Note: This is the second of a series of posts of African American Quakers talking about Quaker faith and AFSC's significance in their faith journey. Phil Lord is the rising clerk of AFSC's Board. He offers here a stirring message about the spiritual grounding and foundation of the organization. - Lucy
Surrendered and trusting hearts
For me, the miracle of Quakerism is that a humble and unexceptional group of people have the audacity to sit together in silence, believing and waiting to hear from God. Our coming together is not just to meditate, relax the senses, or clear our minds. In spite of appearances, it is not just an opportunity for reflection and sharing observations about the gifts and personal challenges of life. Meeting for worship is not just a conversation among those with messages for the edification of those who remain silent. The silence shapes the words of the messages and often touches our hearts without them.
For me, Quaker meeting for worship is each of these things, and yet it is much more profound than all of them put together. It is waiting, expectant waiting. It is a meeting of individuals who gather in anticipation of the movement of the Spirit. God does not always “trouble the waters,” but we know from experience that at precious moments, the Spirit calls and leads and hopefully carries us into transformation, not so much to be better persons but to do, as Friends of Jesus do, the will of God. The evidence of our faith is the testimony to our experience. The proof of the Quaker faith’s efficacy is that we come together, seeking, again and again.
On such occasions, within uncluttered meetinghouse walls, we are sometimes dramatically, but often imperceptibly, moved toward a new clarity that is part of what we call Continuing Revelation.
Continuing Revelation builds on and fulfills what was understood as truth before, a truth that now seems somewhat incomplete as it is taken forward in a new direction. Such revelation is affirmed in the unity of those who come together trying to be open to the voice of the Spirit. For beyond the wisdom embedded in religious traditions or the time-tested authority of a Holy Book is the living and interpretive power of the Spirit who encounters, invites, and even compels us through our experience of life itself. I have faith that nothing is more powerful or more simply true for me than this Word, brought forth time and again, from epoch to epoch, by the repeated gathering of surrendered and trusting hearts seeking to bear witness to the Light that has already come into the world.
Continuing Revelation is more than a transcendent experience coming down from unseen heights. It is also immanent in our daily encounters with each other as spiritual beings seeking to “answer that of God” by responding to the divinity that dwells within each human heart. It speaks to us even before we hear the words the stranger utters and invites us to respond in love. For the law and the prophets of every spiritual tradition seem summed up, as the Bible says, not only in the holy invitation to love God but equally in the admonition to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Continuing Revelation taught us that slavery was wrong even when, for many Friends, it was socially and religiously acceptable. Later on, in the movement for women’s suffrage, it taught us that gender is a source of human integrity and not a justification for political oppression and dehumanizing social restraint. And day by day, we are learning that love can still be sacred love regardless of whom it joins together.
On the other hand, I think it is easy for us to believe that the spiritual experience is reproducible, that a revelation or a leading, once given, is ours to hold on to and manipulate as we choose, that its results can be packaged or appropriated and even taken on the road with authenticity.
Our collective ego can mislead us into believing that our testimonies to equality or peace are logical constructs or principles that we can apply for our own use and use for the education of others. After all, why keep traveling up to Mt. Sinai when the stone tablets are all you need?
Even more insidious is the feeling of specialness such an experience of revelation can confer, as if we are the only ones the Spirit has touched and as if our way, which we call Quaker process, is the best way for anyone to move the world forward.
Our egos can even bring us to the point where we believe that those who live in constant fear of senseless violence cannot teach us about peace or those who willingly risk their status and even their lives to break past oppressive social barriers cannot teach us about equality.
Our testimony to equality will become an historical relic if we do not maintain it as a contemporary prophetic witness in our churches and meetinghouses. I believe that in faith and in fact, all of our testimonies are only ours if we live into them, renew them day by day, and humbly seek to be the student of the Spirit in all of Her forms—human and nonhuman—rather than aspire to become the teachers of the world.
AFSC as Quaker Witness
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) expands the reach and scope of Quaker witness and its process of revelation. Rooted and directed from the depths of Quaker worship by its governing bodies, AFSC is the corporate expression of a collective spiritual experience. It is a “meeting for worship to do business,” the business of working in partnership with others to encourage peace with justice in the world. It is a contemporary “holy experiment” conducted “cheerfully over the earth,” affirming and supporting peace with human dignity in more places and among more peoples than one Friend or one church or monthly meeting could ever meet.
AFSC, at its best, is not just a charity for those who are suffering, or even primarily an ambassador for Quaker Testimonies. At its very best, AFSC is a vehicle and conduit for mutual transformation and Continuing Revelation. It can link the individual Friend and her local worshipping community to the turmoil and expanse of a challenging and emerging world. It helps those of us who are privileged to view our sometimes naïve and self-serving convictions through the skeptical lens of the oppressed. It helps those who are suffering to know that in spite of the darkness and the brutality all around us, there is still compassion in the world and it will help us all to overcome.
We must go out as well as within
I was not personally present, but just before I became a Board member in 1991, AFSC’s Board experienced a “gathered meeting” with a spiritual power and a tested unity that I have heard recounted in awe by participants decades later.
At that meeting, the Board decided that it could not comply with the government demand that employers refuse to hire the otherwise qualified strangers and visitors among us. Instead of becoming an agency of immigration enforcement, AFSC assumed the organizational and economic risk of civil disobedience. In so doing, it not only advocated for the human rights of undocumented immigrants; AFSC and its officers personally and voluntarily assumed the legal jeopardy of anti-immigrant oppression.
The decision gave a new swagger to our staff, who could enter a room of activists and immigrants not just as servants or pseudo-saviors, but as part of an organization willing to engage in courageous partnership with the oppressed. I felt part of this when I first became an Assistant Clerk of AFSC, and I was warned of the personal risk I was taking. I was told that as an officer I might have to sacrifice and be personally punished for continuing this witness. I counted the cost with my family, and for the years of my AFSC service, I considered it a privilege to walk with those who suffered because of their status. Over time, the actions of this witness outran its Guide and was abandoned, but for two decades the Light of faith in the equality of human beings never burned brighter on behalf of Friends.
This is the power of Continuing Revelation. This is the gift of Friends to the world and the opportunity graciously given by the oppressed of the world to Friends: to allow our accompaniment, to trust our caring, to teach us their own truth from the perspective of their experience.
For me, Quakerism at its best is not a monastic experience. Our faith was formed in the crucible of suffering and religious oppression and continues to be defined and nurtured by that experience.
Like the rich man’s camel struggling to get through the proverbial needle’s eye, the Kingdom of God is not so easily revealed to us behind the invisible walls of secluded suburbs or the concrete barriers of gated communities. Our seeking is rooted not only in silence but also in engagement. We must go out as well as within.
If we reach out to the world, the still small voice we hear emerging from our re-centered consciousness can resonate with the cries of the oppressed.
This is what “answering that of God” means to me. This is the work of the Spirit, continuing to move over our collective hearts, like the primordial waters, bringing forth healing and revealing the sacredness and beauty of God’s creation.