I’ve been thinking about the title of a group I’ve recently become engaged with, called “Quakers ENGAGE to End Racism”. I love the word ENGAGE. That taps into “actions speak louder than words”. So, what actions can Quakers take to end racism?
I can only speak of my own experience, so I’ll tell you a story. But first a short bit about stories. In a kind of circular manner, stories are the words describing, most commonly, actions. A body of shared stories shapes the history of the community. In Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) we have an effort to gather the stories of our community. We’ve actually created a website to allow us to share our gradually increasing library of stories with each other and the world: Quaker Stories Project.
Another reason I feel stories are so important is because that has become one of the primary ways my local Friends meeting has found to become ENGAGED with one particular community of people of color here in Indianapolis, the Kheprw Institute (KI). This link provides a nice description of the KI community. One of the many, many things KI does is hold open, public monthly book discussions, which provide a number of invaluable benefits. KI is totally focused on youth development. These community discussions are usually LED by the KI youth. Last year one of the books discussed was “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. Over a period of several months, the youth would read a few chapters, and then write and publish a blog post about what they read. The public could read those blog posts prior to the community discussion. Then those same youth would lead the discussion itself.
The tone of these discussions feels like worship sharing. People are very respectful of each other and what we say. People actually listen to each other, and silence is appreciated. People speak of their own experiences. They tell their own STORIES. Thus we all ENGAGE with each other. A number of North Meadow Friends have participated in these discussions, and we have identified this as one of our first “actions” in our participation in the Quaker Social Change Ministry program.
The story I’d like to share is of my first meeting with the folks at KI.
I had long been struggling with the knowledge that simply through the circumstances of the family I was born into, my life was significantly better in many ways than that of a great many others in America and the world. This was a spiritual problem for me.
God (finally) provided me with a way to begin to learn about that. Nearly three years ago the environmental group 350.org organized a national day for environmental education/actions. Only one event was listed in Indiana that day, and it was at the KI Eco Center, which was how I found out about KI. The day of the event, I arrived at the run down building that had once been a convenience store. But it was full of kids excited to show us the work they were doing, including their aquaponics system, and the rain barrels they created and sold.
I was intrigued, and wanted to see if I could become involved with this group. So we arranged a meeting. On a dark, rainy night I rode my bicycle to the KI building. The adult leaders, Imhotep, Pambana, Paulette and Alvin, and about a dozen young people from the Eco Center were here. I had thought we were going to discuss working on some computer software projects together, which is another area KI works with the youth in.
But Imhotep began asking me a series of questions about myself. I don’t talk a lot about myself, but Imhotep, I’ve come to learn, is very good at drawing stories out of people. I should have anticipated this, but I soon realized I was basically being interviewed so they could determine if I was someone they felt comfortable working with, or not. So I began to talk about Quakerism. When Imhotep asked me to talk more about that, I said something like, “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, and that includes you, and you…” The very first time, I think I hesitated slightly as I was asking myself, “Ok, we Friends always say this, but do you really believe this of a group that is different from you?” And I’m really glad the answer was an immediate and emphatic YES, but it also seemed to reaffirm that by exploring it consciously and publicly. At that point I remember smiling at the thought, and the young person whose eyes I was looking into saw it, too, I think. Each person smiled at me as I said that to them, and I had the impression they were thinking, “of course”. I strongly felt the presence of the Spirit.
That seemed to satisfy the questions for the evening, and they have welcomed me into their community ever since.
I was not used to speaking about faith in public outside Quaker circles, and this was a lesson that it is important to do so. From the beginning, my experience at the Eco Center has been a shared, spiritual one.