An African American Man’s Experience as a Friend
Like many of us, I came to the Quaker faith community broken and with lots of burdensome spiritual, emotional, and psychological baggage that stifled my soul. But hidden beneath, within, and among those heavy bags were blessings that lightened the load.
The bags were filled, in part, with the indelible effects of racism. I grew up in North Carolina in a small Jim Crow town that was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. Like much of the baggage we carry, there was a blessing in that bag. The blessing was that this small town was integrated due to the mandatory desegregation of schools and other public facilities.
Another burdensome load was my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing, but I was blessed that it didn’t define my faith. As a college exchange student, I lived in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery, which broadened and deepened my religious sensibilities.
I was further weighed down because I was gay and felt isolated. Through therapy, I have struggled to accept myself and connect with others. My blessing was finding a life partner whom I married a year ago after 43 years of living together.
On my journey, I found comfort in the words of Iyanla Vanzant in her book Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color. She writes:
Being broken does not mean you are unequipped. There are enough pieces left for you to grab onto, hold onto. . . . More important, there are the pieces that well up from deep inside your being that will guide you surely and safely.
As a Quaker I believe it is that of God within me and every person that will help me put my soul back together.
I came to the Quaker community with many assumptions. First, I thought that Quakers never owned slaves and had always opposed slavery. That is not the case. It was the effort of many Friends who forced the issue of abolition onto the wealthy Quakers who chose to ignore the horrific realities of slavery.
Second, I assumed that slaves and freed Black people were always welcome as Friends. Not so. It was not until 1795 that Joseph Drinker wrote Plea for the Admission of Colored People to the Society of Friends.
Third, I assumed Friends kept good records of their community, but according to Henry Cadbury: “The earliest Quaker of African descent has no name and only sketchy information that he belonged to a meeting in New England.” Sarah Grimké says: “They would not affirm his gift in the ministry.” According to the authors of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, “The acceptance of African Americans into Quaker fellowship was no more common in the nineteenth century than it had been in the eighteenth.”
Fourth, I assumed all Quakers would look for the divinity within each person regardless of skin color. However, African Americans admitted to Quaker colleges experienced blatant racism during the 1920s. Friends meetings were slower to integrate than schools because of their bias against African Americans. It appears that even in the 1970s, African Americans in Quaker communities were still feeling isolated and marginalized. Imagine what a shock it was for me to read Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. I also expected all Quaker communities would accept gay, lesbian, and transgender people, but I was saddened to learn that many meetings have lost part of their congregations when they sought the sense of the meeting to become a welcoming community.
Quaker communities are struggling with the same issues as Mainline Protestant denominations, a fact that added a bit more weight to my emotional backpack. In my research, I discovered an article by Kwasi Wiredu: “Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics,” which said that “arriving at a consensus as a mode of decision making is not just a Quaker approach. It is the way decisions are made and implemented in many African societies.” Also, according to Mark Ellingsen in “Can Ancient African Styles of Making Decisions in the Early Church Still Work Today?,” the “use of silence in reaching decisions is not totally foreign to African cultural ways.”
The dispossessed are those souls broken, like me, by waves of life, whether born into poverty or struggling with subtle racism in the workplace. By embracing our brokenness, we find pieces that make us unique and talented; we discover our gifts.
One of my professors from Colgate Divinity School, James Cone, once said that “being black in America has little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.” The dispossessed are those souls broken, like me, by waves of life, whether born into poverty or struggling with subtle racism in the workplace. By embracing our brokenness, we find pieces that make us unique and talented; we discover our gifts. So, what are the gifts or blessings I can bring to this community?
First, music is a gift. We all know that early Quakers eschewed music as part of the worship experience. I believe, as Hans Christian Anderson stated so beautifully: “Where words fail, music speaks.” I bring music from the Black religious experience of spirituals and gospel songs. I am thankful that my unprogrammed community welcomes my sharing songs when the Spirit leads. I try not to abuse this privilege because I know the value of quiet contemplation.
Second, there is the gift of spoken ministry. As a former chaplain, I enjoy sharing meditations, and I spend much time researching and reflecting on them. Brief meditations may complement our time of deep, silent worship. It is important to highlight the Black experience by seeking recognition for Austin Steward, an unsung abolitionist, and to bring attention to Benjamin Lay, an early revolutionary of the Quaker faith and of our country.
Another gift is openness. I try to be open to the Spirit and open to the community around me. I have found that messages shared by other members have spoken directly to my needs. I am so thankful for this spontaneous ministry. I am also thankful for emotional acceptance. Being able to grieve and share my pain with members has been a true blessing. There is so much power in letting tears flow and hearing sounds of wailing within the silence of the room, knowing in this silence is support and love.
I also share the gift of hugs. Embracing others creates connection; a hug is uplifting, an act of support and encouragement. I am pleased and blessed to give and receive hugs within our community.
Then there is hospitality. I am not referring to “Southern hospitality,” even though I was born in the South; rather, I am referring to hospitality as defined by Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life:
Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.
This concept was developed during my years of theological study and is practiced in my daily life.
A final communal gift involves sharing food. I try to prepare something healthy and delicious for our refreshment time. This act nourishes not only the physical body but the spirit and soul as well. The foods we make or bring reflect our ethnicity and culture and enhance our appreciation of diversity.
I have tried to bring the gifts of my life experience to the community. Several years ago, I realized that one of the areas where I could make a difference was in reaching out to the Hobart and William Smith Colleges community in Geneva, New York, through ads in the student newspaper. The good news about the ads is that they made the college community aware of our existence and allowed me to build good working relationships with the student newspaper staff and to introduce them to unprogrammed worship (unfortunately the Central Finger Lakes Meeting was later laid down).
An Ashanti proverb is said to state: “True power comes through cooperation and silence.” I would like to share a quotation from a book mentioned earlier, Acts of Faith:
Have you ever heard the sun come out in the morning? Did you hear the moon come out last night? . . . We have been taught in this society that power is loud, forceful, aggressive and somewhat intimidating. It is not. In silence the Creator works. His creations all appear in silence. In silence one becomes attuned to the energies and forces that are unseen and unheard. In silence one learns to cooperate. . . . In silence one learns to bring the head and the heart into cooperation in order to move with the strength and power of the forces in the flow.
I hope that my gifts of compassion exemplify the silent strength that George Fox calls us to demonstrate.
I have shared my brokenness with you, the baggage that I carry. May it be a blessing to help each of us embrace our own humanity and see that of God in each other. By integrating my body, mind, and spirit, I aim to grow in compassion and empathy, thus allowing the Divine within me to touch whoever comes into my life.