Racial Wounding at the Gathering

I arrived in Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, excited to be attending Friends General Conference’s Gathering and looking forward to a week filled with spiritual nurturing. I received and gave nurturing, but what I remember most is the pain from the institutional racism and the racial wound I received later in the week.

This was the eighth year of operation for the Center for People of Color at the Friends General Conference Gathering, and my seventh year facilitating it. This year I co-facilitated the center with LaVerne Shelton. Each year we have offered programs for Gathering attendees to help educate Friends about some of the challenges people of color face in the United States and in the Religious Society of Friends. We also have provided a place for people of color to come, talk, meet other people of color, see images of ourselves, and feel supported. I am also a member of FGC’s Committee for Ministry on Racism, which planned to sponsor a meeting for worship with attention to acknowledging racial wounding at the Gathering on Wednesday evening, July 3. It was clear to me early on that there was institutional racism at the Gathering as well as racism built into this year’s program. People of color were not on the stage during the evening programs. Field trips did not feature the history of people of color in Bloomington/Normal, Illinois. The one African American-owned store in downtown Normal, Moore Cultural Expressions, was not on the list of stores within walking distance distributed by local arrangers.

On Sunday afternoon, we held an organizational meeting. This year’s was different because our group was integrated. Normally, this first meeting was for people of color only. Somehow that did not get communicated to the Daily Bulletin editor, and some Friends who were not people of color had come to join us. At first I was not sure how to handle this, but after a few minutes I decided God had designed it this way for a reason. We spent the beginning of our time together going around the group with each person saying how they were feeling. It was only the second day and already one Friend of color who was a first-time attender of the Gathering was ready to go home. I knew how this Friend felt and was glad I had the space and time to support him.

We spent the rest of our time discussing what programs we would offer during the week. A meeting for worship for racial healing would be held on Monday afternoon. We decided to schedule the rest of our programs for Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and evenings. We agreed to offer four separate programs: reading books to children on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons; a talk on slavery and the chocolate industry on Tuesday evening; a presentation called "Transcending the Fear: A Spiritual Practice about the Loss of Privilege" on Tuesday afternoon and Thursday evening; and a worship sharing on Thursday afternoon focusing on the query "What form can Quaker action take regarding relations between the industrial-prison complex, corporations, materialism, and drug trafficking or abuse?" These programs came out of the personal ministries of several of the Friends who participated in the organizational meeting. The Center also was providing a third role: a place for Friends of color to share their personal ministries.

On Monday, a Friend of color approached me and shared her distress that none of the field trips offered at the Gathering featured any local sites related to the contributions of people of color in the history of the area. We knew there were people of color in Bloomington/Normal and that they had a history in the town. Through some research this Friend found out that the McLean County Museum of History on Main Street in Bloomington had an interactive exhibit, "Encounter on the Prairie," that told the story of what happened when people of different cultures came to the area. The director of the Museum offered to have a member of Bloomington/Normal’s city council make a presentation on the town’s anti-racism program. We quickly set up a field trip for Wednesday and spread the news about it through word of mouth. A member of my workshop created and posted signs for it.

At this point in the week, I still felt things had been going well. True, I, as a Friend of color, felt invisible in some parts of this Gathering. However, the activities offered by the center were well attended, which indicated Friends were interested in learning about issues related to racism. Many Friends participated in Monday’s programs: a meeting for worship for racial healing, and the Committee for Ministry on Racism’s listening session, during which Friends were asked to respond to the query: "How are you personally with racism in your life; where is God working in you?" Both had gone well.

On Tuesday evening, the room was full with Friends of different ages and races for Larry Thomasson’s presentation and discussion, "The Bitter and the Sweet: Contemporary Slavery and the Chocolate Industry." He told us that 80 percent of chocolate is produced from slave labor and how distressed he was that chocolate was being offered at every meal during the Gathering. He challenged us to support the fair trade of chocolate or, as he has done, stop eating chocolate completely.

Wednesday began as a wonderful day. I had been one of 30 people who participated in the field trip sponsored by the Center for People of Color. We divided into cars and drove to the McLean County Museum for the presentation and exhibit.

That evening, from 9:15 to 11:00, the Committee on Ministry and Racism sponsored its Meeting for Worship with Attention to Acknowledging Racial Wounding at the Gathering, held in the Bone Student Center’s Circus Room. I was a member of FGC’s Committee for Ministry on Racism sponsoring this meeting for worship and was present to help hold this session and its clerk in the Light. During this meeting, a Friend of color shared the pain she was experiencing at the Gathering. Her message was followed by a Friend of European descent who was holding herself accountable for not being present to a Friend of color’s concern for the lack of racial diversity in their meeting. Then unexpectedly, a woman stood up and asked the Friend of color to stand up with her and then to give her her hands. I was scared; it seemed inappropriate to do something like this in a meeting for worship. What was she going to do, and why did she need this Friend’s participation? In this worship we were supposed to be sharing our personal experiences with racial wounding at this Gathering. Then she began to sing "You are so beautiful and whole" to the Friend of color. I wanted her to stop; I could see from the expression on the face of the woman who was being sung to that she was uncomfortable. However, I sat across the room feeling helpless as my friend and others in the room were receiving a racial wound—in a worship that precisely was meant to provide a time and place for Friends to begin to heal wounds from racial incidents during the Gathering. I wanted to get up, walk over to the person singing, and tell her to stop. Instead of making my friend feel valued, her song had just invalidated my friend’s sharing of experiences of institutional racism at the Gathering.

When the Friend finally finished her song, let go of the hands of the Friend of color, and sat down, I felt an impulse to run out of the room. I was hurt, angry, surprised, and helpless. This room no longer felt safe for me or any other person of color. Yes, I agreed that my friend was a beautiful person, but that was not related to the racism that was built into this year’s Gathering program. Her beauty would not put people of color on the stage during the evening programs. Her beauty would not create field trips that feature the history of people of color. Her beauty would not get the one African American-owned store in downtown Normal added to the list of local sites of interest within walking distance.

Why had this happened? Why was this happening again? It took most of my energy to remain in the room and not cry. Soon I felt warm, salty tears forming in my eyes and falling down my cheeks. The pain was so intense; it felt as if someone had cut me deeply with a knife. My body began to shake, and I could feel myself sighing uncontrollably and shifting continuously in my seat. I wanted all of this to stop. God couldn’t be asking me to give a message, not now while I was in such pain. What would I say in my current state? How could I say anything that would make sense? The safety of this space had been taken away—and God expected me to give a message! (It is difficult for me to give a message in the safety of my home meeting; after worshiping at Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting for nine years, I had given my first message only a month before.)

While I struggled, a Friend of European descent stood up and gave a message sharing her anger with the Friend who sang the song. She acknowledged the song was meant to be a blessing by that Friend. However, she said, this well-meaning action had hurt her deeply instead. I felt this message would release me from God’s calling, but it didn’t; my sighing and movement only increased. After denying this calling during many more messages I finally stood up and spoke. I remember crying while I told Friends that the room was no longer safe for me as a person of color, that I didn’t want to speak but felt I wasn’t given a choice. I honestly don’t remember the rest of what I said, but my husband told me later that I shared the struggle I was having with remaining in the room, fearing that someone might impose an action on me without my permission. I also shared my pain that the Friend of color was asked to stand without knowing why, and the struggle I experienced about remaining in my seat and not walking over to that Friend to stop the action that was causing the pain we both were experiencing. I concluded my message with asking Friends to stop and think before performing an action upon someone else.

When I sat down, the sighing and moving stopped, but the pain was still there. Later, when the meeting for worship broke, I stood up to walk over to my husband, but suddenly I got very dizzy and couldn’t remain standing. As I sat back down, I felt God was telling me that our worship was not finished. Several Friends walked over to our committee and joined us as we continued our worship. Eventually God released me, our worship ended, and I was able to stand, walk over to my friend, and put my arms around her.

Later that evening I was not able to settle down. I walked around our dorm room like a caged animal. I felt anxious, restless, and tired. I was trying to figure out what had gone wrong with our process that had permitted a wound to be inflicted upon people of color instead of giving us an opportunity to be healed. Many of us actively involved with the Center for People of Color participated in the worship on Wednesday night and were among the group of wounded people.

It took all of my energy to get up the next morning and co-facilitate my workshop, "Healing the Hurts of Racism," with Chuck Esser. Several members of our workshop had gone to the special meeting for worship the previous night and shared that they also had difficulty sleeping. Chuck Esser provided most of the leadership in our workshop that morning. After lunch I was so physically and emotionally drained that I returned to my room and slept until dinner. LaVerne Shelton facilitated the programs in the center that afternoon and evening. It was clear that another meeting for worship for racial healing was needed, so the center was asked to sponsor a second worship for the Gathering. We did, on Friday afternoon; it was the last event that we sponsored there.

Later, as I was taking the posters off the walls, picking the books and other materials off the tables, and packing them in boxes to bring back home, I was relieved that the Gathering was over. It had been a long, eventful, and turbulent week. I was still feeling the wound sustained on Wednesday, as I knew others were too. The hardest part of that evening for me was yet again finding this Gathering an unsafe place for people of color. I have been actively working over the past eight years within FGC to help the organization and its programs be welcoming for us. This year it felt like we took one step forward and a giant leap backwards.

I will continue my work supporting Friends of color and helping meetings become more welcoming for us. One thing that the 2002 Gathering taught me was that my ministry, helping the Religious Society of Friends to be more welcoming to people of color, and the ministry of the center, are clearly still very needed.

—Vanessa Julye
© 2002 Vanessa Julye