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Variance: A reflection on Quakers, Christianity and racial justice

Dance Photo: Chany Crystal / Chany Crystal

Note: This month Madeline and I have asked several African-American Quakers to reflect on several queries and write respones. We invited each person to reflect on questions about Quaker faith, what gets in the way, and AFSC's role in his/her faith life. This piece by Paul Ricketts, who has had a long relationship with AFSC, also responds to queries posed via a social media channel. Paul offers a challenging invitation to address white supremacy and racism within Quaker circles to more fully realize our faith commitments. - Lucy

In love, all the contradictions of existence merge themselves and are lost. Only in love are unity and duality not at variance. Love must be one and two at the same time. Only love is motion and rest in one. Our heart ever changes its place till it finds love, then it has its rest.  - Rabindranath Tagore

A Friend posted some queries on the Christian Quaker Facebook page in regards to Christianity and Quakerism. "Quaker Christian or Christian Quaker, which for you is the noun, which the adjective?"

I feel these queries beg for a deeper answer.

The Religious Society of Friends is a faith community rooted in the Protestant tradition, a tradition which affirms the priesthood of all believers. God lives and speaks directly to each person. To assist people today in having a direct experience with Spirit 89% of Quakers worldwide practice a pastoral (pastor-led service) programmed worship.

The other 11% of Quakers practice a silent unprogrammed worship, a worship service not planned in advance. This remnant among Quakers, I feel, is akin to the progressive voices in the Mennonite Church on issues of sexuality. The Mennonite Church licensed its first openly lesbian minister last month and she is on the path to be ordained. How did this happen in a conservative church?

Words from the Mennonite Church (Mountain States Conference) affirmed, "Much of the process centered around the consideration of a person whose gifts and call to ministry are clearly affirmed yet is in a committed same-sex relationship—which is at variance from denominational statements."

The key word in this paragraph is variance. An online definition for this word suggests a difference or shifting away from the expected or familiar. Whether an openly lesbian Mennonite minister or worshipping in silence, some of us live in variance to the dominant group.

As a person of color for the past thirty seven years I have been in variance with the Religious Society of Friends in the U.S. not only in my method of worship (silence) but also in regards to race.

Unlike the Mennonites whose statements are written on paper, Quaker statements and attitudes, particularly on race, are written in their hearts and ways of living. Unfortunately for many of us of color these attitudes and behaviors have left many scars and wounds. Over years I have been blessed to find solace and a saving grace in some of my relationships with Quakers and non-Quakers in my meeting and within the American Friends Service Committee. I have found this solace in few other Quaker organizations. What a Blessing!

Dance by Argonne National LaboratoryAs I shared with Friends, I know there's lots of Quakers who would say AFSC is no longer a "Quaker" organization. This is coded language for there being too many black and brown faces at 15th and Cherry Streets in Philly or Chicago or other places AFSC has planted itself.

I also know in my 37 years of experience with the American Friends Service Committee that the organization is definitely not squeaky clean in regards to institutional and personal racism. The drama! With all the brokenness and dreams deferred, there’s always a rebirth in the organization when it has hit rock bottom with the disease of racism. After much "wailing and gnashing of teeth," there's a cry in the organization of repentance. Not in a church-like way. But it is a very human cry that I think Jesus would have recognized:

"We screwed up! How can work together to be back in right relationship with people of color?"

So we start the dance again. Many people of color have moved to another dance floor and found another dance partner.

Regardless of what "variance" that we may experience in the Religious Society of Friends (political, mode of worship, racial) there is room on the dance floor for all of God's Children. 

I was reading that a best floor for tap dancing is one that is both resilient and resonant. A resilient floor is capable of withstanding shock without being damaged. A resonant floor produces strong and deep sound tones. The wonderful ministry and book Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye helped to lift the veil and described how white supremacy has shaped the Religious Society of Friends and the American Friends Service Committee.

We have to ask ourselves are we resilient and strong enough to withstand the shock of our Quaker and AFSC history without being broken? Can we stand in variance to that history of white privilege and supremacy without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  What fruits from that experience will vibrate through us on the dance floors of our Quaker Meetings or AFSC that could travel throughout the universe? 


About the Author

Paul Ricketts is an avid reader and educator. He has worked for thirty five years in education and with adults with disabilities.