The 'Quaker sweat' is an important rite of passage

I read with concern the letters in the December 2005 Forum regarding the Quaker sweat lodge and Friends General Conference. I worked with Young Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting from 1991 to 1999 and witnessed and participated in many of the sweat lodges offered at that time by George Price. I believe it is not appropriate to use the word "racism" to label the Quaker sweat lodge. The term racism is meant to represent anything from daily indignities and systematic injustices, such as discriminatory language or hiring practices, to the most heinous of acts, such as our country’s failure to repair the levees in New Orleans. It does not apply to the efforts of those involved with the Quaker sweat lodge.

This letter is not about George Price personally, but about his work over many years to provide a safe, positive, and productive environment in which many young Quakers have learned to pray. That work cannot be devalued by a process that does not give justice to the years and lives affected by the Quaker sweat. I would also like to clarify that this letter does not represent Philadelphia Yearly Meeting or the PYM Young Friends program. This letter is simply from the heart of one white Quaker woman who was profoundly affected by the sweat lodge herself.

I hope that those involved with the sweat would be the first ones to welcome questions about the authenticity and cultural sensitivity of this work in a cultural context. Those questions are worth struggling over. Others have already pointed out that George Price was taught not to represent the sweat lodges that he leads as Native American lodges.

Thus, one might ask, "What is a real sweat lodge?" and "Is it even possible for someone from outside the culture that gave rise to sweat lodges to participate in a real sweat lodge?" It was always understood in this context that the Quaker sweat is a cooptation of a tradition from another culture. But, is that always a bad thing? There are many examples of cultural appropriation that do not necessarily correlate with misuse of that culture, or with racism. I believe that the Quaker sweat is one of those instances.

The Quaker sweat gave me a deeper curiosity and interest in Native American culture and history. Having the experience of participating in a sweat lodge made me personally even more outraged by real injustices that have been and continue to be perpetuated against Native Americans.

One of the best things that George Price taught me is that young people are always seeking liminal experiences. That is, young people want experiences in which they are taken to the edge. I have worked with young people of all ages since 1990 and have found this to be true of every age. George Price is gifted in his work with teenagers and young adults. We know that these age groups are drawn to other edgy experiences that are not healthy. The sweat lodge is a healthy experience of community and an experience that enhances self-awareness. Unfortunately, it is not a total antidote to unhealthy exploration, but it does provide an alternative. I do think that a Quaker community needs to take more than three days to come to consensus over such an important decision as whether or not to discontinue a tradition that is a rite of passage, and that has been a vital and central part of Quakerism for a generation of Young Friends.

I understand the symbolic value of discontinuing the Quaker sweat as a way to promote the questioning of all the ways that white people among the Quaker community have benefited from racism and have misused our cultural privileges. Let us seek out the truth in our hearts over these matters. This symbolic act may prevent us from doing the real work of undoing racism in our lives, our homes, and our communities. It is too great a sacrifice. It is most often the white people who step out to do good work who are crucified or scapegoated in some manner. They leave themselves vulnerable to these attacks because they do care and do listen to those who have been marginalized or annihilated by the mainstream white culture.

There is no shame in struggling over these questions and reviewing this decision as a community until we get it right, else we lose sight of achieving a consensus. I am concerned by the letters that indicate that the young people have not been thoroughly consulted or involved in this process. The oppression of young people is another problem with which we have been concerned as Quakers. If the sweat lodge is to be laid down, it is a decision in which Quaker youth must be involved, because the loss of young people disillusioned by the workings of the community is a dreadful one. We may have lost an opportunity for some of the Young Friends to develop and deepen their practice as Friends.

It is also important to think through what programs and experiences would replace the sweat lodge in the hearts of Young Friends. These years are sensitive ones and we must do what we can as an adult community to serve their growth. I shared this letter with my sister, Annie Galloway, who also participated in Quaker sweat lodges in the 1990s, and she lends her voice to my concerns.

Jennifer Galloway
Burlington, Vt.