Recently I’ve been struggling with ideas of how to bridge the deepening political divide in the United States. The recent rally when the president was in North Carolina was very disturbing, where an all white audience chanted “send her back”. “Her” being Democratic Congressional Representative Ilhan Omar representing a district in Minnesota. It is unbelievable that a sitting president could target women of color, U.S. citizens and duly elected Congresswomen. We are rapidly moving toward a fascist state.
I can’t think of any quick solutions. As I tried to explain in the blog post “the importance of shared memory” I believe we have to work hard to build community, to get beyond the rhetoric and engage people whose views we don’t agree with by personal, face to face meetings.
Next I wrote about “how do you know” how to figure out what you should do to help build community. For people of faith, anyway, we learn what justice work we should do from guidance from the Spirit or God.
The follow is an exercise from the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) project “Knowing Ourselves: Undoing Racism as Spiritual Practice”. It might benefit you to answer these:
- I am called to work for justice because…
- This is essential spiritual work because…
- What I hope to do and become as I do this work is…
At North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis several years ago, we decided to explore how the new AFSC program, Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM), might help our justice work. The two basic parts of QSCM are:
- Having the whole Quaker meeting working one a justice project. Most commonly Quaker meetings have various people working on their own justice work. To instead have the whole meeting doing this together helps meeting attenders learn more about each other and benefit from ideas from many people instead of doing this alone.
- Having the meeting spend significant time with people in a community or organization that is experiencing injustice.
Although I didn’t express that as “creating common memory” at the time, that is what we did when we worked together with a community like the Kheprw Institute (KI), which was the community we worked, and continue to work with at North Meadow Friends.
There is one thing that is critical for making this successful, which is expressed as accompaniment. Accompaniment means those of us who want to work toward justice with an oppressed community must be very careful to resist offering our suggestions or ideas. For this to work, the people in the meeting must listen deeply, and wait for the oppressed community to say what would be helpful for them. It takes a lot of time for the Quakers and the community such as KI to get to know and trust each other. The Quakers have to accept how little they know about the impacted community they want to work with. In my experience at KI it was two years before I was asked to help the community, which in my case was to teach about photography during KI’s summer camp.
In order for a Quaker meeting to begin its relationship with an impacted community, someone has to make the initial contact. What follows is the story of how I first became involved with the KI community.
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 (2013) 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 Kheprw Institute, 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 KI 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…” I said to each of the kids near me. 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.
Then Imhotep said, “tell us more”. I thought the story of how I had been led to give up owning a car some 30 years ago would help show Quakers try to live as they are being led. At the end of that story Imhotep smiled at me and said, “30 years. You are a warrior.” Being a Quaker, I had never thought of my self in that way. I could tell this amused Imhotep, because I later found out he already know some about Quakers. After he said that, we all laughed together.
That seemed to satisfy the questions for the evening, and they have welcomed me into their community ever since.
Looking back on this, I see now that my unconscious white privilege led me to even ask the question whether there was that of God in everyone in that room that night.
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 Kreprw Institute has been a shared, spiritual one.