Asking to Move the Furniture

Addressing Racism, Annual Sessions, Implementation Committee

by Lucy Duncan

The Undoing Racism Group of Philadelphia YM has been working for two years to support the yearly meeting’s central corporate witness expressed in this query, “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism and white supremacy in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?” We have offered 10 workshops at sessions last year and this, provided learning materials, a group of traveling workshop leaders, hosted a YM wide viewing of “I am not racist, am I?,” hosted affinity groups and led events at YM annual sessions and continuing sessions, led events at Quarterly meetings and young adult Friends gatherings, created a vision and plan for our work going forward, held open monthly meetings that always included learning activities… all while having no formal relationship or place at the table of the new PYM structure. We have been encouraged to keep working, with an earlier proposal to form a committee having been rejected.

We labored for months with what might work to support this work as a central PYM concern. A Friend of color in leadership received advice from people within PYM about how to weave our work throughout the YM. We presented this proposal to the Implementation committee who rejected it, asked us to continue as an informal body focusing on sessions planning (this is a Quaker pattern: teach us, we want to learn, but not more). We consider what we are trying to do to be about creating the courageous many, deep change that can transform our body to carry this work as a central spiritual concern and show up for the broader community that is deeply impacted. I have experienced true, real, tender community in the Undoing Racism Group, we are practicing imperfect, loving, community: what we are trying to birth within all of PhYM, one of our members says we are his spiritual community.

We asked to meet with the Implementation committee and those who came to the meeting of 30 of us seemed willing to support this as an experiment. They met, could not find unity, decided to lay themselves down and propose an ad hoc committee to consider the work. We presented the proposal to the body inviting many folks to labor with the questions. We offered an action on Saturday that represented the sense of growing support and that the body take action. Some of us persisted after and disrupted the faith and practice presentation after the clerk said we would grapple with it the next day. 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.

The next day the clerk masterfully clerked a session in which she asked the body to consider with their hearts if we could move forward with the proposal for a two year experiment. Many voices expressed support and others expressed fears, concerns, the one which resonated with me most was what about our spiritual sanctuary? It resonates for me because for too many Friends of color Quaker spaces are not sanctuary, but hostile spaces and the work of Undoing Racism is to try to help create sanctuary for us all. And when asked for a decision most people said, “Yes” and the few who said, “no” did so very loudly.

I have been grieving, been perplexed, been in dialogue. I know we were asking a lot … and shouldn’t we?… and one thing that keeps rising for me is a story about a Haverford professor of African American studies, who left years ago saying you want me in your institution but you treat me as a guest: if you wanted me to really live here, you would consider letting me move some of the furniture. We were asking to move some furniture to support the change, as an experiment. We were asking for seats at tables where decisions are made that impact the whole…

As my spiritual grounding returns I am praying about, “What next?” I am praying about mistakes we made and openings, too. Some of my Friends will not return as this journey has been too painful. Each day I think differently, some days I want to get back in the struggle, finish the work we began, because I love my faith community. Other days I feel depleted, and wonder if I might be called to pursue this work in another space, another form. I am clear that if called elsewhere others may emerge to carry forward what we started. What I grieve the most is what we have co-created together as a group, as a community within Undoing Racism: a space where we can be real, ourselves without apology, and where love is tender and palpable. I have been awakened and enlivened by relationship in particular with Noah and Vanessa, as co-clerks. This has been the fuel for the journey. Perhaps we didn’t share that enough with the wider body… I am striving to hold the tensions and the learnings, let my heart grieve and open and rise for the next calling.