In this fourth installment of our series featuring the writing of Black Quakers on Black Lives Matter, Lauren Brownlee speaks to the intersection of privilege and oppression, the solidarity between Palestinians and Black Lives Matter, and "that of God in everyone." Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda Friends Meeting and serves on the Peace and Social Concerns Committee and the Growing Diverse Leadership Committee of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.
I grew up with privilege. I went to a phenomenal Quaker school, lived in a great neighborhood, and had all of my needs and most of my wants met throughout my youth. Privilege, however, is relative. I have privilege in some ways and am the target of oppression in other ways. In 2013, I realized through a War Resisters’ League conference the global privilege I have as a citizen of the United States. I had never fully conceptualized this privilege before, and it spurred on a whole new level of my civic engagement. But I am also the target of oppression. Last week I had an encounter in which I was forced to face my vulnerability as a Black citizen of United States.
I’d been preparing for that moment my whole life. In my community “racist” is a dirty word, so while I’ve certainly not been immune to racism, I’ve never experienced it in an intentionally and explicitly malicious form before. However, having grown up watching Civil Rights documentaries and hearing stories about the racist remarks my friends’ grandparents would make, I know that racism lurks in the places I walk. Every time I’m on a street corner with someone who appears to be grimacing at me as though they could be a flashback from Eyes on the Prize, I think about what I will say if they spew hatred at me.
One of the reasons I connected with the Religious Society of Friends is that I could never meet hate with hate. It has always been in my nature to “walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone.” So in my head, my defense against hatred would be love and kindness - I wear my love as a shield and I would use my kindness as a tool to raise consciousness if ever I was verbally attacked.
As it turned out, no amount of preparation could have fully empowered me. Headed to my friend’s apartment, an older gentleman who passed me on the street said, ““F***ing n*****s! I’m so f***ing sick of n*****s.” At this point I turned around and looked at him to try to understand the context of these words that hit me like punches. He made eye contact and continued: “They’re all f***ing a**holes!”
The only external response I could muster was a sound of disappointment. Internally, I held him in the Light. I also focused on holding him in the Light the next time I was in Meeting for Worship, though it was still too painful for me to speak aloud.
Several years ago in Meeting, someone shared a message that in order to hold others in the Light, you must tend to the Light within yourself. The Black Lives Matter movement is a means through which I can do just that. Too often American society does not honor the Light of Black lives.
The weekend that I was verbally assaulted, I had been working on a Black Lives Matter flier for the Peace and Social Justice Committee of Bethesda Friends Meeting. I had written about the Quaker belief of "that of God in everyone" and about Friends’ history of solidarity with the oppressed. I quoted blacklivesmatter.com’s explanation that, “Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”
I had concluded that, “Those who believe in the inherent value and equality of all lives must bear witness and loudly declare that Black Lives Matter.”
Alice Walker once said that “activism is the rent we pay for living on the planet.” That sentiment is at the foundation of my spirituality.
There’s an old Quaker joke: a visitor in Meeting for Worship asks a Friend sitting nearby, "When does the service begin?" and receives the answer "When the worship ends." That framework has led me to spend my adult years acting in solidarity with Palestinians, whom I believe to be suffering some of the worst injustices in the world today.
Few actions have had more significance to me in recent years than when Palestinians returned that solidarity in 2014 by sharing signs with statements such as “From Palestine to Ferguson with love” and “Palestinians support Ferguson because ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’” I could feel Palestinians holding me in the Light in the way that I have so often held them.
In my adult life, nowhere has the Light within me been more nurtured than at Bethesda Friends Meeting. That is where I take the time to connect with that of God within me, and that is where I have had my Light consistently reflected back to me by the community.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been an extension of the encouragement to let my Light shine even in the face of those who seek to extinguish it. Friends Meeting of Washington has a banner up that asks, “How does your life help end racial injustice?” That question itself is an affirmation of the commitment that we each must make both as Quakers and as activists to be a living testament to our faith. Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.” I feel that love as I work with the members of my Meeting and with other activists to stand up for the fact that Black lives, including my own, matter.