By Elizabeth Peterson
I remember so clearly the day that my neighbor Asha walked in to my entry way, depositing her headscarf on one of the long, yellow cushions lining the floor that served as my couch and asked what I wanted her to do.
She had approached me the very first night I had arrived in my new home in a tiny Muslim country in Africa, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and exceedingly hot. Would I hire her for help with housework? I had no personal experience with how ridiculously difficult it would be to wash my husband’s jeans by hand but it seemed wise at the time that I have Asha next to me while I learned. Quickly apparent to both of us that she was strong and I was weak in the ways of daily living in this context, she started coming three days a week, to tackle laundry, mopping and language lessons while I shopped, cooked, washed dishes and studied.
This particular day, after I told her what part of the never-ending housework we’d work on, I said, “First I’m going to go in my room and pray.” In truth, I was probably seeking a few solitary moments–a strange luxury for an introvert in an extroverted community.
The question that followed changed how I lived for the next several years overseas and also began my journey to Anglicanism.
She looked at me and said, “Can I watch you pray?”
Thankfully I was new at the local language so she probably had no idea from my stammering that she had caught me off guard. I ran through the possibilities of answers, none of which seemed ideal. I had been praying and seeking ways to share my faith in Jesus with the people around me. But sitting, semi-reclined, on my bed with a journal and a Bible, silently, while someone watched wasn’t what I had in mind. Yet that was exactly what I was intending to do when I said I was going to go pray.
Instead I said yes and we both went into my bedroom. I kneeled down and closed my eyes. Asha got comfortable on my bed and watched me. She watched me and watched me and watched me. I prayed and mumbled and wondered what else I could do with integrity. I peeked out of one eye to see if she was still watching. She was. I couldn’t bow down, Islamic-style, because I had never done that in my prayer life before. I didn’t want to perform. Although I was at the beginning of my journey of sharing Jesus cross-culturally, I intuitively knew that my Muslim friend, steeped in the forms and rhythms of Islam, was looking for more than the freeform, evangelical, ahistoric faith I could offer her. In that moment, we were both looking for more.
I first crossed eight time zones to East Africa when I was 19, a few short months after I was baptized at an InterVarsity chapter camp in New Hampshire. That summer, spent in Uganda and Kenya, completely changed the trajectory of my life. I returned home alive in a way I had never before experienced. Crossing cultures, experiencing a new story, participating in it, although my participation was so hampered by a lack of experience and language, brought the focus of my life into view. For the first time, I stumbled upon the thing that made me say, “This is what I was made for.” So I came home, dropped out of college, became a breakfast waitress and waited to go back. I thought it might take a few months; instead it took five years, three colleges and life in two states before I moved to Africa. Two years after that first move, I did it all over again, only this time with a husband.
As Joel and I lived for the next five years in the Muslim world, we felt more and more deeply our need for a faith that could be watched, could be contained in forms that we could share. Many friends and colleagues looked sideways at our host culture and adopted Islamic forms. They fasted Ramadan, prayed salat, some even called themselves “Muslims” as they were submitted to God in Christ. Borrowing the forms of Islam while infusing them with Christian meaning didn’t satisfy us. Instead of looking sideways, we began to look backwards. If we were truly part of a historic faith, surely there were fasts and feasts and forms that the Church used to contain the Christian story of the world and her inhabitants. We didn’t need to plagiarize, did we?
Like our Muslim cousins, we had distinct ways of marking time in a religious calendar, didn’t we? Our faith could be lived in community in ways beyond game nights and potluck dinners, couldn’t it? With these formative questions pushing us, my husband and I began to dream about what it would look like to live in the Muslim world as followers of Jesus with a historical expression of our faith.
Although I attended a Congregational church growing up, I didn’t pay much attention to Christian faith or practice until college. Through InterVarsity, a vague notion of being Christian became a clear vision of following Jesus. For more than a decade, I worshipped in evangelical, non-denominational churches or lived in a Muslim country. My husband and I found a church home in an intentionally interracial, non-denominational church that met only a few miles from the site of South Carolina’s vote to secede from the Union. The relationships I made there shaped me more than any other influence of my early 20s; the church itself, we taught the children to sing, is the people. And that is true. At this church I learned to love the church as individual members and I learned what it meant for them to love me. What made me seek a more historic expression of Christianity in my early 30s was an appetite that had been whetted in this earlier church experience: the love I soaked up from an individual church family created desire for a deeper rootedness and a wider communion with the universal Body of Christ.
When it became clear that we were going to return to the States for a season while my husband went to seminary, we began looking at seminary communities that followed the church year and celebrated the sacraments and joined into the greater Christian traditions of the centuries and even millennia. We found ourselves at Asbury Theological Seminary, living out faith with Methodist and Orthodox and Wesleyan neighbors, from whom we have learned so much.
Yet more essential to us than finding an academic community of faith was finding a local church living as the Body of Christ in ways that would form us, shape us and allow us to serve Jesus, both right where we were and in the world. For that we actually turned to Google.
On a hot, August Sunday afternoon in 2012, at 4 pm, we walked into the service of St. Patrick’s Anglican Church in Lexington, KY. Thankfully we received a very clear worship guide so we could join in the liturgy easily. We followed along and read the notes explaining why we were doing what we were doing. I managed to sit, stand and kneel without being out of step, although it took months for me to manage to cross myself at the right time. The priest did the one thing that mattered to me more than anything else: he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ clearly, compellingly, in a way that both grew my love for Jesus and assured me deeply about His love for me. So we found a home in the Anglican Communion and since then, we’ve been making our home there. It’s a home that welcomes me as an evangelical follower of Jesus—yes, the sermon preached may not be the center of the service for Anglicans but it is central to how I grow as a disciple. Yet we’ve also found a home that has changed us—the thought of coming to the Table and receiving communion once a month or even once a year (about as often as one team we were a part of partook of the Lord’s Supper) is no longer tenable for me.
My husband’s time at seminary is more than halfway done and now we are looking ahead more and more to what it might look like to take these Anglican ways of being followers of Christ and live them in communities with little or no awareness of Jesus. This new place to land we’ve found in Anglicanism feels like a healthy and helpful springboard from which we can move into ministry, much more prepared when people ask us, “Can we watch you be a Christian?”
Elizabeth Peterson is a member of the Asbury Theological Seminary community.
Photo: Archbishop Foley Beach listens as Elizabeth Peterson shares her testimony.
This article was reproduced with permission from AnglicanPastor.com.