Sunday, October 19, 2014

Reflections on Friends and Diversity

This past week, I was at a gathering of Friends. One of the energized topics was "diversity." Truth be told, I cringe when I hear this topic come up. I have usually heard it talked about while sitting with an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, well-meaning group in some kind of a conference or symposium setting. Too often, the emphasis seems to be on external characteristics (skin color), while ignoring long-standing power and economic factors that make this a more complex issue. This was no different. As seems to be the pattern, there was some hand-wringing, self-effacing acknowledgment of work to be done, and recognition that it is a tough topic to talk about, let alone act on.

Then, this morning, I attended service at an Evangelical church. I went as I was in the neighborhood, and felt led there rather than Quaker Meeting as I had just spent a few days with Friends and wanted a change of pace. To be clear, there is much of the message of this church about salvation, baptism and true believers "need to do all of this" that I struggle with, let alone the fact that the most vocal, well-funded and powerful people working to deny my rights as a gay man share this ideology. But I also know some of this church community through my work and fellowship in DC, find them very welcoming and inspiring, and I have a deep respect for other parts of their message, their work, their witness and their faith.

As I sat in the church waiting for the service to start, I noticed people of many cultures - black, white, Asian, Hispanic - coming in as individuals and couples. Up front, there was a group of people communicating through sign language. People came from a real cross-section of cultures and economies. If there was one noticeable lacking of diversity, it was age. Most people were in their 20's and 30's - a stark difference from most Quaker gatherings.  The main message of the morning was about having faith transcend fear so that we go out into the world truly living our faith. "Peace" was an integral part of that message.

So I have to ask myself: "What is going on here." Quakers have a long history of being on the forefront of the rights movements from abolition to civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights. That is certainly our past, but it clearly is not our present. Just look at HIV/AIDS. There was a time that Friends were actively involved, but as the devastation moved from the ostensibly white gay male into the African-American community, Friends efforts subsided. What happened to the passion for justice for all?

We can not simply rest on the past and continue to consider ourselves "progressives." When it comes to race, we might take comfort that we are progressives because we do not have prejudice in our hearts, but our actions do not match our words. I suspect some may think we are progressives because we are not the blatant racists, and we see no one ahead of us. This is probably because true progressives are so far ahead they are getting read to lap us, but we choose to think they are still behind us.

The question is: can our faith steel us to transcend our fear, step through our walls of segregation and get out into the community? Our stances on political issues can no longer be the barometer of our "progressiveness." We need to get out there, letting our belief that there is that of God in All guide us to new places, new relationships and new friendships. Talking about diversity in closed-community meetings is not going to get it done, and it's not living our faith.

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