My work takes me every year to the Friends General Conference Gathering. Held in early July, the Gathering draws hundreds of Friends from across North America to a reunion and retreat on a college campus for a week. I enjoy spending a week among Quakers and seekers, new Friends and old. Many longtime attenders of the Gathering have come to love it as a place where they can truly be themselves, be appreciated for who they are, and find others like them among whom to worship and grow. Some of us who are way outside the mainstream of the societies in which we live our daily lives can find a critical mass of spiritual and cultural companions at the Gathering. Providing this opportunity for community and fellowship is no small feat.
Not everybody who attends the Gathering feels that way, though. This was visibly clear when I took my seat in a cavernous auditorium for the All-Gathering Welcome on July 3, at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Seated on the stage were a few dozen Friends representing FGC staff and committees, hosts and clerks. There was not a single face I could identify as non-white. I looked around at the audience. Like me, they seemed to be all white as well. Addressing us after opening worship, FGC general secretary Barry Crossno explained that Friends of color, aching over incidents of racial harassment they had experienced since their arrival in St. Joseph and feeling unheard and unrepresented in the Gathering’s site-selection process, had after much labor and dialogue chosen to make a statement by absenting themselves from the evening session. Reading from a statement that had been drafted to summarize that dialogue, Barry stated that “the culture of FGC, in spite of our intentions, mirrors that dominant white supremacist culture with cruel severity and persistence.” This painful confession seemed, to me, to be of appropriate gravity. It weighed on my heart throughout the week, which would include the tragic killing of Philando Castile by a police officer mere miles away. Our coverage in this issue of the Gathering is of corresponding gravity; for our readers we seek to shed more light on that virus within Friends culture in North America and suggest tactics, strategies, and prayers to help combat it.
I want a diverse Quakerism, not one where everyone looks like me and shares my cultural background. I’m starting to see disease, not comfort, in rooms without a variety of races and ethnicities. I continue to believe that there is nothing inherent in the core of Quakerism that should make it anything less than fully embracing of non-white members—witness, for example, the growth of Friends churches in Kenya and Latin America. But a history of ignoring and undervaluing the contributions and perspectives of people of color, no matter how noble our intent, has left us North Americans with structures that codify and perpetuate racial exclusion and neglect.
We need to share a commitment to doing hard spiritual work. We need to be willing to recognize the racism that persists in our structures and to be eager to tear them down and build ones that are anti-racist and inclusive. We need to recognize those among us who are doing that work, and join them as allies and champions. We need to ask what we, ourselves, are called to learn and do for the cause. Most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that God is speaking today through our words and actions, each one of us. When you tell me I am hurting you, I need to listen and be ready and willing to act, in love and compassion.