A Quaker Speaks from the Black Experience

The history, role, and involvement of African Americans in the Religious Society of Friends have been subjects of long-standing interest to me. Accordingly, I believe that it is only right and fitting to take stock of where we have been and where we may be going. I am speaking through the prism of my own experience, which is very Quakerly, since we claim to be adherents of an experiential religion. My theme, “A Quaker Speaks from the Black Experience,” is also the title of a little book I co-authored with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carleton Mabee some 26 years ago. The book is about the life and times of a dear departed Friend (and friend of mine), Barrington Dunbar, who was instrumental in my formal coming to membership in the Religious Society of Friends.

I say “formal coming to membership” because I believe I had temperamentally become a Friend many years before my formal membership in our Religious Society began some 32 years ago. I am not referring to some early Quaker ancestors in my family tree in 18th-century Ohio, but rather to the fact that, in some ways, I believe I was always a Friend. When I was little, I loved being a Christian because it felt so good and true; I loved my mother, whom I felt was a wonderful Christian; and I really loved the many old hymns we sang in our family church, Quinn African Methodist Episcopal, in Steubenville, Ohio.

Beautiful hymns such as “Amazing Grace,” “Lift Him Up,” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” promised eternal forgiveness, new beginnings, and eternal salvation through the ever-present grace of God. After Sunday school, instead of leaving the church like many of the kids my age, I would go upstairs with my mother for the service. To keep me occupied, she always brought along a little package of crayons so that I could color copies of the church program during the sermons. But every once in a while, when the sermon was really going with a lot of feeling, I would look up from my coloring and listen. I remember in particular one powerful sermon given by Rev. Caddell, my favorite Quinn minister, in which he thundered out, “A man must be more than a walking appetite!” I have never forgotten those words, and they remain with me now as part of my moral compass.

However, I felt somewhat alienated at times from the church teachings I received in Sunday school. When I asked the Sunday school teacher what it meant when the Bible said that man was made in the image of God, he told me it meant that God looked like a man. I then asked him how God could be all-powerful and eternal, since a man’s vision is limited to what is before his eyes and in front of him, and a man can’t reproduce without the help of a woman. He responded by telling me, “God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to unfold,” which was really just an adult’s way of saying, “Kid, shut up and accept what I say!” I raised similar questions about why the U.S. flag had to stand next to our church flag, and why, if Jesus and the Bible said, “Thou shalt not kill,” killing was all right as long as your country said you could do it. Most of all, I wondered why a loving God would speak to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses thousands of years ago and then quit speaking to anyone else since then. I wondered why God wouldn’t speak to me.

I remember climbing to the top of one of the big hills surrounding our little town nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, which flowed through the valley below. I lay down in the grass, closed my eyes, prayed deeply to God, and asked Him, if He were truly God, would He please speak to me? I waited and waited, very deep in prayer. But all I heard was the buzzing of the bees, the chirping of the birds, and the sweet sound of leaves rustling in the softly blowing wind. When I opened my eyes, I saw only the bright blue sky and the sun in the distance. So I wondered what God this was that seemed so remote and inaccessible, that so many people talked about even though none had actually seen Him face to face, other than Jesus and, of course, Moses.

I became further alienated by the idea of a God who played favorites with the peoples of the Earth, choosing one group to be a “chosen people,” and then, later, seeming to favor Christians above other faiths. From this kind of theological approach, it is a simple matter in the mind to make other distinctions among God’s creation, such as the elevation of white people above people of color. We should never forget that Western colonialists, slaveholders here in the United States, and even a number of religious denominations today have used verses in the Bible to justify black slavery, subjugation, and inferiority. As a young man, I agreed with Malcolm X who said, “The white man took the gold from our ancestors in Africa, gave them the Bible, and then reduced them to slavery.”

I began a spiritual pilgrimage that led me to look briefly at the Nation of Islam, and then at agnosticism, Baha’i, and Unitarian Universalism, until I came to the Religious Society of Friends, and I knew at last that I was home. If anyone ever asked me if I were a Christian, I always said “no” throughout this period, even a number of years after I became a Friend, but eventually I came back to adopting the Christian identity I had once dearly cherished as a child. I returned to it with new eyes that had been opened to read the Scriptures in a fresh and different way.

As Robert Barclay wrote of his own convincement almost 330 years ago in An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, his systematic exposition of Quaker theology:

For not a few have come to be convinced of the Truth after the manner of which I myself am in part a true witness, who not by strength of argument or by a particular disquisition of each document and convincement of my understanding thereby came to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by this life. For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil in me weakening, and the good raised up. And so I became thus knit and united to them, hungering more and more after this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed, and this is the surest way to become a Christian, to whom, afterwards, the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root. And such a knowledge will not be barren or unfruitful, after this manner.

When I was considering becoming a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I had read deeply of the writings of early Friends, and attended Wilton (Conn.) Meeting, which then had Bob Leslie as its clerk. Bob was wonderful at outreach. With fruitful persistence, he helped me overcome my delays in attending meeting.

But I still had a major “stop in my mind” about becoming a member of the meeting. The Civil Rights Movement, though beyond its high point, was still a potent force, and another round of race riots had recently transpired. I did not want my becoming a member of the Religious Society of Friends to compromise my identity as an aware, black U.S. citizen, fully committed to the freedom and liberation struggles of black people worldwide. I also felt that the Friends Peace Testimony would constrain me to be on the sidelines rather than at the forefront in this fight.

Barrington Dunbar was so central in my life then because when I read his words, it was clear that he was a black Friend in good standing who was not himself constrained in the ways I feared I could be. He was one who could “speak to my condition” by writing forcefully about concerns that were near and dear to my heart, but which I did not feel were uppermost in the hearts and minds of white Friends I knew. I wrote to Barrington, who lived close by in New York. We met and eventually became very special friends. I still remember the many wonderful conversations we had in his apartment, which was richly decorated with African art and sculpture. Barry was my Quaker mentor. He took me along to meetings he had with all the Quaker “alphabet soup groups”: AFSC, FWCC, FCNL, QUNO, and others. He introduced me to the many weighty Friends he knew, and explained what to me then seemed to be the strange practices, speech, and behaviors that characterized Quaker culture. And, most of all, he gave me a good initial understanding of the mysterious operations of Quaker politics.

Barrington Dunbar died in 1980 while I was living in Boulder, Colorado. He often seemed like a lion in meetings, speaking with the spirit of an ancient Hebrew prophet; but he grew increasingly quiet in his later years. He was very troubled when some members of his home meeting in New York City seemed increasingly to disregard him. He wrote to me about one member who referred to him as a “thorn in the flesh.” When I wrote back to Barry and asked him how he could still remain a Quaker in the face of such treatment, he replied, “Because they let me speak my piece.” Unfortunately, there are a number of problems and dilemmas Quakers face that make our Religious Society less than the shining example of the peaceable Kingdom of our hopes and dreams.

Despite our proud heritage as the first major Western Christian denomination to come out against slavery, and the many contributions of Quaker abolitionists, speaking out against slavery is not the same thing as supporting racial equality, and supporting racial equality is not the same thing as living and practicing it—not only in thoughts and words, but in deeds and in everyday life. It is sometimes difficult to struggle against white racism from within the Religious Society of Friends because so many Friends believe we have escaped the sin of racism. Pride and self-righteousness often blind us to the reality of it. Our affliction is best expressed by the title of a novel by Frank Yerby: The Odor of Sanctity.

Certain unique aspects of our Quaker culture can seem particularly strange or forbidding to a newcomer or attender. In the United States and Great Britain, many of these characteristics stem from our special history and origins in England, and have been reinforced through the years by a number of historical and cultural Anglo-Saxon norms. Truly multicultural we are not. Part of the beneficial impact of the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent has been to act as a force to change these tendencies. Some of these problematic aspects of our Quaker culture, past and present, include:

  • Tendencies toward excessive worship of Quaker ancestry, history, and our alleged uniqueness as a people, the holiest or most respected of Christians, with the corollary that you have to be very, very good to be a Quaker.
  • Certain cultish tendencies among Friends in language and behavior.
  • Our at times cultish commitment to pacifism.
  • The special role of “weighty” Friends.
  • The increasing academic intellectualism among Friends, with an accompanying loss of that authentic life and power that so animated early Friends and made them quake.

I remember many painful personal instances when I have come up against aspects of Quaker culture. Some years ago, when I first brought my wife, Maria, to a Friends meeting, I was hurt and embarrassed when a weighty white Friend, speaking to her about Quakerism, said, “You know, you have to be very intelligent to be a Quaker!” That was a real turn-off to her, and rightly so. Maria is a Roman Catholic; and the term
“catholic” means “universal.” But the white Friend’s comment reeked of the smugness and elitist self-satisfaction that often characterize a number of people in our meetings, and are so far from the authentic spirit of Quakerism.

In 1980, I was blessed to participate in a four-person delegation that American Friends Service Committee sent on a pastoral visit to the Republic of South Africa in response to a previous delegation to the U.S. of white South African Friends, sponsored by Friends World Committee for Consultation. On our way to South Africa, we passed through Zimbabwe. This was right after the revolution that replaced the previous white-minority regime of Ian Smith.

The Friends meeting in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, had been mightily affected by the revolution. There were some white Friends who had carried guns to defend their farms and property. A number of them left what they called Southern Rhodesia because they couldn’t stand to live in the new Zimbabwe. The government enacted a number of reforms to help equalize the former radically unequal social and economic situations of black Zimbabweans relative to white Zimbabweans. One of these measures was to equalize the pay of schoolteachers. Previously, there had been an extremely wide gap in pay between black and white schoolteachers, despite performing equivalent work. As a result of this and other reforms, a number of black members of the Friends meeting in Bulawayo who had been recipients of the scholarship fund held by the meeting, now became net contributors to this fund.

Revolutionary social change was in the air. It was truly an exciting time to be in Zimbabwe. About 20-30 percent of the membership of the Friends meeting in Bulawayo was black. The clerk of the meeting, a white woman named Nancy Johnson, told us that she was very embarrassed that they did not have a much larger black membership in their meeting. She said she knew that to us, coming from the United States, they probably seemed a little backward in that respect, and that we were probably used to much higher levels of black membership in our own meetings. I told her there was no need for her to be embarrassed because, frankly, the only places I’d seen such a high percentage of black membership in Friends meetings in the United States was in our prison meetings, and that the true embarrassment was ours!

Of course, I could go on about the shortcomings of Friends and the many disappointments I’ve had.

However, that would not do justice to the other side: those very special moments in truly gathered meetings when, in the words of George Fox, “I felt as if I had come up through the flaming sword into the garden of Eden in which all things were made new, and the creation gave off a new and beautiful fragrance.” One example of such an experience was the first meeting of the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent at Pendle Hill in 1990. That meeting was a tremendous outflowing of joy, celebration, and exuberance. There was an abundance of worshipful silence and sharing in word, song, and prayer. The power of the Holy Spirit was over all. It went on for hours. The clerks tried three times to end the meeting, but the Spirit kept on flowing until it was ready, in God’s own good time, to cease.

Yet another special meeting for worship for me came, unintended, as our AFSC delegation of four people found ourselves about to be arrested in South Africa. We were stopped at Kalfontain station by the white Afrikaner security police for daring to ride in the black section of the then segregated train. Scarnell Lean was an elderly white Quaker who was a member of Johannesburg Meeting, and the only member of that rather large meeting who came to ride the train with us, although open invitations were given to all. He was standing on the train, having given his seat to a black woman. When the security police gave him an order to leave that section of the train and move to the white section, or else be arrested, Scarnell shouted out firmly that he could not obey that order because he had orders from a Higher Authority that he had to follow. When the policeman asked him to show him those orders, Scarnell replied, “I can’t, because they are written on my heart.”

Then I felt a powerful meeting for worship beginning there on the train, right in the middle of a dangerous situation. In fact, it seemed that time stopped for us, ancient Quaker testimonies came to life, and we were all oblivious to the situation we were in. Each of us felt mutually supported and lifted to a higher plane by a Force much greater than ourselves. The security officer then confronted my friend, Jerry Herman, director of our AFSC South Africa program, and asked him to give up his seat. When he refused, cautioning the security officer that he would be creating an international incident, the officer told Jerry that he was arrested and took him by the arm. It was as if I was looking down on all this from someplace above me when I heard a voice saying, “You can’t arrest him, and if you do, you will have to arrest me too!” I was surprised to realize that the voice was mine.

The officer said, “Okay, you’re arrested too!” He then approached our two other traveling companions, Lois Forrest and Ann Steever, also members of the AFSC delegation, and Eddie Mvundlela, clerk of Soweto Friends Meeting, and asked them to move as well. Like Scarnell Lean, they refused to move. We were all arrested together, afraid of what might come next, but bound together and uplifted by the love of God. What a powerful meeting for worship that was!

Experiences such as that make us elated to be Friends. And in such moments, we know we are being touched by the hand of God. More than our advices and queries, and our social witness and activism, I believe the fundamental spiritual principles that lie at the core of the Religious Society of Friends are the key to our future growth and survival. These principles are essential to true and effective outreach to seekers of all kinds and, in particular, to people of color seeking a right spiritual home.

What are the fundamental spiritual principles of the Religious Society of Friends that speak most clearly to the African American experience? In my view, they are the following:

Affirming the fundamental, spiritual, and everlasting nature of God and the Christ of the Fourth Gospel—often called the “Quaker text”—who was with God in the beginning. This grounds our belief in a spiritually transcendent deity and a Christ not confined by earthly images and limited socioeconomic and political concepts like race and ethnicity, which are forms of idolatry present in most religious traditions. Such an affirmation is non-idolatrous and removes our concepts of God and Christ from a focus on human forms.

One of the reasons the Fourth Gospel is referred to as the “Quaker text” is that so much of early Friends theology is grounded in it. It is even the source of our name, “Friends,” derived from Jesus’ words in John 15:12-15:

This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth; but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

Affirming the possibility and the reality of direct revelation of spiritual leadings and Truth to individuals waiting faithfully in the Light, and the power of spiritual truth conveyed through experience, affirming that God has spoken to us in the past, speaks to us in the present, and will be speaking for all the future to come. These teachings shatter the chains of spiritual servitude and imprisonment by human constructs, and potentially free us from the spiritual colonialism historically imposed on people of color by Eurocentric forms of religious belief and interpretation.

Affirming the everlasting power of love, which speaks to the statement Martin Luther King Jr. often made that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Validating the original Quaker belief in, and commitment to, the “Lamb’s War,” the Scriptural basis for which is reflected in Ephesians 6:10-17:

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness: and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all of the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

I can think of no better spiritual expression than this for the holy nature of our fight, as Friends, against racism and for peace and social justice. The concept of the Lamb’s War supports the ongoing struggle for liberation of oppressed peoples around the world from cultural and economic domination by the ruling classes of the white Western powers. The original Quaker concept of the Lamb’s War also serves as a powerful antidote to the cultish commitment to pacifism that often lies at the core of the beliefs of many Friends today.

Embracing the reality of what early Friends called continuous revelation, and what some of us also see as “progressive revelation.” This opens us up to the reality that there is always more to the book of life than we know, that there are truths yet to be revealed, or truths already revealed of which we may not yet be aware. This frees us from time-bound religious interpretations that have often been used to exploit and control us. One example of such an interpretation was the white Western belief that black people had no souls, or needed to be converted to Christianity. This belief lay at the root of European conquest, colonialism, and the enslavement of our forebears, and still buttresses contemporary beliefs in black inferiority.

Affirming the role of the Scriptures, but putting them in proper perspective. Early Friends saw Quakerism as a third form of Christianity, saying that Catholicism based its spiritual authority primarily on tradition, Protestantism based its spiritual authority primarily on the Scriptures, but Quakerism based its spiritual authority primarily on informed experience.

As George Fox said, “And when my hopes in all men were gone, I heard a voice saying, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition.’ When I heard this, my heart did leap with joy . . . and this I knew, experimentally.” These principles also undergird Quaker universalism, which potentially frees us from the limitations of a more confined and Eurocentric point of view, and opens us to a greater and more authentic dialogue with all the world’s great religious traditions. As William Penn wrote, “The pure-hearted, pious, and true souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death removes the masks, they shall know one another, despite the diverse liveries they wear in this earthly life.”

What is our role as Friends of African descent? Clearly, we have many responsibilities as African American Friends, and, as good Quakers, we may all have different views on what they should be. However, there are a few specific roles I bring to your attention:

To continue to pursue individually the unique spiritual path God has ordained for each of us, living up to all the Light inside each one of us so that even more Light can be given to us.

To support one another as best we can in our collective search for spiritual growth and advancement. Again, the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent is one fine example of this, as are many other attempts to recognize the importance of acknowledging the special spiritual power of our collective identities.

To define, write, speak, and otherwise put forward our unique spiritual insights and Quaker journeys. Quaker history as it is written is overwhelmingly white and Anglocentric, and much more so than the reality of that history. The voices of George Fox, James Nayler, Robert Barclay, Isaac Penington, Willliam Penn, Thomas Kelly, and Rufus Jones must be joined with the voices of Paul Cuffe, Sarah Mapps Douglas, Alain Docke, Bayard Rustin, Barrington Dunbar, and others. To paraphrase Fox, “Some may say Barclay sayeth this, and Penn sayeth that, but what can we say? Are we not also children of God?”

In addition, we have no choice but to continue the long march through Quaker institutions, so that the full weight of Quaker concern, focus, and resources is brought to bear on the many needs before us to advance true racial equality and social justice both inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends and all its institutions.

It is a special point of pride to me, as an African American Friend, and as a board member and treasurer of AFSC, that in a moment of maximum need for the citizens of New Orleans whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, AFSC wire-transferred $1 million for immediate relief to those in dire need, and then donated $250,000 to support the African American-led consolidated appeal launched by Tom Joyner. These actions showed Friends at our best, living our social testimony.

Finally, we must not only increase our access to existing Friends funding sources, but also develop independent funding sources, philanthropies, and foundations to fully empower our visions.

We have come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. An old Chinese proverb cautions us, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Friends, we have taken many, but as tiring as the work may seem at times, this is our calling, and we cannot stop until the worldwide family of Friends becomes truly reflective of the worldwide family of humanity. We must set the highest goals we can. If we aim for the stars and miss, at least we may reach the moon in the process. We must always remember that what you get makes a living, but what you give makes a life. For to whom much has been given, much is expected. And, most important of all, we must never, ever give up on the fight and the faith that has brought us so far, remembering always that, as Jesus says in John 15:18, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.”

James Fletcher

James Fletcher is a member of College Station Worship Sharing Group in Houston, Tex. He is treasurer for American Friends Service Committee, and has served extensively with AFSC, Friends World Committee for Consultation, and other Friends organizations in work in the Republic of South Africa. He is co-founder of the Fellowship of Friends of African Descent (FFAD), and co-author of two books, A Quaker Speaks From the Black Experience: The Life and Collected Works of Barrington Dunbar and Friends Face the World. This essay was adapted from a speech to FFAD in April 2006.