My Spiritual Journey

My spiritual journey is—to borrow a phrase from the Beatles— "a long and winding road" that led to the Religious Society of Friends. The starting point is the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, where my first memory of the worship experience is when I was three years old.

The A.M.E. Church’s motto is "God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our Brother." The church was founded by Richard Allen, who—I later learned—worked with Quakers, including during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793, collecting and burying the dead in Philadelphia.

My home church was the First A.M.E. Church of Clairton, Pa. In the summer of 2003 this church proudly marked its centennial as a continuing spiritual community with a full week of homecoming and celebratory worship services. Although there is the usual amount of parochial pride among the black churches in Clairton (two Baptist and two Holiness), this celebration was embraced citywide.

Clairton is a small steel mill town 18 miles south of Pittsburgh. Its population has dwindled from 20,000 to well under 10,000 since the 1950s. Back then, as now, it was racially segregated by practice and through housing patterns in most areas. As in most communities then, the 11 a.m. service on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour.

The newer residents of Clairton included two distinct groups: black families who had come to the Pittsburgh region to work in steel mills during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the early decades of the 20th century, and immigrants from central Europe who had come at about the same time—and for the same reason: to seek a better life. In addition to the black churches, there were three Roman Catholic churches, two Eastern Orthodox churches, one synagogue, and the churches the first families of the city usually attended: the white Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches. There was also an Assemblies of God Church, some of whose members continued to live in the nonwhite sections of the racially segregated community. The few African American Catholics who migrated to Clairton usually joined one of the black churches in time.

There was no racial diversity in membership in any house of worship. The one glimmer of hope across color lines was that in the mid-1950s, through the Pastors’ Association, our minister and the Presbyterian minister agreed to exchange pulpits at least once a year. Each would take a choir and a couple dozen members and preach from the other’s pulpit on one agreed-upon Sunday. It was a good early beginning that seems not to have progressed much in the past 50 years. I am not aware if they still do it.

My late grandmother, Rosa Eleanor Manigault Jones, was the grandest woman I have ever known and is my model of the Christian who lives her religious beliefs. She was a refined lady who (in the words of Rudyard Kipling) could "talk with crowds and keep her virtue and walk with kings and not lose the common touch." She spoke respectfully to and about all. I never heard her gossip or speak ill of people, including those she encountered who were staggering down the street. Her faith in God was deep and rich and a part of her everyday life. I remember hearing her sing hymns from memory as she cooked or did housework. Both her church and family values centered on a strong belief in doing good works in church and community groups, and accepting everyone for what is in their heart and not for their color. Even now, I strive to be the woman that she was.

I spent a disproportionate amount of my childhood in the old church building, which was razed for a new modern structure in 1960. The basement housed the private kindergarten that most black children in Clairton attended before going to first grade in public school. Church was the center of most cultural and social events. My two older sisters and I were members of the Sunday school, the Junior Choir, the Junior Usher Board, and the Allen Christian Endeavor Youth organization. We attended church youth conferences and were active in the NAACP Youth Council. We had chaperoned fun at picnics and hayrides. We put on plays and operettas—and teas, where young girls learned how to be young ladies. Although we liked to go to parties, church was first. If we did not get to Sunday school on time, there was no partying at the community center on Friday or Saturday night that week. That was law!

These experiences, full of love and support, were crucial in making me the person that I am today, spiritually and emotionally. Sunday school training included memorizing the Apostle’s Creed and Bible verses, learning to understand the meaning of Holy Communion and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I wholeheartedly accepted Christ as my personal savior.

But questions I had about the very segregated nature of church being inconsistent with the ideals of true Christianity ("We are all brothers and sisters in Christ"), the sometimes authoritarian role of ministers in managing church affairs, and the rote repetition in some rituals began to brew just below the surface. However, I still responded when pressed by unbelievers. I remember a lively conversation with a friend who entered University of Cincinnati in 1957 and who adopted the position that there was no God. As a high school freshman, I engaged him in debate and held my own.

At college, I sang in Penn State’s chapel choir and listened to a range of speakers at the nondenominational (though clearly Protestant) services. The speakers were social scientists, philosophers, and historians, and several in the course of my four years were black. The most memorable speaker for me was the late Dr. Benjamin Mays. He was then president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the most highly regarded historically black colleges for men. Dr. Mays preached a sermon on the theme, "Who Are the Least of These." That was an important consciousness-raising experience for me, and it helped me more clearly define my personal responsibility to help the less fortunate.

Dr. Mays’s message connected to me through his personal charisma and the depth of his spirituality as demonstrated by taking his text from the Bible. He was an academic who wore his religion on his sleeve. I often daydreamed at chapel but listened attentively to what Dr. Mays said—that we are all equal in the sight of God and have a responsibility to help those in need. This message was consistent with what I had always been taught in Sunday school and knew in my heart, but it meant more with his expression. Perhaps, the civil rights struggles in the streets of the cities and the back roads of rural communities in the South gave it a sharper contrast. On the campus of a large university with a very small enrollment of people of color, and where the water hoses and sniping dogs were a world away, it was easy to not know what was going on in the outside world.

After graduating from college in 1965, I lived in several East Coast cities, usually attending an A.M.E. church in town, but never taking the formal step of becoming a member. During this time of widespread protests and demonstrations against segregation in cities North and South, it was difficult for me to reconcile the inconsistencies in the practices of people who called themselves Christians and yet had so much hate for others. Can a true Christian believe in white supremacy or belong to the White Citizens Council? Can you believe in Jesus Christ and spit at little African American children trying to go to school, even to a previously all-white school? My faith in God was strong, but my faith in people was shaken. I have always witnessed as a Christian and believe wholeheartedly in the Golden Rule.

Learning the history of my spiritual community, the A.M. E. Church, included knowledge that Richard Allen tried to worship in white churches and was relegated to balconies and back benches. The A.M. E. Church was established as a segregated entity in response to white rejection. Although my religious beliefs and values as a Methodist were consistent with Quaker values, it never occurred to me as a younger woman to pursue anything other than an Afro-centric church or movement. I could not visualize being drawn to a faith outside of my culture. Nor did I know then that Richard Allen was involved with Quakers and modeled the processes of the Free African (abolitionist) Society on the experience of Quaker meeting.

I was seeking spiritually without knowing what I was looking for. I saw good works in many different places, but could not find my spiritual home. I recognized the critical leadership role that black ministers played in the civil rights movement. Because I had family responsibilities in the summer, I did not participate in sit-ins in the South in the 1960s. I was emotionally moved in the early 1970s by the important practical work accomplished by the Black Panthers through their children’s feeding programs. Malcolm X’s message of blacks taking responsibility for their own development and community uplifting resonated powerfully with me. Who would direct these separate positive movements to be combined or linked to get everyone on the same track pulling together and not in conflicting or opposing directions?

Despite being active in civil rights and women’s leadership organizations in Philadelphia, I was unsure how I should connect that with my daily spiritual life. A chance meeting while I was working as a manager at a television station in Philadelphia brought an epiphany. During that time, stations had to do "ascertainments"—interviews with leaders in the community to find out what they thought were critical issues and if we, as a station, were addressing them. On one of these ascertainments, I interviewed the head of the Salvation Army program in West Chester, who was not yet 30 years old and already a colonel. He seemed to do a lot of the interviewing! I told him I believed in Jesus Christ, but that some forms of Christianity seemed unrelated to everyday life. I wanted to have a clear and obvious connection between what I do on Sunday and the rest of the week.


He gave me a Bible and emphatically told me to read it. I wondered for a moment if what I was seeking might be the Salvation Army. I was familiar with it, and each person I had ever met in the organization demonstrated in their daily work a commitment to the Christian ethic of caring for "the least of these." Even though the Salvation Army proved not quite a fit for me (I could not embrace the military style of the organization), that meeting helped me in many ways to better understand what I needed spiritually.

With this encounter, it is clear in retrospect that I was moving toward the Religious Society of Friends while not knowing it. As a reporter, I had come into Friends Center in Philadelphia several times to cover press conferences organized by the American Friends Service Committee. I don’t remember the topics. I had a vague idea of the Service Committee and some knowledge of Quakers, but nothing substantive.

I interviewed at AFSC in 1993 for a position in what was then called Information Services. By then I knew what I wanted. And with each of the many interview sessions, I was flabbergasted by what I found—the variety, breadth, and geographic range of AFSC’s work. Even more striking to me was the Quaker foundation on which that program work was built. I yearned to be part of this. After several months of AFSC process, my wish was granted.

As the new director of media relations, I was being washed in the history of Quakers and swept up in their profound commitment to seeing that of God in every person. Many of the important modern social movements that I had learned about or studied were initiated or led by AFSC: establishing an interracial program led by African American Crystal Bird beginning in 1927; working with Eleanor Roosevelt to assist families of coal miners during the Depression; feeding and assisting children (German and Jewish) in Europe during and after World War II; supporting Japanese American families during their oppressive wartime internment; and supporting Martin Luther King Jr. personally in many ways during the modern civil rights movement. And then there was the peace movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

I found myself very comfortable with the beliefs and practices of Quakers, including the deep silent worship experience at AFSC Board meetings. I had never been to a business meeting where the first half hour was deep worship and the clerk asked that the meeting continue in that spirit as we conducted business. I believe in the transforming power of love and nonviolence over injustice and violence, and trust in the power of the Spirit to guide me and the collective. I am always moved by the power of gathered silence and individual witnessing, which I found to be akin to "testifying" in a more evangelical experience.

Soon after joining AFSC, it was clear to me that the values and beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends were consonant with mine. It makes me smile to think that one African American friend of mine greeted me regularly after I came to work at AFSC by saying "Are you a Quaker yet?" The answer is that I had been for many years without knowing it. Although I had never identified myself as a pacifist, I wholeheartedly endorsed the nonviolent movement for justice and peace led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As an individual and through organizations I have worked all of my life to oppose oppression. The struggle for justice of any person is connected to me. I believe we must live and do what we say we believe. Despite the popularity of Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech, I have always believed that his most powerful statement was his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he challenged the white religious establishment for opposing the civil rights movement and criticizing him for his leadership in that community. It is a simple and profound message.

The search for the right spiritual home is no easy assignment. There were at least three monthly meetings in the section of Philadelphia where I lived—very established, substantial and not small. I visited all of them, but held off making a decision. Although I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, I knew I would know when I found it.

I found a small meeting in a community that is predominantly black and Latino. I am now a member of Newton Meeting in Camden, N.J., which actually predates Philadelphia’s historic meetings. Founded in 1680, Newton’s fortunes have suffered with the exodus of many whites, including Quakers, from Camden during its decline since the 1970s. But a core group of mostly white and sometimes disaffected former members of larger meetings, has held it together. We have grown to more than 20 members in five years and are making our mark as a haven for social activists in the city and county. Our campus of a small schoolhouse and a meetinghouse is undergoing some rehabilitation similar to that of the spiritual community.

Several of our members are active with the Greater Camden Unity Coalition, which holds regularly meetings at Newton. As a mark of our development, Newton Meeting hosted a meeting and picnic of Haddonfield Quarter of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on June 26, 2004. We could not be more proud of how far we have come as a spiritual community. And having found my spiritual home in a small, struggling meeting, I have reached a personal benchmark in celebrating seven years as a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

Francine E. Cheeks

Francine E. Cheeks, a member of Newton Meeting in Camden, N.J., is director of Communications for American Friends Service Committee.