Another World
A Retreat in the Ozarks


I began my spiritual journey in a small town on the Kansas plains. It had once been a Santa Fe Railroad center where cowboys drove their cattle for transport to the Chicago market and drank into the late night hours at the noisy saloons found on every block. But by the time I arrived, the town had become a church seeker's paradise. There were Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians - Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics - Nazarenes, Baptists, and Congregationalists - Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Pentacostalists. There was even an Amish community nearby.

I recall that the Amish farmers were revered as good stewards of the land. Their organic farming practices, rooted in biblical teachings, were admired and respected.

Many church denominations were divided. And in a number of cases, they were theologically split into separate congregations. Some of the churches believed in pacifism, while others beat their war drums. There were congregations who practiced simple lifestyles and others that set no limits. There were fundamentalist preachers and there were pastors who would never have considered interpreting the Bible literally. While many churches taught evolution, some preached creationism. Although most of the faith communities worshipped reservedly, there were a few congregations who clapped their hands, stomped their feet, and spoke out loud during their celebration services.

In my hometown there were African American, Caucasian, and Hispanic houses of worship, but only a few that mixed the races. "Most folks just seem to like to worship with their own kind," I heard growing up. And over the years, that is what I have observed.

Although I was initially baptized and confirmed into the First Presbyterian Church, most of my father's kin were practicing Mennonites. Holidays and religious celebrations were influenced by both faiths. As a child, I attended Mennonite Bible School in the summer, Baptist Bible School during the academic year, and Sunday Bible School with the Presbyterians.

I grew up with the understanding that Christianity and the church stood for compassion and equality, human rights, and reconciliation, not to mention social justice. And when they didn't, something was sorely wrong.

Relatives on both sides of my family were early role models offering examples of how to integrate faith and lifestyle. My cousins, who declared conscientious objector status and served their country through alternative service, garnered my respect. I greatly admired an aunt and uncle, who uprooted their lives and moved to the Deep South to work for the civil rights movement. And I honored the efforts of my mother's sister, who struggled to make integration a reality in the public school system where her children attended classes.

In my early teens, I had the opportunity to broaden my faith experience when I participated in a Presbyterian summer work camp on a Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. There I was introduced to the Native American Church, which fused Navajo spiritual practices and Christian rituals. I discovered that the Navajos had preserved much of their native culture by couching it in Christian terminology - a survival tactic long used by indigenous cultures coping with their Christian conquerors.

As a high school student, I further expanded my spiritual background working for a Quaker service project in the Northeast. My fellow volunteers, committed Quakers, hailed from a dozen states. Many of them had already participated in peace demonstrations with their parents. Some had even spent a night in jail for non-violent civil disobedience. Others had worked in soup kitchens or organized environmental projects in their hometowns.

We gathered each Sunday in the parlor of an old farmhouse for an hour of silent worship, interrupted only when one of us was moved by the Spirit to get up and speak. My workmates were teenagers whose understanding of domestic and foreign policies and world politics, not to mention biblical teachings, were far beyond my awareness. I struggled to catch up.

Over the years, my spiritual journey and work life have frequently intertwined both in the United States and abroad. I will touch on many of those varied experiences in the text. But it was in Kentucky, where I worked as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer in the late 1960's, that I first became aware of monastic life.

One weekend, friends invited me to join them for a picnic near Kentucky's Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton's onetime home. I remember that they talked to me at length about his writings and recommended that I read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which I did. But it would be another two years before I would schedule my first monastic retreat back in the Bluegrass state.