Many of you had already heard one version or another of the story about not having a personal automobile that I wrote about again yesterday. Many Friends have also heard the story of how I became connected to the Kheprw Institute, too. For those who haven’t, the reason I share this again is to illustrate one way a white person began to learn about racial injustice. This experience was another example of being guided by the Inner Light at several junctures along the way.
But first about the term white. I love the term: people who “believe that they are white” that I read in Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. As the commercials for genetic DNA kits so wonderfully show, we are all a mixture of ethnicities. White doesn’t make sense except, I guess, to those with light skin who feel that is important.
Many of us struggle with how to address racism in our lives and communities. Some have found ways to do so. I’ve heard workshops on the subject can be helpful, though I haven’t attended one myself.
Believing there is God in everyone means every person is precious as a child of God. It is not right to treat some people better than others.
I struggle for ways to address racism in my own life. I had become increasingly distressed by the privileges I have in our society based solely on the color of my skin, and denied others based on theirs. The lack of diversity in the Midwest can make these issues often seem removed from our daily lives, and can make it more of a challenge to address them. Friends are often bewildered when they are challenged about their privilege. Our culture has hundreds of years of history of building these privileges into our societies, and teaching this is how things should be. This is what structural racism is. It is a long and often difficult process to unlearn racism.
The path the Inner Light led me down related to racism started about four years ago. I was deeply involved in the environmental activist movement, mainly through the Keystone Pledge of Resistance. At that time various environmental groups would organize national days of education or action to try to raise awareness about our environmental crisis. These things were organized via the Internet. When I learned of an upcoming day of events, I looked to see where something in Indianapolis was occurring. The only event was at a place I’d never heard of, the Kheprw Institute (KI). I was led to attend that event. As often seems to happen, when the day of the event arrived, I had second thoughts about going to the trouble of bicycling several miles to something I wasn’t sure would be useful. But I was getting a nudge from within, so I went.
I arrived at an old building that had previously been a convenience store in an inner city neighborhood in Indianapolis. But it was full of young, black kids enthusiastically showing us their aquaponics system and rain barrel making enterprise as ways they were working for the environment.
I was intrigued, and wanted to learn more. At the time, their meeting place was only open occasionally. KI did have a web page, but the only contact information was an email address. On the web page I saw one of their projects was “Open Source Activism”, to develop computer applications to support activism. Being a computer programmer, I thought this would be a way for me to connect with KI.
I sent an email message indicating that I would like to be involved with that, but did not receive a reply. I was thinking this was not meant to be, but this was one of those times when the Inner Light was not going to let me give up, so after a couple of weeks, I sent another email message. After some time, I received an offer to meet at that old convenience store. I arrived on my bicycle on a dark, rainy evening, to find the same group of about a dozen kids in their early to late teens, and KI’s leaders, Imhotep, Pambana, Miss Fair, and Alvin.
After some greetings, we all sat down, and I thought we would talk about programming languages and projects. Instead everyone looked at me, and Imhotep said, “Tell us about yourself.” I talked a little about being concerned about the environment and working with the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, and my work at Riley Children’s Hospital. “Tell us some more.” So I mentioned I was a Quaker, and Miss Fair enthusiastically talked about Quakers and the Underground Railroad. When she stopped, everyone looked at me. I said something along the lines of how grateful I was that my ancestors had done that work, but Quakers try to not take credit for things they personally hadn’t done.
Which led me to talk more about how Quakers didn’t see religion as something only involving listening to a sermon once a week, and left me at the point where I needed to provide an example from my own life. Since KI is built on concern for the environment, I spoke of how I had reluctantly purchased a used car for $50 when I moved to Indianapolis, mainly for trips home to Iowa. Car rental was not common in the early 1970’s. When my car was totaled several years after that, I decided to see if I could live in the city without a car, and have since then. I was hoping that would show how Quakers try to translate what they believe, what they feel God is telling them, into how they actually live their lives. At that point Imhotep, with a smile on his face, said something like “Thirty years? You are a warrior.” I had never been called a warrior before. It seemed a humorous term to use for a pacifist (and I suspect that was his intention now that I know him) but I liked it.
I have since learned that Imhotep is very good at drawing stories out of people. So again he said, “OK, tell us some more.” I finally realized, and should have anticipated, that this was actually an interview to see if I was going to fit in, and the usual surface information wasn’t going to be adequate. I remember everyone looking expectantly at me, and I wondered what to say next. I also clearly remember the Inner Light telling me what I needed to do then. I said “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone” and I turned to each person near me and said “that includes you, and you…” The first time, I think I hesitated slightly as I was asking myself, “Ok, we Friends always say this, but do you really believe this of a group that is different from you?” And I’m really glad the answer was an immediate and emphatic YES, but it also seemed to reaffirm that by exploring it intentionally. At that point I remember smiling at the thought, and the young person whose eyes I was looking into saw it, too, I think. Each person smiled at me as I said that to them, and I had the impression they were thinking, “of course”. I strongly felt the presence of the Spirit among us.
That finally seemed to satisfy the questioning. This was a real revelation to me, how it is important to express spiritual matters as well as you are able when the situation calls for it. (It is also important NOT to do so when the situation does not call for it.) And to be alert for those possibilities, and how the Inner Light guided me through that evening. That set the tone for my involvement with KI since that night, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Because the relationships and experiences at KI over these past several years are how I began to understand racism, and how I can respond. The crucial, essential first step for a white person is to find some way, anyway, to develop friendships with people of color. Not (just) attend meetings and vigils, but become friends. We are all children of God, and I have been so blessed to be connected with these children.
I would often relive that initial meeting. As wonderful as it was, and as significant as it was in changing the direction of my life, there was something troubling me about it. I finally faced the problem, which was why did I even hesitate to ask myself about the phrase “that of God in everyone”? Much as I didn’t want to admit it, I felt that showed there was something of racism in me. It is good to be humbled, and I have paid more attention to this since. And the deep friendships I was blessed to develop with many in the KI community erased any hesitation I now have about there being that of God in everyone.
I also thought about how different things would have gone if Imhotep had not persisted in getting me to reveal so much about myself, including about my faith.
Although much attention was paid to desegregation of our schools in the 1960s, so many people today live segregated lives.
What I hope you take from this story is to seek out opportunities to increase the diversity of people in your life. To recognize opportunities, like a meeting advertised on the Internet or in the news about an event related to an interest of yours, that is with a new group of people. I think it is helpful if you think of what you might have to offer. I also think it is important to be prepared to share about your faith if an appropriate opportunity arises.
One of the most important things I learned is how important it is to both listen very carefully, so you learn about the new community and people, and avoid offering suggestions or any type of leadership. Instead, wait to be asked. We don’t know what it is we don’t know, until others teach us. Respecting the community helps remove barriers, and open space for trust to develop. Then you will be asked for what the community needs from you.
As an example of that, after nearly a year of attending book discussions and other events at KI, I was delighted to be asked to teach about photography during the summer camp. A good way to close might be to share some of those photos.