I am an African American whose encounter with God is more an attitude than belief system, a certain swagger and daring in the face of what black liberation theologian James Cone would refer to as “obvious failure.” By all quantitative standards, the post-Reconstruction experience of African Americans would meet the definition of failure. Today, the median wealth of single Black women is – prepare yourself – five dollars. In San Francisco, African Americans are only five percent of the population. If all religious practice is a response to a set of particular historical circumstances what can speak to this collective misery? The African American religious experience is ultimately about the quest for freedom and self-determination.
On April 5–7, 2019, Friends of Color from several Yearly Meetings met in Ben Lomond, California. We met to sing a new song of fellowship in the Quaker tradition. The present-day composition of the Religious Society of Friends as a nearly all-White affluent organization screams for a redistribution of power. African American culture is nearly non-existent among Friends: no hymnals, no Kente cloth, no intergenerational narratives. Though our numbers are pitifully few, I have a keen sensibility that Quaker is, in reality, a Black word. Among Friends of Color, I was keenly aware that my education, light skin and other comportment allow me to “pass” in all-White spaces. My experience should not be mistaken for universal hospitality.
The abominable creeds and actions of the institutional church do not diminish the seeds of wisdom and life philosophy of God-manhood, a becoming more than ordinarily human. The man named Jesus lived a practical concern for God that outweighed everything else in his life. According to the standards of his day, the ministry of Jesus was a colossal failure: crucifixion was not the expected outcome. If we look beyond the cheap symbolism of the cross, the whole life of Jesus was an extended crucifixion: the relentless life in struggle of a poor, single-minded (zealous), Galilean. It is through the agonized cry of failure that I wrestle with the formative texts of Christianity and the Religious Society of Friends.
Though we may have a tradition rich with Black potential, Friends of Color have no clear standing in the Society, no autonomy, we live under the fiefdoms of older White people – we are de facto “undocumented.” Beyond language of inclusivity, African Americans will challenge their elders with the heresy of new songs or call and response into meeting for worship. This will not destroy our tradition: our practices are long pregnant with tension and divergence. Black folk don’t know nothin’ about “vocal ministry;” we got Bayard Rustin up on that podium and that Friend is preaching. Being “welcoming” is about not insisting that someone adopt your terminology. The words of a query from the 2006 Pacific Yearly Meeting annual session are eerily haunting: Are there aspects of our processes, habits or organization that enslave us?
The word “Quaker” was originally used as a jeer to signal failure and express hostility. In their day, Quakers were provocative; today the courage to declare peace in public is nearly totally absent among us. Our Quaker ancestors shook and flounced about in expectation of the eschaton and shunned social customs – Quakers were a problem. When I hear the word Quaker, what resounds is spiritual nigger: the tight noose of suffering lived out by Mary Dyer. In the beginning, the word Quaker was dangerous enough to get you hung from a tree.
The God whom I serve is both beyond what is and beyond what is not. Before Creation (Genesis), as God hovered above the amorphous mass, there was not absence but fullness, without need for form or creature. There is a formless anarchos of God before the “light” of Genesis. Even in darkness “God was, and it was very good.” Meeting for worship is ultimately about getting over forms of darkness (political or otherwise). This Light beckons the “glory” that is a new human creature. While there is no “fall” of man from perfection there is a cycle of personal and collective misery in which we participate. The third century bishop Tertullian is largely responsible for the notion of inherited sin (physically passing to the child in the womb). Rejecting this sense of “sin” does not deny universal structures of failure – indifference, greed, destruction.
In 1965, James Cone wrote that Black Power was dangerous because it sought to undermine the American way of life. By “American,” Cone meant the system of accumulation and exploitation that crushes huge swaths of humanity. Speech is important; oratory should not be conflated with action. “Peace” is a terrible thing – a sword – it does not allow an easy, languid lifestyle alongside the structures that would suffocate our humanity. Peace, like so much of the shaking expectation seen in Black church service, is apocalyptic. All speech about God – including our own – is judged by whether it moves beyond oratorical performance and challenges the legal codification of power. Return land, stop responding to violent instigation, give your material possessions to those who ask – this is the Jesus Way and it is a danger to the false “hope” of secular, weaponized politics. In 2020, many will sadly misidentify the messiah.
If the heart of the “problem” posed by Black Power is that it seeks to overturn the social order, then it is aligned with the practical vision of the Peace Testimony. Beyond the performance of power with militant aesthetic (e.g. guns) every Sunday meeting for worship is the world turned upside down. In meeting for worship, we seek a revolutionary form of unified, cooperative speech. Persons of color are equal to Whites - for a flickering instant – in a manner they will not be for several centuries in the political sphere. In this way, Friends practically embody the hopes which lead some in San Francisco to Nation of Islam mosques: “fruit” for thought.
In San Francisco, Patrick – a White man who sleeps outside our meetinghouse – recently participated in our Thursday study group. His groanings about God while we sat in silent worship were brutally visceral and honest. Patrick’s presence momentarily redistributed power (which is not limited to race) and – because rearrangement often feels like chaos or lack of order – made some Friends uncomfortable. Like Mount Sinai, nearness to God can be terrifying. The formlessness of God can overwhelm our senses – an ecstatic experience lending itself to shaking, wailing – quaking. I take heart that San Francisco Friends are responding to Christ in the form of a “neighbor.” This is the beating heart of Christianity: all else is commentary.
During the Black Power era, a “porkchop nationalist” or “paper Panther” was a Black person who insisted that because they consumed porkchops and wore their hair in an Afro style they were automatically a Black Panther. In truth – as James Baldwin often repeated – many of these persons secretly longed to mimic the White man’s culture rather than build authentic cooperation among themselves. Friends might participate in “woke” consumption – hybrid vehicle, farmers’ market vegetables, fair trade coffee and etc. – while simultaneously compounding the interest of historical exploitation. Have we become “paper Quakers?”
Too often, our personal action is only considered “political” when it involves the casting of ballots. In reality, the political is the concern that directs our everyday path. Shall the elderly and disabled persons lying on the streets of San Francisco cover themselves with pieces of paper? A simple conversation with my sisters and brothers on the corner is extraordinarily political. It is to reassert the right order between persons – the very definition of justice. To do so in full view of the public may plant a seed of change in a manner that is not possible with coercive legislation. If I speak with the crying paralytic who lies in front of our meetinghouse, and invite him inside, it casts a light where calculating “reason” might leave dark mystery. Friends of color are an incarnation of this light each time they walk into a meeting for worship.
I write without evasion: sitting in worship as the only person of color at Sunday worship in San Francisco is an embarrassment. Our racist composition is a heavy millstone around our collective necks – we sink beneath the waters together. Why aren’t we motivated to go and find persons of color? Our refusal to do so often hinges on the claim that “we” don’t proselytize – which is objectively false. Every meetinghouse is a living structure that roars with public witness. Our everyday lives scream an evangelical message. Like many modern Protestants, Friends are trapped in the golden cage of social respectability. We are not primarily called to be successful businesses, we are primarily called to seek the continued revelation of God. This seeking is in bad faith if it first demands retaining comfort and status.
“This is America” by Childish Gambino is the first rap song to win the Grammy award for record of the year (a general rather than genre-specific award). This is a sign of the times. The Greek language has a word for “quality” time (kairos) not equivalent with the English word for time (chronos). Like Noah (Genesis 6:9- 9:17), even though we might drift along without apparent calamity some Friends discern that the flood is approaching. As in Genesis 8:6-12, Friends of Color gathered at Ben Lomond to collectively release a dove in the search for dry ground. The haunting question before Friends is who shall be admitted onto our collective ark? Shall we sit in quiet, respectable comfort while people of color drown? This concern is not about White charity because redemption is corporate: if people of color drown, we all drown. ~~~
Zae Asa Illo is a member of San Francisco Monthly Meeting (PYM) and currently serves on Ministry & Oversight. At SFMM, Zae runs the Friday Food Sharing ministry for those sleeping outdoors near the meetinghouse. He has been under the care of an oversight committee for three years, holds a minute for public ministry. For nine months, he and other Friends have engaged in silent public worship near a mobile police station stationed near the meetinghouse.
[By agreement with the author, this article was not copyedited. – MCK]
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