping everyone but now someone had to help me. I had spent three months in hospital, but a familiar face would show up from time to time and it would be my minister Rev Edgar now Bursey. We would have lovely chats about life and how I felt and slowly I started to feel better and slowly introduced back into reality again. I was diagnosed as Bi Polar something I will have to live with but did not know how to come to terms with but Rev Edgar believed in me and my faith in God was mending. I finished school that year and continued to volunteer at the church but for the next 10 years it is a bit rocky. There were times I would not go at all, while other times I would be there with bells on. During these 10 years I served on the church council as the East District Representative when I learned a lot about how our church works a. I met so many people now and I even got the opportunity to go to British Colombia and representative Newfoundland as the Youth Representative I thought my faith back road block my sister passes suddenly away, I felt like shouting WHY, I was doing everything right so I thought I was helping out again. Gone again my hope was gone again. A year after that, my father passed away. I was done. Whatever spiritual feeling I had was gone. Six months after dad passed I found myself in quite a situation I was in hospital myself with a blood clot, luckily they had found it because I would have been the third person in the family in two years not my time. I had a visitor from the church while I was in hospital this was Rev Bowlby. She had made some first impression on me that day and I wanted to hear more from her. Once I got better and went on that following Christmas I knew I wanted to come back and that I had missed my church family. I then got involved on the Church Council but this time as the Treasurer, that was scary at first just like the roller coaster not knowing what was coming next. I made the best of what I knew and helped out to the best of my knowledge for 2.5 years until my work life was more challenging and my time needed there became much greater than for church and I had to make a decision to resign. I never lost my faith but I put it on hold, I did not want a repeat of 17 all over again.
I came back on Easter Sunday when the church reopened their doors since the renovations from the new Cochrane Centre. Wow to see all the people there it felt amazing and to hear the choir and how they sounded so good, I missed being a part of this family ,definitely one of my swoosh moments, I wanted back so I approached the choir and asked when was practice, found out and been back ever since. So I am back on the roller coaster feeling great road block mom passes away suddenly same day as my sisters passing. This time the feeling is different for I was there when she passed and was holding her hand as she rode on to the next life, I felt something that day that I can’t explain that her strength entered into me, and even a little birdie told me that you have your mom in you I can see it. This time I was prepared I trusted in God that this was meant to be, I was upset and angry but I felt assured that this was God’s will. This moment for sure was a test of my faith but swoosh like the roller coaster out of the cannon here I am Lord. Coming every Sunday singing in the choir and seeing & talking with everyone helps me keep my faith strong and I have hope for the future for you are as my church community have always been there and has built my faith from a very early age and will continue to do so. Faith is like a roller coaster, a ride where you do not know the outcome, where there are stops along the way, and the highs and lows of that ride; whatever the next ride brings here I am Lord.
I was born unwanted. The fourth child of an already too big family with an illness that stacked the odds against me. There were ten babies born with the same illness that I had, five died, four was developmentally delayed and then there was me, the only one who was passed for school. So I guess I was blessed from the very beginning. My father's mother took me in and became my Mom.
My church life was a bit different than most. We lived too far away from the church that my very religious mom was raised in but she did not know what church she wanted us to go to so we went to them all. It was the Anglican church on Sunday morning and United Church in the evening to sing in the children's choir. So it was pretty much a normal childhood until I turned 12.
Then everything changed. Mom wanted to move closer to her church. So we packed up and moved to Bay Roberts. Then slowly I began to lose everything I loved. First it was the TV and the radio. We weren't allowed to be in the girl guides or sing in the church choir anymore. Then we were not allowed to wear pants or cut our bangs any more. We were not allowed to give out candy for Halloween, or celebrate Easter. The last thing we lost was Christmas. I will never forget the sadness in my mom's eyes when they told her that their church do not celebrate Christmas. It had always been a joyous occasion for us but no more.
Turns out that my Mothers church did not celebrate anything. Their only message and goal was to prepare for death. At the tender age of 12 I was told that we are all going to die and the only way to get into heaven was to give up everything I loved, and I might not even make it in then.
It was a heavy message for a 12 year old to take in. So as you can imagine I became very bitter resentful and angry.
My teenage years were very difficult. I was an outcast on every side. At school I was too different and teased relentlessly and at home and at church I was not different enough and had trouble following the rules without question. It seemed that I was always fighting for what I wanted and the whole world was against me.
I was not a pleasant child. It was not until, after many years of fighting with guilt and a mental illness that lead me down many a dark road. I rejected my mom’s religion and that’s when things started to get better for me. But for a while it meant I rejected God as well. It left a hole in my life that I needed filled.
I don't know what made me come to church for the first time I think it was the sign out front. I used to walk past it and say 11 o'clock service . Gosh that isn't too late I could sleep in and still go to church. Ironically now I have to get up at 8 in the morning and take two buses. I spent years walking past the church saying to Gerard I should go to church, and him saying no you shouldn’t. He was afraid. He knew that religion and my mental Illness did not go well together.
Now he is the one who reminds me you should go to sleep you have got to go to church in the morning. He now sees the change the church has made in my life and knows it is good for me. It was the first Sunday after Christmas when I came here for the first time. I remember two things. 1. and this was to my great surprise, Christmas was not over. And 2 I was terrified. I did not know if I was allowed to be there. Was church a private club you had to sign up for to be a member? The last time I went to a church was a long time ago.
I kept expecting someone to see me and kick me out. I sat in the last row closest to the door in case I had to make a quick escape. I was way off not only was I not kicked out I was invited to coffee time after.
That New Year’s Eve, I made the best new year’s resolution I have ever made. I was going to go to church every Sunday. Although I still will sit in the seat nearest to the door, a quick escape may still be needed. I love words. I understand them and know how powerful they can be. The words you use are very important. I was hearing words I never heard before like love and acceptance. I began to learn about peace and forgiveness. It replaces all I learned about fear and hate. It has brought me joy. I am always grateful for what I receive from this church and am glad to call it my home.