Book Review: Enlarging the Tent: Two Quakers in Conversation About Racial Justice by Jonathan Doering and Nim Njuguna

This book uses the metaphor of “enlarging the tent” to describe what the two Quaker authors feel is essential for freeing the life-blood of Quaker communities into channels that can help to heal the world.

 Both authors were residents of the UK. Nim Njuguna (NN) is of Kenyan heritage and is a retired Baptist minister and former Quaker prison chaplain. He writes on inclusion, spirituality and diversity in a wide range of Quaker and other periodicals. His 1995 PhD was on “Racism, Black Marginality, the Labour Party and the Church of England in the 1980s”.  Jonathan Doering (JD) has been a Quaker for 20 years and has worked in sixth form and further education. His MA thesis on Quaker poetry was recently published in Quaker Studies.  He has served in a variety of Quaker capacities, including Elder, representative to Meeting for Sufferings, and Local Meeting Assistant and Co-Clerk.

Their book Enlarging the Tent was triggered by the horrific murder of George Floyd and the global outcry for social justice led largely by the Black Lives Matter movement. So at its core the book addresses the problem of global racism and seeks ways in which our responses can be more than mere sympathy or intellectual commitment to change. The book is demanding that Quakers lift their game, that they be more actively inclusive, that they open their hearts more actively and step past their comfort zones. The book is a strong call to action that could transform Quakerism world-wide and that could enable Quakers to be a continuing force for transforming the world.

The book is an edited transcript of on ongoing dialogue in which NN and JD have agreed that the process itself could (and does!) become a mirror for what they are trying to achieve: a gradual opening and deepening to their “otherness”.

 The dialogue format is both a strength and a weakness of this book. Its strength is that it is like listening in to an ever-deepening conversation between two friends troubled by the global situation. Its weakness is that it takes several re-readings to begin to weave together the many random strands of their conversation and get a clearer sense of the underlying structure of their

thought. But then this is clearly also part of the intention, that we become part of this ongoing free-flowing conversation and begin weaving our own stratagems in the context of our own worlds (meetings). For example:

NN… how do we translate “that of God in everyone” in a socially manifest way?
JD: I thought the same thing… would you like to kick off this time?

Their book is grounded on a deep appreciation of several key writings that become the guiding principles of their enquiry. First there is the Quaker “Advices and Queries 7” which at its heart has the injunction “Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?” Their book asks us to take this question very deeply, into our experience, into our feelings and beyond our merely intellectual assent.  

The book then quotes from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.”   This quote cuts to the heart of how NN and JD are trying to find ways of navigating their audience beyond the disabling comforts of a tent that provides a place of security and identity. The Brazilian Paulo Freire, one of the most influential philosophers of education in the 20th Century, had as his goal to “eradicate illiteracy among people from previously colonized countries and continents. His insights were rooted in the social and political realities of the children and grandchildren of former slaves.” (IEP)[1] His life work was committed to ameliorating the living conditions of oppressed people. Through the context of Freire’s powerful vision, JD and NN perceive that “when the oppressed are freed, that frees the oppressors as well. The oppressors are just as oppressed as those they oppress, just in a different way….  Maybe that’s something that will feed into anything that we write, that in contributing in a small way to someone else’s freedom you’re actually freeing yourself as well.”  (51)[2] This is one of many examples where the authors try to open our understanding to the real experiential benefits of pushing beyond our comfort zones, embracing the other as a way of expanding our own conditioned limits. Later in the book the authors return to this in their examination of that core South African concept of Ubuntu as described by Nelson Mandela “My search for a self takes the form of a quest: I go out to the other in order to come back with a self.” (89)

 During the course of their conversation, many texts are inspected and radically interpreted. Amongst these are African American poet and writer Jean Toomer, one of the founding members of the Harlem Renaissance and follower both of the Russian contemplative mystic George I. Gurdjieff and George Fox. Jean Toomer’s core insight into how we should live from the inside, not the outside, in his article “Keep the Inward Watch” drives the central energy of Enlarging the Tent. Quaker theologian Douglas Steere’s paraphrase of Toomer’s idea is quoted by JD “Why is it so difficult for us to go in and become able to live from the inside outwards as whole men… the way is blocked?” (70). And this idea is affirmed by the quote from Audre Lorde (African American poet, feminist, lesbian, teacher and civil rights activist): “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable to bring about genuine change.” This is in her book of essays Sister Outside. Here Lorde affirms that it is only through deeply acknowledging and allowing the value of difference in the world to speak that fundamental change will arise.

 As well as such challenging points of wisdom, the book is full of practical suggestions on how we can expand our understanding of the issues at the heart of the authors’ focus and, more especially how we can take this understanding to transform our own consciousness from being passive, enlightened observers into socially active agents of real change in the world.

 This is the core of the book’s purpose and outcome which manifests at the end in a series of interactive Worksheets designed to stimulate insights and creative action. The Worksheets provide a plethora of materials that range from prompting readers to telling their own story about Race, through to some wonderful case studies of key African American Quakers. These are presented as a powerful challenge to the tenor of many dominantly White Quaker meetings, globally. Among the writers presented are poet Helen Morgan Brooks (1904-1989), described as inviting “us into a world of ugliness and beauty, cruelty and grace, pain and love, not a false, enamel world where pain has been removed, but a real world in which God moves among the suffering.” (141). Then there is Barrington Dunbar (1901-1978), born in British Guyana and later educated in New York, who wrote his first article in Friends Journal “Black Power’s Challenge to Quaker Power”. Here he identified and celebrated “the holistic integration between the spiritual power of Quaker worship and the genuine commitment of practical action in the world” (132). He goes on to describe how much of that power appears to have been lost in contemporary Quaker communities:

This close connection between work and worship – between the gathered community of the Meeting and the wider community – seems to be a missing ingredient in the practice of the Quaker Meeting today, which often tends to serve the purpose of a social club where people meet to pursue their common interests in isolation from the rest of the community…Because our hearts are not stirred or our minds made sensitive to the injustices of the communities in which we live, we accommodate ourselves to a whole system of personal and group relations… a system that has served to reinforce the assumption of White superiority. This way of life denies that there is that of God in every [woman and] man, the vital message of Quakerism that provides the basis for the “blessed community” in which everyone can achieve freedom from want and fear and can realize his full potential as a human being. (132-133).

 Overall the book is a wonderful, lively, dynamic interplay of two very lively human beings who have at their heart a profound wish to bring healing to a world in which human relations have often become incredibly broken.  While Nim and Jonathan speak of what can be described as right thinking concerning our unconscious prejudices, the healing they hope for must come from right action, and the nature of these actions are dependent upon individual circumstances and leadings. This book is highly recommended.


Published by Christian Alternative Books, Winchester, UK, 2023

Reviewed by Michael and Rose Griffith, New South Wales Regional Meeting


[1] IEP= Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] Numbers in brackets are direct references to the page numbers in Enlarging the Tent.


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