May 16, 2013

Social justice and getting off the Quaker porch

A week ago my spouse Jeanne and I boarded a bus with about 20 Jews and headed into Cedar Rapids, Iowa to stand in solidarity with the immigrant workers whose lives were disrupted in May 2008 when the kosher meat-packing plant, Agriprocessors, was raided in Postville.

It was a 4-1/2 hour bus ride each way, with a 30-minute march and a 90-minute worship service before turning around and heading back home.  On the way down, we watched on the bus' video system the documentary abUSed: The Postville Raid.  Toward the end of the video there were a few minutes of footage that included information of how one Jewish organization from Minnesota got involved and navigated the important work of standing with the immigrant families while also laboring with the rabbis behind Agriprocessors' illegal hiring of immigrants and children.

During the nine hours of travel, there were conversations about additional Jewish involvement with the people and workers of Postville since the raid; the history of Quakerism (with those who were sitting near Jeanne and me); learning about White privilege; talking about oppression based on social class; and sharing stories of our own ancestry, of how our families and European ancestors made their way to the United States and under what conditions.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Since May 2011, my interaction with people of faith beyond my Quaker community has grown rapidly, mostly due to the work to prevent amending the state's constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman. I've experienced much joy in the new connections. Seeing humble and active religious people engaged in meaningful, hands-on social justice work makes me realize how much more we as progressive Quakers could be doing.

As Friends, we often tell ourselves--and one another--that we must wait to be led by the Spirit before acting.  But what I'm continuing to awaken to is that the intention to wait for such a leading has a harmful impact on entire communities that are suffering at the hands of oppressive bureaucratic systems--systems that are founded on unexamined privileged based on skin color, social class status, sexual orientation, etc.

More than once I have been reminded by White people engaged in social justice work, by people of color, by working-class people, that it is part of the privilege that White, well-educated, well-off people have, to take time--lots of time--to sit and think, talk about, thresh, plan, discuss, and minute what we believe and what we might do.

We call all of that activity part of our work to witness to equality and justice; I worry that our brothers and sisters of color would call it empty, less than helpful, and an example of a system that favors people like ourselves who have the luxury of time rather than working in solidarity with the communities who have a day-to-day urgency for action.  For all the time that we take to "wait to be led," African Americans are being stopped and frisked without justification, Muslims are being unfairly profiled for terrorism, and young students who are perceived to be gay are being bullied to the point of suicide, with few adults intervening on their behalf.

So it is that recently, I have begun questioning certain elements of our Quaker faith.  Some of our best-known stories are lifted up to demonstrate the importance of waiting to be led. It certainly appears that way when we learn about John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Bayard Rustin. But these days, can we know if they were compelled by the Spirit all at once to take a stand against an oppressive system? or were they simply living their lives, taking up the Cross, and acting out of conscience and the promptings of the Inward Teacher on a day-to-day basis?

Perhaps the Way was simply open to them, similar to how it has been for me, to speak up, raise questions, and get involved.  The Way was open and they simply stepped onto the Path and tested each step as they went.

I tell you, Friends, my life has been Opened because of the new connections I have made, because of the stories I have heard from people whose lives are so very different from most of our own.  I no longer view my upbringing as I once did; I no longer view Quakerism as I once did.

I hope to write a companion post to this one, going into details about how our own practices as Friends might be perpetuating oppression and unknowingly reinforcing White privilege.