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We Are Not John Woolman

Colin Kaepernick. © Brook Ward, flickr​.com, CC BY‐NC 2.0

Most people are aware of Nike doing an advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League (NFL) player who “took a knee” during the U.S. national anthem to protest police violence against Black people. The ad states, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Nike decided to take a chance in the present moment to land on the right side of history.

Many conservatives and “support the troops” types of people are upset about the ad (and the protest). Some have asked for a boycott of Nike, and others are burning their Nike shoes and gear. The current president of the U.S. of A. has called Kaepernick and other NFL players “sons of bitches” and stated that they should be fired for their kneeling in protest.

Kaepernick has been blackballed from the NFL: no team has hired him since he became a free agent after the 2016 season, and he has filed a grievance against the owners for colluding to not hire him. But many people see him as a hero, a modern‐day Martin Luther King Jr. The same thing happened to Mohammed Ali in the late 1960s: he was stripped of his World Boxing Association title when he refused to go to Vietnam because he considered it an immoral war. The media at the time ate him alive.

How Kaepernick has been depicted by the media reminds me of three of our Quaker heroes: John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Benjamin Lay. In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), where they were members, we are told that Quakers should strive to be like these three Friends: they followed the Inward Light to do what was right, if not popular. Their ministries changed hearts and minds, the future of PYM, and thus all Quakers in America. We hold them up as proof of God showing us the way, through continuing revelation and discernment.

A young man had a vision that changed his life. He refused to have anything to do with slavery or to profit from the misery of enslaved people. He refused to use things made by them, or to have a more comfortable life because their lives were so bad. He traveled around speaking to people about slavery and land theft (colonization). Many people did not want to be around him, hear what he had to say, or give up their comfort for what was right. And we are not John Woolman.

A thoughtful and devout seeker wanted Friends to feel for a minute, an hour, a day what it felt like for the enslaved when their children were sold down the river. He would not wear anything, nor eat anything, made from the loss of animal life or provided in any degree by slave labor. Friends disliked him so much that they read him out of his meeting (this has recently happened to another Friend from the same quarter). And we are not Benjamin Lay.

An original feminist understood that these people who did not look like her were people to be respected nonetheless. Contemporary Quakers did not want to be around her. At one point, PYM refused to renew her minute of religious service, hoping it would shut her up. She put her life and her reputation on the line to really be an ally. And we are not Lucretia Mott.

So now Quakers love to talk about Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay, but we don’t want to do what they did. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our meetings; we don’t want to be “divisive”; and we don’t want our spirituality to be disrupted by worldly concerns.

What does being that kind of ally look like today in the face of Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions, police brutality, and failing schools? What would it look like for a Quaker to put on the cloak of Lucretia Mott and actually work to create the Beloved Community today?

Quakers came here, like all the other European settlers, and stole land. Quakers enslaved and used free labor and built up the land they had stolen. How did they miss the meaning of our testimonies about equality and simplicity? Very few Quakers realized this was wrong and worked against it. Even after emancipation, we still had the back bench in our meetings reserved for Black visitors and our Quaker schools were racially segregated.

So now Quakers love to talk about Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay, but we don’t want to do what they did. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our meetings; we don’t want to be “divisive”; and we don’t want our spirituality to be disrupted by worldly concerns.

Because he believed in that of God in everyone, Lay—were he a Friend today—would have the situation in Palestine paramount in his mind, along with Black Lives Matter, police brutality, sanctuary, and mass incarceration. He would support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. He would be  concerned for people living with malaria and AIDS and for children held prey to child‐sex rings. Hunger and the other effects of poverty and global climate change would occupy our Quaker heroes every day. What would we wear if we did not have slave labor to clothe us today?

Mott was willing to form relationships that grew from her understanding of “the other.” The average U.S. Quaker lives in a white neighborhood, works at a white job, and sends their kids to white schools. To what extent are Quakers today willing to live in different neighborhoods, send our kids to different schools, and support different causes?

It seems that Friends see pieces of ourselves in Woolman, Mott, and Lay. Yet, there is little that we do that matters to anyone who is not a Quaker.

Quakers love to tell the story of how we got the name Quaker. According to George Fox’s autobiography, Justice Gervase Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because [Fox] bade them tremble at the word of the Lord” during a 1650 blasphemy trial. I cannot even imagine a modern‐day Friend who would tremble at the truth of the white supremacy our culture is so caught up in. Are we really pioneers or mavericks?

It seems that Friends see pieces of ourselves in Woolman, Mott, and Lay. Yet, there is little that we do that matters to anyone who is not a Quaker.

We want to hold Lay, Woolman, and Mott up as examples, but those Friends were always looking at the larger picture and they faced serious consequences for their actions. Look at how Lay died: alone, in a cave, and with few possessions. Kaepernick has lost millions of dollars by remaining unsigned for the 2017 and current 2018 seasons (he also has received death threats). Mott was almost burned alive while organizing. “Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege,” she wrote. By contrast, what Friend is willing to give up anything that they have?

What would the United States look like if we had a current‐day Woolman, Lay, and Mott? Are we willing to step up our game to find out?

The prophetic agitator is remembered and spoken of years later. The people that wanted them gone are forgotten today.

Where do you fall? Are we on the right side of history today, Friends? Who are the Quakers today that will be remembered in 200 years? What would the United States look like if we had a current‐day Woolman, Lay, and Mott? Are we willing to step up our game to find out? Or are we content to be forgotten? To crush the prophet for what we see as dishonoring our equivalent of a flag?

Gabbreell James is a lifelong Friend of color, active in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Undoing Racism Group and at her monthly meeting, Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia. She wants to help Friends be truly welcoming to all people.


Posted in: Features, Racially Diverse Society of Friends (January 2019)

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9 Responses to We Are Not John Woolman

  1. Viv Hawkins January 1, 2019 at 4:57 pm #

    City & State
    Philadelphia, PA
    Thank you, Gabbreell, for the truth and strength of your words and the invitation they offer us to risk becoming more like the People we profess to be.

  2. Joan Broadfield January 1, 2019 at 11:41 pm #

    City & State
    Chester PA
    Thanks, Gabbreell, for writing and FJ for printing. I deeply appreciate the earnest honesty and will hold this in my heart this year to strengthen my actions to make a difference. Happy new year!!

  3. Buffy Curtis January 2, 2019 at 11:02 am #

    City & State
    NY
    Thank you Gabbreell for lifting up such an important truth that many of us can/are willing to relate to and work with. It’s good to have it in print for the wider audience and to help create the hoped for conversation which needs arise from it!
    Thanks too, to Friends Journal for this issue and for printing this. May our New Year embrace this conversation and challenge us into being our best selves in Friendship!

  4. Hayley Hathaway January 4, 2019 at 12:16 pm #

    City & State
    Canton CT
    I want to take a highlighter to this whole article, reflect on my answers to Gabbreell’s challenging and essential questions, share it with Friends everywhere, and get to work. Let’s challenge ourselves to be faithful enough to look deeply at ourselves, our meetings, our Society. “What Friend is willing to give up anything that they have?”

  5. Susan Chast January 4, 2019 at 8:47 pm #

    City & State
    Lansdowne, PA
    What brilliant questions, laced with the stories of people that make sense of them: John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Benjamin Lay and Colin Kaepernick. I ask myself these questions–and continue to wrestle with them. I don’t want to be remembered, truly, but I want to have the courage to be a Quaker. I knew a few with that courage in the early 1980s at the Womens Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, and they converted me from non‐Quaker. I had some of the courage I admired in others when I was a professor of theatre in Virginia, and a teacher in SDP, but since then have moved into the position of spectator. Spect‐acting may have some value for people like me, and I have done it in workshop after workshop, but very little in the world.

    I know a few more Quakers with courage to create and live change now in and around PfFM and Pendle Hill. Like the 4 people you identify, they are mostly, but not only, Friends of Color. Has it always been so few who step forward? What if a larger ground swell rose up, willing to revitalize the Religious Society of friends with less tradition and more prophetic agitators? Will we be willing to let go of less effective practice and those who insist upon it?

    The more I read of this revolutionary issue of Friends Journal, the more I have hope. Thank you for writing, Gabbreell. Thank you for your Quaker faith and courage.

  6. Oskar P Castro January 5, 2019 at 11:37 am #

    City & State
    Philadelphia, PA
    Thank you Gabbreell for composing words that resonate greatly with my own thoughts and feelings.

  7. Jeanne Marie Mudd January 5, 2019 at 5:30 pm #

    City & State
    Arizona
    Much as I would love to claim that my Quaker practice is akin to the Quaker greats I know I have blind spots and fall short. Thank to Gabbreell for this call to accountability and to better practice. I will no longer stand aside when I see or hear Friends using our practice to silence dissent. I will allow the Holy to nudge my awakening as I more deeply commit toundoing racism.

  8. Keith Saylor January 16, 2019 at 10:55 am #

    City & State
    Bandon, Or
    Where do I fall? Through the appearance of the immanent inshining presence of God in my conscience and consciousness, I am come out of the process identification with and participation in outward political, religious, and social ideological constructs, opinion, agitation propaganda, and the leaders and institutions that profess and promote such outward forms, to inform human relationships and interactions. I am come out of the process of reflective thought to organize and manage relationships and interactions. I am come out of the process of looking to the reflections or mirrors people and institutions set up to guide and inform human relationships. Through the direct and immediate rule of immanent Presence itself in itself, these outwardly mirrored reflections are shattered, no longer informing human interaction. Truly, I am come into the thing itself and see passed outwardly established reflective forms to the thing itself as sufficient guide in itself. I do not look to outward forms to inform human relationships and interactions. I am come into the direct and immediate rule of the inshining Life itself in my conscience and consciousness. The outward ideological reflections and mirrors political agitators set up that people would look into them to guide, rule, inform, manage, administer, and influence the conscience and consciousness of others are no longer of influence as the image of immanent Presence itself in itself governs and is enthroned in the conscience; revealing a different way of human being, relationships, and interactions.

  9. Zae January 18, 2019 at 11:08 am #

    City & State
    San Francisco, CA
    “What would it look like for a Quaker to put on the cloak of Lucretia Mott and actually work to create the Beloved Community today?”

    That query shall sit with me today.

    Grateful for your ministry,

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