Quakers and the Future of Racial Healing

I often write about trying to listen for and be guided by the Spirit. Quaker Sterling Duns puts it this way below. “Things just started to open up because I really started listening and being guided by this inner truth.” It was by listening and being guided that I came across these videos by Sterling. They had, and still have a real impact on me when I heard what he had to say. The first time was in early 2018.

Quaker rapper Sterling Duns speaks about Dreaming of Wholeness: Quakers and the Future of Racial Healing in this QuakerSpeak video.

“It feels simple and deeply radical to just say as a group that is committed to honoring that of God in everyone, that that person of color, that Black person is deserving to have their full humanity recognized by me as a Quaker. That’s a simple thing to say and it’s a radical thing to say.”

Over the years I’ve learned more about the history of Quakers, knowing that some Quakers were abolitionists, knowing that some Quakers owned slaves. Sometimes I imagine what old school Quakers were like and these Quakers who had this powerful revelation about the slave trade or enslaving Africans.

But I like to think that it was a continuum where people examined over and over again an idea they had and eventually let it go.

Quakers are equipped to have a role in the racial healing work that we need in the world today because inherent to the faith, inherent to the spiritual practice, is a belief that there is that of God in everyone.

When I think about some of the ways that folks of color, black folks, have been traumatized and targeted in our country, the source of the targeting comes from this belief that’s embedded into our country’s history, that somehow black people aren’t worthy of their full humanity being recognized.

We’re saying the direct opposite. We’re in direct opposition to systems that helped to build everything we see around us. That feels deep and radical, and also it feels right in line with what Quakers were doing from the jump.

You know, walking around the city doing wild stuff, butt naked or going into religious services and standing up and you know—Quakers have always had a sense of going against the grain. So it feels right in line to actually say “No, I’m going to honor this human being’s full humanity.”

For me, I’m a big dreamer. Shout out to Pisces. Shout out to the creatives. Shout out to artists. I’m a big dreamer. Shout out to the Afro-futurists, you know? As an Afro-futurist, I spend time thinking about the future, and really spending some deep time imagining what it looks like for us all to be free.

“Quakers are equipped to have a role in the racial healing work we need today because inherent to the faith, inherent to the spiritual practice is the belief in that of God in everyone.”

“I spend time dreaming about the future and really spending some deep time imagining what it would be like for us all to be free.

I think Quaker communities can spend that time and energy doing that, I think they can absolutely do that. When we talk about Quaker communities being more inclusive I think you literally have to spend time on Dream Mountain, going to Dream Mountain and looking out, and return to reality, Reality Meadows, and then Dream Mountain, then Reality Meadows, you know? I spend a lot of time oscillating between those different worlds and I think having a practice of being able to do that as a group, as multiple groups, would be really important.”

Sterling Duns

One First day morning at Bear Creek Friends meeting we listen to, and talked about the following two QuakerSpeak videos featuring Sterling Duns.

I put my life on pause, rewound, now I’m pressing play.
Then come up, grinding until the sun up,
knowing it could all be gone if one person puts their guns up.
A black Quaker no savior, I’m on my Bayard Rustin

I really feel like, in a lot of ways, that the lyrics that come to me, I really do feel like I’m just a vessel. I’m just somebody being used to spread messages of love and growth and empathy.

My name is Sterling Duns. I’m from West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and I attend Merion Meeting in Merion, PA, so not too far from West Philly.
I went to public school for all my life up until the 9th grade. My Mom had heard about a scholarship program at Friends Central School right outside of West Philly so I went there for 4 years.

It was a very transformative experience. One of the most life changing moments was when I was 14, I went down to the American Friends Service Committee and sat down in a room, 14, and someone came in and was like, “Alright, we’re going to write holiday letters to death row inmates.” And I was like, “How do I even comprehend what I’m doing? What this means?”

And that seed was planted. It’s serendipitous, it’s the universe, but little did I know, 13 years later I’d be working on prison reform in our country and really trying to educate myself and others about the prison system in this country.

I feel like I’ve been writing hip hop verses or rapping for as long as I can remember, but I think when I got to college I really started to hone in on rapping and crafting my skills.

I was an English major and poetry minor. I got my masters in poetry. Definitely having the opportunity to find my voice through poetry has influenced the hip hop that I do, and it’s been such a gift. It’s so cathartic for me – hip hop specifically – it’s this way that I use to speak my truth.

I think being patient with yourself, which I learned a lot through Quaker Meeting – has been really important in music. I’ll write something down, and want it to be finished right then and then. And I’m like, “I can’t force this.”

I think in a similar way, when sitting in Meeting, you could be grappling with something and you want resolution right then and there, knowing that it’s all about the process. It’s not about finding all the answers right in that moment. And you may come back a week later or a month later, and somebody will share a message and you’re like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

Quakers are constantly searching and re-defining what it means to really just embody Light and see that of God in everyone. You really are able to ask yourself some deep questions and be introspective and then from that introspection, I love the aspect of really dedicating yourself to social justice issues.

That’s one of the things that really drew me to Quakerism. The spirituality, but also this action. You can’t just sit in the Meeting room and think about things, and then once you get out of there, you know, “my job’s done for the day.”

I was asking myself these questions about what’s going on in the world and what’s my place in it all, and do I have a place in it all? And you know, the way was open and opportunities came up for me to put into practice things that I really felt deep in my core, and next thing I knew I was at Quaker Meeting every Sunday and I was helping to organize different learning opportunities around the prison system and doing work around education reform and playing music that had to do with social justice issues.

Things just started to open up because I really started listening and being guided by this inner truth.

Sterling Duns

Rest in peace Walter Scott

that was somebody’s son gunned down hands closed no palm readers many we’ve been so blessed preachers I’m pleading to rabbis Imams people of all faiths all creatures and all believers denominations though atheist may not be praying whoever you are we need each other neither saving with hearts caving something like explorers but too many fathers won’t ever see their daughters
this life sentence no shorter man we need some mortar because when we’re to growing is it too late is it just too late this whole thing got me irate so much I got to pray my Quaker ways got my spirit I’ve been in a better place I put my life on pause rewound now I’m pressing play to come up grinding them to the Sun up no one that can now be going the phone person puts the guns up a black quick and no Savior I’m on my Bayard Rustin to convince all the skeptics to give people to just trust them and that’s my truth

R.I.P. Walter Scott by Sterling Duns

I wrote part of that in response to Ferguson and stuff what’s going on and I think the most recent events in South Carolina are definitely on the hearts and minds of a lot of people and I think I feel like there’s a lot of energy in our country right now around making space to have some deep conversations we’ve never had before in our country’s history and it’s powerful, it’s amazing to be alive right now when all this is going on and you know I want to encourage people to always be rooted in love you know?

That doesn’t mean don’t be angry, that doesn’t mean don’t shed tears you know but to always and everything that you’re you know the conversation that we’re having because they’re painful, they’re charged they’re bringing up a lot of stuff that we’ve never had to work through as humans in this country. But to know that we’re all in it together. I think it’s important to remember, it’s important for me to remember, and that’s why I say it you know, so when I listen to that song I remember what you said that you know you’ve literally said that but to also encourage other people to to be rooted in love. Love for each other, love for humanity and I don’t think we can fail if we do that. I really don’t.

Sterling Duns

This lead me to think about my friend Diop Adisa, from the Kheprw Institute (KI).  Diop is a hip hop artist. He and I share a love of photography.  During some of those conversations Diop also shared about some of the struggles he experienced, especially related to his music.  Recently a number of good things have been coming from that. Below is the video of one of my favorite songs of his.

It was funny that as I was writing this I got a message from Diop that he had seen this photo I recently posted of myself running in the Indianapolis Mini Marathon (13.1 miles) in 2008, in support of Barack Obama.

Running in the Indianapolis Mini (Half) marathon in 2018. 13.1 miles



Following is a Minute on Racial Justice, approved at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) in 2016.

A testimony of Quakers is that all people are beloved and equal in the eyes of God.
We live in a society that is struggling to deal with consequences of slavery, and the failure to achieve equity for all after slavery was abolished. Conditions such as discriminatory lending practices, multigenerational inequities around home ownership, and easier access to education for white people persist in our laws and culture, resulting in institutional racism.

Some Friends once owned slaves. William Penn believed that “slavery was perfectly acceptable, provided that slave owners attended to the spiritual and material needs of those they enslaved.” Penn “had a curious blind spot about slavery. Quakers were far ahead of most other Americans, but it’s surprising that people with their humanitarian views could have contemplated owning slaves at all.”

Picking up the work of colonial Quaker Anthony Benezet, who wrote an early tract opposing slavery, John Woolman traveled up and down the Atlantic coast laboring with Quaker slaveholders and testifying against the institution of slavery. It was through his years of patient dialogue that Quakers first freed their slaves then testified against slavery and over time became the backbone of the anti-slavery movement in America.

A gap in awareness exists today, which allows so many people who consider themselves white to continue practices that give them advantages over people of color.

The scope of these problems is extensive and deep. Racial tensions continue to result in violence and death. There is an increasingly militarized police response. The Black Lives Matter movement is helping raise awareness around these issues.

Many white people are still not as aware of some of these issues. But to continue to benefit from these privileges is not right.

Not having relationships with people of color often results in misunderstanding and unfortunate racial attitudes among white people. One significant consequence of that is the election of so many representatives who reflect these views to legislative bodies.

Building relationships with people of color is one way we can begin to address this, as we build Beloved Communities together.

We urge each person to take a careful look at their life, to identify where one is benefiting from this, and work to correct that. We urge Friends to speak out and take action against these systemic injustices and violence occurring today.

Minute on Racial Justice
Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) 2016


This entry was posted in Black Lives, Quaker Meetings, race, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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