Reflections on the Spring 2022 Retreat for Friends of Color

by Zae Illo

Friends General Conference (FGC) sponsored a hybrid retreat for Friends of Color in May 2022 in Oregon. Zae Illo has provided a reflection on the event.

On May 13, 2022, Friends of Color poured into the Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Corbett, Oregon.  The history of the property weaves into the collective narrative which we are trying to overturn.  In 1914, the site was originally purchased as a “retreat” from both the bustle of both urban life and a political career by Julius Meier who served as governor of Oregon (1931-1935).  The plush landscape and carefully manicured lawns are bristling with political history–the property was established before either Brown vs. Board of Education or the Civil Rights Act.  Yet, even as the plush fields and main house of the 100-acre property unfolded, Friends were not able to escape the perils of a society built on brutal, often lethal, violence.  Many thousands of miles away, the latest mass shooting had just taken place in Buffalo, New York.  The theme of the gathering, “Rest as a Revolutionary Act,” is timely for persons of color precisely because there is no Sabbath from the horrors of prejudice and racism in the United States.

Two of the activities that most encapsulated the spiritual moans and narrative of persons of color took place on Saturday, May 14.  At 9:00am, for an exercise entitled “Slow Rocking” from Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, Friends hummed while swaying their bodies back and forth.  The exercise was a reminder of the root of folk spirituals: the visceral, skin-level suffering of persons of color.  The historical root of shared groaning and rhythmic movement is not shared by most Friends.  As such, this type of “felt” musical expression is not practiced at monthly meetings – it is foreign to “Quaker” culture in the United States.  At 1:00pm, we lit candles to mourn and grieve our losses during the past few years.  This collective form of lamentation is highly countercultural in a society that “manages” all signs of death.  In middle-class culture, there is no room for the collective wailing and tearing of clothes found in the Bible.  In our Community Organizing course at the Earlham School of Religion, Jim Higginbotham recently reminded students that without lamentation, we cannot discern how God leads us to respond to pain.

In the mornings, Friends sat around a fireplace and held meeting for worship.  During the wonderful meals prepared by the retreat center staff, Friends discussed a range of topics (including James Cone) which are rarely heard in “Quaker” spaces. At one such meal, we discussed the ministry of Howard Thurman (Fellowship Church of San Francisco) and the vision for a truly integrated church – a vision still unrealized within the Religious Society of Friends.  Much like the sprawling Menucha site, decades of labor have been spent plowing spiritual fields and planting new seeds for new revelation among Friends. Revolutionary Sabbath is needed for our souls to survive the nightmare of the United States. On the surface, Friends speak about “nonviolence” but generally support both a standing military and police force (even though nonviolence includes “civilian-based defense”).  This is the kairos, the right time, to discern continuing revelation.  Right now, persons of color are the wine and wafer of an unholy communion of violence: Sutherland Springs Church; schoolchildren in Oxford, Michigan and ordinary African Americans in Sanford (Trayvon Martin), Minneapolis (George Floyd), Brunswick (Ahmaud Arbery), Louisville (Breonna Taylor), Maplewood (Amir Locke).

“I contend, therefore, that the problem of violence is not the problem of a few black revolutionaries but the problem of a whole social structure which outwardly appears to be ordered and respectable but inwardly is ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions, racism and hatred.” 

James Cone, God of the Oppressed.
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