Theater of Voices
The experience of being either an insider or outsider in a group is a universal human experience. The quotations we share in this exercise are real life experiences of contemporary Quakers — some affirming and some marginalizing.
Materials and Setup
Materials and Setup:
My young son and I went to Central Philadelphia Meeting a few times. I loved being a Quaker kid and wanted to give that experience to my son. On Sunday mornings I took him to meeting at 15th and Cherry Streets hoping to give him that same feeling but I never felt welcomes or accepted there–too young, too different, too something that prevented people at Central Philadelphia to see that of God in me. Perhaps I fulfilled too many of their stereotypes to be welcomed into the fold, so I stopped going. Because I couldn’t fit in, my son was not raised Quaker.
-A Friend from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Unprogrammed worship spoke to my condition like no prior religious practice. I thought of myself as having always been a Quaker without ever having known it. I had sensed early on that at some level, my African American culture might be put at risk, not by any religious tenets of Quakerism, but rather by certain of its cultural expectations and assumptions.
-A Friend from Pacific Yearly Meeting
I…feel isolated because, as I have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles…I haven’t seen seventy-five black Quaker yet. You can’t know how it feels to be surrounded almost all the time with faces that don’t look like yours…Sometimes when I’m weak I want to say, “God, why did you send me here?” I don’t know. I know I was sent. I know I want to stay, but I wonder why we don’t have more blacks. And I feel isolated too because all my life I’ve been taught that I have to adapt to white society. And sometimes I wonder, “When is somebody going to adapt to me? How come I always have to be the one to make the changes? Why do people never try to understand me?”
-Dwight Spann-Wilson, Ann Arbor (Michigan) Friends Meeting
1980 Lecture at FGC Gathering: “Quaker and Black: Answering the Call of my Twin Roots”
Friends seem to require a person of color to carry a resume and ask, “Why are you here?” I have been here for years, and you act like I am a visitor.
– A Friend from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting
Many times white Friends have explained to me why African Americans need music, music – and lots of emotion – in ‘their’ worship. When I asked them what color I was, they looked puzzled and humbled. “But Paul, you’re different.” At that moment I became invisible to them as a person of color.
-Friend Paul Ricketts, Fort Wayne Meeting in Indiana
I feel as though a lot is expected of me and that people often believe that the opinions I voice are the opinions of the entire African American population. I feel loved and accepted for who and what I am, that most Friends appreciate the diversity I bring to the meeting and are more than willing to learn about my background. I feel that friends look beyond the color of my skin to the heart and know that I am another soul in meeting for worship-waiting, just as they wait, as all others have done and will do, I trust, long after racism ceases to exist.
A Friend quoted in Friends Journal, 1994
I found myself very comfortable with the beliefs and practices of Quakers, including the deep silent worship experience…I believe in the transforming power of love and nonviolence over injusticeand violence, and trust in the power of Spirit to guide me and the collective. I am always moved by the power of gathered silence and individual witnessing.
Francine Cheeks, a member of Newtown (New Jersey) Meeting
I must reflect in the silence of worship, finding strength in my spiritual community, and move onward toward an active expression of my belief…As a Black, I view the relationship of Christianity to people of color as racial in its expression, serving as a liberating force. An important voice in the Black religious community, James Cone, points out that, “Being Black in America has little to do with skin color. To be black, means that your heart, your soul, your mind and your body are where the dispossessed are…This is where I stand as a maember of the Religious Society of Friends.
-A Friend from New England Yearly Meeting
(On whether it really makes a difference if Friends are integrated or not) “The question is one of authenticity, and goes to the heart of our belief about Quakerism. For if this faith of Friends that we espouse, this way of seeking for the Spirit of Truth, is indeed authentic, it will be able to speak powerfully to all sorts and conditions of folk, whatever their race, their economic status, or the cultural context through which they see the world. If we accept the notion, however subconsciously, that Quakerism speaks to only certain kinds of people, then we have totally denies its religious validity, its universal spirit, and so we will have reduced Quakerism to the status of a social club with a mild religious overlay.”
-Alison Oldham, New England Yearly Meeting Keynote Address, 1984
A clear awareness that listening deeply to Friends of color is important–to listen nondefensively, and believing Friends of color, is important. It sounds embarrassingly simple, but I think one of the most radical things I learned early on as a white ally is to listen deeply to people of color and to believe them. I see in materials sent that Friends of color are being asked to speak their truth, to write about their feelings, and to tell their stories. It is clear that an opening has occurred and at least some Friends of color are feeling safe enough to speak out even when the truth hurts. The Friends of color among you are brave.
-Andrea Ayvazian, previously a member of the Religious Society of Friends, now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Quoted in Friends Journal 2003.
The individuals named in the Theater of Voices quotations have given permission for their quotation and name to be shared.
The experience of being either an insider or outsider in a group is a universal human experience. The quotations in the Materials & Setup tab share real life experiences of contemporary Quakers – some affirming and some marginalizing. This activity invites the group to listen to and hold space for the sometimes painful experiences that Friends have had in Quaker meetings.
You will invite the group to center down and prepare to receive the stories of People of Color and others who have been marginalized. Read each quotation out loud and pause between each.
After you receive the quotations, invite the group to consider the following questions:
What feelings did the quote/s bring up for me? Where in my body did I feel those feelings?
Which voice do I identify with? Which voice makes me want to say, “I am exactly that” or “I’ve done/said that”?
Which voice do I recognize — as if to say, “I am not exactly like that, but I know someone who is”?
Which voice do I resonate with, as if to say, “I don’t know why, but that person awakens a strong feeling or memory in me”?
In what ways does my meeting make Black visitors or Friends feel welcomed? In what ways might my meeting make Black visitors or Friends feel unwelcomed?
Reflect on what these quotations say about the experience of People of Color and other people marginalized by race or class in a Quaker setting.
What do these experiences say about the experience of White people in a Quaker setting?
How do these stories connect or disconnect with your own stories?
Be conscious to help people move past feelings of guilt and shame and transform them into opportunities for growth and learning. This will be more effective for transforming the individuals and the meeting as a whole on its path to becoming more inclusive and welcoming.
Alternatively, you can do this exercise with the Stories of Friends of Color from FGC’s Institutional Assessment Task Force Report (pages 3-13).
These stories may be painful to sit with. These pages are excerpted from the report written by the Institutional Assessment Task Force members, October 2018, and shared with their permission. To learn more about FGC’s Institutional Assessment on Systemic Racism, click here.
Credits: Adapted with permission from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Tapestry of Faith curriculum, "Building the World We Dream About."