Finding a Way Forward

The most remarkable event in the long, sad saga of the Quaker Sweat Lodge (QSL) controversy took place at the Friends General Conference Gathering in Tacoma, Wash., in early July of 2006. It came in the form of a panel discussion of the QSL issue, in which three views were equally represented: one in favor of the QSL, one opposed, and one somewhere in between.

Speaking for the QSL was Breeze Richardson, one of the Quaker sweat’s organizers. Breeze is a young adult Friend, currently clerk of her meeting in Chicago, and she grew up in the FGC Gathering—until the QSL’s cancellation drove her away. The negative was presented by Lisa Graustein of New England Yearly Meeting, whose views were previously aired in Friends Journal in the April 2006 issue (Forum). The third perspective was offered by George Owen of Northern Yearly Meeting, a Friend with some Native American heritage.

This panel was remarkable first because it happened at all—it took FGC more than two years to set up such a fair, carefully "refereed" discussion.

The session was also remarkable in that none of those who urged the QSL’s cancellation were prepared to join the panel and account for their action before the assembled FGC constituency, although most of them were present. (Lisa Graustein is not on any FGC committees and played no role in the QSL decision-making.)

But the panel was most remarkable in my view for two things: the eloquence and quiet force with which Breeze Richardson made the long-deferred case for the Quaker Sweat Lodge, and the absence of any justification for its cancellation. George Owen added to her impact by using his own experience with Native American communities to underline his conviction that FGC had dishonored its own spiritual tradition and integrity in the way the QSL ban was handled.

There were embarrassed giggles when Breeze read off a list of some of the many activities and workshops at the Tacoma Gathering that used other cultures’ practices—Qi Gong, yoga, past lives, Buddhism, a sampler of Native American spirituality, and several more. Any of these could be considered "cultural appropriation." Yet all of them have been left undisturbed, she noted, while the QSL is forbidden, and as yet there has been no formal explanation or justification of this discriminatory treatment.

Besides the thunderous public silence of the QSL’s FGC critics, Breeze pointed out the more important underlying point: with the QSL ban, FGC has taken on the role of telling FGC Friends what kinds of spiritual seeking and experiences are acceptable for us, and which are not. This might not have been the intention, but it is the result, and it is one that leaves many Friends very uneasy. We recognize this judgment-from-above role: it is a characteristic of the churches we left behind. And we do not want to go back. For FGC to be taking on such an authoritative role, even inadvertently, is a recipe for trouble.

In closing the session, Breeze made another telling observation: the group most hurt by the QSL ban, by the shoddy way the cancellation was pushed through, and by the refusal to be accountable for the action—is FGC itself. It is FGC that has lost credibility, shown no command of the issues involved, and alienated some of the best leaders among the rising Quaker generation. What a shame!

As for the Quaker Sweat Lodge, it is alive and well, taking place several times per year in other settings, benefiting the participants without complaints or interference.

Although the Tacoma panel was not for decision-making, there was little doubt that the "sense" of the 200 present was overwhelmingly supportive of Breeze and George Owen, and out of sympathy for the QSL ban, or the way it happened. Moreover, this sense was vocalized in a startling way: an Apache sweat lodge leader named White Bear, from a nearby Native American center, heard about the session and came to it uninvited. He stood during the question period to declare that stopping the QSL was wrong, explaining that it was meant to be shared and adapted, as part of the spiritual work of knitting the Earth’s various peoples together.

White Bear’s unexpected witness was synchronistic—as if the universe was trying to re-establish symmetry to this issue by bringing forth the polar opposite of the East Coast Native American whose letter denouncing the QSL as racist sparked this whole conflict. White Bear was also living proof that there is no united Native view on this matter to which Friends must defer on pain of being automatically convicted of racism.

The most constructive suggestion for a way forward came from George Owen, who urged FGC to "do it all"—return the QSL; offer traditional sweat lodges with Native teachers; carry on searching explorations of the issues of cultural appropriation; right relationship of white Americans to Natives and other racial groups; and trust the process to produce Spirit-led outcomes that can unite Friends rather than divide them.

The more likely alternative, however, is further delay, with some still hoping the QSL will simply fade away. This would be a tragedy.

In a follow-up session at Tacoma, one Friend pointedly asked whether there was enough humility among the FGC opponents of the QSL for them to stand aside and let the broadly supported process of unfettered seeking and discernment go forward. To this I would add: can FGC yet right itself and steer clear of the hazardous role of defining acceptable spirituality for Friends?

There were no answers to these queries in Tacoma. But for many Friends who have been devoted to FGC, we can only hope the answers will soon be forthcoming, and that they will be positive. Much is riding on the prompt and successful resolution of this unfortunate conflict.

Chuck Fager
Fayetteville, N.C.