Reflections on the Gathering
Almost 1,000 Friends from the United States, Canada, and around the world came to the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota July 3-8 for the 2016 FGC Gathering. From the opening message shared Sunday evening by Barry Crossno, the General Secretary of FGC, naming concerns of Friends of color about white supremacy, FGC and the Gathering, through the vocal ministry of Peggy Senger Morrison on Friday evening and everything in between, this was a Gathering that was challenging, joyous, troubled, deep, spiritual, and much more.
Bible Half Hour
This year’s theme was “be humble, Be Faithful, BE BOLD.” Gathering attendees were humbled as we were challenged to face, despite our ongoing work and statements on matters of race and power, that we who comprise FGC, even in Gathering planning, often default to a position of meeting the needs of our primarily white constituents instead of moving toward actions that will ensure the safety and full participation of all races and ethnicities.
For the past few years, FGC has hosted a pre-conference for Friends of Color. The intention of this event is create an opportunity for Friends of Color to gather together in fellowship prior to the start of the Gathering. For many of these Friends, they may be the only person of color in their local Quaker meeting. Therefore, meeting together is an important way to feel supported as there can be challenges in being the only Friend of Color in a predominantly white setting. The pre-conference is also valuable because it creates a web of support among Friends of color so that they feel more empowered to engage with the entire Gathering community, which is also predominantly white. Distressingly, a number of Friends of Color experienced micro-aggressions and harassment from campus security after arriving for the pre-conference. There were reports that campus security followed some Friends of Color through parking lots and that security also surveilled and profiled them in various ways. This made these Friends deeply uncomfortable for reason everyone can understand. No one should ever be treated this way—and it’s made even more egregious given these Friends were making a financial and time commitment to go on a spiritual retreat.
What this episode lifted up with great clarity is that the Gathering often locates itself in places where Friends of Color have had negative experiences either on campus or in the surrounding community. Friends of Color have lifted up for more than a decade that this is a very real and serious problem and that FGC has failed to concretely and successfully address the situation. This has been a systemic failure over a long period of time and it must change. While FGC has tried to find historically black colleges in the past to host us, or find more diverse urban campuses where Friends of Color might feel safer, it’s also true that we have not succeeded in doing so. There have been reasons cited as to why, but regardless of the whys we must find a solution so that the Gathering becomes a safe container for all Friends, not just white Friends. One glaring problem is there have been no Friends of Color involved in site selection. Friends of Color must have a more direct role in site selection and have positions of authority within the structure of FGC. This is a very real and very painful problem that we have not properly addressed. This Gathering has brought into stark relief that FGC as an institution must find a way forward so that we can become the community we have been working and praying to become.
Steps Taken So Far
During the Gathering, the first step was for our Gathering Coordinator to engage with our host about how security is being handled. The report that the General Secretary received was that the meeting went well. The sisters and the administration have a commitment to hospitality and were concerned to learn that Friends within our community were having a negative experience. It was agreed that patrols would be lessened. Also, they volunteered to move some of their security patrols out of cars and into golf carts or on to foot in an effort to lessen their own visibility and try to create a more comfortable space for Friends. We appreciated the campus hearing our concerns and taking steps to try to create a more hospitable and safer feeling environment for all Friends for the remainder of our time here. The above was also a learning for us as organizers. While we often have talks with campus security before the Gathering about various issues, we want to more proactively suggest to future campuses ways that their security units can reduce their visibility and create a greater feeling of welcome and safety for all Friends.
Since the Gathering, the composition of the Gathering Site Selection committee has been changed so that it will include Friends of Color. Four such Friends have now been confirmed to serve. This means that the Site Selection Committee will have a majority membership of Friends of Color. Our hope, coupled with committed effort, is that this results in future sites, after Niagara (which is already contracted), that support safe and positive experiences for Friends of Color. We are grateful to the Friends of Color who made this issue clear as well as to those Friends of Color who have agreed to serve. We also wish to thank the current members of the Site Selection Committee and Nominating Committee for acting with speed and conviction in the past week to help make this change.
In addition to the above, Friends have encouraged FGC to engage in a institutional audit that will help FGC identify and provide recommendations to correct any structural racism or implicit bias within the organization. The staff of FGC is now embarking on the process of learning more about what is required to complete such an audit (financial, staffing, etc.) and will be bringing this information to FGC’s Central Committee which must enter discernment concerning the benefits of this action and potentially approve the funding and resources to complete it. Given that FGC’s Central Committee has chosen, even in the midst of laying down other programs, to commit significant resources to anti-racism work, we know that this will be treated with the seriousness and grounded discernment it deserves.
The Call from vocal ministry
Photo: Sunday Night opening plenary "facing bench" just prior to Barry's opening message.
We were urged to be faithful to the testimonies of the Quaker path. This urging came via vocal ministry from Barry Crossno sharing a message from the People of Color Pre-Gathering Retreat, from Traci Hjelt Sullivan's Thursday night opening message, from plenary speaker and Quaker author Rex Ambler, from Liz Oppenheimer introducing plenary speaker Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds, and from professor of law, and nationally recognized expert on civil rights and social justice concerns Dr. Nekima Levy-Pounds; at table conversations around the dining hall; during workshops, worship-sharing following Levy-Pounds’ address, and during a Meeting for Racial Healing following the killings of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Gerry Williams in North Carolina. As Jesus read from Isaiah in his first statement of public ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
We were challenged to bold action by the events of the week, especially the killing of more black men by police and the killing of five police in Dallas. We were reminded that official statements are nice but must be complemented with action that shifts us out of our comfortable norm into radical ministry that demonstrates our commitment to bringing together the blessed community that truly reflects, embraces, and welcomes the breadth and width and depth of the family of God. Conversations began, and continue, by our clerks, committee volunteers, and staff about how to act boldly in fresh and effective ways in addressing concerns at the heart of our joint witness and life in the world.
Gratitude for all of you
There were moments of joy as we appreciated the company of Friends not seen for a time and met new Friends. We were blessed by moments of humor, dancing, and singing – including the theme song for the Gathering. We browsed the bookstore, appreciated Friendly art, and purchased Quaker-made items at the QMart. Most of all we celebrated the transformative power of the Divine experienced through fellowship, worship, learning and prayer that is at the heart of the Gathering.
We are grateful for the good work of Gathering co-clerks, Paul Landskroener and MaryBeth Neal, the local arrangements committee and FGC’s Long Range Conference Planning Committee, the staff of the College of St. Benedict, the members of the People of Color retreat, and the great number of Gathering volunteers, workshop leaders, and Gathering staff. In many ways, they all provided us with the Gathering experience we needed – one that was challenging, joyous, troubled, deep, spiritual, and, with Divine Assistance, will lead us into new ways of living and acting humbly, faithfully, and boldly.