Our Drop in the Wave of Liberation

This summer I had the honor of co-presenting the Growing Diverse Leadership report at Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) annual sessions. Alison Duncan, our committee clerk, opened our report by sharing an overview of our committee’s work to answer our charge to “discern how BYM’s committees and local meetings could work together to be more inclusive and to encourage and sustain participation of younger Friends.” After Alison, I spoke about the benefits of diversity to communities and the importance of the methodology of inclusion work, citing Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Dyresha Harris, BYM’s outreach and inclusion coordinator, closed our report with a call to action, sharing these words:

As I’ve reflected on why I was guided here to do this work in this place in this moment, I’ve realized that this faith is a force. It is a force in the outer world. Not a force like an army that divides or dominates, but a force that unites and moves forward like a great wave of Light . . . It is a force in our inner world. Clearly our faith calls us to do this work of justice, equity, and honoring the Light in all, and the spirit does not call us to paths where it will not guide us. No matter how big the challenges we face in this work, none of them, not bigotry nor apathy, not ignorance or misunderstanding, not fear nor self-doubt is bigger than the Light we have within us when it shines together.

I carried Dyresha’s words with me this fall. They resonated most strongly when I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). At the museum, Dyresha’s words in my head and heart combined with Martin Luther King Jr.’s: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” There has been so much darkness in the realm of racial justice in the past few years, and the museum helped me to realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is us (or as former President Obama is quoted near the end of the museum: “We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the ones we seek.”). When I saw Dr. King’s 1958 remarks to Friends General Conference (republished as “Nonviolence and Racial Justice” by Martin Luther King Jr., Friends Journal July 26, 1958) in the Center for Civil and Human Rights, I fully understood that light in a spiritual context that Dr. King referred to. For me, the light that is “us” comes at the intersection of my black and Quaker identities and represents that of God within me.

The patterns of African American history are also the patterns of my activist history. As Dr. King shared in his address to Friends General Conference, social progress “comes only through persistent work and tireless efforts of dedicated individuals,” such as those in the Religious Society of Friends. The work that I am doing is a continuation of the fight for justice that began centuries before I was born. I learned from NMAAHC that the resistance to the oppression faced by blacks in America began at the moment that Africans were enslaved and brought to America. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of 1868 and 1870 do not look all that different from the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, which are asking for many of the same things as today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The report of the Colored Convention in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1867 stated: “We claim exactly the same rights and immunities as are enjoyed by white men—we ask nothing more and will be content with nothing less.” And here I am 150 years later having spent the past two years marching for justice, voting rights, and the acknowledgment that Black Lives Matter with the members of my meeting.

The NMAAHC has a section about the time of slavery called, “Making a Way: Daily Acts of Resistance.” Resistance at that time could be as subtle as harnessing the power of religion or literacy to spread messages of justice. A museum placard says: “Words mattered. They carried information and seeds of hope. Sermons, speeches, songs, and the written word connected African Americans and built a political consciousness.” Today we use social media to build our political consciousness.

Three years ago, I began a Twitter account just so that I could stay abreast of social justice initiatives. I have found that Twitter is where I learn about many of the programs in which I’m able to connect with other activists. I also use Facebook and blogging to share messages about issues I care about, using links from organizations such as American Friends Service Committee and Friends Committee on National Legislation as well as my own reflections on peace and justice. It’s an easy way to experience and share inspiration. As Dr. King said in his address to FGC, “We must go out once more and urge all men of good will to get to work.” I’m heeding his call on the streets with my monthly meeting, but I’m also doing that work through my social media accounts.

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, April 6, 1949.

In addition to a willingness to speak truth to power, racial justice work requires brave acts of integrity. The museum quotes Mary McLeod Bethune saying in 1944: “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything . . . that smacks of discrimination or slander.” As Quakers, we know that the fight against injustice is most effective when waged both forcefully and peacefully. In speaking about nonviolent resistance, Dr. King shared in his address to FGC: “It is not a method of cowardice, of stagnant passivity . . . [it] is strongly active.” I gave a talk last year at Sandy Spring Friends School entitled “Pacifism Isn’t Passive,” in which I spoke about the ways my Quakerism has led me to advocate for movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, ways that make people uncomfortable. Because we still live in a society defined by white supremacy, NMAAHC’s statement about the time of slavery, that “Freedom was revolutionary, contagious, and incomplete,” still holds true today. Being a voice for equity and justice still feels revolutionary.

Educator and activist Rodney Glasgow once said, “Love itself is a revolutionary act.” The best work toward racial progress has always been done with a spirit of love in the hearts of those in the struggle. Even in the time of slavery, there was a reverence for the spirituality of work of justice, as expressed by enslaved men in Boston in 1773: “The divine spirit of freedom seems to fire every human breast on this continent.” NMAAHC also features the 1857 quotation by Mary Still: “Now is the time when faith and works must unite . . . [on] behalf of the thousands that now are and the thousands yet unborn.” As Quakers, we fight for freedom because we believe that there is that of God in everyone. At the 1958 FGC Gathering, Dr. King described this as “agape, creative understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men” and said, “Theologians would say that it is the love of God working in the lives of men.” When we join the struggle for justice, we put our faith into action.

Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) has a banner outside of their meetinghouse that asks: “How does your life help end racial injustice?” That is the question that blacks and Quakers were asking during the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, and it holds as much significance today as it did in both of those times. In 1958 Dr. King wrote that the Society of Friends, “gives all of us who struggle for justice new hope,” and he called on us to “continue in that struggle, continue with that same determination, continue with that same faith in the future.” The struggle that Dr. King refers to is the struggle that continues today, and it is the struggle to which we bring our wave of light. I may be just a drop in that wave, but I will continue to shine my light as brightly as I can for justice, and to endeavor to spark the light in others.

Lauren Brownlee

Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and serves on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee and Growing Diverse Leadership Committee of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. She is a member of Sandy Spring Friends School’s board of trustees, the DC Peace Team, and the Quaker Palestine–Israel Network.

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