Vincent Harding on creating the Quaker community that does not yet exist

Note: Here is a brief exchange between Vincent Harding, an author of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech Beyond Vietnam and Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at Illiff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. and Paul Ricketts, a Quaker from Indiana, that occurred during Harding’s book talk on “Hope and History: Why we must Share the Story of the Movement” at the Friends General Conference Gathering, an annual conference focused on the spiritual life for Quakers, which was in Greeley, Colo. this year.

Paul asked a question about how to create a truly multicultural, inclusive community among Quakers. I thought Harding’s response was direct, incisive, inspiring and important to share. Madeline Schaefer and I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Vincent, and next week I will be posting that full interview here at Acting in Faith. - Lucy

Paul Ricketts: My grandmother was Matty Baldwin, Wheeling, W.Va., her family were enslaved from Virginia. I was thinking about the word “creativity.” My attraction to Quakerism is the mystical tradition, that God lives and speaks in the hearts of all people. Those of us concerned with racial justice, we want to build the beloved community so we can see the full revelation of God. I’ve been coming to the FGC Gathering for a long time. There has been some change, but it is still 95-98 percent white. That hasn't shifted. How do we think about creativity and the beloved community? I want to come to the FGC Gathering and not have it be 98% white. 

Vincent Harding: Gatherings have as one of their purposes the opening of space for that conversation to take place, as an act of love and desperation. I have been personally moved over the years by a statement of a poet who was being interviewed on the radio back in the 1960s. As many of you know that was a period of great ferment in this country, but also in many other parts of the world including Africa. This man was from West Africa. What he said I always keep within my heart: "I'm a citizen of a country that does not yet exist."

I take that as a challenge and I share it with my friends struggling with immigration. I tell them, “Don't fight yourself into a country that does exist, but struggle into a country that does not yet exist.” America is waiting to be born. 

Can you imagine that those called founders of our country, those slaveholders and slave owners, were really talking about building a democracy? But we do imagine that’s what they intended. And every generation has to carry on the work that those so called founders couldn't do. 

You know something about building a Quaker community, you can see it. The vision that you have is not meant to be kept to yourself, it's meant to be expressed, to trouble some people, to push some people, to embrace some people, but for you to keep saying, “I see a Quaker community that does not yet exist and I am absolutely committed to its coming into being.” 

The easiest way is to say, because it doesn't exist, “I am getting out of here.” People will come around and rub your head and say, “What's wrong?”

What you are doing is opening the breath of God and offering to others to see the Quaker community that does not yet exist. What is considered in one generation becomes possible because of the seers.

We need you to keep seeing, brother, and stay as sane as you can. Find as many accompanying insane Quaker folks to walk with you on this one, find all kinds of allies. Once you keep holding on to your vision, it will rise up out of the darkness and we will begin to know what that word Light that we use so much really means. We need you.