A message given June 4th, 2017 to the Continuing Revolution Young Adult Friends Conference
by Tai Amri Spann-Wilson
The pain of life may teach us to understand life and, in our understanding of life, to love life. To love life truly is to be whole in all one’s parts; and to be whole in all one’s parts is to be free and unafraid.
- “Pain Has a Ministry” Dr. Howard Thurman
It is good to be back in Pendle Hill. Pendle Hill is a special place. A place where people of peace can gather and be rejuvenated. A place where there is only one rule, don’t touch someone else’s fresh bread.
I write these words to you in the library, where I concluded my discernment and made the decision to attend seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Many of us young interns that year followed a call towards full time commitment to serve in spirit and justice. This path has been a blessing and a burden, filled with joy and pain. I’d like to share some of that with you this morning.
I have so many memories in this place. I can’t walk into Brinton House without thinking of the day I met Joanna Macy, the engaged Buddhist and spiritual activist who taught us to fully experience all the pain of the ending of the world through climate chaos, so that maybe, at most, it might spur us on to save our beautiful mother, the earth, but at least it would help us to fully love and care for her in her last days. Even though she was 50 years my senior, I still thought I’d never wash my face after she kissed my cheek. Throughout the campus, I can still hear the voice of Rev. Dorsey Blake, the successor of Dr. Howard Thurman, who founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first interfaith church in the U.S. out in San Francisco. I think of how his strong and quiet faith called me out to California, where I got to sit at the feet of a man who, when he prays, feels like he is speaking directly to each and everyone’s Inner Teacher. I see, sitting off into the corner, the spirit of Aljosie Aldrich Harding, wife of the late Dr. Vincent Harding. She is sharing the teachings that her and Dr. Harding learned in their struggles to make the goals of nonviolence real in the Civil Rights movement, their rootedness in their faith, and their answering the call to serve wherever asked. I saw her last at the YAFCON of 2014 here at Pendle Hill, but I met her first with her husband in Detroit, while I was studying at the feet of the great grandmother of the modern activist movement, the first generation Chinese American, Grace Lee Boggs. It was there that Dr. Harding fortified my resolve to always remember to bring song into the justice movement, and reminded us to never forget where we come from, as he asked all of us when first meeting us, “Where was grandmother born?” The spirituality with which he walked is forever interwoven with the intense clarity of Grace Lee Boggs. I cannot think of Aljosie or Dr. Harding, without thinking of Grace, who would often say to us, “the Chinese character for crisis is made up of the characters for danger and opportunity.” Those words are what I am reminded of in the crisis of today.
I wanted my partner Shannon, and my daughter Alanna Naledi, to experience these spirits that I describe. Before Alanna was born, I told Shannon that I believed with her strength of body and my strength of heart, we could co-create a Lauren. Lauren is a character created by Black, queer, science fiction writer, Octavia Butler, in her post apocalyptic book series, The Parable of the Sower. Lauren is a survivor with the perfect mixture of empathy and fortitude. She inspires those around her to constantly embrace change, for as she says, G-d is change. My mother had once told me that I remind her of Lauren, but there have been few times in my life when I’ve felt all that inspiring. In fact, when I speak the words of the crisis, it is mainly to this point that I am speaking.
I’d like to say that my crisis was simply an external threat. Trump is president, the Klan rides again, congress is legislating genocide. If only there were something out there that we could destroy and be done with it. The truth is, at the moments when I begin to most fully embrace myself as an activist, I find myself engulfed not just by burning passion, but a burning of another kind. Let me stop being vague.
You see, there is a dis-ease here in America, that is in other places too, and I’ve got it, bad. I’ve always tried to believe that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, but that belief gets harder daily. If that belief were only challenged by those who seem to be working against the very things that I am working towards, you know, those Quaker SPICES, peace, equality and the such, it might be understandable. But no, those beliefs have been challenged by the very people I call my sisters, my brothers, those I call my comrades, by the face I look at in the mirror. The world seems now to be becoming more divided than ever before. The macro looks like England vs. The European Union, the U.S. vs. the non-fascist countries, white nationalists vs. everyone else. This ugly, but the micro looks worse. The micro looks like our elders vs. our youth, those who say, let’s use strategy vs. those who say, get out the way then, me vs. a wildfire.
I helped start the Black Lives Matter movement in Lawrence, Kansas. I never wanted to control it, all I wanted was to be a part of the (r)evolution that was coming. Little did I know the scars I’d be left with. I should have known first when the name that people wanted to go with was, Black Lives Matter-LFK, the LFK standing for Lawrence Fucking Kansas. At the time, I was a preschool teacher, so I thought to myself, uh oh, guess I can’t wear that shirt to school or even around town, less my message be completely negated by the questions around what LFK stands for. But I decided to roll with it. I spoke at the rallies, I attended the meetings, and the hours long Facebook chats, then WhatsApp chats, then signal chats, then, when all the chatting and ranting reached a fever pitch, I found all my words being stuffed down my throat, and I found that I literally could no longer swallow. I literally could no longer digest my food. It went on for weeks. I’d eat two bites of a bagel and find myself hiccupping, for seven hours. Hiccupping until a puked. I lost 30 pounds in two weeks. I said to myself, what’s wrong with me, I said to my doctor, what’s wrong with me, I said to my family, what’s wrong with me. Then I remembered something that my Quaker ancestors said to me. When the world says don’t just sit there do something, we say, don’t just do something, sit there. So, I sat there. I told them group I couldn’t keep it up, the vitriol, the constant action without forethought. And the group said to me, you’re an Uncle Tom then. And there it was. All my hate anger thrown back at me. And I just sat, and tried to heal.
I’d like to stand before you and give you hope, but the truth is, this has been one of the most hopeless years I’ve ever experienced. I’d like to say I’m still an activist, but I can’t, not like I used to say that I’m an activist. Can’t do activism like that anymore. And then I remembered something that I’d heard from Dr. Howard Thurman. G-d is with us in our pain, if we’re paying attention that is. And I think about the word, the name, the being G-d. G-d is not a term I heard used very much growing up Quaker. The Light I heard a lot. In pain is truthfully where the Light feels hardest for me to see. And then I thought of one more term that has been with me in lieu of G-d, my ancestors. My ancestors are with me in my pain, our ancestors are with us in our pain. Now that seemed to make a lot of sense to me. When I think of the quintessential Quaker activist ancestor, I think of Bayard Rustin. And oh, the pain he saw in his activist work. To mentor and cradle the young activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into nonviolent tactics, only to see Dr. King abandon him when leaders in the civil rights movement said Rustin’s gayness was a liability, oh the pain. How did he survive that pain? He didn’t shove it down with a glass of water, he sat with it, he looked deeply at it, until he transmutated it into wisdom.
The life of the activist will undoubtedly have pain in it. Sometimes the pain is a small defeat, but sometimes the pain is a complete crisis. That crisis can either be a danger that starves our bodies and souls, or it can be the opportunity into evolution. We must remember to pray to our inner most spirits, and we must remember to sing. But most importantly, we must allow our hearts to break. In trying to hold it together, we never allow anyone else to come touch our pain, and we don’t feel the touch of another, we never feel that they have scars too. Continuing Revolution this year will have a whole new set of memories that I will add to my Pendle Hill collections, some of them are your scars, it will also be the knowledge that it is the pain of others that calls us into action. When we allow that pain to be, we see it for what it is, that which connects us to one another, that which calls G-d, the Light, and our ancestors to us. Ashe and amen.