It’s Saturday evening and the talent show is about to begin. The first act is a series of Irish jokes about lazy, stupid, drunken Irishmen, delivered with an exaggerated mock Irish accent. All around us there is laughter and applause. Where are we? The 2006 Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting (SAYMA).
Yes, we were shocked too. We quickly went to find the two Friends whose interest group on racism we had attended. The four of us then took the stage to share our concerns about both the racist jokes and the positive response from the audience. It wasn’t easy to stand up in front of 200 Quakers and name what was happening. It’s never easy to challenge the status quo. But in a Quaker gathering whose purpose was to reflect on our Testimonies of Equality, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Simplicity—how could we have done otherwise?
It was heartening to be met with applause. In the remaining hours of the gathering, 50 to 60 people thanked us for speaking up.
Suddenly, SAYMA was buzzing. The overwhelmingly positive response to our challenge from so many people, asking so many questions, came as a complete surprise to us. We were approached on the stairs, in the bathroom, in the line for food, in the shower, everywhere!
People wanted to talk about what had happened and what we had said. Some had felt uncomfortable about the jokes and unsure why. Others were clear that they were racist but didn’t feel able to say so. Some felt embarrassed that it had fallen to visitors to speak up for them. Others commended our courage to speak up. One or two didn’t understand what the fuss was about. We could see some people visibly recoiling from what appeared uncomfortable, unsafe, and messy.
Early Quakers adopted the Testimonies "as witness to a divinely inspired view of society, and so against any action, personal, social, or international that in any way diminishes human beings." They had a vision of a better world that many were prepared to live by, knowing it would cost them to do so. Yet we heard one Friend at SAYMA refer to Quakers as "harmless."
What has happened over the last 350 years that our testimonies changed from being an active challenge to society into a harmless, comfortable armchair? Why did so many people feel it took courage to stand up and speak out? Why did we feel afraid to speak from our testimonies at a Quaker gathering convened to reflect on them? Why were so many people relieved when we did?