The core idea behind Quaker faith and practice is that living is more important than doctrine, that our lives express our central commitments and faith. Parker Palmer reminds us, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” What we say and do reveals what we have come to understand through living, through listening, and through making mistakes and reflecting on them. Learning and living occurs in community and often the most vivid and important inspiration arises when we encounter a person whose life is a beacon, kindled with a spiritual fire that moves them to courageous action.
Bayard Rustin, Quaker activist and chief organizer for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, lived such a life of inspiration. Last fall, Rustin posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom honoring his life and work for equality and dignity for all people.
Rustin is best known for being the organizer of the March on Washington, but he also shaped the nonviolent philosophy of the movement. In 1956, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited Rustin to come to Montgomery, Ala., to help with the emergent bus boycott. King’s home had been bombed in February of that year, and in response, King applied for a concealed carry permit in Alabama. The state was reluctant to grant such permits to African-Americans; King was deemed “unsuitable” and the permit was denied. So instead, he kept his guns at home.
When Rustin arrived at King’s home, he was disturbed that he was greeted at the door by armed watchmen. When Rustin visited King with journalist Bill Worthy, Worthy almost sat on a pistol. Rustin said, “Watch out, Bill, there’s a gun on the chair.” Rustin helped King realize that nonviolence was a way of life, not merely a tactic, and persuaded him to learn about and adopt the principles of Gandhian nonviolent direct action.
Rustin lived with remarkable integrity—he never hid the fact that he was gay, never bowed to the judgments others made about his sexuality. He said, “My activism did not spring from my being gay, or, for that matter, from my being black. Rather, it is rooted fundamentally in my Quaker upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my grandparents who reared me. Those values are based on the concept of a single human family and the belief that all members of that family are equal.”
Bayard Rustin lived the life he did because he was Quaker. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), though including people of many faiths and of none, does what it does because it is Quaker. Our work embodies principles that arise from Quaker faith. When we enter a community, we listen first before we take action. We meet people where they are, and we are led by the people with whom we work because we see that of God in each of them. We understand that personal circumstances arise within larger systems, so we work on multiple levels. We seek heart change, community change, policy change, and system change, knowing that peace and justice depend on harmony at all levels. Our experience has confirmed the power of love to transform lives—not just the lives of those with whom we work, but our own.
In every community, we encounter people like Bayard Rustin, letting their lives speak and inspiring others to take great risks in the belief that together, we can create just and lasting peace. This issue of Quaker Action includes many stories of people who act from the same principles that animate Quaker faith. The Buddhists call such spiritual fellow-travelers “kalyanamitta” or “spiritual friends.” These Quaker kalyanamitta heal wounded communities and create peace by living in a way that prefigures a peaceful world. I hope that these stories will inspire you, just as your lives and your support inspire us.
Shan Cretin, General Secretary