I had struggled before over whether to speak during worship, but this was different. It was near the close of worship, and a long-time member was sharing a folk tale from childhood. The story clearly moved him, and I can only imagine it was intended as a gift, a tender ministry for all of us in worship. But it was not a gift, at least not of the kind intended. The tale was of an enduring struggle between two iconic opposing figures – one evil, one good. On another morning, I might have let such a story drift in and out of my awareness, a familiar premise with no hint of a surprise ending. Instead, as I listened, I felt my body stiffen; I was paralyzed and mortified. Here it was, in a folk tale, in worship: racist ministry.
The story was a replication of the same anti-Black racism we as Quakers have labored against for decades if not centuries. The villain was Black, the hero, White. Their racial identities serving only to further emphasize their moral standing. This, I thought, is how we teach each other, through story and through sharing. There were children present, Friends of Color present, White Friends present – all taking this in. I knew I had to say or do something so the inherent racism in the story was addressed, so it was not left in anyone’s mind that we, as a community, condone racism.
Quaker silence has meant a lot of things to me over the course of my life, most of them positive, spiritually grounding, and even life affirming. This was my first experience of Quaker silence as a kind of choking, a cutting off of the life force in favor of custom.
I wrestled against the Quaker practice of not using spoken ministry for cross-talk or dialog. This story was racist. Still, I worried whether my words, if I were to speak, would be grounded in spirit. The harm of the story had been done, and I imagined I would I be eldered for making an outburst or politicizing worship if I were to speak. The shared value of responding to the harm of racism had not yet found its way into our small community, and in those few minutes before close of worship, I could not find the words or authority to speak. Worship ended, and we entered a period of sharing joys and concerns. A Friend of Color spoke simply and concisely of longing for a time when common folk stories wouldn’t use race to signify good and evil. I finally exhaled. Yet I felt as though I did not recognize myself. When, I wondered, had I become someone who remained silent in the presence of harm to others?
I was not alone in struggling that morning. An unexpected gift of that story on that morning was that it became a catalyst that woke many White Friends among us to the uncomfortable and undeniable recognition of how casually and unconsciously we White Friends say and do racist things – including offering racist ministry during worship, and then, no White person objecting. There were months of informal conversations throughout the meeting about this. Still, I was a bit surprised when I got a call from Nominating Committee, asking me to serve on Worship and Ministry, a request based in part on the special hope that Worship and Ministry might address the problem of racism among Friends, especially racism in worship. There was no mention of White Friends’ responsibility or likely resistance.
I was optimistic as I began my term on Worship and Ministry. All of the committee members were White, and I joined the committee with the incorrect assumption that we all felt charged by the meeting to address racism, especially among White Friends. The resistance that some committee members expressed toward naming racism as a concern was quite intense. For others, resistance was more passive, taking the form of simple lack of awareness. Around this same time, an ad-hoc work group on dismantling our racism started in the meeting. It wasn’t long before that work group became my primary place for building community and engaging in anti-racism efforts among Quakers.
Early on, people joined the work group with a variety of motivations. Some were motivated by that racist folk tale during worship; like me, they had been mortified and struggled over what to do. Others also came because they had been present to hear that story, but never noticed the racism, and were mortified they hadn’t noticed. Still others came because that incident was far from the first or last racist ministry they had heard in our meeting, and they were ready for action.
It took about a year for the work group to develop a mission and settle into itself. The mission was not to solve racism in the world at large, but to acknowledge, address, and dismantle racism in our meeting. We started by offering opportunities for education. For several months, we provided short newspaper articles on racism in the United States during our monthly potlucks. Tables could opt to read and have a dialog. Also, during meeting for business, the clerk gave us time on the agendas to offer brief teachings or exercises. We developed a half-day workshop on the history of racism among Friends, White supremacy culture, and the history of racism in our meeting, which we offered four times in just over a year. We hosted movie nights and partnered with other committees to bring in outside anti-racism trainings, such as the Unitarian Universalist’s program “Beloved Conversations.”
These education efforts continued for several years, and it became clear that we were becoming an accepted part of the life of the meeting. So much so that we began talking about asking the meeting to turn our ad hoc working group into a standing committee. We reflected on the powerful commitment to anti-racism that the meeting would make by doing so.
One concern we discussed was how such a change might affect our leadership practices. We had always organized ourselves collectively – regularly rotating leadership roles and meeting facilitation duties. The usual practice in our meeting is to designate a clerk for each standing committee. We reflected on how we came to our “leaderful” model and whether it was something we wanted to retain. Rotating leadership had come to us organically as we were getting to know each other and each other’s gifts. We had appreciated learning about anti-racist organizations that use collective leadership to facilitate community-building while sharing power and responsibility. We eventually decided that we would propose becoming a standing committee that followed a collective leadership model, with a communications person designated for contact with the meeting at large, but no designated “clerk.” The meeting approved our request with no resistance and only brief dialog about our leadership model. We officially became the committee called Friends for Racial Equity and Education (FREE).
There is much to be said about the work and significant impact of the FREE committee in the life of our meeting. About two years ago, the meeting adopted a query that came out of the Institutional Assessment on Systemic Racism conducted by Friends General Conference (FGC). Our practice now, at each meeting for business, is to reflect on whether the work we have done supports our goal of becoming an actively anti-racist faith community.
We continue learning new ways of being together. We learned from Friends of Color that the typical practice of Quaker worship sharing – each person silently listening and not responding to what others have said – too often subjects them not only to one harm when someone makes a racist statement, but also to a second harm when everyone else leaves the first harm unaddressed. After learning this, the FREE committee stopped offering worship sharing when the topic was race. This past summer, the FGC Annual Gathering offered a different worship sharing solution that I imagine we will try. FGC amended the worship sharing format specifically to encourage participants to address harmful speech.
These are necessary steps for White Friends to dismantle patterns of harm – believe the experiences of Friends of Color and change our behavior. When FREE was first a committee, one of the most common requests I heard was that we not say “White supremacy culture.” Today, the phrase “White supremacy culture” is usually met with nods in our meeting, and an awareness that it is not an accusation of personal racism, but an analysis of cumulative patterns of behavioral dominance. Our work as White Friends, individually and collectively, is to learn to recognize and change patterns of dominance. At times, that can feel shocking or distressing, as when we first notice that a beloved folk story teaches that some people deserve more and are better than others.
That morning of the racist folk tale in worship, I did not turn immediately afterwards to questions about what our meeting should do in response. Instead, I turned inward. Reflecting on my own complicity with our meeting’s unconscious racism led me to a personal and spiritual reckoning. I had become a Quaker as a young adult and had internalized the value of living by a single standard of truth. This became for me not just a mark of my spiritual conviction as a Quaker, but a mark of my adulthood. I could and would be the same person, and apply the same truth, regardless of circumstances.
Over the decades, however, it never once occurred to me that, in spite of the high value I place on integrity, I had been living a lie. I had learned to see racial inequality as historical and tragic, not as something that I had been socialized to preserve and protect. I failed to see my own participation. This lie was placed so deep in me it ran throughout the whole course of my life. The feelings of grief and rage and outrage I felt at that realization were intense and disorienting. But I had no person or organization to target, to blame. The work of reconciling, forgiving myself, and coming into a new worldview – one that I believe is closer to real integrity – was difficult and painful in ways I could not have imagined. And now, having begun that work of seeing how I have been shaped by racism, by Whiteness, I cannot imagine giving the work up. My Quaker values and my personal values won’t let me.
What I find most challenging today in the work of our FREE committee is that the actual work remains elusive: the work of creating moments that allow and invite White Friends to see Whiteness, to see the influence that Whiteness has on their identities, on the culture of our meetings, and on the wider community of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States.
Over the last few years, FREE has worked to discern where our meeting is on its anti-racist path, and what it might be ready for, and what it might be needing. We offer what we can by way of education, encouragement, conversation, resilience tools, and opportunities to talk about race. When our meeting regards the work of most standing committees, we might say, “Thank goodness, they are on it. We are going to have a furnace / First Day School / coffee . . .” I think that some members of our meeting might be looking at our FREE committee similarly – thank goodness we are taking care of the meeting’s obligation to engage in anti-racism. Others seem to know that we’re up to something more, something deeper. A Friend confronted FREE once by saying, “It seems like you want to change us!” That’s so often a loaded charge, the accusation of trying to change people. As though integrity demands that we never change. A few of us on the committee took some time to reflect on that statement, to test our own understanding of the work we were doing and our motivations, and slowly each of our eyes brightened, and we looked to one another: “Yes, we are absolutely looking to make change.” ~~~
Amy Rowland is an educator, long-time social justice activist, and new grandmother. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her wife, Carol, and is a member of Mountain View Friends Meeting (IMYM).