David Etheridge is a member of FGC's Institutional Assessment Implementation Committee and wrote this piece for the September 2020 Vital Friends eNewsletter, which was originally planned to have a theme about Quaker meeting houses. Though many Quaker communities are worshipping online, through socially-distanced outdoor gatherings, or through a combination of the two at the time this piece was written, the ideas David describes below are worth reflecting on now and in the months to come as Friends consider how Quaker meeting houses and worship spaces can become more welcoming and inclusive of everyone who comes into them.
At least three characteristics of our meeting houses and worship spaces can influence our efforts to be an anti-racist faith community— location, interior design, and interior décor.
Owing to our long history of residential segregation, the location of our meeting houses can affect how easy it is to attend Meeting for Worship. Many Friends have chosen locations in segregated, mostly white neighborhoods because those locations are more convenient to their mostly white membership. Residential segregation means such locations are often much less accessible to people living in segregated mostly non-white neighborhoods.
In some instances, Quaker communities that are choosing a new location have prepared maps showing the location of homes of current members and attenders to inform their search. Friends need to prioritize finding locations that are accessible by their entire community—not just the white part of that community.
When meeting houses are already located in segregated, mostly white neighborhoods, Friends should not give up on addressing the racial barrier that their location creates. On their website or Quaker Finder listing, Quaker meetings and churches can ask visitors to communicate their interest and any challenges they face in attending worship in-person (or virtually). Then Friends can work on solutions to help make the trip easier for them. There are often regular attenders who have long commutes to their meeting house or worship space that take them through segregated, mostly nonwhite neighborhoods. Those attenders can could coordinate car rides for interested visitors from those neighborhoods. Your meeting or church can also create and advertise a shuttle service from public transit pickup points.
Even if potential visitors do not accept your offer to carpool or take advantage of the shuttle service, advertising these options communicates that your monthly meeting or church is not only welcoming in theory, but is willing literally to go the extra mile to make the welcome real. Making that effort publicly can also encourage those already active in the life of your Quaker community to be more welcoming and committed to lowering existing racial barriers.
A Black visitor once suggested to me that our Meeting should adopt the practice of many mostly Black congregations of greeting visitors at the beginning of the worship rather than at the end as is the custom in most Quaker congregations. She said she found herself uneasy sitting among a group of silent and solemn Quakers for an hour. Asking visitors to introduce themselves at the beginning could help both visitors and other members of the congregation appreciate each other’s humanity as they enter worship.
I have explored that idea with other Friends, who raised objections. Some thought introductions at the beginning would interfere with the frame of mind they need to begin worship. Others raised practical concerns that Friends enter worship over several minutes and would miss introductions that were at the beginning.
Some meeting houses, however, are designed so that there is a reception area where regular attenders and visitors can meet and get to know one another before the start of Meeting for Worship. Those for whom human interaction immediately prior to worship undermines their worship experience can go directly into the worship space. To work best, there needs to be some distance or sound barrier between the reception area and the worship space.
Friends Meetings working to become anti-racist faith communities need to examine what the images on the walls of their meeting house or worship space might communicate to visitors who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. Most European artists have depicted Jesus and other religious figures as ethnically like themselves and their neighbors rather than base their art on what is known about the ethnicity of the historical figures they depict. Compare this European painting of the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary with this more recent painting.
Classic Quaker paintings tend to communicate their messages through a distinctly white lens. Edward Hicks’ “peaceable kingdom” paintings, for example, portray in the foreground carnivorous animals coexisting with white children while portraying at a distance Native Americans in conversation with a group of white Quakers. African American artist Horace Pippin from West Chester, PA. has painted in a similar style a depiction of the same Bible passage that is not through a white lens.
The Quaker classic “The Presence in the Midst” depicts both Quakers and Jesus as white. In the painting “None Shall Make Them Afraid,” armed and potentially dangerous Native Americans are contrasted with the peaceful white Quakers. It can be helpful to consider both artwork and photographs displayed in the Meetinghouse for what they may be communicating to visitors as well as regular members and attenders about who belongs in the community.
- What other elements of our meeting house or worship space can support our efforts to become actively anti-racist? (Hint - look at your meeting's library!)
- How do we achieve right relationship with the Indigenous groups whose land our meeting house or worship space is on?