Sacred Space

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Supporting Spiritual Gifts Informed by Oppression

Both of us grew up in Pacific Yearly Meeting (PacYM), and the care and eldering we have received from Friends has been integral to our spiritual development. Along our spiritual journeys, we have noticed how our socially marginalized identities have shaped our understanding of the Truth and prepared us for pieces of ministry we have carried. (Throughout this article we use “Truth” in the sense that early Friends did: a divine authority that we can turn toward to guide our lives.)

In Thistle’s experience, the process of exploring their nonbinary gender identity as a teenager felt deeply connected to their spiritual development. This identity also led them to work around LGBTQ+ identities and inclusion within Pacific and Intermountain Yearly Meetings’ youth programs. It also informs their current graduate studies in social work. Diego’s early life prepared him for the leading to teach community college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. His childhood experiences of structural racism in school, encounters with law enforcement, neighborhood violence, and family trauma caused by his mother’s painful death from bone cancer catalyzed a concern to work with students who are too often lost to juvenile hall, prisons, and drug treatment programs. 

In our own experience and in our Quaker communities, we have noticed how Friends who have marginalized identities within society—People of Color; women; LGBTQ+ folks; and people with experiences of poverty, disability, immigration status, incarceration, etc.—often have a unique awareness and understanding of Truth. The sensitivity Friends develop through our experiences in the world can go hand in hand with a deepening sensitivity to the Living Spirit. Friends from oppressed groups may bring ministry that challenges the status quo or the unspoken norms Friends have come to accept within our Quaker culture and the dominant society. When Friends are not ready to hear these messages, our communities often inadvertently alienate these ministers. Racism and other forms of discrimination can cause significant harm in our meetings. We hope to share some of the strategies Friends use to address these harms.

Marginalized Identities and the Abundant Life

People with marginalized identities have a felt understanding of aspects of the dominant society that folks with various privileges may grasp intellectually but cannot feel firsthand. All of us have some form of privilege that acts as a veil that hides pieces of Truth; our lives have not positioned us to see what others do. When ministers speak from the Spirit, they lift the veil and give the rest of us a glimpse of these facets of Truth. This process of unveiling is in the tradition of early Friends, and what was unveiled was called “abundant life.” 

Quakers were at odds with the trappings of the dominant society and felt a keen alignment with the oppressed. The terror and power of the Light that lifts the veil leads us to discover our “disorderly walking,” the ways in which our actions are out of alignment with Spirit. Early Friends understood how difficult this path was and referred to it as the Lamb’s War: this inner conflict between listening and submitting to Spirit or following our habits and the practices of the dominant society; they were to be in the world but not of it. 

Like the canaries that once warned coal miners of noxious gasses that would have killed them before they noticed the danger, ministers can help alert individuals and meetings see injustices and the ways our socialization has influenced us. But unlike in coal mines, we want these canaries to thrive.

Affinity groups of LGBTQ+ Friends, Friends of Color, Friends in recovery, and younger Friends sometimes have cultural ways of connecting to Spirit that are expressive, loud, or energetic. These ways may be at odds with the American Quaker culture. It is important for our meetings to learn how to embrace these cultural expressions and the powerful pieces of ministry that these Friends carry. When meetings fail to do this, these ministries can be stifled. “Othering,” or denying these ministers, prevents them from feeling that they belong in their meetings and delay continuing revelation that we seek as a society.

In order to create the Beloved Community we long for, Friends have a responsibility to stop the harm of White supremacy culture.

Obstacles to Hearing This Ministry

When ministry challenges dominant worldviews and practices, Friends find any number of ways to discredit the minister. Friends may feel defensive and take the minister’s message as a personal attack, and focusing on their own discomfort, use Quaker process as an excuse for objecting to the ministry. All of these responses—defensiveness, right to comfort, tone policing, White (or Quaker) exceptionalism, and fear of open conflict—are characteristics of White supremacy culture, as described in Tema Okun’s writing and by Layla Saad in Me and White Supremacy. Given the pervasive nature of White supremacy in the dominant society and as the majority of Quakers in the United States are White, these responses are ingrained in many of us, and so they come up in Quaker spaces. Many Friends have also benefited from higher education, which models these responses. Unaware, we have been socialized to defend our positions and argue our points of view rather than seek Truth. 

In order to create the Beloved Community we long for, Friends have a responsibility to stop the harm of White supremacy culture. If we fail to do this, we lose Friends and miss out on creating a community where we can all feel we truly belong and can thrive spiritually. Many Quaker meetings worry about our dwindling numbers and attracting new attenders, yet continue to alienate those we would attract. 

From Safe Space to Brave Space to Sacred Space

In many workshops and learning environments, people talk about the importance of creating “safe spaces” to have hard conversations. Over time, the topic of conversation has shifted toward “brave spaces,” yet there is a need to move discussion beyond this newer framing and drop down into “sacred space.” Safe space allows some folks to feel unchallenged, which means their subterranean meanings and sometimes harmful words and actions may go unaddressed. In this way, one person’s safe space is often another’s “pain space,” “despair space,” “withdrawn space,” or “panic space.” “What am I doing here? space” becomes “I am out of here space!” Some of us feel we have a right to comfort—one of the characteristics of White supremacy culture—and when challenged, we say we are not feeling safe. In Quaker spaces, Friends can use this idea of safety as comfort to discredit poignant, Spirit-led ministry that they are not ready to hear.

“Brave space” promotes the acknowledgement of harm, and allows Friends to get a glimpse of the reality behind the veil. Discomfort then naturally arises and is a good sign: it means Friends are getting in touch with Truth. Sensing harm reveals Truth and brings us closer to the Spirit; sensing harm being done is different from having one’s feelings hurt, which can be oriented toward self-protection. To alert the group to some harm being done is to act as the canary who saves coal miners from the noxious gas in our sacred meeting environments. 

When Friends become aware of harm, our attention needs to turn toward sacred space. Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Racial Justice Subcommittee of the yearly meeting’s Ministry Committee  (Brenda Chung, Marlene Coach-Eisenstein, Rita Comes, Deborah Marks, Maryanne Michaels, Diego Navarro, and Aaron Terry) has been defining this for a Quaker environment. Sacred space occurs when worship deepens. Everyone present holds the space in prayer, and we all settle into the love of the community that surrounds us. Diego and Thistle’s experiences growing up attending Younger Friends’ gatherings helped us become sensitive to the ways that unacknowledged harm rips the fabric of the community, and how we can heal collectively. One person with tears who is invited to share their experience of vulnerability may deepen our worship and business meetings as the group becomes willing to pause our process and pay attention. When the community acknowledges and centers on the discord, we begin to recognize that the Spirit has its own agenda. We have learned that we need to move beyond brave space to sacred space, where the Spirit is at the center and the community experiences love, unity, and healing.

Friends create the conditions for Truth to be revealed not by arguing or by using logic but by turning our attention toward the Presence that binds us and opens our hearts to love. In this space, deep hurts, frustrations, anger, and denial may be present; they are not to be shunned but to be witnessed. When practicing sacred space, Friends hold our meetings in deep worship where each holds a facet of the Truth. By sharing it and then letting go, we anchor in the community’s trust that Truth will be revealed. Truth pierces our hearts; reveals the structures and practices that promote harm; and lifts the veil, allowing us to experience the love and unity that unfolds. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears (1 Cor. 13:9-10). When we find ourselves being spoken through, our ego, will, and intellect are subordinated to Presence that we experimentally know and trust will guide us. We find ourselves “well-used” and experience a covered meeting.

Friends create the conditions for Truth to be revealed not by arguing or by using logic but by turning our attention toward the Presence that binds us and opens our hearts to love.

How Meetings Are Taking Up This Work

We are aware of three anti-oppression Quaker initiatives that could be helpful models for supporting the creation of the Beloved Community. Pacific Yearly Meeting (PacYM) and Friends General Conference (FGC) have developed practices that specifically address racism, and New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) has developed a broader process around identifying oppression.

PacYM has been experimenting with a Stepping Stones to Sacred Space process that focuses on the work we need to do when we recognize that a harm has occurred with the intent to stop harm. (The following is adapted from the July 2021 Sacred Space process, as developed by PacYM Racial Justice Subcommittee of the Ministry Committee.)

The process has two parts: the identification of harm and the repair-oriented Sacred Space process. The first part, identification of harm, uses the words “Ouch” (for the person who feels harmed), “Oops” (for the person who notices they are causing harm), and “Whoa” (for the person who witnesses harm being done). These words bring attention to the harm being done among us. Oops indicates that a Friend has recognized their “disorderly walking” and is changing their behavior. The power of Whoa is in standing in solidarity with the victim while interrupting harm. The second part of the process involves worship where the group holds the space and the ambiguity, trusting that Spirit is present to guide us. The person who feels hurt has the right to decide whether or not to address the issue. When someone is led to speak about a hurt, the dialogue slows and centers around the Ouch or Whoa. People who are confused by the process or do not understand the hurt are invited to sit in silence and listen deeply. All are asked to pay attention to their bodies and to be open to vulnerability that usually precedes healing. The goal is to become conscious of the hurt and repair the harm by seeking for Truth to be revealed. It is important to understand that education about the harm is not the responsibility of the person who feels hurt, nor of the oppressed group. 

In December 2020, the FGC Ministry on Racism developed and implemented Community Guidelines for its Open House meetings. These guidelines describe a process for repairing harm acknowledging sacred space. In June 2021, FGC published “Guidelines for Addressing Racial Wounding,” which outlines the charge of a new committee: to provide holistic healing when racial wounding occurs and to strengthen our community through offering tools to foster accountability and to make amends. 

NEYM has a process called Noticing Patterns of Oppression and Faithfulness, which they have been using since 2018. In her 2020 Friends Journal article “Noticing Patterns of Oppression and Faithfulness,” Lisa Graustein describes how the process is based on a belief that 

a core part of each of us knows when something is not right or when harm is being done . . . no matter how we have been socialized, our bodies know because there is that of God in each of us: oppression seeks to deny this fundamental Truth of our Quaker faith. 

The process includes sentence prompts that Friends can use to describe the specific things they notice, wonder about, or see God’s invitations present within the group.

We need to collaboratively design a bigger house where our focus is on revealing of Truth, where we all are enriched and invited to be uncomfortable.

Hopes for the Future 

Friends with diverse life experiences and from different cultures enrich our communities and can help others to see beyond their veil. Too often, however, Friends with marginalized identities feel othered or not fully welcome in Quaker spaces. Friends need to become sensitive to how racism and the dominant culture have invaded our meetings and hindered the creation of a Beloved Community, taking us further away from the Presence and Truth. Friends need to make room for everyone who feels a connection to our faith tradition, values, and our way of worship, whether or not they conform to our initial expectations. As Douglas Steere wrote in On Listening to Another, “to ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” It may be one of the greatest services that we can provide to Quakerism is to unshackle it from White supremacy. This will require helping our canary ministers to thrive; supporting their spiritual gifts, which are informed by oppression; and learning to transform brave spaces into sacred spaces.

Friends can’t simply welcome people into our meetinghouses and expect them to know the unwritten rules of etiquette and feel comfortable with us. We need to collaboratively design a bigger house where our focus is on revealing of Truth, where we all are enriched and invited to be uncomfortable.

Thistle Hofvendahl and Diego Navarro

Thistle Hofvendahl, member of Redwood Forest Meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif., is a new parent and a graduate student studying social work at the University of Southern California. Diego Navarro, member of Santa Cruz (Calif.) Meeting and former presiding clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting, currently serves on the Racial Justice Subcommittee of the Ministry Committee. He consults with community colleges around creating cultures of dignity.

2 thoughts on “Sacred Space

  1. I am a Friend in New England. While on paper the Noticing Patterns process looks promising, it remains aspirational. As practiced, it has become more a process of calling out rather than calling in. It feels judgmental and condemning of those who might have questions about the work of the group. If the process worked as it was intended, there would be more listening, and rather than alienation, the process would be creating more allies. We are all, after all supposed to be in the same community, and if calling in is practiced, folks are given a chance to be listened to, and their concerns would be addressed.

    1. This article and the FGC Racial Wounding Guidelines both cite Tema Okun’s “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” which should be sufficient to render both unworthy of paying any attention to.

      As Matthew Yglesias wrote here “In my more conspiratorial moments, I wonder if it’s not a psyop devised by some modern-day version of COINTELPRO to try to destroy progressive politics in the United States by making it impossible to run effective organizations.”

      The psyop is working quite well for destroying what’s left of the Testimony of Community.

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