On the night of this year’s Presidential election, I joined three different online vigils with Friends. Four years ago, I had spent many difficult hours alone on election night before the results were clear. This time around, there were again uncertain and disconcerting early results, but because I joined other Friends in prayer and worship, I was much more aware of the presence of God– among us, in the nation, and in the world.
In the days leading up the 2016 election, the polls had predicted a victory for the Democratic candidate, for whom my husband and I had been canvassing door to door. But the polls turned out to be wrong. By the time my husband went to bed that night, the results were making us uneasy. For the next several hours I sat alone on the sofa, my attention on the televised political commentators, switching channels to hear different interpretations of the election results that were coming in. By midnight the news was worse than alarming. The televised faces of the election workers at Hilary Clinton’s headquarters looked stunned and sad.
Wanting the company of my friends, I went to the computer to see what they were saying on Facebook. It was a little comforting to read messages from a few of them and know I was not alone at that hour. By two am, however, none of my friends were posting any more messages. Nonetheless, I could not go to bed until the outcome was clear. I waited another cold, lonely hour.
Then, from across the ocean, came an email from a Quaker friend, Rachel, in Scotland. Morning had already broken in her country. She was surprised by the news and reached out by email, wondering what was happening in my country. We sent emails back and forth, and I no longer felt alone with that night’s shocking news.
This year at our house, in the days running up to the 2020 election, my husband and I both had one or more difficult—or even heated—phone and Zoom conversations with family members who were voting a different way from us, due to their particular religious beliefs or different ideas of what is good for the country. Fortunately, love under-girded those conversations.
We had known that the early election results in 2020 would significantly favor the incumbent since members of his party had been encouraged to vote in person, while the majority of Democrats had chosen to vote through mail-in ballots because of the ongoing pandemic. The Republican-controlled state legislature in our state, Pennsylvania, had refused to allow early counting of the millions of mail-in ballots that had already been received. So we knew that the first election results would skew Republican. Even so, we were surprised by the margin. This was true in lots of other states, too.
On election day 2020, I was happy to learn that I could join other Quakers in worship throughout the day and coming night. My husband and I began with the Pendle Hill morning meeting for worship at 8:30 pm. Later, we participated in an online training to call voters whose mail-in ballots had been rejected for irregularities. We gave information about how they could cast a provisional ballot at their polling place. Several times during the day, we walked into the park and checked the lines at our local polling place, happy to see many cars and glad there was no evidence of voter intimidation.
Terry and I ate a quiet dinner together before turning on the evening news for our first dose of election results. Early in the evening, I had assumed that I would alternate back and forth between televised coverage of election results and periods of worship and prayer with others. The results that came in on the 6:30 and 7 pm news were unsettling, and I was grateful for the opportunity to join others in worship and prayer. While most in my community are liberal, Quakers fall on different places in the political spectrum. There was almost no partisan speech during any of the online vigils I attended. Though many of us have a strong preference for one party, our prayers were for the country as a whole, for the health of democracy, and for the future of the world.
The 8:30 pm meeting for worship organized by Pendle Hill and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was a deeply settling experience. In the silence, I released my anxiety into God and felt blessed by the presence of the Spirit among us. When we introduced ourselves at the end, a couple from Canada assured us they were praying with us, which I found comforting. I next spent some time with those gathered in the vigil organized by New England Yearly Meeting, before joining Friends from Grass Valley Meeting in California for the final thirty minutes of their online meeting for worship. It felt very sweet to be united with Friends on the other side of the country, and I carried that sense of sweetness with me as I turned to the 11 pm evening news.
By then, Terry had gone to bed. I was alone on the sofa when I heard that Ohio had been called for the Republicans, and that Florida was likely to go that way, too. Advance polls had indicated these two big states would be close, but in both of them the Republicans had won a decisive majority. Furthermore, the early returns from many other states, including my own, were less favorable than expected, though there was still much counting to do. I hadn’t expected, at that hour, such uncertainty about how the election would go.
I was grateful I did not have to stay alone in front of the television listening to commentators giving bad news. Around midnight, for the second time that night, I joined the all-night vigil being held by Quakers in New England, now the only vigil I knew of that was still continuing. In advance, pairs of Friends had signed up to have “care” for each hour of the all-night vigil. Into the silence they generally offered a reading or prayer aloud. It wasn’t clear how many would join during the night, but the plan was that during any given hour there would always be at least two people present. At the top of each hour, the General Secretary of the Yearly Meeting, a lighted candle on his desk, introduced each new pair.
After an hour, I began to feel a craving to hear the latest poll results and the commentary of tv reporters, even though I knew by then that conclusive results would not be available for days to come. As I made internal movements to leave the room and go back to the tv, the words of a Taize chant came to my mind, a version of the words that Jesus spoke in the garden of Gethsemane as he was struggling in prayer to follow God’s will, even to the cross. He had brought his three closest disciples to the garden with him and asked them to “watch and pray,” i.e., to be in a prayer vigil with him as he faced God alone nearby, deeply afraid. Three times when he checked, he found them asleep and woke them up to pray with him.
“Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and Pray. Watch and Pray.”
I began to sing aloud the words of the chant, even though my video remained muted. I felt that God, Jesus, or the inward Guide was telling me not to abandon the vigil, but to stay in prayer with others.
I stayed, but it was hard to do so. I felt deep anguish about the world, about so many terrible problems that had been exacerbated by the current administration rather than helpfully addressed: climate change, the pandemic, racism and xenophobia, foreign relations, sexism, national disunity, and more. Staying in prayer, with God, in the face of these large challenges and with suffering all over the world required me to keep my heart open and feel pain and vulnerability. I wanted to flee to the television commentary. I knew it would probably not offer any comfort at that late hour, but it would distract me from feeling my anxiety and the condition of the world.
“Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and Pray. Watch and Pray.”
I remembered a painting I had seen at my mother’s house and in other places, an image of Jesus revealing his heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, a big loving heart acutely in touch with the pain of the world. He was inviting us to open our sacred hearts, as well, and join him in that place of deeply loving vulnerability.
Terry woke from sleep and joined the vigil, too. At two-thirty am, I felt very sleepy and went to bed still anxious for the future of the world, but knowing I was not alone. God was with all of us, in our suffering and in our hope. God had been at work in my heart that night, opening and clearing it out, so I could be more available to the Spirit in the time to come.
For days I checked the changing numbers as the counting of ballots continued in my state. The Democrats now held the majority, but the margin was still too close to call the state. On Saturday morning, November 7, I joined an extended meeting for worship (lasting from 10:15 am to noon) with Quakers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, my spiritual community. Again I felt the power of being in worship and prayer with others, in spite of it being online rather than in person. Again I felt pulled deep within myself to the place where I was aware of the divine Presence with us, active in the world. It was calming, and my heart felt lighter. I knew that whoever won the election, the challenges ahead for our nation and for all nations will be very great, but I also could feel the divine accompaniment that was being poured out for all.
Friends offered several messages in vocal ministry. About twenty minutes before noon, someone reported she had just received a text message from her daughter asking, “Are you dancing in the streets?” It could only mean one thing. Indeed, the election results had been declared. As a state, Pennsylvania had voted for a change in our nation’s leadership. In the streets of Philadelphia, where the United States became a country centuries ago, there soon was dancing in the streets—and in many other places as well.
God is with those who voted for change, and also with those who voted against change, as well as with those who didn’t or couldn’t vote. Divine love is present unconditionally for all of us. We will need to rest in it, receive it, pass it on, and take heart from it as we collectively face the challenges that are still with us, and those to come. I’m happy for the prospect of times to join again with others in prayer and vigil—in the coming days, years, and decades. May we collectively become better and better able—and willing—to stay awake with God in love and anguish as we seek a healing way forward for all.
© 2020 Marcelle Martin
A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.
Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey describes the transformational spiritual journey of the first Quakers, who were inwardly guided by God to work and witness for radical changes in their society. Focusing on ten elements of the spiritual journey, this book is a guide to a Spirit-filled life, designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. Our Life is Love has been reviewed by Marty Grundy in Friends Journal, by Carole Spencer in Quaker Religious Thought, and by Stuart Masters on A Quaker Stew.
Both books are available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website for Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey.)
Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder
To read an overview of how early Friends experienced the powerful transformation that resulted from faithfully following the Light of Christ through this spiritual journey, see my 2013 blog post entitled The New Birth.