Old newsletters often seem a nuisance – cluttering up countertops, junk drawers and email accounts – yet every so often, one stands out – finding a new life of inspiration taped to the refrigerator, computer desk or tucked gently inside the cover of one’s Bible. Helen Wells Quintela’s Only in Silence the Word from the summer of 1997, is one such piece.
Helen reminds us of the place of silence and of words in God’s creation, God’s presence and the spiritual union of the gemeinde – the church and community – “Out of the silent formless void, God spoke, ‘Let there be,’ and there was. The moment of creation, the profound response of void to Creator is rooted in the Word.”
Of the place of words in the conversation of creation, Helen writes, “The ability to use words as symbols of experience is a uniquely human gift. I imagine that when God breathed the breath of life into humankind, God’s wisdom/word was breathed into us. The Word is what binds us into relationship to God, the Word is what makes us co-creators with God, the Word is what calls us into relationship with one another, making intimacy, justice, and mercy possible.”
Mennonites, Brethren and other Christians have long understood and reflected on the power of words to create, to convict and to unify. In The Martyr’s Mirror (1660), Theileman van Braght records the words of oral arguments meant to convince the unbeliever and to defend and build the regenerated church. Van Braght reminds us how the martyrs used hymns to exhort one another to faith and courage while proclaiming the essence of their spirituality to non-believing spectators.
Less positively, the Mennonite-Amish also learned to manipulate the social narrative through silencing, shunning and the ban – formally within the church and informally through social coercion. Intending to preserve truth, spirituality and the on-going narrative between believer, God and gemeinde, the effect has too often been hurt, anger and the social or emotional abuse of those to whom the gemeinde ought to reach out, to protect and to encourage in the Word.
Helen serves as an outreach pastor or church planter in St Paul’s ethnically and economically diverse Westside. The General Conference had asked her to use the power of her words to create fellowship and encourage the needy, the alienated and the peripheralized in Christ. When words are used to create something that is necessary and timely in the Spirit or to heal social wounds, the impact of that new creation might bring other issues or experiences to light – spiritual concerns that had previously been denied words or had been spoken over. In such cases, the creation of fellowship and healing might lead others into fear and defensiveness. Helen writes:
In my experience, silence is imposed by suffering which stems from illness, the death of a beloved, a natural catastrophe, abuse, or grave injustice and oppression. In the winter of 1993-94, our congregation was “outed” by individuals who verbally assaulted us with phone calls, hate letters, and deceptive words written to conference leadership. Our small congregation … was almost destroyed by those who began to utter words of hatred, half-truths, and condemnation.
In 1991, Helen had written her well-received Out of Ashes, a story of struggle against racism and ethnic hatred directed against her marriage to her husband and against their work in St Paul. Two short years later, her experience would change from being deeply grounded in the fellowship and dialogue of a supportive General Conference to facing the destructive power of words and a silencing of that communicative relationship:
In response to the abuse which was directed at me personally and at the congregation I loved, I grew more and more silent. The many speaking engagements which I had once enjoyed dried up like a stream in drought. Words, which had always been redemptive for me, became the source of catastrophe, woundedness, and grave oppression. If I spoke, my words were taken and fashioned by others into swords to pierce my own heart. As I lapsed into a silence born of despair, I began to waste away bodily. I lost weight. I began to bleed uncontrollably. I began to experience symptoms which led to biopsies for cancer. I skirted the edges of death. My soul was dying.
A pastor, Helen finds hope in the Gospel: “The heart of the Christian gospel, God’s good news, is that the soul cannot be silenced. The child of God, God’s wisdom/word, was betrayed, cruelly tortured, hung on a cross and left to die. The world attempted to silence the wisdom/word of God. And for three terrible days, a suffering God was mute and did not speak. But the wisdom/word of God could not be silenced forever. The wisdom/word of God, that child at play when the world began, could not be killed. The wisdom/word of God burst from the tomb of suffering and death, speaking words of hope and joy into the shocked silence of creation.” What a powerful evangel to bring forth to a world seeking and needing to find the power to express itself through a relationship with Christ and a supportive, listening church!
This time, I am re-reading Helen’s editorial as I prepare for Easter – still some four weeks away. I am struck by the hope and inspiration Helen demonstrates throughout her story, through her faith and through her continued fellowship within that greater church with which I identify. I had earlier missed the beauty of the Easter Evangel as demonstrated in this particular piece. Perhaps it is the spring weather outside the window, or a mere accident of timing – but I am hit with a sense of coming-togetherness – a sense that this is the hope and promise of victory that not only underlies the Easter advent, but forms the foundation of our individual faith – that which makes all things worthwhile – that which helps us make sense of our individuality and experiences – that which brings into relationship with our God and with each other, even when we have been wounded or silenced:
Three years have passed… I have found my voice again. Just as it was when I was a child, my speaking has been called forth by the compassion of my loved ones: by my congregation which is strong and vibrant once again, by my sons and husband, by my grandmother’s voice heard still in my heart’s ear, by my friends and companions on life’s arduous journey. In April of this year , I was invited to speak at the annual retreat of Connecting Families. An invitation to speak is precious to someone who has known silence and despair. Stories and words poured out of me that weekend. I pray my words were as much a gift to them as they were to me – an unleashing river of life long dammed up by the walls of oppression and silence.”
Helen’s editorial has played a pivotal role in my life – encouraging me in my own struggle to regain my voice, to re-establish my broken fellowship with fellow believers and to reopen my heart to the words of my God. I regret that I did not find time to share Helen’s article with my mother – a woman similarly hurt and rejected by formal interests within the church. My mom died believing that her fellowship had been broken, that her voice had been silenced – how much Helen’s words might have meant to her. This is my way of sharing this piece of light and wisdom, these words of fellowship – to propagate them from a piece preserved on my bed stand so that others might again be encouraged by their Easter message. Helen states to us – “Christ is risen!” Our response is – “He is risen indeed and we are restored through him.”