Becoming a Beloved Community
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
February 24, 2019
Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Last week during Waiting Worship, our Friend Mary Blackburn mentioned something that I have been considering for quite some time. The query that I have wrestled with is “How can we build the “Beloved Community” in our midst?
Now, if you are unfamiliar with the term “Beloved Community” it is part of the greater dream or vision that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught and spoke of until his death.
At the King Center in Atlanta in the plaza where Martin and Coretta are buried the wall declares this vision, it states:
“The Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness. In the Beloved Community, caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. The Beloved Community is a state of the heart and mind, a spirit of hope and goodwill that transcends all boundaries and barriers and embraces all creation. At its core, the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation. This way of living seems a long way from the kind of world we have now, but I do believe it is a goal to accomplish through courage and determination, and through education and training, if enough people are willing to make the necessary commitment.”
As Mary shared last week, for her and David experiencing the Beloved Community has come over time. It is not something automatic, it takes work, it takes being willing to get out of our boxes, to educate ourselves, and seek community together with others who may be different than us. That is not easy. We like our comforts.
It is easy to become myopic in our world, to focus on our own success, and miss those around us. Technology ever increases this polarization and unawareness of those around us – not just the African American community, but anyone outside of our boxes. Our history, both American and in the Church, shows we have neglected many different groups of people over the years from Native and African Americans, to Women, to LGBTQ, to people with AIDS, to different ethnicities, religions, ages, and even people with physical disabilities and special needs.
As I started to really ponder the query, “How can we build the Beloved Community in our midst? I started to realize this concept was not something new for Quakers. The Beloved Community has and continues to develop among us as Quakers today in many and various forms.
That may be because back in 1681, Quaker William Penn had a similar vision. One that many debated and some thought was elitist, but just maybe it was a manifestation of what we would call the Beloved Community today.
King thought of his as a “realistic vision of an achievable society” where Penn considered his an “Holy Experiment.” Now, I think you can see by what I read regarding King’s vision, and how I mentioned before that King was heavily influenced by his right-hand man, Bayard Rustin’s Quaker faith and belief in nonviolence, where King’s understanding of the Beloved Community developed. Whether or not King admitted this, I believe the Beloved Community was very much based on Quaker principles. Actually, I might even go as far as to say the Beloved Community is a concept who’s foundation is built on the Quaker S.P.I.C.E.S. of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.
Penn’s Holy Experiment, on the other hand, which I remember in my history books was presented as idealistic, is not much different than how some people treat King’s Beloved Community, today. Actually, if you study Penn’s Holy Experiment in Pennsylvania, you will find a lot of similarities to King. Penn may have been the Martin Luther King Jr. of his day.
· Penn was all about fair treatment of people, especially the Native Americans and the land that belonged to them.
· Penn was for religious freedom as well. Penn wanted everyone to worship as they chose. Pennsylvania drew a variety of people of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds together for the first time in America.
· Penn also wanted to reform the prisons of his day, just as King’s legacy has taken up this mantle in our day and age to end mass incarceration and the death penalty.
· Penn, like King, believed everyone needs to be educated – girls and boys alike. For Penn, in his day, most children were illiterate, especially girls. This was a radical step to educate everyone.
· Penn wanted work for everyone. At one point, Pennsylvania became known as “the best poor man’s country” because of the accessibility of occupations and jobs for all people. When King was assassinated he had just launched his “Poor People’s Campaign” working to eliminate poverty and hunger in our country.
In 2018 for the 50 anniversary of King’s death, Rev. William Barber picked up the mantle of the Poor People’s Campaign and relaunched it. Interestingly enough, the campaign was a national call for moral revival to unite tens of thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemics racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nations distorted morality. This sounds very familiar to what Penn had set out to do in his day as well as the continued legacy of King.
But if we are going to really get back to our roots, we have to see both Penn and King’s experiments and visions as coming out of another vision. This was a vision that the Early Quakers, especially George Fox, wanted to see recovered. Fox called this the “original Christianity.” It was a return to the Apostle’s teachings (which were directly drafted from the life and teaching of Christ) and often emphasized our text for this morning from Acts. What I believe is one of the earliest manifestations of the Beloved Community that both Penn and King would have known and referenced. Just listen again to these scriptural foundations:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
This vision of the early church would lay a foundation that we would continue to hone and wrestle with for centuries to come. We would even call it by multiple names, from the Kingdom of God, to the Peaceable Commonwealth, to the Peaceable Kingdom, to the Beloved Community.
Quaker Catherin Whitmire, one of my favorite Quaker Writers, points out that a
“central piece to the gospel is that of the Commonwealth (traditionally called Kingdom) of God. Jesus refers repeatedly to this peaceable Commonwealth as being near and even says that it lies within us. Most of us have already experienced the immediate presence and peace of God’s Commonwealth at the most human and personal level when holding a newborn child, watching a seed sprout from the earth, or looking into the calm immensity of a starry sky. In addition to our personal experiences in families, neighborhoods, and communities, we are aware of that peaceable Commonwealth when responding to a neighbor’s call for help, receiving consolation from a friend, supporting a colleague, or settling a serious disagreement through open and loving dialogue…Jesus says that while this Commonwealth is present now, it is also part of the future and still needs to be built. So the paradoxical truth of the peaceable Commonwealth of God is that it is both here now – and it is our life’s work to create it! “
So if building this peaceable Commonwealth or Beloved Community is our life’s work as Catherine has pointed out, what are some specific things we can do to build this type of community in our midst. I turn at this point to Greg Elliott, who serves as the Friends Relations Associate for American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. He has wrestled with how we are to be about creating the Beloved Community, today. He points out that…
”when we first come together, we carry with us our conditioning about race, gender, class, truth, God, peace, and so much more. This conditioning has been passed down for generations. Our conditioning is so deep within us that we are often unaware of it. If we wish to acknowledge and free ourselves from the myths, lies, and toxic beliefs that plague us, we need a community to help us do it.”
To build the Beloved Community we need to start with a smaller community to help us build it. I believe that community for us is First Friends.
Elliot also points out that to build this community we must deal with our past and current need to colonize and build empires. Something Jesus sought to bring liberation from. He says, “The historian William Appleman Williams defines empire as
“the use and abuse, and the ignoring, of other people for one’s own welfare and convenience.”
This is what the early church, William Penn, and Martin Luther King Jr. were addressing.
So how do we begin? Elliot says our work is three-fold. He says it starts with…
1. Decolonizing the self – We engage in the ongoing process of transforming the poison of our imperial, oppressive society into medicine. We learn about our country’s oppressive past and present, acknowledging our relationship to the matrix of domination, grounding our sense of self in non-colonial identities. We rediscover an Inner Light/Spirit that cannot be colonized, embracing liberation histories, realities, and theologies, and finding the courage to do the work that is ours to do.
Decolonizing the Self is exactly what I talked about last week when I gave my own personal journey. I have had to and continue to decolonize myself and seek ways of liberation from my history, my reality, and my own understandings of theology. And that has led me to see the work I and I believe we need to do.
2. Decolonizing our communities – We engage in the ongoing process of healing together with like-minded, like-hearted souls, always widening the circle, inviting people in, and transforming our communities. We move from explicitly or tacitly supporting systems of domination to actively healing from their negative effects and supporting alternatives and movements led by communities most impacted by injustice.
Once we take our own personal inventory and begin the process of decolonizing ourselves, then we can move our efforts into community. First Friends is a place where this can happen. We can engage in an ongoing process of healing together by dealing with our past and moving into our future. Folks, we are like-minded (not cookie-cutter people of faith), we are like-hearted souls, and we are always working to widen our circle of influence. Over the past few years we have opened our doors wider in this place and learned to embrace more of the community – and I believe that is transforming, healing and changing us for the better. And lastly…
3. Co-creating the Beloved Community – We engage in the ongoing process of re-building our relationship to all of life around us, fostering trust and accountability with communities most impacted by injustice. To accomplish this we commit to accompaniment and followership, staying in it for the long haul, getting out of our meetinghouses and our comfort zones, and co-creating the Beloved Community...
You and I, and First Friends for that matter is a place that is Co-creating the Beloved Community. This is why I am wanting to partner with other organizations, connect to other faith communities, even become a Meetingplace where we are sent into our neighborhoods, workplaces, and such, with the needed tools to make an impact.
My hope for First Friends is that we simply don’t become a place of comfort for people to gather and socialize, but it becomes a place to re-energize, refill, and prepare ourselves for engaging this world. It’s a difficult journey, but as history has shown, it continues to be our destiny.
So whether we call it a Peaceable Commonwealth, the Kingdom of God, a Holy Experiment, or the Beloved Community. The truth is, we have work to do. Work I believe our world and country desperately need.
What decolonizing work do I need to do in myself?
What decolonizing work do we need to do at First Friends?