Cloudy Skies for Friends General Conference — Part 1
Early in July, I was at the 2016 Gathering of Friends General Conference in Minnesota. And not long afterward, a Quaker I’ll call “Goodfriend” sent me an email, passing on a message from another, Friend, called here “Onequake.”
Chuck—I thought you might be interested in this email. It’s from a member of our Meeting . . . .Do you know anything about racial tensions at FGC?
Begin forwarded message:
Subject: FGC and race
Date: July 11, 2016
This morning we attended [a Meeting far from home]. We heard that there were racial incidents at [the] FGC [Gathering in Minnesota early in July]. And that the area of MN chosen for the gathering is well-known for racial problems.
Also that last year there were people holding shotguns and confederate flags outside the grocery store in Cullowhee [NC – the town by Western Carolina U] during thec2015 Gathering. People of color felt very unwelcome and unsafe. And in California, PA [site of the 2014 FGC Gathering] we’re told there were incidents with security.
[At this Sunday’s meeting] a woman of color was collecting signatures on a petition asking for two things:
1. That the FGC site committee be majority people of color.
2. An internal racial audit of FGC systems.
Having never attended FGC I am at a loss about this and would like to hear from others who have attended this year or those years in Cullowhee or PA. MN surprised me, Cullowhee does not. Do others know about this? If so, why isn’t this a huge scandal among Friends? Have I missed all those discussions in every city I visit? The site committee seems to be only five people. Why wouldn’t FGC immediately appoint three people of color to that committee as a show of solidarity and good faith? Why is a petition necessary? It seems to be a no-brainer. I said to the woman who had the petition that if MN, PA and NC aren’t safe, it sounds like we have to leave the country to meet. She said there are plenty of safe places for people of color. If I meet her again, I will ask her where those places would be.
. . . I feel like I’m missing a lot of pieces from this puzzle. If anyone knows something about FGC and race, please give me your insight. Thank you.
After some mulling, I sent this response:
Dear Goodfriend & Onequake–
I was in Minnesota at FGC, and I think there are a couple concerns to be dealt with here, more than will fit in one post. And let me start by describing how my time at Gatherings has evolved over 35 years attendance:
These years I tend to “go on retreat” there, quiet in my room a lot, limiting my “public” time, and rarely attending the plenaries. Thus I miss a lot of the daily “action.”
Which means I heard little about & wasn’t at the sessions where the local grievances were raised. My understanding is that these were soon superseded by a general outcry & hand-wringing after the week’s two highly-publicized police killings of black men, Alton Sterling & Philando Castile (who BTW was shot in Minnesota).
Then the sniper attack in Dallas which killed five police only ratcheted it all up further. Of course I heard about all this & it was awful, but my responses were mainly private, except for a couple of brief Facebook posts.
I likewise didn’t join the grumbling about the FGC site committee. I don’t know who the current members are. But from years past [I was on the FGC Central Committee, to which they report, for many years, until 2005] my impression was that the site committee has a big, challenging & never-ending task.
There are 2000-plus campuses to sift by FGC’s already long, stringent & detailed list of specifications (e.g., maintaining four options in the cafeteria; which they did well in Minnesota), along with a mandate to keep the Gathering as affordable as possible.
That’s not easy, and I should think the committee would welcome input from Friends of color.
As for Cullowhee, I had planned to attend, but fell ill just before it began and didn’t make it. I had not heard of shotgun & Confederate flag waving near there, though such was certainly possible and would not surprise me.
But here’s a further note: site selection choices are of necessity made a couple of years ahead; and in the meantime, conditions can change: have we forgotten that 2015 was the summer when the Confederate flag became a flashpoint, especially in the wake of the Charleston killings? And did no one but me notice that as the flag was coming down in many places, there were also numerous PRO-Confederate flag rallies across the South? (One in central NC drew several thousand, by credible regional news reports.)
In addition, FGC gathered in Cullowhee less than a month after the Charleston massacre, following which the shooter fled — into western NC. No wonder some local racist anxieties were near the surface; but how was a site committee supposed to anticipate that shock & its aftermath?
Don’t get me wrong: a display of guns & confederate flags would make me quite nervous too. But I find it hard to dump these anxieties on the FGC site committee.
Why not? For one thing, there are way too many guns all across the U.S.; and for another, predicting where mass shootings will happen seems to be impossible.
— Gatherings were held twice at Appalachian State U in NC, and at least three times at Virginia Tech, all in the same region as Cullowhee); and as far as I know those went off pretty well. Yet just two years after FGC’s last visit to VA Tech, there was a truly monstrous mass shooting there –32 killed, many wounded — and who guessed that was coming?
(For that matter, Orlando? Did anybody foresee Orlando? One of the busiest tourist meccas in the U. S. Or quiet Sandy Hook, Connecticut? Umpqua College in Oregon? San Bernardino, California? Nice?)
Which says to me that even as far-north a place as Minnesota isn’t exempt either. I knew nothing about the area there (except it was surrounded by miles of corn, like much of the Midwest); but after hearing all this, I googled “racism in St. Cloud” –and a bunch of pretty awful reports popped right up, especially of hate crimes aimed at recently-arrived Somali war refugees. (At a nearby Wal-Mart I saw several women in Muslim hijabs, presumably Somalis, tho none were being harassed when I was there. But again, given the times, tension is easy to imagine.)
Also, I was at FGC in California PA, but was following my quiet path there, and was unaware of any incidents. But I knew that area is in the part of the state that’s regarded as very white & southern/Appalachian-oriented. I lived in another part of the same region for several years, and was shocked at how often confederate license plates flashed by on the roads, more often than I typically see them in NC.
Next year FGC will gather near Niagara Falls and Buffalo New York. How much farther “north” could it get? But I know nothing of race relations there, and who can tell how much worse general conditions could get by then?
So I’m not sure if all this helps much; but you asked. FGC is hardly perfect, but if one is making up a roster of the enemies of people of color, FGC & its site committee to my mind would be quite low on the list. And to repeat, input from Friends of color is likely a good idea.
Yet even so, will FGC continue to live & struggle in the same increasingly troubled and even dangerous conditions that all of us face in our own ways?
Yeah, I think so.
PS. There was more being complained about at the Gathering than race; I’ll get into some other concerns in the next post.