BY WHITNEY MORET
There’s something distinct about the atmosphere at Harbor House, and it’s apparent from the moment you enter. Harbor House is an urban ministry in the San Antonio district of Oakland, with services like an emergency food stock, counseling, ESL for immigrants, and its signature after-school program for local children and youth. It serves low-income community members by offering them the services and support they need. Harbor House is a pleasant place – found in a huge old Victorian, sunny and welcoming – but you can’t really call it tranquil. At least not when the kids are around. Stomping and yelling, laughing and banging on the piano: during weekday afternoons, it feels like the whole building is alive. No, Harbor House is not a serene place, and it has none of the quiet reverence or formality of a church. Compared to a church, though, it is just as full of God, and just as full of peace.
Shalom is a Hebrew word usually defined as “peace.” In reality, it means much more than that. Shalom refers to completeness, harmony, and a deep sense of well-being. Shalom is what God had in mind when he created the earth, and shalom was the effortless, gentle peace that pervaded Eden before the Fall. Shalom is what God still has in mind for his creation and his people. The work of his servants is to reconcile the chaos of the world around them to God and his shalom.
For some time, I have been searching for that sense of peace in my relationship with God. I tried to seek him, following all the right prescriptions, saying the right words, scheduling Bible study and prayer into my mornings everyday before class. It felt, though, like I was throwing prayers at God like letters in sealed envelopes, hoping that perhaps he’d pick them up one day, open a few, and even answer them. “Speak, your servant is listening!” I demanded, like Samuel. But was I listening? Did I even expect an answer?
Prayer isn’t just about talking at God, but an opportunity for us to listen to him. After all, he already knows our desires and needs. But when we take the time and make the effort to pause, to accept and acknowledge his presence directly, he allows us to match our heartbeat to his. In this moment, we can imagine shalom as reality and invite God to help us truly pray his will.
The role of imagination as part of the power of faith is sometimes used as an argument against religion. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster quotes George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan, to illustrate that imagination is indeed just another way God created us to serve him. Foster writes, “Joan of Arc insisted that she heard voices which came from God. She was informed by skeptics that the voices came from her imagination. Unmoved Joan replied, ‘Yes, that is how God speaks to me’” (36).
I came to Harbor House for two purposes. One, I was fulfilling a promise I made. Last spring, I went to Harbor House to volunteer there for three days on a service trip with my church fellowship, and I vowed to come back. Two, I chose Harbor House as a research site for my undergraduate thesis in sociology. My project involved the role of faith in the provision of services at faith-based organizations, and I wanted to witness it firsthand. I spent two weeks in January at Harbor House, volunteering with the kids’ program and conducting interviews with staff, clients, and volunteers.
My findings were more than academically fruitful. I had been waiting for God to speak to me, and, through the people at Harbor House, at last he did. Each volunteer and staff person I talked to proclaimed that God had called them to Harbor House expressly to share his love there. Many of them had turned down other opportunities and had made financial sacrifices to be there, but one thing they all had in common was a vividly apparent joy in the Lord. They weren’t serving a God who treated prayers like junk mail. They were in constant and conscious conversation with God, and God was talking back. They were living out his shalom.
Our world is oppressed by poverty, injustice, and violence. It takes a powerful God to grant not only joy, but a real sense of shalom amidst the battle against these forces. But this is the struggle of social justice, and it’s a true expression of God’s love. By offering their hands to God’s will, even at great personal cost, the people I met at Harbor House were led by a vision of God’s redemption, an imagination filled with shalom, and a heart timed to the beat of the Lord’s. Even when the cruelty of personal experience could have made shalom seem like a daydream, they held on to that vision, and labored alongside the Lord, in prayer and in action, to share that shalom with those around them. The kind of peace at Harbor House isn’t an absence of conflict, but a peace that can’t be contained, an active, overflowing peace charged with God’s love.