A Recent History of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: from the perspective of a humble insider

To Wade in Esoterica

The stories contained here are parochial and esoteric; they are fully understandable to a very few people. What I have learned about spiritual grounding and witness, about God’s love and about myself potentially resonates beyond the particularities. There are several sections, and I encourage readers to skip to those that are most relevant to their own interests. The first section, The Undoing Racism Group, is the story of their formation and interaction with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) from my own perspective. The second section, To be Broken, encapsulates some of my experience in the aftermath of PYM not making the Undoing Racism Group a formal part of our community and governance. The third section, About the Youth and Young Adult Staffing Changes, recounts the story of the changes to staffing structure that supports children, families, youth and young adults. The final section, Dearest Chuck Fager, is a response to Fager’s two blog posts regarding the 2016 Annual Sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Then I end with a story about the man who lived by the river.

My role in our community is to serve as a bridge, seeing and knowing many things and translating them to be palatable. Someone in my role almost never reveals his full set of observations and analyses, and, indeed, in this history, there are still stories that will remain untold. Yet there are times when those who serve as bridges need to stand up and name what they see, simply, in order to aid the healing and progress of community. This meandering compendium is an attempt at this. I do my best to capture the narrative in my own words and my own perspective, yet it does involve others. I invite anyone who believes something should be corrected or reworked to accurately reflect a story that is theirs and not really mine to let me know; I can update this post at any time.

The Undoing Racism Group

The experience of most at the 2015 Called Meeting of PYM on Addressing Racism when we approved the below minute was emotive. I felt elated and apprehensive. The called meeting had in large measure been a response to what rose up at the end of the July 2014 Annual Sessions regarding the fact that ending racism (or any other “ism”) hadn’t made it into any part of our strategic plan. In the wake of the murders of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, we were responding to a profound, historical need by committing not merely our words but our hands and feet:

Friends tested and affirmed the work of our clerks and our elders, since being tasked during Annual Sessions in July 2014, to help discern a way forward in addressing many ‘-isms’ including racism, sexism, genderism and classism. Friends also heartily affirmed that as a yearly meeting we:

  • Commit to increase our consciousness as Friends about the intersection of privilege and race in our culture and spiritual community. We know our knowledge is often limited by our own experiences and that we have much to learn from each other and from outside resources.
  • Commit to move forward with our entire community. The yearly meeting is the community of all our individual Friends and monthly meetings and this work needs to be done with the involvement of all of us.
  • Commit to integrate this work into what we do in an ongoing way at the yearly meeting level. We want this work to become part of the fabric of what we do whenever we get together as yearly meeting members and attenders.

Meanwhile, between July of 2014 and January of 2015, a group of approximately thirty Friends had already become active. They represented a wide network, many of whom contributed to the formation of a “working document” which would define a mission and specific action steps to take in partnership with the rest of our yearly meeting community. Their meetings were always open, and, though I wasn’t able to attend all of them, I was welcomed whenever I was there. My participation was always encouraged; I became one of them. We began to call ourselves The Undoing Racism Group (URG).

PYM Staff helped give URG a web presence on the PYM Website, to post their working document, and to establish a network of contacts at each monthly meeting. The Undoing Racism Group was providing some organizing energy at the grassroots level, and I saw that their ministry could help the yearly meeting follow through on its commitments. As Associate Secretary, I believe I was instrumental in coaching some members of the Undoing Racism Group to see themselves as part of the yearly meeting, as an expression of the many levels at which anti-racism witness was needed. These efforts would eventually be thwarted, and, even so, I still believe that URG is part of our yearly meeting community. Our Clerks and Elders simultaneously stewarded the concern of ending racism for Annual (and later, Continuing) Sessions. The two groups, Undoing Racism Group and our Clerks and Elders, did not make connections during this period.

The Undoing Racism Group and our Clerks and Elders continued to meet and work separately after the January 2015 Called Meeting. The two groups did not converge until the late spring of 2015. It was mutually agreed that there was a need for consulting on how to support people of color at the 2015 Annual Sessions. While this is something we should have already been doing, the need became especially poignant ahead of an agenda that contained community-wide anti-racism work.  

For 2015 Annual Sessions, the Undoing Racism Group organized a series of workshops, many of which would become a set of traveling workshops. They hosted affinity group spaces, and they provided “Undoing Racism Group Resource People” who made themselves available to help other Friends process the anti-racism work. The Undoing Racism Group was not involved in the formation of the agenda for the 2015 Annual Sessions. The Clerks and Elders had also met with a consultant a few times, but it was unclear whether the clerk at that time relied on these consultants to build out the parts of the agenda focused on addressing racism. Then during the 2015 Annual Sessions, we stumbled when it became clear that the work of anti-racism unintentionally centered whiteness. We mistakenly focused on the challenges of white people to notice their white privilege, which left many people of color feeling isolated and excluded from the very work that when done correctly could have led to new forms of healing.  In this, it needed to have been a “both-and” wherein we found ways to examine thereby to dismantle whiteness while also lifting up the voices and leadership of people of color in our work.

Additionally, a separate group of Friends gathered to form a sprint group during the 2015 Annual Sessions. This was an ad-hoc grouped created by the Implementation Committee, because, at that time, there was no permanent body responsible for planning Continuing Sessions. Implementation Committee was the body charged with implementing our new governance structure. The only task of this sprint group was to name a query to serve as the theme of the very first Continuing Sessions scheduled for the fall of 2015. The query was, “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?”

The PYM Clerk at the time when she heard what the theme would be, had nearly refused to let it be so. I remember the Sunday morning of 2015 Annual Sessions receiving news that our Clerk was essentially blocking this query from existing. I heard myself saying, “If I had the power, I would not let this happen.” And behold another member of staff had overheard me; she turned and exclaimed, “You DO have the power!” It was decided that we could at least talk with the PYM Rising Clerk and with other members of URG. After extended conversation, we moved forward with the query. God was calling us to do so. It was only through relationship, listening deeply to one another, that we were able to notice God speaking.  This moment is representative of many that would come after it—the sense of powerlessness, of needing to work hard to take even one step forward, and nearly burning out whenever we would raise our heads and see the vastness of the ocean against which we were pushing. It was and remains dangerously easy just to stop; to let everything slip away. This is why relationship is key. In relationship, we find God’s inspiration to keep going.

The Undoing Racism Group provided consultation in the planning of fall 2015 Continuing Sessions, and, around this time, the Rising Clerk, who had become our newly named PYM Clerk, had begun attending URG meetings. Also, the newly named clerk of the Quaker Life Council had already been attending Undoing Racism Group meetings.

After the fall 2015 Continuing Sessions, it came time for the Undoing Racism Group to apply to become part of the new structure. URG decided to apply to become a committee. After some initial disagreement, the Quaker Life Council was clear that the work of ending racism needed to be placed at a high level in the governance of our yearly meeting. Becoming a committee would allow URG to continue playing the role it had already been playing and to help the Quaker Life Council coordinate work across local Quaker communities.

The proposal to become a committee under the care of the Quaker Life Council was forwarded to the Implementation Committee. I was unable to recall exactly why the proposal was forwarded to the Implementation Committee. My best recollection, after consultation with the Clerk of the Quaker Life Council, is that the proposal concerned care for an entire strategic direction. The committee also would not necessarily have members of the Quaker Life Council serving on it, while the Governance Handbook explicitly requires that all council committees have at least one member of the council serving on them. With such a substantive issue, and because of this deviation from the handbook, the proposal came before Implementation Committee where it was not approved.  Reasons for not approving the proposal centered on fear that the work would be relegated to a “committee” and then forgotten, which is what happened to the last Working Group on Racial Healing and Wholeness. There was increasing unity that this is work of the whole body and so should be carried by, “all of us.”

For me, I do not agree with this argument. Through years of studying social theory, I’ve learned about how one goes about characterizing human activity. When doing this, one needs to be able to draw distinctions. To know how we start at point A, let’s say, and end up at point B, we need to be able to distinguish between points A and B. When we attribute a characteristic to everyone or to, “all of us,” the characteristic runs the risk of losing the power of its meaning as it doesn’t help in any way to distinguish one from another and thereby to identify useful analysis, goals or purposes. This is the principle I’ve often referred to as, “everything is also nothing.” Those who would use the “all of us” line of thinking, would also in the same breath refer to our Clerks and Elders as the only holders of this work. I would argue that our moving forward with anti-racism was and remains located across several distinct points in space and time. There were times when, together, we all contributed (like at the 2015 Called Meeting) and there were times when the Undoing Racism Group helped move us forward, when our staff has done so, and still other times when our Clerks and Elders did so. The assertion that it is not the role of the Undoing Racism Group or other people to help move our work forward because it is, “all of our work to do,” firstly pretends that the Undoing Racism Group and other people did not proffer important leadership, which they did and continue to do, and it secondly overlooks an important aspect of anti-racism. That is “both/and” thinking. It is possible that the Clerks and Elders are leading us alongside other leaders, and I would argue that it is necessary for our success to be able to hold both as being true.

Despite the lack of approval from Implementation Committee, by the end of 2015, the Undoing Racism Group had begun to be viewed by PYM leadership as an essential element in the work of stewarding our entire yearly meeting to end racism. Good relationships between Undoing Racism Group leadership and PYM leadership had begun to form. Where at first the two groups had not worked in tandem, they now seemed to be. URG became the de facto consultants for agenda setting and community-wide projects, and this positive relationship persisted into the spring of 2016.

Given the news that the proposal to become a committee was not approved, the Undoing Racism Group formed an ad hoc group to write a new proposal. I had hoped that this small group could include several stakeholders, and I acknowledged my excitement that it seemed to include many of them when the group was formed. But the process was delicate because PYM leadership needed to respect URG’s discernment and avoid taking it over. So after further discussion between a member of URG and the PYM Clerk it was decided that we would not try to add other stakeholders to this small group. I’m not sure why this was the case; I believe it was a mistake. It meant that Implementation Committee and the Undoing Racism Group would continue working separately from one another, never in relationship and never hearing each other’s perspectives, moving beyond their hangups. I think we are most easily able to access God’s leadings in relationship, and the opportunity to do so here was largely missed.

The Undoing Racism Group submitted their revised proposal to the Implementation Committee in May of 2016. A member of URG attended the meeting of the Implementation Committee where the proposal was not approved for a second time. Concerns about relegating the work to one group remained, and another emerged regarding the function of accountability in the proposed structure. It was thought that, while URG would hold yearly meeting governance bodies accountable, the Undoing Racism Group, also, should be held accountable to the wider community. The proposed structure didn’t specifically address this, and the Implementation Committee didn’t make any suggestions for how it could.  

In June of 2016, several members of the Implementation Committee attended an Undoing Racism Group meeting, where the proposal was discussed at length. By the end of the meeting, a felt sense of connection and solidarity arose between all who were present. I would call it a gathered or covered meeting, in the Quaker tradition. The possibility of asking Implementation Committee to consider a revision arose. However, the Implementation Committee was in the process of being laid down after nearly two years of hard work. The Clerk of the Implementation Committee agreed to ask his members whether they would see fit to consider a revision, and the committee did not see fit to consider one.  

At the meeting between the Undoing Racism Group and Implementation Committee, I rose and spoke to the apparent mutual accountability that had already developed between URG and PYM’s governance bodies. In the Quaker tradition, we keep each other spiritually accountable through mutuality. For, even our elders can miss important spiritual insights. There was a sense that no accountability existed, yet I saw it happening consistently and repeatedly. To ensure that URG would remain accountable to the body of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, we would merely have needed to require URG to report to the body at Annual or Continuing Sessions, as we require our other Councils to do. That such a simple solution was consistently overlooked and never suggested indicated to me something different undergirding the objections to the URG proposal. Actually, the objections emanated from a fear of losing power and control—it came from leaders who didn’t particularly like the idea that they might have missed important insights related to racism. To me, a leader is one who understands their weaknesses and asks for accountability and support to compensate. In this moment, I had hoped and continue to hope we reach our full potential regarding this aspect of leadership.

Of course, I don’t believe that PYM leadership was the only group with overactive egos. Many times, I observed members of the Undoing Racism Group, especially white members, pushing back against any notion of accountability, even mutual accountability. I observed white members of URG asserting that those who disagreed with them must then be more racist than they and unworthy of trust. A sort of white righteousness would sometimes emerge, leading even to assertions that people of color who disagreed with the “URG approach” were then clearly suffering from internalized oppression themselves. It is difficult to come to agreement on a way forward when ego has a stronghold on both sides.

This is why the aforementioned meeting in June of 2016 between Implementation Committee and Undoing Racism Group was deeply moving to me. It seemed we all had been able to move beyond our fears and distrust into God-led relationship. Relationship, again, helped us break through our divides, even if for only a moment.

Since the Implementation Committee was about to be laid down, but there remained unanswered structural questions, which included but were not limited to what URG’s place would be in PYM’s governance structure, it was decided that PYM leadership would propose a small ad-hoc group be created to adjudicate pre-existing, outstanding issues. URG’s proposal to become part of PYM’s governance was never meant to be brought to the floor of business meeting. The plan was that this ad-hoc group would work to resolve the issue after Annual Sessions, after the ad-hoc group’s charge was approved by the body. It was proposed to the body, and some questions arose about how long the ad-hoc group would exist, who would serve on it and what the term limits would be. It seemed we’d forgotten to determine the operational details. Someone rose, a white man, and accused the proposal of, “not being seasoned.” While the details may not have been fully developed, the need for an ad-hoc group was well seasoned, indeed. A process of discernment lasting two years had led to the need for this ad-hoc group. Not the Presiding Clerk nor anyone else challenged this accusation, and so we were unable to approve the creation of the ad-hoc group. To this day, there are issues regarding PYM’s governance structure that remain unresolved, all because no one was willing to push back against the knee jerk reaction of a white man who spoke inaccurately against a well-seasoned and spirit-led need.

During the July 2016 Annual Sessions, at various points, the URG proposal that the Implementation Committee did not approve was mentioned without context. For the sake of transparency, the proposal was made available widely, and can be found on the PYM Website. After being presented merely for information at an early session, it became clear that Spirit was moving us to consider another revised version for approval. The body did not approve this version. Then the PYM Clerk and the Co-Clerks of URG worked together to create a third revision. This can also be found on the PYM Website. During the final business session, this proposal, too, was not approved. Yet it should be made clear that we would likely never have needed to consider the URG proposal on the floor of Annual Sessions had we been able to approve the ad-hoc group, as mentioned above. So a pattern was perpetuated here, which is that when older white men speak, we act swiftly. But when people of color or white people advocating for people of color speak, we hesitate.

As this discernment was happening, the Undoing Racism Group had been invited to offer a report on their work. This was yet another example of the accountability that was already taking place between URG and the yearly meeting body. Other members of URG stood in solidarity with those who were making their report. Many of us stood. There were so many of us standing, Friends young and old together, it became difficult to tell who was not standing. The entire facing bench was standing, even. I remember feeling a sense of anxiety about what would happen next, but nothing dramatic occurred. Three or four Friends remained standing after the report as we moved on to our next agenda item, while consideration for final approval of our Faith and Practice revision was in progress.

There is disagreement about whether the act of standing in solidarity caused us not to approve our Faith and Practice revision. Actually, substantive concerns were indeed raised regarding our commitments to anti-racism, which some Friends did not see as being sufficiently reflected in the Faith & Practice revision. There were also concerns about its readiness for printing. There did persist a sense of disruption, but the disruption came both from Friends who were upset about the URG proposal not being approved (in a previous session) and from Friends who wanted the Faith & Practice revision to be passed. In most of the narratives about this moment in PYM’s 2016 Annual Sessions, we have merely lifted up the disruptive energy coming from members of URG, but it came from all sides.

Those who know more than I about organizing for change have asserted that the ruckus at Annual Sessions was precipitated by ill-conceived (or the lack of) action logic. This would have been a cogent sense of good strategy, given the audience and the goals. This may be true, and yet, from my perspective, URG’s was a very mild action that resulted in very little observable turmoil. When the Faith & Practice Revision was being considered, no more than four people stood at the front of the room. They didn’t say anything; they just stood there. What exactly is highly unusual about this, I might ask rhetorically? For centuries, Quakers have had the practice of standing to indicate that something is amiss in the current process. Several people spoke out of turn (without being recognized by the clerk) during the Faith & Practice Revision to exhort those who were standing to sit back down. While some members of the Undoing Racism Group spoke out of turn during the URG report and in the moment of our transition from the report to the Faith & Practice Revision, the only folks who actually disrupted the Faith & Practice Revision discussion itself were folks speaking out against URG.

It is clear that we as a body might have forgotten our center and become more entrenched in our respective egos. It is also clear that the movement of Spirit was still afoot. She was speaking through us, if imperfectly. Those who like to refer to this session as being “hijacked” by URG or by staff members are incorrect and insensitive. I don’t believe I would want to refer to anything as being metaphorically hijacked, as this is a term that has come to be racially loaded and associated with past tragedy. And even if we were going to use this word, I’d say the more accurate description is that we were hijacked by the Holy Spirit. Amen!

To Be Broken

I lost myself after the 2016 Annual Sessions. I was devastated. I wrote this on Facebook a few days after:

Some may have heard that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was unable to approve an additional element of our governance structure at our recent annual sessions, which would have created a mutual accountability and relationship with all other governance structures toward our stated aim of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural community. I have been walking for two years with the organizers of the movement that led to this opportunity, which my community chose not to take. To an extent greater than I thought possible, I am devastated. My people chose to draw distinctions where none exist between love and transformation, between what is spiritual and what is political, and between our ailing world and the responsibility we hold to do all we can to heal it. Now, how can I ask the organizers I’ve accompanied to keep going? How do I continue in this journey, when my people have for two years claimed a corporate witness on which they seem at this juncture to be unwilling to take action? As we prepared to depart at the end of this year’s annual sessions, I cried. I cried loading the trucks with PYM supplies, taking tubs and boxes through the buildings, and I cried in the elevators.

I sank into a sense of loneliness so powerful and pervasive I was unable even to recognize my isolation. Unaware, I operated from this place for almost ten months. It would often manifest itself as fear. Other leaders around me usually carried perspectives much different than mine. People were sounding off, as it were, about what was perceived as irreparably inappropriate behavior of the Undoing Racism Group. The disruptive energy at Annual Sessions through word of mouth was largely blamed on the Undoing Racism Group, and no one from PYM leadership, including myself, spoke against this prevailing narrative.

When the Undoing Racism Group hosted a retreat to regroup, I didn’t attend. Other members of the Program and Religious Life Department were going, and I told myself someone had to stay in the office to make sure the trains run on time, as it were. I told myself that in order to keep the cause alive I needed to distance myself from the Undoing Racism Group for now. I didn’t reach out to the leaders of URG, I didn’t reach out to Niyonu Spann, who led the retreat. I didn’t check my strategy with anyone, because these weren’t the actual reasons for my distance. I remained out of touch with most members of the Undoing Racism Group from the this point until the present day. I also remained largely out of touch with the two consultants, Niyonu Spann and Ingrid Lakey who had been working with PYM staff around our anti-racism work. Truly, I feared the loss of relationships with those in power, I feared the loss of my job, my status, and my reputation. Along with this fear came powerlessness and ultimately a sense of being broken and exhausted. I had lost myself and my sense of purpose.

I have learned that when groups or institutions try to make change there is often a point at which backlash occurs, which is followed by a closing of the ranks. Of course, this is what happened at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and I participated in it. Yet I did not anticipate the incredible force of the backlash and its accompanying effects on body and soul. It cannot be stated too many times that the urge to recoil and enhance one’s isolation in order to protect the status quo arrangements of power is very strong. It captured my whole being so easily and so comprehensively, it was difficult even to notice. It was like a wave, a tsunami really, that rises and falls in the blink of an eye, leaving a soul-crushing path of silence in its wake.

This is similar to what I have learned about my own white fragility. My thoughts return to James Baldwin and his well-known essays published in The Fire Next Time. In his first, “…Letter to My Nephew…” he writes:

…the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations (p 8-9).

As many have said, racism and white supremacy are the words we use to describe the arrangements of power in our society that keep white people served first and best. These arrangements are maintained  to the extent that they actively weave a fabric of meaning that limits our available cultural and intellectual resources—that limits political imagination. In other words, the most basic ways in which white people understand the world and how it must function also informs white identity, white people’s sense of belonging and purpose. When attempts are made to rearrange these basic things to create equity, white people do not experience merely a loss of power, but a loss of their own identity, sense of belonging and purpose. Losing these things is akin to death, and so white people, well meaning liberals even, are overcome with existential anxiety when pushed to examine how their way of life perpetuates racist structures in our society. This existential anxiety is also called white fragility—the response from many white people when they realize not merely that their actions may contribute to suffering, not merely that they may lose some of their power, but also that their entire worldview must necessarily transform. Yet my understanding of Quaker Faith and Practice is that it is essentially grounded in the premise that spiritual transformation is necessary to live a good life. Later, in, “…Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin asserts:

…though transformation contains the hope of liberation, it also imposes a necessity for great change. But in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives… (p 43-44)

Indeed, white people are called to reexamine the structure of their ways of life. This is true at least in terms of my own experience and journey along the path of anti-racism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. For, as I have said, to articulate a stance that contradicted the idea that Undoing Racism Group was the cause of our collective misery at the 2016 Annual Sessions, would also ultimately have been to open myself to the possibility (the necessity even) of changing the ways in which I make meaning. Some folks in our community have been discussing a Thomas Merton passage. Merton describes the dilemma of the white well-meaning liberal (like me). He writes, “Though [the Black leader] knows you will not support all of his demands, he is well aware that you will be forced to support some of them in order to maintain your image of yourself as a liberal,” (p 33). Merton continues:

He also knows, however, that your material comforts, your security, and your congenial relations with the establishment are much more important to you than your volatile idealism, and that when the game gets rough you will be quick to see your own interests menaced by his demands. And you will sell him down the river for the five hundredth time in order to protect yourself. (p 33)

I think that the very fabric of meaning making for white people is much more powerful than material comfort, security and congenial relations. These things work to inscribe the ways in which I, as a white middle class cisgender man, go about making meaning. Yet without identity, belonging, and purpose, I am nothing; I might as well be dead. So in the face of anti-racism work, I am confronted with a powerful existential anxiety that tempts me more than anything else to sell those Black leaders for racial justice down the river for the five hundredth and first time. I think this is the point that James Baldwin makes about transformation, and it is why the Quaker faith is so deeply needed today.

Obviously, there are ways in which I am being strident in the above pros to demonstrate a point about existential anxiety–the set of feelings that accompany white fragility. I have not lost a sense of purpose, belonging, and identity, and I need to remind myself of this fact in the face of challenges to step into transformation. This is why I (and why all of us) require a strong spiritual community that will help us name and navigate the call to transformation. In order for my community to be able to help me, of course, I need to be vulnerable enough to show that I need it. I need to be willing to stand in my vulnerability. This in turn leads to profound intimacy; a closeness and a love between fellow seekers that grounds us in relationship. From within this love, I am reminded that I have what is required to traverse transformation. It lies within me. It is that of God in all of us; it also goes by many other names.

This love is also why as a Quaker I must continue down the path of anti-racism. Many of my fellow seekers are calling out to me and to all of us. They are naming profound pain and tragedy and telling me how I might change in order to reduce these. How could I not respond to their call? Standing before me, when a person that I truly love says I have hurt them, I must believe them. It is part of my spiritual practice. I must seek to address their pain–to do my best to honor their struggle. I don’t think that pain is always bad, and I don’t think that pain should be avoided at all costs, but it should be kept in an equitable balance with the many other concerns held in our community.

About seven months after the 2016 annual sessions, Upper Dublin Monthly Meeting removed a woman of color from membership in one of our meetings, and our General Secretary demoted another woman of color on PYM’s staff. Both were outspoken about how they experience racism, and they were teachers in our anti-racism work. There are disagreements concerning the circumstances of their experience. Some would say that the details of their situations help to temper and complicate the reasons for their treatment to show that it was not motivated by or intended to express racism. Yet in anti-racism work, we learn that there is a big difference between intent and impact. This is why it is disappointing to many that we have been unable as a body to approve a statement that acknowledges that there is a racist pattern, regardless of the details. It is why we can say as much as we want that racism did not motivate our actions or that it wasn’t our intent. In this respect, the details matter little, for, overall, the instances at UDMM and on PYM staff perpetuate a pattern in our community and society of marginalizing people of color.

In another way, however, the details within the UDMM case and on PYM staff do matter. As particular manifestations of larger patterns, they reflect and relate to the greater struggles that persist beyond our communities. They reflect asymmetrical power dynamics. As a demonstration of this point, I like to consider traffic accidents between cars and bikes. In these, it doesn’t really matter whether the driver or the biker is at fault for the accident, because it is still the case that, while the driver risks physical damage to her car, the biker risks her life. The asymmetrical power dynamic between those people being marginalized and those in power means that when we choose to manage personality differences, for example, by pushing out someone who isn’t a good fit, we run the risk of threatening someone’s livelihood because of our discomfort–we become more concerned about the damage to our car than about the life of the biker. We might also run the risk of causing someone to lose their spiritual home simply because of our lack of capacity to deal with mental health issues.  No one is a bad person and no one should be punished for their actions in these instances, but we do need to acknowledge the ways in which the details mirror larger, negative patterns. When I say above that pain should be kept in an equitable balance with other concerns, this is partly what I mean. When certain people of color tell us they are hurting, we need to consider their pain in a larger context and in relationship to larger arrangements of power. These help to illuminate the significance of the pain and serve to change our response.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s interaction with our legal system is another example of the ways in which arrangements of power perpetuate racism in our institutions. There is a barrier potentially preventing organizations that realize they may have racist structures from admitting this and thereby examining and changing them. Doing so opens the institution up to civil lawsuits. Yet if the first step is admitting you have a problem, as they say, and there is a legal disincentive to take this first step, then how are we to move forward? We are discerning our answer to this question, but the reality is that I am prevented from discussing in greater detail the anti-racism work of PYM staff at this time.  Nevertheless, I know that I did not push hard enough against the marginalizing of the Undoing Racism Group, nor against the demotion of the aforementioned member of PYM staff. My actions in this particular situation reflect a larger pattern (discussed above) of siding with those in power to protect my reputation and ultimately my own sense of how I make meaning. I must hold myself to account and allow others to hold me to account to this fact and help me avoid future missteps. I am now beginning to reach out to individuals I hurt. I am also in the process of discerning other next steps in consultation with folks who far along in anti-racism work. I need (we all need) support to keep speaking up immediately when I notice that racism might have been exposed in certain instances and in larger processes.

In the past and in the present, my hesitancy to speak up also comes from a sense of deep caring for those in power. In addition to existential anxiety, I was also afraid of losing affection and intimacy as a result of conflict. This is another silly pattern of white supremacy—to train white people to fear conflict. Yet my Quaker faith tells me that our love for one another is much stronger than whatever is required to weather our conflict—our conflict which might change us and deepen our intimacy as a result.

So, while I must commit personally to speaking up when I notice racism potentially being exposed in our systems, I also want to work for a new system, one that encourages speaking up in the first place. We need to live more fully into transformative conflict, wherein we are changed through disagreement and disharmony. How do we get there? We need to continue broad-based training, we need to implement an institutional audit of our organization and community, and we need to find ways to be reminded of our love for one another. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting needs also to seek out relationships of partnership and mutual accountability with communities of Quaker people of color and with other churches and organizations led by people of color.

I ended my Facebook post after the 2016 Annual Sessions with these words:

Since my return from sessions, after some rest, I have also become reacquainted with my center. There, beside the felt betrayal, a gentle compassion has pulled up a chair. It has helped me to remember that, while I am a Quaker, a lover, and member of PYM staff, I will hold to the corporate witness of our yearly meeting. Joining with whomever will join, we will do all that we can. For we still walk together, weep together, and know together–even with those who, tripped up by our institutionalized racism, were unable to take this most recent step. Though it may be a long one, our journey extends much farther beyond the horizon than it would if we chose to walk alone, as is said. Profoundly humbled, I return to the center, to the beginning, to the ground once again, and I wait for what God calls me to do next.

It has taken me almost a year to receive these words of my own construction with their fullest meaning. I absolutely cannot keep on isolating myself. I must forgive those who disappointed me, and I must forgive myself. For better or worse, I take to heart the Christian notion that I am broken. I am broken, and from within my brokenness, strength springs. Our ability to love one another emerges only once we expose our brokenness and become vulnerable, and our love for one another is where God’s love is found. With God’s love, we can move mountains, weather storms, and bear tragedy. With God’s love, we can transform ourselves and the world.

About the Youth and Young Adult Staffing Changes

In this section I talk about our youth programs, the recent staffing changes, and some connections they have to our anti-racism work.

Since 2014, I had been exploring the various weaknesses and strengths of our youth and young adult programs on a parallel track to our anti-racism work. From 2014 to 2016, I (along with other members of the program staff) had collected data, conducted surveys and planned a visioning process that would culminate in a sprint group being appointed by the Quaker Life Council. The sprint group would review all the information we had gathered, identify missing perspectives, add these, and then recommend to the Quaker Life Council a vision, mission and governance structure for youth programs. In partnership with the new governance structure, the plan was then to use the vision and mission as a lens through which to address some of the weaknesses of our youth programs and implement any needed shifts in programmatic focus and staffing structure. My hope for the new governance structure was that it could be broad-based, include people who work with youth from monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings levels, staff people, and volunteer leaders. In our system, the General Secretary has the final say on staffing changes, but I knew we would need a lot of input and buy in if it became clear that staffing changes would be needed.

As this visioning process got underway, new overtime rules came into effect, which pushed us to begin paying our youth program coordinators for every hour they worked. This is something we should already have been doing. Up to this point, they had been receiving additional time off for hours worked over their regular work week. Yet there was a limit to the number of hours they could accrue in this bank of additional time off, and they would often end up working more hours than they could accrue. It was an unfair practice, and it was good that we ended it. Doing so also made it unsustainably expensive to maintain our current staffing structure for youth programs. Thus, as the visioning process progressed, I began to explore various staffing structures that could be more affordable and allow us to expand capacity. My intent in working ahead of the visioning process was simply to prepare for its completion and be able to respond to the vision and mission with a substantive and dynamic proposal for staffing to complement them.

By January of 2017, it also became clear that we were going to need to think creatively about how to continue staff support for young adults. Whereas, we had not planned originally to make changes to the young adult Friends staffing structure as well, several things drew the Young Adult Friends Coordinator position into the mix, as it were. First, the Young Adult Friends (YAF) Program is modeled after the Young Friends program. It developed originally out of a stated need on the part of newer young adults (I among them at the time) for there to be a program that bridges graduates of the Young Friends Program into the wider community of adult Quakers. Yet young adult Quakers represent an expansive age range, with at least three distinct phases: college age, mid-twenties to late twenties, and early to mid-thirties. Over its ten-year history, the YAF Program had been successful in engaging some folks in each of these ranges, but it also continued to leave out people who for whatever reason didn’t jive with the center of gravity established by the community that regularly attends YAF retreats. Through the successes achieved in the YAF Program up to the present day, we now have created margins to which it is time to direct attention. We could use better relationships with the Quaker colleges in our area, we need to begin cultivating community among young parents, and young adults of color need to be celebrated and better included. Also, monthly meetings are in desperate need of training on a range of social competencies, including young adult empowerment. It seemed appropriate to imagine new ways to engage the whole range of young adults that might at least include shifts in the job description of the YAF Coordinator.  

Second, up to this point, the YAF Coordinator had functioned as a team member in the Youth & Young Adult Programs Team on staff. The four coordinators on this team supported each other in their work, followed similar safety practices and procedures, and worked together to develop things like a curriculum arc extending from the Children’s Religious Life Program to the YAF Program.  Third, the YAF Coordinator position was also affected by the shift in how we pay the coordinators. For these reasons, It seemed to me appropriate and fair to reexamine the staffing structure for youth and young adult programs. As soon as this shift came to light, in January of 2017, I informed all four coordinators. I gave them a review of the types of changes in staffing structure that might occur, and I made them aware that the YAF Coordinator position was also being reexamined.

It was at this point in the process when mistakes were made. First, I didn’t reach out to the leadership of young adult Friends soon enough. Just as we had engaged Friends via a sprint group to develop vision around our youth programs, I should have immediately started a parallel conversation with the YAF community. While it was my intention to begin this conversation, I did not begin it soon enough. Meanwhile, I did not share with members of the Youth Programs sprint or anyone other than the coordinators themselves the options for shifting our staffing structure. There was a serious lack of transparency that came at a cost that I did not anticipate.

By the end of February, it became clear that the General Secretary needed to move up the timeline for announcing staffing changes for youth and young adult programs. We had been aiming for a May announcement, and we had not yet taken steps to discuss options with any volunteer leaders for feedback. We hadn’t yet shared with anyone the years’ worth of information gathering that grounded our thinking. Therefore, when the changes were announced, they came as a shock, and many felt anxiety and deep hurt, even betrayal, at not having been included in the pre-thinking. It was also my sense at the time that we had a firm idea of what changes we might make, but, since other discernment processes had not yet concluded, I wanted to remain open to the Spirit for any new revelations that might shift our thinking.

I immediately reached out to anyone I knew might be affected—youth leaders, regular volunteers, Youth Programs Sprint members, and the YAF leadership. I was and continue to be in dialogue with these Friends. There was and remains a breakdown in trust, which we need to work to rebuild.

Our General Secretary reinstated that YAF Coordinator position, after receiving feedback from young adult Friends leadership that the YAF Coordinator position shouldn’t be lumped in with the youth programs coordinator positions. We found funding for the position for the next two years, and one of the first things I hope to work on with the new Young Adult Engagement Coordinator is to look for additional funding so the position can be extended beyond the two-year mark.

We heard feedback regarding the shifts to youth programs staffing as well. Some Friends were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough hours, especially for Young Friends, in the new Youth Program Facilitator positions for time spent with constituents between gatherings supporting leadership development. We enhanced the flexibility in hours for the Youth Program Facilitator Positions to accommodate for relationship building between gatherings. Another concern was about consistency in adult leadership. We will seek to secure at least a three-year commitment from new Facilitators, and we will work to build community among Facilitators so they feel supported and engaged, making their work more sustainable.

Still, the person who served as the Young Adult Friends Coordinator secured a different job before we could reinstate the position, and two out of the three youth coordinators might be moving on. Losing the primary adult leader always destabilizes the group dynamic. I have visited with the Young Friends community since the staffing changes were announced, and I remain in dialogue with them. I have also sat with and visited many young adult Friends, and I remain in dialogue with the leadership of the YAF community.

When our General Secretary told me she was moving up the timeline for announcing staffing changes, a part of me wished I had pushed back more. Yet, the bottom line is that we could have been in dialogue about potential staffing changes sooner even than February. I believe that this mistake comes from the same sort of isolation of which I write in the previous section—the sense that one is all alone in one’s decisions, the tendency to avoid conflict, and forgetting that relationships are vital in making change. We were acting with power over rather than power with, and we forgot about previous lessons regarding the youth programs—that there should be no decisions, “about us, without us.” This was a principle I believed in so heartily, I questioned how it could have been that I would so swiftly break from it. For many months, I began to question my actions, and to believe myself a terrible person who had lost his way. I didn’t recognize my own vision anymore, and I fell into ever greater isolation. The anticipated vitriol on Facebook also helped only to entrench this sense of isolation.

I wasn’t able to see beyond my isolation until I started meeting with people to hear their pain and anger and show them my remorse and my humanity. I found healing especially during the annual 2017 Young Adult Friends Conference that is held at Pendle Hill. I was terrified I might encounter people who would want nothing to do with me. I was terrified that I would be ostracized. Instead, I found Friends whom I enjoyed and who I know enjoyed me. I found positive relationships with people who welcomed my vulnerability. I finally understood that I wouldn’t be able to reconcile with those who were hurt without first reconciling with myself.

It is true that I made several large mistakes. It is also true that I carry a vision for a yearly meeting that raises up leadership regardless of age, that embraces people into our community regardless of membership status, and that welcomes women, trans* people, and people of color alongside all others with celebration. I carry a vision for our yearly meeting that we may move away from congregationalism into a new form of being together. We need to recognize that we are always stronger and more able to follow our spiritual journeys when we reach beyond the brick and mortar of our meetinghouses. I carry a vision of partnership and collaboration between monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting Friends when it comes to religious education and caring for our children, families and youth. I carry a vision for us that we may become truly anti-racist and multicultural thereby to change the communities and institutions around us toward the same. I think we can be a powerful religion devoted to doing good on this earth, to protecting our planet and changing people’s lives for the better.

In several instances in the last year, I didn’t abide by the spirit of my own vision; I lost my center. I am profoundly sorry for my missteps and for the pain and anxiety it has caused many. I will continue to work to repair breaches of trust where they exist and to renew and sustain relationships where they have faltered. I know now that I am not a monster of any sort; I am merely broken.

Dearest Chuck Fager

I’d like also to speak to Chuck Fager’s blog post about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 2016 Annual Sessions. Fager’s writing is read widely, and I believe his descriptions of the event are largely inaccurate and deserving of correction. Fager writes:

At last summer’s annual session, after [the Undoing Racism Group’s proposal] was read, described for information only, several URG supporters walked to the front and surrounded the Clerk’s table, and prevented the body from moving on to its next agenda item (revisions of Faith & Practice), insisting that the URG proposal be discussed and then acted upon.

This is not accurate. As stated, members of the Undoing Racism Group stood in solidarity with those who were presenting a report on the URG’s work. Many people, almost half of those present at the plenary session in question stood with the URG members, including all of the folks sitting at the clerk’s table. There was no, “surrounding the Clerk’s table.” Fager later calls this a “blockade”, which is even more inaccurate. Nothing so dramatic ever occurred. It is dishonest and disrespectful to suggest otherwise. It is also a singular example of the ways in which untrue rumors have been spread actively by some in order to marginalize and discredit the Undoing Racism Group.

The clerk’s table was up on a stage and so rather difficult to “surround”. Even if it were surrounded, it would have hardly been a significant point since the clerks stood in solidarity with the many others who were also standing. The Undoing Racism Group report included a presentation of the proposal for informational purposes, but it also included a presentation on the breadth and depth of service that the Undoing Racism Group had afforded us, from which the clerks had already directly benefited on multiple occasions. At the conclusion of the URG report, there were some Friends who requested verbally to the Presiding Clerk without being recognized that we consider the report for approval. The Clerk declined these requests and asked everyone to be seated so that we could move on to considering the Faith & Practice Revision. Chuck Fager continues:

They got their wish. Faith & Practice was set aside, and the URG plan was extensively debated (some Friends might object to the term “debate,” but I’ll let it stand.) And in the end, the URG got its wish, but didn’t reach its goal. When the Clerk asked for approval, there were also numerous voices raised in disapproval, and the Clerk properly noted that there was no unity and the plan was set aside.

The Faith and Practice revision was never set aside. Perhaps because he wasn’t actually there, Fager’s timeline is also inaccurate. The URG proposal had already been considered for approval at an earlier session, and would again be considered at a later session. The particular session in question never included a consideration for approval of the URG proposal.

The Clerk of the Faith and Practice Revision Committee gave her report, after which Friends expressed objections through the regular process of being called on to speak by our Clerk. The objections were twofold: the revision didn’t address our commitment to anti-racism strongly enough, and it didn’t seem actually to be ready to go to print (it still needed to be copy edited). While the need for copy editing, if this were the only issue, would likely not have prevented approval, the lack of anti-racism in the revision was substantive enough to the body that we were not able to reach a sense of the meeting. When it became clear that the revision was not going to be approved, some Friends spoke out of turn in rebuke of the Undoing Racism Group’s actions, for throughout our discernment about Faith & Practice four members of the Undoing Racism Group had remained standing. These Friends never said a word, and, in my view, followed in the footsteps of elders in our tradition who stand when they believe something is amiss in our process. Fager goes on in his blog:

Did the “blockade” of the Clerk’s table (some URG supporters called it “eldering”) & the disruption of the session spark this opposition? To some extent it seems likely. Even URG leader Lucy Duncan, who helped present the plan, later wrote that “Though it felt as though there was urgency and spirit moving, I can see how some would interpret this as pushing too hard, perhaps even bullying.” (Facebook August 4, 2016) It would also hardly be a surprise if some resolved not to reward such behavior but to rebuke it.

It was clear that some Friends were deeply offended by the audacity of the URG members to assume a role usually played by elders of the more venerable sort, as it were. One of those who remained standing was even a member of staff, although this member had not played any leadership role in the efforts of the Undoing Racism Group up to this point. The offended Friends were the only ones who disrupted the session by speaking out of turn. It was in fact the case that, by the end of the session, most of the disruptive energy emanated from the Friends who felt disgruntled by the actions of the few members of URG who continued standing. This is the reality to which Lucy Duncan points in her Facebook post which Fager quotes. She is speaking to the larger critique mostly by other organizers that, however mild the action, it was still viewed as impertinent by many. Therefore, whatever effect that may have been intended, the impact was to galvanize people into critiquing the method of pushing for change rather than to see the underlying needs for this change. It also happens to be the case that this is another example of a pattern in groups faced with the invitation to make new, anti-racist arrangements. People critique the manner in which the invitation was proffered regardless of its content. Lucy was therefore expressing regret in the tactic taken, and she implies here that the Undoing Racism Group employed faulty action logic.

There is also another power dynamic here wherein the feedback itself, whether it is content or process related, is taken differently depending on who gives it. As mentioned in a previous section, when white folks deliver feedback, it is taken into much greater account than that of people of color or white folks advocating for people of color. This is why it was so easy to marginalize the Undoing Racism Group. Their marginalization is part of a power dynamic whose pattern is entrenched within our institutional culture.

A recent article in Friends Journal by Barbara Dale speaks to this phenomenon as well. She quotes Audre Lorde who asserts that when we ask others to regulate their tone, to say their piece in a different (not angry) way, we also ask them to dump a rich source of meaning. Things are lost when, “we are not able to hear the information and energy of the oppressed.” Barbara continues:

…In the long negotiations of peaceful white folks, we are not able to hear the information and energy of the oppressed. A few Quakers of color and some white allies are unduly burdened in trying to drag the body to the living edge of radical faith. I am worried that Quakers will deliberate for too long as they wait in silence for the correct choice, all the while perhaps ignoring those they “cannot hear” due to harshness or the threat it poses to comfort. There is insidious white supremacy inherent in a religion largely comprised of the input of white individuals, and it often manifests as systemic complacency. This occurs while maintaining a high-minded narrative of being on the correct side of history. …There are…times when it is important to be quick… In our current, stressful sociopolitical environment, it is necessary to be swift in listening to the energy of the individuals in our group who are angry, who need our help.

The urgency, energy, and frustration emanating from some members of the Undoing Racism Group and others conveys important information. If a member of my community whom I love faces me with this level of energy, how, really, am I to ignore them? How could I not do everything I can to respond to their waggle dance, as Barbara would put it? While the means of delivering the message at the 2016 Annual Sessions may not have been tactically wise, it was and remains a substantive one, which requires our full attention, investigation and response. It should not be dismissed or distorted.

I would say that much of Fager’s critique of the Undoing Racism Proposal itself is a distortion of it. He writes that, “the plan’s rhetoric reportedly alienated some. It spoke repeatedly of the [yearly meeting] as embodying & supporting ‘white supremacy’ and ‘racism.’ Yet, for me at least, trying to see [the yearly meeting] in a larger social perspective makes this terminology problematic.” Fager’s words here remind me of what is written in the preparatory materials that were distributed to Friends ahead of the most recent Called Meeting of PYM on June 24, 2017. In this packet, there is a section titled, “Reflect on the term white supremacy.” I excerpt most of this section below:

The term white supremacy has been difficult for our yearly meeting community. For some Friends, the term harkens back to the days of George Wallace and the Klan. To refer to the current context of race and racism in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting with the same iconography used to describe Klan members and slave owners erases the progress that our movements of resistance have made. These Friends see the use of the term white supremacy as unfairly equating the current situation in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting with a tragic past of racial violence and explicit and unapologetic beliefs that white people are superior to other races.

Other Friends find the term white supremacy to be the most accurate language for describing a prevailing ideology (or set of ideas, not necessarily beliefs) that justifies the maintenance of wealth, power and privilege of people of European descent throughout the history of the new world to the present. The ideology of white supremacy warps individual and societal dynamics in dramatic and traumatic ways. From the distribution of economic resources, to spiritual and psychological health, to officer involved shootings, and to mutually fulfilling [egalitarian] relationships, we have not left behind our violent past because the violence continues today (albeit sometimes in less blatant, more covert ways). Through this understanding, higher education, healthcare, banks, criminal justice systems, popular media, religious institutions (among other institutions) play interlocking roles in perpetuating the ideology of white supremacy and maintaining wealth, power and privilege for folks of European descent.

The ways in which racism and white supremacy persist today are different than in the days of George Wallace. Interlocking institutions maintain structures that prevent people from attaining access to resources due to increased scrutiny, never getting the benefit of the doubt, assumptions of irresponsibility and criminality, and everyday interactions (called microaggressions) that express hostility and discomfort towards the specter of race. For example, it is a distortion and a microaggression to use the term “race riot” in the title of his blog and to refer to our mutual accountability with the Undoing Racism Group as, “calling down the electric furies of ‘racism.’” These express hostilities towards mutual accountability around racism and trivialize a sincere concern.

Fager’s portrayal of the Undoing Racism Group proposal is also a distortion in other ways.  Fager frames it as, “top-heaving wheel-spinning,” that would have set up a new kind of overseer, “in every nook and cranny of [PYM], with mysterious measuring rods and the power to call down the electric furies of ‘racism’ on miscreants at their option.” What the proposal actually called for was the ability to appoint members of the Undoing Racism Group to other leadership bodies, so that an anti-racist perspective could be in every room that mattered. It seems to me that one or two people in every room holding the anti-racist perspective and encouraging others to do the same is far from the creation of a new type of overseer. The intent of this was to engage in mutual accountability with those in power, to be present during difficult conversations about race to help guide these, and to participate in decision-making alongside the many others engaged in the solemn work of leading a spiritual community. The proposal was centered in the value of power-with, not power-over, in a process whereby we sometimes call others into greater commitment at the same time as we remain open to being called in ourselves. These appointed folks might possibly have been more accurately described as anti-racism elders, and one of the best indicators of an elder is the ability both to hold others to account lovingly and to be open to being called into the same accountability.

The Undoing Racism Group proposal also called for a care committee that could serve as a source of advice and guidance around anti-racism to our core leadership – General Secretary, Clerk, Councils. This is a role that the Undoing Racism Group had already begun to play informally. They advised the leadership on the 2015 and 2016 annual sessions program, and they advised the leadership on parts of the 2016 agenda. The proposal would have formalized and expanded this role, but, again, only as a source of advice and training.

Some have said that if the proposal had been approved, the demotion of the PYM member of staff who was also a woman of color would not have occurred. Others use this assertion as an indication that the Undoing Racism Group had intended on “taking over” or some such. Really, this assertion comes from a deeper knowing. It comes from extensive experience that when people are trained and guided through a process of becoming ever more anti-racist in their thinking and being, they act differently in the world. The primary mechanism of course for this training and guidance is relationship. At its core, the proposal was about creating the opportunity for more relationships between those who carry anti-racist wisdom in our community and those who lead us. It was about sharing power more broadly, not about giving it over entirely.

The Undoing Racism Group also would not have used our current nominating process to populate its leadership. The URG leadership would have been appointed internally. Since it was proposed that the Undoing Racism Group operate at a high level in the organization, many Friends were uncomfortable with it not using the same nominating process that we use for everything else. Chuck Fager writes:

…the URG…was answerable only to itself, like the old Select Meetings. And like them, its jurisdiction and tenure were essentially unlimited. And there’s that freighted phrase, “hold accountable”. …Moreover, in the proposal, both “racism” and “resisting racism” are referred to in doctrinal terms: the URG asserted that it knows (best) what the one is, and how (best) to do the other. Expressing doubts about this is typically seen as evidence of racism (i. e., heresy). I don’t say the URG Friends all think this way, but that’s how it reads.

I don’t think Chuck is entirely wrong here. Noticing the number of Friends of Color who spoke in opposition to the proposal generated a key shift for me, and possibly for others as well. There was and continues to be disagreement among people of color in our community regarding the best approach to take in our work to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond. I have indeed experienced at times a certain amount of righteous certainty from (usually white) members of the Undoing Racism Group that I don’t think is always healthy. However, and most importantly, when I have pointed this out to some of the URG members, they have responded not with vitriol but with acknowledgement. When I have brought them my own feedback, they have not attempted to police my tone or ask me to deliver it in a different way.

There are legitimate reasons why we might choose a different process for selecting the leadership of the Undoing Racism Group. As we work for equity, a state of being beyond equality, we realize that different people and things require different approaches. When we find ourselves reacting to the prospect that we might need to change our process, it is usually a sign that we are too attached to our process. For me, our process was never the essential golden nugget of Quakerism. With a shifted nominating procedure, the Undoing Racism Group still would have been accountable. They would still have reported to the body, and they would still have been required to develop objectives, to meet these and be evaluated on their performance based on them. I don’t believe, ultimately, that it would have been detrimental to have used a different nominating process, as it was a unique situation wherein the point was to create mutuality and power-with (not power-over).  

Finally, Chuck Fager’s brief historical review of the trajectory of Quakerism from something more hierarchical to something more congregational I believe is accurate, yet it seems to presume that the congregational way is the end goal. Now that we have achieved congregationalism, our journey is complete. I would disagree. Quakerism, especially Liberal Quakerism, is entering a new phase of development toward what I have begun to call a community-organized Quakerism. I think this is brilliantly explicated by Noah Baker Merrill in his very recent Friends Journal article.

In the early twentieth century, people like Rufus Jones and Jane Rushmore helped to reshape our religion. Baker Merrill writes that, “at the beginning of the twentieth century, Friends led by visionaries [like Jones and Rushmore] created many of the wider Quaker institutions we know today. Largely through these efforts, a divided, scattered religious society at risk of irrelevance…was reconnected and molded into the shapes we recognize.” Yet, Baker Merrill argues, and I along with him, that we have come to see these shapes as, “the way things have always been.” This is an attitude we need to get out of the habit of inhabiting. He argues that we are moving from, “an industrial lens to a view that also includes an ecological or relational lens, from the institution-centric…to an emerging…movement-centric,” orientation that is kinetic and strategic. It is kinetic or dynamic because it is reorganizing itself to meet new needs as they emerge, and it is strategic because it is engaged in the larger world with a purpose, inviting new people in, not due merely to advertising but due to the need to partner with and align with movements around us. The role of a yearly meeting within this shifting orientation is much more of a community organizer, bringing people together and connecting them to others within and outside the faith to help them achieve what they are only capable of achieving together. Noah has a great chart that everyone working in Quaker circles should post to their walls.

I see the Undoing Racism Group proposal as an expression of our new and dynamic trajectory. We are in the midst of a tension-filled transition with exciting possibilities. I am disappointed in Fager’s blog because I believe he could have written it in an engaging fashion, about the new kinds of innovations coming out of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Instead, he chose sensationalism and fear.

In his follow-up post some months later, I don’t believe there is anything defensible in his conduct as a writer. He reports on an encounter with two young adult Friends who approached him in earnest at the recent 2017 Young Adult Friends Conference. I served as an informal sounding board for these two, and I supported them in expressing their concerns about his original post. They asked him to retract his inaccuracies—to correct them at least. It is something he has refused to do. They pointed out that he is considered a weighty Friend with scholarly influence (in a word, he has power). At times the conversation did become heated, but an ambush it was not. One of the Friends who met with Fager also followed up with an action during a conference being held at Earlham School of Religion on Quaker history. She distributed a flyer, placing them on all the chairs at an event Fager was facilitating called the Quaker History Roundtable. It was not received very well, as one might imagine, by the attendees who understood it to be a letter rather than a flyer. There was critique offered as to why the “letter” was unsigned; when this critique was raised the young adult Friend identified herself as the author and also made herself available after the Roundtable to those who had concerns about the flyer. Here, again, is another example of the ways in which, when feedback about needed changes is raised, the response is not to hear the feedback but to critique the way in which it was delivered. I hope my post here demonstrates as fully as possible the many ways in which Chuck Fager’s blog is precisely deserving of the feedback proffered by these young adult Friends.

To this day, Fager has not reached out to either of the young adult Friends who met with him for comment. His unwillingness to stay in direct dialogue and his post, taken together, strike me as incongruent with one of our most essential commitments as Quakers to stay in relationship with one another. I think it would be appropriate for Fager to apologize to both individuals at the very least, and, further, to reach out and keep dialoguing with them. I will quote a professor of the Friend who followed up with action. The professor wrote this in the comment section of Fager’s blog:

I teach at ESR, and I know the student in question well. She has showed great integrity in all my interactions with her. Although her politics are more radical than mine, she listens closely, considers deeply, and generally shows enormous capacity for insight, self-criticism, and compassion. In short, I am able to argue and discuss with her fruitfully, and regularly, even when I disagree. And when I listen, she often helps me reconsider things that I needed to reconsider.

I will not comment on details of events for which I was not present, but I can say that this is a one-sided version of that story. I can say that because I have heard the other side of the story, which differs in significant ways. I hope the other side will be told, though I can quite easily understand why they wouldn’t want to do so in a comments thread here.

I am quite happy, however, to say that this is a profoundly ethical person. One small note: she stayed in the room, stood up, and owned her work when attacked — and this before an audience that was at least partially hostile. She was alone, not in a mob. This wasn’t Berkeley or Middlebury. What she did — again, standing by herself – takes guts.

To see her character attacked – and it does seem to be attacked here – bothers me a great deal.

I reached out to Chuck on July 9, 2017 and I heard back from him a few days later. I let him know that if there is anything he would like to add as a comment to this section, I will update this blog at that time.

The Man Who Lived by the River

We remind me of the man who lived by the river.  

The river started to flood, and there was a radio broadcast saying people should evacuate. He paid no mind to it.

He thought, “I am religious. I pray. God will save me.”

The river got pretty high and started to flood his house. Someone came by in a motor boat and called out to him.

“Come on. Get in. I’ll take you to safety!”

He yelled back, “I am religious. I pray. God will save me!”

The boat motored away, and the man’s house continued to flood.

He climbed onto his roof, and soon enough a helicopter flew by. Someone dropped a latter and called out.

“Come on! Grab the latter! I’ll pull you up and take you to safety!”

The man yelled back, “I am religious! I pray! God will save me!”

The man who lived by the river drowned.

When he got to heaven, he saw God.

He said, “God, I was religious. I prayed. I thought you would save me!”

She turned to him in surprise and exclaimed, “I sent you a radio broadcast, a motor boat and a helicopter. What the hell are you doing here?”

I think we expect some sort of magical release valve to appear, a deus ex machina. Otherwise, we expect God to speak to us and through us only in ways that are familiar to us. Yet, history and theology should teach us that God rarely ever works in familiar ways, or in ways that aren’t at once terrifying and invitational. It is not enough that we are waiting for her to speak, we also need to realize that she has been speaking all along.

We are called now to stand in our vulnerability, to struggle, to forgive and to rediscover our love for one another. As a friend and mentor once wrote to me, “When we listen to each other more deeply, we hear God more deeply.”


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.

Dale, Barbara. “Consensus Decision Making in Eusocial Organisms.” Friends Journal June/July (2017): 8-10.

Merrill, Noah. “What We Cannot Do Alone.” Friends Journal June/July (2017): 11-14, 40-41.

Merton, Thomas. Seeds of Destruction. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1964.


The Lesson of Love

This election has turned my thoughts to my Grandmother, Ruby Jewel Thompson.

She is a Southern Baptist who prays every morning kneeling on a stool in the closet. She, “takes,” her exercise at the local gym, and she regularly visits her Church’s homebound. She always asks how my partner, Alex (pronounced, “Ehlex,”) is doing when we talk, and she tells me she loves me at least three times. She tells me she wishes I’d call her more often; I should call her more often.

Though he was my biological Grandfather, I never met Ruby’s first husband; he died in a bar fight. He also beat my father and his younger siblings. Growing up, I remember their jokes. He’d say, “I’m only doing this because I love you,” and in their minds they’d say, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t hit me.” They’d joke about wishing they had tried getting down on their knees to vigorously pray. Maybe he’d have passed over them, bound from hurting them by their genuflection, a cartoonish nod to biblical lamb’s blood. Whenever I consider moments as a kid hearing the adults talk through these stories of abuse and trauma, contributions to our collective memory, there is one that usually haunts me. It starts with a pet goat and ends with my late Grandfather slitting its throat, in front of my Father and the other children.

After Ruby was widowed, she married J. A. Thompson. J. A. died almost two years ago. At the funeral, after they finished burying him and all the ceremony had passed, we walked up to the new grave with her, and she said, as a wistful passing comment to him and to everything, “Well…I’ll miss you my sweet.”

J. A. had been much kinder to Ruby. More wholesome images spring to mind when I think of them. Like, upon returning home on the night of my High School graduation, they fell asleep holding hands, leaning into each other on my parents’ couch.

There is another story of J.A. praying over my sister before going into surgery at the hospital. It was a minor procedure, but there he was vigorously praying. Tears flowing down his cheek, holding my big sis in his big love, God’s love.

Ruby and J.A. were deeply religious, and Ruby’s faith is no weaker after J.A.’s departure. Whatever the source, and she’d argue it’s God, her capacity to go on loving, given all that has happened, is profoundly impressive. It is probably what got her through all that life has given.

I haven’t asked Ruby (I call her Grandmother) who she voted for in the 2016 United States presidential election. I suspect she might have voted for Donald Trump or for no one.

Yet because of her story and of who she has proven herself to be, I know that she wishes me success, fulfillment and joy. When I was accepted to attend Harvard Divinity School, she’d say repeatedly with a kind of reverence and astonishment, “A Dutton is going to Harvard…” My success is her success; we are bound to each other. We chart paths that are inextricably linked, no matter who she is and who I am.

So I worried, when J.A. died, about her loneliness and about whether she’d be able to rediscover herself in a life without him. I worried about whether she’d have the help she needs to manage her house, and I worry about whether, soon, she will be able to find a retirement home that will invigorate her. I worry about whether she will be able to afford what she needs as time goes on.

I love her more deeply than I may typically see in myself. There is something binding in the journey she and I follow together, figuring out how to love, how to celebrate beauty in all its forms, and how to cope with fear and pain.

So, then, what will I say to her when I finally learn about how she used her vote? I don’t think I will say anything specifically about Mr. Trump. See, I don’t think it matters.

The things Mr. Trump’s election represents are merely exacerbated now, not new. We share the collective memory of our family. We remember the palpable fear and anxiety for body and spirit that abusive people create—people who threaten the livelihood and personhood of others we love with rhetoric and with action. Sometimes, it is all we can do, but to vigorously pray. There are millions of people in this society who, even before Donald Trump became President Elect, live each day with this kind of anxiety.

How much do we wish for my father and his other syblings a different beginning? And how much do we celebrate that I was able to chart a different path? Our tragedy and celebration is similar to the duality of experience for many others in the United States who struggle.

If there is something I would tell my Grandmother, it is that our family’s history requires that we struggle with them. For our future is theirs. We should have been struggling all along. It might be too late, but we must have faith that love will triumph. Indeed, it is surely the only thing that got us through all that life has given us; it is the lesson we are to pick up and use now.





Quaker Ethics and the Seeds of Change

What is Quaker Process, Actually?

Quaker Process is a simple and difficult approach to spirituality wherein we cultivate practical wisdom in relationship, setting aside the ego so we may transform ourselves, our communities and the wider world. This practical wisdom, through discernment, informs our ethical choices, especially with regard to the appropriate uses of power and authority. Quaker Process defines a path on which we are ceaselessly re-discovering insight towards an ever more complete practice of justice and the good life.

Quaker Process is not a series of practices or decision-making procedures. It is not a set of norms, cultural attitudes or behavioral expectations. All of these things may emerge as a result of engaging in Quaker Process. The thing itself is profound, fundamental and often unelaborated or misunderstood. This essay attempts briefly to provide philosophical and theological groundwork to explain what Quaker Process actually is. There are three sections, which, when taken together, form a post-modern view, culminating in Quaker continuing revelation.

However, I illuminate the same primary colors, as it were, that have formed the foundations of the Quaker Way from its inception. I merely hope to give Quakerism a set of refreshed descriptors in order to push against some who would erroneously reduce it to particular practices, like business meeting, or particular principles, like the SPICES,[1] and thereby obscure the transformative potential of our venerable faith tradition, putting it in danger of vacuous meaninglessness.

Practical Wisdom as Quaker Process

We begin with the idea that Quaker Process defines a certain necessary approach to belief and practice. Instead of defining a set of metaphysical beliefs and practices, per se, Quaker Process asserts the terms of engagement with them. Benjamin Dandelion calls this orthocredence,[2] which is neither orthopraxy nor orthodoxy, but a synthesis of these more typical types of religiosity. This produces our first conundrum as to how a religion can include metaphysical ideas, while not requiring them.

Some theologians argue that preconceived notions pertaining to the nature of things,[3] which are often precursors to metaphysics, tempt one to force the world into a precise reflection of these notions. Such strict correspondence constrains violently what is known and unknown about ourselves and the universe.  Kevin Hector, a contemporary theologian, writes that, “we see this sort of violence at its most graphic when … [persons] of color [are] allowed to ‘show up’ only insofar as [they] fit within one’s prior conception of femininity, blackness, and so on, and when [their] attempts to transcend these conception boundaries are met with implicit or explicit resistance.”[4]

In response to this violent potential, the same theologians set themselves down a different terrain. Particularly regarding the nature of God, they askew ontology  and metaphysics altogether. They create distance between Godself and ourselves. Or they chalk God up to, “the great mystery of life,” the knowledge of which is attainable only through deep mystical experience. They become, in Hector’s words, “apophatic anti-metaphysics,”[5] intent upon preventing the violence of constraints by imposing a tyranny of structurelessness, borrowing a phrase from Jo Freeman,[6] or by supposing falsely the emptiness of secularism, as Saba Mahmoud critiques.[7]

All theology, theory, ethic, or observation (no matter its degree of specificity, precision, or scientificity) is deliverable only within a set of preconceived notions that constrain us—constrain subjectivity and action. We need not be concerned about constraints in and of themselves, but with constraints that claim to have a permanent place or to be all-encompassing (perhaps hegemonic). Therefore, preconceived notions also need never be metaphysical, static or even consistent to suffice in whatever purpose. A metaphysical framework (or anti-metaphysical one)[8] should never be a prerequisite for a sound set of principles or practices, nor should a story about the nature of things be required to produce wisdom. As Rorty would put it, intrinsic nature is a useless idea, the pursuit of which typically sends us down quite the rabbit hole.[9]

Kevin Hector’s theories help to illuminate how we might talk about God and make other theological, philosophical or ethical assertions in ways that avoid grounding such talk in any particular metaphysical framework, including anti-metaphysical apophatic frames. He proposes we think of God partly in terms of, “the Spirit of Christ,” which, “enters into ordinary discursive practices in order to appropriate human concepts, to judge and fulfill their meaning,” and thereby to enable speaking of and referring to God.[10] The particular form of this proposal is difficult to extend into the Quaker Way. The Quaker Way presupposes some things, but it does not consistently adhere to certain notions regarding the Spirit of Christ.

For what Hector calls the Spirit of Christ, we find more useful language in Judith Butler, who uses the term, “unthought known,” after Christopher Bollas or, simply, the unconscious—the part of ourselves, which persistently alludes our conscious awareness.[11] The periodic desire to understand fully one’s unconscious thereby to gain greater awareness of oneself, argues Butler, is impossible because the unconscious is a product of this very movement into oneself, to observe and to narrativize oneself.[12] In other words, a central conundrum of being alive is that we cannot know what led to our becoming aware of ourselves. This conundrum emerges through the development of the unconscious. Butler writes:

To understand the unconscious…is to understand what cannot belong, properly speaking, to me, precisely because it defies the rhetoric of belonging, is a way of being dispossessed through the address of the other from the start…The other is, from the start, too much for me, enigmatic, inscrutable. This ‘too-much-ness’ must be handled and contained for something called an ‘I’ to emerge in its separateness. The unconscious is not a topos into which this ‘too-much-ness’ is deposited. It is rather formed as a psychic requirement of survival and individuation, as a way of managing—and failing to manage—that excess and thus as the persistent and opaque life of that excess itself.[13]

To become aware of myself, I must fabricate a chasm within me, such that a dyadic relationship takes hold between me as myself and me as the other. A certain kind of overwhelm emerges in the instant that I fabricate this chasm and become aware of myself. I fear losing this awareness. For, losing awareness of oneself is akin to death—akin to annihilation. This fear is maintained and protected by ego (more on this later). I become dispossessed from myself as a, “psychic requirement of survival and individuation.”[14] The formation of my unconscious is the result. My unconscious is the part of me that doesn’t know who I am or even that I exist. My unconscious is me as the other, the perennially mysterious, unpredictable other. As I strive to learn more about it, I confront essential truths about life and death, which start me on a path toward further insight into who I am, where I belong, and what I am supposed to do while I still know that I am alive.

This idea of the existence and function of the unconscious drawn from Judith Butler[15] better establishes the possibility of God-talk for liberal Quakerism, outside of the metaphysics vs. anti-metaphysics debate, than Hector’s notion of the movement of the Spirit of Christ. Hector relies on the notion that the, “Spirit implicit in Christ’s own normative assessments was passed along from person to person.”[16] Following the operations of mutual recognition developed in his account of language, Hector establishes the possibility of passing on the essential ethical tenants of Jesus’s teachings so that,  “one answers to God by answering to one’s peers, [and] one’s invocation of God need not be thought to lift one’s claims above the fray of reason-giving, critique, and so on.”[17] Within the psycho-analytical frame centered on the unconscious, the “Spirit of Christ” becomes a metaphor for the unconscious, and for the ethical and moral exploration one conducts through certain self-work, charting the boundlessness of one’s relationship with oneself.

Butler characterizes the therapeutic relationship as that which mediates this exploration of oneself. Yet this exploration is actually mediated in all our relationships, be they with therapists, clients, dogs, friends, lovers, etc. This is a keystone point. One is only able to develop a narrative of oneself (albeit incomplete) and to use insights thereby generated as tools for making ever more ethical decisions in relationship.

Quaker Process is the development of practical wisdom, or phronesis, through community and relationship.[18] One answers to God (or God’s functional equivalent) by answering to one’s peers wherein we are therefore required to give an account of ourselves, to proffer, “reason-giving, critique and so on.”[19] Our blind spots ceaselessly persist, but, maybe together, we can bridge enough gaps to approximate that elusive thing called “the good life”.

Let Go Your Ego and be Transformed, Like Jesus Did

Setting aside the ego is an essential element of Quaker Process and phronesis. The ego maintains our fear of death, our need to survive, and thus the chasm between our conscious and unconscious being. To develop an ever more coherent narrative of ourselves, we must spelunk, as it were, the depths of our unconscious to recover those things we’ve forcefully forgotten as survival tools, which our egos resist. We have to let go the need to survive and lose ourselves thereby to gain further insights into our beings as tools for making ever more ethical choices. The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth teaches this.

The sheer mundanity of Jesus’ death, from the perspective of the Romans who killed him and the loss of those who loved him, makes for the sort of scene one might find in a good independent film. To me, Jesus’ story and how it ends is comparable to the likes of Donnie Darko. Donnie is a sad, irrelevant dude who sacrifices himself for others at a time when hardly anyone else is watching, and we are the cult following. To get nailed to the cross was a regular process; it was a thing the Romans did to people all the time. Making the cross the symbol of your religion would be like making the electric chair, the needle, or the night stick the symbol of one today. Even more remarkable, a petty criminal is the central Christian figure. Christian imagery begins utterly with the mundane, the profane, and also the inconsequential.

Politically, Jesus was nailed to the cross for attempting to make changes that would never come. In fact, the Roman empire appropriated his figure and used it to maintain the sort of order he was trying to disrupt. For the Romans, the crucifixion became an artifice, perched upon a myth about magical powers proffered through Jesus’ death to save us from our spiritual brokenness that the Church coopted in order to fasten us to its steeple for millennia.

Yet, I don’t think this is what we should glean from the crucifixion, because it’s not what Jesus’ example teaches. Jesus did not teach to a magically realized shift from the profane to the sacred through his death, requiring nothing from us but submission to authority, to dogma and orthodoxy (repentance). A couple of Bible verses spring to mind, like John 15:12-13:[20]

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And 1 John 3:16:[21]

We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

The crucifixion was actually about love and about suffering, love’s bedfellow. Sacrifice of who and what we love leads to transformation through suffering. Rex Ambler, after George Fox, calls this, “dying to ourselves.”[22] So do John (3:3-7), Matthew (16:24-25), Mark (8:34-35), Luke (14:27), and Paul (Romans 6:4-8; Galatians 2:20).[23] Love, suffering and sacrifice are required to change even the smallest things. But we do not sacrifice anything particularly laudable for anything particularly magnificent. Transformation is difficult, dirty, and anti-climactic.

If to set aside the ego is to die to oneself, then, using Butler’s terms, to set aside the ego requires a journey. We must leave behind the stability of the “I” established in the fabricated chasm of our beings. We must go spelunking, as it were, within the unthought known of the unconscious self. As it turns out, in the spiritual transformation I am citing here, the thing we sacrifice and thereby suffer is ultimately love for oneself. It is attachment to an idea of oneself that we have fabricated in order to survive, to make sense of an enigmatic world.

In this, we require accompaniment, because the journey is difficult and unceasing, and because, as Butler asserts, the self can never be characterized comprehensively.[24] We are simply incapable of knowing or even coming to terms fully with our actions, given the various normative demands that cohere the social world. We therefore profoundly require relationship in order to realize fully our ethical responsibilities. Butler asserts that, “we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when…our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human.”[25] The story of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the more perfect examples of what this risk involves. Jesus emerges from within the various overlapping demands made upon him and the relationships he forges in response. His death is a metaphor for the profound vulnerability required for spiritual transformation, which is also paradoxical. For, becoming undone, it seems, allows us to bridge the fabricated chasm we construct between ourselves as ourselves and ourselves as the other. So we are resurrected not because of our desire to continue on living, but because of the other who demands it.

From within unknowingness, uncertainty, and death, relationship creates, sustains and defines us. Relationship also produces demands upon us, which constitute the operation of power and responsibility. Ethics, then, as personal responsibility in the contexts of practical wisdom primarily concern, in relationship, the proper or just operation of power. In Quaker Process, the determination of the proper or just operation of power (through love) is called discernment.

Discernment, Power and Justice

If we depend upon relationship with others in order to know ourselves, then a question regarding autonomy and freedom arises. What does it mean to be free if we also assert that we are never unbound from the other? To answer this question, we need to elaborate the operation of power in relationships. Specifically, we need to clarify equitable power dynamics—sometimes called “power-with” or “co-creative” mindsets—in relating with “the other” to achieve autonomy. Paul Ricoeur once wrote that, “the very idea of others bifurcates into two opposing directions, corresponding to two figures of the master: one, the dominator, facing the slave; the other, the master of justice, facing the disciple.”[26]  In this, I recall Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Please Master” wherein the shared, multilayered interplay of power enacted sexually is given and taken in dynamic turns. Lines such as, “please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes,” or, “please master, please look into my eyes, / please master order me down to the floor,” indicate the various positions the narrator takes in relation to his lover of being director or directed.[27] Sex more easily, perhaps, exemplifies what all relationships involve, which is that we are at times giving orders and at other times following them. Simultaneously, “the directed” teaches the director how to direct.

In sex, justice is a matter of learning how to cause pleasure for one’s interlocutor(s) and then causing it. In other activities, it is a matter of learning in what ways to proffer insight (pursue a line of inquiry, achieve a collective goal, etc.) that best meet with the idiosyncratic dispositions of the particular humans engaged. The aimed-for type of power is one wherein engagement is shared (co-created) but this is far from meaning that there are no masters. Indeed, when the master of justice faces her disciple, she does so knowing that this general notion “justice” is not really taught but enacted within the particularities of the relationship between herself and that of her disciple, which includes a dynamic and reciprocal interplay of power. What does this look like?

Hello, reader.

If I choose to pay attention, I can see your love, beauty, kindness, and pain. Fundamentally, my task is to realize that these things are my things. Your suffering is my suffering. Your demands are inescapable for no other reason than because without them I am nothing. I therefore love you more profoundly, more viscerally than I can ever fully know. This is the sort of love about which Martin Luther King Jr. speaks, of agape,[28] but one which is grounded in the actual experience of connection with others. The sort of agape of which I speak is not highly intellectual; it is known spiritually and experientially. Discernment is the element of Quaker Process whereby I aim to sink into this visceral awareness of agape love such that I am capable of co-creation with you. Often times, this sinking into visceral love is only possible through paradox and tragedy.

Terrence L. Johnson, writing about W.E.B. Dubois, asks, “What happens if we imagine persons as free, equal, and encumbered by inescapable histories? May we include subjugation and suffering as working vocabularies within our public reason, which in turn would inform our notions of political freedoms?”[29] It seems to me that, if we are necessarily bound to each other, the suffering, tragedy and subjugation of my fellow Americans of color, for example, are also my suffering, tragedy and subjugation. We are encumbered by inescapable histories with which we must grapple together. Johnson argues that as long as we marginalize a tragic sense of life from our ethical work, we are bound to imagine a flawed version of freedom and justice.[30] Tragedy is what binds us to each other, even as we resist and fall apart. Tragedy refuses, “to contribute a ‘solution’ to the conflicts made insoluble by fiction,”[31] and imposes upon us the reality of paradox, of the situationally contingent and often inconsistent choices we must make to compensate for utter and utmost contradiction. In the face of the soul-crushing and demonstratively evil foundations upon which Western societies are built, how, in fact, can we do anything other than construct for ourselves an ethical approach mirroring that of Dubois, of which Johnson writes in depth? It is called Tragic Soul Life.[32] As a white man, I have been socialized into hyper-individualism so extensively that, indeed, I am capable of severe ignorance to tragedy. For as long as my ignorance goes on, the present day social arrangements, which continue to keep people of color unfree do also go on.[33] And as long as someone is unfree, so am I.

Therefore, freedom exists only within relationship and community, and not outside of it. Freedom is produced by justice enacted reciprocally, such that “the golden rule” cedes itself to what some have called “the platinum rule,” which is to treat others how they want to be treated. As we set aside the ego and engage in power-with (rather than power over) we discover true freedom, which is only possible when power is acknowledged and expressed dynamically.  We are, in a word, each other’s masters. It would be accurate to assert that the realization of equitable and just communities requires formal masters of justice equipped to discipline us in the art of enacted, agape love. It would also be accurate to assert that we are all called at times into service as masters of justice and at other times as disciples of justice. Tomorrow, who will be your masters of justice? Who will be your disciples?

In the final analysis, power is enacted through the systematic, structured as well as situationally negotiated demands that we make of each other. Jeffrey Stout writes about power in this way[34] and so does Irving Goffman.[35] This is to say nothing about the many ways in which power can come to be enacted oppressively or repressively, when it operates outside of agape love.[36]  Precisely to avoid this, as Jo Freeman discusses,[37] power requires explicit delimitation and formalization through discernment, through agape love. This formalization, however, should take broad, systematic forms not easily deconstructed in a given situation. It should also take highly structured and apparent forms, as well as situationally specific and ephemeral forms.[38] It goes by many names, and therefore requires deep analysis and vigilant, continual elaboration.

This is how we come upon the assertions made at the beginning of this essay. Quaker Process is not a series of practices and norms. These things emerge as a result of engaging in Quaker Process, through discernment and practical wisdom achieved collectively.

Continuing Revelation: An Ending and a Beginning

Over three centuries, Quakers have gathered a massive amount of practices and norms meant to aid us in our collective phronesis and discernment. The gathered practices and norms are, indeed, particular arrangements of power, which we have agreed are the expression of our spiritual discoveries. Sense our discoveries are never ending, so too will our practices and norms change along with our principles and beliefs.

It is here where orthocredence embraces an alternative operation of practices, norms, principles and beliefs. We do not adhere to any set of practices as definitional for our faith (orthopraxy) nor do we adhere to a particular set of principles (orthodoxy). We do acknowledge that practices and principles have their place. We need them for our functioning. However, as new insights emerge through phronesis, practice, norms, principles or beliefs require continuing adjustment. Then when we adjust one, its change influences the others to change. Consider the following diagram:


As discernment reveals new insight (and feedback), principles are revised, and their corresponding practice adjusted. This then is integrated into our discernment where we, among other things, welcome feedback from peers, engage in mutual accountability, sink into agape love, and spelunk the depths of our unconscious (or experience movement of the Spirit). Then we further revise our principles, and so on and so forth. The cycle of continuing revelation ends up looking much more like a spiral, for, with each turning of the circle, a new path is drawn.

It might be said that we have a collection of principles (like the SPICES) and practices (like our business process) that serve us well. Yet over the last twenty years, our principles have evolved, and many people have come forth to critique our practices. For myself, I have critiqued the institution of membership, arguing for a radical transformation of it. I have also called for our concept of “unity” to be re-defined—and offered a new definition. As a participant in the Religious Society of Friends, I am engaging in the process I’ve just described wherein principles and practices change through discernment in a cycle of continuing revelation.

I anticipate further change, as it would seem a natural part of our faith, and also because I have looked into the eyes of my suffering Friends of color, Queer Friends, and Trans* Friends, and seen their need for change. I have felt the yearning cry of young adult and elderly Friends who need different types of access to membership and Quaker community. I have known the profound sense of solidarity, belonging, purpose and identity of a gathered meeting for worship in places that go unrecognized as “official” parts of the institutions that hold themselves as the care takers of our Faith. I have seen Friends on all sides of prevailing controversies flinging at each other words like, “this isn’t seasoned,” and, “that isn’t in alignment with process.” They carry attachments to things that are not the essential being of our faith tradition. So I offer this piece of dense writing as a groundwork for a renewed Religious Society of Friends, which reaches back into the same roots for new kinds of growth, blossom and beauty. I offer this not merely so that our Quaker institutions may find new life, not at all for this reason, but to ensure there remains a people who are gathered solely for the purpose of transforming themselves and the world.


Ambler, Rex. The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery. Winchester, UK: Christian Alternative Books, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version. 3 Revised. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Edition. Vintage, 1995.

———. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Freeman, Jo. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” JoFreeman.com, September 30, 2016. http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm.

Ginsberg, Allen. Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Goffman, Erving. “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.” In Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1st Pantheon Books ed. Pantheon, 1982.

Hector, Kevin. Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language and the Spirit of Recognition (Current Issues in Theology, No. 8). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Johnson, Terrence. Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (Imagining the Americas). Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1981.

Mahmoud, Saba. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 323.

Pink Dandelion, Benjamin. “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-Culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps.’” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 22–37. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. University Of Chicago Press, 1995.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton University Press, 2005.

“The Movement for Black Lives.” Platform, October 2, 2016. https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/.

[1] SPICES are a common acronym to describe what is called Quaker testimony, or particular principles that generally characterize the insights upon which we’ve arrived over the centuries. The SPICES stand for simplicity, peace & social justice, integrity, community, equality & equity, and stewardship & sustainability.

[2] Pink Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-Culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps,’” 23.

[3] Notions pertaining to the nature of things are usually called ontological notions.

[4] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 11.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

[7] Mahmoud, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire,” 326.

[8] Anti-metaphysical is still metaphysical; it is a metaphysics of non-metaphysics.

[9] Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 8–9.

[10] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.

[11] Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 54–58.

[12] After Heidegger, this is an expression of Ricoeur’s appresentation of the self Oneself as Another, 333..

[13] Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 54.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Although, in all likelihood, Butler would disagree with my interpretation of her writing here.

[16] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 352. Phronesis is an originally Aristotelian concept.

[19] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.

[20] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ambler, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery, 23.

[23] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version.

[24] Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 51, 66, 72.

[25] Ibid., 136.

[26] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 276.

[27] Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995, 202.

[28] King, Strength to Love, 50.

[29] Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life, 158.

[30] Ibid., 160.

[31] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 247.

[32] Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life, 70–71.

[33] “The Movement for Black Lives.”

[34] Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 272.

[35] Goffman, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.”

[36] Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic; Foucault, Discipline & Punish.

[37] Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

[38] To ask one’s sex partner, for example, “what they are ‘into,’” just before engaging in sex acts is situationally and possibly ephemerally to formalize the power that necessarily emerges in the sexual intercourse.

I am An Amateur Quaker

An Alignment of Leadings

The study and the work that I do is grounded in the value of connection. Through connection, we are more powerful, and life is more meaningful. To those who know me well, I’ve become a broken record on this point. Likely due to confirmation bias, I have lost count of the many times this core message has been reaffirmed in my own experience. It has burgeoned (or is in the process of burgeoning) into what Quakers call a leading—to work against the apparent isolation pervading our society and all that is detrimental to which it has been shown to lead, like issues regarding health and stigma.

We are experiencing the culmination of a sort of fragmenting about which post-modern social theorists lamented as the beginning of a more meaningless and phrenetic existence. I don’t think we are at a permanent loss for meaning, however, but we are challenged to find meaning anew. Social media and other technological advancements provide some hope and also tremendous risk. I do not ascribe to the argument that social media only exacerbates social isolation, because I think it can be a tool for making connections more robust. Yet it can in many cases end up perturbing an already stressed socio-economic conundrum in the West, as the middle class shrinks, economic inequality grows, and racial disparities persist. Each can be causes in various ways of social isolation, where simply working to bring people together to cultivate relationship and connection in person is part of a broader set of solutions.

For the future that I am able to foresee, with all its uncertainties, my service on staff as Associate Secretary for Program and Religious life of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) affords me the privilege to align my leadings with PYM’s current mission and vision. I will be paid to do this work for as long as my service remains a sensible way to help forward this vision and mission. I bring gifts and skills to the role, which I would be happy to apply to other positions should the time come. These other positions need not be with Quakers. My spiritual journey, my leading of connection, is grounded in the Quaker Way, but I am not a servant of Quakers, per se. The Quaker community helps keep me accountable to my leadings, it helps keep my integrity intact, and it helps me set aside my ego. Quakers help me remain a servant of God, no matter what I do for money, and which happens to mean, for this moment, that I am hired to help Quakers give life to the leadings under the weight of which they (and I) follow.

I am No Professional Quaker

So, no, I am not a professional Quaker. I do not aspire to work for Quakers for the rest of my life, and I did not aspire to work for Quakers when I started doing so. The notion of a professional Quaker maligns the intent of paid service. If we ask people, usually skilled and highly competent people, to help our communities with our work and witness and to help us full-time, we should pay them to do so.

Yet cultivating a field of people who have a habit of working for Quakers not as a ministry, per se, but as a career in itself is not healthy for our religious tradition. The Quaker Way, among other things, is premised upon the dynamic interplay of faith and practice. We are ever evolving in our continuing revelation, and this should usually mean that when we choose to pay someone to help us with our work and witness, we do so because their gifts, skills and leadings are in alignment with what we require for this, our next adventure—whatever that may be. People who get paid to do work for or on behalf of Quakers are not professional Quakers, they are just the opposite. They are amateur Quakers, who’ve chosen to set aside their egos in service of a broader community and a larger vision. The true professional Quakers are all the others, who have to balance service with the many other parts of their lives, including, for many, their careers.

So, yes, I am an amateur Quaker. My role in the body of Friends is to help us see all that we might accomplish when we are together, and this means, for example, that I highly limit my own voice and curtail my active participation in governance decisions. We usually leave these things up to the professionals.

Towards Dynamic Membership 

In 2014, I wrote a rather dense exposition of Emily Higgs’ Friends Journal article.

I want to highlight aspects of that exposition in a more specific way here.

The landscape of existence in this world is increasingly hyper-individualist, prizing individual actualization, branding and expression without regard for the welfare of the many whose contributions make possible the essence of our own. This leads to a deeply felt sense of isolation so engrained in our routines that we forget the possibility of connection, and we become inured to the reality of loneliness.

Perhaps I’ve experienced these elements of our society acutely because my life has been a series of transitions—a repetition compulsion of one city and set of relationships to the next. Roots torn from the ground, I would scale the journey back in, once again.

It begins expensively—introducing myself to everyone, saying yes to every invitation. The end of each day is a review of who looks like, acts like, and feels like those whom I knew, the people who are still mine in a world of strangers. Long distance phone calls (and eventually Skypes) with friends miles away, text messages, and “likes” on Facebook produce a dissipating nutrient pool for the stamina required to simultaneously turn toward and away.

We moved from Alabama to Pennsylvania, then across PA small towns every few years, landing finally in Elkton, Maryland in 2003. I graduated from High School three years later, and spent the longest period of time in one place on the campus of Haverford College. By then, the particular arrangements one makes with his body and mind to account for the conundrum of home had fallen flat.

The latest community in which I had discovered a sense of connection and fellowship had been the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Young Friends Program. Yet as a burgeoning adult in college, the rules of the game had changed. It took me many years to discover that most of this change had happened inside me—new sorts of boundaries, desires, and ambitions I didn’t learn to integrate until leaving once again for Boston and grad school.

If the journey of transition could be fully scaled, the anxiety of change would soon ware down and become a new landscape of potential and realized intimacies. I found them in various contingent, fleeting ways. Even today, I live for these island-like moments. Over the years, I also collected a few old friends—those rare people whose love endured beyond transition. They were the most dynamic of my relationships, changing to fit the time, while remaining steadfast in their essential, unwavering love.

This, Friends, should be the nature of Quaker community, grounded simply in the sort of love that extends intimacy to all who enter its range of influence. When Friends worship with us for one day, one week, one month, one year, or many years, they should experience the same rhythm of celebration.  Any who enter have power and potential whose essential expression is only actualized in the context of community. It is always an incredible opportunity when a new nexus of gifts and ministry walks through our door. Our excitement should inspire in those who show up to give the commitment we ask of them in return for celebrating their potential. Commitment is demonstrated through the character and quality of a new person’s engagement alongside the quality and character of the community’s embrace.

I should say, as an aside, that I am not discussing the sort of excitement that arises in the presence of a new person out of the hope that they’ll single-handedly save our community from the pervasive, enervating sense that our vitality is waning. When we salivate over new energy and younger members who can carry on the baton, as it were, we are celebrating for the wrong reasons, indeed! I am also not discussing what I would refer to as a damaging approach to inclusivity that suggests we are incapable of setting healthy, regularly scrutinized boundaries for how we expect people to behave when we are together.

Love is a dynamic force, changing to fit the time and space through which we move.

If this is the case, then we can accommodate the transience of people in my generation, those we call young adult Friends, by acknowledging that when the fire of love has caught, then so have we clasped each other in mutual support across space and time.

This requires young adults to stop thinking or saying the following things:

“I’m only in town for a year or so; not long enough to find a new spiritual community.”

Young adults and new people of any age need to prepare themselves for the journey of transition. With openness and generosity of spirit, new people have a responsibility to discern whether they are ready and willing to love in the manner of Friends.

Likewise, monthly meetings need to articulate clearly what loving in the manner of Friends means! They should fill their ranks with ready elders who are prepared to begin clearness committees at any moment. This requires us to train and develop our entire population in the art of welcome, hospitality and openness.

In fact, it requires a comprehensive grounding in spiritual formation; the development of a dynamic understanding of membership that can only be felt when we are truly in unity.

Let’s get to it! Our lonely, isolated society needs us.

From Congregation to Community

Towards Community Organizing

As twenty-first century Friends, our task today is remarkably similar to that of the Quaker progressive thought leaders who modernized the Religious Society of Friends at the beginning of the twentieth century.[1] As we strive to make our religious community accessible to all who seek a direct spiritual experience of the divine, structural deficiencies, associated with an earlier religious vision, stand in our way.

In the 1920’s Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) Friends worked to change their institutional governance from one in which stalwart elders and trustees held tight control to one wherein authority was shared more broadly among members.[2] In changing institutional governance, our thought leaders met a pressing need to focus Quaker institutions upon universal, spiritual insights that could attract the energy and interest of younger generations.[3] As a result of these efforts, the Northeast, unprogrammed Quaker tradition began a process of decentralizing power and institutional authority.

Eventually, this renewal movement led to rapidly burgeoning yearly meeting membership and the formation of many new monthly meetings. By the late twentieth century, the progressive trend toward greater decentralization led to the de facto adoption of a congregational model of religious organization. While this model functioned fairly adequately for many decades, over the latter half of the past century, it became progressively less effective as a means of maintaining institutional cohesion across a newly suburbanized geographic and regional PYM landscape.

Today, our monthly meetings often regard themselves as stand-alone and isolated congregations, which has led many of us to lose sight of the fact that we require a broader community to help deepen our practice, grow our numbers, and bring about societal changes. Therefore, PYM leadership, under the weight of a new vision heralded by our Five Year Plan, has set itself the task of shifting our institutional practice and understanding from the congregational model to a new way of associating, which we are beginning to call the Community Organizing Model.

The community organizing model is premised upon connecting Friends’ communities across our geography toward collective work and witness. In this model, our approach is fundamentally characterized by partnerships wherein yearly meetings work alongside their various constituencies to set and meet goals. Yearly meeting staff and volunteer leaders proffer operational expertise so that we can achieve our goals efficiently and effectively. Staff and leaders also build lines of communication and organization between constituencies that more resemble the connections on a circuit board than the straight lines of an organizational chart. Lastly, staff works with volunteer leaders to create diverse spaces and multiple entry points for engagement of many different types of people at various levels. Through the community organizing model we reemphasize community, reignite efficient organization, and recommit to our historic mission of ushering the Kingdom of God on Earth.

*George Schaefer of Abington Meeting was of great help to me in composing this section.

Why Community Organizing?

The traditional view of community organizing is that it gives disenfranchised communities the ability to collectively stand up for themselves—to gain power by coming together. Through gaining power in this way, communities may then act to change the situations that cause their disenfranchisement.

Liberal Quakers do not face disenfranchisement per se, we face the isolation, inefficiency, and seeming powerlessness that comes from extreme decentralization. We presently live in a bottom-up/top-down model wherein the only vehicles for communication and action are through the traditional monthly and quarterly meeting structures, which have continually failed us in achieving relevancy, in growing our numbers, and in accomplishing the mission Fox and Fell left us. This is the atrophy of the congregational model in (especially liberal) Quaker institutions. Within the community organizing model, Friends are renewed in their ability to come together across monthly and quarterly meetings. The yearly meeting’s task is to proffer new ways for converging and organizing.

What will these new ways be? The coming shifts in the governance structure of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) go much beyond rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak. If PYM is successful in implementing its new governance structures, then communities will have found new ways of constituting purpose and power to follow their divine leadings. It will no longer be the task of the yearly meeting to implement divine leadings itself, as a centralized institution headquartered in Philadelphia. Instead, we will all be tasked with supporting each other in the work we are led to do. The yearly meeting will be a body that seeks and creates common connection and ground toward broader social change, vibrant local meetings, and growing relevancy in the twenty-first century. I am excited to take part in this great experiment in the Spirit!

[1] Henry Wilbur, Jesse Holmes and others. See: Chuck Fager, How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism and Helped Save America (Durham, NC: Kimo Press, 2014), 181–184, 111–112.

[2]Lucretia Mott, J.W. Rowntree, Rufus Jones, Jane Rushmore, Henry Hodgkin, and others. See: Emily Cooper Johnson, Under Quaker Appointment: The Life of Jane P. Rushmore (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 149; Benjamin Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 119–128.

[3] Cooper Johnson, Under Quaker Appointment: The Life of Jane P. Rushmore, 175.