Addressing Race in Red Cedar Meeting

In the early 1990s I began attending Red Cedar Meeting in East Lansing, Michigan, with my then partner Deborah, an African American. At that time we were one of two interracial couples attending the meeting and the only lesbian interracial couple.

When Deborah raised concerns about how few people of color attended Red Cedar, some in the meeting responded that African Americans prefer a "livelier" service full of music, prayer, and preaching. Deborah found this stereotyping offensive. She continued raising concerns, suggesting, for example, that the meeting and its Peace and Social Justice Committee might find that issues at home, including racism, were as important to consider as traditional peace concerns in the wider world.

There was discomfort, if not anger, in the meeting about these issues. Often Deborah felt angry and hurt herself, and sometimes she was alone in expressing these concerns because other Friends of color either did not feel the same way or did not feel led to voice them. Sometimes this created confusion, but it provided a vivid example of the fact that just because people are of the same race does not mean they hold the same point of view, even on issues pertaining to race. White Friends are not expected to be in unity on all issues; why should this be expected of others?

In the end, the meeting took several actions. The Peace and Social Justice Committee began to analyze how the meeting could look at each of its committees to determine what actions they could take to become antiracist and hence more welcoming to people of color. We decided to make Red Cedar’s outdoor sign more welcoming by painting one of the two hands depicted in a handshake in a darker skin tone. We joined with a predominantly African American congregation in a community home repair program. Ministry and Pastoral Care sponsored a workshop on white privilege, as well as a worship sharing series delving into the emotional origins of racism. The meeting also initiated midweek meetings for worship at the Black Child and Family Institute in a racially and economically diverse area of the city.

All this work certainly made the meeting more aware of concerns about racism, and it affected many Friends deeply and permanently, but it did not increase the number of people of color who attended. Nor did it eliminate all tension regarding the issue of racism in meeting.

However, in 1998, when Deborah was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, most of the unresolved tensions and concerns took a back seat. Red Cedar Meeting provided both her and her immediate caregivers with the deepest spiritual and physical sustenance as they came to grips with the exacting requirements of this final illness. The meeting lifted Deborah up, and Deborah lifted the meeting up, as we all witnessed her dying. The experience of her death in the midst of this loving Quaker community makes me feel that there is hope, through love, of finding a way to overcome the barriers to truly seeing that of God in one another.