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Discovering Fellowship among African American Friends

In 1992, shortly after I joined Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting and officially became a Quaker, it was announced on public radio that an organization of African American Quakers was meeting that weekend on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. I was curious and tried to locate the gathering, but to no avail.

Sandy Spring Meeting, with over 300 members and attenders, had only one African American member and two other persons of color before I began to attend. My young cousin, who had attended meeting with me regularly, complained that its lack of diversity undermined her ability to center down in the silence. Eventually she stopped attending.

I persisted. Unprogrammed worship spoke to my condition like no prior religious practice. I thought of myself as having always been a Quaker without ever having known it. I did not feel that the dearth of persons of color in meeting, particularly African Americans like myself, was having any particular effect on my spiritual life. In meeting for worship I became centered without much difficulty. I felt free to share vocal ministry when led, and I knew myself to be fully accepted by other members and attenders. I also became involved in other meaningful ways in the life of the meeting.

Then some‐thing happened. The first incident was an experience I had during meeting for worship. I happened to open my eyes for a moment, and there, directly in my line of sight, was the back of a dark brown neck with a head of dark, kinky hair. (As it happened, one of our college students had invited a young black fellow college student home for the weekend.) This perfectly ordinary occurrence, however, prompted some rather unusual stirrings in me.

While casually gazing upon the back of this young man’s head and neck, my forehead and temple muscles began to relax when I had not been aware of their tension. It felt as if warm water were flowing gently around my eyeballs. My breathing slowed, and I noticed myself feeling calmer, more serene—happier even. “How weird,” I thought. What was going on? My responses puzzled me. Why was I reacting in such an unusual way to the sight of a nameless, faceless stranger?

The second incident occurred many months later. It involved a black woman who spoke during meeting for worship. She said that she had come to visit the old farmstead near our meetinghouse where her family still worked land deeded them by Friends almost 200 years earlier. She could not leave Sandy Spring again, she said, without expressing her deep appreciation for the Quakers’ emancipation of her ancestors from slavery. As a token of her gratitude, she sang a religious song I cannot now remember. She sang with such great beauty and depth of feeling that many in attendance, including me, were nearly brought to tears.

After meeting, several of us went over to welcome and thank her for her wonderful offering of song. When it was my turn, to my great surprise, I threw my arms around her and gave her a big hug. I felt immediately connected to her, related in some way, as if she were a long‐lost friend or family member. I wanted her to commit herself to coming back to meeting again, but she indicated that she did not live anywhere near the area. I felt acutely disappointed—but why?

After this encounter, I began to wonder whether underneath the unmatched joy I felt in silent worship, underneath my secure knowledge that I was meaningfully and fully embedded in Quakerism, and despite the absence of any conscious feeling of racial or cultural distance from others in meeting, I was subconsciously experiencing a degree of alienation. I was missing the presence of African Americans as a regular part of my religious experience. I wondered if my commitment to Quakerism had to come at the price of ethnic isolation. I wondered if my African American spirituality was somehow inherently incompatible with unprogrammed Quaker worship.

I began researching African Americans in relation to the history of Quakerism in the U.S. I found Henry Joel Cadbury’s 1936 article, “Negro Membership in the Society of Friends,” from the Journal of Negro History (see www​.qhpress​.org). After reading it several times, I came to understand the dearth of African American Quakers today as an outgrowth of prior patterns of racial exclusivity that Quakers and most other European American religions shared at the time, but which other denominations, unlike Quakers, offset later by subsequent evangelistic efforts focused on the black community. I concluded that there was nothing Quakerly or even natural about the overwhelming whiteness of Quakerism in the United States. It was historically created by artificial means, and it has simply gone without an effective historical corrective.

Despite my newfound understanding of Quaker history, I nevertheless felt I wanted and needed to become acquainted with more African Americans who were unprogrammed Friends. I wanted very much to share silent Quaker worship with more than just one or two other black folk. I wanted to know whether I would discern differences between my usual worship experience and one in which there was more than just a sprinkling of fellow African Americans. I determined then, to try again to find the organization of African American Quakers of which I had previously heard.

I had met a few black Quakers from Philadelphia doing volunteer work with American Friends Service Committee. They surely would have heard of the group I was seeking. Upon inquiring, I found out how to get on the mailing list and learned of their next gathering. Unfortunately, it was scheduled during the same time my family would be driving cross‐country to our new home in southern California, and I couldn’t go.

Two years later, in 1996, I was finally able to attend my first gathering of the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent (FFAD). I traveled back east to Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, filled with anticipation. A group of about 30 African American Friends and their family members attended. I was overjoyed to be there. Everyone was so warm and friendly. It felt like some kind of homecoming. I paid my dues, joined up, and, some years later, I became a member of the FFAD Continuing Committee.

In the late spring and early summer of 2002, we members of the Continuing Committee were very worried. Having the responsibility of planning and executing the semiannual gathering and for keeping FFAD functioning between gatherings, we had been dutifully holding our monthly telephonic committee meetings with a growing sense of concern as the time for the gathering drew nearer.

Our gathering preregistration numbers were abysmal. Like other organizations having nationwide membership, we depend upon the willingness of people to travel by plane. Lingering uncertainty felt by many toward air travel after the events of September 11, 2001, was giving us pause. Recognizing that under normal circumstances our gatherings are small (under 50), we wondered whether anyone would actually come that year.

April became May; then June and July were upon us. Still our anticipated registrations were significantly below the year before. What was going on? We could only speculate. Admittedly, our site this year was less exotic than Jamaica, the gathering place in 2000. Was that a factor? Were we being negatively impacted by recent overseas travel of the significant number of our members just back from the 2002 Friends United Meeting Triennial in Nairobi, Kenya?

In addition, by the time I was actually en route to Pendle Hill, I was experiencing spiritual concerns on a much more personal level. I had been out of town much more this year than was my custom, and perhaps my spirits were dampened by an inability to get to meeting enough lately. I wondered whether my needs for spiritual expression in meeting for worship were a bit too overt, perhaps; a bit too intense, somehow; tolerated, but still maybe just a little out of place among silent meeting Friends. Tiny doubts about the fit of my spirituality within Quakerism began taking root.

My husband and I attended his mother’s church on the Sunday just before the FFAD gathering. There, among a congregation of hundreds of African Americans, I was uplifted by the energy of spirit‐filled gospel music and rejuvenated by fervent prayers emboldened by our common, yet unspoken, experience of life in the United States. I wondered aloud to my husband: “How much longer can I survive spiritually as a Quaker when it means being cut off from other African Americans to such a degree?”

I arrived at Pendle Hill with these concerns weighing heavily on my spirit. The theme of the 2002 FFAD Gathering was, “Come, Holy Spirit, Revive Us Again,” and one more fitting for my condition could not have been chosen.

For reasons of which I have little understanding, during my five days at the gathering, every experience of unprogrammed Quaker worship felt somehow deeper and more intense. I consistently experienced the silence more profoundly. I related more intimately to the spoken ministries of others. I was soothed and comforted by the many ministries of song flowing spontaneously through the gathered group. Time after time our silent worship felt “covered.” In remembrance of our dear departed ones, we poured libation in an unprogrammed experience that today I still find difficult to put into words. Still more surprising for me were the two occasions during this five‐day gathering when I found myself, for the first time in my ten‐plus years as a practicing Quaker, actually quaking in meeting for worship.

Since my return from that FFAD Gathering, I have been trying to rationalize my experiences there. I have even been tempted to embrace old stereotypical ideas that we blacks are just naturally more musical and more spiritual than others.

Then, while reading the July/August 2002 issue of Friends Bulletin, I came across an article, “Embodying Spirituality as a Quaker Man,” by Stanford Searl.

The further I read into the piece, the more astounded I became. Stanford Searl’s article describes his experiences at a Quaker men’s weekend in England at Woodbrooke, and in instance after instance his words described experiences I’d had at the FFAD Gathering. He wrote:

Being with more than 20 other Quaker [men], singing together, sharing our pain, sorrow, and joy, allowed me to emerge as a more embodied, centered [man]—one who could bring more of my heart and soul, as well as my mind, to my identity as a Quaker.

I shared parts of my journey with them, listened to their journeys, and became absorbed in a shared spiritual pilgrimage of emerging Quaker identity, tentatively groping towards a more embodied Spirituality.

Stanford Searl’s research sources, his observations, his questions, and his conclusions could easily have been written word for word by me. My insights since the 2002 FFAD Gathering match those in his article with a precision that is astounding to me. What is it about these two different settings that explains the profound similarities in our experiences? I think the answer may be in this observation of Stanford Searl’s:

I’ve felt in [30] years of participating in Quaker business meetings, committee meetings or similar instances of Quaker time, that there’s a socially defined tendency to regress to some sort of Quaker norms, particularly when it comes to the treatment of and tolerance for emotions.

Before reading his article, I could have easily attributed my FFAD Gathering experience to the common denominator of race/ethnicity. I might have even succumbed to theories attributing special spiritual and musical characteristics to African Americans. But his experience of the men’s weekend in England seriously undermines those convenient explanations, however seemingly attractive in their quaintness.

I think it more likely that we Quakers who organize and attend these kinds of spiritual gatherings do so because we need them. I think we seek a setting where our outward expressions of feeling in worship seem more genuinely affirmed as being wholly within the range of traditional Quaker spirituality. It is my opinion that meetings may so discourage expression of emotion in worship that some participants resist true promptings of the Spirit rather than risk disapprobation, however subtle. In my opinion, such self‐restraint is un‐Quakerly, and undermines the vitality of unprogrammed worship.

Stanford Searl’s article cites authorities that, in my opinion, speak cogently to this issue: “Ben Pink Dandelion pointed out [that] the culture in British Quakerism [including self‐censorship] has become a sort of orthodoxy, [my italics] almost a kind of noncreedal creed, with many strictures and rules” that “undercut a free ministry” and are likely to work against achieving a comfort level in meeting by those not sharing these cultural norms.

Stanford Searl wrote for me when he observed, “Can I rock in Quaker meeting? I can hear the various voices: Well, of course you can … after all, nobody’s standing in your way. Unfortunately, my very training and education as a Quaker stand in the way, don’t they?”

When I joined the Religious Society of Friends over ten years ago, I remember silently making a commitment to myself that I would not become “a brown‐skinned white person.” I had sensed early on that on some level my African American culture might be put at risk not by any religious tenets of Quakerism, but rather, by certain of its cultural expectations and assumptions. Adhering to the practice of unprogrammed Quakerism too often means adopting cultural norms and values that constrain and censor a truly free and sincerely spiritual witness, thereby directly contradicting the foundational principle of Quaker worship: that we are to be fully centered upon and led by the Spirit. If we were to practice the essence of true Quaker worship, we could not be so confined by culture, cut off by mechanical measures of time, or inhibited by notions of propriety not rooted deeply in Quaker spiritual principles. We would strive, instead, to be free in worship, fully open and responsive to a full range of leadings of the Spirit, from deep silence to joyful singing and even—dare I say it?—to dance. I think that fearlessly following this path consistently over the long term will eventually obviate all issues of multiculturalism, multiracialism, and inclusiveness. And I believe our meetings will experience vibrant renewal and growth in the process.

The other option, of course, is for us to continue in our present ways. And if we choose this path, we will eventually lose those who are faithfully and ceaselessly seeking what Stanford Searl calls, “the deep life of the Spirit.” The choice is ours. Shall we devote ourselves to practicing the deep spiritual principles of Quakerism, or to preserving cultural styles and manners so as to appear Quakerly? I seek the former, and participating in the gatherings of the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent affirms and encourages me along that path.
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This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Friends Bulletin.
©2003 Elmyra Powell

Elmyra (Amhara) Powell is a member of Orange Grove (Calif.) Meeting and the only Quaker in her entire extended family. A retired trial attorney and former student of theology who was eventually drawn to the mystical aspects of Quakerism, she pursues a ministry of encouraging and supporting other Friends in their ministries and in their spiritual lives.

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