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Place of Privilege (abridged)

Anne Clendenin
On Place (May 2022)
Inward Light

[The following article was abridged from a version published online at:  https://westernfriend.org/place-privilege-unabridged]


Recent controversies among Friends about the use of videoconferencing to connect F/friends during worship remind me of other, similar conversations throughout my forty-plus years as a member of Friends, about community and our conceptualizations of “us.”

I am old enough to remember discussions about installations of ramps and lifts, widening paths, altering restrooms to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, and installing better sound systems for elders whose sense of hearing was diminishing. We recognized that “us” includes people who are aging and differently abled. Maybe this seemed generally noncontroversial because elders carry substantial responsibility for the lives of most meetings.

On the other hand, the question of full access to Quaker meetings by Friends of Color remains controversial. Meetings continue to wrestle with vestiges of racism. Similarly, access for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) folks has produced some heated discussions over definitions of “us” versus “them.” Some LGBTQ and Black/Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) people have left our meetings, never to return, while others (and their allies) continued to push majority-culture Friends toward a fuller reckoning with the influences of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in Quaker meetings and organizations. To me, such conflicts reflect a continual struggle between majority-culture Friends who talk about “inclusion” and marginalized Friends who talk about “transformation.” They give evidence to the crucial insight of early Friends that revelation is ongoing.

Today, we find that the Covid pandemic has revealed additional aspects of lack-of-access in Friends meetings, which some Friends have endured for years. Previously, such Friends were simply forced to accept that certain activities were out of their reach, due to circumstances like geography, transportation, poverty, health, etc. When “remote access” became the norm during Covid, our previously isolated Friends became able to reestablish connections with their meetings. Many privileged Friends had assumed that, once the pandemic was “over,” things would return to “normal” in their meetings. Now that Friends feel ready to start planning for a return to “normal,” some are asserting that “remote” worship is not “actual” worship and that only Friends who are physically present can claim to experience true worship.

This centering of the collective “we” around those who can attend meeting in person, versus the “they” who can only attend remotely, suggests an unexamined imbalance of power that deserves our attention. We need to acknowledge this imbalance as we face the question: “This meeting belongs to all of us. How do we make it possible for as many as possible to participate?”

It is my experience that when we truly “sink down to the seed,” we can join with all who seek from that deepest place, wherever their bodies happen to be. My Quakerism was shaped in the meetinghouses of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative, where I felt not only the presence of the Friends who were in the room with me at a given time, but also all who had gathered recently for half-yearly and yearly meetings, and also the ancestors whose spirits lingered in the walls, the handmade rag rugs, and the wood of the benches.

Every controversy in the Society of Friends provides us with an opportunity to reassess the ways in which we hold and deploy privilege, how we define “us” and “them.” Over the decades, Friends have increasingly realized that we have among us people who would be physically present with us if only we would remove physical and social barriers. Covid has now thrown light on additional barriers to attendance, ones that we once accepted as inevitable, just as we previously accepted other barriers.

Authentic community requires that we examine whether we might be erecting roadblocks to others’ participation by making arguments based on unconscious privilege. It also requires that we listen deeply to one another, as well as listen for the voice of the Spirit that unites us. In this way, we might begin to recognize the challenges raised by the less privileged among us as gifts – as openings to deepen our capacity for love. The lessons available from the margins of our Beloved Community may move us closer to wholeness.  ~~~

Ann Clendenin is a clinical social worker practicing in Tucson, AZ, and a member of Pima Friends Meeting.


Hybrid worship inclusivity

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