Notes On the PYM Called Meeting For Business

For further background and context, readers are encouraged to read the articles in the 10/2014
issue of Friends Journal written by Friends Sharon Smith and Avis Wanda McClinton, describing
their experiences with racism within the Society of Friends.
Witness to Quaker Racism: a Cautionary Tale
My Experience as an African American Quaker
Notes on the PYM Called Meeting on Racism
And Subsequent Worship at Upper Dublin MM with Avis Wanda Mc Clinton
Sharon Smith
Part One of Two
I flew in on Friday afternoon, to stay with Avis Wanda Mc Clinton and her delightful puppy, aptly named Sweet
Justice. We spent the afternoon and evening getting acquainted. Avis lives in the house she grew up in. It is a
sturdy three bedroom, two bathroom house her parents “built with their hands.” We talked about Quakerism and
Quaker racism, among other things. We watched videos of the commemoration ceremonies Avis organized to
honor the African ancestors buried at Upper Dublin. (They cannot be released for public viewing, due to a copy
write dispute between Upper Dublin and Avis.) Then I went to bed early because it had been a very long day.
Friends, from Abington Quarter came for us on Saturday morning. There was lively conversation about Quaker
racism as Friend Dianne Collinelli drove me, Avis Wanda, Rosemary Bothwell and Lynn Watson to the Arch Street
Meetinghouse. It was good to see the support those three ladies give Avis and her ministry, though not being
members of Upper Dublin, they cannot always be there. By the time we got to Arch Street, found a parking space
and got inside, we had become old Friends and comrades in the struggle to undo racism among Friends.
Inside, there was such business as I haven’t seen in a long while—over 400 Friends and visitors, they said. The old
Arch Street Meetinghouse was certainly full. As one would expect, most of the assembled Friends were white, yet
there were more Friends of color in one place than I had ever seen. It felt good to greet many Friends from
previous years of anti-racism work among Friends, and/or from Pendle Hill, whom I hadn’t seen in years, such as
Vanessa Julye, Niyonu Spann, John Mayer and others. It was a joy to finally meet a few good Friends and allies I’ve
made on Facebook, face-to-face, such as Lucy Duncan, Viv Hawkins and Christine Greenland. Then, meeting fellow
Quaker authors of color, such as Gabrielle James with her son Kenyatta, and Sam Lemon were an added treat. I
met Martin Kelly of Friends Journal too.
Worship was scheduled to begin at 1pm, so I handed one of the greeters my travel letter from Asheville Friends,
and found a seat with Avis, Margaret Wood, and the rest of our travel companions. I tried to settle into worship,
but it was difficult because there was still a steady stream of Friends entering the worship space and finding seats
as Jada Jackson stood to welcome everyone and begin the day’s business. [Jada’s remarks can be found on the
PYM website so I will not repeat them here.]
The opening session concluded with the body being led in an exercise, in which we were all asked to list our
personal privileges. The second part of the exercise asked us to answer the query, “How am I going to use my white
Quaker privilege to address racism?” Hmmm. The exercise was led by an elder gentleman who was unknown to an
active member of the newly formed PYM Undoing Racism group, sitting right next to me. I found it curious that
members of the PYM Undoing Racism group, any one of whom could have led such an exercise, were not asked to
do so. I also could not think of a more blatant way to make all Friends of color in the room invisible. I thought a
better query would have been, “How am I going to use my privilege to address racism among Friends?”
Breakout groups organized roughly by quarter were the next thing on the agenda. I had come to Philadelphia to
support Avis Wanda McClinton, so I went to Abington Quarter. This room was full. All but three of us were white
Friends. Vanessa eventually came to sit with us, and then all but four of us were white. There were two
representatives from Upper Dublin present, sitting with Mary Ellen Mc Nish—who is not my favorite Friend. Once
the introductions were over, we were asked to reflect on two Queries. I don’t remember the exact wording of the
first Query because it confused me. It was basically something like, “What do you have to share?” It took me a
while to get clear that we were being asked what we had to share, as a result of the exercise we had done earlier-the one where we were asked how we would use our white privilege to address racism. Naturally, no Friends of
color in the room had anything to say.
The second query was something I/we could work with: “What anti-racism work are Friends doing within your
monthly or quarterly meeting? What are the obstacles?” Not surprisingly, there was someone for whom the
conversation was about the testimony of equality, oppression and isms, and not necessarily about racism. There
also seemed to be a general disconnect in Abington Quarter between the work of undoing racism in the world vs.
undoing racism among Friends. This could have been addressed by making it clear in the query, but somehow I
think it was deliberately vague. Which begs the question: How can Quakers presume to undo racism in the world if
we cannot /will not first address the racism in our own house?
Mary Ellen stood up and spoke on behalf of Upper Dublin, saying they were her good Friends. Then she essentially
said their feelings were hurt by Avis’ article, and called Avis a liar. Did I say Mary Ellen was not my favorite Friend?
I was proud of Avis. She quietly got up and said, “Every word I wrote is the truth, and there is more truth that could
have been told that I didn’t write about.” Then she invited everyone present to come worship at Upper Dublin and
see for themselves. I saw that as my opening to say, I was clear that racism denial was an issue at Upper Dublin,
and I called on Friends from Abington Quarter to address it by taking Avis up on her invitation. I’m so glad I was
there for her, because I’m not sure anyone else in the room full of conflict-averse Friends would have had the nerve
to challenge Mary Ellen Mc Nish and the co-clerks of Upper Dublin.
Then we all went back to the West Room for Worship, where after about 30 minutes of discernment, a Minute of
Action was approved. Lucy Duncan of AFSC and a few others spoke eloquently, I think, voicing the sense of the
room. Avis raised her hand to speak a number of times, and was bypassed by the clerk.
By the end of the day I was left with more questions: Why were the breakout sessions convened without
knowledgeable anti-racism facilitators/advocates present? Why weren’t members of the Undoing Racism group
called to perform this function? Why did the leadership of PYM place groups of mostly well meaning but clueless
white Friends in the position of discussing a subject they had little or no experience of, with so little preparation or
support? Now that a Minute of Action has been approved, in spite of a questionable process, what actions will it
lead to?
Avis went home to look after her puppy, Sweet Justice, who had never been alone so long, and I went to dinner
with members of the PYM Undoing Racism group. It was a large group and I just happened to sit within
conversation distance of Gita Larson, Lucy Duncan and Viv Hawkins. It was great. I don’t often have an opportunity
to be in the company of other like minded Friends--Friends who can discuss racism among Friends knowledgably,
intelligently, who can hear what I am saying without feeling threatened and are capable of understanding my
analysis. What a treat.
Gita and I were staying with Avis, so we got her a plate and returned to Upper Dublin Township. The three of us
spent the rest of the evening processing the day’s events. Avis ate Pad Thai for the first time. Then we went early
to bed so that we’d be well rested for worship in the morning.
End of Part One
My Visit to Upper Dublin Friends Meeting with Avis Wanda Mc Clinton
Sharon Smith
Part Two of Two
Gita, Avis and I went out for a big breakfast before worship, since Avis had missed out on dinner the night before.
We went to the local diner, where Avis seemed to know everyone and ate like pigs. Then we went to Upper Dublin.
David Bartholomew, their elder, came in scowling when he saw me and Avis sitting together on facing bench. I just
smiled at him as he passed in front of us. Now that I was sitting in the space Avis described to me, I could see why
she always sits on facing bench. The meetinghouse is old, cold and poorly insulated, and the heating vents are
right under it. Margaret sat on the other side of Avis and David, the elder, took a seat at the far end, next to
Margaret. Gita also sat on facing bench, but next to me. It was a very cold day, with snow on the ground as we
began to settle into worship. A number of people arrived a late, and as there is no foyer at Upper Dublin, they
brought the cold in with them. Jada came in 15 minutes late, and sat opposite us, close to the middle of the room.
Someone told me afterwards that Jada is consistently late when she attends worship at Upper Dublin.
Finally, all was quiet, and I was able to center into deep worship. As I sat in silence, I felt an unmistakable presence
of the African ancestors there. The longer I sat with it, the more powerful that feeling was. Before worship, I had
taken out my medicine bag,* and put it on. I almost never go anywhere without it, and I wear it when I want to be
conscious of my own ancestral presence. So here I was sitting in Upper Dublin Friends Meeting at worship, feeling
the powerful presence of the Africans in the burial ground mingled with my own Black-Indian ancestors. Hmmm. I
felt right at home, comfortable with the energies there, like I was in my own ancestral homeplace—which is no
wonder, since I am Iroquois, among other things, and here we were, in Iroquois territory. It also felt like both
groups of ancestors had recognized each another, and embraced one another as kin. Hmmm.
I did my Quaker thing. I sat in silence and I listened. Then a clear message began to form and I waited for it to
become persistent before I stood. The first thing the ancestors wanted me to convey to Upper Dublin Friends, was
that they and their meetinghouse are on stolen land. That specific message was repeated to me until I said it.
They also wanted Upper Dublin to know that the Africans buried there, are under the care and protection of the
Indigenous ancestral spirits of the place, and because if this, they have more right to rest in this place than any
European Quaker. (The word they used was “invader” but I don’t think I actually said that.) They also said that if
the African graves are not treated with the proper respect, very bad things will happen. Then the last line was
repeated for emphasis. I saw images, of what those bad things might look like, but I’ll not share them. It was also
made clear to me then, that I was expected to properly sanctify the African’s burial ground, according to Iroquois
tradition, as this had never been done for them. I don’t know how Friends in Upper Dublin took in what I said to
them, yet so far, no one has dared to question it—at least not to me.
At the rise of meeting, David Bartholomew shook my hand and said, “Thank you for coming, Jada.” (I guess we all
look alike to him.) And, he totally bypassed Avis, who was sitting right next to me. After we visitors were
introduced, Greg, the co-clerk, spoke about the Minute of Action PYM had agreed to yesterday. Then he said it was
important to him to focus on racism in his local community. To which Avis responded, “Yes, then maybe we can talk
about getting me a key.” [It was stated in a previous post, that Upper Dublin changed the locks on the
meetinghouse doors and did not give Avis a key, even though all members had their own keys before.] Greg turned
to Avis and said, in an extremely condescending voice, “Avis, we are not talking about this now. This is not the
appropriate time or place for that discussion.” Ouch! Greg obviously had not made a connection between
addressing racism in his local community and addressing racism in his meeting for worship. I’m sure he isn’t the
only one confused about this, since, as I have said before, it was not made abundantly clear the day before. Thank
goodness Gita spoke up then, because I don’t believe anything I said would have made the same impact. She
quietly but firmly said, she was hurt by what she had just seen: David, an elder, rudely dissing Avis, and Greg, the
clerk, just as rudely dismissing her concern as inappropriate. Greg apologized to Avis, on the spot. Something I
don’t think he would ever have thought to do without being called out by another white Friend. Bless you Gita!
Now, the Ancestors had given me a job to do, so I made it known to Avis, Gita and Margaret, that I was going out to
the graveyard to see that the proper ceremony was done. Amazingly, I saw Kathy Angel at the PYM gathering the
day before, and she had gifted me with a smudge bundle,* the very thing I needed to do it right. Avis asked me,
“Do you think they will let you?” I laughed and said, “I’m not asking them.” Just as I was heading out the door,
Margaret was in mid-sentence saying to the clerk, “Sharon is proposing…” I said, “This is not a proposal; I’m doing
it. You are welcome to join me in the African burial ground or not.” Then Avis and I went outside to get the
smudge bundle from my suitcase and find some matches or a lighter in order to get the deed done. Meanwhile, I
think Margaret was inside telling people they were invited to join us outside. By the time we got the smudge
bundle well lit, in the cold breeze, Friends began to assemble. I think everyone but David the elder, came outside. I
imagine most were there out of curiosity.
I asked Avis what the boundaries of the African burial ground were and once I had her estimate, I began my simple
ceremony. I sanctified their burial place by smudging with sage and praying. Beginning in the east, I went around
clockwise, calling on the four directions, asking each of them to bear witness and to stand guard over the resting
place of our beloved ancestors. I called upon the Great Mystery, to acknowledge them and to bring them peace.
Then, I spoke to the ancestors buried at Upper Dublin. I thanked them for their lives of courage, and the legacy of
bravery they have left us. I told them they and their journey were not forgotten because their memory lives on in
us. Lastly, I thanked all the entities, powers and energies I had raised, for their attention and for responding to my
call. Then I lifted both arms in gratitude and released them. [Please, DO NOT try this in your own!]
Then Jada said, “Wait a minute? Aren’t we going to smudge the people? I want to be smudged.” Since I had
completed my responsibility to the ancestors, I said, “If you want to be smudged, come to me and I will do it for
you.” As she came forward, others also asked, and I said, “Well, Jada spoke up first, so y’all need to get in line
behind Jada.” Soon a fairly long line was formed. I didn’t count, but I smudged a bunch of people that day,
including Greg, the clerk.
After that, Avis, Margaret and Gita and I said our goodbyes and left to go to lunch.
As we were walking toward the door, Jada asked me what I thought of the PYM called meeting. I said I liked her
idea to put the onus of making the choice to do the work of addressing racism among Friends on the body, instead
of allowing people to expect the leadership and/or the Undoing Racism group to do it for them. However, I was
curious to know why the Undoing Racism group had been excluded from taking a leadership role in the planning
and was not called upon to facilitate the break-out groups, roughly organized by Quarter. Jada said, that the
decision not to allow “skilled facilitation,” (her term) in the break-out groups, was part of the strategy to keep the
responsibility for “doing the work” on the body, and that “skilled facilitation” would only have been a crutch. (I
don’t remember her exact words here, but the sentiment is accurate.) I didn’t have time to discuss this further with
Jada, because it was time for us to leave and I had a plane to catch. However, I do have concerns about this
strategy that should be discussed.
I do not think it is a good idea to leave any group of supposedly well-meaning conflict-averse, mostly clueless
Friends alone to discuss a contentious issue without supervision and/or guidance, because, the power dynamic is
already skewed. Most white people don’t recognize racism while they are steeped in it; most don’t know when
they are abusing their privilege. The assigned queries were not clear enough for Friends to understand that they
were indeed supposed to be discussing white privilege and racism among Friends. I heard that some groups got
bogged down discussing classism or other forms of oppression instead of racism, while others just sat there looking
at each other. I cannot say for certain if this is true because I was sitting with Avis in Abington Quarter—which you
already read about. I want to know, who was looking out for the interests and the safety of Friends of color in
those break-out groups? Maybe my point will be better understood if I frame it this way: Why would you leave a
family with a history of domestic violence alone in an unsupervised room, and expect them to work out their issues
without guidance? Why would you put a group of convicted sex offenders together in an unsupervised situation
and expect them to contemplate whether or not they have a problem, and come up with a plan for what they are
going to do about it? Think about it. Really think about it.
Anyway, while I was smudging Jada, I asked her about her Native ancestry and she told me she was Cherokee. The
Cherokee are Iroquoian people, as are my Mohawk folks--which makes us tribal cousins, somewhere down the line,
in the way all Iroquois people are related. So if you see me and Jada butting heads, and being disagreeable with
one another, don’t stress. It’s just a family thing. Right, Jada?
*If you want to know what a medicine bag or a smudge bundle is, please ask me, and I will explain it to you.
End of Part Two