A Quaker Chaplain’s Spiritual Journey

The Milwaukee Friends Meeting has taken the unusual step of assisting Stephen Forrest, a Friend of our meeting, in his leading to serve as a chaplain.  Stephen shares his discernment journey in the following post.

Dear Friends. 

My name is Stephen Forrest and I have attended meeting now since 2017. My partner Carla and I have two children, my stepson who is 14 and a daughter who is 5. I was born and raised in London, England. We were raised Catholic and when I was 22 I joined a Catholic missionary group and worked in Kenya, Africa. I then came to Wisconsin to study and became a catholic priest in 2004. I am fluent in Spanish so worked for the next ten years mainly with the Latino catholic communities in and around Milwaukee and south eastern Wisconsin. After many years of struggle, my spiritual journey led me to leave the Catholic Church. I have always felt very drawn to the Buddhism and Eastern spiritual practices and at the same time felt very grounded in my Catholic/Christian upbringing and education. With this my concepts of the divine and the role of the sacred led me to understand myself as being spiritually fluid. I am bi-racial, my mother was born in Madras, India and my father was Scottish so the idea of floating in the in-between seems to come naturally for me. With that in mind, that’s how I came to the Quakers.

Throughout my time in the Catholic Church I was taught to believe that obedience was primary to discernment, that the rules on who and what we call God and the divine were objective and trinitarian. Throughout my life and especially in the church I have struggled with this. I found  that my spirituality was growing and I felt I could no longer represent a church I didn’t believe in as clergy, and could not believe in a God who was restricted within that denomination. I would like to add that I have no issue with mainstream Christianity or monotheistic religious belief, I just don’t believe that we can restrict the unfathomable grandness of the divine within any human definition and particularly the idea that God is only male and salvation is found only within these boundaries. After much prayer and discernment, I left the Catholic clergy. 

Coming to the Quakers, in contrast, has been very different. The single most important thing I have learnt, which I didn’t do enough of as a younger person or as a priest, is the ability and need to discern well. If we say we have to listen to inner voice of the divine, the challenge comes in not only listening, but also responding and allowing others to do the same. 

It took me a while to get to chaplaincy as I needed to transition from the priesthood to a new vocation. However, the simple beauty of being a chaplain is the ability to serve and meet the person where they are at on their spiritual journey is what spoke to me the most. It’s about their journey and how we can allow the divine to manifest there. With hospice, even if the person is of no faith, those we serve all have one thing in common, that they and their loved ones know that they have all been given a 6 month or less diagnosis.  As a chaplain, in numerous ways, we can help them speak to the questions, doubts and issues this may raise. We can also help them embrace the peace they have found at the end of their life.

Around 18 months ago.  I was approached by the US Army recruitment team about wanting to be a chaplain. After a long process of prayer and conversation and with the joy of having a clearness committee I felt it would be something I’d like to pursue. To me it is about serving a population with an immense spiritual need and I humbly believe that, should I be able, I would make a very good chaplain for them. Moreover, if accepted, it would allow me to go on to perhaps serve the Veteran’s Hospital population as a chaplain. We have generations of veterans in our nation with a multitude of needs and aspirations and serving them would be an incredible honor. 

 In order to do so, however, one needs an endorsement letter, that is, a letter from a faith community that recommends and supports the chaplain in their role either as “clergy” or as someone who is qualified spiritually, morally, intellectually and emotionally within said community.

I just had the very wonderful experience of a clearness committee, which brings me to this explanation of who I am and the path I am pursuing. If anyone is interested or would like to ask other questions about me and my vocation and recent desire to serve, I would be more than happy to enter into a dialogue and more lengthy explanations. Thank you for your time and prayer. 

Stephen Forrest