The Mystic Soul of a More Whole Religious Society

Graphics © Jen Casselberry. Instagram @jencasselberry and Etsy at JenCasselberry.

I groaned from a distance. It was January in Chicago, and the line of people was many deep and ran down the street for 50 yards before entering the building. Once in that line, my impatience melted. I noted that we represented broad spectra of race, age, gender identity, national origin, and (I assumed, seeing jeans, wool trousers, and Afrocentric prints) a host of socioeconomic class and ethnic backgrounds. People greeted friends and made new ones before even checking in at the 2018 Mystic Soul Conference, a gathering to center people of color (POC) “at the intersections of contemplative (mystical) spirituality, activism, and healing.” The energy was kinetic.

Inside, we milled around the auditorium before settling into chairs arranged in the round. A small raised platform held the center. As the program began, a small Black woman, with a singing voice as big as Chicago, warmed us with a chant she invited us to join: “Come on in from the cold. Come on in from the outside.” We welcomed each other into this magical space. At various times throughout the weekend, my face was baptized with tears from a soul-longing for this people, where a more whole, fuller spectrum life is lived. That incantation was one of those moments.

We were not in Quakerland anymore!

 

At Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s (PhYM) 2018 opening summer session for business, the acting co-clerk counseled those present to “put our hurt and pain on the side so only love remains.” I believe the Friend who invited this and those who counseled him had peace in mind. Yet, as those words were spoken, one of the few Friends of color and I made eye contact. I witnessed the pain those words touched in her as we were asked to disassociate from a very real part of the community we are; to submit to the dominant status quo; and to eschew attempts to lance the boil, drain the pus of racism, and heal our corporate body. This invitation was comparatively gentle compared to reading a Friend out of meeting or eliminating employment of Friends advocating for racial justice, as the yearly meeting has known in recent time. But, for that Friend of color who had been away for some time, it was jarring: “saying Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14).

During those sessions, we were offered skills on how to sit in the fire, but provided little relief for many Friends of color who have been in the fire for decades as individuals, and for centuries and millennia as peoples. When a group of PhYM-appointed elders gratefully acknowledged how helpful the “spiritual-grounding” program was to them personally, another Friend pointed to the Friends of color who asked to meet with them, saying these Friends of color exercise extreme measures of grounding—moment-to-moment—as they expectantly await the time for change that keeps them from being burned, yet again, by racism among us.

“A racially diverse Society of Friends?” The punctuation of this Friends Journal theme speaks a whole narrative of its own. Upon first reading the description, I advised several Friends of color who might write; I imagined I would lay low. But, as I juxtaposed the Mystic Soul Conference with my experience among Friends, I considered that I—a white, cis-female, lesbian, born working-class in the United States during the baby boom—might have some small thing to say about a racially diverse religious society.

Since PhYM’s 2014 session, a small band of Friends has accompanied each other: met in meetinghouses, homes, restaurants, and bars; offered countless educational programs; and encountered racism face-to-face and attempted to exorcise it in the Religious Society of Friends. We pray and work and play, with divine assistance, to unbend that question mark into an exclamation point, as we labor with others to co-create a racially diverse Society of Friends! Some of us have yearned for the Mystic Soul Conference experience for a lifetime, others for many years. Some of us have stepped away from Friends or the yearly meeting, feeling burnt by or out-of-step with what’s happening. And we know some Friends still wonder about the question mark, “Aren’t we already racially diverse?”

In recent years, I and others have redirected energy from individual concerns toward supporting an espoused 2015 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting corporate minute to “commit to increase our consciousness as Friends about the intersection of privilege and race in our culture and spiritual community.” That corporate minute is part of an interconnected web along with the minute of religious service for LifeCalls, the ministry others and I carry that professes “with divine assistance, we can manifest heaven on earth.” PYM’s minute and the LifeCalls vision both float on a tensile strength of Beloved Community, of being members of one blessed body held by the Holy. That covenantal experience is generally sprinkled in moments for many of us, and can evaporate instantly for people whose social norms differ from the dominant norms in notable ways, such as with race or socioeconomic class.

 

At the Mystic Soul Conference, we swam in Beloved Community. As mentioned earlier, the spectra of humanity there was so much richer than I experience among U.S. Friends. Speakers, panelists, and performance artists demonstrated the intent and impact of centering people of color and painted icons of spiritual forebears rightfully reverenced them as people beloved of God, rather than people to assimilate into the dominant culture. The Mystic Soul community was curated in large and small ways toward its purpose: to “center POC (people of color) at the intersections of contemplative (mystical) spirituality, activism, and healing.”

Mystic Soul invited us beyond “racially diverse” into intercultural experiences. According to Spring Institute:

Intercultural describes communities in which there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures. Intercultural communication focuses on the mutual exchange of ideas and cultural norms and the development of deep relationships. In an intercultural society, no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together.

Multicultural: Live alongside without engaging relationships.
Cross-cultural: Differences understood but one culture is the norm.
Intercultural: Deep and mutual understanding and relationships.

 

Mystic Soul’s promotional materials featured, perhaps exclusively, photos and artwork of POC; an application process led to a participant group that was racially diverse and inclined toward interculturalism; POC were to sign up first for the finite opportunities to receive body work; all plenary-space speakers were POC; and the 2019 conference will have only POC workshop leaders. The ecology of this community’s radically different focus was intentionally and carefully curated throughout the planning. For instance, each workshop had a walkie-talkie in the room; if a participant experienced an aggression (micro or macro), they were invited to step outside the room with the walkie-talkie and call on someone who would skillfully intervene. Non-POC were counseled in an opening plenary to not be “salty” (angry, agitated, or upset) if this happened to us, but to listen, learn, and adapt: to “come on in from the cold” of racism and “come on in from the outside” of anything less than the full family of humanity.

 

Among Friends, I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen the opposite far too frequently. When a Friend of color raises a concern, especially about race, Quakers too often meet them with upsetness, denial, defensiveness, and attempts to prove them wrong. Individual and organizational stances often dig in their heels or claim that no solution is possible. This is a far cry from skilled intervention; it is gaslighting. And, far from promoting racial diversity, it fosters white supremacy, defined by legal scholar Frances Lee Ansley as:

a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources; conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.

In July 2017, a small group of Friends invited members of Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting toward racial healing by proposing a minute of apology for the racism among us, generally and in two particular instances. The Friends proposing the minute saw approving the minute as a next step in truly becoming a beloved community. The subsequent responses from individual Friends and from monthly meetings offered a telling litmus test of our progress toward an intercultural Religious Society of Friends. A few Friends left the room during the quarterly meeting because the “energy” was not to their liking, while others stayed to wrestle with the issues. In the several months leading up to the next quarterly meeting, two Friends meetings approved the minute as it was initially drafted. Another meeting approved it after erasing reference to the two explicit instances of racism. Four meetings drafted their own minutes which recognized racism in U.S. society but generally not in the religious society. Two monthly meetings did not address the minute then. Of eight monthly meetings and a worship group, only two acknowledged the faces of racism described by Friends of color among us. Details of these minutes and more are available at tinyurl.com/PYMRacismWork.

Making amends may take many forms. For some, it will take the form of attending the Mystic Soul Conference for an alternative experience: a contemplative activist space that has people of color as its center. For others, it will combine study. Others will seek to partner with—and follow the lead of—people of color, as encouraged by American Friends Service Committee’s Quaker Social Change Ministry.

Like others, I have been hoodwinked by the white supremacy so endemic to U.S. culture. Because of the many ways racism plays out, I thought I had laid down a portion of my LifeCalls ministry: spiritual accountability in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. But I realized that the ministry has simply pivoted to a faithfulness to practicing real-time integrity regarding our corporate commitment to addressing racism.

Walking more closely with some Friends of color these several years, I see more clearly how ignorance about race—including among Friends and by me—adversely impacts their lives. These dear friends courageously and continually seek to be regarded, even among Friends, as fully human and deserving of the same rights and responsibilities as others. At times, I’ve rushed too quickly to ask how I might “help” in situations where no “help” should be needed, where my “help” alone would not suffice to change intransigent systems or persons, and where generations of trauma have accrued for lack of attention to the racism in which we all swim.

I, like others, fall short of being who I pray to be. Just this year at yearly meeting sessions, a white man in his 60s rhetorically asked me, “Why do we need affinity spaces? What does it say about us that we want to divide ourselves rather than be together?” I knew my friends of color had experienced the balm of the Mystic Soul Conference’s POC-only spaces—workshops, spiritual direction sessions, body work, and affinity spaces—where the toxicity of racism was greatly reduced simply because non-POC were not allowed there. I knew past PhYM affinity spaces that were led by people with energy and wisdom had facilitated healing or learning. How could I explain this to someone who, in my opinion, seeks color blindness in a sea of whiteness? In that moment as in others, I was short on two things, energy and wisdom, and failed to respond.

Kyrie eleison; God have mercy; Christ have mercy.

 

I believe we will only co-create a racially diverse Religious Society of Friends within our Friends meetings, churches, and institutions when we take these steps:

1. We, especially white Friends, identify white, middle-class, patriarchal cultural norms.
2. We, Friends of all races together, distill the living water of our faith tradition.
3. We, Friends with Spirit, reorient that which we center according to those norms to that living water, in spiritual and material ways.

These three challenging steps can allow each person to freely claim his or her rightful seat at the table unfettered by white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture (despite early Friends’ roots being in that very culture). They help build our community’s foundation not on whiteness but on the Source of our being, which harmoniously holds us all, in our unity and uniqueness, as beloved.

While some Friends may find this proposal daunting or frightening, I’m aware we are a faith community, which implies faith over fear and community that cares for all of its members. Friend Bayard Rustin captures both of these points when he says, “Good will and love build the sacred base of real [community], in which the dignity and equal opportunity of every person is sacred and guaranteed.” How fitting that Bayard, “Brother Outsider,” seems to invite us all to “Come on in from the cold. Come on in from the outside” to where love and justice are our sacred birthright!

Viv Hawkins

Since 2014 through Undoing Racism Group, an unofficial group of Friends seeking to co-create Beloved Community, Viv Hawkins has learned much about racism; she has much yet to learn and do. A member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, she embraces a ministry to foster faithfulness and Lola Georg, her life partner.

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