When Ayesha Imani found Quakers, she knew this was where she belonged. But she also felt limited by the culture she perceived in Quaker meeting—that is until she tried worshiping with other Quakers of African descent.
The first time I came to a meeting for worship, I thought I had wandered into a group of people who actually believed that God was still able to speak directly to them. I remember saying, “Oh my God, this is Pentecost!” I couldn’t believe that these people think God is actually going to speak to them! I’m down for this. This is where I belong.
How Does Culture Influence Quaker Worship?
I’m Ayesha Imani, and I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I’m a member of Germantown Monthly Meeting and the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent, and I worship at Ujima Friends Peace Center in North Philadelphia.
How Culture Can Influence Unprogrammed Worship
In an unprogrammed meeting, you come together expecting the Spirit to show up—hopefully, not knowing exactly what form that will take. However, we tend to be culture‐bound people too, and after hanging out with Quakers for a while and being one of only a few people of African descent, it became clear that there’s the waiting on the Spirit, but there’s also the requirement to the Spirit that, “You can speak to me but only in certain ways. Please do it in complete sentences. Please use standard English.” And then when I rise and I share, I’m going to share in the way that I’ve been taught to communicate.
Being Free in the Spirit
You may find yourself having difficulty really being free in the Spirit. And it seemed to me that there was this liberty of the Spirit that really was at the root of Quakerism, but as Quakerism developed and developed amongst a particular race and a particular class over time—different from the class that it started with—then Quaker meeting began to kind of perform itself in a way that was very cerebral and reflected the cultural orientation of the White, middle‐class folk who had gathered.
And though I found that to be a rich experience, I also believed that I wasn’t operating in the liberty that the Spirit had set me free in—not that the people there were doing something that they were supposed to do differently, but that I was not following the Spirit in the ways that I was always led to because I was afraid of not being accepted.
Gathering with Friends of African Descent
And therefore, I was saying let’s put a call out to Friends of African descent or people who might come into community with one another and have different expectations of how the Spirit expresses herself.
The Fellowship of Friends of African Descent is a community of Quakers of African descent who came together in about 1990, and I think we came together just to see whether there were more people who looked like each of us individually, because there are so many Friends of African descent who are in meetings where there’s just one of them. But we believed that just our coming together would be something that (a) would be historic, and (b) we believed it would be powerful. And it was.
We met at Pendle Hill, and our first worship was three hours. And I don’t think we wanted to stop then! It was like really and truly coming home. Coming home in terms of finding this space in the Spirit where we really felt that we could be who we were, and that we could just open the ancestral floodgates and allow our experience as a people to enter into this worship space.
Experimenting with Freedom
When we began to come together, we began to experiment with freedom—that it was okay to laugh when someone was funny, that it was okay to say “amen” or “ashe,” that it was okay to clap your hands or click your fingers. That it was okay, if someone started a song, for you to jump in with some harmony on that. That it was okay to stand up or to sit. That it was okay to fall down on your knees and raise your hands like in praise. It was all okay.
So we’re still on that journey of saying, “There’s a liberty of the Spirit that we’ve been given, and we also want to give that liberty back to God.” And as God has made us free to say, “God, you can cut up a little bit in this space! You can be free in this space. You don’t have to be limited by these particular cultural expectations.”
Because I do believe that it wasn’t over with the Book of Revelation. It’s not a Genesis‐to‐Revelation kind of thing. The Spirit is real, and the Spirit still wants to engage us, and if we are just open, amazing things can happen.
I have often felt profoundly moved to fall on my knees or lean my head on the bench ahead of me and weep. Over time, I have conformed, not because anyone did anything to compel me, just because nobody else knelt or wept. I was grateful to a few who raised their hands in joy.
I love my meeting with all my heart, yet I recognize our form of worship as culturally shaped. Reading this thoughtful and beautiful piece, I may yet burst into song or slip to my knees in gratitude. —Sharon (Michigan)