Recently, Barberton Evangelical Friends Church in Barberton, Ohio – the first church I ever worked in – celebrated their 75th anniversary. As a token of my own love and appreciation for this community and their investment in me, I wanted to share some of my fond memories and role this community played in my early pastoral life.
In the fall of 2000, my systematic theology professor at Malone College pulled me aside after class and asked me what I planned to do after college. I told him that I had felt called to go into pastoral ministry. He said that sounded great and inquired about my current work situation. I told him that I was working at a place called the, “Flaming Pit,” which as you can imagine didn’t sound like the kind of place you’d find a nice Bible and Theology student hanging out. (The Flaming Pit was a BBQ restaurant and I was waiting tables). I didn’t make much money there because it was slow and small, but the owners were really sweet and let me eat dinner there when I worked, which I appreciated and often relied on because I was putting myself through college and needed all the support I could get.
Dr. Dymale, offered a suggestion, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to try working at a church to see if you like pastoring?”
A thought that had never occurred to me!
This was pre-Quaker, pre-pastor Wess. I don’t honestly even know if I knew anything about Quakers at that point, and I was coming from a non-denominational church so I planned to just look for anything remotely interesting.
Shortly after this conversation with Dr. Dymale, I headed to the Bible & Theology department and opened the big Three-Ring binder that was full of job postings. Eventually, I found a listing for a youth pastor for Barberton Friends Church and called the church up. Next thing I know, I was eating pizza with Pastor Brian Cowan at the Pizza Oven (MY FAVORITE!) in Canton, Ohio. I don’t remember the specifics of that conversation, but I remember liking Brian and being offered the job either on the spot or shortly after.
I worked at Barberton from the winter of 2000 until the summer of 2003 when Emily and I moved to Pasadena, CA for grad school. In that 2.5 year timespan, I learned and grew a lot personally. I was challenged, found success and made some good relationships along the way. Best of all, I discovered I loved to pastor. Beyond these general things, a few specifics come to mind: I gave my first sermon at Barberton Friends. And by first sermon, I mean I preached for probably 50 minutes with basically all the ideas and thoughts I’d stored up for the first 22 years of my life! When I finished that inaugural sermon, Emily said to me that the sermon was more like two sermons and that she looked forward to my next one when I didn’t have 22 years of material stored up.
Besides being my first place to pastor, and my first place to preach, it was also the place where I became a convinced Friend, lingo for when I decided to become a Quaker. As a Bible and Theology student, coming out of a non-denominational church, I was not big on the idea of denominations. I sort of thought they were signs of a lack of faith, not as spiritual as the kind of church I was coming from. This is a perspective that some non-denominational churches have and it is one I picked up on, even though I doubt it was something explicitly stated. Being at Barberton Friends, was a curious place to find myself. I began reading about Friends history, I wanted to know who these people were that I was working for, what was their theology, what were they about? I had the experience of realizing in the midst of this study that I was already a Quaker, not that I wanted to be one, or hoped they’d accepted me, but that I was already a Quaker and had – in some way – always been one. I had the experience when reading the histories and theologies that “this puts language to things I’ve always felt and believed.” I doubt that my “convincement” registered much at Barberton Friends – I think it was something more personal and individual at this time for me, but something shifted that, as it turns out, would impact the rest of my life.
Out of this experience I began to look at the Evangelical Friends Church community – here I do not just mean Barberton but the many other churches and connections to Friends I gained through Malone – I was surrounded by. By becoming a Quaker I was instantaneously connected to a global family, a thought I loved and continue to love to this day.
I loved this community and could see how they had invested in me. I decided to begin the process of being recorded (Quaker Speak for something like an ordination process) by the yearly meeting there, but I also felt a growing tension between what I was reading in Quaker history texts and what I was seeing around me. Why did “Friends” today look so different from Friends in the first and second generations? What happened and why the disconnect? Are there ways to retrieve what is most important about that tradition for today? To a new Quaker with very little knowledge or understanding of the Quaker world these questions felt paramount, now I see them much better for what they were – my own seeking to find an expression of faith that closely aligned with my own understanding and experience. These issues eventually led me to grad school and to my dissertation and to what I do today.
In reflecting on all of this, and so much more – my friendship with Brian Cowan, his early support of me and guidance as I began my pastoral work, his commitment to helping people no matter the cost, and his deep faith continue to inspire me. The youth there – who are youth no more – many of them I remain in contact with and keep tabs on to this day. I cannot recognize the role of Barberton Friends enough. It is the place and the cause of my convincement. It was the beginning of my Quaker journey and a major catalyst for my questions around change and renewal and the Quaker tradition. I could not ask these questions, let alone understand them enough to begin to truly wrestle with them without first having been invited to be on the inside of this community, where I was able to learn not just what the books say, but experience how the people live these things out.
I celebrate the ongoing work of this community and pray for its vitality and faithfulness well into the future.