May 19, 2009: Drama on Longfellow Park

On Sunday morning, just as we were settling into worship, the Mormon church across Longfellow Park from Friends Meeting at Cambridge, maybe fifty yards away, caught fire. As I’d taken my usual seat that morning, I’d  heard an insistent alarm bleating but, like the 300 or so Mormons inside the (doomed) building, did not, could not imagine that the annoying alarm meant imminent danger. Assuming the alarm to be a drill, the Mormons apparently exited without fuss. Everyone made it out, thank God. (Meanwhile, of course, across the little park’s green, most Quakers were still centering. Except for the ones sitting near the windows facing the park. They knew something extraordinary was happening.) A few minutes later, a member of FMC entered the meetinghouse to report the fire and to suggest that people move their cars to assist firefighters’ access.

Some back-story which informed my subsequent discernment re whether to remain in worship or to go outside:

Pre-9/11, I was already in love with firefighters and would, whenever possible, witness them in action. (Even a peace-loving Quaker like me needs action figures!) So, I reminded myself on Sunday, I’d already seen plenty of fires.”Stay in your seat, Patricia. And pray for the people around the world swept up in similar disasters. The world needs your prayers.”

My dear friend Wendy Sanford gave a terrific forum that morning re her faithfulness to Spirit and about her daily spiritual practices in order to “sink down to that seed which God sows.” She used the word obedient several times. So I asked, as she reminded us to ask: What am I asked to do? And, again, it seemed as though remaining in my seat was what I was being asked to do. (Meanwhile, twenty-foot flames are now shooting out of the church’s roof!)

But then I was reminded of one of my greatest fears: That I become so inwardly focused I lose sight of what’s happening right under my nose. Or fifty yards away. So I “prayed with my feet” and left meeting. Left while someone was giving a message. (Which for non-Quakes, is SIMPLY NOT DONE!)

It was a drizzly, chilly morning; some Mormons were shivering, some were crying; all of us, Mormons and Quakers, stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching the firefighters struggle against that stubborn, consuming blaze. (It was the worst fire I’d ever witnessed.) Suited, high-heeled CLS-ers and fleece-n-sneakers folks, side by side. Dumbstruck. Horrified. Someone passed around cups of juice to the crowd, Mormon children were invited inside to play in our nursery, etc. When it became painfully clear that the church was doomed, invitations to use our facilities were extended.

This past Sunday was a read-a-query-aloud morning at FMC, i.e. a series of questions on a particular topic that are read at the beginning of meeting so we can collectively contemplate this topic. Ironically, here’s what was read this past Sunday, just as that fire alarm went off: Do you welcome inquirers and visitors to your meeting?. . .

Two days after that tragedy and one day after receiving a phone call from a former writing student and a Mormon who asked me to thank my “church” for its kindnesses, here’s where I’ve gotten:

1) That particular church, the first Mormon church in NE, had been started in the fifties by Mormons attending Harvard, a creation story which closely parallels FMC’s inception. Learning this reminded me that when you talk to people, face to face, you will discover common ground. (Sidewalk conversations about Quakers being persecuted in Puritan Boston and Mormons knowing all about persecution came up, too.)

2) How easy, how absolutely automatic it is to put aside whatever reservations or disagreements I might have with a particular sect or political party in the face of disaster!

3) I like to think that I am a seeker and open to Spirit and that it’s that Mormon certainty I find so appalling. But when I regard the (somewhat astonished) person who just wrote #s 1 and 2, when it comes to my brothers and sisters at 4 Longfellow Park, haven’t I, too, been a wee bit shut down, rigid, judgmental?

You betcha.

PS: The fire has been deemed “accidental” and not, as some in the crowd wondered, arson.

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