Avis Wanda McClinton is an African American Quaker. There are several parts to the story of her recent experiences with Friends. There isn’t space here to completely cover all of those experiences. What I’d like to do is tell some of my own connection, and that of Bear Creek Friends, with Avis. And share some of the queries she has offered us to consider.
The October, 2014, issue of Friends Journal contains an article Avis wrote, “My Experience as an African American Quaker.”
From that article: “The concern I have is to express my experiences as an African American Quaker and also to be believed…I began to attend Quaker worship at Upper Dublin Meeting at a difficult time in my life in 2009 when I needed a quiet place to connect with God. I am the only African American member the meeting has ever had.”
She explains the history of the Upper Dublin Meeting, in Maple Grove, Pennsylvania. The meeting was a station of the Underground Railroad. When runaways died at this station, their bodies were secretly buried in the meeting’s graveyard because it was against the law to help them. This history means a great deal to her.
The article continues: “My leading from God is to do everything in my power to protect the earthly remains of the enslaved African Americans interred in the Upper Dublin meetinghouse graveyard. I have taken this leading personally because these are my ancestors. At a meeting for business, I learned that my meeting was making plans to sell the plots where they knew the enslaved African Americans were buried. I thought that was a desecration of my ancestors’ final resting place. How would you like it if someone disturbed the remains of your loved ones?”
On October 26, 2013, a dedication ceremony was held for the installation of a granite memorial marker where the enslaved African American bodies were buried. The inscription reads “IN HONOR OF THOSE KNOWN ONLY TO GOD / THE BRAVE AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN TRAVELING ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD WHO DIED SEEKING FREEDOM / 1852–1864”
Unfortunately, significant conflicts developed between Avis and most of the other members of Upper Dublin Meeting. You can read about that in the Friends Journal article referenced above.
My connection with Avis was the result her relationship with Bear Creek Friend, Liz Oppenheimer, who began to support Avis during these difficulties with Upper Dublin Meeting. With Avis’s permission, Liz invited Bear Creek members who were interested, to begin to connect with Avis. This was first done with exchanges of email messages. Then, earlier this year, about eight Bear Creek Friends were able to join a conference telephone call with Avis, where we could hear each other’s voices, and I think we all found to be meaningful. We are all open to continuing communication and possible conference calls, or other ways to support Avis.
Bear Creek Friends have a history of trying to use technology appropriately for our work. For the past several years we have used the practice of asking distant members to join each month’s query discussions by submitting the responses to that month’s query to the meeting. Those responses are included in the discussion at the meetinghouse. The conference call with Avis was another experiment related to working together over distances.
Avis’s Friends Journal article, cited above, concludes with the following queries for us to consider:
“Where is God here? Historically injustice and inequality have been a part of American society and of the Religious Society of Friends. This situation at Upper Dublin Meeting is horrible. Obviously, if these incidents happened to a white Quaker, things would be a lot different. Sadly, the kinds of things that happened to me in my meeting continue to happen to Quakers of color in other meetings. This makes me feel frustrated, marginalized, and alienated. A faith community is supposed to be a nurturing place whose members should not tolerate such hateful actions.
Query: Does your faith community face the need of having honest and open discussions about the legacy of slavery with all its hurtful facets? Can we accept the strong feelings that will arise from these discussions?
Query: Is your faith community prepared to work with your local community to create a racially diverse and equal society?
Query: As a Friend would you allow another individual to insult, demean, hurt, or exclude another from his or her worship? How can people just stand there and let bad things happen?
God has given me the leading to do this work. God is real to me. If God asks me to do something, He expects me to do it to the best of my ability because He said, “I will never forsake you.” The legacy that I want to pass on to future generations does not include hatred.
Where, as a Quaker, do you personally stand on this issue, and where do I go from here?”