What Our Members Say
I am thankful for Circle of Mercy because of the amazing role models it offers to my daughters and me. Truly, people of integrity—some on the front lines, some quietly behind the scenes—all are walking the walk in their own season. In a world that seems increasingly scary on so many fronts, it is a blessing to have a faith home where we can support each other in our journeys and sing for the light.
In October 2006, my 16-year-old son, Jody, who has Down syndrome, spontaneously chose to receive his first communion in this merciful Circle. He had long ago developed a spiritual practice he calls “playing bread and wine.” Always occurring in the very early morning while his breakfast cooks, it involves a slice of whole wheat bread, a cup of orange juice, a lighted candle, and a hefty Jerusalem Bible, all carefully arranged on the living room rug. First Jody croons a hymn-like tune in which the garbled word “alleluia” features prominently. Its rousing conclusion is my signal to bless the bread and cup and offer them to the very attentive one-man congregation. I often explained that he could receive communion in just this way at Circle of Mercy, but Jody always responded, “Maybe later.” However, on that October Sunday, Jody grabbed my hand, approached the table, and accepted the body and blood of Jesus with the words “Thank you!” Making a lopsided sign of the cross as he walked back toward his seat, he broke into a glowing smile and rushed to his Dad, exclaiming, “I did it! I had chameleon!” Two weeks later, he held the cup for everyone in the Circle, offering to each recipient a robust “You’re welcome!” Thanks be to God.
Our name speaks to why Circle of Mercy is important to me. A circle has a still center point, and all are equidistant from that center; we all have equal access, availability, and invitation to the center. Though the need for justice in the world is great, mercy is the vehicle for salvation and transformation. That little preposition “of” means that we’re not just for mercy, but we are people who acknowledge that first and foremost we are children of a loving and merciful God, who is at work in a broken world.
Becoming involved in anti-racism/racial reconciliation work over the years has brought me many realizations of how I have been affected by racism and in turn a better understanding of who I am as an African-American man. I have found in the Circle a love of, and commitment to, God and his word, social justice, and community that I have found nowhere else. I feel many of the pieces of my life—of who I am—come together when I am in the Circle, causing me to feel more whole—more like the person I was made to be.
When Circle of Mercy appeared, I felt it was my last shot at “organized religion.” The Circle is faith in the midst of upheavals. If the Gospel is true, it will be made real and manifest in the struggles for equality and personhood, for which many of the Circle members lay out their lives every day. To them I say, I can take the hard-edged good news into the college classroom where I teach because you help to demonstrate the good and newsy truth in prisons, in Iraq and Cuba and Asheville, and in the “thousand points of darkness” made more apparent in the past few years. The way I see it, faith is alive because you live it, because of your great imagination to knead it in (like yeast in bread) wherever you are.
The Circle means an intentional shift to relational power—from “power over” to “power with.” This shift is embodied in the way leadership happens among our three pastors and bubbles up from the congregation, in the ways children are honored and decisions are made, in the offer of hospitality to all, in the calls to just action that are supported and celebrated. When I enter our Circle, I know that my imagination will be awakened to Jesus’ way of being in the world. I experience the challenge and grace in that possibility, again and again.
Twenty years ago, I entered Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as a young, devout, conservative, evangelical Baptist. I experienced terrifying and liberating changes in my understanding of the gender of God, the nature of scripture, the meaning of salvation, and the place of women as followers of Jesus. I remember watching as Nancy Hastings Sehested was given a clerical stole by a group of seminary women. I was not yet sure that it was OK for women to preach, and I stood on the outskirts of the group, like a hungry and fearful child looking into a bakery through a window. When I moved home to Western North Carolina almost ten years later, instead of fearing the dangers of liberal churches, I feared never finding a Baptist church home for my liberated heart. When I learned that Nancy was co-pastor of an experiment in community and worship, I went to the first gathering, and I knew that my family and I had finally found home. What keeps me at Circle of Mercy is the fact that I am known and loved in this Circle. I have been supported emotionally, spiritually, and practically, through heartaches and trials I never would have believed I could survive. Together, we in the Circle seek to live in the balance between awareness of the world’s pain and amazement at the utter joy of life.
Carolyn McCarter Wood
I like Circle of Mercy because of the good food and good friends. They let me dance at our retreats and get dunked with water at our Cuba party. And nobody tells me to eat my vegetables.
I believe that Circle of Mercy has attracted such gifted people because of the leaders that guide it. Co-pastors Ken Sehested, Nancy Hastings Sehested, and Joyce Hollyday are three of the most amazing people I have had the privilege of knowing. Their dedication to truth seeking, service, and justice, their wonderful preaching skills, and an unrelenting effort to make space for others to use their gifts make the spirit that is Circle of Mercy.
I feel a kinship with Circle of Mercy people that feeds my soul as a “resident alien” in this world. The spiritual authenticity of the Circle encourages me to seek answers to my spiritual questions and to question much of what is thrown at us from every direction by popular culture in the name of religion.
I like a congregation that can tolerate my hard and sometimes obstreperous questions of faith and order. To me, spiritual solace is possible in wrestling with questions. I like Circle of Mercy because it is welcoming and affirming of all persons, which is hard to find. The “Circle” is representative to me of family, of equality, of comfort. “Mercy” speaks of forgiveness, of peace, of being made whole again.
Circle of Mercy is where we humbly seek to know God. We all are trying to live and work for justice and to be merciful and compassionate toward this whole wonderful, mixed-up, human and non-human world that God has created. It’s a Circle where we try to live simply and with integrity. We strive to be inclusive, and we value everyone’s input as we worship together. It’s a Circle where I can be who I am without being careful. I am grateful for such a genuine, creative, affirming community of people to share life’s journey.