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The courageous many: Undoing racism as a spiritual practice

Acting in Faith  |  By Lucy Duncan, Aug 31, 2014
Sarah Grimke

Sarah Grimke

Photo: Library of Congress/Wikicommons / Wood engraving, ucredited
It’s been a hard summer. From the bombardment on Gaza to the refugee children on the border to Ferguson, it feels as though the world is cracking apart and oppressive policies and the militaries or police that protect them are proceeding with impunity. The consequences of the twisted systems in which we live are being exposed. People all over the world are crying out for justice and connecting their struggles.  
 
It is my prayer that the recent violence and crackdowns are a backlash against a tide that is turning, a spiritual awakening that is moving to shift away from the soul-killing beliefs and practices of the past and toward a spiritual grounding in equality and justice. But that change won’t happen anywhere without a huge, painful, difficult struggle, one that I hope is ignited by outrage and fueled by love. That struggle will require enormous courage.
 
As a person with privilege, I often mis-calculate how hard real change will be and overestimate the power I have to make change. My friends of color often ask, “What’s next?” sensing that things will likely get worse and knowing from experience how deep the trouble we’re in is. But, I still believe we are in the midst of revelations that can lead to real revolution, the deep change needed to make way for a transformed collective future… if enough people accept the call and put our hands and hearts into the work.
 

A spiritual deformation

 
Lucretia MottIt’s my sense that the killing of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Palestinian children and families or turning refugee children away would be far harder if not for the dehumanization and lies of racism. What will it take to undo this spiritual deformation that stands in the way of just and lasting peace?
 
I had the honor of working closely with the co-authors Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel, of Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the Myth of Racial Justice toward the conclusion of the book's publication. The authors break apart the myth that all Quakers were abolitionists or active in working for Civil Rights and demonstrate that most Quakers were not that involved, had hesitations about the Friends that were involved in these efforts, and often resisted change.
  
Though we like to believe we were counter-cultural and exceptional, throughout our history most American Quakers, in the end, weren’t all that different from the dominant Euro-centric and racist culture we have inhabited and inhabit today. 
 
There were, though, a courageous few among us, both white and Friends of color: Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, William Boen, Benjamin Lay, Thomas Garrett, Anthony Benezet, Sarah Mapps Douglass, the Grimke sisters, Paul Cuffee, Barrington Dunbar, Rufus Jones, Prudence Crandall, Bayard Rustin, Rachel Davis DuBois, George Sawyer, Kathie O’Hara and quite a number of others who struggled with Friends and the wider society for racial justice.
 
Donna and Vanessa wondered about publishing a companion book about these courageous few, these spiritual ancestors willing to stand in the gap between who we say we are and who we are and try to help us cross the chasm. I’ve been longing for such a book in the past few years, a manual that explored how these Friends were able to take the risks they did, to resist marginalization and refutation and hold on faithfully to their vision of a beloved community. I’d like to read it as a guide to how we might move from a religious community in which there are a courageous few to a religious community in which we are a courageous many.
 
How might we work to cultivate the courageous many?
 

A spiritual commitment

 
Captain Paul CuffeIn the past eight years, undoing racism has become for me a central spiritual commitment. My sense is that the work of removing the plank of racism (and other oppressions) from my eye is essential work for my own spiritual wholeness. 
 
Though I receive many unearned benefits from being born white, those benefits have come at the cost of disconnecting from so many people and communities, from the hardening of my heart. I have come to know deeply that my liberation is bound up with the liberation of my friends of color, that though it is a softer, much more comfortable cage, the lies of white superiority imprison me, too. Until all are free, no one really is.
 
Like any discipline preparing to work to undo racism takes practice. In the past two years I’ve been involved in a whites confronting racism group. It’s a group comprised only of white people because we don’t want to put people of color in the position of educating us and because we have a lot we can learn and teach together.
 
We meet monthly and begin with worship, then tell each other stories of the racism we’ve witnessed or been a part of perpetuating or interrupting in the past month. We teach each other frameworks for understanding the dynamics of racism, we read articles together, we challenge each other. I have found the practice to be profoundly spiritual, as we work to expand our awareness and range of motion, as we support one another in becoming more effective instruments of change. It takes vulnerability, we often share the mistakes we’ve made and our fears, our sadness at what our friends of color have experienced or understanding more Bayard Rustinfully how deep racism goes. For me it feels as though we are supporting one another in mindfulness, in being awake, and in living our commitments. It feels as though we are learning together how to really answer that of God in everyone.
 
I wonder whether instituting these groups as a foundational element in all predominantly white, U.S. Quaker meetings and churches could help us to become more vibrant, welcoming, and connected communities. I wonder whether this work would prepare us for the struggle ahead, to be ready to really put our hands and hearts into the confrontation that awaits us. Certainly meeting in such groups is not sufficient—living an integrated life in which relationships with people and communities of color are central is also essential (more on that in another post)but this kind of group can certainly support both relationships and engagement.
 

A superpower?

 
My f/Friend Steve Tamari recently asked his 12-year-old son what kind of superpower he wanted. He said he wanted the ability to feel the pain of others. I think Steve's son is right, this is a superpower and it’s an essential one to being whole and living up to the potential in our faith. It is also a power that is key to remembering that really we are one in Spirit. It's why I do the work of practicing undoing racism. And the thing is, if you’re able to feel the pain of others, you can feel the joy of others, too. And that is worth everything.

About the Author

Lucy serves as Director of Friends Relations for AFSC. She blogs, organizes Quakers to work for justice, and has helped create AFSC's Sanctuary Everywhere stream of program work. She has been instrumental in the adaptation of Quaker social change ministry as a tool for reclaiming Spirit-guided social change work focused on companioning those most impacted by injustice. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience.

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Christina is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She was born and raised in London, England and has a background in copywriting. Christina currently lives in the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia.