Each summer ⁠— as the program year winds down ⁠— we invite Fellows to reflect on their experience and write a testimonial to share with Friends. Sam Downs, a young adult Fellow who served in Philadelphia during the 2020-2021 program year, shares about God, spiritual discipline, and the importance of rivers.

Every morning I’d go down to the river to meet God. I’d ask to feel the hand of God, but I’d feel nothing. I’d ask to hear the voice of God, but I’d hear nothing. I’d ask for a sign to guide me, but I’d see nothing.

I left my shoes on the concrete banks of the Schuylkill River to prove I could listen. The next day they were gone, and I still felt no hand, heard no voice, saw no sign, and wondered if I had been meeting God there at all. 

I’ve spent a lot of time with God by the river. I’ve always felt a presence in rivers, in their constant movement and enrichment of the space they move through. I’d swim in the Monocacy with my sister, throw stones for my dog, catch crayfish with a friend. I’d fish the creeks and ponds in my neighborhood with friends, until we decided we’d lost enough lures, and caught enough fish that it was time to swim. I paddled on the Potomac with my Dad, failing to keep up. I’ve lounged on inner tubes and connected in new ways to people while on Antietam Creek. 

“I’ve always felt a presence in rivers, in their constant movement and enrichment of the space they move through.”

Later, I swung from the rope hanging off the old railroad bridge on the Black Warrior River, surrounded by those who’d come to know me more fully than I’d wanted. I worked for a summer on tunnels keeping sewage from the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, and I’d look over their waters from the windows of the breakroom. I’ve played, fished, and rested by many rivers and streams whose names I forget, and each one reminds me of the joys of the past and brings something new and unique to my spirit, letting me feel God in a new way. But each morning I went to the bank of the Schuylkill River, I felt no rest, no connection to my past, no connection to the river, no connection to God. 

I came to the river each morning with a spirit darker than the morning before. I came to the river each morning asking God to make it light. I came to the river each morning because I thought my commitment would make me worthy of being heard. Eventually, I could no longer pretend to feel God by the river, my discipline was not turning God’s ear.

Slowly, I started sharing my spirit with the people around me, and only then did I start feeling God’s presence again. I had not wanted to seek God in those around me, I wanted to meet God by the river. But God was waiting for me in my spiritual nurturer, who recognized my experience at the river, my longing for divine presence, as something not uncommon. He led me to experience the feeling instead of avoiding it, to seek God in the spaces I feel God is absent. God was waiting for me in my parents who held me as they always do. God was waiting for me in my housemates, other QVS Fellows, who held me physically, spiritually, and emotionally. They were with me each day, listening and seeking to support me in any small thing. God was with me in my QVS Coordinator, who listened and held each word. God was in my site supervisor who allowed me to leave in peace.*

I believe that God was by the river each morning. Every word I said and every song I poured into the water was heard, every tear was held, all the pain was known.

If God had responded to me by the river, I would have continued to keep God there, for my personal use, for personal faith. I sought my community only when I felt that God had failed, and then I found God in community. And although God seeks to be with me personally, the love given to me is not for my personal consumption. The love is for reflecting; the God I believe in seeks the spirit of all, and is always present with those forgotten and held down by our world. The more I get to know those around me the more I will encounter God. I am looking away from God when I look only to myself. But I will still continue to meet God by the rivers, and the love I experience in and around them will continue to give me strength.

*Midway through the QVS year, Sam transitioned site placements from working at Nationalities Service Center to Germantown Friends School. 

More about the Author

Sam Downs grew up in Frederick, MD and graduated from The University of Alabama with a degree in Civil Engineering. Sam is planning to stay in Philadelphia after his QVS year. Sam’s been enjoying exploring Philly parks and outdoor spaces throughout the year and hopes to find more swimming holes in the near future.

What is a Spiritual Nurturer?

During their year, each QVS Fellow is paired with a spiritual nurturer, a local Friend who provides spiritual accompaniment and nurturing. QVS’s spiritual nurturing program is guided by the awareness that spiritual and vocational gifts can best be lived out in supportive relationships that honor the discovery and maintenance of those gifts. Spiritual nurturers play an important role in accompanying QVS Fellows as they seek out what they have to genuinely offer the world — and figure out how to sustain their own gifts in service of community and justice work.

Spiritual nurturers are not the same as being a mentor and advice-giver. Instead, we encourage spiritual nurturers to be a non-anxious presence in the Fellow’s life, listening and using open-ended questions grounded in genuine curiosity. For some young adults, this might be the first time they are supported in a non-reciprocal and nurturing relationship where the focus is only on them. 

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