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Link Every Voice and Sing

Published: June 13, 2020


I sat with some time with the letter written by the clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting in response to the death of George Floyd. I share her optimistic view, but find it urgent that Friends move beyond public statements and, instead, show concrete signs of desegregation within the Religious Society of Friends.

Since Vanessa Julye’s historic ministry to Pacific Yearly Meeting in September 2017, Friends have published countless minutes of “concern” and public proclamations pining for change. Still, somehow, Pacific Yearly Meeting reeks of White power. That means: the Friends who control the money, what “Quaker” means (Faith and Practice), and the direction of the Yearly Meeting (through plenaries) are White – plain and simple. During the discernment (which involved a lot of White cultural armor) about whether PAcYM should affiliate with FGC, many statements were heard such as “we” don’t practice the same as FGC, “we” don’t this, or “we” don’t that. If Friends are made so uneasy with aligning with essentially the same message, just imagine what would happen if three or four urban-leaning, swag-walking African Americans began regularly participating at your meeting. There is no “we” colored culture among Friends: to some degree, “we” don’t exist.

At this moment in time, what would vocal ministry from an African-American concerning race relations sound like? Would that powerful tone, quaking emotion, and sweating frenzy “fit” in your meeting?

This, Friends, is what undoing desegregation is about – allowing the groans and wailings of the oppressed into your spaces of worship (digital or otherwise) without adjudicating them as belonging elsewhere. I have been told by more Friends than you’d care to hear that I belong in a Baptist church. I do have a responsibility to the first Black institution – the church – and have therefore participated regularly in a Bible study among Baptists for more than two years. Yet, my loud ministry, fervent seeking after God, and serious commitment to pacifism are Quaker from Black head to Black toe. It could be said that people of color are targeted for harassment for not being “Quaker,” while large numbers of White Friends who attend merely four meetings for business a year are given a pass.

During community night at our annual session just two years ago, Friends were direct witnesses to children dressed up as slaves being inspired to seek freedom by enlightened (white) Quakers. Did you even know that happened? Did we collectively discern what to do? If we are in the business of Truth, it would have to be said that elders in our Yearly Meeting have avoided, obfuscated, and “ghosted” the conversation. For older readers, “ghosted” is a term popular with the younger demographic which refers to someone unexpectedly leaving a conversation without bringing it to a conclusion. Community night took place in front of the very Friends now waxing poetic about George Floyd. We rightly criticize police officers who stood around and did nothing as George Floyd died.  We should not, however, forget that during that slave skit at annual session, Friends sat and watched – and did nothing.

Our anemic ability to act is not due to a personality fault of the clerk – she is capable both as a clerk and leader – yet she is only as strong as our ability to discern the will of God as a unit. Prayer-centered discernment is a long, winding road away from opinion: clerking often involves ignoring the latter.

We have made strides. In June 2019, the first-ever Epistle of Friends of Color to Pacific Yearly Meeting was published. The statement was – as all historical records – an imperfect representation of the emotions of those gathered. Still, it was an important milestone. As we continue making strides, our historical record needs to account for the number of colored folks in our Pacific Yearly Meeting community. The standard should be colored butts in meetinghouse seats, not shelves full of books.

Most Friends have read the Sermon on the Mount – repeatedly. Digesting the text hardly seems a fair standard for whether we shine the Light of the Gospel message. The word “link” in the title of this article refers to the fact that it is easier now than it ever was to share our worship with people of color. Have you intentionally invited any person of color to worship during our digital migration? If not, neither would you invite George Floyd, his family members, or friends. Is it not true that certain Friends among us would have gently reminded George that “we” usually do not bring meat-based foods to potlucks? There are flowery, hand-painted pitchers brimming with cultural tea at every Quaker gathering we hold. (For the unaware, “tea” is a colored and/or queer euphemism for discussing current events which sometimes incudes church-ladies-critiquing-macaroni-casserole-dishes levels of gossip.)

Protestantism has changed drastically due to the pandemic. Likewise, nearly the entire order of worship among Friends has been drastically altered, and yet, hasn’t our tradition survived? We might continue to harness the solar “Light” energy of this new world by making specific changes. Don’t ghost me for suggesting that these structural changes might consist of: (1) significantly increased funding for Friends of Color; (2) Friends in PacYM, who are invested with the necessary skills, helping to end segregation by bringing more colored folks into the Society, and (3) an in-depth survey of the racial composition of monthly meetings and worship groups in Pacific Yearly Meeting.

from Zae Illo, San Francisco Friends Meeting (6/11/2020)