An Online Lifeline for Friends of Color

2020 Virtual FGC Gathering People of Color Zoom meeting. Image courtesy of Vanessa Julye.

Zoom during the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Murder of George Floyd

Feeling wrapped in the arms of God, I sit in front of my computer silently waiting. I smile as I look at the screen and see faces of Friends of Color framed in rectangular boxes. I look at each face, feeling the warmth of their presence. Some have their eyes closed; others are open. They seem to be still pictures until someone blinks, or shifts their body. Yes, we are all here together sitting in front of our computers, iPads, or cell phone screens, connecting to God as a community.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and focus on the beat of my heart, as I breathe air in and out of my lungs. I feel the arms of God encircle my body as we breathe, sing, laugh, and cry together with our messages from God. How I wish I could bask forever in this space. All too soon, the hour will end, and these beautiful brown faces and their voices will disappear, forcing me to wait another week to see and feel them once again encircled with me and God.   

As the virus spread and the deaths increased, People of Color felt our constant state of stress and fear escalate as we witnessed, with each racially unjust incident, the continued dispensability of bodies and lives of color. People I knew were getting infected, some recovering and others dying; all of them were People of Color except for one.

On March 9, I left Friends General Conference’s (FGC) Center City office in Philadelphia and began working from our enclosed porch in the city’s West Mount Airy neighborhood. Initially my main focus was the hope that this pandemic would be over in time for the scheduled Friends of Color Retreat for Friends in Intermountain, North Pacific, and Pacific Yearly Meetings. We were expecting to gather in the Portland, Oregon, area for a weekend in April. When it was clear that we could not come together as a group without risking each other’s health, we rescheduled the in-person retreat for October. Then we designed and held an all-day virtual retreat over Zoom on April 18. I was disappointed that we were not going to be able to meet in person. The virtual retreat was smaller than we expected, yet nurturing and enriching for those who participated. In their evaluations Friends stated:

“I was looking forward to the Friends of Color Retreat scheduled to happen in early Spring 2020, and cancelled because of the coronavirus, but in the absence of an in-person retreat, a Friends of Color gathering via Zoom was the next best thing.”

“I appreciated widening my personal community of People of Color.”

“Listening to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Friends’ experiences at their respective meetings, and realizing how universal that experience is to all of us, I felt validated about my feelings regarding my own meeting, and tons of compassion and empathy for my fellow Friends of Color. All in all, the retreat felt cathartic and sort of therapeutic. I felt immense gratitude for the connections and representation.”

As the virus progressed, more people became sick; several friends and relatives died. I found my Sunday worship times with other members of North Philadelphia’s Ujima Friends Peace Center became more precious and healing. Ujima is a space where I am nurtured and can cherish my connection with God and my community. It is a space where I can share my life experiences with others who are also worrying about themselves or their family members getting sick from COVID-19, being shot and killed by the police, accused of shoplifting in stores, expected to move out of the way of a person of European descent when they encounter one another on the sidewalk, and carrying the daily stress of being shown in so many ways that our society considers us less than human. As many of us are experiencing a change in our energy level, I too need a place to step away from my work on racial equity with People of European descent to replenish myself. When I worship with Ujima, I do not have to use energy teaching and censoring (others’ messages or mine), which is exhausting. Worship with Ujima gives me an opportunity to fill my heart and soul.

Illustrations © Nadia Snopek

I know how powerful our time together in a predominantly African American community is for me, and felt the need to provide a similar space for more Friends of Color to worship together. I reached out to the clerk of FGC’s Committee for Nurturing Ministries who agreed providing weekly midweek virtual worships specifically for Friends of Color was a good idea.

In 2018, FGC’s Ministry on Racism Program began sponsoring a monthly virtual worship for Friends of Color as a result of a request from Friends who didn’t feel welcome in their meetings or didn’t have a meeting in their area. For more information on why we established that meeting see my article “Are We Ready to Make the Necessary Changes?” published in the January 2019 issue of Friends Journal.

It was clear that we needed to increase our worship opportunities during this pandemic. So we held our first midweek worship on March 24, 2020. Friends who attended agreed they wanted to make this virtual worship a weekly experience. As the information spread about the worship sessions, more Friends of Color registered. (At the time this article was written, a total of 62 people have registered.) Several expressed a desire to participate but couldn’t meet during the day, so we added a weekly evening worship and a separate worship sharing time. Yamilka Hayes from Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oregon, shared with me:

Worshiping at a meeting where I’m one of only three Friends of Color can be challenging at times; therefore, being able to spiritually connect with other Black, Indigenous, People of Color Friends means so much to me, even if it’s only online. It is very heartening, edifying, and validating to listen to the experiences of other People of Color within Quakerism, and learn about the Spirit-centering ways they handle the challenges they face in their respective meetings. For that, I am extremely grateful.

There is no substitute for the hugs and kisses shared last year at the end of our first Friends of Color Retreat on the West Coast. Having said that, the Internet has brought me the opportunity to bond and worship with Friends of Color from all over the country. I have worship shared with Friends from New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, and Washington State, and I hope to worship with many more in the near future. Even though we are worshiping at a distance, the fellowship ties feel strong and genuine.

When it comes to worship sharing, the ability to do so online on a weekly basis is priceless, and it feels like a spiritually grounded affinity group.

Additionally, isn’t it great to be able to use the Internet for something as important and edifying as connecting with each other to share our spiritual abundance?

Friends of Color were sharing our fear and pain for our loved ones, and eventually the statistics showed what we already knew: COVID-19 was infecting and killing People of Color disproportionately internationally. It soon became clear that Friends of Color needed an additional space: a virtual place where we could talk, sing, dance, laugh, and cry together; a space to share our trauma, fear, pain, anger, hopes, and exhaustion together. FGC’s Ministry on Racism Program then established an open house. We envisioned this time together to be fluid where people could flow in and out, instead it has turned into a precious time that people find difficult to leave once they have joined. After our time together on May 22, 2020, two separate Friends sent messages saying:

“Last night’s open house for People of Color was nurturing and inspiring.”

“I’m so glad to have had this opportunity to connect with Friends of Color from around the country. I look forward to future opportunities to gather with Friends of Color and will be taking advantage of the many opportunities that the Ministry on Racism has organized for this purpose.”

Then on May 25, an African American man, Christian Cooper, told Amy Cooper (no relation), a European American woman, to put her dog on a leash. She responded to his request with threats and actually calling the police, whom she told: “Send the cops immediately. There’s an African American man. He’s recording me and threatening me and my dog.” Later that evening George Floyd, another African American man, was murdered by the Minneapolis police. Once again, we watched a recording of the police ignoring an African American man who told them “I can’t breathe,” then, “I’m about to die,” and he did. This occurred after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia on February 23 and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky on March 13, both committed by men of European descent who, once again, initially did not face any legal consequences for their actions. People took to the streets to protest another occurrence of state-sanctioned violence. As an African American in this country, I am among the many of us who are experiencing pain and anger as we watch the protests break out all over the world, and are praying that this time, they will finally lead this country and the world to abolish White supremacy from our institutions. We are asking ourselves: will this cry for structural change be sustained and create a movement that changes the culture in our country?

In the midst of such despair and turmoil, our collective trauma, exhaustion, sadness, and anger have increased. Friends of Color are finding it harder to be in predominantly White environments including our Quaker meetings. As we checked in with each other after worship that week, and up to the writing of this article, more Friends of Color have expressed the importance of the People of Color spaces FGC is providing. Many have stopped worshiping with their meetings. They are no longer feeling nurtured in those environments.

As you have heard, I and other Friends of Color have cherished these virtual spaces which have kept us connected to Quakerism. Some Friends participate in all three of our virtual offerings. We have had Friends of Color from Mexico, Ghana, Iran, and Canada join us. I am glad that FGC is able to support Friends of Color whose clear need to connect with one another has been heightened by the coronavirus pandemic and increased governmentally supported white supremacist attacks and killings of People of Color in our country. On a daily basis, we feel and live these traumas as individuals and as a community. It is important for us to have spaces where we can be a part of a community that focuses on our experiences, where we do not need to educate, worry about offending, or being angered by the words of people of European descent. The United States of America has shown us that we are not safe even in our own homes. These virtual spaces are of vital importance to Friends of Color in these dangerous times. Last month, I was sent this affirming message by a Friend of Color: “I appreciate the work of this office and Vanessa which has been so important. Y’all are my heroes.”

Recently, Yamilka Hayes shared with me: 

It would be wonderful and useful to continue to connect with Friends of Color via Zoom once the quarantine is lifted. This opportunity to gather, share, and support each other has been a silver lining around the very unfortunate situation we find ourselves in at this time, and I truly hope we can continue to gather in this manner for the foreseeable future. 

I agree and will do what I can to help FGC honor this way of supporting Friends of Color. FGC provided several opportunities for Friends of Color and their families to spend time together during our summer virtual Gathering in which many People of Color participated. FGC will be offering more virtual retreats for People of Color in the fall. If you are or know a Friend of Color I hope you will join us for one or all of our activities. You can register for our worship, worship sharing or open house on the website. 

Vanessa Julye

Vanessa Julye leads workshops, and speaks and writes articles on issues regarding racism. A member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, who travels under a concern for addressing racism in Quakerism with a travel minute from her meeting, Vanessa is Friends General Conference’s coordinator for the Ministry on Racism, Youth, and Institutional Assessment.

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